Communications and Professional Development Manager

Arts, Government & Military

Communications and Professional Development Manager Smithsonian

SPEAKER:             Would you please state your job title, where you currently work, and how long it’s been since you graduated college?

SPEAKER:             Oh that’s a lot of math! My current job title is communications and professional development manager at Smithsonian affiliations. Been there for 10 years, and I graduated in 2001, so that’s what, 17 years since college [laughter]?

SPEAKER:             Right. And how long have you been in this field?

SPEAKER:             Wow this field – forever. This is the field that I knew I was going to be in, so I started interning and volunteering in museums when I was in high school.

SPEAKER:             Great, great. Can you provide a brief description of what your primary job functions are?

SPEAKER:             So, that’s an interesting question when you talk to people who work in a quasi-governmental situation because we have many hats. So my primary responsibilities would basically be to provide consistent messaging for the Smithsonian to our Smithsonian affiliate. So that’s in different cities or states where we have affiliates, it’s clear what their relationship to the Smithsonian is and there’s no brand confusion. So I also get to tell stories about how the two organizations, or all the organizations, work together to enrich local neighborhoods. So I do a lot of storytelling online and offline.

SPEAKER:             Great, thank you. Can you please estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing – zero to 25 percent, 25 to 50, 50 to 75 percent, or 75 to 100?

SPEAKER:             75 to 100 percent. That’s pretty much what I do.

SPEAKER:             Great. What forms are kinds of writing or documents do you most often complete in your job?

SPEAKER:             Mostly they are– so I do press releases, I do blogs, I write newsletter copy and marketing material. I also write project proposals and things like that. So it runs the gamut from sort of conversational writing and blogs, to more focused journalistic writing, to more sort of commercial business writing. So it’ s a lot of different things.

SPEAKER:             Great. And so for those kinds of documents, who would you say typically are your primary audiences?

SPEAKER:             So I have two primary audiences – one is in an internal audience, which is the collective Smithsonian, to raise awareness of what we do and how our affiliates are; and then our external audience is to our Smithsonian affiliates and potential affiliates, so those organizations that are in partnership with the Smithsonian.

SPEAKER:             Great. And the purposes are goals for those kinds of documents with those audiences?

SPEAKER:             So the purposes or goals f or talking to affiliates is to make sure that they know what resources are available to them from the Smithsonian, and how important their collaborations are and how they impact local communities.

SPEAKER:             Great. Could you perhaps walk me through the process of one specific recent project or kind of project, starting from a writing assignment or task is given to you, what kind of preparation you do, and then the steps you take from the beginning of the project to completion?

SPEAKER:             Sure. So the biggest thing that I have going on actually coming up this weekend – it starts about a year in advance and said it’s called Smithsonian Magazine Museum Day. And for that there are a ton of organizations actually involved in it. So the best part of it is that I get to tell stories about a bunch of different things on a bunch of different platforms. So not only am I writing a press release, I’m also planning social media, and I’m doing that both for internal and external people. So I always start out writing an outline of what I want to talk about, and why I’m writing, and who I’m writing for, because sometimes it can be very different. So we usually do two kinds of press releases. S o one will be sort of one from our office that says, “This is what we’re doing and it’s very exciting and this is when it’s happening. ” But then there’s a template that I have to write that can be used by our affiliate organizations where they have to fill in information that I can’t fill in. So I have to write it with blank spots and make sure that it still makes sense at the end of it. And so that I lay out in sort of her very different way than planning a social media strategy, which is definitely more conversational, so in that way I try to identify the most interesting stories that I can find that are going to happen on that day, or around the topic and things like that. And then I map it out on different days, and try not to overlap themes, and then I go into the creation of actually writing the spots and drafting or, you know, scheduling them.

SPEAKER:             Great. So how did you know or how did you learn how to do this kind of writing?

SPEAKER:             So the public relations with press releases I sort of learned in college My minor was mass communications, so I did, you know, the minimum required to say that I had a minor in college. So I had taken a few classes on public relations, but as an art history major I knew that I loved writing, and you know, everything was basically an essay, so I knew how to write things. It wasn’t until my first job after grad school that I actually was hired as a public relations officer, and I got to actually produce and write these kind of things, and talked to journalists and pitched stories and everything, and that was back in the day when there actually wasn’t really– nothing was being done on social media  or really online, so you actually had to take, you know, people out to lunch and write these things and submit them in person or mail or anything like that. So I had to learn on the job for a lot of that, and then it just sort of grew from there. For social media, that was absolutely being forced into something [chuckle] because we didn’t have anyone else to do it. So I had to learn as I went along and I feel like I’m still learning that.

SPEAKER:             Great. So you know, you’ve talked a lot about learning on the job, especially you know, sort of in the advent of social media and how that has affected, you know, your job now. Can you think of a specific time in your career where you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

SPEAKER:             Oh my gosh yes. I still feel that way sometimes. I think it’s always a learning experience and you know, things change all the time. So with social media it’s just it changes so quickly, and the fact that you have to be clever on the spot is something that I’ve had to really get used to, because I’m used to drafting and redrafting, and checking and making sure everything makes sense, and you don’t have that luxury a lot of times when you’re doing stuff on social media.

SPEAKER:             Great. So when you find yourself in those moments where you’re kind of learning or adjusting or feeling unsure about you know, these new kinds of writing, what do you feel is productive in terms of overcoming those kind of challenges? What’s your strategy in those situations?

SPEAKER:             Research. I look at what other people are doing. I hire interns because they usually have a, you know, a hand on the pulse of what’s going on because they’re much younger and they’re just living it every day. And I try to go to meetings with– we have a central group of social media people and learn from them and really just try to  read and research as much as I can to try to understand it.

SPEAKER:             Great, great. Does anybody formally oversee your writing?

SPEAKER:             Yes, yes. I do have an associate director that will review things and which– actually I get more than one person to review i t because it’s always good to have different eyes on it.

SPEAKER:             And so their title associate director – could you briefly describe what their role is in the organization?

SPEAKER:             So she oversees our day-to-day operations and make sure that we are following the organization’s goals and strategies. So she is right underneath our director, so she helps us with our day-to-day work.

SPEAKER:             Great. And so you mentioned sort of accuracy there. How else would you say she judges the success or quality of your written work?

SPEAKER:             Well I think sometimes she has a better viewpoint on the bigger picture. I’m usually a lot of times working on a specific project, so I know that project in detail, so sometimes that’s how it connects to a lot of other things. She helps bring me that kind of viewpoint to mix in to what I’m writing

SPEAKER:             Great. So how long do you typically have to complete a writing project from start to finish?

SPEAKER:             That’s a tough question because it really depends on what I’m working on. So, you know, if it’s a press release, depending on where it’s going to go, I try to do those a couple of months in advance. The farther out I can schedule social media the better, but sometimes that’s the day of. And I’m working on some project proposals right now that are probably due in a few months, so it really just depends on the project.

SPEAKER:             Sure, sure. S o you mentioned, you know, some essay writing in art history and stuff like that. Are there other specific kinds of writing you remember being asked to do as a student? And if so in what ways do you think your college writing experiences has prepared or did not prepare you to write in your job now?

SPEAKER:             So it’s funny. So when I was in grad school I had to write a dissertation and I’d never written anything that long in my life. So learning how, you know, how long that took and the research involved in writing something that is like a book was tough. And so when I got my first job, I knew how to write academically but I had to learn on the job how to not write academically, and be more concise, and in public relations training you gotta get to the point ‘ cause nobody wants to read an academic paper. So I had to adjust to that. And then when I started working in social media you have even less space to work in that you have to adapt to. So I think that was huge for me as well.

SPEAKER:             Great. What do you think would have been most useful for you to do or learn when you were a student that you think would have kind of helped you ease that transition into your job now?

SPEAKER:             Wouldn’t it have been really nice if I could see into the future and know that social media was coming   ‘Cause it just didn’t exist [laughter]. So I think being able to better anticipate how seeing the immediacy of everything now where, when you’re doing public relations, everything happens online first. You don’t get that luxury of preparing a statement, you’ve just got to be ready to write something. You know, I think that would’ve been great to learn is some sort of crisis communication because we did, but you know, you had time [chuckle].

SPEAKER:             Sure, yeah. So I mean this kind of leads us to our next question and you’re talking about the immediacy of public relations in the social media sphere – what’s at stake then with your writing, particularly when you think about the immediacy i n which you need to kind of churn out a message?

