Director, Publics Lab, CUNY Graduate Center
PhD in German Studies, Stanford University, 2015
“I really regard what I do as organizing work, as activist work. I love it!” With palpable passion, Stacy Hartman speaks about her work as Director of Publics Lab at CUNY’s Graduate Center. Since 2018, Stacy has been managing a $2.65 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to support good public scholarship among CUNY’s graduate students. Each year, the program brings together a dozen publicly-minded fellows from among CUNY’s diverse study body and supports them through professional development seminars, internships and projects, and a diverse array of practical training like how to start one’s own organization, audio and video production for online teaching, documentary filmmaking for researchers, and exercising ethical leadership.
Stacy is there to make all of this happen. From her office on a bustling corridor of like-minded colleagues, she mentors students, connects them with promising internships, organizes events at the Graduate Center, networks with potential partners, and generally thrives amidst an energizing logistical flurry.
After the pandemic hit, her work adapted accordingly. She pushed for funds that were earmarked for in-person events to be distributed directly to students. The content of an online meeting now might be helping students learn how to do digital ethnography. The format and location of work might have changed, but the passion with which she works has not diminished.
This is not just a job for Stacy. It is a mission.
When Stacy began her PhD in German studies at Stanford in 2010, she had expected to become a professor like most of her peers. But having worked a few years prior to the PhD, Stacy drew on those experiences to balance her approach towards graduate studies and remained open-minded about possibilities beyond academia. “Because I had worked, I approached my graduate work differently. I did not have mistaken notions about office work—I knew what was nice about it.” She also had a clear idea of things that mattered to her, such as the proximity of family, and was less willing to let the pursuit of a faculty position compromise those.
At the time, the faculty job market in German Studies had not recovered from the 2008 recession, so Stacy explored what Stanford had to offer with an open mind. From actively participating in the Humanities Education Focal Group
—a speaker series at Stanford that addressed teaching and learning in the humanities—Stacy developed a keen interest in learning about the large number of PhD holders working in non-faculty positions in Stanford’s administration. Her expansive curiosity and willingness to explore was noticed by a faculty mentor and organizer of HEFG, who took it upon himself to recommend Stacy to the Associate Vice Provost at in the office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education, Chris Golde.
This faculty member “changed my life and didn’t even realize it,” says Stacy of his role in nudging her towards the right opportunities. Over the next year, Stacy worked with Chris Golde to develop a speaker series featuring PhD holders in non-faculty positions at Stanford, and she conducted dozens of interviews with them. This experience not only opened up the world of university administration to Stacy, but it also helped her learn about herself as a professional. “While I liked both research and teaching, neither really got me out of bed every day.” Rather, she found herself excelling at managing programs and bringing people together to exchange ideas. She also enjoyed interacting with students outside of the classroom, so in her final years at Stanford, she gained experience in undergraduate advising.
At the time, a general interest in PhD careers outside the academy was beginning to build. “If you can catch a Zeitgeist, I really recommend it,” Stacy reflects. During her fifth year, the Modern Language Association (MLA) received a major 3-year grant from the Mellon Foundation to establish a program to promote career diversity among humanities PhD students, and they were looking for someone to run it: a perfect fit. Stacy seized the opportunity and applied.
Today, Stacy credits her Stanford mentors with giving the crucial recommendations to help her secure this great opportunity. At the same time, it is clear that she landed the position through her own hard work and preparation. In addition to the professional experience she was building up, she had spent considerable time thinking through and articulating her own views on how the humanities fit into the landscape of higher education. She featured her best writings on the subject in an online portfolio, as easily accessible evidence of her engagement with the subject to any future employer. All of this made a difference.
Stacy was also able to seize the opportunity at the MLA by finishing her PhD quickly and efficiently. “Having worked before the PhD meant that I saw no reason to hang around… I wanted to be treated like a professional. I walked into the Writing Center at the beginning of my fifth year and said, ‘I need to finish my dissertation and get out of here.’”
The job took Stacy to New York City. Over the following three years, she helped to build up a program at the MLA called Connected Academics
that supported a vibrant community of humanists in the greater New York area in exploring meaningful careers beyond the academy. While she loved working at the MLA, at the end of her three years there, she was drawn by a new Mellon-funded project at the Graduate Center of CUNY that would allow her to work more with students and expose her to a very different type of graduate institution.
This is where Stacy has been since 2018. Supporting graduate students in public scholarship at CUNY is not only an excellent fit for Stacy’s talents and experiences. She is able to apply her humanistic sensibility to cast light on the larger issues at stake, and in so doing, the project has become a mission of personal importance.
Although Stacy’s job looks very different from the tenure track professorships that her doctoral degree had traditionally prepared students for, her graduate experience in the humanities continues to inform her work—above all by helping her see the larger intellectual project behind what she does. “My work is very administrative, but there is also an intellectual project behind it. For example, it is not just about putting out a nice event, but how does this event align with the values of the Graduate Center? How does it all work together?”
In an online essay
she published in 2019, Stacy argues that humanists have a unique role to play in society as problem-solvers, because they’re well-positioned to understand the larger context behind complex problems, and conceptualize the dynamics of power at work. The problem that Stacy confronts in her own work is the systemic inequality in higher education.
“I am frustrated by the gap that exists between the resources I got at Stanford and the resources that I see my students getting,” particularly when Stacy’s students at CUNY are disproportionately students of color and those that identify as queer. “The inequality in higher education is based on a culture of prestige and exclusion, completely at odds with the values that higher education itself espouses. We talk about having as many people as possible to have access to higher education, we talk about wanting there to be diversity, but everything about the way we make decisions excludes people.” Stacy says, “This is a humanistic problem!”
As someone who is energized by a career that brings together what she excels at and what she believes in, what might Stacy say to PhD students who are currently considering careers beyond the academy?
One piece of practical advice Stacy offers to PhD students curious about careers similar to hers—
in public humanities and higher education—
is to “follow the money.” She explains, “Following grant funding is a great way to find a job. For example, go on the Mellon Foundation’s website
and see whether there are organizations that have received Mellon funding that you’re interested in, and then see if those organizations are posting jobs. There’s usually at least one and sometimes two jobs baked into those grants, often for new PhDs.”
But she also has lessons that can benefit all who are rethinking their career paths, “Be intellectually curious about what people are doing outside of your immediate vicinity.” Stacy advises, “I do believe in luck. But I think that luck happens
when you’re aware of what’s going on around you and when you’re saying yes to opportunities, when you’re not getting stuck. That’s when serendipitous moments happen.”
Her own career path has been a testament to both the power of staying open, as well as the importance of knowing oneself and pivoting towards work that helps one thrive. It helps to know your values and inclinations, but even physical cues can be helpful, “Listen to what your body is telling you.” Graduate students can often be so locked into set ideas of career paths that they don’t realize it when their own bodies are sending them signals, be it stress or sickness, that nudge them elsewhere.
“Be intellectually curious, make your own luck. And don’t do things that make you nauseous.”
Profile written by Michelle Mengsu Chang, PhD ’21, History. Interview conducted in July, 2020.