Image: Catherine Ahearn
Catherine Ahearn ’11 talks to NER intern Brett Sorbo ’24 about living in Boston, exploring special collections libraries, and trusting her gut.
Brett Sorbo: Where are you now, geographically and professionally?
Catherine Ahearn: Currently I live in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I moved to Boston for grad school in September 2011 and have been here ever since! I work as the head of communities and am a co-founder of the nonprofit called Knowledge Futures. We’re a distributed team with staff all over the world, but I work from home.
BS: You received a PhD in Editorial Studies in 2017. Could you tell us a little about that field and what motivated you to pursue it after Middlebury?
CA: I had no idea what Editorial Studies was when I was investigating graduate school programs and even just grad school generally as a potential next step for me. My advisor, Professor Stephen Donadio, called me one day in the summer of 2011 and suggested I look into the program. His hunch was spot-on! I had been turned off by how theoretical many of the English PhD programs I was looking at seemed to be and I really wanted something more practical, helpful, and hands-on. The Editorial Institute at Boston University was co-founded by poet Geoffrey Hill and literary critic and scholar, Christopher Ricks. It focuses more on applied methodologies for more effectively communicating and recontextualizing information. This can mean anything from considering the merits, gains, and losses of a digital versus a print edition of a body of work to smaller questions about how you indicate notes within a text. I worked on a project that immersed me in archives and special collections libraries in the United States and Europe to track down information and make the columns of Irish author Brian O’Nolan more knowable and accessible. I loved that there was something groundingly practical about it while each annotation I wrote took me on a little rabbit hole where I got to learn new things and track down new information.
BS: You went to Boston University for your PhD and are currently working at MIT in Cambridge. What do you enjoy about being in the Metro Boston area?
CA: The community of people my husband and I have here is the best part. We both went to grad school here, so most of our friends are college friends (Middlebury and WashU) and friends from MIT. Cambridge feels like a little town in many ways and I try to lean into that as much as possible. I love our familiarity with local business owners and the fact that we see the same people at the dog park every morning. All the while we also have the perks of being in a big US city (and rarely need to use our car).
BS: What sage advice would you offer to Middlebury students? Is there anything that you wish you had done in your undergraduate years?
CA: Oh gosh. I have no sage advice! I think the best thing you can do is trust your own process. Mine was so circuitous, and I often felt that I had no idea what I was doing or where my choices were leading me. Sometimes this is still the case. But in retrospect I see that I often let my passions and strengths guide me, even if steps didn’t always make logical sense. When I look back on my time at Middlebury I’m just extremely grateful for those years. If anything, I wish I had spent more time there, maybe worked on campus or in Vermont for a summer; did one less off-campus J-term internship. But I do find comfort in knowing that even while I was a student I was aware of how lucky I was.
BS: Tell us something that you especially remember from your internship at NER. It could be a story, something you read, or even a lasting impression.
CA: I remember that one of my jobs at NER was to read through and sort the incoming submissions. I imagine most of these come electronically these days, but even in 2011 there was surprisingly still a lot of hard mail to open. I read one short story that I didn’t think was very good—but it was written by an established and very successful author. I remember questioning myself. Should I propose it be accepted anyway? After some discussion with Carolyn and others, the piece was rejected for NER. I think about this sometimes not only when I’m tempted to doubt my intuition in a situation, but also when I fail at something (even award-winning authors write bad stories sometimes!).
BS: What are you reading these days in your spare time?
CA: I’ve really taken to audiobooks lately and like to listen to them while I’m walking my dog or doing things around the house. I recently listened to The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai and loved it. The story and the way Makkai implements time as a device has stuck with me. Next on my list is the new George Saunders collection, Liberation Day.