Alexandra Klein (ΦBK, George Washington University) is the communications manager at the National Humanities Alliance, where she coordinates press outreach and engagement, manages NHA's web presence, and collaborates on government relations efforts.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
I desperately wanted to be an astronaut! I was so obsessed with outer space that I think I actually read every book our tiny local library had on the subject. I was dismayed to discover that to become an astronaut I would have needed to master some really advanced math, which was always my least favorite subject. Also, I was, and remain, terrified of heights and, therefore, flying. So it is probably for the best that I ended up choosing a different career path.
What was the most transformative course from your undergraduate education?
The most transformative course from my undergraduate education was a feature writing course I took with Professor Steven Roberts as part of my journalism major. Each week we were responsible for writing a feature story about any topic we wanted. And while there was a category the story had to fall into—for example it had to be a trend piece, focus on an object or a place, or be an interview—we were free to write about anything we could possibly imagine. Professor Roberts taught me that so long as it was well researched and well written, every story was worth telling.
You’re currently the Communications Manager for the National Humanities Alliance (NHA). What does your work at NHA entail, and what is your favorite part about what you do?
My day to day varies tremendously, and that’s part of what I really enjoy about my job at NHA. I can begin my mornings sending out messages to our members that include everything from legislative updates to conference registration announcements, and then end my day on Capitol Hill meeting with Members of Congress and/or their staff to advocate for federal funding for the humanities. In between, I manage our website, social media accounts, press presence, and blog. I also keep tabs on where we are in the appropriations process, and help determine how and when we need to mobilize our grassroots advocates, among other things.
I would have to say that my favorite part about working at NHA is our annual Humanities Advocacy Day. Each March, humanities advocates from across the nation come to Washington, D.C. to help us advocate for funding for the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) on Capitol Hill. I absolutely love helping our advocates tell their Members of Congress about how the NEH, and the humanities more broadly, have positively impacted their lives and their communities and why the funding is so important. Even though it is a really exhausting day—keeping track of our advocates and their schedules is no small task as anyone at NHA can tell you—I always come away with an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the work our humanities advocates do and all of the good it does in communities across the country.
The NHA has an initiative called “NEH for All,” which examines National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) grantees across the nation. Of the many NEH-funded publicly engaged humanities projects highlighted, which is your favorite and why?
It is incredibly hard to choose because we feature so many wonderful projects on NEH for All
. However, the Seward Community Library and Museum
is definitely one of my favorites. Seward, Alaska is a remote community located on the Kenai peninsula right below Kenai Fjords National Park. With the help of an NEH Challenge Grant, the city was able to raise $1.5 million to build a beautiful community space that houses a public library, local history museum, archive, and community center. The museum allows the community’s residents and visitors alike to learn about local history, including an earthquake and tsunami that once wiped out much of the town. In addition to providing extensive public programing, the library has computers with internet that are available for public use, which is so important in a community like Seward where internet access can be prohibitively expensive, as it is across much of Alaska.
Another one of my favorite projects is the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University’s The Most Southern Place on Earth
, a summer seminar for K-12 teachers. This professional development workshop brings teachers from across the U.S. to the Mississippi Delta to learn about the Delta’s past and present, focusing on the region’s role in the Civil Rights Movement and the development of blues music. When teachers return to their classrooms, they not only bring back new knowledge about the Mississippi Delta, but also new methods for teaching local and regional history.
What was the best advice you were ever given and who gave it to you?
The best advice I have ever received was given to me by Dr. Benno P. Fritz, the former director of bands at GWU. During symphonic band practice, he would often tell us to “let the most important thing, be the most important thing.” While he was often speaking in terms of the music—to let the most important instrument or the most important melody stand out among all of the other “noise”—he also encouraged us to apply that principle to our lives more generally. He was always there to remind us that the test we didn’t do as well as we had hoped on, or the paper we should have put more effort into, or the silly fight we had with our roommate, was no longer important in that moment. What was important in that moment was the friend we were currently talking to, or the basketball team we were shouting at to make their free throws, or the music we were all playing together. And if we lived our lives by focusing on what was truly most important in that current moment, we would find ourselves to be happier. And I, for one, have always found that he was right.
Why do you think Phi Beta Kappa and a well-rounded liberal arts and sciences education are important in today’s society?
For a while, my desktop background was a graphic that read: “Science can tell you how to clone a Tyrannosaurus Rex. Humanities can tell you why this might be a bad idea.” In a society that seems to be constantly racing toward the next best thing, I believe it is important to have that balance that helps us understand the relationship between what it is going to take—scientifically, technologically, etc.—to reach the next best thing and the ethical and societal consequences of doing so. When we collaborate and think things through on both sides of that equation, we help society progress. And while we continue this race forward, having an organization like Phi Beta Kappa that stresses the importance of that balance between the sciences and the liberal arts will remain incredibly important.
What book are you reading right now? Are you listening to any podcasts or watching any shows? Anything you'd recommend?
I just finished reading Less
by Andrew Sean Greer. It was a really fantastic read that was, first and foremost, a reflection on what it means to love someone. It was also deeply contemplative and humorous in really unexpected ways. Just recently, I saw Scott Westerfeld speak at the National Book Festival. He spoke in a compelling way about how working with an illustrator changed the way he approached writing and helped him grow as a writer. It was one of the best author talks I’ve seen at the National Book Festival and I’d like to start reading one of his series next.
I’m always listening to way too many podcasts, but my favorite would have to be “No Such Thing as a Fish.” It’s a British podcast that features four researchers for the radio gameshow QI discussing their four favorite facts of the week. I think it is absolutely hilarious, and I always learn something new.
Photo credit: Emily Chastain Photography