Episode 10 | Collaboration and Career Diversity in the Humanities

In this episode, Yan Pang, PhD and Elja Roy, PhD discuss their graduate work and how collaborative and publicly engaged research can create new professional opportunities for humanities graduate students both beyond as well as within the academy.


Yan Pang

Yan Pang (she/her/hers) is a composer, performer, and scholar. She is currently a Visiting Assistant Professor at Point Park University. She received her Ph.D. in Music with a minor in Theater Arts & Dance from the University of Minnesota. Her work focuses on inter-cultural music composition and performance. As part of this interest, she has been commissioned to compose and invited to perform in music festivals throughout the world. She considers both her music composition as a means to build multicultural understanding and tolerance. A selection of her varied publications includes the album Glory Times (as songwriter and music director) by the China Scientific & Cultural Audio-Video Publishing Company and the scores “Nowhere Home” and “The Others” by Contemporary Music Score Collection 2020. To learn more, please visit www.yanpangcreate.com.

Elja Roy

Elja Roy is an Assistant Professor or Communication & Film at the University of Memphis. She received her PhD in Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. Her research brings production-based case studies to explores the intersection of environmental communication and eco-cinema. Roy has conducted field research in the Pacific North-West, Minnesota, India, and Bangladesh. Her doctoral dissertation, “Art, Activism and Sundarbans: A case study of Ecomusical Environmental Movement through Film” is half-written and half a documentary film, “Musical Mangrove.” It examines an artistic environmental movement involving multicultural ethnic groups and minorities in the Global South through community-based co-productions.


Podcast Intro  00:04

This is PhD Futures Now, a podcast on collaboration, career diversity and graduate education in the humanities. This podcast is a project of humanities without walls, the 16 University consortium, headquartered at the Humanities Research Institute at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign, and funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Deepthi Murali (Episode Intro) 00:35

Hello, and welcome to the PhD Futures Now Podcast. I’m Deepthi Murali, and I’m the producer of this podcast. We are nearing the end of our first season and in the last four episodes here, we want to talk to the people who really matter to our conversations on graduate education and career diversity in the humanities. People who are on the ground so to speak: current PhD students who are thinking through their career options, faculty who are mentoring these students, senior administrators who are grappling with the changes in higher education, and folks like our team at Humanities Without Walls HWW for short. We’re offering both strategic and financial support for career diversity training and research opportunities. This is the first of our four episodes featuring two humanities without walls, alumni, Dr. Yan Pang and Dr. Elsa Roy, who are both PhD student participants in HWW grand research challenge in 2018. They have since graduated. In this episode, Elsa and Yan talk about the experience in doing interdisciplinary collaborative research on the HWW grand research challenge project and how their collaborative work has helped them think of a diverse set of careers inside and outside academia. The project Field to Media: Applied Ecomusicology for a Changing Climate was a project led by Mark Pedelty at the University of Minnesota.

[Audio Recording from guest Dr. Elja Roy’s HWW Grant Research Challenge Project. Video from which the recording is excerpted is embedded below.]

Elja Roy’s HWW Grant Research Challenge Project (2018)

Elja Roy  02:57

So Field into Media is a project that focuses on eco-musical responses to environmental issues. Now when we talk about eco-musical we think about music that has been created to highlight environmental issues. And we as a group of researchers, we were five researchers working in five different places. I was working in India and Bangladesh. My advisor Mark was working in the US and Canada. Yan was working in China, Rebecca was working in Haiti and Tara was working in Tanzania. And we five researchers created five different musical videos to bring in the environmental stories or environmental pressing environmental issues that are there in our particular sites.

Margaret Brennan  03:48

So to get started, we’d like to hear a bit more about your background and your research as it pertains to the project or not the field to media project. So again, would you like to start off?

Yan Pang  03:59

Sure. Thanks, Peggy, and Deepthi for having us. Hi wonderful people listening out there. I am a music composition instructor at the University of Minnesota. I was born and raised in China. I was trained both in Chinese traditional music and Western classical music. This led me to develop my style combining Chinese music elements with Western compositional techniques. My research focused on intercultural music composition and performance. This overlap with my collaborative work on the field to media project, the music and dance film that I’ve made for the project is a representation of my artistic practice.

Elja Roy  04:45

Hi, everybody, and thank you for having me. I’m Elja, and I did my Masters in Journalism and Mass Communication from India. Then I moved to the US and joined my PhD in Communication Studies at the University of Minnesota. And my research I have been involved in production since my undergraduate days, and the project I made for field to media “Dwellers of the Forest Arise”, the music video is very close to what I have been doing, because I study environmental communication. At the same time, I bring in more collaborative production based hands on components to Media Studies, and environmental communication at large. So the video is exactly what I have been doing and I will be doing possibly for the rest of my life. So basically, I’ll be bringing in productions to media studies and environmental communication through music or through films, my dissertation is half a documentary film and half written. And I will be continuing similar more integrated research more collaborative research.

