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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


I Got a Job

A real world job that somehow fits perfectly with my "academic" experience. Curious thing, that.

February 13, 2019

A little personal news. I have a new job. A real job, a job job, a so-called “corporate America” job.

I am now a…Drum roll please…Senior Analyst and Communication Strategist for Willow Research of Chicago, Illinois. 

I am going to be something of a trailblazer for Willow, its first male employee. I’m thankful these women would take a chance on an over-the-hill former college instructor. 

For the most part I’ll be able to continue to work from the home office from which these dispatches are primarily written, sometimes while I’m wearing sweatpants. 

(Who am I kidding with this “sometimes” business?) But I'm also eager to get out in the world a bit, work with clients, help them answer their researchable questions.

Willow Research was started by one of my old bosses at Leo J. Shapiro & Associates, a marketing research firm, and my employer between graduate school and starting my teaching career. I’ve written about my experiences at LJS several times, including here, where I discuss how my three liberal arts degrees prepared me to succeed in a field I’d never heard of before. 

And here, when I explored the differences between being “qualified” and being “prepared” and why we can’t focus entirely on credentials as a way of helping students have productive and happy lives after college. 

And here, where I recount what it was like to work at Leo J. Shapiro & Associates, a place dedicated to curiosity and learning. In many ways, it was a model for the kind of inquiry that we claim to value in academia, but often seems rather absent, and which is a solo pursuit for those working off the tenure track. 

Since the completion of my two recently published books on the teaching of writing, I’ve been thinking about the next turn in my career trajectory, what I want, what I need, and working for Willow Research seems to fit the bill. I’m both excited and anxious. While I’ve been working plenty, I haven’t had a full-time “job” since my last semester of teaching a full load of courses in 2016. 

As much as I enjoy the solitary pleasures of writing and being my own boss, over the last six to eight months, I’ve detected a certain amount of staleness creeping into my attitude towards my work. When my old friends at Willow reached out for help with some contract work, I took it. When it felt good, I spent a full week working out of their Chicago offices. When that felt good, and it seemed like I could be an asset to the company, it became a matter of a little gut check to make sure I had the time and spirit to commit to the job full-time. 

I went to my go-to question: Do I look forward to what I have to do when I get up in the morning. My answer was yes, I like working, even lots of work. I just wrote two books in the same year. For almost 15 years I taught a 4/4 while publishing books and articles and other things. 

I tend to do better when I’m busier. Being able to collaborate on work with people I trust and respect has already been a balm to my spirit. I’m the type who could do better than most alone on a desert island, but who doesn’t need some visitors every so often? I’ve been going at it since January, and it’s great.

So what does a Senior Analyst and Communication Strategist do? Just what it sounds like. 

Kidding. It took me a full day to research and brainstorm possible titles for myself. At some point some of this stuff begins to seem arbitrary when reduced to a job title. It’s easier to describe what a company like Willow Research does, and what I do for the company, why I think this is so relevant to how we think about teaching and learning.

Willow Research is a research firm. Clients come with a question or a problem and we[1] attempt to answer it for them utilizing the tools at our disposal, a full array of qualitative and quantitative data gathering and analysis techniques. 

We’re talking anything from one-on-one interviews and focus groups to quantitative studies rooted in numerical data generated through online, phone, and in-person surveys.[2]

In many ways, it’s a model of academic research because its rooted in the same methodology. Start with a researchable question, gather data, interpret data, combine interpretation of data with existing knowledge, report findings. 

As an analyst, I’m primarily involved in the interpretation of data, though to do proper interpretation, you have to be involved with the development of the research question and data collection. 

The analyst, as I view it, has two jobs: 1. To convey what the data says, and 2. To convey what the data means, its larger significance weighed against the original research question. As with all research, sometimes what you find out is that you need to answer another question.

This process is identical to the process I employ in the vast majority of my writing for Inside Higher Ed. I observe. I draw inferences. I interpret. I explain implications. The result is both argument (here’s what I believe to be true), and narrative (here is the story which best conveys this truth). 

It is a process of solving a “writing-related problem,” as I put it in my books on writing. A typical research project just happens to be a more elaborate problem than a blog post. Each project is akin to a book chapter in terms of the amount of data and sources one might have to juggle as the analysis comes into clear view. A really big project can begin to look like a whole book. 

Just like the idealized view of academia, this knowledge accrues and is employed in the service of the next project. My favorite part of this work has always been feeling like each project makes me a little more knowledgeable about the world. 

Even just a few projects in for Willow Research I can see that though I have been away from this specific work since 2001, the intervening years have led to significant advances in my abilities. I don’t know that I’m smarter necessarily, but I know more stuff, and I’m better at synthesizing the stuff I know into a coherent whole. 

Writing here has allowed me to practice this process over and over. The experimental ethos I’ve brought to my teaching is pretty much the same. If you care to check out a blog post http://willowresearch.com/gen-z/ I wrote for Willow Research, regular readers may notice that certain Warnerje nas sais quoi.

I could say that I’ve been preparing for this job the whole time I’ve been away, but I think the truth is that the process of observation, inference, interpretation, implication, describes what happens in a lot of jobs. In writing, they are the root of developing one’s “practice.”The practices of other professions such as doctor, lawyer, chef, accountant, academic, etc…follow similar patterns. It’s hard to find a job that doesn’t fall into a similar framework.

Call it critical thinking, call it just plain education if you want, but whatever it is, it’s why I can go from typist (my first job at LJS), to assistant project director, to project director and analyst, to college instructor and back again, landing as Senior Analyst and Communication Strategist, the kind of position I would’ve advanced into if I’d been doing the research gig the whole time. 

This is one of the reasons I get distressed when I see talk of how higher education institutions must respond to the changing world by narrowing degree pathways to lead directly into specific jobs and careers. It’s neither necessary nor effective.[3]If we can educate students, they’ll be well-positioned to navigate whatever turbulence is coming our way. 

Willow already does work in the education space, and I’m looking forward to hopefully helping more clients address their questions utilizing the expertise I’ve earned over the years here.

As for the blog, readers should notice little change. I’m not going anywhere.

Or rather, you’re going to find me in a lot more places, ready to bring back what I learn there for consideration here.


[1]“We” feels weird, though also good. It’s been a long time since I’ve been a we. Even when I was part of higher ed institutions, as much as I’d want to feel like a “we,” contingency is a constant reminder that it isn’t the case. 

[2]I’d forgotten how much I’d come to love crafting analysis and narrative out of numbers. There’s a real beauty in hitting on a  cross-tabulation that suddenly reveals something new in the data.

[3]By way of example, the current leadership of Willow Research earned undergraduate degrees in political science, psychology, art and design, and theater before going on to earn masters and PhDs in social science, business, and the fine arts. It’s a group of lifelong learners and I feel at home there.

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