Alumni Profile: Steve Haruch, independent journalist and filmmaker

Recently we interviewed Steve Haruch, a writer, journalist and independent filmmaker based in Nashville, TN. He graduated with a B.A. from UIUC in 1996 (English/Rhetoric double major), and went on to earn an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Washington in 2000. After a series of teaching, copywriting and other odd jobs, he landed at the Nashville Scene, where he worked as a staff editor for seven years. Since then, he has written for The New York Times, The Atlantic, NPR’s Code Switch and The Guardian, among other outlets. He edited People Only Die of Love in Movies: Film Writing by Jim Ridley (Vanderbilt University Press, 2018) and is currently producing a documentary film about the history of college radio. He is particularly interested in talking with students from minority backgrounds. In the interview, Haruch talked about freelancing, a career option that offers freedom of work.

What is your current job? What do you like about it?

I’m a freelancer, so my current job is really a series of jobs, mostly involving writing in some way. These are strung together in a manner that resembles regular work but is more open-ended and irregular.

What I like about my current situation is the freedom to pursue what interests me, and for the most part to operate outside of the kinds of institutional pressures that come with any staff writing or editing position. The down side is that part of the work involves asking for work. (And then asking to be paid for it.) Pitching stories can sometimes feel almost as time-consuming as producing them.

But it’s rarely boring because you’re always seeking out new opportunities and getting to work with new people along the way.

You have a multifarious career. How do you manage so many things together?

Keeping on top of your time is really important. Sometimes you have to be realistic about what you can really accomplish, and other times you don’t have that luxury. You have to just give yourself over to the work until it’s done. Some weeks and months are certainly easier than others, in terms of balancing multiple projects. And the Internet is a constant source of both inspiration and distraction. (Also a great way to meet new people to work with!)

Sometimes just blocking out some time and disconnecting as much as possible can help keep things moving. Other times it’s more like juggling, especially when you’re getting feedback from editors and sending out multiple drafts on multiple pieces.

How has your background in English helped you in your career? What skills that you learned in your college classes do you find yourself using now?

There are a lot of ways. I think first and foremost is having the sense of text as always open to interpretation and always subject to the context in which it is both produced and observed. Studying English taught me to not only ask what a piece of writing means, but why and how it conveys that meaning. It also taught me how to talk about the things a text means that its creator didn’t necessarily intend it to mean — which is different from willfully misunderstanding something!

I think sometimes English majors have a hard time seeing the through line from their education to a career because “reading and writing English” doesn’t seem like a marketable ability in the same way that, say, being able to program in a particular coding language does. But it’s actually a very rich skill set.

What is being communicated? What was intended? How does the form the communication takes affect how it is received? When we look at the proliferation of purposefully misleading texts out in the world, that ability to analyze and really break down the rhetorical structures is unbelievably valuable.

More broadly speaking, I think a liberal arts education has been vital in teaching me to see how knowledge systems are connected to each other, something I think we are beginning to rediscover the value of as a society — the sense that technology is outpacing our ability to understand its effects in part because the companies that are driving the conversation often seem to be operating with a kind of tunnel vision. So having an education that really demands a critical view of human culture and creation is so important.

Would you give some suggestion to our undergrads regarding how to make the transition from college to working life?

As one of my UIUC professors used to say constantly, college life is real life, so my first piece of advice is to value your time in school as much as possible — not just as a means to an end, but as an experience in and of itself, one that is unlike probably any other time in your life.

That said, I think a crucial point is not to get discouraged. You may end up working some awful jobs. Keep your head up and think about your next move. What do you want to do? What can you do to get there? Sure, you may have to process stock dividend notifications at a bank to pay your rent (something I did between college and grad school) or write the most banal press releases imaginable (which I also did). But keep reading. Keep writing.

Travel as much as you can afford. If you find yourself with an opportunity to do something weird and not English major-y but which excites you, go for it. Maybe it becomes the thing you do — and if it’s successful, there will probably be a website and other materials that need to be written well. If it goes up in flames spectacularly, maybe you can write about it someday.

What advice do you have for the students interested in exploring the field you are in now?

