Did I Fail?

[It’s August and I’m back! Mostly, anyway.]

Even outside of the Academy, there are people who truly believe “postac” and “failed academic” are synonyms. For those postacs who believe that (and it’s a persistently pernicious belief to try and overcome), there still must be a sense that being a “failed” academic is more worthwhile than continuing the struggle to find success inside the Academy. I’ve been wondering lately, though, did I fail? My answer is ‘no,’ but I still wonder why we have to ask.

What if, for example, I had spent seven years waiting tables instead of chasing a doctorate. Realizing that waiting tables is a dead end, I then decide to change careers. Who would call me a failed waiter? Anybody? What if I’d been working on a novel while I was waiting tables? Would I be a failed novelist in addition to being a failed waiter, or instead of being a failed waiter?

In raw economic terms, quitting the adjuncting racket is much more like quitting food service. The economic numbers for adjuncts are awful. The living situation is often just as precarious as in food service. (Given student debt accumulated in graduate school, it can sometimes be worse.) We don’t talk about failed waiters because we understand the economics of it. If you get out of waiting tables, the assumption is that you’ll be moving up in the world. (But treat your servers well!)

Writers are just as prone to socio-economic struggles as waiters. They don’t call ‘em “starving artists” for nothing. But there’s still an idea that you can fail at being a writer in a way we’d be reluctant to ascribe failure at waiting tables. Caveat: I grew up in a restaurant. I understand that it’s possible to be really, really bad at waiting tables. (There’s a reason I always worked in the kitchen.) We just don’t usually decide those people are failures. The difference, I think, is in ambition. Unless you’re aiming to become a master sommelier, taking people’s orders doesn’t require ambition, just endless tolerance of human shortcomings.

Being a writer—or becoming a college professor—does require ambition. To do so is to seek status, to angle for a space in the cultural field that sets you apart. Because success brings (perceived) privileges, failure matters. Being an especially good waiter does not get you much more than (hopefully) good tips. Being an especially good writer or scholar or professor does. Those are avenues to become something bigger than you once were. Ambition raises the stakes; the more success matters, the more failure matters.

I’m lucky. I don’t have to deal with the extra raft of anxieties that go with leaving while ABD. I succeeded at graduate school, more or less. I suffered a few disparaging comments about my knowledge of musical works in the wake of my comprehensives, but those didn’t bother me. I got on well with my colleagues and enjoyed being on both sides of the classroom. Most importantly, I wrote a big stonking pile about new music in New York in the 1970s and got four professors to sign off on it. I earned the right to be called Doctor Plocher (and to make “not that kind of doctor” jokes).

By the metric of meeting ambition, though, I certainly failed.  I did not go on to rock the musicology world with my ideas about music and sociology. I did not get tenure at a tier one research university nor an Ivy nor a SLAC nor even a regional directional university. I did not, in fact, get a tenure-track job at all. I gave up on adjuncting before it could devour me. (Grad school did enough of that.) If the goal was to become a tenured scholar (and it was), I failed.

I can’t help coming back around to the question of the waiter, though. Goals change. More importantly, needs change. A starving artist might happily starve herself, but decide that her new significant other is worth making stability with. Most people have different needs at 35 than they did at 25. People switch careers. Frequently. In most cases, they get to do so without being labeled failures. There’s a lesson for postacs in that. We don’t have to carry our labels out of the Academy with us.


Checking Boxes Part III

Regular readers have no doubt noticed my posts haven’t been quite as regular. I’m in the middle of moving and finishing my teaching certification. I should be back to my twice-weekly update schedule next month.

I wonder how many advocates for online education have taken classes on-line. Seriously. My alternative certification program features an online component, and it is one of the most stultifying things I’ve ever had to do. It’s not that the content is bad, but it’s delivered in 3-500 word snippets, sometimes with a video. (Sometimes that video is even related to the content.) You read through a few of these pages, then you take a quiz. If you do not answer all the questions correctly, you take the quiz again with slightly different questions. Then you start on a fresh batch of pages until the next quiz.

The quizzes are there to create accountability. Some platforms will let you skip straight to the quizzes without reading/viewing the material, but not the one my program uses. My problem is not with the quizzes. I just wonder how checking boxes online demonstrates…anything beyond a basic acquaintance with the material. The quizzes pretty closely match the ones I used to use in my college courses to make sure my students did their reading and listening.

After those quizzes, though, there was the rest of the class, the part where we actually discussed and practiced and synthesized information: the part where we learned. There has not been much of that on-line. Theoretically, I know, online courses include some sort of forum or other means for feedback or discussion. (I’ve used online portals for in-classroom classes before.) There isn’t one for my current program. Aside from the quizzes, there’s no output from my end. It’s not much different from just reading a textbook and doing the end-of-chapter activities.

