Jan Bultmann, “Discernment: Advice from a Hiring Manager to Humanities Students and Their Teachers”

Jan Bultmann is a technical editor and social media strategist based in Seattle. This is the text of a talk she gave at the colloquium on Creative Labor and the Humanities at Florida State University, March 22, 2013.

I’m not an academic. I’m not here to deliver a research paper. And I’m not here to deliver a theoretical analysis. But I want you to listen, and so before I go any further, I’m going to try to toss a rope to you, to help bridge the abyss between us.

I’ve been a hiring manager in the “Creative Economy” off and on for the past 15 years. I want to tell you this one, small, single true thing, which you might not have heard for awhile, or might not have heard ever. I want you to know that when I look at resumes, I look for degrees in English, Philosophy, History, and Comparative Literature.

I’m going to tell you why, but first I want to tell you why you should pay any attention to me.

I am a grizzled veteran of the “Creative Economy.”

I’m not exactly sure what you all mean when you talk about the “Creative Economy,” but I’m talking about the fields that have been lumped under that term by authors like Howkins and Florida. The specific creative fields I’ve worked in include advertising, design, film, publishing, and software.

I have worked as a writer all my life. I still call myself a writer, although as I will discuss later, the term has largely been replaced by “content producer,” or other, stranger and more obfuscatory titles. My titles over the years have included the following: information architect, copy writer, developmental editor, grant writer, managing editor, instructional designer, content developer, social media strategist, technical editor, webmaster, legislative aide, and “the talent.” I’ve worked for Fortune 500 companies, tech start-ups, non-profits, funky little web production/content hybrid shops, municipal governments, and as the owner of my own business in the “content creation” industry. I feel that I can speak with some experience about the threshing machine that is the creative economy, and even with a bit of heartfelt passion.

I want to talk about several things. First, I want to describe my lived experience in the creative economy. From that experience, I’ll share a few things I’ve learned about the quality that I think is most needed to survive in the knowledge-based workforce: Discernment. I’ll start off easy, with a few quick tips for you to consider passing along to your students, to help them find work. Because that’s the point of all this, really, isn’t it? What happens to your life if you go into the world with an undergraduate English degree and try to find work? Then I’ll talk a little about the layers of discernment your students need to cultivate.

As part of talking about my experience, I want to talk about the strange formulation of “content” as a product of human labor, and give you an idea of what your students will run into when they step into advertising, or marketing, or technical writing, or creating film and video scripts.

And finally, I want to talk about how “Art saves Lives.” That’s a joke in the office where I work as a public servant in the city of Seattle. At municipal level government, exhausted economists struggle to find funding for programs to feed the hungry and shelter the poor. They look at programs that dedicate 1% of city contracts to the creation of public art and they say, “Art saves lives,” and roll their eyes. But I want to talk about the reality of that. Not so much about how art saves lives, as how art saves minds.

Firsthand Account: Life in the Creative Economy

My first job after getting my BA was an unpaid internship at Seal Press. Some of you may know it – it’s a Seattle-based publishing house that focuses on feminist titles. My first assignment was to write a press release for “Hard-Hatted Women, Stories of Women in the Trades.” I was given a template and a copy of the book. I wrote, my boss rewrote, and from that point on, I considered myself to have expertise in how to write press releases.

The intern experience was enough to get me hired as a copy editor at a technical quarterly for Macintosh developers. Actually, I had met the editor in a Shakespeare class – true story – and he invited me to apply. I worked about 30 hours a week as a contractor, paying my own taxes, skipping health care, and certainly not saving anything, until the magazine folded about a year and a half later. (Not my fault.)

There were some funny experiences at that quarterly magazine. Those were the 80s. For example, the editor and I decided that we wanted to start using “she” as our generic pronoun when referring to software developers, as a statement about how few women were in the computing field. The outcries of rage from our readers were so loud that my editor was given a choice of changing back to he, or leaving. He left.

I decided to see if I could pay my rent by working as a freelance writer. I told myself I would write anything for anyone; that any writing I did would amount to steps on the way to my unspecified future brilliant artistic career. I pounded the sidewalks, visiting anyone who put words into print with my clips and a few story ideas. I wrote gift guides for bridal parties. I wrote about the introduction of supra-titles at the Seattle Opera and how they hoped to bring in a younger audience. I wrote articles for dailies, weeklies, monthlies, quarterlies; I wrote grants for non-profits, reports and marketing materials and advertising copy for small businesses.

