When, if ever, do you stop being a postac?
As I take concrete steps from teaching college students toward teaching middle school, I’ve been wondering about that. There is so much to do that I don’t think much about how I spent the years between 2006 and 2012. The piece I wrote for How to Leave Academia ends with “The postac is dead. Long live the postac.” Those words felt right (and still do), but I’m not sure what they mean. Not precisely, anyway—I have at least a vague sense of movement from one phase of postac to another.
That transition has been slow and erratic. Some has simply come from passing time. My perspective on my years inside the Academy has changed in the same way you get over any bad breakup. I remember the good times and better recognize the warning signs that a bad end was coming. I just don’t feel gut-punched every time the subject comes up anymore. (I am also grateful that I avoided having an academic breakup song.)
Writing about the transition has helped, too. I’ve been completely out for a year—despite just discovering a missed rejection e-mail the other day—and blogging about #postac for ten months. Before I could write about them, I had to get my postac experiences straight in my head. I had to give them shape. Sometimes my ideas bounced off the work of other writers, postac or not. I wrote about reconstructing narrative even as I was reconstructing mine, post by post. The reconstruction isn’t complete, but that doesn’t matter. It never will be. What matters is that having a platform and necessity to organize my thoughts has helped me do so.
I also, for the first time since I defended my dissertation, have some idea of what the future looks like. From vague ideas of “doing something with writing,” I’ve gone to a nearly-finished novel and a clear course of action to resume teaching. The context won’t be the same. (I don’t recall ever having to tell my college students to sit down in the middle of class.) The teaching will come from the same place, though. I’ve mentioned before that I liked the teaching parts of grad school more than the research. Middle schools aren’t glamorous. Even as a long-term sub I’ve had to deal with parents and standardized tests and curriculum controls. The kids drive you crazy, but they’re also just beginning to discover their potential and decide how they want to use it. Trading the “life of the mind” for spending time around those discoveries seems worth it.
That brings me back around to that initial question: when do you stop being a postac? Grad school hammers academic identity into you. Postac often leeches it out. If you stop identifying as an academic, do you stop identifying as a postac? Does moving from “a PhD” to “with a PhD” mean something? Where does alt-ac fit into the picture? The job I’m doing won’t directly involve my graduate degrees. I will be neither analyst nor consultant. I won’t be publishing articles. Aside from the classroom, what I will soon be doing does not have much in common with what I used to do. I do not spend much time thinking about musicology these days.
Does that mean I’m not really a postac anymore? Not exactly. Deciding that I’m not a postac anymore would mean buying into the same idea that made leaving grad school so miserable: that our degrees, our jobs, and the relationship between the two define us. I don’t remember everything I knew when I took my comps. I still know a lot of it, and I can still speak convincingly about my research and methodology and the importance of the questions I asked. You could plunk me in front of a world music class tomorrow and I’d probably be fine. Graduate school changed the way I think and expanded my figurative toolbox. Some of those tools will gather dust. Others might get loaned to a neighbor and forgotten. I still developed them. I earned my degree.
I can be a postac without defining myself by my departure. I’ve also realized that “happy postac” is not an oxymoron. That’s been trickier; I’ve only really figured it out in the last few days. For most of the last year, I’ve defined myself as postac not only because I’ve been struggling to figure my life out without the academy, but also because I’ve often been miserable doing it. That’s why I worried about my postac posts turning into whining. There are lots of blog posts and articles about the problems of the underemployed PhD, and about how often adjuncts get hosed by the system. It’s tough out here. Just as there has to be room for the stories of flailing (as mine has been) and the stories of quick success (as some of the most chipper postac consultancies crow about), there must also be room for stories of further transition and alternative definitions of success.
Breaking up with academia is rough. Some of us rebound quickly, some slowly. Regardless, we carry our old relationships into our new ones. It’s okay to love again. You can, I think, still be a postac.
What about you? I’d love comments on how you have continued to define (or not define) yourself as “postac.” Is it something that ends?
I love this post. I’m still finishing up dissertation but having been looking for alt-ac or nonprofit work for nearly a year. I proctor LSATs and GREs to get by. The pay is not good (and that’s putting it mildly), but I do like being in a classroom. So, my transition story has some commonalities with yours. (I think maybe we should coin the term “peri-ac” to cover all the permutations.) To your question: I think yes, one can be post-ac for as long as you feel it fits. After all, the life of the mind is real. One issue I’ve been wrestling with (and that my blog wrestles with) is: how do you keep the life of the mind alive, well alive, without an academic context? I fear that sounds snobbish, but it seems like a very real issue as job search assumes the proportions of a job. I really fear losing the, for lack of a better term, think space that academia is.
One of my many realizations leading away from academia was that “the life of the mind” can easily get ridiculously abstract. Part of that was my area of study: neither musicology nor comparative studies lead anywhere practical. My adjunct jobs were teaching world music, which meant more to me—that class (especially for non-majors) has the opportunity to open minds in ways that get well outside the classroom. I just didn’t have the emotional investment in my discipline that many of my colleagues had. (Sometimes that helped, but not always.) The pivot to other interests came naturally on the heels of my defense.
In terms of keeping that life of the mind alive, I’d suggest that there’s nothing but money keeping you from retaining membership in professional organizations. (I ditched some of my memberships but still keep tabs on the ones that most interested me.) The internet’s full of people to ramble esoterically with. As you point out, though, time is the real limiting factor. I don’t have any great answers for that. Priorities must.
Thanks for this. It’s very enlightening to hear what other people’s experiences have been. One point, though–by life of the mind I don’t (necessarily) mean remaining in academia. I mean more just having a space to cogitate and share with the rest of the world–a kind of ongoing grad seminar space, if an ideal grad seminar. I think both being a blogger and reading postac blogs is supplying some of this space.
Just read your post about teaching certification. I have been thinking a lot about standardized tests and anxiety because I’ve been proctoring them. Good luck!