The in-person sessions involve more interaction. There’s plenty of lecture…and PowerPoint…and videos…but we also talk things through in small groups. We stray off-topic. We share our experiences. The people going through an alternative certification program have diverse backgrounds. I’ve sat with former delivery drivers and other former college instructors. Many of us have subbed. Some have taught in private schools. Most of us are on at least our second career; some are in their third and fourth. None of that makes the sessions perfect. I still get bored to the edge of tears on occasion. There’s more learning, though, than just the content. We swap resources for test preparation and the job hunt. There is honest-to-FSM networking.

The qualification tests themselves have more in common with the online portions of the course. They are (mostly) checking boxes (well, ovals) on a screen. Sometimes the questions have a degree of nuance. Most of them are more like playing Jeopardy!—the questions are worded to activate the appropriate background knowledge. Once you learn Texas’s preferred pedagogy jargon, you’re more than halfway to the right answer. (I felt this particularly with the English as a Second Language supplemental exam.) Coupling common sense and rudimentary knowledge with, you know, paying attention is enough to get you through.

It’s hoop-jumping, and I’m a little concerned that becoming a teacher is merely jumping through the right hoops. I remind myself, though, that the tests explicitly check for the knowledge of beginning teachers. I’m okay with having those tests represent only the absolute baseline. I’m even more okay with going through the hoops because there’s a far more legitimate chance at a job than the one that waited for me after my dissertation.

And for now, at least, I won’t even have to teach online.

Knowing is Half the Something Something

G.I. Joe taught me that knowing is half the battle. The Joes were suspiciously silent on what the other half might be…maybe it was “fight enemies with extraordinarily poor depth perception.” Two different events this weekend, though, got me thinking about what I know, what other people know, and what I sometimes expect other people to know.

Saturday: The Known Knowns

Most of the time, I think that signing up for the face-to-face teacher training sessions was a good thing. There’s legitimate networking that happens at the classes, the people are nice, and the air conditioning keeps the conference rooms colder than I can responsibly keep my apartment. (I also can’t put them off as easily as the purely on-line sections of the training.) By the end of Saturday, I was not so sure.

The material, taken out of context, is often interesting. Primary and secondary educators like to dabble in neuroscience, taking bits and pieces of things (like different loci of activity for different kind of learning) and concocting theories to support them (like “learning styles,” which do not actually work the way you might think). There are practical tips about applying for jobs and navigating state mandates once you’ve got one. We spent time addressing the standards that go with the state’s academic achievement exams. We also discussed how to convert those into objectives for one or more lessons.

That’s where things went off the rails. The distinction between items on the state guidelines and objectives for lessons just…escaped…some members of the class. First the instructor, then other members of the class, tried to guide the lost back to clarity. No dice. For forty-five minutes, we circled and circled what was basically a question of semantics.

It reminded me of graduate school.

Actually, it reminded me more keenly of some of my undergraduate classes. Those drove me crazy when we had to go over material more than once. Most of the time, I got it on the first pass and had little sympathy for anybody who needed to repeat it. By the time we hit the third or fourth repetition, I had generally begun writing nasty things directly into my notes or into the doodles that fill the margin. Until this last weekend, I hadn’t thought of those moments for years. As a room full of aspiring teachers tried to restate the information in as many different forms as possible, I found myself writing unkind things in my notes. (In German, even.) Intellectually, I don’t blame them. Asking questions is the responsible thing to do, especially when understanding the answers will affect how you deal with the young people you’ll be responsible for. Emotionally? Man, was I bad at mustering sympathy. That’s one of many things I need to practice.

I wrote a while back about being “the smartest one in the room.” There are some very smart people taking this alternative certification course, but it’s a much truer cross-section of the population than graduate school was. It is taking some time and effort to adjust to that, to sort out what I know because I’ve taught before, what I know because of my general level of education and, most importantly, what I only think I know. That’s the vital part for me, because I, too, am going to be responsible for young people. It doesn’t matter if I already know 75-90% of what we spend any given Saturday plowing through; it matters that I get a grasp on the 10-25% I don’t. In this case, the other half of the battle is biting my tongue and keeping my attention in the right place.

Sunday: The Unknown Knowns

I spent all day Saturday in class. I spent most of Sunday doing other things—first dishes, then a day trip out to  visit some friends. On the way home from that day trip, I caught the tail end of the local folk music show. The guest host was doing a special episode with, of all things, a musicologist. Even better, the show’s focus was on Texas music in the 1970s (particularly the “cosmic cowboy” scene in Austin). My daughter really wanted me to turn it off, but I couldn’t.