And I made about a $1000 a month. And I was taxed $300 on that. I couldn’t live on it.

Accepting that I needed health insurance and a predictable budget, I got myself hired at a company that published local newspapers for parents. We put out 58 print publications a year, including four monthly magazines for parents and untold numbers of advertising supplements (“Now your child can learn French in the womb!”). I was given an AP style guide and a computer running early desktop publishing software. I was the sole editor and production artist, and sometimes when I was driving the boards down to the print shop, I was still sticking down little pieces of type on the ads in the car. I made $25,000 a year. I was 25. I got in to work at 7 in the morning and I left as late as 11. One of the union guys at the print shop I took our boards to told me I was working at a sweat shop. I had no idea what he meant.

From there, I moved to contracting for a software company, first as a proofreader and then as an editor and technical writer. My income quadrupled, but I worked without benefits. Once again, I paid all my own taxes and, and still young and healthy, I simply went without healthcare for four or five years. Finally, at 30, I landed a fulltime job as a technical writer for a privately held software company. When I started, there were 150 employees; five years later, there were 3000 employees. Growth was painful. I ended up managing teams of 25 people: writers, artists, production people for three different products. The environment was what we describe as fluid and fast-paced. I bought a house.

The rest of my employment history has been about paying the mortgage. I didn’t recognize it for the trap it was, but from that point on I had to be working 40+ hours a week, and I had to be in the high-tech sector. I stayed at my small company until they were bought by a Very Large Company, and then I left, only to work as a contractor and vendor for other small companies that were bought by that company or directly served that company as payroll agencies. I repeated the cycle of vendor, contractor, fulltime employee a few times. As a vendor, there was never enough money. As a fulltime employee, there was never enough time. Honestly, I did not recognize my situation as exploitation — I considered my stints as a contractor as breaks from the grind of working evenings and weekends and laboring over performance reviews. When a labor lawsuit ended the era of high-tech “permatemps,” with the intention of curbing worker exploitation, I was irritated and disappointed. The new arrangement, whereby you can only work as a contractor for nine months at a time, hardly struck me as an improvement, especially when people were tacitly encouraged to just spend the mandatory 100 days off on unemployment.

When Twitter started, I got an account, and eventually became a social media expert, simply by staying online and relentlessly babbling about a variety of subjects.

After my last tech-writing contract job ended, I had a chance to check out local government. I ran the social media and online campaign for a candidate for office, and then worked in her office. I work now in another government office, where I do an assortment of things, including communications and social media strategy.

So, it’s been a peripatetic lifestyle. I’ve worked for more organizations than I can count. Some contracts have been two months long, some two years. Financial insecurity has simply been part of the picture, but for years, to me, it seemed preferable to the “golden handcuffs” of the fulltime jobs with their continual demands for ever more productivity and “visibility” (self-promotion). Other years I “took a break” from the insecurity of always looking for the next contract and worked fulltime.

As a contractor, I was asked to estimate how many hours it would take me to write a particular piece. I learned quickly that the contract should specify how many editorial passes the piece would get from the client. It was easy to end up working for 27 cents an hour, if you allowed yourself to give clients all the review passes they wanted.

As a manager, I learned metrics for producing content. Typically, technical content takes about 4 hours a page to write. It can be developmentally and technically edited at about 4 pages an hour, copy-edited at about 10 pages an hour, and proofed at 20 pages an hour.

I mentioned that I managed a team of 25 in the year 2000, and I guess you won’t be too surprised if I tell you how many people were doing the same amount of work for that product 10 years later. Two. Two writers, no artists, no production support, no editors. Two writers who peer-reviewed one another’s work and rushed it out the door. The days of beautiful printed guides were gone – we’ve entered the era of “continuous publishing,” which means you write as much as you can, throw it live on the web, and then frantically write some more. People who rely on written instructions to get through the software are at the mercy of your decision process about which content should go live first. We were then asked to begin recruiting subject matter experts who would write the technical content for free in exchange for having our company link to their web sites. These writers were called “third party content producers.”

