Podcast Episode #7

Christiane Wisehart
Associate Director of Content at the Prindle Institute for Ethics

Eleanor Price, Interviewer

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Pallas Catenella: Hello and welcome to the Working PhDs podcast.

Eleanor Price: My name is Eleanor Price, and this is the Working PhDs Podcast. I’m here with Christiane Wisehart who is Associate Director of Content at the Prindle Institute for Ethics and runs an associated podcast called “Examining Ethics.” Christiane is ABD in a PhD program in art history, Christiane, before we discuss your current role and what you do as a director of content, can you tell us a little bit about your journey? How did you end up at an ethics institute?

Christiane Wisehart: Originally when I entered the PhD program, I thought I would be a professor of art history, or I thought that I would have a job at an art museum or something like that—sort of two traditional jobs for anyone who gets an art history PhD—but quickly realized that that was not what I wanted to do as a job.

So I finished out a lot of the PhD program and kept telling myself that I was going to finish my dissertation, but sort of knew all along that I wasn’t actually going to finish my dissertation. So when we moved to Greencastle, which is where my husband works, he works at DePauw University, a job listing to be an administrative assistant at the Prindle Institute for Ethics came online and I thought, “Well, it’ll get me out of the house. And I’ll be able to earn a little bit of money. I might as well apply here.” And so that’s how I ended up doing this job.

EP: Can you tell me a little bit more about what your job entails? What do you do?

CW: So obviously I’m not an administrative assistant anymore. When I was offered a position at the PR Institute, that director said that it seemed like maybe I wasn’t super interested in being an administrative assistant, but what other things would I be interested in? And so I mentioned enjoying writing and wanting to try and do something in podcasting and social media. I guess they needed people to do those things at the Prindle Institute, and so that’s how I got my start here.

So I’ve been doing the podcast since 2015, which is when I started. But along with that, I also help oversee our blog. I just oversee any sort of content that we put out.

EP: Can you speak a little bit more about both the podcast and the blog? What does your role look like in relation to those?

CW: The Prindle Institute for Ethics is a place where we promote ethics education. Basically, anything to do with the field of ethics, we are trying to help people understand that more, both at DePauw University, but just sort of in the world at large.

And so the podcast is called “Examining Ethics” and it’s basically just me looking at interesting articles that ethicists and philosophers have written and then talking to them about that. And so we explore things like reparations and its relationship to climate change, or environmental ethics issues at play in national parks.

So we do a lot of exploration of issues like that. And then the blog that I help oversee looks at current events and tries to outline all of the ethical issues that are at play in current events. So it’s not just telling you that a document was leaked from the Supreme Court about Roe v. Wade. It’s telling you about like, okay. Is it right or wrong for that document to have been leaked? What are some of the ethics issues around abortion and around protesting policy changes around abortion?

EP: So you were doing art history research, and then you ended up working really intensely in ethics, which is something totally different than what you studied. What were some skills from your PhD experience that you brought with you?

CW: I feel like any grad student who is a really good grad student in a seminar setting, where you’re reading a lot of texts and you’re trying to talk about those texts with other people, that’s the perfect training for doing a podcast like the one that I do. And I think the research skills would translate as well really well, but I don’t do a sort of show that requires very much intense research. I’m just sort of reading one text and then trying to talk to the author of that text about it.

And so I feel like even though art history has very little to do with philosophy or ethics, the skills that got me straight As in my art history PhD program are the ones that helped me do my job well.

EP: And what was your research in actually in art history?

CW:I studied 20th Century American art. So, Charles Sheeler, Walker Evans, folks like that.

EP: Do you ever miss it, or was leaving the academy something that you felt like was going to happen eventually one way or another?

CW: Yeah, I don’t miss it at all. I think I made a good decision. I guess the thing that I miss is, like, the seminar experience. Being able to take a deep dive into a text, but I still feel like I sort of get to do that a little bit with my job right now.