SPEAKER:             Oh you don’t have time to fact check as much as you’d like, and you know, sometimes you are wrong and you have to address it. So having your facts straight beforehand or having a really solid social media plan is really important, and because that’s not a primary sort of goal in our office, we wing it a lot of times, and so we have to be really careful that we have at least looked into the facts of it and s o that we don’t have to go back on and say, “Just kidding! “

SPEAKER:             Right. And so for your non-social media writing that you do, what are the sort of best case scenario results for successful writing versus the consequences for maybe unsuccessful pieces?

SPEAKER:             So I mean, best case is that it gets to the Smithsonian secretary’s desk if he sees– he read something about the impact the Smithsonian is having in a local community because of our affiliates. And the worst thing is when I get something wrong and I have an affiliate call me and say you know, “This is a great story but you’ve misrepresented what we do, ” and that has happened to me before So as much fact checking as you can do, sometimes people just get it wrong

SPEAKER:             Sure. Do you feel in those sort of circumstances that either your organizational or your personal reputation is sort of stake with writing?

SPEAKER:             No I don’t think so. I don’t feel that way, I think of it as a learning experience more often than not. I’m not in a position as a journalist or anything like that where my reputation could be at stake. It’s more of a for me, a client relationship that I don’t want my affiliates to think that I was either making something up or trying to show them in a light that they’re not in or anything like that. So I feel more probably upset that our organization may look bad more than it affecting me personally, if that makes sense.

SPEAKER:             Sure, sure. What do you think the most difficult thing is about writing in your particular position?

SPEAKER:             I have too many people that have to review it so it takes forever [chuckle]. But really I think it’s determining which audience I’m really writing for, because we do have a lot of stakeholders. So sometimes I have to write for multiple audiences in one document and that gets hard.

SPEAKER:             Oh yeah, definitely. That’s great. So what are you most looking at in order to make those kinds of decisions when you have so many people reviewing your writing, or so many different potential stakeholders? What are the kinds of things that you think about before you put pen to paper?

SPEAKER:             Well I’m always thinking of the end goal – why am I writing it, what’s the ultimate outcome I want to see, and who am I writing for? And usually if I can get those things down and put the content in there, most of my editors are really just reading it to see that it flows well and there’s no grammatical errors or I haven’t turned too conversational, because sometimes that happens, in that I’d be used to writing a blog then have to go write something else and I get too whimsical.

SPEAKER:             Sure [chuck le]. Has anybody hoped you with your writing formally or informally since college?

SPEAKER:             Oh sure, yeah. I try to get out to a continuing education class, I’ve taken a couple in public relations over the years, some marketing classes, social media, just to– because I don’t assume that I know everything and you know that things haven’t changed. So I need to go in there and get refreshers in a lot of things. I do some sort of updating online because you have to.

SPEAKER:             Sure., that’s great How do you believe that you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the span of your career so far?

SPEAKER:             I’ve learned to be much more concise. I think the biggest feedback ever got in college was that I   was very descriptive and I could write, you know, a super long essay about something and finally get to the point, and that was fine for some things, but for business writing and for public relations writing, a lot of times I need to get to it in a page, and so I’ve had to learn and it’s been really helpful in a lot of the things that I do to be concise and get to the point.

SPEAKER:             Great, thank you. To what extent do you think that writing is valued in your particular organization and in your field as a whole?

SPEAKER:             I think it’s huge. I think it’s an incredibly important piece especially in our organization, because we have to tell the stories of the Smithsonian’s impact in local neighborhoods to basically make sure people know the worth of our program and that width through all of our affiliates. We are definitely engaging people that may not ever engage with the Smithsonian in their own hometowns. And that goes for people outside of the Smithsonian as well as inside, because we are not a museum, we don’t have a collection, we don’t create exhibitions. Our product is the people and the things of the entire institution. So, you know, we have to be able to be good storytellers and to really write persuasively to get Smithsonian people to want to work with us, and to collaborate with our affiliates, and to make our affiliates feel special when things do go out there, that we are telling the right stories about their communities.

SPEAKER:             Great. And you feel that that’s consistent across public relations as a discipline, too?

SPEAKER:             It probably varies. I think a lot of other people at the Smithsonian, you know, they are more specific to one organization or one exhibition and theirs is more probably project focused, mine usually is more general and talking about the sort of whole state of our affiliate network.

SPEAKER:             Great, sure, sure. So last two questions here. First, how did you define successful writing when you were a student versus how you define success for writing now?

SPEAKER:             That’s funny [chuckle], that’s a great question. In college I got an A or I passed, and my paper didn’t come back bleeding with corrections – that’s how I knew, you know, when I finally got a paper back that kind of looked like how I turned it in. So that was nice. And in the business world it’s sort of similar actually, in that when I have to have it reviewed, everybody writes back and just says, “Good to go. ” I mean that’s ideal is that I’ve nailed it the first time so things can move quickly and I’ve gotten the message across as clearly as possible.

SPEAKER:             Great. And would you consider yourself to be a successful workplace writer? Why or why not?

SPEAKER:             Do I consider myself?

SPEAKER:             Yes.

SPEAKER:             Yes. Do I consider? I would say like 80 percent of the time because the sort of unfortunate situation in my office is that we all wear a lot of hats, so I don’t get to really focus on one thing. So a lot of times I don’t have as much time to devote to writing the best stories and I’m really just trying to do something as quickly as possible so that we have something out there. If I had more time I would have loved to be able to write more and tell  better stories.

SPEAKER:             Thank you. Thank you so much.

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Curatorial Assistant

Arts, Government & Military, Non-profit

Would you please state your job title and where you currently work?

I’m curatorial associate in the curatorial division of the National Gallery of Art.

And how long has it been since you’ve graduated from undergrad? 

Unknown Speaker  0:12  

18 years ago.

Okay, and how long have you been in your current field?

I’ve been in my current field for about 17 years.

Great. Could you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

The curatorial department is responsible for three main things: preserving and researching our collection, researching and acquiring works of art to add to the collection, and organizing exhibitions. 

Excellent. Could you estimate in an average week, what percentage of your work requires writing? I would say, every single day, so probably about 80%. 

Okay. 

It’s a pretty positive thing, different types of writing. 

Excellent. Could you talk a little bit about those types of writing–the kinds of documents or the types of genres that you–that you most often create?

The bulk of it is email, both informally to internal colleagues, or formally to colleagues and other institutions. We write lots of formal letters to donors to thank them or solicit support. We write formal letters requesting loans of art for exhibitions. We write catalogue essays about the career of an artist or short catalog entries engaging with a single work of art. We write persuasively when we have to submit proposals for say, reinterpreting the authorship of a work of art, to reflect new research or thinking, or maybe a justification for why we should accept a work of art offered as a gift or for sale. We write short texts about individual works of art for visitors to read and brief guides, and longer texts about art for our website. We write scholarly footnoted articles for our academic peers, and then less serious articles for a general audience, like say a newsletter. We write lots and lots of proposals, for exhibitions, and for other projects. 

Wow, you are really shifting between different types of documents all the time. That’s so interesting. So can you talk a little bit–I can guess about the audience and purpose of some of those–but could you talk a little bit about maybe two or three of those types of genres, and tell us about the audience and the purposes?

I think, with the formal letters, that was, that’s a new kind of writing from coming out of undergraduate. Because there’s a tone that I’d never had to write in before, because you’re writing to either people you don’t know well, and are asking a favor of, or maybe someone who is socially prominent. We’ve had to write letters to members of the aristocracy, Vatican officials, and so forth, presidents of governments, that kind of thing when you’re asking for diplomatic help with projects. So formal letters are kind of their own thing. You have to have a very deferential tone, be very clear and concise. But then clearness and concision is useful in all your messages, too. So when you’re dashing off a quick message to a colleague, asking him to get something done really quickly. Our audience is really, really broad, because it’s anyone who walks off the street to see our museum. And then it’s the officials and people I’ve mentioned before that you’re trying to deal with on a very different level. So there’s a lot of planned out correspondence or writing, the sort of long-form editing things for texts for things that we publish. They’re shorter, quick things, if you’re doing say, an interview with someone, or just talking informally with people.

Excellent. How much of your writing is collaborative?