I know you all already know that the pressure in the creative economy, like all capitalist economies, is always for efficiency and cost-effectiveness. Doing more with less, working smarter, not harder, getting people to work for free.

As a writer in this environment, you find yourself faced with strange conundrums. If you’re a decent person at all, you feel some commitment and dedication to the poor humans who will be reading your work and attempting to accomplish something with it. And yet you are constantly asked to do more, faster, and cheaper. The advent of the web has only created a huge and hungry beast to feed: Companies know they must be continually updating content in order to rank high in search results, so they’re shoveling words and images out the door as fast as they can. If you’re fortunate enough to be paid to be part of this process, you have to decide whether to let go of the quality of your work or let go of sleep.

Lately, as well, content production is being outsourced. Large swaths of the product documentation I recently worked on were first drafted in India. This content has to be edited here in the US, however, as it still doesn’t quite sound right to American native speakers of English. But it’s good to be aware, I think, that even the creative economy can be outsourced.

In a fluid, fast-paced paced environment like this, there is only one thing that can save you from catastrophic consequences, which can take a number of forms, and that thing, as you might have guessed from the title of this paper, is discernment.

We operate now in a world where information is endlessly available. It is the cheapest, easiest thing to get hold of, whether you’re pulling links off Twitter or searching the Department of Labor and Statistics. Finding words and research and data is not a big problem. But discerning what is useful, and what is real, is a vital skill.

A worker in the creative economy requires several levels of discernment. The first and easiest might simply be described as filtering, that is, distinguishing between the weird echo chambers of crazy that exist on the Internet and the solid gold of credibly sourced content. I’m sure you all saw some of the bizarre photographs that were going around on Facebook and Twitter during Hurricane Sandy. New York City sparkling under an apocalyptic cloud of doom. Waves breaking high around the Statue of Liberty’s shoulders. Some of it was obviously fake, a lot of it wasn’t. And that’s what it’s like now: Rumor flies through social media like Instagram or Tumblr or Pinterest, spread by individuals meaning to help or disrupt or just to say, “WOW, look at this.” Professional content providers – whether news organizations, public information officers, emergency first responders – distribute these ideas, possibly first reporting them as rumor and then slowly sliding into reporting them as reality. Strange stories and improbable facts enter the vast distributed online database of information that writers search when they sit down to start learning.

How can you help your students learn to distinguish between credible content and utter worthless crap? If you can help them with that, you will have done them, and society, an enormous service.

Another level of filtering occurs when it comes to using source materials. I can’t tell you how many press releases and briefings I’ve seen that pull whole paragraphs, unedited, directly from Wikipedia. Don’t get me wrong, I love Wikipedia, but you don’t want to be claiming original research or making public policy based on what it has to say.

What’s the difference between inspiration and plagiarism? Or, perhaps more helpfully, between plagiarism and Fair Use? It’s one thing to photocopy textbooks to save students money when you’re a professor at a public university; it’s another for an employee of a Fortune 500 company, which is a rich, fat, copyright lawsuit target, to copy and paste chunks of text from other people’s web sites and claim it as the company’s Intellectual Property.

A content producer must also be discerning about audience and brand identity. I hope this isn’t too into the weeds for your purposes, but here are a few specifics to give you a sense of what I mean.

Writing for an international audience. At one large software company, up to 60 percent of the readers that we content producers write for now are located in what is charmingly referred to as ROW, or, Rest of World. What we write will be translated into as many as 40 languages and distributed. Writing for translation is called creating content for localization, and it is a separate specialty, very much in demand. So: Help your students get a firm grasp on what is idiom. Find out for yourself what parts of English speech are difficult to translate (example, gerunds). Educate yourself and your students about international content standards. This careful flattening and neutering of language is a whole skill of its own, and there are books and style guides available to learn more about how to do it.

Writing for brands. The flip side of writing instructional text for an international audience is writing marketing text for brand identity. It’s useful to be able to create six separate twitter accounts, each with its own separate and recognizable voice. It’s useful to be able to read another writer’s voice and understand and replicate the elements that make it unique. For example, I write one twitter feed for an elected official who is witty, dry, measured, and very focused on having data to back up her assertions. I write another one for a person who is gushingly enthusiastic, whose voice is warm and embracing, sending out love. Creating these voices is essentially like creating characters.

