Anna Marie Trester on her book, Employing Linguistics

Interview by Ilana Gershon

Ilana Gershon: In writing a book about how linguists get jobs outside of the academy, what kinds of misreadings or misconceptions were you trying to avoid?

Anna Marie Trester: By sharing stories that focus on moments where people really come alive in their work, I hope to give a glimpse to the multifaceted, complex, and challenging nature of the myriad worlds of work (both “outside” and inside the academy) where linguists are finding professional expression of their skills and training. I want to active dispel the misconception that working as a professor is the only kind of meaningful work for someone with a PhD in our field.

In the book, I explore the difference between working like a linguist, and working as a linguist.  Most of us won’t have the job title “linguist,” but that doesn’t mean that we won’t be addressing important challenges, and using our brains, and working with smart colleagues and collaborators.  Nor does it mean that we can’t bring specific skills and abilities that we cultivated over the course of academic study.

NB: I specifically profile some people in the book who work as linguists, but I bring focus to how they work and think like linguists within these jobs. I like to find unusual ways that our ways of thinking can show up and shape how we work (what we choose to focus on, how we frame problems, and so on).

Ilana Gershon: What aspects of people’s Phd training or experiences working as a professor proved helpful to them in these other jobs?

Each of the approximately 40 stories builds around a spark – something that I heard as a listener when the teller really came alive as they talked with me. Many of these sparks had to do with content-area knowledge, for example micro-level linguistic features like “adjacency pairs” – which knowledge comes to bear in work in conversation design work for artificial intelligence; or more macro-level questions like ensuring language access. Other north stars pointed to broad social aims like making workplaces more equitable and inclusive, looking for ways to make our field anti-racist, and confronting legacies of white supremacy and sexism. Still other linguists really shone when they talked about job-crafting (actively choosing and shaping jobs) to have more time or flexibility for family or work-life balance.   

I should mention, I was insistent on the ambiguity in the word “employing” for the title of the book because I wanted to include examples of people using linguistics outside contexts of work. There are stories of self-advocacy at the doctor’s office, or speaking up on the bus when the linguist heard hate-speech being used during the course of everyday commuting. I see value in these moments of employing linguistics as well.

Ilana Gershon:  What would you like people to know about LinkedIn as a medium?

Anna Marie Trester: That it’s a great research tool.  I was talking to a history PhD the other day who was telling me that she’s interested in UX research, but all the positions listed social science disciplines, and she wanted to know how humanists made themselves interesting to employers in this sector.  I fired up LinkedIn and popped in search terms like “history” “humanists” “user experience” and all these really interesting people with really interesting-sounding jobs returned.  Those are the people to whom she needed to bring that question. 

When it comes to LinkedIn, I find many academics to be overly focused on the profile and being found, when it is at least (if not more) about using LinkedIn to find things: conversations that you might want to join, events to attend, people to connect with, updates about your network, etc. etc.

One last thing (I can’t help myself – I love to talk about LinkedIn!) there is no better source of data for professional self-presentation. Say you’re applying to work at an organization like The Wikimedia Foundation. You can go on LinkedIn and find the linguists who work there and see how they describe their background, their experience, their current tasks.

Ilana Gershon: What should people know about how informational interviews function as a genre?

Anna Marie Trester: In the book, I use the metaphor of “charting the constellations” to make sense of all of the activities that professionals do as part of career development, activities like self-reflection and yes, the all important informational interviews. For those of you who haven’t heard the term: informational interviews are conversations with people about their work. And the bottom line is that you need to do a lot of them before you start to see patterns. Informational interviews only really become helpful in sense-making (giving you perspective and clarity) when you have much fodder for reflection and can put what you learn from these conversations into context with what they reveal to you about your own interests and curiosities. They also give you feedback on how you are likely to be understood and valued in fields of interest, which can then point you towards organizations, people, and projects that inspire you to learn more.  

