History at Illinois Humanities (feat. Rebecca Amato)
Alumni Aloud Episode 83
Rebecca Amato received her PhD in History at the CUNY Graduate Center. She is currently the Director of Teaching and Learning at Illinois Humanities.
In this episode of Alumni Aloud, Rebecca speaks with us about her research on urban history in New York City, her passion for public history, and the impact that the humanities can have on the community at-large.
VOICEOVER: This is Alumni Aloud, a podcast by Graduate Center students for Graduate Center students. In each episode, we talk with the GC graduate about their career path, the ins and outs of their current position, and the career advice they have for students. This series is sponsored by the Graduate Center’s Office of Career Planning & Professional Development.
JACK DEVINE, HOST: Welcome to another edition of Alumni Aloud. We’re here with Dr. Rebecca Amato. Thank you so much for joining us.
REBECCA AMATO, GUEST: Thanks so much for inviting me, Jack.
DEVINE: Well we normally like to get into the background of what of guests were involved with their research and how that history impacts them today. You spent decades researching urban history in New York City. What questions drive and drove your research?
AMATO: I became really interested, I moved to New York in 1997 from Chicago. In both Chicago and New York around that time, cities were beginning to change dramatically. Neighborhoods were changing dramatically through reinvestment in neighborhoods that had been historically disinvested. In New York in particular under the Bloomberg administration there was his desire to make the city kind of a luxury product which really resulted in real estate and land getting much more expensive and the cost of living increasing and so I was interested in the impact of those things on neighborhoods. And so I wanted to look at neighborhood change and not knowing quite how to do that, I ended up really researching urban planning and urban planning policy and the development of urban planning in New York City and the relationship of that profession to how neighborhoods actually change.
DEVINE: So you saw something happening firsthand in your life and you were like why is this happening? Let me look into kind of the historical basis of this. That’s really really fascinating. And so what role did the Graduate Center have in your intellectual development? And how did your experiences at the GC transform you into the educator that you are today? (2:17)
AMATO: Well I came from a private university for my undergrad and I also received a Master’s from another private university and those degrees were in film and cinema studies. And when I decided to pursue a doctorate I was really interested in terms of my politics and in terms of living in New York City and going to kind of the major public university in New York, to the CUNY Graduate Center and really embedding myself in the city. And so just having that access was incredibly important for me. And understanding how New York worked. Then I had the opportunity to teach at Hunter and Guttman Community College even before it had its name, when it was still called the New Community College. And meet with scholars from across the CUNY network which was really influential and you know it’s funny as you know most people, most of the faculty are co-appointed at one of the other colleges. And so there’s something about that hybrid experience of teaching in kind of a neighborhood school versus the central academic PhD granting institution that I think gave faculty a really great perspective on education and integrating their experiences into being educators. I think that was really influential. And then finally, I was very lucky to get a fellowship to work at the American Social History Project which was and Center for New Media I think it was called, now I can’t remember, but it was the American Social History Project that was the key to kind of getting into something along the lines of a public history track which didn’t really exist at the Graduate Center, but it really set me on my path.
DEVINE: So you came from a sort different background at a private university and film studies. I also did some film studies myself in my undergrad so in combination with history and then I continued along the history path as things moved forward. But that’s really interesting and the way you got to experience both the Grad Center as both this center place where all different professors are coming together as well as work and teaching at the more community schools across the CUNY system. This is an experience that a lot of Grad Center student workers get to have while they’re at the Grad Center. And your experiences with your fellowship seem to kind of push you in a direction of maybe getting involved with public history and then public humanities. So when did you first make the decision to pursue a career in higher education and what motivated you to work in public history and public humanities?
