Letter to a Future Post-Bac

Dear Future Post-Bac,

I’m going to start by addressing the elephant in the room: this is a weird job. How in the hell are you going to explain what this job is to your uncle when you’re trying to make small talk at Christmas? What are you going to tell your friends who have all moved to NYC and DC and LA to be lawyers and med students and organizers? More importantly, how are you going to talk about this position on a resume? In a cover letter? In an interview? 

Let me give you a few answers that I hope will orient you in this new DH space.

The answer to the first question (what will you tell your uncle?) changed over time for me. As I became more submerged in DH theory, I got better at describing it. Here’s the easiest answer: “I work in the library, and research digital technology faculty members use in their classrooms.” This is sure to bore any relative to death and they’ll quickly change the subject. 

Is that really all you’re going to be doing, though? Absolutely not. Here are some of the things that I did that weren’t researching classroom technology over the 18 months that I worked here:

  1. Interviewed faculty members about their digital projects and made videos about them
  2. Created an illustrated guide to doing oral history
  3. Read a whole bunch of stuff about surveillance capitalism and got really bummed out
  4. Read a whole bunch about digital organizing and utopian ideals and felt a little better
  5. Designed a research project I never completed (and that’s okay)

You’re going to have the opportunity to do a lot of different things as a post-bac. You can make this position what you want. Take the opportunity to tell Uncle Fred about your job as a moment to reflect on what you’re really getting out of this position, and make sure it’s what you want it to be.

So what are you going to tell all of your super successful friends? This answer is a little bit trickier. You don’t want to bore them on purpose like you might want to do with Uncle Fred.

First of all, we should acknowledge that even if it is hard to describe, you have a cool job! This is a big deal! You’re only one of two OH5 post-bacs ever! Congrats! 

Second, it doesn’t matter whether your job is cool or not. It doesn’t matter whether you’ve moved to a big city to “make changes.” It doesn’t matter if this isn’t what you want to be doing right out of school. No one(not even your friend who moved to southern France, who keeps posting pictures of beautiful mountains and crepes) is doing exactly what they want to be doing right out of school. Don’t give in to the temptation to compare your success to that of your friends. When I graduated, I had like nine different people give me this advice, and I thought it was weird because I didn’t think I would compare myself with other people to that extent. Within a year of graduating – no, that’s a lie, like 6 months – I felt like I was left behind and not doing what I really wanted when everyone else was. It felt like I should be taking more risks and applying to dream jobs. This idea is moronic. Social media is a curse (see bullet point number 3). It’s going to make you compare yourself with others. Don’t. You’re not “behind.” You’re not missing out. Whatever you think will be your dream job probably isn’t and that’s okay. 

So what areyou going to tell your friends? Well, if you want to brag a little, you can tell them you have basically the best job ever. You get to spend, like, all of your time researching things that you are interested in relating to digital technology. You get to determine your own schedule each day. You get to help with classes and give faculty advice. You get to build and hone computer-related skills that will help you down the line in future positions. You get to continue that thing that I hope you really like (and you probably do, since you got this job), that is, learning how to learn. If you don’t want to brag so much, just tell them you read a lot and have to make a lot of websites. They won’t feel too bad that way.

Finally, what are you going to put on your resume? How are you going to communicate your role to the job market and use this position to get you where you want to be (like, the south of France or NYC)? 

The first thing you should do is make sure you continually update a list of things you have accomplished while doing this job. Keep track of what you read. Keep track of the new skills you learned. Know how to explain each of these things within one or two sentences to other people who have no idea what they are. This is going to help you a lot while making a resume.

In a cover letter, a job interview, or a grad school application, make sure you emphasize the amount of independence and responsibility you had with this job. You’re going to be in charge of your own time, and responsible for accomplishing the tasks you give yourself. I don’t know whether you will have had a lot of time in the working world prior to taking this job, but in case you don’t know, this is very unique to this position. In all of these applications, you want to talk about what you wanted to learn and why. You want to talk about how you went about teaching yourself these new things. You want to talk about the importance of digital liberal arts and why you decided to spend a year learning about it.

This job is a lot of things. Mainly, it is what you make of it. If you want this job to be a miserable dredge through the year, you can come in everyday and bore yourself to death by doing a whole bunch of work you don’t really care about. You can come in and slog through code you don’t understand and see every failure as a dead end. Or, you can make this job engaging and beneficial to your future. You can spend your time investigating new tools, research methodologies, and skills that will help you move closer to your career goals – whatever those may be. 

