January 27, 2014
By Gabrielle Lachtrup '16
An English and Theater double major with interests ranging from poetry to photography and documentary filmmaking, Poorna Swami has definitely made the most of her three years at Mount Holyoke College. Currently beginning a semester-long study abroad program with the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, Poorna has consistently sought to link her employment choices on campus with the subjects that she studies. “At SOAS, I plan on deepening my study of transnational literature,” she explains, a field she describes becoming increasingly engaged with as an Editorial Research Assistant for the African Studies Review (ASR).
Published by Cambridge University Press, ASR is a leading scholarly journal issued tri-annually on behalf of the African Studies Association. Throughout the fall of her junior year, Poorna worked closely with Professor John Lemly, who serves both as the Book Review Editor for ASR and as faculty for Mount Holyoke’s English department. “Prior to that, I was a Research Help Desk Assistant with LITS,” says Poorna. “Even with my first job on campus, I knew that I wanted to work with books.”
She describes “starting slowly,” as an assistant with LITS, whether by helping peers find sources for their senior theses or “unjamming printers.” By the beginning of her junior year, however, Poorna had begun writing regular posts for the LITS Blog, including an entry on Alan Ginsberg’s Howl for Banned Books Week. Nevertheless, Poorna says she remained interested in pursuing new opportunities in campus.
“I’d worked with Professor Lemly as a student, and I knew he was interested in finding more [research] assistants for ASR,” she says. “Essentially, my job is to examine books sent in by various publishers.” Poorna notes that many of the submissions to ASR fall outside of the journal’s primary focus. “One of our main problems is sorting out texts that deal exclusively with African-American studies, or that otherwise diverge from our area of study.” After sorting books for potential review, Poorna reaches out to various academics in the field who have demonstrated an interest in writing for ASR. “Oftentimes, my work is very logistical—helping organize the office, responding to emails—but increasingly, the aim is for me to seek out scholars on my own.”
Since beginning her position as an Editorial Research Assistant, Poorna has continued to work at LITS for “about four hours a week.” For her, manning the Help Desk means “no day is ever typical. It can range from tracking down resources for a project due that day, to repairing that one stapler that never works correctly,” By contrast, Poorna’s duties with ASR have mostly been conducted on her own time. “I go into the office whenever I have a free hour or two, whether it’s enter rejected texts, help construct databases, fix bibliographic information, or familiarize myself with the growing collection.”
Poorna observes that citation can often be the most challenging part of her work. “You have to be rigorous and meticulous to make sure all the information is exactly correct.” On the other hand, her favorite part of the job has been the chance to gain familiarity with “all of the new scholarship that’s available.” Indeed, Poorna has discovered that many of the texts submitted to ASR overlap directly with her study of transnational literature. “Following my experiences with the journal, I can increasingly envision a potential career in publishing or literature reviews.” Still, despite her burgeoning engagement with the field, Poorna says she has yet to decide on any particular career path. “I like the idea of going down a dance or theater route, but I imagine I would also be happy doing something related to writing, such as working for a magazine.”
Regardless of her future career path, Poorna is confident her time with ASR will be invaluable in bolstering her capabilities as an employee. “The skills I’m building can be transferred to many similar internships,” she says. Moreover, Poorna feels she has grown “much more knowledgeable” about the process of “synthesizing and assimilating ideas,” as well as “the extent of scholarship that’s out there.” For her, publishing is “all about bringing ideas to the table—then, you just have to figure out the ones you most want to move forward.”
In speaking to other students about their own employment on campus, Poorna recommends that they follow their natural inclinations. “Never stick with a job if it doesn’t interest you,” she counsels. “It’s never worth it. I know I got lucky, so keep trying until you find the position that’s right for you!”