Desiree Barron-Callaci (NYU Anthropology and Culture & Media PhD 2018)
Desiree Barron-Callaci is a Program Officer in the U.S. Programs division at the American Council of Learned Societies. She helps to coordinate and enhance ACLS’s efforts to connect, convene, and learn from ACLS’ member societies, higher education partners, and community of fellows, with a particular focus on issues related to PhD career pathways and the public dimensions of humanities scholarship. Some areas of her professional interest include supporting community engaged research, illuminating and growing communities of practice in publicly-responsive humanities research, and promoting knowledge as a public good.
Interviewer Cara Ryan is a doctoral candidate in cultural anthropology at NYU, and graduate of the Program in Culture & Media.
Cara Ryan (CR): When did you finish the Culture and Media program?
Desiree Barron-Callaci (DBC): I got the degree in the spring of 2018.
CR: Can you tell me a little bit about your experience in the the program?
DBC: The Culture and Media program is one of the main reasons that I came to NYU. I've always seen [film] as a tool, a tool that I was pretty instrumental about, as much as I love the art form and everything. I saw the Culture and Media program as an opportunity. I was already thinking about whether or not a faculty position was something that I was interested in… I wasn't comfortable with just getting a film theory degree and losing any of the skills that I already had in terms of actually producing images. I also have always valued documentary film not even just as either an art form or a methodological tool, but also as a practice that, unlike academic writing, can often be a little bit more team-based and collaborative, so I was definitely interested in continuing to develop that skill.
CR: What was the film that you worked on [in the Culture and Media program]? Were there films that you had worked on prior to the Culture and Media program?
DBC: If I start back from undergrad, when I first started doing anything film related… I hesitate to mention [it] exists because my very first film work is so incredibly embarrassing. I was like “yes like let's smash skulls! This is my film I’m going to tell people the truth!” So I did some embarrassing stuff like that, as an undergrad but, but it was great because I learned a lot of skills and I watched a lot of movies. So when I came to the Culture and Media Program I was really excited about this as a way to do academic work; I think it was starting to see documentary, [and] really starting to take it seriously as a methodological tool that made me start taking myself less seriously. I started realizing that it's not just about hearts and minds or education, there's a lot of other things that go into the experience of both making and consuming a film. And it was that kind of really open curious way of approaching what someone was even trying to do with ethnographic film and trying to make connections across difference, in a way that wasn't oppressive and ugly and could be collaborative and interesting, that led me to my film project for Culture and Media. That's all a lot of lead up for my project, which was about queer country musicians in Brooklyn. This was a big group of folks that I new socially, and my partner is a musician, and I met these folks and some of them came from places like where I came from. I grew up in rural Colorado, Evangelical, Biblical fundamentalist, very particular politics, and country music was part of it, but it wasn't part of it the way that it was for these folks. And then there were folks from here, but who valued this music in a deep and soulful sense and that led me to want to work with them and to make this film, and I think if I’m backtracking I can say that it is related to further research that I did. I’m really fascinated by people's deep love for pop culture, particularly when the pop culture doesn't love them back. You know, I’m a queer woman and a big American football fan. I don't believe in widespread false consciousness on the part of these people who are loving this thing. I think it's just that we haven't, as analysts, or scientists, or media folks looked deeply enough at the thing that they love. Because we don't know why they love it and so that's always an interesting question, and [it] motivated a lot of my further dissertation research.
My fieldwork and my dissertation were about youth Indigenous youth rugby competitions in New Zealand. Very long story short, New Zealand professional rugby is dominated by Pacific islanders and Māori in terms of the demographics. If anyone knows anything about New Zealand rugby it's the use of the Haka [ceremonial Māori war dance performed in groups and incorporated into Māori rugby] and the appropriation of indigenous cultural forms in the promotion of corporate sport in New Zealand. So I got interested in this question of the use of indigenous cultural property and corporate promotion at the same time that the lived exemplars of the sport are people of color… it's as if the Washington NFL team was a fully Ojibwe team. It’s really about masculinity and race politics in professional sport. So I was working with rugby players at all levels, and I was using film. I was mostly being asked to use film for these really informal purposes that were like “we want to to take apart every part of the Haka training process.” These were really instrumental [and] also private; three people would see this thing, but it was really important. Or they wanted me to teach them video performance analysis, which is not a part of my practice, I know nothing about it, and I was like “Okay well we're going to get some apps and learn some stuff about it!” At the end of the day, we found that footage could be repurposed in really interesting ways: individual athlete’s “highlight” reels for recruitment, advertisements for the tournaments, etc. I even worked closely with a Māori cultural educator and rugby coach, Mihaere Emery, to turn some of that Haka training footage into a short film for the Margaret Mead Film Festival in 2016.