The last musicological thing I did was a book review that may never see the light of day; that was back in December. Hearing a musicologist on the radio, one who studied the same historical period I dissertated on, was awesome. I was familiar with some of the broad historical background the musicologist discussed, but the details about the Texas scenes were new to me. The interview was broken up with appropriate music. It was interesting, practice-oriented musicology. I loved every moment of it.

This was what I knew. This was the kind of discussion that I had spent years of my life training to participate in. I could have talked just as fluently about my own work on New York. Even better, it was quality scholarship pitched for an interested but general audience…the kind of thing I’ve always particularly enjoyed.

It would fit the narrative to say that 20 minutes on the radio awakened my old desires, that I’m again wrestling with the loss of the career I abandoned. That might be true, ephemerally. I miss doing scholarship. I miss research and I miss talking to my fellow scholars about their work. I even miss the esoteric stuff. A little. I miss them, though, like I might miss an ex-girlfriend long after the breakup. The times were good, but they’re done. I’m with somebody else now. (Happily!) Might-have-beens will linger. I can, to push the metaphor one step further than it ought to go, be Facebook friends with academia these days.

The other half of this battle? I don’t think there is one. It’s fun to know things, but I know that, for me, this particular battle is over. I’m getting better at embracing the “post” in “postac.”

Checking Boxes II

Why Middle School?

My memories of middle school are mostly about bad hair and misery. I spent seven years in Catholic school (for a variety of reasons) and started middle school in seventh grade. I was smart. I was awkward—physically and socially. The only people I knew even a little were some kids I had been in daycare with years before. Academically, there was nothing to challenge me. One day my younger brother and I came home with the same homework. He was in fourth grade; I was in eighth. I became a band nerd and the eleventh-worst basketball player on the B-team. I ran track (poorly). I ransacked the middle school library for anything with swords or dragons.

If I work at it, I can remember most of my teachers from middle school. Few of them made an impression on me—probably not their fault. I came in knowing almost everything in most of their classes. I was a good student, but I was also a terrible student. Those books from the library? I’d sit in the front row of class and just read them. I wasn’t disruptive, but I felt zero need to pay attention.

I had a funny realization, though, as I was finishing up the first of my first two long sub assignments. Out of all the teachers and professors I’ve had, the one whose style I’ve come closest to adopting is my middle school math teacher, Mr. Johnson. I had Mr. Johnson for math and “computers” (this was the early 90s). He made sure we did the work. He answered our questions. As long as the work was getting done and we were learning, he was relaxed about everything else. We played computer games when we were done with our algebra assignments. The favorite among my group was a space trader simulation. You could make the most money transporting drugs, but they could also get you arrested…unless you’d purchased enough guns to defeat the police. We were in eighth grade. It was awesome. (I also played the Moria rogue-like on those back-of-the-room monocolor-monitor computers.)

There were things Mr. Johnson did not have to deal with in a small-town middle school two decades ago. Nobody had cell phones, for one. (I hate them. I really hate them. The only thing I enjoy is the utter disbelief when I show students I still use a flip phone.) That guiding ethos, though… I like that: the work matters. The learning matters. If that stuff is happening, the rest doesn’t have to be a grind. Of course, you sometimes have to make things a grind to ensure that the work and the learning happen.

I started today with “why middle school?” The answer is that interesting things result from both sides of Mr. Johnson’s approach: from pushing the students, and from giving them space. Legitimately interesting things, not just “interesting.” Sometimes they’re awful—to the teachers and to each other—but they’re also growing in every direction at once. Teaching middle school, you get to witness that growth and encourage the directions it takes to be productive.

Checking Boxes, Part I

Last week I took a test. It was one of the boring ones administered by computer, a string of multiple choice questions and a pair of short essays. The thing is, I was extremely nervous in the run-up to the test. More anxious than I had been since my comps. My stomach wasn’t in knots, but my body was taut with stress hormones. I was also chasing my kids around and managing urgent research and paperwork for a project. Focusing on anything for more than a few minutes was challenging. I worked through perhaps half of my planned study, leaving large swathes of the study guide untouched and never managing to complete a practice test.

And yet…and yet when I had driven to College Station, when I sat in the over-cushioned but somehow still uncomfortable chair you only find in waiting rooms…I was smiling. It was a slight smile that showed no teeth, one I wear most often in the run-up to athletic competitions. Sure enough, there was Berlioz’s “March to the Scaffold” from Symphonie Fantastique playing in my head. “Scotland the Brave” came hot on its heels (the closest thing my alma mater has to a fight song and something my college ultimate team used to sing-shout before games). I knew I was going to be fine.*

The test was a necessary step in becoming “highly qualified” by the standards of the Texas Board of Education. I’ve now officially embarked on becoming a middle school teacher. That’s weird for me to type. A year ago—even six months ago—I wouldn’t have believed it possible. I have a PhD. I was going to find a writing job or a consulting job or a tech job. Becoming a public school teacher wasn’t on the table. I wasn’t going to “settle” for that. I’m overqualified. And seriously…middle schoolers? I hated middle school. Why on earth would I ever want to go back to one?

