post-ac community: who gets to speak?

I distanced myself a bit from social media these last few months and I’m sorry to discover, upon my return, that there’s trouble in Denmark, so to speak. I’m not even sure of the scope of it as I missed the twitter exchanges that apparently took place, but I can see from blog posts there was a debate about privilege within the post-ac community that has left some feeling like we’re divided and others questioning whether they should continue blogging.

I’m jumping in a day late and a dollar short, so perhaps I should keep quiet about it all, but I feel like I want to weigh in because I think this online post-ac community is such a valuable thing. After suffering the silence around what was happening to Ph.D.’s who left academe back when I did it in 2006, I know the value of connecting with others who have left the academy. It’s worth it to invest time and energy in preserving this positive space.

The tough thing about a community like this is that it must strike a balance between those who have found their way to a satisfying work/pay situation and those still struggling to do so.

The overarching point of the post that seems to have caused the debate, Post-Ac Privilege Divide from over at How to Leave Academia (HTLA), is that we don’t hear often enough from (or provide enough support for) those who are struggling to piece together their post-ac lives.

I think this is an excellent point and I’m glad the authors drew attention to it. I admit, however, that I’m also not too surprised there was some sort of backlash. I think that the piece’s attempt to divide our community by degrees of privilege distracts from its important argument about lack of balance by suggesting (inadvertently?) we should hear less from those who are more popular or who enjoy more financial security rather than just pushing to hear more from those who are currently underrepresented.

This sets us up to argue about who’s privileged and who’s not (who gets to speak and who doesn’t), leading to further debate about how we define privilege.

Of course, I say all that without knowing what much of the argument was about, so it’s just a guess.

What I find relevant about a discussion of privilege is that we acknowledge as a group how much easier it is to speak and be heard if you come from a position of privilege. If you are working three jobs to put food on the table, you are far less likely to find time for blogging or Twitter. Privilege affords access to a computer, time/energy to write, and time/energy to network on social media. So people with the luxuries of time and energy are more likely to engage with this community in an active way.

Also, even for those who have all of these things, I imagine we’re more likely to share our successes, or our steps towards positive change, than we are to share the days we spent staring at a wall because we couldn’t figure out how to move forward after the devastation of leaving our academic careers behind. In this sense, the stories of struggle are also less likely to get told.

Consequently, as a community and regardless of our individual backgrounds, we should remain conscious of imbalance in our story-telling to be sure we clear space for those still finding their way.

The transition out of academe can be long and arduous. Those just embarking on this journey need to know they’re not alone – that others are flat broke and in debt, working less than desirable jobs, feeling unemployable, questioning their worth, and questioning their investment in graduate school. But struggling post-acs can also benefit from the flip side, from seeing others like them who have discovered their marketable skills and have found satisfying work outside the academy.

The authors at HTLA are right, the post-ac movement needs balance. I just wouldn’t want to argue for silencing any particular voice to get it. Rather than call for fewer rants in national venues, fewer feel-good tweets or blog posts, or fewer paid sources of advice and information, I’d say we need all those things to remain in addition to all the things the authors at HTLA call for: more stories of struggle, more open source advice, more measured and thoughtful critique of higher education.

I know I’m a bit of a quirky member of this community: I’m older than most. I have teenaged kids. I left academe 8 long years ago. Yet, I still spend time hashing out what it means to have this academic self tucked away in my head. I don’t know if that’s encouraging or discouraging for others to hear! But I do know I have always felt welcomed by other post-acs, despite my differing situation. I would want to pass that kind of welcome on to anyone else finding themselves suddenly estranged from the ivory tower.

In the interest of that, I’m happy to offer my site up for anyone with a story who is in need of a platform. Traffic is pretty modest around here, but I’m willing to share the space if it’s useful to anyone. You can leave a comment or DM me through Twitter @professornever if you’re interested.

In the meantime, I hope everyone keeps blogging, sharing and working to build and preserve a post-ac community where everyone’s voice can have a place.

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adjunct community, “Lucy Snowe,” and the trap of adjunct work

A vibrant on-line community has erupted around contingent faculty in the last five years. Articles about adjuncts and the atrophied job market have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Slate and beyond. When you add the blogs and Twitter accounts that have popped up everywhere regarding adjuncting, unionization efforts and transition from academic life, it seems a massive snowball has formed over the much troubled village of academe.

Real change may still be far out, so far that I have trouble imagining what it will look like when it finally comes, but the potential for graduate students and adjuncts to build community and organize exists on a large scale.

I am so happy to see this community form. When I worked as an adjunct from 2004 to 2006, I didn’t even know the other contingent laborers at the university where I worked, let alone those who held similar jobs across the country.

But I did have Lucy Snowe.