A lot–all of it, I would say, actually, because even these letters that we’re writing to people, you’re getting your colleagues to edit them and add bits or help you adjust the tone to make it right. Anything we publish goes through our editors’ office, which is just here for that. If we’re doing a guide, we’ll sit down and kick around some ideas, but there are more detailed drafts as well. So I would say almost all of it except for personal emails.

Great. And could you walk–you talked about review just then a little bit–could you walk us through the process, sort of start to finish, of maybe one of the more complex writing projects that you’ve done recently, starting from how that project sort of lands on your desk all the way through to completion?

So maybe we’ll take like a catalog entry in our Visitors Guide, which is a guide that’s meant for anybody who comes into a museum. And so it’s pitched for a general audience of people who are interested enough to pick up this book. For that, it’s a short text. So you’re writing, you’re trying to get across the most important points about this one work of art in a very, very limited word count. And so we might divvy up the objects among our specialisms. And so if you’re interested in tapestries, and you might write about a tapestry, and then whoever’s doing the research, you might go–go and see what’s been done on it before. What was good about that, what would we like to do now, what kind of new research is out there? So you do a lot of research to figure out what it is you want to say, what are the main points? How does it fit with other things going on to this guide? And then you draft something and then you start passing it around your department. And once you’re happy with that, and your colleagues are, then it might go to the editor’s office, who are editing it for, for clarity for overall tone, because they know what the rest of the book looks like, to make sure that you haven’t used any over specialized terms that [readers] aren’t going to recognize right away. And then at that point the text can get back to you to make sure that their edits haven’t changed the meaning too much. And then after a few sign off rounds, it’s good to go. So there’s a lot of work for maybe 500 words. 

Interesting, that’s about the average length of one of those descriptions? 

For example. 

For example, wonderful, okay. This is a little bit broad, but how did you know how to perform these types of writing?

Some of it is just having good examples to look at. So my senior colleagues in the department all have a lot of experience doing that. And so I would look at what they’ve done before, or I would really listen to the guidance they give me, the feedback, on my writing. And so a lot of it’s just learning, sort of on the hoof as you go.

Some of it’s just being a reader, when you go around reading a museum label on the wall or a text and seeing, Oh, they didn’t say this thing I wanted to find out, maybe they should have said something more about XYZ. And trying to remember that, I think the questions you have when you go and put yourself in the shoes of someone who’s going to be reading whatever it is you’re writing, and trying to anticipate those questions and address them.

Great. You talked about getting a little bit of feedback or advice from your senior colleagues. What does that feedback usually look like? Is it direct feedback on your writing? Or is it more of a general sort of way of thinking that points you toward writing improvement?

A bit of both–often very concrete feedback. So I’ll give a piece of paper as a draft, and it’ll come back with some red marks on it and some rewrites. One of our colleagues is a wonderful writer. And so she will often hit on just the right way of saying something that I hadn’t quite gotten to. And that’s a really nice thing to have. Um, but often, it’s just kind of a general approach to say, think more about how this object was made, or think more about how it was used, or whatever angle that we might want to play up a little more. It could be a little more general that way, or it could be something as specific  as changing a word. 

Okay. Um, could you describe a time–has there ever been a time in your career where you felt unprepared as a writer?

Generally, I think when you’re trying to write a hard email or a hard letter, if, if there’s some sort of conflict, if there’s a loan request you’re not getting and you’re trying to persuade someone, and it is maybe the first time you’re having to write that, that can be difficult. I think writing things like job applications are very difficult, and you might feel unprepared for that. And again, I think anytime I’ve run into feeling unprepared, what I tried to do is talk to people about it, and get some advice and another perspective. And sometimes people can see something, they can see the problem more clearly than I can being in the middle of it. Unprepared more generally, I think coming out of school, I didn’t know how to write sort of very short, brief letter to someone I wanted advice from, or an internship with, or something like that. And so I think learning to have done that would have been a useful thing to help me kind of get kick started.

Interesting. That’s really useful. Yeah. And are there other things that–you talked about looking at models and asking other people for feedback–are there other strategies you’ve used when you felt unprepared or unsure about a type of new writing?

Sometimes looking at writing guides–I don’t usually find those as helpful as talking to people who’ve actually done what it is I’m trying to do. Especially with graduate school, as a graduate student, I would talk to friends and colleagues who were recent graduate students, or very successful ones, either look at their their thesis or talk to them about, how did you handle the introduction. So in most cases, I think people have been more helpful in writing guides. But every once in a while, it’s helpful to look at some of the published guides out there on how to write about art, just to remind yourself of the basic principles, those are fundamental things you want to get across. 

That raises the question, when we think about sort of writing, both writing for museums or writing about art, are there certain sort of tenants or overarching ways of thinking that feel very specific to those disciplines or not necessarily?

I’m sure that that is the case. I’m not totally able to articulate all of it, because I’m only ever worked in this field. But you’re writing about something that’s inherently visual. And so you’re trying not to compete with the visual, but you’re trying to make people engage with the object. Ultimately, all the writing we do, whether it’s an exhibition catalog, or a wall label, or even an email, ultimately, the goal, end goal of that is to get people to really engage with a work of art and have an experience out of that. So I’m not sure–

That’s okay. No, that’s very useful are there–the answer to this may be that it’s sort of not a, an explicit process that you’re thinking about as you’re doing it–but as you are working to have viewers engage with the art based on the text that you’re writing, are there certain ways that you think about language? Or your writing that that prompts that? Or is it more just the ways in which you’re thinking about description and context that you’re offering? I don’t know if that makes sense.

It does make sense. I think, I think try and keep things very clear. If you’re going to use a specialized term, to be really clear in your own mind about why are you using it. For example, if you’re talking about a painter, such as Van Gogh, who uses really thick, thick paint, you might talk about impasto. Because that’s important, that thick application of paint. And so you might explain a little bit about that term, in case they don’t know it. If we’re talking about sculpture, sometimes we’re using foreign terms, there’s a term sketch octo, for really, really delicate, low relief, almost like a cloud form. And so you might introduce a weird term like that, to get them to look at how the carver has worked very delicately over the surface of a hard marble, to make them appreciate it and see what that artist has achieved. But in general, I think trying to be very clear, when possible, drawing their attention to something that they might overlook, or maybe explaining something, you can’t assume knowledge. So maybe explaining what this particular iconography is, if it’s a religious object, explain what that is for someone who might not be of that religion. If it’s something that’s old fashioned that we don’t use in daily life, trying to draw their attention to a point that will make them understand what’s going on, so they can be more engaged. 

Right, right. It must be especially difficult because as you said, your audience is anyone who walks in the museum. Right, exactly. Are there other conversations that you have with your colleagues about–you’re not assuming any knowledge–and yet, you’re really limited in the amount of information you can provide. Is that a sort of ongoing struggle? Or is it something that after you’ve been writing this way, for a while, becomes natural?

I think you get used to it after a while you find your pitch, and you find the sort of tone that you want to hit. But it is definitely an ongoing conversation. And it’s been interesting talking to our colleagues in education, who have to do this kind of writing, very much directed to different audiences–they work with children, they were students, they work with adults, they work with people special needs, they’ve recently begun working with people, for example, who have Alzheimer’s. So trying to work for myriad different audiences, I think they are a little bit more precision–they have the precision of a scalpel when they’re ready for their audiences. We try to do the same thing. But when you are writing an exhibition catalog, you’re assuming a certain level of interest, you’re assuming a certain level of background or willingness to to do the reading to understand what it is you’re writing about.

Excellent. Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Does anyone oversee your writing? You talked about the review process. But is there a direct person who sort of views most of your formal writing and signs off on it?

Here at this museum, our editors department will look at everything that goes out. So if it’s something on the website, if it’s a brochure, anything, even the language for wall labels, where it’s not, it’s not under contention, you know, the artist name, the date all that, they still are reviewing it for style, for accuracy, for spelling. So everything will go out, having been edited formally by their office. And then informally, as I mentioned before, my colleagues.

Perfect. And this is going back a few questions, but I’m thinking about all the different genres that you write in. And the sort of complicated mental shifts that I assume are happening as you move from writing a wall label to a persuasive letter to a another museum, or I mean, from one to the next. There are extremely different types of writing. Are there–could you talk a little bit about that transition as you move? I would imagine in a given day, you might be writing in three or four or even five different writing genres. How does that transition work? Is it challenging? How do you sort of manage that?