Freelance culture writing can be a tough game to break into, but as with any kind of writing, the first and best thing to do is read. A lot. Social media is a great way to find the writers and publications and editors who are covering subjects you care about in interesting ways. Don’t forget about small local publications. Pay attention to what they cover and think about how you could contribute.

There are a lot of fellowships and internship opportunities that I either was not aware of or was not interested in when I was starting out — once upon a time, my biggest goal was to be a published poet, not a journalist — so seek those out. (Again, social media can be great for this.) Try not to write for free if you can avoid it, and if you do, try to limit it to publications where you’re doing them a favor they actually need.

Also: Be prepared to fail. Keep writing anyway — it’s the only way to improve.


PSA: How to Vote in 2018.

Whatever your political leanings, 2018 is going to be an important election year. Pollsters, pundits, and politicians all make assumptions about what college students will do in the votiing booth (including not showing up at all). If you are eligible, the only way to make your vote say what you mean is to cast it.

Here’s a post on the question, should college students vote at home or at college?

Here’s a FAQ specifically on registering to vote in Illinois.

Here’s a link to register in Champaign County (if you choose to register here where you go to college).

The Democratic and Republican primaries for 2018 are on March 20 in Illinois, which is during spring break. If you choose to register in Champaign County but go home for break, you will need to vote by mail (click for instructions on how to do it) or early (updated early voting information will be posted here when it is availabile).

Teaching English Abroad

Do you love teaching? Are you interested in teaching English abroad? There are plenty of opportunities in East and Southeast Asia, and the Middle East.

Every year China, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the UAE and some other countries in Asia and the Middle East, recruit a number of English teachers with a preference given to native speakers of English. Searching the keyword “English” in Handshake will bring up any number of these opportunities.Many offer good packages in terms of remuneration, health coverage, and accommodation. With a bachelor’s degree in English, anyone who is a native of an English speaking country can apply for these positions.

Is Teaching English the Right Path for You?

The best way to find out if you enjoy teaching second language learners, before you renew your passport and invest in a plane ticket, is to give it a try — which can also help you get experience that will help you land a position. Champaign-Urbana offers many opportunities to get some experience of working with non-native speakers of English.

  • The Intensive English Institute. Each semester the Intensive English Institute hires a number of undergraduate students for internships, and these positions are paid.  You can also volunteer to be convopartners of international students at the institute, which will require you to spend one hour each week with ESL students. This will give you the opportunity to exchange culture and experience the world from another perspective.
  • Illinois International Hospitality Committee. You can also volunteer for English classes through the University of Illinois International Hospitality Committee.
  • Project READ, Parkland College. Volunteering at Parkland College can give you exposure to adult language learning. Project READ, a not-for-profit literacy service in Parkland College, provides free tutoring to adult learners seeking to improve their reading, writing, and/or English as a Second Language skills. Volunteers are needed throughout the Parkland College district. All Project READ tutors attend 12 hours of formal training to earn certification in tutoring adults. Tutor Certification Training is offered on a monthly basis at various locations. For more information about finding a tutor or to become a volunteer tutor, call 217/353-2662

Formal Certification in TESL?

Some programs for teaching English abroad require certification in teaching English as a second language. This credential can be obtained from the Department of Linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The Department of Linguistics offers a Certificate in TESL for undergraduate students. Undergraduate students may pursue the Certificate in TESL as a stand-alone certificate, through a Minor in ESL, or Teacher Education Minor in ESL. For the certificate, undergrads need to take six courses three of which are compulsory and the rest are elective. Those pursuing the Certificate in TESL via a Minor in ESL must declare a Minor in ESL at the beginning of course work for the minor.


Surviving the 2017 Holidays: A Guide For English/CW Majors

You may find yourself and your post-graduation plans becoming part of the menu when family and friends gather for festive meals during the holiday season

Don’t stress about it — prepare!

By majoring in English or Creative Writing — or just by picking one as a minor — you have positioned yourself for success after graduation.

Here are some resources to help you talk to the people who love you about your prospects and plans.

“English/Creative writing majors don’t get jobs — maybe you should switch to something more practical.”