EP: You’re in such an interesting position, too, because as you said, you didn’t come into the job like, “I’m going to produce a podcast and I’m going to oversee a blog.” You kind of had a very different expectation for the job you were applying for. And it ended up with something different.

CW: I always joke that I made my job up, but it’s not even really a joke, like, I actually did make up my job. I basically told my director like, “Well, this is what I think your Institute needs, and I’ll just do it for you.” And so that’s what I ended up doing. So I feel sort of bad talking about this on a podcast, because I feel like my situation was very unique and weird, but yes, that’s what I ended up doing.

And I think what was appealing about me is what would be appealing about a lot of PhD students, which is that sense of curiosity and the dogged desire to figure stuff out. I think those two things together make for an employee that a lot of people I think would want to have.

EP: I’m intrigued, too, by your position as someone at an ethics institute that’s attached to an undergraduate institution. So you are in an interesting position where you’re involved in higher ed, but also kind of separate from. Could you talk a little more about how you sort of see yourself fitting in with higher ed at this point?

CW: Yeah, so at DePauw we have pretty robust centers. They call it a centers program. And so there are centers, like there’s a Media Center and a Business Center, and it allows students to explore areas that they might not necessarily be able to explore just through coursework. The Prindle Institute for Ethics is how students might explore ethics issues or social issues of the day.

At first, it was super cool. And I liked having access to professors and feeling like I was a part of the academy still. But after having worked here for a few years, it’s lost its shine. I think as a staff member, as opposed to being a faculty member, you see kind of grosser side of higher ed. And I don’t think it’s just a DePauw thing. I think it’s probably happening all over.

But yeah, the academy loses some of the sparkle that it had when I was a student, seeing it from the wings. I think it tries to build itself as being non-hierarchical, but it very much is. I mean, there’s very much a hierarchy and it’s felt in the material, like lived reality of working at a place like this.

EP: I guess I did want to interview you and maybe I’ll throw away the script a little bit, but I wanted to interview you because I think it’s so interesting that you did ABD work and then you did most of the PhD, and then to be in the academy and just a different discipline. And adjacent to a different discipline.

I’ve always just found so fascinating the way that you seem to navigate that. You’re amazing at doing interviews with philosophers who are really into these jargony terms, and we’ve seen them be difficult to understand at times. You’re incredible at getting information out of them in a really human, good way.

So I think some of that’s just your magic, but I also wonder, would you have been able to do that, do you think, if you hadn’t kind of done some also high level academic work yourself?

CW: Okay. So I think the difference between me and maybe somebody who finished their PhD, but did alt-ac is that I have absolutely no ego attached to being a former academic.

I think having no ego attached to being ABD has helped me be good at my job, because to be a good interviewer, you have to pretend to be stupid. And so that’s very hard I think for a lot of PhDs because, understandably so, that’s what they make their money off. Like that’s, what’s going to pay the bills. And so of course they have a bunch of ego and emotion attached to that. And I don’t.

But also with that, I still have all of the skills that I’ve learned as an academic. I get to keep all of that, even though I didn’t finish my dissertation. So yeah, I think that’s kind of a good combination for what I ended up doing.

For me at least, when I started the PhD program, I just wanted to learn. And at some point I think for a lot of people and for me at some point too, it has to flip over into, I need to present myself as an expert. I never did the flip into, “I need to present myself as an expert,” which allows me to be dumb when I need to be dumb and ask people to explain things that I need them to explain.

EP: Yeah. I was having a similar conversation with a friend. We were talking about how as incoming graduate students, there were basic things about research that we just didn’t know because neither of us had done Masters before. And it was really harrowing to be in circumstances where we didn’t want to ask those questions, but really needed to know those answers. And yeah, there’s already that presupposition that you’re kind of performing a kind of expertise that I think is maybe a drawback to being in the academy in a lot of ways.

CW: Yeah, for sure. I think once I realized like, “Oh, I don’t have to be an expert anymore. Like, there’s no stakes attached to me being an expert.” Once I realized that, conversations became so much more fun and I just became so much more open to other people’s ideas and what they have to say.