AMATO: That’s a great question. So I don’t know I was able to articulate it to myself at the time but when I was studying film I was very much interested in the audience and the audiences’ experience with film and the ways in which film viewership could be an educational experience. And so after I finished my Master’s degree I ended up working at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum which at a time no matter what our jobs were at the museum had to learn how to give tours of the landmark tenement and so I was actually actively working in something along the lines of public education similar to what I was interested in in film and actually curated a couple of film series when I was working there. I think that idea of activating those very essential human experiences that one learns about in a history museum or in actually engaging with history in a different way than in the classroom really inspired me. And so when I applied to get a PhD at the Graduate Center my intent all along was to work at a public history / public humanities mode. And I just felt that having a PhD first of all would give me a lot more leverage in the job market eventually but also that I mean as I mentioned I studied film in my undergrad and Master’s degrees, I did not study history so I really needed to learn history and I actually took a couple of classes at Brooklyn College to just see if I could do it before I applied to the Graduate Center because you know I had just not engaged with that discipline for a long time. In some ways I needed that education to be able to do what I wanted to do in my life professionally.
DEVINE: So because of your experience at the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side you came with in kind of a mindset of already wanting to work in public history and then you continued along that path. So what steps did you take along that path to end up at Illinois Humanities?
AMATO: I wish I could answer that in a way that suggested that I knew what I was doing because [laughs] I really didn’t. One of the things that served me well was being, I wouldn’t say a networker exactly but being open to lots of different kinds of experiences that I could collect over time to push me in a particular direction. So I don’t think that any particular moment I knew that I was gonna end up at Illinois Humanities doing what I’m doing right now but what I will say that over the course of the time I was at the Graduate Center there was the job at the American Social History Project which was learning some digital technologies which are now out of date. To learn those digital technologies to tell history, historical narratives in an accessible public way. There was some work I did around curriculum development for the historical society and for the New York Public Library and Laguardia Community College. So I learned those kind of skills and then I took a break from my degree progress, after I got my dissertation proposal approved, to work full time because I needed to pay to live in New York City. And in that experience I was an academic advisor so I learned a lot about the ins and outs of universities. And then again collected more public humanities experiences. Taught a course in public humanities while I was working as an academic advisor at NYU. And then by the end of all the experiences that I pulled together I guess, I had strong administrative experience, I had the experience of working in community partnerships and engagement. I had the experience of teaching in a classroom. I understood how university bureaucracy works. And all of that kind of came together in the job that I have now. Which I feel weirdly, uniquely suited to some of the job responsibilities that I have that you know had I known when I started my program at the Graduate Center in 2002 that this is where I wanted end up the trajectory might have been faster but it definitely happened anyway. So I feel pretty lucky that it all made sense.
DEVINE: So it all worked out in the end. The many, you know, experiments that you took along the path they all kind of combined to create the sort of skillset and experiences for the position that you have today.
AMATO: Yeah. But I don’t want to make it sound, as historians we don’t want to like focus on a teleological trajectory. Like, you know, I love my job and I’m happy where I am but happily all the other experiences that I had could’ve pushed me in lots of other kinds of directions and that’s one of the things that I feel like I really king of won the lottery in that I could have continued in a university setting, administratively, I might have been able to do education projects in different other kinds of settings like museums, I could’ve done curatorial work in museums, you know the work that I’m doing now is really meaningful to me. My previous job I was helping run a research lab at NYU. You know there’s lots of different things that can come out of just sort of being open minded enough to collect a whole lot of experiences that seem interesting and you hope will work out.
DEVINE: So there were plenty of other career opportunities that you were considering along this path.
AMATO: Definitely. Yeah. When I moved from my previous position to this one I was sort of in the running for two totally different positions from the one I have now and from each other. I am glad for where I’m at but I feel like you know if I had ended up at any of those other places I would’ve been happy there too.
DEVINE: So there was a lot potential opportunities but you kind of settled in something that you feel fits in with your passion. What are some of the challenges that you encountered as transitioned to being the Director of Teaching and Learning at Illinois Humanities? And what is the Odyssey Project?