Just wrong. Wrong in general, but also specifically wrong for the University of illinois. Read the data, know the numbers. Save the links on your phone to show the disbelieving. Need more talking points?  Try thisthisthis, or this.

“So YOU say. What do business people, tech people say?”

“So you’re going to teach, right? Or maybe go into publishing? What else do people do with a BA like that?”

Some English or Creative Writing majors do go into teaching, or publishing, Many do not. Every business, organization, industry needs people who can solve problems with words. You have choices to make about where to use your skills. Take some time to browse this very blog for additional information on jobs that English majors do. Some possibilities include human resourcesadvancement/nonprofit fundraisingcommunicationbusiness consultingscience journalismrunning small businesseslegal writingproject managementbook publishingvideo editingscience editingproject operations, PR and digital marketing, librarianshipB2B publishing, entrepreneurship, content creation, higher ed administrationmanufacturingevents coordination, sales management,  management training, and real estate development.

“You’ll have to go to grad school to get a job, won’t you? What grad school are you thinking about?”

Well, no — you don’t need to go to law school or get a master’s degree to be employed — but you may want to get more education to achieve specific goals. “Grad school” doesn’t have to mean further education leading to a teaching or law career — recent alumni have chosen to get degrees in human resources, information/library science, medicine, nursing, bioinformatics, MBAs, MSWs. Read up on your options, and know what you want.

“Hmph. Okay. But you’re graduating in____, right? So what’s your plan?”

There are many things you can do to reassure the people who care about you that you’re on your way to a stable, self-supporting adult life. Don’t have a specific career in mind yet? That’s okay — you can take concrete steps now that will help you get a job when you graduate. Breaks are a great time to focus on your future.

  • Find time to go to the LAS Life + Career Design Lab
  • Sign up for a course that will give you some professional skills:
    • Publishing and Editing (ENGL 199 – F&G, 2:00 – 3:15pm MW, 1025 Lincoln Hall, Prof. Hapke, CRN: 67795, 3 credits)
    • Writing for Money (ENGL 380, 11am -12:15pm TR, 61 English Building, Prof. Prendergast, CRN: 59085, 3 credits)
    • Environmental Writing for Publication (ENGL 498, 12:30 – 1:50pm TR, 164 Noyes Laboratory, Prof. Wood, CRN 67479, 3 credits)
  • apply for a spring or summer internship.
  • find a part-time job that will help build your skills.
  • create or update your resume
  • get to know Handshake and start checking it regularly to learn more about the kinds of jobs you’d like to apply for. (Pro-tip: use the job function filter to explore the opportunities in different potential careers. “Writing/Editing” is an obvious one to try — but certainly not the only one available to you.)
  • get involved in a campus publication
  • register for a career preparation course:
    • Career Fair Preparation (ENGL 199 – CIP, online, Prof. WIlcox, eight weeks, one credit, Jan 16 – Mar. 18, CRN: 31940),
    • Career Planning for Humanities Majors — freshmen and sophomores (ENGL 199 – FS, 4:00 – 5:30pm W, 104 EB, Prof. Wilcox, eight weeks, one credit, Mar. 12 – May 2, CRN: 39025)
    • Career Planning for Humanities Majors — juniors and seniors (ENGL 199 – JS, 4:00 – 5:30 Thurs., 119 EB, Prof. Wilcox, eight weeks, one credit, Mar. 12 – May 2, CRN: 67456)
  • schedule an appointment to talk to Kirstin Wilcox, Director of Internships by calling 333-4346.
  • find some upcoming Career Center events that will be helpful to you and put them on your calendar.
  • follow up on contacts your family has suggested to you.
  • find an alumni mentor
  • practice your elevator pitch, get your professional attire, and research employers to get ready for the Business Career Fair.

“<changes subject>”

Take some time to remind yourself why you got into this major in the first place. Spend time with a book you want to read and haven’t been assigned. Write a poem. Make a trip to the nearest independent or used bookstore. Storyboard your screenplay or graphic novel ideas. Geek out by surfing Open Culture, Paris Review, LA Review of BooksWatch a movie with some intellectual heft to it. Send an email to the teacher who first got you excited about words. Let yourself get lost in the sheer joy of language.