EP: Some of that freedom also seems to come from maybe transitioning disciplines, too.

CW: Absolutely, yeah. That 100% is a big part of it because I think even today, if I were to interview an art historian, it might activate some little part of the grad school me. Like, “I need to show them that I know stuff. I need to show them all the stuff that I know.”

And with philosophy, I don’t care about the field of philosophy. I think it’s interesting, but I have no need to be anyone in the field of philosophy. And so, yeah, I can absolutely ask people what might be totally dumb questions coming from another philosopher, but that need to be asked because not everybody knows all this stuff.

I know enough to recognize the moves that people are making and why they might need to make a move, so I recognize that somebody might be spending two minutes too long talking about the origin of the idea because I understand that move. And so I can get them to stop.

EP: Is there anything else that when you were pursuing higher ed, were there big things you wish your university had done for you? Or were there things your university did do well for you?

CW:I think the biggest thing that I’m still a little bit bitter about is this idea that it’s like, “Well, if you didn’t get any job advice, it’s because you didn’t ask about it. Or it’s because you didn’t pursue that from your advisor.” And it’s like, “Well, I didn’t know I was supposed to, and also you are the advisor. You need to give me advice.” My advisors were very kind and sweet, but they did not give me any job advice or mentorship at all.

So yeah, I feel like the university as a whole, for every graduate student, should be providing some kind of basic knowledge about what it is to look for a job in academia. And then every single advisor relationship should have at least one conversation—I mean, more than one, probably—but should start conversations about what it means to look for a job in whatever that particular field is. And I think the fact that that doesn’t exist at a university-wide level, or even just at most institutions of higher education is so irresponsible and gross.

EP: So then as a student, any advice you’d give to students who are pursuing higher ed or grad programs already and want to stick with it? Or, conversely then, students who are in graduate programs and would like to kind of go alt-ac?

CW: Yeah, I would say like, the chances of even the smartest brightest student getting a job are so low that you really need to do it for the love of whatever your topic or whatever your subject matter is. First of all.

And then second of all, for students that are trying to look for alt-academic careers, I would say there are so many websites and blogs, and all kinds of resources now about how to make the skills that you’ve learned in grad school applicable to other kinds of jobs, that you might want to go look into those because they’re really good.

And because again, as a graduate student, you have very good skills. You just need to figure out how to word it so that it looks good on a resumé.

EP: So true. And it seems like some of them are just things that as graduate students, we are already kind of endowed with just sort of that ideal curiosity and that idea of, “We want to figure stuff out,” and we’re often decent at figuring stuff out.

CW: Yeah. And the sort of doggedness that a lot of graduate students have, too. I think one thing: graduate students get so beat up. Like, they beat themselves up, they get beat up by their fellow students sometimes, they get beat up by their program.

And so by the end of it, you feel so crappy, that one thing that’s important to remember is that there aren’t a lot of people who would do that. There aren’t a lot of people who say, “Gosh, that thing’s really interesting. I’m going to go dive deep. I’m going to look into that. I’m going to read all these weird texts that literally five other people have read. I want more of this. I want to learn more of that.” Like, that personality trait is not common, and it’s kind of a great thing to have in somebody. And so, I think just remembering that is important for anyone who is coming out of a grad program.

PC: This episode was produced by Pallas Catenella and Suraj Saifullah. If you’d like to be featured as a guest on our podcast, or have suggestions for who we might invite, feel free to email us at contact@workingphds.com. You can find this address as well as a link to our website. In the description of each episode, our Working PhDs project has been generously supported by the Humanities Center of New York, the Central New York Humanities Corridor, the University of Rochester Humanities Center, and the Institute for Music Leadership at the Eastman School of Music. We’d like to thank our guests for sharing their stories and the graduate student workers and faculty mentors whose tireless efforts went into creating this podcast. Thank you for listening.