American Studies
American Studies

Rebecca Onion: Journalist

Sun, April 8, 2018
Rebecca Onion: Journalist
Throughout the 2017-2018 school year, we've been conducting interviews with UT AMS grads who utilize their American Studies degrees in different ways in the world outside the 40 Acres. Next up in our series is Rebecca Onion, staff writer at Slate.com.
 
Gaila Sims: When did you graduate from American Studies at UT, and with what degree?
 
Rebecca Onion: In 2012, with a Ph.D. 
 
GS: What is your current job, and how did you decide to enter into your chosen field?
 
RO: I'm a staff writer at Slate.com. I worked at a magazine, and as a freelance writer, before I got to grad school. I got into the field initially because it gave me a chance to research and write about a broad array of topics. Since I'm sort of a dilettante by nature, I liked that aspect. 
 
GS: What projects or people have inspired your work?
 
RO: Some of my answers to this question would be quite typical American Studies answers: the broad-ranging, deeply researched work of William Cronon; the creative sourcing and visual analysis of Terry Smith; the original questions of T.J. Jackson Lears. In journalism I'd have to go with the classics—the Atlantic, the New Yorker—and the new classics—Aeon Magazine, Longreads, Slate.com! Most inspiring of all are writers who successfully work within the two worlds of journalism and cultural history, like Rebecca Solnit, Adam Hochschild, or Ann Hulbert. 
 
GS: How does American Studies inform your work? How does your background in American Studies help you in your work in journalism?
 
RO: Since American Studies is a discipline where people's interests are allowed to range widely, it's actually a great match for journalism. Depending on the kind of journalism job you take, you might have a beat, but you might also end up writing about widely differing things week by week. Journalists, like interdisciplinary academics, need to know how to frame questions that make sense to people working within a broad range of fields. And journalism done well should practice a certain sensitivity to cultural and historical context—a sensitivity that American Studies people specialize in. 
 
GS: How do you see your work fitting in with broader conversations in American Studies?
 
RO: Often, I'm acting more as a deft summarizer and representer of academic arguments, and an applier of their meaning to the contemporary context, rather than as a contributor to the development of new ones. That's not necessarily always the case, but it often is. And if I have any frustration in my job, it's that sometimes I miss contributing more directly to academic conversations, through doing original archival research and producing peer-reviewed arguments. But doing that takes research, and time. 
 
GS: Do you have any advice for students in our department who are interested in pursuing work outside academia, but still want to utilize the training they've received from American Studies?
 
RO: I would advise you to start looking around early for non-academic job options. And one thing I want to emphasize—don't despair! I think, especially for people who love grad school like I did, it can feel a little sad to think about not ending up in academia. But there are a lot of jobs out there where you can use your research acumen and broad range of interests for the good. 
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