At some point, you can develop a formula for some things which are formulaic, when you’re writing a, for example, a loans letter, you’re always going to tell them when the exhibition is taking place. You’re going to tell them who’s hosting it, who your colleagues are, that kind of thing. So some of that’s a little bit formulaic, and you can reuse some of that language, which makes that shift a little easier. But you still have to obviously be personalizing the thesis of the show or the reasons you need to borrow the work of art. It is a lot of–it is a lot of mental gymnastics to sort of shift like that. Even writing between two complicated emails, you’re going from one subject to a totally different thing. It could be something to do with the facilities of the museum, asking for some kind of climate control in the space. And then your next message is asking for something different. I don’t know how to explain, you just, you have to learn to multitask. 

Yeah, okay. Okay. Excellent. Um, this obviously will vary from project to project, but could you talk about the length of time, you have to complete some of your more common writing projects? 

It totally depends on the nature of the project. For something like an exhibition catalog, ideally more than a year, because you’re gonna need to research your essay for the catalog entry and write it, edit it. For something like a public lecture, which you’re writing out, even if you’re delivering it without your notes, or just speaking it, ideally, you have a few months for that. Sometimes there’s set deadlines, which recur every year. So we know that every year we’ve got Board of Trustees meetings to prepare a letter for or prepare a document for. And sometimes, you know, emails, obviously, you’re trying to get this off as quickly as you can. So it varies or completely between genres.

Looking back to your undergraduate days, can you talk a little bit about the writing that you recall being asked to do, and how you think that may or may not have prepared you to write in your current position?

We do a lot of research papers, of course, which was very useful, directly applicable. And so we’re sort of doing more sophisticated versions of those now. So learning the principles of that, and the principles to just basic writing, you know, your topic sentence and then your supporting argument below and trying to remember that. And sometimes I get stuck now I keep saying, okay, what’s my topic sentence? What’s my evidence? What’s my argument? Some personal essays we would have to write. And those can be useful if you’re trying to convey something about yourself, say in a job application or a request for promotion, or anything you might be applying for. I think we could have learned more, as I mentioned before, about learning how to write to other people. We did a lot of–we wrote lots of thank you notes. I remember whenever we had visiting lectures or whatever. I think learning to write a good thank you note is always a lifelong, useful skill to have. Learning to read texts, as you might do for an English class, literary literature class, learning to read something very carefully than analyze it is a very good writing skill that I remember being taught in undergraduate.

And were you an art history major in undergraduate?

I double majored in art history and modern languages.

Okay. All right, great. And are there–other than thinking a little bit about approaching different audiences in writing, are there other things that would have been useful for you to learn or to practice, or to be able to do when you were a student that would have better prepared you?

I think learning to write precis learning to write really short, punchy, succinct texts, either, if you’re summarizing something, which you can do for yourself for notetaking, if you’re trying to say, Okay, I just finished this chapter with a novel, I’m going to just write down what it was I read. So I’ve got the plot in my head, because then I can go back and start thinking about other things for the class. But learning how to precis is a really useful skill in this field. If you’re trying to convey some complex concepts to either your lecture audience who come to hear you give a talk or your for colleagues, if you’re trying to make a pitch for an exhibition or a case for something to be able to say, Well, this is what the file says, here are the main points about this object in our collection. Or here’s the conservation history of something, here’s where it’s been treated, or not been treated, or anything like that. This is how some has been studied. If you can reduce down to the main headlines, that’s a really useful skill, and not something I remember doing formally very much in undergraduate.  

Every answer you give prompts me to ask a question that’s not on my list, because the work is so interesting. But could you talk a little bit about writing those public speeches, and how that maybe varies from other genres that you write in?

Oh, sure, it’s, you want to be more conversational, because you’re face to face with an audience, you want it to be–I try to sort of gear it say, to say my mom, so someone who’s interested but maybe not a specialist. You want to tell a story. You don’t want to just be reading off of your notes, even though you may have them. And I often write out really detailed notes, even conversational notes. So even if you’re trying to make a small joke, to win your audience, you might write a little joke in there just to remind yourself, but it’s it’s a very different type of writing because you do have to have a sense that you’re going towards a point, so that you don’t lose them along the way. Because whereas people can put a bookmark down the book and come back later–they’re going to be the audience, they’re either going to stay and listen to you or they’re going to walk away. So if you’re doing a formal lecture, where people sitting down listening to you, you try to have a real sense of a through line, so they can follow you. You try to make it easy for them to follow you. And whether that’s by repeating a point, by telling them up front, we’re going to look at these three things, just sort of laying out a lot of wayfinding signposts for them so they can come along with you. Usually they will, if you can do that clearly and your topics interesting enough. If you’re doing something less formal without notes, like a gallery talk in front of an object or two, often that can be easier, because it’s a little more give and take, you can open up the conversation. So it’s actually conversation, not just one person talking at people. And then you’ve got the work of art there, too, which is also like a third party in the conversation. So for those, you prepare a slightly different way. For a lecture, I like to have it all written down, even to the point where I’m clicking the slide so that I don’t get caught up and then forget to click the slide. But for a gallery talk, I tried to learn everything I can about what I want to say, remember that sort of outline what I want to say, and then just go in, and just see how the conversation goes. 

Great. Um, what is at stake in your writing?

Oh, that’s a very good question. A lot of different things, I think, um, if people are giving you their time, you want to repay that by giving them good information. And that means both information clearly, and nicely presented, but also factually correct, up to the minute researched information. You’re also representing the National Museum. And so you want to do right by that and have your writing be at a high standard, and whether that’s achieving a certain level of collegiality in your messages to colleagues, or, or just producing a paper that reflects well on your colleagues, that’s at stake, I would say. Often, if you are writing for a favor, then that, whether the writing reference for someone or you’re asking for references from someone or asking for a loan, or any of these things–at stake is maybe the success of your exhibition. If you can’t get this major museum to give you something, then maybe the show won’t happen. If the donor is unable to make the donation because you haven’t made a good enough case, you might not be able to do a program or find a work of art. So yeah, so there’s a lot of different things at stake.

Excellent. What would you say is the most challenging thing about writing in your specific position?

I think, in general, I don’t know if it’s specific to my  position, I think just writing with clarity. And it can be not getting too caught up in your own words and in your own head, you’ve got to remember, you’re not writing for yourself, you’re writing for someone. And sometimes, if you’ve gotten too attached to a project, or you’ve been looking at it for such a long time, you can forget that  not everyone else has been doing this research, and they don’t quite know where you’re going with it. So I think remembering always to keep that–what am I trying to say? The clear vision of what you’re doing is–it can be can be challenging, I think switching between the different genres, as you mentioned, that can be challenging too. And keeping things fresh. If you are repurposing or maybe a formulaic letter, you don’t want it to sound like that. And you’re probably writing to these people again and again anyway, and you don’t want them to keep receiving the same letter. So but that’s also the same thing with any type of writing, you want it to always feel fresh and interesting.

Yeah, absolutely. Are there certain things that you do–tactics or strategies–let’s say you, okay, I’ve sent this person a letter twice over the past few years, I want to make sure this letter is unique. And yet I still have to convey similar information. How do you approach trying to keep that novel or engaging or personal?

For something like a formulaic letter, I’ll just sit down and write the formulaic letter And then I’ll just start taking out words, and really looking up synonyms if I have to. It may as sort of basic as that. And then other times, it’s just–be aware of your own little personal writing tics. And trying not to keep falling into them, the little patterns. And that’s again, where collaborating with colleagues is helpful, because if you get a slightly more corporate voice, corporate in the sense of a group of people, then sounds less idiosyncratic and a little bit more of what you’re trying to get to.

You talked about getting advice from colleagues, from senior colleagues and  getting feedback on your writing. Has anyone else helped you with your writing here at the museum formally or informally?

Certainly, lots of people have been very helpful informally, in terms of concrete feedback, or maybe general ideas about how to write something. In terms of more formal instruction, our education department has a program called Writing Salon, where members of the public can register and come in and write all different genres–poetry, do some theatrical writing, memoir, all different genres. I haven’t taken one of those. I would like to take one of those. But I haven’t been able to get away from the desk and go do it. So there is a chance to have writing instruction here if you join one of our programs. I’ve not done it. I think I’ve–because I’ve been in graduate school while I’ve been working, we’ve gotten some formal instruction through school. It’s not for the museum here, but certainly while I’ve been working, I’ve had a little bit of formal instruction on how to write a research paper or how to write a grant. But I would say most of it is coming from on the job. And from learning by example, or the help of your colleagues.  