AMATO: Well I’ll start with what the Odyssey Project is and answer the second half of the question. The Odyssey Project is part of a network of programs throughout the United States and also in Canada that was started at Bard College. It’s called the Clemente Course in the Humanities. And each site that offers the Clemente Course does it in its own way. So Illinois Humanities is one of the first Clemente Course sites and we called our Clemente Course – the Odyssey Project. It’s been around for twenty years. We’re in our twenty-first year right now. And the Clemente Course, well I’ll set that term aside. The Odyssey Project is humanities, college level humanities program for income eligible adults which is people who are at or below 150% of the federal poverty guidelines. To study the humanities with college instructors and earn credit. And they do all of this in their own communities. We have sites across the city of Chicago and they participate for free. And so by the end of the first year of classes they can earn up to eight credits. By the end of the second year classes they can be collecting eleven credits in the humanities in our project. Our accreditation is through the University of Illinois- Chicago right now. So it’s a really fantastic program.
The challenges I encounter, many of them really have to do with the fact that I started my job in May of 2020. So almost all of the challenges I have to deal with right now have to do with the impossibility of remote learning with people who are disadvantaged in so many ways. Remote learning for people who are essential workers, who are caring for loved ones, children and elders, people who don’t necessarily have Wifi available or other kinds of technologies, who may not be zoom literate which is actually none of us are, but for people who elderly, for example, it may be particularly limiting and that’s a population that we really appeal to. And so those are the major challenges that I think we’ve all faced. We have a really strong community of learners and instructors and we very much thrive on caring for each other. And I think we’ve done that in the last two years, you know, that I’ve gotten to know folks. But I think it’s very hard to feel that sometimes through a computer screen or a phone because a lot of our students have to join us through their smartphones and that has been the biggest challenge. The other challenge is one that I’m sure a lot of CUNY students are familiar with which is bureaucracy. I shouldn’t even say I’m sure because I know because I was a CUNY student [laughs]. And the bureaucracy that we’re working is with another public university UIC and there are just so many steps to do things. They become frustrating for me but actual real barriers for our students to succeed in higher education. And so trying to kind of weave your way through all of that red tape because you really can’t cut through it is really huge. And we need a lot of allies within the university to help us do that and we’re very lucky to have many. But you know it’s not perfect.
DEVINE: Well in the face of all these challenges, whether it’s the online learning that’s become so prominent because of COVID-19 or just the general dealing with bureaucracy that I completely understand where you’re coming from there. The reality is that the Odyssey Project seems like an incredible project that is helping a lot of people’s lives and it’s definitely something that I’m gonna keep my eye on and have a lot of interest in some projects like that. So what would you recommend to current graduate students interested in pursuing a career working in the higher education industry?
AMATO: Well my feeling is that there’s no straight pathway. I mean I guess I’ve sort of said that through my own experience but I also witnessed it when I was working at NYU. That there was no you know recipe for being a successful tenure or tenure track faculty member. But there’s also no recipe for doing anything else at a university. A lot of it is taking advantage of opportunities when they arise. Not being too good to do some of the dirty work. You know I have often had to do mailings on my own. I’ve done that a lot from my apartment, mailing course packets out to my students from my apartment. You know setting up food at various events. They make you someone that everybody respects, no matter what you’re position is. All of us need to rely on a lot of people to be successful so giving credit where credit’s due as well. I would say that advising was an excellent place for me to get my foot in the door at a university because there’s one job that has to navigate the entire university it’s advising because you have to understand registration, financial aid, student life, student affairs, students, faculty, I mean everybody. So you know if you want to do anything in a university that has direct student contact, advising is a great way to get into it and then figure out where else you wanna go. So I think that might be my advice. And then so if you’re interested in like public humanities as opposed to higher education. I think that just do the basic grunt work because even the fanciest public humanities institutions are gonna need people who have administrative skills, who know how to update wordpress, you know all these things that maybe seem tangential or marginal to one’s career but they’re actually all useful skills.
DEVINE: Well thank you so much for that great advice. I will definitely keep that all on mind. And thank you so much for joining us on Alumni Aloud.
AMATO: You’re very welcome. I hope it was helpful.
[Transcription in progress]
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