Ilana Gershon:  What do you wish academic advisors knew about how their graduate students could get jobs outside of the academy?

Anna Marie Trester: I wish advisors would approach finding jobs as a research project, and frame them as such for their students. The great news is that we are very well-trained as researchers! There just are different sources of data when it comes to learning about career – alumnae being probably the most valuable one. And because it takes very little effort to keep track of all the places graduates go after they leave campus thanks to LinkedIn, I wish more professors would take a few minutes when people are graduating to make that connection (so that they can invite them back to talk to students about their work down the road).

I wish more advisors would encourage their students to take advantage of the expertise on campuses over at the career centers and alumni offices. Simply helping students formulate better questions would go such a long way. Just as one would advise someone formulating an actionable research question for a thesis or dissertation project, students need to move from “how do I find a job in industry?” to a question like “where could I find application of my research in language and gender in public policy world?” Just like a good lit review, researchers will know that they are getting somewhere when they start to get to the same source multiple ways!

History of U.S. Jobs Ads

by Ilana Gershon

American newspapers carried announcements about jobs from as early as 1705.  The first job ad I found was in The Boston News-Letter, asking for a “single able man to drive a team in Boston.” (March 4, 1705; issue 98; page 4).  A few job ads appeared in every newspaper, but they were clearly outnumbered by the other ads announcing goods or land for sale, or runaway indentured laborers or slaves. In a newspaper filled with approximately 400 ads, there might be 4 ads about hiring someone.  And these ads were as likely to be ads in which the person was seeking a position as much as an employer looking to hire.  Most of the job ads until around 1750 weren’t even what we might consider proper bjob ads.  They advertised indentured servants, asking if anyone wanted to buy their time. It wasn’t until around 1825 that newspapers began to carry a substantial number of job ads.  A few years later, ads began to run for factory workers.

People tended to advertise for apprentices, cooks, maids, and wet nurses.  Women were as likely to be requested or advertise themselves as available in a newspaper ad as men, although it was always clear which jobs could be filled by women and which by men.   Around 1785, jobs ads began to discuss whether the applicant should be black or white, and black people might also be likely to advertise that they were looking for a position.  In 1790, George Washington, or at least “the family of the President of the United States” advertised that they are looking for a cook and a coachman.

Around the 1830’s, newspapers began to clump ads together – beforehand job ads would be scattered throughout the newspaper, interspersed with everything else being advertised.   Clumping was not adopted uniformly, and it wasn’t until 1856 that newspapers began to reliably have “help wanted” and “situation wanted sections.”  At some point around 1856, newspapers began to split the help wanted section based on gender – lumping ads for help-wanted females or situation-wanted females together, as well as help-wanted males or situation-wanted males.  Given how gender specific jobs were at this period, the division isn’t surprising at all.  This however didn’t happen in all newspapers at the same time, and indeed, ten years later, newspapers such as the Providence Evening Press still hadn’t adopted this way of classifying ads. Once established, this division was a practice which would continue until the Civil Rights Act legislated against it in 1964.

There are a few other things to note about what early job ads can reveal about how information about jobs circulated in those days. Until around 1795, employers did not suggest being contacted directly.   Instead applicants were supposed to ask the Postmaster about the job details, or ask the printer. After 1795, job ads often mentioned exact street addresses where named people could be approached about the job. Recommendations were occasionally asked for – sometimes employers wanted an applicant to be well-recommended, sometimes a job seeker promised that he or she came with good recommendations. While recommendations weren’t discussed much until the early 1800s, between 1800 and 1805 it became commonplace for employers to insist that servants come with good recommendations. But that was the only thing asked for – there was no mention of resumes or interviews until much much later.

Ilana Gershon on her new book, Down and Out in the New Economy

Down and Out in the New Economy

Interview by Matt Tomlinson

The topics your book takes on are complexly intertwined: how people are meant to become their own brands, how patterns of hiring and quitting are changing, and the role of new media ideologies and ecologies. One of the points that emerges in your book is that people who try to connect these strands are themselves often confused, perplexed, and frustrated by the systems and processes. So can you distil your argument into a short summary—the elevator talk or, as this case might be, the elevator blog?