Margaret Brennan  05:52

Thank you both so much. I want to pause just briefly here to talk about the HWW grand research challenge which the field to media project is part of to give greater context, but also because we’re looking forward to funding our next round of those projects in the coming year. And the challenge of the grand research challenge is supporting human humanistic, excuse me, supporting humanistic research across disciplines and institutions. And those institutions can be other HWW consortium universities, but also. and increasingly, these projects are aimed to center methods of reciprocity and redistribution. And so they bring on community partners and or minority-serving institution faculty, as collaborative team members as well and field to media is just such a fabulous example of what these projects can achieve. So can you tell us how did you come to work on this project? Give us the backstory. And will you continue to do this kind of work in the future? And we’ll start with Elsa. Thank you.

Elja Roy  06:47

Sure. And thank you for asking the question, because this is one story that I would love to tell everybody. My advisor, my doctoral advisor, Dr. Mark Pedelty, he came up with the idea, he knew that I have been parts of productions. And I had also worked in my site Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest shared between India and Bangladesh. So he asked me that he’s writing a project about making music videos that highlight environmental issues in different parts of the world. And if I’d be interesting, if I’d be interested, and yes, I said yes, because that is exactly what I wanted to do. And then I worked with Mark, and we wrote the project. And he brought in all the people he brought in Yan and he brought in Rebecca, he brought in Tara, and it happened.

Yan Pang  07:43

Yes, my story is very similar to Elja, and we have this person we’re super thankful to our PI Mark Pedelty is the one who changed my life. It was I was a teaching assistant for his communication and popular music course. He offered this opportunity to be part of the HWW grant team, and that just waken up my childhood dream career, I dreamed about being the head of environment, Environmental Protection Department, I took so much picture about the pollution and have had presented and people have talked about it and say, Oh, this, this kid want to change the world, but nothing really happened. But that’s my first experience in first attempt. So I’m super glad I get to do that kind of thing again, but in a more mature methodology and ways to do it. And I will continue to do this kind of work in this future because it’s a perfect combination of a passion of art creation practice, and academic research. I have continued being involved in the communities that I worked with, and I decided to fund my to establish my own performing arts company called Yan Pang Create LLC, to amplify the voice of marginalized artists at their art.

Margaret Brennan  09:08

So, in academia, we talk a lot about the value of collaborative research, but it’s not always clear what exactly collaboration is. What does real collaborative work look like to you and your experience on the field to media project.

Yan Pang  09:21

Real collaborative work for me is include everyone as an equal partner, and maximize the usage of each team members expertise, for example, for our project, our PI Mark Pedelty to provide the necessary tools to achieve the project outcome and let us to decide what our product should be. Let’s say Mark, his expertise is in using songwriting. So he shared with us his approach to his project is through songwriting project a project the message through music lyrics and visual scenes. Meanwhile, my practice is theatrical work. So I get to recompose and co-choreograph a music and dance performance.

Elja Roy  10:08

Mark actually created the framework. And he also made sure even though there is a framework, he made sure that it can be adapted for with individual qualities. For example, I don’t write songs, I don’t sing. So I basically worked with community partners, I had been in touch with artists who are working in the region who are already writing songs and performing in the region in from their bones. And I recorded there songs. So they were singing and dancing, I recorded it.

Margaret Brennan  10:40

Can I ask what about your experience collaborating across disciplines and institutions? And if there were anything, any particular things that you learned or were challenged by in that framework?

Elja Roy  10:52

Yes, HWW was eye opening for me. Because I had never imagined about collaborating with somebody who is working the music department, for example, Yan. And also Rebecca was a partner and she was working, she’s an ethnomusicologist. And her site was Haiti. So it’s not just very different geographical spaces about which I did not know. I got to learn from the project, also very different methodological point of views. For example, the first article we published was in Journal of Popular Music. And I never worked in Music Research, or I had very little experience in researching music. But with this project, I was exposed to the world of ethnomusicology, I was exposed to the world of music composition, as well as musical activism, I’d say.

Yan Pang  11:50

I’m kind of on the other side of spectrum. I’m the creator, I know how to write music score. I know how to choreograph dance on the stage, but I have no idea how to write about my piece in linguistic sense. So I really had a hard time trying to describe what I’m doing, why I’m doing it, like I know in my head, how I can achieve that in a visual way by choreography, and the sound by the music. So working with a interdisciplinary collaboration is really opened my eyes and open the way I’m thinking about things.