How do you believe you’ve evolved as a writer over the course of your career?

It’s easier to write now. It’s not necessarily starting from scratch, I, I’ve done, I’ve experienced lots of different types of writing now, and so at least have somewhere to start from. And if I get stuck, I can talk to somebody about it. But in general, I have a pretty good idea of what I’m trying to do. And so that–since it’s, there’s a little bit less of staring at the blank page, kind of paralyzed. What do you do when you have a blank page, just start writing and you’ll figure it out. I’d like to think I’ve become a better writer, I would hope so. And I would think that would come with having the more experienced reader as well, because part of being a good writer is doing a lot of reading. And so seeing what speaks to you and what works as a reader, you can then apply to your own writing.

Excellent. And to what extent do you think writing is valued within the organization as a whole?

I think it’s valued very, very highly. I think it’s an essential skill. I think it’s–if you are able to work with well your colleagues as a person and then write well, then you’re going to be able to do a lot of different things. So I would say it’s valued really highly.

And our last little set of questions, how do you think you would have defined successful writing as a student, as opposed to successful writing in this current space? And  would you define yourself as a successful workplace writer here?

That’s a lot of questions. Lots of break it out. I think, as a successful student, it would have been, could you answer all the questions you’ve been set in a compelling way? Does your essay have some evidence in it? Can you support your opinions? Is it clear? Is it turned in on time? Turning things in on time is important too! But it’s a bit more, is it original? Are you contributing something original to the conversation? Um,could you repeat the second bit of the question? 

Sure, how would you define successful writing here? And would you call yourself a successful workplace writer?

I would say I’m on my way to becoming a successful workplace writer. A lot of my work is still written for my supervisory colleagues. So I’m not quite yet there, where it’s going straight from my head to the editors office. So I have a lot to learn still about how to write some of the things we publish here, and I’ve written a little bits, so I’ve written some catalog entries. I’ve written some guides for brochures. But I haven’t written an exhibition catalog essay yet. So things like that I’m looking forward to learning to do. And once I can do that, then I would say yes, I’m a successful workplace writer! I think in general, my emails tend to be clear for colleagues, they tend to be friendly. And so in my own capacity, I’d say, probably fairly successful. I guess more generally, success in the workplace here is, is measured maybe in the results. Are you able to persuade people when you need to? Are you able to dash off an email that’s urgent enough, yet polite enough to get, you know, whatever it is taken care of from straightaway? Can you write a lecture that people are going to stick around for 15 minutes sitting there listening to and really interested? Maybe asking questions at the end? Can you write a guide that you can walk through the museum and see people actually opened up in front of the art reading it? So there are different levels of success. You know, can we write, speaking larger for outside my department, can we write grants that enable us to put on public programs? Can we write advertising copy that draws people in to see what we’ve spent all this time working on for them? So lots of different ways to measure the success, I suppose. 

Yeah, absolutely. Is there anything that I haven’t asked about that you think it’s important for me or any of our other audiences to know about writing in your specific organization and your specific position?

I think a lot of it–well, there’s a lot of specialized skill for writing in the field of art history. I think a lot of it comes down to basic principles of making an argument, supporting it with actual evidence. Because of the nature of the work, sometimes that evidence is maybe visual, or archival or whatever. But being able to write like that, if you can do that, in any field, I think you’ve got a little bit of latitude or chance for success in other fields as well. And I think that’s a very general thing that we have in common with any field is being able to do those things. Writing for this field specifically… I think just be able to write for lots of different audiences. This may be unusual because if you’re working perhaps in a scientific research institute, maybe you’re not writing for the general public all the time. Here we are writing for the general public all the time.

Excellent.

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Program Specialist, Records Management

Government & Military

Would you please state your job title and where you currently work?

Yes. So I am a program specialist in records management and I work for the office of the secretary at the Smithsonian Institution.

And how long has it been since you graduated from undergrad?

I graduated undergrad in May of 2005. So it’s been 13-plus years.

OK, and how long have you worked in your current field?

So I have worked in this field at this job for just over four years. But I did work in the field for two years before that while I was doing a graduate program in archives and records management. I worked at the University of Maryland’s with an academic librarian who worked with government records. I indirectly worked in the field for five years before that when I did research with archival records. But I was not working as a library or information professional in that capacity.

So could you provide a brief description of your primary job functions?

Yes. So I work–basically all the records of the Smithsonian Secretary are maintained for posterity because he is a head of agency of a government agency. So all of his records, anything he signs, essentially anything that has his signature on it becomes an official government record for the Smithsonian. And so that is all organized by me and categorized in different ways in a database and coded and high quality scans are made. And I also keep the hard copy original record, if it’s a printed record and transfer those over to the Smithsonian archives and not go to the National Archives we have our own archives, which is different from other government agencies. So, anything like from gift agreements from donors that will go to different exhibitions for the Smithsonian museums to letter writing campaigns about controversies, of exhibitions of museums, or political controversies–like  recently there was one with members of Congress being upset about Justice Clarence Thomas not having a featured exhibition at the African American Museum, and so a bunch of senators and congressmen wrote letters to the secretary complaining about it, and said things like from a controversy–are highlighted in the collections I handle all of those and then every year I transfer those records to the Smithsonian Archives. And then they are maintained there in a restricted period for 15 years, and then after that 15 year period they are open to the public for research. So that’s an ongoing cycle. 

OK. Yes. And how many museums fall under the Smithsonian? 

There–I should know this number–but there are there, is, like 20 some museums and research centers and the National Zoo and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute all across the country. And there is also the Tropical Research Institute in Panama.

So they are all over the place. But the ones that people mostly they think of are the ones on the National Mall. So there’s a lot of them and as the secretary oversees all of them so all of his records relate to them in some way. And I kind of have a bird’s eye view of everything it’s happening and my main job is basically to organize and maintain the active records.

And once they’re not active any more than they get transferred to the archives.

Perfect. Could you please estimate in an average week what percentage of your job requires writing?

So, I would say if we’re including emailing, then probably 40 percent of my job would maybe include writing in some capacity and mostly just communicating with my colleagues about different correspondence that’s going out from the secretary’s office. Because I also handle parts of that, and also I do writing like descriptive writing in the database to describe what the records are that I’m–that I’m scanning and putting in there. And then the more–the more descriptive I am the easier it is for me or for somebody in my position in future to locate those records, so I try to be as descriptive as I can to explain what’s in the records.

5:07

That’s great. That leads into my next question which is about–yeah, what are the sort of kinds or types of documents you create? So, let’s start with those descriptions because that seems really interesting. So what do those descriptions look like and how do they–in what form do they like accompany these records?

Sure. So we use a database that’s like–we have to–that’s run through a vendor and basically it has fields where you can attach records, so I will create a high quality scan of whatever record. If it’s a paper record and if it’s an event like a born-digital record then I’ll just save it as a– like as a PDF file and then I’ll try to–I’ll put like the date which is very important for how you will search the reference later on. And the basic like summary of what the record is like. It’s sort of generic, but like, like keywords that if it’s about a specific person or say it’s about like a certain senator, I’ll make sure to like put their title in or who else was copied on it. And then another–the main way that I search these records is by the codes that we use for them, which are sort of like tags–like a tag that you would see on a website or blog or something like that. And those go according to the file plan that I use.

Tell me about what that is. 

Sure. So essentially the file plan is just like what it sounds. It’s because the institution is so large, the best way to organize the records is to have like categories that are like umbrella categories that they fall under. So for example, the office of the secretary there are a number of different–like there’s like so there’s like the office of a secretary and then like a few different categories that fall beneath that. And then there are like the Office of General Counsel and the Office of advancement. And then there’s a number of donor organizations that fall underneath that within the Smithsonian like our office of planned giving, like our annual campaign office. And those all fall under like one number code and then the description for it. So if it’s for the campaign it would be 29-campaign. And if I were to look for records from the campaign in 2014 from December, because that sometimes happens, because I’m the records manager sometimes people will say, I’m looking for a letter from this donor. It’s around this period of time, and it’s relating to this. Can you find that in the database? And so then I’ll use those parameters and search by–that’s one way that I would search by the various codes that we associated with it and then you know that the database will just query render the parameters are, and that helps me locate– 

Can you search descriptions too?

You can, can. And also you know the–most databases now–it does it can search by–it can search for documents as well, looking at the text. 

OK.