Pithy summaries are indeed the goal of so many of the job-seeking performances I studied, it seems only fair that I attempt to reduce my argument down to a handful of sentences.  My book is an attempt to make the notion of a neoliberal self as rigorous as possible by using historical comparison with earlier forms of capitalism.  So I suggest that Fordist work structures relied on the metaphor that one owns oneself as though one was property.  This means that the employment contract is a moment in which you rent yourself out to an employer for a certain period of time, and get yourself back, so to speak, at the end of the day.   Many union battles were fought over how long you should rent yourself out (the 40-hour work week), or other practical conundrums created by extending this metaphor of self-as-property.  But since Reagan and Thatcher, the metaphor has changed, and under neoliberal capitalism, people imagine that they own their selves as though they are businesses – bundles of skills, assets, experiences, qualities, and relationships that must be consciously managed and continually enhanced.  The employment contract becomes metaphorically a business-to-business contract in which you as a business are providing temporary solutions to your employer’s market-specific problems.  The book is about how the hiring ritual and various aspects of workplaces have changed in response to this shift in metaphor.

You describe how your students’ questions about how they should go about getting jobs led you to write the book. Can you say more about this, and what practical critical tools you see linguistic anthropology offering to students and job-seekers?

I am so glad that you asked, because the more I studied what hiring actually involves, the more I realized that linguistic and media anthropologists teach very helpful analytical tools for being a competent job candidate.  And I also think that we could all be much more direct when faced with the question “How will this major help me get a job?” about all the ways that an anthropology degree is truly helpful preparation for specific tasks involved in looking for a job.

For example, all the workshops that I attended were openly guides for how to master a certain genre.   The instructors were teaching how to understand the way information should be presented on the page to anticipate a certain kind of reader – often an impatient one who wants clear signals that the applicant fits certain criteria, and with their own styles for interpretation.   These are readers who are also reading with other people’s assessments in mind, who are anticipating having to show a resume to someone else in their workplace with their own techniques for interpreting a genre.  And while the workshops tend to focus on one genre alone, the job seeker is supposed to be competent at a range of genres, all of which are supposed to interconnect and tell a persuasive narrative about the applicant.  This is precisely what students learn in our courses.  You learn how to become competent at new genres.  You learn how to anticipate the different ways people might interpret your own texts, at the same time that you are learning a range of different techniques for interpreting a text.  You often learn the relationships between a textual genre and a performance genre.  And, as importantly, you learn how to be persuasive about your own interpretations of a text, a skill that will come in handy when our students have to discuss with their future co-workers who they want to hire.

 Your book is written in an appealingly informal tone, but there are moments when the immense anxiety and frustration of job seekers is apparent. Was the fieldwork emotionally challenging at times? Were there folks for whom you felt you needed to intervene sympathetically in some way?

Honestly, this was the most depressing fieldwork I have ever done.   And this is proven to me all over again when I give talks.  When I talk about my previous research on how people use new media to break up with each other, I often feel like a stand-up comedian.  The stories and my informants’ take on things are just so funny.   And now, when I give a talk about hiring, people in the audience keep telling me that they feel deeply depressed after I am done.

One of the reasons it was so painful is that the white collar workers I interviewed seemed to accept the neoliberal advice that they were surrounded by. At the end of an interview, I would sometimes mention that I was a bit skeptical about some aspect, say the requirement to create a personal brand.  And invariably, the person I was interviewing would defend the advice.   By contrast, last summer, I spent a month interviewing homeless people about how they looked for jobs.  It was much more enjoyable fieldwork because so many of the people I interviewed had a healthy skepticism about the systems they were trying to navigate.