Margaret Brennan  12:32

Thank you so much. Okay, I want to turn now to careers and how this project has influenced your trajectory, your professional trajectory. And so Elja, you’re going to be a tenure track professor starting in the fall. Yan, you are an adjunct professor, and you have a nonprofit. And so you are so well situated to answer this question. How has collaboration diversified your research interests? Or enriched them? And are there any challenges that doing this kind of work, post to any career options? What did it open up for you?

Elja Roy  13:07

I would say, there are no challenges that this project actually posed. It’s all advantages, to be very honest, because of this project, I had something to sell myself. And I was though primarily I was applying for academic jobs, I was trying to also find non-academic jobs, which can be pertinent to the kind of work I wanted to do. And I had one music video that I could tell people that I know how to edit, I know how to record a performance, I know how to video record, I know how to audio record, that was something that I could translate to any field. Because I was trying to get into something that has to do with productions. And also because I collaborated with so very different people from so very different disciplines, I was applying when I was applying for academic jobs, I was applying to the Department of Communication Studies. That’s where I’m housed in, I was applying for Media Studies jobs. I was applying for film studies jobs, and I was also applying for film production jobs. And I was also applying for environmental communication jobs. So I did have a lot of different departments to apply to. I was applying… Also, I had some tools that I could translate to non academic jobs because non academic jobs do not care about how many publications I have, but they do want skills and I was collaborating. I could show that I was collaborating with people from very different countries from very different disciplines with very different audiences. I had collaborators in India, I had collaborators in Bangladesh, who are non-academics, I was also collaborating with people on an academic level here in the US. So that is something that even non-academic jobs look for.

Yan Pang  17:55

Grants do lead you to more grant opportunities. We we have applied for grants in academic setting. But since then I did apply for like, state art funding… any, anything that has nothing to do with academia. And I’ve have gotten bunch because the evidence that we have a history that we could do that, like Elja mentioned. And in Humanities, the job market seems tougher, because it’s more like a roller coaster, sometimes just get everything you want. And sometimes they just don’t come. But with the diversified options, the grant and the job market we are less desperate, because every time at academic job interview, I won’t be seems very desperate, because I know if academic is not the right option, so far, I can still work a nonprofit for an administrative position. And so that’s the sector part, but for the discipline part, because we have been proven what can work cross-discipline, I am more confident applying jobs in theater, jobs in dance, because I’ve proven that I can work with other disciplines. And this is the product we have we achieved as a collective. So that says a lot of thing about what we’re capable of doing.

Yan Pang  19:21

I didn’t land on a tenure or full time position yet, but I but instead of beating myself to say, Oh, I get rejected again. I now have the new mindset. I it’s not necessary, a rejected me, it’s either being redirected to a position or to a direction that I fit the best right now. So I think having that mindset whenever you are at a roller coaster, you will use to believe yourself and do the things you love.

Margaret Brennan  19:54

Those are such fabulous answers. Thank you. I have a follow up question for each of you and I’m going to start with him. I know that your projects, if I remember correctly, the content of your project did change somewhat in the course of doing this collaborative work. And I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about that. And that’s inflected by the political situation where you were doing your research and all kinds of things. I was wondering if you could elaborate a bit on that.

Yan Pang  20:17

Yes, I was too excited about follow up with Elja’s answered, but I did thought about this challenge quite a lot. Because I was in the, in the range for arts for art’s sake, all I care about if, if this piece polished enough if the recording is good enough. But after this project, I’m more concerned about or putting focus of my work to arts for social justice, then the challenge will become that the social justice theme sometimes not not always supported by the government, because just because so when I went to China, the community, the collaborators there, were skeptical of this project, because it was funded by an American institution with the International repetition. So to counter this challenge, we have to pivot. Rather than putting the participant on a camera, have them to do the work, we have to collect the thoughts and put the labor in how to translate that in a less obvious, like soften the message, it’s still political message, but without jeopardize their life in where they are.

Yan Pang’s Project for HWW Grant Research Challenge (2018)

Margaret Brennan  21:38

Thank you. That’s really helpful, especially for any of our listeners who are interested in applying for the next round of grants, which will be focused on methods of reciprocity and redistribution, I think those kinds of challenges will continue to come up. And so it’s really fabulous to have both of you’re on the ground work as reference. So Elja, I want to ask you a loaded, leading maybe, leading question. So I would I want to ask you Elja, would you say that this collaborative work is what led to you getting a tenure track position?

Elja Roy  22:08

Definitely, of course.

Margaret Brennan  22:10

In addition to, of course, the many wonderful skills and areas of expertise that you have, it seems like it was central. And so I’m curious what your thoughts are?