Not the Lucy Snowe of Brontë fame–although I’m sure the pseudonym is inspired by Brontë’s teacher-protagonist in Villette–but a Lucy Snowe who worked as an adjunct writing instructor for almost 20 years and who wrote three articles for the CHE between 2003 and 2006.

Back then, the Chronicle still materialized on my doorstep–and I didn’t even think that was quaint. When I read Snowe’s article, I’m Professor Nobody, in March 2004, I folded it up and “filed” it in a stack of books in my office.

I wouldn’t begin my own adjunct work until after I graduated that coming May, but I still recognized this public accounting of adjunct life as a novel thing.

Not even my friends wanted to talk about our plight. We had all endured at least one job search by then, so the burden of shame already weighed heavily upon us. As my colleagues graduated, they scattered to the wind, preferring, I suppose, to face the odds and lick their wounds in private.

The blogosphere was in its infancy at the time. If I’d known to look, I could have found an online source of support in the blog The Invisible Adjunct, but I was what marketing professionals call a “late adopter.” I had heard people talk about “web logs” in 2004, but I didn’t really know what that meant, and I had my hands full with young children, teaching, research and job searching. Surfing the internet never crossed my mind.

I’m sorry for that because I think The Invisible Adjunct would have been a huge support to me as I followed along in her footsteps. IA posted from 2003-2004. She quit adjuncting and blogging just as I graduated and began my first term appointment. (The blog’s archives have been offline for years, but you can read about it here. There’s also an article in the CHE: “Disappearing Act” by Scott Smallwood, but it’s behind a pay wall).

Without an awareness of this small but burgeoning online community, I only had Lucy. I pulled her article out in 2005 and re-read it as if she were a cherished friend. So many of her experiences paralleled the things I’d written about in my journal: our exclusion from faculty meetings and meaningful committees, our invisibility in the department, our miserable walks to the mailroom, our motherhood, our passion for our work, our disgust with the tenured faculty who treated us like second-class citizens, our job insecurity, and our angst about the future.

Except Lucy had been at it for decades.

I would leave academe after spring semester 2006. I’d played the “market” three times, once as a grad student and twice as an adjunct. Some would consider that a quick exit. A lot of factors went into my decision. Kids, exhaustion, pride, my own helpless form of activism (don’t let the university exploit me). But one of those reasons was Lucy Snowe. By sharing her story, she showed me the future: adjunct work would not lead to tenure-track work. It was a trap.

In the eyes of academe, Ph.D.’s are like fresh vegetables. We degrade quickly once cut from the vine. In that sense, the further you get from graduation, the less appealing you become–and adjunct work proves a poor preservative.

After I quit, I published a farewell article in the CHE. Lucy published hers, The Long Goodbye, a few months later, in October of 2006. She and I made the same analogy: the university was an abusive lover, and we saw only one way to save ourselves: leave.

When I saw Lucy’s article, I felt validated. I was sorry that her career ended as it did, but the idea that someone else made the same decision as me, leaving what she loved because it didn’t love her back–went a long way to comfort me in my terror that I’d made a mistake.

So this post is a shout-out to Lucy Snowe, wherever she may be, for having the courage to share her story in the days when we had only a trace of a snowball.

Thank you Lucy!

post-ac in a book club?

I read an excellent book last week: The First Rule of Swimming by Courtney Angela Brkic.

The novel tells the story of a postwar Croatian family scarred by war, the terrors of Yugoslav Communism, and the familial rending of emigration. I loved it for its haunted characters, for the way its vacillating narrative flattens the space between past and present, for its sense of place on Rosmarina, an imaginary island so visceral that it becomes its own character, and for its study of an intergenerational community that, like the island itself, glistens and sustains, even as it oppresses.

I can thank a friend and her book club that I read this novel at all. By coincidence, I’d seen it weeks before in the bookstore where I didn’t pick it up because the jacket whispered “romance novel” in an unfortunate misrepresentation of the richness inside.

I have never been a member of a book club. In fact, I remember ridiculing such clubs as a graduate student. While I’m embarrassed to admit that now, I’m not surprised I fell into academe’s elitism as a young student eager to prove my intellectual worth. Eventually, those feelings dissipated and the teacher emerged. As a teacher, especially of learning disabled readers, I value any group that encourages people to gather in pursuit of their literary interests.

But does that make a neighborhood book club a good home for an ex-literature scholar like myself?

So far, I haven’t thought so. If I were making my living through literature – as a writer, a critic or a professor – and I interacted regularly with a professional literary community, then perhaps it would be fun to also read literature more casually with a group of friends, family members, or neighbors. But as an ex-academic, the prospect of a neighborhood club as my only outlet for discussing literary interests has always sounded demoralizing.