Style guides. Please insist that your students become familiar with multiple style guides. The MLA Style Guide is a great resource for students who are going on in academia, however, in the publishing industry, the Chicago Manual of Style and the AP Stylebook are more common. Students who want to be highly employable should be willing and able to move easily from one to another. They are also likely to be charged with creating style guides for individual products or product lines, so an understanding of the underlying reasons for consistency with terminology is very helpful.

Beware of formulas. I am aware that each of these points stands in opposition to the previous point, I just want you to know that. There are now experts popping up everywhere in social media or search engine optimization who will gladly charge hopeful young writers a great deal of money in order to teach them how to attract eyeballs to their content. I’m sorry to tell you that except for companies like the Marketing Heaven that give you genuine, worthy content (likes and shares), a lot of this stuff is just crap. At first your readers might be drawn to headlines that include a numeral, use the word secret, include a scrap of teaser information and a link, as I learned in one social media seminar. But if you take a look at the examples on screen, one full of social media experts (Fig. 1), and one from an actual writer (fig. 2), you’ll see pretty quickly who is going to develop a relationship of trust, affection, and familiarity over time with readers.

The world according to social media experts.
Fig. 1: The world according to social media experts.

Tweets from a writer
Fig. 2: Tweets from a writer.

Finally, whatever your own true feelings may be about the matter, I would implore you not to dimiss technology and business in your classes. Of course our society requires the keen critical eye that your profession can bring to it, so I don’t mean to say, don’t criticize. It’s just that it is absolutely toxic to be afraid of technology in the current job market, whether that masquerades as a kind of elitist “too important and busy to learn how to make a bar chart” or presents as “I just hate computers.” The idea that technology is for other people, for math people, for science people, for people who are going into astrophysics or big pharma or the department of defense, or whatever, is no longer an available ethical position for teachers of English to take, if indeed it ever has been.

And then, business. We live in a time when even public agencies are being harangued to run themselves like businesses, which I believe is simply another way of saying be more efficient, cost less, produce more. I don’t want to endorse this position at all (in fact I strongly object to it), merely to face the fact that it is so and your students should be informed of it, and not encouraged to imagine that they can survive by thinking lofty thoughts and developing withering critiques of pop culture phenoms.

In my experience, humanities graduates can be quite at sea in the corporate environment, equipped with values of originality, integrity, and creativity but sometimes seeming almost to imagine that their employers owe them an environment that supports those things. In the creative economy, your students are going to be asked to explain how their time aligns with their employer’s mission and what the business case is for them doing the job they’re doing. Business case, here, means, loosely, reason for existing, from the company’s point of view.

Also, they will be asked to do far too much, and so they will have to let some things go. They will need the discernment to distinguish between the important and the urgent. They’ll need to know what standards of quality they absolutely must enforce for their own feelings of dignity and self respect if for no better reason, and what is just a silly hair-on-fire manufactured drama that can be counted on to scorch everything briefly and then die down and be forgotten.

Employers in the creative economy have an absolute mania for data. They want data about whether customers like product version A or product version B, and why. The desire to treat writing or art as a product is very strong amongst these drivers of the creative economy, who are interested, as we discussed earlier, in low-cost, high-speed, efficient production. In fact, as your students may somewhat painfully discover, many of them would love to do away with the expense and trouble of dealing with writers altogether. This can be disheartening to a newly minted humanities major, but my great hope is that it’s not a sustainable long-term approach to creating work that other people will want to read, and that the data will show that.

Just to give you a sense of how very far this progression has gone, I’d like to read you a little bit from a blog entry that appeared in the online New Yorker on March 14, 2013: “A Book is a Start Up,” by Betsey Morris, on digital publishing.

“A book is a startup,” declared Peter Armstrong in a speech about his serialized book company, Leanpub. “I said it in 2010, and I’ll say it again.”

Armstrong has created what he calls Lean Publishing. The term Lean is borrowed from the Toyota Manufacturing Model, and Armstrong describes it as “the act of publishing an in-progress book using lightweight tools and many iterations to get reader feedback, pivot until you have the right book and build traction once you do.”

