Interview with Rachel Burstein (History ’14), Academic Director at Books@Work
“My advice to those who are considering alternatives to academia is this,” Rachel Burstein wrote two years ago in a professional development advice blog for the history department. “Determine what you want in a career, start the hunt early, reach out to anyone and everyone, and make use of online tools.”
Rachel has followed her own advice. She was then writing her dissertation on the public relations strategies of American labor unions in the postwar period, while simultaneously working as a researcher at the New America Foundation’s California Civic Innovation Project and thinking about possible careers outside of academia. She has since completed her PhD and become Academic Director at Books@Work, a job she found using one of those online tools (Versatile PhD, a great website that all GC students can access for free). Rachel now serves as a liaison to the academic community, recruiting university professors, developing curricular and pedagogical tools, building partnerships with academic institutions, and spearheading assessment efforts.
We asked Rachel about her job at Books@Work, and about how graduate school helped prepare her for her career. This is the second in a series of interviews with GC alumni who are pursuing successful careers outside of academia (check out our interview with Lindsay Green-Barber, Political Science alum and current ACLS fellow here).
I work at Books@Work, a public humanities non-profit organization that brings literature seminars taught by university professors to workplaces, and increasingly, to a variety of community settings. We work with learners from all sorts of backgrounds, and, as a labor historian, the seminars that are most intriguing to me are the ones in which a CEO sits next to a custodian, perhaps for the first time. One worker at a hospital told us that the Books@Work seminar was the first time she ever called a doctor by his or first name. That blew my mind.
So in the course of discussing literature together, participants have an opportunity to get to know one another better, build confidence, and develop critical thinking and communication skills. They also have an opportunity to read books with a professor, which demystifies higher education for many participants who did not have an opportunity to go to college, who never took liberal arts or seminar-styled courses, or who may have had a negative experience with higher education. We also have an impact on professors, giving them an opportunity to teach in a different way to a different population than they would ordinarily, and often changing their approach to texts and teaching in the process.
We are still a small organization, so we all do a bit of everything and collaborate a lot, which is great. But in my role as Academic Director, my primary responsibilities are to recruit professors to teach in the program, develop a community of professors through pedagogical trainings and other means, create curricula for seminars in collaboration with professors and with an awareness of place and context, build partnerships with academic institutions, lead assessment efforts to understand impact and adapt our approach accordingly, and share what we are learning with the academic community. I spend a lot of time reading, researching and writing, but I also spend a lot of time on the phone, talking to professors and administrators at universities, and consulting with experts in assessment and pedagogy.
What skills/knowledge from your PhD do you regularly use in your work?
I think the most important piece of my doctoral training for the work that I do now is an understanding of how academia works. To be honest, the credential is also important. When I talk to professors about Books@Work, I have a credibility that I wouldn’t have without the PhD. They know that I know the pressures of their work, and we often get into good conversations about the responsibility of institutions of higher learning to the communities in which they operate. I find that professors are really hungry for ways to use their skills to benefit the community, but they want to work with an organization that values their experience and that will offer them new ways to grow as teachers and scholars.
In my everyday work, I spend a lot of time reading critically — whether it is an article on using the disciplinary framework of rhetoric in the classroom or a piece on conducting, coding and interpreting interviews of program participants. The act of absorbing lots of information, critiquing the information, and applying aspects of it to a different situation is something that I learned how to do in graduate school.
Related to this is the ability to make an argument using logic and evidence. Books@Work is still relatively new, so we are still developing and modifying our approach — something that makes my job incredibly exciting and rewarding. But it also means that as we work out new ways of doing things, it’s important for me to be able to articulate the direction I think we should take to my colleagues, and to explain why we have adopted these methods to the professors who teach in our program. These are smart people, and they are not convinced by gut feelings or fancy words. I need to present evidence to make my case — something for which graduate school prepared me very well. These exchanges, rooted in evidence, make our programs that much stronger.
What skills/knowledge did you have to learn on the job?
I’ve never really worked on delivering a program, so the intricacies of promoting and “selling” a product to the companies, professors, and participants who partner with us were all new to me. Figuring out which messages and incentives appeal to which groups, as well as the smaller details — everything from scheduling seminars at times that maximizes participation to honing strategies for getting participants to read assigned texts — were all new to me. I tended to work alone for most of my time in graduate school and in other jobs I had. So coordinating with the many groups of people involved in our program was a new skill.
I’ve done a little assessment work in the past, but in a different context. This is the first time I’ve thought about which learning competencies to assess, building my own measures for doing so, in consultation with my colleagues and scholars in the field. I am fortunate in that my organization is interested in developing a robust set of metrics over time, recognizing that the intermediate approach will shift. So that gives me some time and flexibility to really study assessment in the public humanities in a comprehensive way.
In addition, because we are still so small, I end up doing things outside of my job description, many of which are new to me. We are trying to grow the program in new states, including California, where I am based. As the only employee in this region, I have tried my hand at business development, which is very much outside of my experience. In addition, I’ve assisted with fundraising, writing grants and scoping possible funders for our community programs. It’s been really interesting to learn how to do this work and I am quite lucky in having colleagues who are willing to show me the ropes, share their experiences and connect me with others who can offer guidance.
You can read more from Rachel on building a career outside of academia here.