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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the art of complaining: an adjunct’s dilemma

I am a terrible complainer.

But I should clarify.

I rock when I’m ranting around the house about my kids’ messy rooms, fraudulent insurance companies or environmental desecration. But the complaints of an adjunct? This is a different and more difficult thing to do. If you hope to persuade your audience of an injustice that you have personally suffered, you’ll be better off if you can make them trust you, empathize with you…like you. Otherwise, they just might blame you.

Before starting my memoir in 2004, I read Ghosts in the Classroom, a collection of essays about adjuncting published in 2001. I thought it was an important book, giving voice to a subject that, at the time, was shrouded in silence.

Still, taken together, the essays wore me out. I didn’t doubt the stories of hardship and loss. I empathized with the writers, and I wanted the message to get out, but despite that, I found the barrage of negative experiences overwhelming. I knew better than to blame the writers for their predicaments, but I wondered, would readers outside the academy be so generous?

How do you tell a miserable story without making your reader miserable? Without inviting blame?

I saw this as the challenge of my memoir–a problem I set out to avoid from the beginning. To do so, I decided I would tell the story of the whole person, not just the adjunct. I would pack the hard knot of my adjunct misery in a box padded with personal and palatable things like motherhood, marriage and my passion for graduate school.

By making myself real, I would illuminate the university’s exploitative labor practices without sounding like a whiner.

While I’m confessing silly little fantasies, I should admit I also told myself that I would keep a positive face while adjuncting–that I would view it as a temporary situation to be observed and commented upon, but not internalized.

You know where this is going.

I didn’t get through the opening paragraphs before face-planting on each of those ambitions.

The thing is, I couldn’t see it. Over the years, the writing and editing of this book has occurred in isolation, in the narrow spaces that opened between tutoring, parenting and grant writing. That changed when I got into a writing group this past year.

And the crux of the feedback is: I’m a lowdown dirty rotten complainer. A griper. A whiner to the Nth degree.

How the heck did that happen?

These are my long-held first paragraphs, the ones I just cut. I wrote them in my communal office during my first day on the adjunct-job nine long years ago:

“Here I sit, in my office. My first teaching gig since the Ph.D. and I can’t silence the voice in my head: “don’t be cynical, don’t be cynical, don’t be cynical.” Rather than come across as bitter and negative, I feel compelled to wow people with my resilience. How deep did I dig to find that wellspring of optimism? Impressive, isn’t it, how I can make good from the bad; how I am professionally and personally gratified by the essence of teaching, how I can rise above the pettiness of my employment status? But a coffee stain lies splattered in a sheet down the wall next to my desk. It’s brownish, amorphous and large. Maybe it’s not coffee? I note other, darker droplets that resemble blood. Not blood, I’m sure, but even so, when I look at them, I feel a thickness in my throat. Revolted, I turn away, but they lure me back like a crumpled car on the side of a highway.

I could clean the stain off the wall—obviously. But I think of this as more of an experiment than a job—I’m not really employed here, am I? I fathom myself an observer—an anthropologist of sort—curious about this culture of part-time work that has grown like unwelcome algae in the Petri dish of academia. My research questions: how long will that stain remain on the wall? Do the custodians ever come in here? Will an over-zealous co-worker scrub it off in the enthusiasm of his or her first day? Or will it just fade away like the occupants of this office?

My eye follows the brown trail down below my table and the voice in my head makes way for bitter words like irony, hypocrisy, exploitation…cynicism. And there it is. What a goddamned disappointment that is.”

The crazy thing is that I was surprised when my writers’ group asked me why I was so bitter on the first day.

“Bitter?” I said. “Which part was bitter?” I thought I’d started off like a firecracker.

Then I reread it through their eyes and it looked quite different to me. Way more negative than I ever intended.

I had a few days of crisis after this revelation. Workshopping a memoir is a funny thing because critique of the writing can so easily feel like critique of the writer. We’re not talking about made up characters here. We’re talking about a real person with real feelings, and as the case may have it, real bitterness.

Was I just a negative and miserable old curmudgeon, dissing my work before I gave it a chance? And was this my persona in general? Complaining about my kids’ slovenliness? The dog smell in the carpet? Fracking? The Tea Party? The botched roll-out of Healthcare.gov? Was it all just me?

Time to take a step back.

I separated myself from the critique, but in saving myself, I couldn’t save the writing, which on closer inspection had enough whine coming out off it to make my dog howl.

I considered the advice of my writing group. They wanted to remove all of my lovely and bitter turns of phrase, all of my biting criticisms, all of my damning judgments. Things like: “I knew the university would treat me badly. What I didn’t know, was that I would begin to treat it badly.” I had cherished that line. (And how clever for me to figure out a way to share it with you here).

While I saw their points, I felt frustrated by my original question: How do you tell a story like this without alienating the reader? I could feel my neck getting hot as we discussed it around our computers because some of this felt like the old totalitarian pressures of grad school that dictated we take everything with a smile. No one said it out loud but as a graduate student I knew: never let them see you sweat. No doubt this pressure lay at the root of my feeling that I should “wow people with my resilience” as an adjunct.

I had to remind myself that my writing group didn’t want to silence the story, they just wanted me to tell it in a way that didn’t make readers hate me.

I needed to complain and be likable at the same time.