CR: Did you feel pressure, thinking maybe I really should make my Culture and Media film about about this [your dissertation research], because it will be easier and it makes makes more practical sense?
DBC: Well, I think, to be honest, a little bit of the issue with why I chose the [the film] that I did was because when I was in coursework I was very separate from the field. When I was first starting to think about making a film, the queer country thing was just so much more proximate to my life. It would have been really logistically difficult to do my film that way, but it also kind of felt, and I think other people, probably feel this way, I had never made something that felt that big. I had never made something as long as 30 minutes. And in a way, I [thought] I want to try this out in the space that feels safe, these are people who love me.
CR: And following the Program have you continued to make films, to do things with media?
When I finished the dissertation I started working as a birth and postpartum doula. I trained in western Massachusetts. That led me to work with the Empower Project, which was with women and birthers living with the effects of opioids. It was the first time I was ever producing videos that were completely for private use or for training. So I have done some birth videography as part of that work and work with with birth videographers. At the same time, to make ends meet, I was working as the one woman communications office for a film producer in western Massachusetts. I think a lot of folks who consider themselves artists might balk at being assigned to do things like making memes, generating content for an Instagram account, but I learned so much in that in a job, as much as I was not super inspired by, like, encouraging people to get yoni cleanses, for example. But I'm really glad I had that experience, because it was like, OK, maybe I don't want to go into marketing but, but some of these skills are very transferable and I understand now what strategic communication is, what it means to make a plan, to consider your fiscal year.
At this point I am mostly producing videos of my dog. Although I will say it was a very strange moment in mid 2020. Being stuck in my New York apartment about a block away from Atlantic Barclays and having a camera and a lot of time on my hands. So I did spend a few weeks in June, taking the camera to actions with my husband. I’m not out here making art and I think that's okay, but I am still definitely using the skills.
CR: Did you end up doing anything with any of that footage?
DBC: I did try to shoot as much as I could, a lot of it was just experimenting with shooting in a way where I wouldn't be capturing anything that would get anybody in trouble, without having to anonymize it in such a strong way that you wouldn't be able to tell what's going on. My hope, I think, at the time of making it is that I can come back to it as sort of my own archive at at a point when no one can get arrested for what's on it.
One of the really beautiful things that was an outgrowth of my Culture and Media project from 2013 is since then we've lost a few members, really notable members of that queer country community. And I've been asked to use my footage by some queer oral history networks in the city and by community members who would not otherwise have had that archive of footage.
CR: Tell me a bit about your current work and what you are doing now.
DBC: I've been at ACLS since the middle of 2019. I I was brought on to work on the public facing programs at ACLS within our fellowships and grants programs. Almost all of our fellowships and grants support humanities research is pretty traditional in the sense that it is conducted by humanities and social science folks in faculty positions. There are a few programs at ACLS that are for folks with PhDs doing research “beyond campus” and those are the programs I work on. These programs are focused both on publicly engaged, publicly responsive, community engaged research, as well as on PhDs going into non faculty jobs. All of those related issues are under the umbrella of my programs, so I’m doing everything from investigating the trends in professionalization training at different grad programs, to supporting my fellows who are currently PhDs working in roles outside of the Academy, or assisting a tenure track historian who is designing public humanities programming related to their research. The Scholars and Society program was an experimental fellowship for tenure track faculty. They proposed a year of research in collaboration with a community partner. NYU Anthropology’s own Rayna Rapp, who worked with Positive Exposure was in the first cohort, for example. Our current program for recent PhDs, the Leading Edge Fellows program, supports recent PhDs. We create the fellowship placement with a non academic institution for those fellowships. I was so excited in early 2021 when one of my Culture & Media classmates, Christi Mladic Janney, was awarded a Leading Edge Fellowship to work with Freedom for Immigrants.