Elja Roy  22:17

Exactly, exactly. Because whenever I was writing my cover letters, whenever I was writing my job applications, per se, I was definitely highlighting this collaboration that I have done with different people from different parts of the world, even during the interviews. Because all all academic jobs, even if they don’t mention it in the job posting, they are looking for somebody who can talk across disciplines, who can collaborate, because I mean, even though I applied for 35 jobs, I think I have read more than 100 job applications. And most of them talked about interdisciplinary collaborations, talking across disciplines, funds and grants. So I definitely could fit better into this academic demands. So definitely, that is something there and the position that I’m applying for, I mean, sorry, the position that I received, Assistant Professor of Film is a fascinating position because it requires me to teach productions as an Audio Productions, maybe at some point video productions, and also the theory as in film history, or in production to film and I will be teaching eco cinema.

Margaret Brennan  23:30

The reason I wanted to ask this question about what led to your tenure track job is we have a lot of our HWW alumni from our workshops, and a lot of our folks like you who have collaborated on our collaborative projects who have ended up in a lot of tenure track positions. And so for any faculty listening, you know, especially maybe more traditionally minded folks, when it comes to jobs. This kind of work does lead to tenure track positions as well and in fact, makes stronger candidates and a lot of in a lot of cases. And this is a wonderful example. So thank you for being willing to talk about that. So this next question is quite a big one. What does collaboration have to offer the future of Arts and Humanities Research? Is this a way forward? A lot of our podcast material has so far has to talk about the crisis in the humanities. And it does seem that collaboration has so much to offer. So what do you think this work has to offer the future of humanities research?

Yan Pang  24:33

Alright… collaboration offers learning and understanding from each other. It’s a powerful collection of different experience and expertise. I think collaboration projects push the future of arts and humanities research, to be more inclusive and to honor different ways of knowing and discovering.

Elja Roy  24:58

I think humanities does not offer enough opportunities for collaborations versus STEM where each project requires multiple people, to author, to do different parts of the research. Somebody does the experiment, somebody does statistical analysis, and there are too many, I mean, a lot of authors in each paper, but with humanities, since it’s, it’s so subjective, that we don’t really have enough collaboration. And I think that is something that humanities needs more. Overall, I think it is something that everybody should think about, the faculties should think more about. And I’m glad that Mark, my advisor, thought about something like this. And so I think writing for more grants, and writing for more innovative projects where people from different disciplines can collaborate is something humanities definitely needs. And also since humanities is about solving, I mean, I wouldn’t say it’s only about but it’s largely largely about solving some social critical issues and problems. And I think one discipline alone, alone cannot face that. For example, we are dealing with climate change, we are dealing with environmental issues, and no one discipline can actually overcome a challenge this big. So yes, definitely collaboration is the way to go forward.

Margaret Brennan  26:27

How can grad students who maybe are just starting off in their graduate programs or are thinking about their own career trajectories? How can they get started working on collaborative projects? And how can they think in ways to look toward the future and how these could diversify their own career options as it has done for the two of you?

Elja Roy  26:44

I think it is something it is a discussion the graduate students should and must have with their advisors. And also look for, I think what helped me is I was taking courses from, for example, moving images studies, and I was organizing symposiums with different schools. So basically, that is also one more like one other place where graduate students can actually talk to or be in a classroom with people from different disciplines.

Yan Pang  27:18

Definitely be proactive, the our academic program has a default to train us to be the best in our discipline. But in reality, we would need at least understanding what other disciplines are related to ours. Just like Elsa mentioned earlier, that we can’t solve problem just by one discipline, we have to work together. I think the the this HWW grant gave me that sense of that academic freedom, because we have a mission to work towards. But we don’t have a targeted outcome. And we learned so much from the journey we’ll learn, the humanity, we learn every aspect. Not every aspect, but the aspect that we can reach we can imagine we can pay attention to. So I would encourage grad students to start collaborating with their peers. Elsa already mentioned about the mentors and people you look up to. And I would say also, people who are around you, they may not have thought about or being proactive about the collaboration.

Margaret Brennan  28:30

That’s such a fabulous answer. And thank you for bringing up the point about collaborating with fellow graduate students, because I think a lot of we discussed networking and collaboration and people in jobs, job opportunities. And it’s not just that we want to meet folks who could potentially employ us someday, right. It’s also that there’s so much value in the folks who are immediately around us that we may overlook because academia academic work is so isolated and so individual and so that is so valuable. Thank you so much to Elja and Yan for joining us for this episode. If you’d like to find out more about the Humanities Without Walls Grand Research Challenge’s next round of funding the deadline for those applications is November 15 of this year [2022], and you can find more information on our website, which is www.humanitieswithoutwalls.illinois.edu.