Consequently, I’ve drifted for years somewhere between communities of casual and professional readers–alienated from one group by training and the other by lack of affiliation.

It’s not all so terrible as it sounds. As I’ve discussed in how I lost and found my love of literature and independent scholar? not so much, until this year, time and energy for significant amounts of literary or scholarly reading have eluded me anyway.

For this one day, however, I sat in as a guest in the unfamiliar territory of a book club because my friend had invited our writing group to come and meet the author. It was a privilege to speak with the lovely Brkic and hear about the heritage and family that inspired her novel. I also enjoyed the group’s discussion of characters Magdalena and Jadranka, two sisters working through very different relationships to their Croatian community both at home and abroad.

Afterward, I found myself thinking about exile and community, and I couldn’t help but let my thoughts wander to my own exile as a literature Ph.D., made more keen by my participation in the group that night. In the loosest sense, post-acs make up a diaspora of our own: scholars scattered to the wind, isolated from each other and alienated from our academic roots in the university.

That’s a little dramatic I suppose, and hardly the wrenching struggle that Brkic describes, but still it’s an interesting way of thinking about post-acs because it suggests we should connect with one another to preserve and cultivate our common interests.

In the spirit of fostering that kind of community, I’d love to hear comments from others who have read The First Rule of Swimming (and I encourage you to read it!) or other works, fictional or not, about postwar Croatia and its diaspora. I for one intend to read the author’s memoir, The Stone Fields as a follow-up to a novel that peaked my interest about a culture and history I know so little about.

you just miss the sex

I’m always the last to know.  I attribute it in part to my introvertedness.  I don’t get out enough.  I don’t network.  I don’t (or didn’t) blog enough.  Actually, I’ve been blogging for about a year and a half, just not here.

Since I last graced the threshold of a classroom (as an adjunct) in 2006, I’ve been almost completely cut off from university life.  Looking back, that seems rather a traumatic occurence.   At the risk of sounding like an old lady remembering the days before the telephone, I have to say: “We didn’t have blogs back in my day.”–at least not the easy user-friendly kind that any old fart can start.

It took me until 2011 before I started a blog of any kind, and it’s taken until now for me to think about writing a blog about life after academia.  Doing so prompted me to poke around for similar websites and I’ll tell you: if I thought I had an original idea, I was wrong!

I’m sorry to see so many people suffering their way out of the academy as I did, but I have to say I’m also happy to see a support community forming–something I desperately needed when my academic friends (caught similarly without tenure after graduation) scattered to the wind like dogwood petals just past their bloom.

The forty-eight hours I’ve spent perusing these websites has helped me to better understand the juncture I’ve come to, including this professor never project I’ve begun.  Most of the blogs I’ve looked at so far are written by people who only recently abandoned their academic lives (with or without degrees).  They focus primarily on the transition: how to leave, how to get a different job, and how to survive the vast array of feelings associated with those challenges.

It seems obvious, but reading about their experiences has helped me to see that I’m in a very different place.  Ironically, I think the start of this blog marks the end rather than the beginning of that transition for me.  You see, Professor Never is the title of the memoir I’ve written about my journey from corporate ladder climber to adjunct professor.  I’ve preoccupied myself with this endeavor off-and-on since I graduated (which is way too long, but that’s what kids and work will do to a writing project).

Today, the book still needs editing, and I still need an agent.  Nevertheless, I’m ready to move on–to stop writing about the process of becoming “professor never” and start writing from the perspective of simply being “professor never.”

Many of the blogs I’ve looked at so far started around 2011 then petered off, probably becoming less relevant as the authors (hopefully) found jobs and became less preoccupied with their past academic quandaries.  For those who have kept writing, I found an interesting thread.  Many are employed in “good jobs”–making decent enough money, not feeling overworked or otherwise exploited, and not regretting their choice.

They don’t complain.

I think, however, that I detect an undercurrent of boredom in many of them.  I get that.  I can feel that same specter creeping in around the molding of my own door.  When you first start working, the novelty of relatively fair pay amazes you.  The free time that embraces you like an old friend on weeknights and weekends dumbfounds you.  When the December holidays arrive for the first time without paper deadlines, grading deadlines, or the shadow of the MLA Convention darkening the winter cheer, you think you’ve really hit pay dirt.

In many ways, you have.

Eventually, however, the tread wears thin on a job that fails to satisfy your intellectual needs.  It doesn’t mean you want back in the ivory tower.  In fact, when you think about your old lover, the university, you remember him as a selfish and abusive prick.

So no, in your boredom, you don’t miss the lover.  You just miss the sex.  And the beauty of that?  You can get it elsewhere: at the library or on the internet, for free, and without a dossier to boot.