 So if you are looking for something written about Clarence Thomas, for example, as we used before, I could–I could search for Justice Thomas or just Thomas, and then with that keyword search like I could narrow it down by whatever code. So I could use the code for the National Museum of African-American of History Culture. Or I could use the code for Congress because congressional members were writing about it and if I really want to narrow it down, I can use all the codes I think I might have used. And then it will probably just return one or two records ideally. And ideally one of them is the one that I’m looking for.

9:13

So when you’re writing those descriptions I can see how they’re useful for you.

Are there outside or other audiences as well that you’re writing them for? 

I’m also writing them for the Smithsonian Institution Archives staff that will eventually take over the database. Or not take over–gain access to it because their–like their electronic records archivist will is the one who will be sorting through those records. She doesn’t have access to it right now as far as I know but I think that that’s just because it just hasn’t gotten to that stage.

Sorry to interrupt, to clarify she is the Smithsonian archivist, meaning each Museum has an individual archive. You have the president’s archive and all that eventually goes to her?

10:09

Yes, she is an electronic record archivist for the Smithsonian Institution Archives. And then there were also like archivists for the paper records,  so she will deal with all of the electronic records at least for our office. I’m not sure how many of the other museums she does. They probably have more than one of her. So she’ll be dealing with all of the–like the database. And like all of the metadata that goes along with that and technically what I’m writing in the database, what I’m creating is called the script of metadata and then there’s also a technical metadata that’s behind the scenes. And she’ll be able to catch all that. And that will help her, like you know figure out not just when I created the record, but like– sometimes I can transfer them for example from Microsoft Outlook directly into the database. And like the technical metadata for that was show her like when it was created and sent over from Outlook and left when the actual record was created within outlook soit helps with [indecipherable]…to tell you when something was created. Yeah.

That’s great. Ok, that makes a lot of sense. So that’s one form of writing, these descriptions that accompany these records, and we talked a little about e-mails. Are there other types of documents or forms of writing that you do?

I’m trying to think, honestly, it’s mostly e-mail and it’s like–and it’s most corresponding with other units at the Smithsonian. So I don’t know–I don’t know how useful this is, but one part of my job is–to go back to our example of senators writing about this controversy–perceived controversy at the museum. So when those letters come in then part of my job is to like assign them, like farm them out to the appropriate unit or museum and staffer to respond on behalf of the secretary. So in that case I would send it to our office of government relations and or would copy the press or the director and the director’s assistant of the museum. So in this case it would be that the director of NAAHCM, which is the African-American history and culture museum, and I would tell them the Secretary received this. And we need to respond on his behalf. And then copy me so that I have a copy of it and then that becomes part of the record that holds–the record as it closed out then once we received that response. And then that all becomes part of the secretary’s records that I handle. So that’s a big part of the job. It’s getting people is writing e-mails to other people and then getting them to respond on his behalf.

Do you–is it as straightforward as that or? You don’t give any–you’re not advising them about a response. You’re just asking to respond on his behalf generally?

13:15
Not unless my supervisor, who was the chief of staff, directs me to do so in a more specific way. But generally because they are the ones–they’re the experts in whatever the direction of the response should be or whatever talking points there are for whatever the issue is and they’ll be the ones to do it.

And does every correspondence that comes to the secretary receive a response?

Most of them do. Yeah even ones from–that that it depends on the secretary, I guess. When I started, there were a number of things that would come in that wouldn’t receive a response maybe because it was something that wasn’t that important or it was like a personal request. Sometimes people–I mean people submit all sorts of requests. But like them as people always submit requests for like a secretary signature or something. And I think that when I started, like those are things that my then-boss would maybe not transfer to him because she didn’t think it was like, as important a use of his time. And my current boss, the chief of staff, now does show all those to Secretary and suggests that he respond to those. And so he often does. So that can create more work.

Could you–and you kind of did this for descriptions–but maybe a little bit more detail. And walk me through the process for that type of project. Maybe just like a sort of random example of a description for a document you may be writing that metadata for.

Sure. 

Including sort of how–everything in the process from beginning to closing out? 

Sure. So I don’t know how useful this will be because it’s not like I’m–it’s not like a document writing sort of like where there’s like an introduction.

That’s OK. No it’s its own unique form.

So it’s basically just, literally within the database it’s like with any database where there’s a field–different like fields–and so for the comments field for the document to describe what it is, then I’ll write the date that the document is dated and who it’s from if there’s any–like CCs on it. All write who that is. And if the letter–if the document is from multiple people then there’s like a special way that I can like create–sort of like a document that attaches multiple names to it, so that if I search it by any one of them it will always be of that that relevant document for it. And if it’s referring to an issue that was a previous–that was something that was previously important, then I’ll write a note to refer to X number. And so each document has its own [indecipherable] number too. And so that’s something I’ll write in the upper right hand corner, and then internally we’ll refer to it that way. Like my boss might sa,  can you send me the response to document 3 12 0 1 3 2 and then that’s a quick way I can query it in the database and then I’ll put it up that way. So I’ll try to make that that document like description field as descriptive as I can. And again like–this this is a way that codes that I use or the tags that I use are really helpful, and I try to use as many as I can and I’m actually now when I have downtime that work, in between projects, I have been going through the records that predate my time because they were not descriptive and my predecessor just didn’t put as much time into that. And so I’m adding a lot more codes and a lot more information so that when I go back I have a record like a reference request from somebody and they ask me for records, like this has happened a number of times where I’ll get an email from somebody at one of the other museums or in a different unit and they’ll say, you know we’re looking for, for like a legal issue, we’re looking for records relating to this, this building a lease that happened in 1998. And it’s like during this time and when I try to query that, look for information on it because my predecessor did not have any descriptive information and sometimes didn’t even use any codes for it it’s–I, I just have to hope that that you were like the document keyword search will actually work, or that they used to hide all the scans like the OCR will translate and it will query it for my search. Anyway, so that’s what I’m doing now is going back and I’m adding descriptive information to documents that weren’t there before I came.

Right. Can you talk about what makes and what makes a good document description?

18:32

Sure. So again and because–because I am lucky that the OCR scan is a thing, I always know that that will catch it if I don’t have something else. But I try to just like, if it’s a memo, for example, like we get memos from the White House like every government agency does, that will say what what it’s about and if it’s relating to some law or public–other public record or something like that then office then I’ll just write date, and the date is very important especially for researchers and for people who are asking looking for specific documents within the institution, again, if they send me a records request. They say, I’m looking for documents from the specific date period. That’s really important to have the date there.

Yeah. What else…If it’s about–oh if it’s like a specific type of document, like if it’s a gift agreement or a deed or like an MOU–Memorandum of Understanding between the Smithsonian other institutions. Like sometimes that will happen where you’ll have an MOU with like a university where they make basically an agreement to have some kind of a research agreement. And that’s like– within like one of the museums or something like that like within the Natural History Museum like will pair with like George Mason University or something like that and like their biology department to work on some collection for X number of years or something like that. Those are specific agreements that I keep quite separate.

Yeah. That’s right. Thank you. That’s really helpful.

How did you know how to perform these types of writing? Everything from the e-mails that you’re sending out to request responses to you?

Sure. So the emails are more, like, the learn on the job type thing how people respond to requests that you make of them when you’re asking them to do work for you, which is like something that I really haven’t had to do other jobs before because you’re having to write to people that you’ve never met who work in museums all around the country and kind of use the fact that I work for the secretariat as like the snoot you do for me even if you don’t want to because I work as a secretary as, like, this is something that you have to do for me, even if you don’t want to. And if they don’t respond, which happens a lot, then I have to like send follow up e-mails that basically say that some of them actually, and then I like have to loop my boss into it, which is uncomfortable. So that’s like sort of a persuasive writing I guess in a different way maybe than I learned in college. Because it does–it feels sort of more off the cuff, and trying to read that person and how they respond. You know some people just respond to like a specific request like, this happened and I needed to do this, and please just like send me the result and do it as possible. And other people I’ve learned from back and forth you know interactions with them don’t respond well to that, and they see that some kind of like a challenge up of their like, their title or something. And so then I have to kind of play sort of dumb and pretend like, [pleading voice] I know this is a real bother, but can you please, please do this and it’s like a hassle, but like we just need it done and like once it’s done I’ll close it out and it will be over with and you won’t have to deal with it anymore. And that’s sort of a strange way to interact with people. But that’s that’s kind of how the job works.

That’s really interesting. 