The competition we're currently offering, it's really focused on social justice organizations and placing fellows in positions ranging from communications positions, development positions, to strategic research. They are [all] nonprofit staff roles designed to take advantage of some of the unique capacities that a PhD would bring to the table, while also teaching them about what the sector is like to work in, because the idea is that we want to equip our fellows to be able to move on to careers in the social justice sector if that's what they decide they want to do. Applications are due for the current competition on March 28—I encourage recent PhDs and folks about to finish to check it out!
CR: It can be really scary for people to consider going into a non-academic field when they're finishing up their dissertation or are about to graduate
DBC: To me, the goal with any of these programs at ACLS is really about making the academy, or making the career paths in the academy, more permeable. There need to be a lot of on ramps and off ramps because people come to these institutions and these degrees, with different life experiences, with different expectations. And some of the reason that faculty jobs are inaccessible to many folks, particularly folks in some identity categories, has to do with how impermeable that career trajectory is made when we're unwilling to consider folks for teaching positions that do have outside job experience, which is how it seems, given the way that the academic job market is currently structured. People don't feel like they can experiment with positions in different sectors. You'll fall off your research calendar.
CR: Do you have any advice that you could share with Culture and Media students who are hoping to pursue a career outside of academia?
DBC: Sure. I think the very first thing I would say to any late stage PhD student is that it's really important, emotionally, psychologically, but also strategically in terms of career development: start to think about the job market, as it actually exists and not from the prism of looking at academic jobs as the first choice. The reason I say that is because there's even some trade journalism about the academic job market that artificially splits it up into faculty jobs and everything else, and I think it's really easy to attach a lot more importance to a faculty job more than something else, because you haven't even considered the alternatives. So that's one thing. Most of the jobs that most people with PhDs get will not be tenure track jobs. The other thing is: really think creatively and strategically about what experience you actually do have. If you've gotten a field work grant, you've managed a grant, you've done the basics of grant management. You've done project management, you've done outreach, you've done a communications campaign if you had to get participants for research. You may have consulted.
There are a lot of ways to frame different things. A PhD program, it's a long time, and most of us are not just reading books. Folks should think creatively about what they've already done and how useful those things might be in a lot of contexts, they haven't considered. Oh, and by the way, you know if I have to be very honest about my own trajectory I had a lot of confusion about what faculty’s jobs were like because we don't talk about the academic job as a job. I never would have done an informational interview about the day-to-day life of a tenured professor. Because I never did that, it wasn’t until I was applying to academic jobs that I ever took the time to consider whether or not that's what I wanted. It turns out, there are many things about the faculty role that I really liked and wanted, but there are other things I didn't. And you could get a lot of the things I wanted through a different role. In my current gig, because we're so ensconced in higher ed, I get to go to a lot of academic conferences and hang out with a lot of researchers and talk to them about their research, and it turns out that's most of what I wanted from a faculty gig.
CR: How did you get into [your] current work?
DBC: I did have some experience in the higher ed nonprofit world. During grad school I sat on the board of a small educational nonprofit called the Telluride Association that runs summer programs for high schoolers, and some scholarship programs for students at Cornell and University of Michigan. So I had been working on selection processes and program management for these humanities programs. I [first] came to ACLS as an Engagement Manager because their programs were becoming increasingly “high touch.” They were realizing that what folks really needed, in addition to financial support, as important as that was, was the cohort building and community building that could happen through these fellowship programs. I also knew, both from my experience as a Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellow and the support I received as a member of the Native American and Indigenous Student Group at NYU, how incredibly important it is to have peers and mentors who share or can speak to your lived experience. NAISG was an incredibly warm group, infused with a spirit of community and home away from home, mostly due to the generosity of Anna and Rick Chavolla. I hope that I am helping pay forward some of that warmth and mentorship in my work now.
At first, that’s what they really brought me on to do, and then I graduated into a program officer role. It [my first job with ACLS] sort of came up randomly on an alumni listserv, which is why my other recommendation is: get on every alumni listserv that you can!
CR: If there's anything else that you want to share, please feel free.
DBC: I am always open to being contacted by email or by LinkedIn by other alumni or current folks in the program, open to informational interviews if anybody wants to talk about opportunities at or through ACLS.
This interview has been edited for length.