Personally, I spent a lot of my time learning about the “dark side” of the digital humanities and trying to parse out the accusations of neoliberalism that were being thrown back and forth (the most compelling of these arguments can be found here). This led me down a bit of a rabbit hole regarding surveillance capitalism (see this if you’re interested in that at all), and then into learning more about the utopian ideals associated with DH and digital work in general (more on that). Throughout all of this independent research, I was continuing to teach myself about some of the skills and technologies brought up in the articles I was reading. I tried really hard to understand topic modeling and – spoiler alert – it’s been 18 months and I only have a vague idea of how it works. I also spent time learning the basics of HTML, CSS, jQuery, and general web design stuff. This helped me better connect with the arguments that I was reading, and gave me more confidence to talk about the issues that I see in the digital humanities and why DH matters in the first place.

Another big part of my job was working on oral history projects, which was great because I really enjoyed those. I created an illustrated guide to put all of the advice I’d read and lessons that I learned from personal experience into one place. I’m sure this document will be or has already been shared with you. (Note: it contains a lot of pictures of my face. You have been warned). I spent time learning about the ethics of doing oral history, how to store an interviewee’s personal data and keep it private, and I learned about the impetus on the researcher to make sure that the information collected is shared back to the community from which it came so that a mutually beneficial relationship can be formed. During this time, I practiced transcribing interviews using Trint (it’s a great transcription software online, check it out). I practiced with different cameras and microphone set ups, and had multiple opportunities to explain all of these things to different groups of students. I truly believe you don’t really know something until you have to explain it to someone else who’s never done it before. You’ll have a lot of opportunities to do this as well!

The point of me describing all of this stuff I worked on (and this is hardly the half of it, let me tell you), is so that I can explain what I’m doing now and how this job got me to where I am today. I spent a bunch of my time reading the type of theory about the digital humanities that was interesting to me, and at the same time practiced research methodologies and using relevant technology so that I could apply to grad school. I decided that I wanted to go into labor studies. How in the world is this job relevant to that? Well, I learned about a shift in our economy while learning about surveillance capitalism. I learned how the liberal arts should address these issues by reading about the dark side of digital humanities. I used that knowledge and the fact that I could actually speak to different research methods like oral history and text analysis to write a statement of purpose for my graduate school applications arguing that “The Digital” should be an area to which economists and labor researchers should pay more attention. Now, I’m headed to UMass Amherst’s Labor Studies

Program with a full ride thanks in part to the fact that I was able to make a great case in favor of being a TA because I had worked with undergraduate students on digital projects.

The lesson here is to take advantage of this time! Make it a great job.

A few final pieces of advice:

  1. Learn how to scrape a website. This is maybe the best, most under-utilized thing I learned this year. I loved learning how to do this. It helped me understand HTML (I’d advise learning a bit of the HTML basics before trying web scraping). It gave me a fun way to collect data, and I can see opportunities for implementing this skill in almost every job I’ve ever had.
  2. Practice web design. This is a super useful skill to have. You can use this in almost any job. This is of course, not to say that by learning these basics that you’ll be an experienced web designer. You need a lot of schooling for that. The best thing about learning this stuff is that you’ll be able to better work with people who know more about it than you. Hopefully, you’ll be able to elevate the conversation about web design in any job that you have.
  3. Fail at things! It is absolutely okay to fail. That’s one of the great things about this job. You are here to learn and to use what you learn to help others. You are not here to be perfect and to make sure everything you do works out. It’s great to fail! You learn a lot from that.
  4. As I said above, keep track of everything you do. I won’t go on and on about this here.
  5. Spend time getting to know the librarians and archivists with whom you will be working. They are all great! When you have a question, shoot it out to the group. Someone will help you figure it out, and even if they don’t know how to do it, you can work through it together.

I hope that you take advantage of your time as a post-bac and that you thoroughly enjoy this year. This job is full of unknowns. You may not know exactly what you’re going to be working on in a month or a week, or even tomorrow. That’s the best thing about it, and the thing that will likely make it the most interesting. One thing is for sure, it’s not going to be like any other job you’ll ever have.

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