Alt-ac Spotlight: Advice from the Director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center at the Newberry Library

In the second installment of our alt-ac series, Erstwhile’s Alessandra Link chats with Dr. Patricia Marroquin Norby, Director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Dr. Norby describes her position at the Center, dispels common myths about alt-ac work, and offers advice for graduate students interested in all things alt-ac.

Newberry Library

Newberry Library in Chicago

Erstwhile Blog: You were recently appointed as the Director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies at the Newberry Library in Chicago, Illinois. What is the central mission of the Center? What are your main tasks as the director?

Patricia Marroquin Norby: Yes, I am the first Indigenous woman to permanently direct the Center in forty-two years. Currently, our staff strives to fulfill the original 1972 mission of the D’Arcy McNickle Center:

“Encourage the use of the Newberry collections on American Indian history; improve the quality of what is written about American Indians; educate teachers about American Indian culture, history, and literature; assist American Indian tribal historians in their research; and provide a meeting ground where scholars, teachers, tribal historians, and others interested in American Indian studies can discuss their work with each other.”

My role as Director requires that I wear many different hats. This is the nature of many non-profits. I do everything from fundraising, to managing budgets and overseeing staff, to organizing public events and scholarly institutes, hosting Indigenous and international delegations that include tribal representatives and other political diplomats. At times I am also an ambassador, chauffeur, host, surrogate mother, educator, academic and professional advisor, and committee delegate. I am also expected to be a scholar, art historian, and expert of the American Indian and Indigenous materials in our archives. My role is a very busy one and I love it!

EB: How did you come across this job? Did you know before graduation that you wanted to work in an alt-ac setting? 

PN: I originally read about the Assistant Director position on H-Net, an online professional network for the Humanities. I also received a notification from a professional mailing list. I should add that I already had a professional connection with the Newberry and the D’Arcy McNickle Center. Twice, as a graduate student, I was awarded research opportunities in the Newberry Consortium for American Indian Studies (NCAIS), which is a program that supports young scholars working in Indigenous Studies. Participating in these programs was key to my job application since I was able to emphasize my previous experience and knowledge about the Newberry more generally and their archival collections. Additionally, many of the staff at the Newberry knew who I was. Cultivating these early professional connections helped to bolster my application and also my confidence during the interview process. I was offered the Director position six months after I began as Assistant Director. So, again, I was already acquainted with the Newberry and I knew I wanted to be here. This familiarity alleviated a lot of the guesswork when applying for both positions.

I actually began my professional career as a fine artist. I have professional training in painting, drawing, printmaking, and photography. I have a BFA, MFA, and a PhD. After receiving my MFA I worked as a curatorial research assistant at the National Museum of the American Indian. I was part of the inaugural curatorial team and helped set up some of the original exhibits. During my doctoral program I began teaching, first as a teaching assistant and later as an Assistant Professor. So, I guess you could say that I got my start in the alt-ac setting.

EB: What advice would you give to graduate students interested in your line of work? What should they be focused on as a graduate student (internships, research, etc.)?

PN: All of the above. Gain as much experience as you can. Organizations want their new staff to jump right in and take the initiative. Many institutions have little time for extensive training anymore. The expectations are high and competition great. Also, never forget to say hello and offer a friendly smile to everyone from the President of the company to the cleaning crew. Kindness can go a long way.

EB: Are there any common misconceptions about alt-ac positions that you’d like to address? 

PN: Yes, that we are somehow removed from academia. I train hundreds of scholars and students every year. Our center trains all of the up-and-coming scholars in American Indian and Indigenous Studies. Many of the top people in our field walked through our halls as students.

EB: A lot of graduate students in the humanities are seeking out alt-ac work because they believe that there are more job opportunities. From your position in the alt-ac world, do you think this is accurate? Any advice on how to navigate the alt-ac job market?

 PN: I am uncertain about the exact numbers regarding alt-ac job opportunities. I can tell you that the available positions I have seen are demanding and expect candidates to, again, wear many hats and fulfill diverse roles. Also, one should always keep in mind that, for example, non-profit work is lower on the pay-scale than traditional academia but it can be incredibly rewarding. Also, on a positive note, in an alt-ac position you do not have to jump through the “tenure hoops.” Keep in mind, however, many alt-ac opportunities are at institutions that are dependent on grants and on large donations. The worry/stress about funding can be great at times.

EB: What sort of skills are required to excel in a job such as yours? To what extent did your graduate training prepare you for this position?

PN: My academic training helped me to appreciate multiple perspectives on many different subjects, meaning there are no “right or wrong” answers. I may not like or agree with a colleague’s opinion, but I have to respect their life experiences and professional knowledge. I believe this sense of reciprocity and mutual respect is learned in the classroom setting, specifically in seminar and discussion. Also, working for that degree long-term helped me to develop my own voice, patience, and a sense of respect for protocol. Every workplace has a way of following through that one needs to be aware of.

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