I mean I kind of think that maybe any job works that way. 

Yeah, sure.

It feels a little bit different just because I work in the secretary’s office. And so people kind of think, I think that we have some kind of pull that I actually don’t feel like I do have because that’s not me not my experience with the responses. It’s my least favorite part of my job, I’ll say that.

Okay yeah that’s interesting. Can you describe a time in your career that you felt unprepared as a writer at work?

Yes. Not in my current job, it that okay? 

Of course.

My former job I worked as sort of a public historian and mostly did archival research. We’re writing to–current litigation between Department of Justice and American Indian tribes, and I really enjoyed the research, but the writing– sometimes I was assigned writing projects for that–which would become parts of these big reports that would go to our government client that would use them in litigation. And even though I had done a master’s degree in history and done a lot of writing in graduate school to prepare me for that kind of thing, but because it was writing for the government it was very different than ready for academia. And so I found that like they wanted us to write very straightforward and not use flowery language at all or like, also not insert any kind of bias or argument, which is interesting because it’s something I felt like was stressed a lot and learning how to write at least in college, is like you have to like have an argument. And that’s not really how it is with this. It’s like you’re trying to be as objective as possible so that, you know, so that they can’t be accused of presenting bias in the courtroom or whatever. So you just literally will say things that are not probably considered good writing because you’ll say things you know, the document cites this and has a lot of quotations and like a lot more quotations and paraphrasing I think because you are using a lot of footnotes to actually show what the document says so that you can see that you’re not inserting–inserting your own opinion or bias of a document or an event that happened in history that like it specifically says this or this government officials specifically said this thing. So I feel like I use way more quotations in that kind of writing than I ever would have when I was writing for–in grad school or writing in academia because it was so much more about just presenting facts and not presenting any kind of spin–anything that could be interpreted as spin. And I didn’t– I guess I didn’t feel as prepared for that kind of writing.

And were there certain strategies or things that you did to adapt to that?

Yes. I mean I don’t know how useful this is–it was learning by example, reading through other reports that had been written by our organization for, in this case, it would be other reports that were written about other Indian tribes that we’ve already produced for the client, who were the government clients. So reading examples that were written by other historians at our company and like kind of getting a feel for the sort of boring way it was written, that wasn’t like very interesting to read about. But that’s not what the attorneys–our clients were attorneys–and they were looking for information, and unbiased information present in court.

And so we had to learn to write that. So it’s kind of just by reading other historians’ work before me and like, OK this is how–this is the sort of writing that we do. We’re not–and make sure that we are not saying anything that can be interpreted in any, in any way.

So you are looking really closely at the language that they use to make sure it wasn’t biased, to mimic that?

Yeah. And you know and sometimes I would get–I would get my drafts back from the editors and they would mark things off and say, look no, you can’t–you can’t say this, like you can’t argue an opinion or something. You have to change this. So it was a sort of a constant thing to remind yourself. Right, I have to just present the facts. I’m just saying what I see here. And sometimes that leads you to make a–to make an assumption about something based on all the facts are presented. But you still have to try to present it–which I feel like probably is something the journalists have to do too–like, if everything is pointing one way, especially in this political climate, I think they still have to just say, like these are the things that happened and think what you will of it, so that they are not considered spinning something. So, yeah, I feel like I remember in college I remember taking writing classes or even in grad school when I was writing about historical events and stuff you know you’re supposed to have an argument, you’re supposed to defend it. And that’s not what this kind of writing was, which is interesting. It’s kind of different from everything that we talked about.

Yeah, yeah. That’s really interesting. So, going back to your current job does anyone ever see your writing?

27:47

No. I’m not doing, like I’m not presenting like, finished pieces or like reports or anything like that. So no.

Okay. Yeah how long do you typically have to complete a writing project? Maybe you could talk about time for it to go email asking someone to do this task for the secretary and a description for the database.

So for each of those things? 

Yeah.

Sure, if it’s–sometimes it’s a complicated issue. So to use the example we used before the first time I got a letter we got a letter from someone in Congress with this complaint about Justice Thomas and the exhibit at the African-American History Museum, I wasn’t aware of what the issue was so then I had to do a little bit of research and then they referenced like a Washington Post article and things of that I work with them and I read that for a while and then had a kind of like do some background research so that I could craft the e-mail to our government relations people and the museum people and actually explain, this is what happened, we just got this letter apparently this story came out on this date, and it says these things and I link to it. And can you please respond accordingly. I would say–I mean, the actual writing of the email would only take five minutes.But the background research takes much longer, just to make sure that I’m wording it…that’s useful.

And you’re also, I’m realizing as you’re talking, like you don’t know what context they have

and so you’re trying to provide as much context as you can? 

And also make sure that like it doesn’t come off as, I don’t know if you are aware of this important thing that’s happening but like–because they probably do know about it in some way. So then I try to word it in a way that–again, it’s kind of similar, presenting facts and like not saying I’m not saying that you know about this or not but like this is this is what’s happening and now we have to issue a response because this happened–the Secretary received the letter and once that happens and like everybody has to get involved. So yeah. And then with the database stuff, it depends on if there’s late related records like in the case where I said and a reference number or reference document number blah blah blah dated blah, like an example that happened this last week,we got a very generous grant to open a new exhibition. It’s called the Smithsonian Molina Latino Gallery, which will be like a temporary museum exhibition about Latino history at the American History Museum, which will be really cool. So five different donors decided to donate a certain portion of money to make up this total money for a gift, that’s a lot of money, that will fund the exhibition. And so each of them had different gift agreement, and they all came in different times. So the first one came in in June. The last one came in this past week. And so for each of those I look back in the database, look at the descriptive information I have for the first agreement, and then I reference each one, reference also a number of other four agreements and then I went to each one to that so that each document record in the database has all the relevant information. And so–and it also explains how many gift agreements there are so that somebody looking in 10 years will have no idea that that that gift was only one of the five gifts, and the other people who would have given those gifts. Now that’s something that my predecessor didn’t do at all. And I think I would have done it anyway even if she had done it. But I definitely realize now that I’ve been there for a long time and wished that she had done more things like that and I’ve gone back and been very frustrated to have a hard time finding records that other people ask me to look for because she didn’t provide enough descriptive information. So now I try to provide as much as I can. So I would say that probably takes–that that actually took a long time for, for each record to do that with the five. I would say the whole process probably took like 30 minutes of like referencing back and forth, adding the descriptive information to each one. 

33:37

Right. OK that’s perfect. 

Sorry, I don’t know if that’s too specific. 

Nothing is too specific. 

Okay.

So you talked a little bit about this in thinking about argument and thinking about the kinds of writing you did as a historical researcher. But what kinds of writing do you generally remember being asked do as a student, and in what ways and did they contribute to your preparedness or lack of it in your current work?

Sure. So–I’m, from undergrad and writing classes, I remember you know being asked to– like we read different books or like articles and then we were asked to, you know, make an argument based off of them–why we felt whatever way about the message of the story or the message of the book or the way it was presented by the author. And in grad school I don’t know. I feel like that was useful to me to like learn how to be persuasive. Try to learn to be persuasive. And in grad school because I was studying history, I feel like there was more–less emphasis on the persuasive and more on presenting trying to present historical information

that was new and interesting. Like why it should–why it was important because it hadn’t been presented before. Or I had a different idea about the way–about historical facts and I was like trying to present them in a different way. But honestly I think that that’s, that’s mostly because it’s the way that academic programs are structured, and you’re supposed to come up with the new ideas that haven’t been presented before. So I don’t know how natural writing that is. I don’t know that it was for me. And I found it difficult to do that–I have to constantly keep reminding myself, I’m not just presenting facts, I have to, like, I have to present an argument about all of these historical records I’m looking or, you know, monographs by other historians. Because it was what I wanted to do was just present the facts that were there like in the historical records and I did find it frustrating that you have to make an argument about them. And I really just wanted to present–like, this is a really interesting thing that happened and I think that it would be useful for people to know about it. But the way that academia is set up is that you have to have an argument you are making, which I found frustrating. And now in my current job and even in my job before I guess I’m an example of where learning to write and defend an argument wasn’t actually useful because like I had to un-learn when I was writing from my former job, writing reports for it to be used in litigation. So I kind of had to un-learn that behavior, which is really interesting. I hadn’t considered that until right now.

What would have bene useful for you to learn as a student as you think about writing in your career up to this point?

