The Tangled Webs We Leave: Identity and #Postac

One of my first posts here at Walking Ledges was about the emotional toll of quitting the Academy. That post was responsible for a significant (and wholly unexpected) spike in traffic when it was featured on Minnesota Public Radio’s higher education blog. I wasn’t sure how to feel about that. My blog wasn’t even a month old, and it was supposed to be about writing. “Of Carrots…” was an attempt to explain where I’d been rather than where I was. I wrote it mostly for myself, never intending to make it the “face” of my blog. (I was also annoyed that MPR excerpted the most anguished part of the post while ignoring the hopeful notes that came later.)

The thing is, my most popular posts have been, at least tangentially, about life as a post-academic. Even the post that won me my Freshly Pressed badge compared NaNoWriMo to doing a dissertation. More recently, I’ve gotten traffic on posts about the awkward need to go back to school even with a PhD in hand and about the enduring pull (suck?) of university teaching. That’s not what Walking Ledges is “supposed” to be about. Here, I’m not just another post-ac having a rough go of it. I’m a writer.

Except, you know, I’m also just another post-ac having a rough go of it.

That’s part of who I am right now, a story that’s as worth telling as that of my fictional characters running through my made-up city constructed of magic letters. Whether there’s a privilege divide among post-acs or not, there’s clear interest in the stories of making do. We fumble around on our job hunts and wrestle with our expectations. Sometimes we stare listlessly at the walls, others we apply frantically for “reach” jobs and hope that the odds will somehow favor us (just like we did when we were inside!).

So much of being a post-ac hinges on identity. Graduate school is a hermetic world of codes and rituals. Leather elbow pads and pipe-smoking in the faculty lounge might be bygones, but that doesn’t mean that we no longer have ideas about what “professorial” means. Exploitative or not, grad school is an apprenticeship. It is as much turning you into something as training you to do something.

That doesn’t go away…or it hasn’t gone away for me. I haven’t thought of myself as an academic for the better part of a year (even though I presented a paper at AMS back in November). Despite that, I still think about academia more often than I’d like. I tell stories about my substitute teaching in much the same way people complain about traffic or the weather. They’re ephemeral. I’ve only recently incorporated being a writer into my dinner party small talk. Nothing has really eclipsed post-ac as the superstructure of my identity.

Mostly, that’s okay. My recent dive back into the #postac blogosphere has been a reminder of just how messy these transitions are. There are things to be angry about. There are things to be depressed about. There are things to be confused about. The nice bit about being outside? We can dial back our self-censorship about that stuff.  We do not have to maintain our immaculate professional images.

In other words, we can let our identities be a little wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey. Or, more accurately, we can acknowledge that they already are. I’m a writer. I’m a post-ac. I am, at the moment, a substitute teacher spending spring break with his kids. We love the metaphor of the caterpillar turning into the butterfly, but only entomologists talk about the gooey biology that goes on inside the chrysalis. (I have a feeling I might end up more moth than butterfly.) Getting out of academia is gooey. It is “messy” in ways more personal than the situations those of us in humanities threw that word at. Some people might manage a clean break with their academic identity. I haven’t. Maybe you haven’t either.

You’re welcome here regardless.

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