Part of the problem is my personality. I don’t have flair. One of the “characters” in my book answered almost every one of our adjunct dilemmas with a laugh and a flippant “fuck that!” which only made me like her more. Why couldn’t I be brazen and shocking and charming?

Instead, I’m so…serious? reserved?

Whatever it is, I can’t change that shock-value complaints don’t work for me. I’ll never be that person who makes you laugh with the F-word, so I have to find another way. As I floundered around, one member of my writing group said, “get rid of all the value judgments! Just tell your story and let the reader decide.”

That is some brilliant advice.

Readers don’t want to be told how to feel about something, they want to be inspired to draw their own conclusions.

So I’m back at the drawing board. So far, I’ve excised all of the opinions, ruminations and condemnations from the first quarter of the book. I cut everything from that opening section but the story of the coffee stain, which I rewrote.

I feel liberated, like I’m uncovering something shiny from under a heavy pile of dead leaves.

How ironic that after years of teaching my students to “show don’t tell,” I’m finally figuring out how to do it myself.

independent scholar? not so much

Over the last winter holidays, my son and husband went to Florida for a soccer tournament. I stayed home with Olivia, enjoying a week of rare quiet. The weather, with its curtains of grey, asked us to stay inside. My students, happy for a holiday break from tutoring, asked me to stay home. And Olivia, having just turned 12, asked me to give her some space.

By chance, I had just bought a book, The Renewal of Cultural Studies, edited by Paul Smith. It caught my eye first because the contributors include two of my former professors, but the subject also intrigued me. It addresses the apparent need for Cultural Studies scholars to regroup: to better walk the tightrope that would define the underlying assumptions of their discipline without succumbing to the rigidity of those assumptions. I wonder if a self-consciousness about that conundrum, set out so early in the work, isn’t itself the definition of how to do cultural studies, but regardless, for me, the work promised a review of the current state of the field. I was curious. What had transpired without me?

When I left the academy seven years ago, I did it with the intention of continuing my research. I thought maybe I’d even be an “independent scholar.” I wonder if we all tell ourselves we’ll do this, or if some people walk away with the intention of never looking back, never ever cracking another academic book. I thought I’d regularly browse the CHE; I’d subscribe to a few choice journals; I’d read selected texts.

Nada.

Well, I do read the Chronicle, but I admit there was a chunk of time where I couldn’t even manage that. I threw myself instead into researching dyslexia, ADHD, and anxiety so that I could better assist my kids as well as my students. I spent hours in the kitchen learning how to cook gluten/dairy/egg-free from scratch for Olivia. I found myself again writing into the wee hours of the morning, this time racing to meet grant (instead of academic) deadlines.

Depending on my mood, reading scholarly work felt laborious, frivolous, luxurious, or even ridiculous. I didn’t have time for any of that. Without the professional imperatives to publish or teach, I couldn’t make that kind of reading a priority.

What really surprised me, however: when I did try to engage with things academic, I found the reading to be painful and isolating. I had been trained to weigh in, either as a student, as a teacher, or as a writer. Without a classroom, a reading group, or a research project, I had no where in which to express myself.

I discovered that I had been silenced.

Yes, technically I could have written papers for journals and conferences, but realistically, for a mother of school-aged kids with two unrelated part-time jobs, that wasn’t happening. For all intents and purposes, I had lost my academic voice. The voices of others, ringing out in classrooms, in journals and in books, simply reminded me of that. Their ideas prompted questions I couldn’t ask, reactions I couldn’t offer, revelations I couldn’t share.

I couldn’t take it.

So I turned my back, happier to pretend those voices didn’t exist.

I don’t know what prompted me to do it, but I started poking around on the internet last fall to see if anything new and interesting popped out at me. That’s how I came across The Renewal. Soon after purchasing it, the circumstances randomly arose which gave me the time and quiet I needed to actually read it.

I sat, just as I always used to, curled in the corner of my couch with a cup of tea, and cracked the binding. I didn’t expect to have a voice anymore. I didn’t expect to weigh in. Instead, I read with the distance of the curious, a thing afforded me, I suppose, by the years that had passed.

I admit, however, that I cringed when I got to the chapter written by graduate students. I could so easily imagine their glee at the coup–their names would appear in an anthology! But really, my envy dissipated quickly into a sort of sickening feeling for them. Perhaps they will become professors who benefit from fair and satisfying working conditions. Perhaps they already have. Regardless, that’s not the case for most grad students, and I know all too well how quickly the victory of publication, which feels so momentous when it happens, can dissolve into irrelevance on a hypercompetitive job market.

So yes, I am still capable of these unhealthy feelings, but my gratitude that the JIL doesn’t concern me anymore ultimately won out. I shut the door on the weird combination of envy and pity that stood, arms folded, on my stoop and simply read their piece and others with a burning interest I hadn’t felt in a long time.

I didn’t get to hash over the essays with anyone. In fact, I didn’t even finish the book. The holiday passed, Steve and Gareth came home, schedules took over. Although The Renewal sits hopefully on my nightstand, it’s not the book I choose when I stumble into bed at midnight after helping Gareth with geometry homework or reading with Olivia for an English project due the next day.

No, I don’t choose it. But you know what? I don’t shelve it either.

I am no longer an academic. I have never been an independent scholar. But I am still an intellectual. I just live in the real world where these scholarly endeavors that can light me up so consistently, feel oh so much like a privilege I still cannot afford.