Interview with Miriam Bartha, author of “Skill”
Be sure to check out Miriam Bartha’s keyword essay on “Skill,” which just appeared on the Keywords for American Cultural Studies site. To accompany and frame the publication, we asked her a few questions.
Miriam Bartha: I began thinking about “skill” as a keyword in the process of a career transition from academic jobs to what is now called an “alt-ac” position. I took a workshop that very explicitly prompted participants to renarrate their professional qualifications in terms of skills. Once I landed a position, as assistant director of a humanities research center, I found myself engaged to talk about my “transferable skills” at professional development events for graduate students; managing projects engaging people with a wide spectrum of professional knowledges and practices; and thinking about how to facilitate the mutual recognitions/translations necessary to cross-sectoral partnerships. In this context, the term “skill” performed a lot of necessary work. At the same time, I heard a lot of disdain for the term among academic humanists, who preferred “knowledge” and “education” as terms of art. I became curious about the tensions in those discourses that were part of my own uneven professional identity.
Burgett and Hendler: What did you learn as you wrote the essay?
Bartha: I learned that the meanings of the term are deeply shaped by labor politics, the claims of educational institutions, and the self-understandings of laboring, creative, and professional classes. That all seems obvious enough in retrospective, but I am still struck by the simultaneous presence and absence of the term “skill” in everyday academic humanities discourse: we evaluate for it all the time, but it is not commonly a critical term for us.
Burgett and Hendler: What one idea do you want to be sure that readers take away from the essay?
Bartha: Simply that the meaning and value “skill” varies significantly according to historical, professional, and vernacular contexts and perspectives. I hope that this recognition lets us become more critical of our own attitudes towards the term, by helping us to place them, and invites a curiosity about how the term operates in different arenas.
Burgett and Hendler: What other keywords in the volume do you see as most closely linked to this term? What not-yet-written keyword essay would you most like to read?
Bartha: “Corporation,” “Labor,” and to some degree “Class” all reference the conflictual labor and management history tied to the term “skill.” “Science” and “Literature” speak to the history and politics of knowledge and disciplines that underwrites the term in different contexts. “Technology” bridges both. In terms of to-be-written keywords: “administration,” “development,” and “social justice.”