Digital publishers like Armstrong plan to use this data to produce books with the greatest possible appeal, as determined by the data, by popular demand. I find the idea that books are essentially algorithms, into which thoughts can be slotted, profoundly unsettling, but not at all unfamiliar. For what it’s worth, I don’t think this trend will continue. I think that humans crave single human voices, and not the voice of the hive mind. I think we need coherent narratives, fantasies, and stories to keep ourselves sane and finding meaning in our lives. Or maybe that’s just me.

If you remember my strictures against formula tweeting, and how well-loved and sought-out content rests on a basis of trust and familiarity and recognition, you’ll get a sense of why I think, at least, that automated content production is doomed.

An aside: I’ve actually seen one cycle of this human-to-automation-back-to-human content production in the software industry. In the mid-90s there was a push for writers to create content that was as uniform and voiceless as possible. Writers wrote in tools that presented them with an array of specific phrases to choose from, when assembling sentences. The idea was to fully automate translation into other languages, thus taking an entire expensive department right off the books. It really created odd, lifeless prose –pretty much, I guess, what you would expect. Since then, the industry has navigated back the other way, after seeing customers go fleeing to forums and friends rather than wade through such machine-like bursts of prose. Now technical writers are encouraged to blog in their own voice, to make little jokes at the company’s expense, to sound a little more human – it turns out they get more readers that way.

The message that I want to leave you with is this: Take heart. Trust and value what you do, and not only for students who are going to follow in your footsteps into the academy. It’s past time to retire the old “Fries with that?” trope about people with humanities degrees. The truth is that a grounding in literature and the humanities opens doors, it doesn’t lock people into a choice between academia or McDonald’s.

Which brings me back to my point about hiring humanities majors.

In my mind, a person who chose to major in English instead of Communications is a person who has a streak of ferocity and independence that drove them to follow their interests instead of going with a safer, more vocationally oriented field. They probably ignored the advice of their parents and coaches and mentors and advisers and chose for themselves.

The thing is, I’m going to share my life with my coworkers. They are going to be participating in decisions that matter to me. I want to see a capacity for reflection, evaluation, and analysis in the people I’m going to be working with. I want to know they can read closely, carefully, that they can catch errors of logic, ambiguity, sloppy thinking, evasion, word bloat and bloviation.

In fact, I want everyone to major in English, because my fellow citizens are going to be participating in decisions that matter to me. We’re going to decide together about how much data the government can collect on us, and what the ethical limits of bioengineering are, and what democratic society is going to look like when everyone is online, all the time, or even if it exists at all.

I want to know they’ve read Kafka and Koestler. Orwell, Atwood, Plath, Morrison, William Gibson. China Mieville, Matt Ruff, David Mitchell. I want to know that they are not afraid of examining large, alarming ideas and thinking them through. That they are protected from the allure of violent, simple-minded ideologies, from the idea that there is only one way to be smart, from the idea that only things that can be converted into algorithms and measured have value.

That they have been exposed to notions of civil responsibility and public good.

A sound education in the humanities equips a person with imagination, discernment, respect and appreciation for how different types of minds work, a capacity for critical thinking, a well-developed bullshit detector—all qualities that might prepare them for, well, working at Microsoft, for example. Or teaching narrative medicine to medical students at Columbia College. Or writing scripts for video games. (Imagine video games made by people with a thorough knowledge of Orwell, Homer, Gilgamesh, Milton, Vaclav Havel, or Ai Wei Wei.)

Fortunately, with the technology we have at our disposal, like cloud computing for infrastructure, or Kickstarter for funding, it’s becoming increasingly possible for regular people to found their own ventures—make those games, those videos—even those shows we used to watch on TV but that are now migrating to the web—that have meaning.

If you don’t believe me, go watch a few episodes of Charlie Brooker’s 21-century Twilight Zone, “Black Mirror.” Like Ruff, Mitchell, and Mieville, Brooker engages with the world as it is today, or, as reviewers have described it, “the world five minutes from now.” THAT is the future creative economy, in my opinion. Illuminating our choices, reminding us of our pasts, and helping us to make a better world. At least, that’s what I want it to be.

No matter where your students end up, whether it’s at the Boeing Company as a technical writer or at an advertising company or a software company or a nonprofit, the capacity for imagination and the worldview they bring with them is what will make a difference–to them, and to the world around them.

Thank you for your time.

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