A Classicist Goes to Work in Silicon Valley

A humanities Ph.D. can provide you with precisely the opposite of what people think—skills that are useful outside academe

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

May 12, 2014

After 20 years of teaching courses in ancient Greek, Latin, and the humanities, I’ve become a tech worker in Silicon Valley.

I loved my job as a professor at a small private university in New Jersey. I had planned on spending my entire career trumpeting the merits of studying "dead" languages, teaching all the classes required for majors and minors in classics, and helping students apply for graduate school. Academe seemed to suit my personal life as well: My severely autistic son, Charlie, needs constant care, so the security of tenure—"guaranteed lifetime employment"—at least offered financial peace of mind.

When I sent in my resignation in early April, I wasn’t just letting go of that lifetime job security. I was leaving behind a classics program I had spent nine years building. My students joked that "Dr. Chew is the classics department" as I taught everything from elementary language courses to history to archaeology to law to mythology. I advised any student who showed a whiff of interest in classics, saw students go on to become Latin teachers, and led groups of undergraduates around Greece three times.

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I came to thrive on the job, even though it was not the research-oriented position that a doctorate in classics usually prepares graduate students for. There was always something more to do—editing a student’s personal statement for a graduate-school application, making a lesson about the Greek middle voice more engaging, or reading a bit more of a new study about Sappho. It was a job that is becoming a rara avis at a time when our higher-education system is under critique about the accessibility and affordability of a college degree, when roughly half of the faculty at U.S. colleges are part-time instructors, and when we hear of graduate students on food stamps and professors living in their cars.

I knew I was lucky to have a tenured full-time position in the humanities, and all the more so given the realities of caring for my son Charlie, who has intellectual disabilities and a history of extreme behavior problems. Balancing an academic career and child rearing always bring challenges. Raising a child like Charlie makes life quite a bit more interesting. Being able to arrange when I taught and worked in my office meant I could attend to Charlie’s needs. A study has found that mothers of children with autism-spectrum disorders are 5 percent less likely to have jobs than the mothers of children with other chronic health problems, and 12 percent less likely to have jobs than mothers of healthy kids. Having a full-time job underscored that I was hanging onto my academic career.

Still, a tenured faculty position is not automatically the prize it has been held up to be. Tenure comes from the Latin tenere, "to hold." A tenured position is one you can hold onto—but it can hold you in place even when other circumstances impel you to move on.

With Charlie approaching adulthood and my parents aging, I had been feeling the pull to return to the Bay Area, which I had left 27 years ago to go to college on the East Coast. After Charlie, anxiety-ridden about my father having cancer, yet again damaged a neighbor’s car, we decided the time was right for a move. I packed up my office, knowing that if Charlie adjusted well to California, it was unlikely we would return to the East Coast. At Christmas, we drove to Newark Liberty airport for a one-way flight to San Francisco.

After an expectedly bumpy start, Charlie has been thriving in the Bay Area and in a new school utterly different from his old one. In January, my husband, Jim Fisher, a professor in New York City, started a sabbatical. He’s writing a new book and advising his graduate students courtesy of email, Skype, and cellphone (he’ll be taking an unpaid family leave next year).

And I, after taking a semester of unpaid family leave from my university, began a new job that arose directly from caring for my son. Advocating for Charlie had led to me start blogging in June 2005. My chronicles of our "journey on the long road of autismland" turned into me being asked to write about autism for one website, and then another, and ultimately, led to a job offer for a full-time position in Silicon Valley. On my daily commute amid a crowd of tech workers, I’ve been reflecting on what a friend called "the most creative career change ever," my metamorphosis from a Jesuit-university classicist to an online advocacy manager at Care2, a social-action web network.

It turns out a humanities Ph.D. can provide you with precisely the opposite of what people think—skills that are applicable and even useful outside the academy. Graduate training provides one with well-honed research and analytical skills as well as the steadfastness to soldier on with a project in which progress comes slowly and with little immediate gratification. A Ph.D. in literature and languages means you have been trained to read with your mind alert to the play of words and the semiotic power of images. Training in classical philology means that you know you have to assess everything for trustworthiness, whether you’re reading a newly discovered Greek poem or the latest gossip on Gawker.

At my new office, I help Care2’s partners and members advocate for progressive causes—such as environmental issues and human rights—through online petitions, social media, and blogging. As a member of Care2’s acquisitions and retentions team, I’ve found that what I’ve learned from years in the classroom—the importance of being a dynamic, upbeat presence; of sharing the joy and delight I feel on reading a challenging passage of Greek and understanding how a language can say so much in so few words; of turning an empathetic ear to every student’s story—has proved invaluable in my work introducing new users to the Care2 website and keeping them engaged.

I’ve traded in my classroom on a hectic Jersey City street for an open-plan office beside a man-made lagoon. I have a database of literature, languages, and learning stowed in my head after three decades of writing and seeking to cultivate students’ engagement and teach them to be critical thinkers. Classics still infuses everything I do. Heated debates about "long form" versus those as concise as a 140-character Tweet were going on even in the Hellenistic Age. As the poet and librarian Callimachus wrote in the prologue to the Aetiamega biblion, mega kakon, or "big book, big evil."

A compelling personal story is as powerful a tool in a marketing campaign as it was for Homer’s Odysseus, seeking to escape from the Cyclops.

To craft a subject line for an email that will be sent to many users, I keep in mind the compact artistry of Simonides’ epigrams (like the one to the Spartans who died at Thermopylae) and the openings of Homer’s epics, which quickly engage the audience and efficiently communicate what is to follow.

In Book 1.174-6 of Virgil’s Aeneid, once the Trojans have landed on the shores of Latium having survived a terrible storm (and much else) after fleeing Troy, Aeneas’ faithful friend, Achates, is able to start a fire with a few shards of flint that have been painstakingly stowed away. The Latin word for flint, silex, is the root of a word we’ve become quite familiar with, silicon. It is only fitting, I suppose, that it’s now in Silicon Valley that I find myself waiting for the Caltrain, the laptop in my bag cushioned by a book of Greek lyric poetry.

Kristina Chew taught classics and humanities for 20 years, most recently as an associate professor of classics at Saint Peter’s University. She received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Yale University and is now online advocacy and marketing manager at Care2. Her translation of Virgil’s Georgics was published in 2002; her writing has appeared in academic journals and in The Guardian.