It’s tough because I see why those skills are useful for other fields.Maybe and, I guess I am… sort of an anomaly. And maybe it will be difficult for people like again journalism or something, where people are presenting facts and not like not trying to be persuasive. I guess maybe the one thing that will be useful would be to have a writing class, kind of like discuss those different ways of writing but like there’s this way that we learn how to write and be persuasive and like have, you know, an argument and then spend the bulk of your essay or whatever explaining that argument. And like presenting your–like, making your case and then closing out and saying these are always reasons errors are the reasons why I believe this thing and why it should be changed or whatever. I think it may be useful to have a unit for something in a writing course that would say, you know, in some fields like journalism or, you know, you are–the way that you write is, what’s important is that you’re presenting facts and not presenting an argument or not presenting what could be perceived as spin.

And here are some examples of how that’s not worked out well where maybe, you could show how like a journalist who is not technically a pundit has been accused of being a pundit because they presented an argument about something and didn’t just present the facts. And then you could alternatively compare it with the rest of the way that you’re learning to write in those classes. Like, these are fields where it is really useful to more persuasive writing and like close out your argument.

This made perfect sense. And it leads me to a question. This might be me making a leap, but do you think that this idea of sort of this really concerted effort to write without bias–

I know it didn’t because the government was your client in the past and it was used for litigation. And I assume it is a similar situation in your descriptive writing now that you are are–or any kind of writing you do now in your job now that you’re probably trying to hold back any opinion. Is that a fair statement?

Yeah, that’s true yeah. And because I do work for the government, especially in this environment–this political environment now, and this is a specific example, but in the last few months there was a journalist whose e-mails were hacked and were published basically in the news. And there’s also been lots of government officials in the last few years whose e-mails and text messages have been hacked and have been published. So just in the last year I have noticed that colleagues have mentioned not wanting to put certain things in writing in emails, and so they’ll just come to your office and talk to you instead to avoid having something that we’re writing about perceived as being anti- whatever topic or whatever author who wrote something or said something. So much so that like when I’ve been corresponding with somebody about issuing a response to some letter that the Secretary received about something and then they would just call me instead and say we should we should talk about this on the phone instead of having an e-mail record about it that could be FOIA’d by somebody.

And can you clarify what that term means?

Sure, FOIA is the Freedom of Information Act, which government employees are subject to. So somebody who was interested in reading about the Justice Thomas issue at the African-American History Museum, they could submit a FOIA request to look at all records that discussed that issue in employee–in like government records and they could also FOIA the e-mails of government employees which would mean that any thing that we talked about even if it was to say something like, you know, like, Wow, this is wild. We’ve gotten three of these in the last few days, or something like that, that could potentially be perceived as saying that we disagreed with the premise of the argument or issue

that is being… Yeah yeah.

So, so this writing in the government like has this very specific constraint. It seems like that you’re especially aware because of the FOIA?

Yeah. 

Okay yeah. 

And that’s not something that I’m worried about my database, like the descriptive metadata that I use for the database because that, to my knowledge, that’s not something that could be FOIA’d because they’re not technically–well I don’t know they think it at the records.

They could look, they could point out the records themselves, which are just be the scans, but I don’t think that they would have access to my database. Anyway, that language I don’t censor. Censor’s not the right word. I don’t have the same constraints. I’m trying to add as much descriptive information as I can, sort of in a way that you would use keywords. Like I can literally do a keyword search of the database. And so if I know–like I said, I could search myself, Justice Clarence Thomas or just Justice Thomas or whatever with a date range for parameters and search it that way. And so the more information I put in the more likely I am to get that as a hit.

This is sort of a broad question and we’re kind of in some ways like talking around it to some extent, but what would you say is at stake in your writing?

So I think what’s at stake if I don’t do a good enough job being descriptive I guess is as far as the database goes in that kind of writing the descriptive metadata is not being able to locate records in a records request. So somebody from another unit could ask me for specific records relating to something in a specific time period, and if there’s not, if I or my predecessor didn’t have enough descriptive information in that record then the database will not find it. And if they didn’t. Sometimes they don’t have a scan for it. It will just reference–especially the old ones when the database got first got started in the mid 90s–they’ll just reference a date. And like that it’s a memo, and like initials for somebody who worked there at the time and no scan and no code and so all I know from that is that if I go to the Smithsonian archives and I request to look at records from 1994 that I could search for those records and I could find something with that date and that I can figure out what it is but I have no idea. So that’s a useless record basically–a useless database record that isn’t helpful at all. So the–what’s at stake I guess this is just, losing that information without–if you don’t have the time to just go and spend hours digging through archival records that have been in storage forever. And that haven’t been described or organized basically. So that’s why I try to be as descriptive as I can and add as much information as I can in both the actual writing with the language I’m using in the descriptive fields and then also in the codes that I select, like the tags I’m using.

What is the most difficult thing about writing in your job?

I think–I don’t. I don’t know how useful it is.

I think honestly it’s navigating ego within the different departments or units that I’m having to send up work to.

So because I work with the secretary, he oversees, he’s the head of the agency, so he oversees all of these different museum directors and like unit directors and people who are very high up.  And they weren’t part of an institution–under an institutional umbrella like the Smithsonian–they would be the top person. So if I have to send something to them then sometimes there’s this sort of strange–because I’m–they’re way above my pay grade and I’m sending them work and telling them that they have to do it and that’s a sort of–I talked about that a little bit before, but it’s this sort of awkward thing. I generally try, if I can, just to send it to their assistants who will then forward it to them and then tell them what they have to do to respond to our request. Occasionally my boss will specifically tell me to send it to the museum director themselves and then sometimes they don’t respond. I’ll have to send another e-mail to them making sure that they understand that the secretary wants them to respond on his behalf. And that’s not an option, sort of? But navigating that–trying to choose language that–makes them feel still important. They don’t feel what someone’s telling them how do their job. Yeah. It’s just that sort of, it’s sort of uncomfortable and difficult. It’s something I don’t enjoy at all. I would very happily just work with records all day. Yeah.

Has anyone helped you at work with your writing formally or informally?

No. No. Because I–my work is very, for the most part I am very autonomous and I’m very independent in what I do, and so–because I don’t have anyone supervising the database I basically control that because I’m the one who is–I’m both the creator and like the end user. Yeah. So I’m basically writing for myself and also for people who are the future versions of me.

And because the rest of it is really just emails then it’s just [indecipherable]

49:03

How do you believe you’ve evolved or improved as a writer over the course of your career?

I think it has been a useful skill for me to learn how to just present facts, so that like a reader can draw their own conclusions, depending on what the issue is. Yeah, so, in that way I feel like the kind of writing that earned an undergrad like the essay–that has not been as useful to me as the type of writing I learned after, like on the job, which is probably not what you want to hear, I guess [laughing]

No, it’s really interesting. It’s really interesting. We want to hear it all. I have just a couple more questions. The first is to what extent do you think writing is valued in the organization in the agency?

Overall?

Overall.

Yeah yeah it’s valued immensely. So the Smithsonian is a research organization and a lot of people who work who work there are contributing to scholarship. I mean there are museum curators and there are collections people that just deal with objects and artifacts, but a lot of people like the curators are there doing research. They’re presented to conferences. They’re writing about the objects that they have under the care, and, and really giving a context for why–how they tell the history of something and why they’re are useful for a museum and to give the public an idea about why it’s important to see dinosaur bones from 30 million years ago, or or why it’s important to see now the first telegraph or that was administered in the U.S. or whatever. And also what the science organizations–there’s a lot of science museums and departments within the Smithsonian obviously, so writing is really important. So there’s lots of scholarship and a lot of writing, also like collaboration with, between the Smithsonian other institutions and organizations and other museums. And there’s a lot of writing that goes into that as well. So my specific job is much more related to documentation.

But there’s a lot of writing that goes on everywhere in the institution.

How would you define successful writing as a student versus successful writing now, and would you say that you are a successful workplace writer?

I feel sort of like a broken record. As a student I think that I would have defined successful writing as being able to present an argument and defend it. Like, present my case and defend well. And in the workplace, I feel for my specific job –it’s more from my previous job–it was more learning how to analyze information and synthesize it in a way that was useful to them and to the reader and not, not in a way that was trying to persuade them of anything.

And in my current job, I do think I’m a successful workplace writer because I think that I’m able to communicate well with my colleagues. And, again, because I’m not producing like a finished product or something I don’t have that part to contribute to.

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