It was also hard because I had no concrete way to intervene for the people I was interviewing in the moment, no matter how much I wanted to do so. And offering yet more advice didn’t seem like a satisfying way to go.  After all, part of the trap that job-seekers face is not only that they are surrounded by advice, some of it good and some of it crappy, but almost all of it must be said at a level of generality that isn’t helpful enough for getting a job in a complex and specific workplace.  In the end, I decided that maybe the best I could do was point out in my book the problems with standardized advice as clearly as possible.  This might help job-seekers realize they also might want to do thoughtful research about any workplace they want to enter, research (to continue my point in the previous question) that resembles ethnographic explorations of how decisions are made in a specific organization.

For linguistic anthropologists this book will resonate strongly with your previous book The Breakup 2.0. In fact, they would be great to assign as a pair to students. But I wanted you to think of this new book in terms of your work on Samoan migrants, No Family Is an Island. I want to go out on a limb here. In No Family Is an Island, you make it clear that government bureaucrats who see their systems as acultural put Samoans in the position of “being cultural,” and making culture something to be managed in particular ways. In this new book, you mention how companies are seen to have cultures, but individuals have some leeway—true, they need to have a cultural makeup that fits the company’s own, but they’re also free to craft selves as brands and decide what kind of individual culture they have, if you will. So to draw all this out: Samoan migrants are forced to be culture-bearers, whereas American job-seekers need to be culture-designers. Is this a fair comparison?

For me, this is a very unexpected comparison, but let me see if I can work with it.   Why unexpected? In my research on hiring, I was constantly baffled by what people meant when they were talking to me about company culture and making sure that those they hired were a good cultural fit.   It often sounded to me like “not a cultural fit” was a politic way to reject a job candidate you didn’t like for whatever reason, but seemed perfectly acceptable on paper.  And I never came across anyone who thought they were creating a culture of one, job-seekers and employers both understood culture to involve a group of people interacting together.

That said, I think you are pointing to a fascinating distinction in the way that culture as a classification functions on the ground when people use the concept explicitly.  In my earlier work on Samoan migrants, culture tended to refer only to one thin slice of what anthropologists mean when they talk about culture – ritual exchanges, kinship obligations, and politeness norms.  None of these were being referred to when U.S. white collar workers were talking about company culture.  Instead, they seemed, as far as I could tell, to be referring to the specific interactional practices that linguistic anthropologists study – how do you handle conflict, or manage small talk – which was then translated into Values that company employees were supposed to uphold.  No one ever clearly spelled out the link between values such as Amazon’s “bias for action” and “think big” and how employees were supposed to behave in particular situations.  This was the tacit cultural knowledge everyone in Amazon were supposed to know — how to link these values to everyday practice.  And I suppose employees could say retroactively that the people who didn’t know how to enact this tacit link were not a good “cultural fit.”  But honestly, from my analytical perspective, moving from a job at Goldman Sachs to a job at Amazon was not switching cultures in any meaningful anthropological sense.  Both Samoan migrants and U.S. white collar workers were using culture as a classification to refer to some things that anthropologists would agree are part of culture, but it was only a slice of what anthropologists might refer to should they use the term.  But the slices were different enough that I think you are right that people viewed their relationships to culture differently.  Samoan migrants did not think they were actively making their own culture while US white collar workers thought that every conscious decision they made helped them fashion a company culture.

Finally: who do you most hope will read your book?

I wrote this book for people looking for jobs, for people looking to hire, and for the career counselors who are giving advice.  I don’t like the model of the neoliberal self, and want to encourage people to refuse it.  The question is how to do this persuasively?  I turned to analyzing hiring because it is a moment of such uncertainty and anxiety that when people are being told they had to become a neoliberal self in order to get a job, they will do it for pragmatic purposes.   I hoped with this book to suggest that this was not the way to go, both because becoming a neoliberal self isn’t all that effective as a set of strategies and because it is not allowing people to be as ethical and good to each other as I hope they want to be.