Because I like teaching. I like waking up in the morning knowing that, if I do my job right, it will mean something to somebody. Teaching is a job I can care about, even if the money’s not great and there are tests and parents and bureaucracy to deal with. Hopefully I can make middle school suck less for some kids along the way.

Saturday I started my alternative certification training. Most of the day was designed to reinforce the feelings I mention in the previous paragraph. The company president and the guides talked up the emotional payoff (and, to a lesser extent, the emotional burden) of teaching. We talked in small groups about our favorite teachers, about their qualities and which ones we hoped we could emulate. We watched feel-good documentary clips about first-year teachers.

Then we talked a lot about how to channel our idealism into the practical concerns of the job hunt. It was an oddly mercenary turn, but one that I can appreciate. The program encourages its teachers-in-training to start their job hunts as soon as possible. For those of us looking to be employed by the time the 2014-2015 school year starts, that’s particularly urgent. The program doesn’t get paid until its graduates are working, so there’s incentive for them, too.

Alternative teacher certification manages to contrast with the dubious passage to professorhood at both the practical and ideological ends of the spectrum. Especially as an adjunct, the emphasis is on getting it over with…teaching prerequisite or general education classes checks boxes for the students and for the university. You get the students through or you fail them out; either way, they’re just passing through. As an adjunct, you’re also just passing through. You want to make a difference, and sometimes you can. It is seldom a goal of the institution, though. The life-changing stuff is for fullprofs with offices for office hours…or for fancy new buildings…or for the smiling ethnically-diverse friend groups that fill recruitment brochures. All the things that will be there next semester when you probably won’t be.

In my graduate programs, at least, there was seldom any practical advice for job hunting. “Have a badass CV and know people” is not much of a directive. Doubtless the lack of practical advice has something to do with the impossible math of hundreds of applicants for every tenure-track job, but I still find the contrast with my teacher training striking. The emphasis there is on understanding high need areas, on what to say and avoid saying in interviews. There’s no illusion that you get jobs solely on merit. You have to know the system, and you have to work the system. It’s possible for even an average applicant to work the system effectively, which is contrast enough with the academic job market.

*I have not actually gotten my scores yet, so I do not know whether that pre-test feeling has any connection to reality, but anyway…

This Is Why We Fight

"Beautiful piece, but what about looking beyond ourselves?"

“Beautiful piece, but what about looking beyond ourselves?”

The “[ compliment ], but…” construct is a mainstay of academic conferences, one that’s too often used to precede a polite-snark critique or a wild ride into the questioner’s own research and opinions. When I saw it come up in response to the essay I wrote for How To Leave Academia, my instinctive reactions were all defensive. Let’s get those out of the way first:

1. I wrote these 5000-plus words on a volunteer basis. I spent a significant chunk of time on the piece as it was. Expanding its scope would have required more writing and revision time that I needed to spend on projects that might eventually net me some income.

2. Related to the “outside the scope of my paper” defense: I am very uncomfortable with generalizing my experiences. Many of the practical problems I encountered cross disciplines: adjuncting, poor advising, the uncertainty (impossibility?) of balancing grad-student and contingent faculty life with family. I think there are writers out there more concerned with and more qualified to speak on those issues. I was fortunate enough to have an employed spouse with good benefits during most of my gradjunct years. We had to pay attention to money, but we didn’t sink or swim based on my income. The interior, emotional issues became the important ones for me (though they’re not disconnected from money and pragmatic questions) and the ones I felt best qualified to write about.

Okay, we’re good on that? Because Dr. Selder’s question merits a fuller response. My answer is again going to come in two parts. (Old habits die hard.)

Looking Beyond Ourselves

Being a touchy-feely humanities writer guy, my first (non-defensive) interpretation of “looking beyond ourselves” was to take it as a critique of the navel-gazing of my essay. It’s an introspective piece…self-centered if you’re inclined to read it that way. It belongs to a genre of personal confessions about the suffering of the “failed” academic…a navel-gazing genre. That’s one of the reasons that I grew increasingly weary of doing #postac posts here on Walking Ledges. It felt more and more like self-indulgent whining. I’ve only recently realized that it’s possible to write about the happier elements of #postac life without coming all the way around to the rah-rah public boosterism of consultant-centric #postac.

That said, part of getting through the navel-gazing phase of being a postac or altac is finding new ways to connect yourself to your community. I lingered so long in the morose phase of leaving academia partly because I compounded that loneliness with a cross-country move. Substitute teaching wasn’t enough to help me get over it until I had long assignments at the same school. I didn’t enter fully into the community, but I did get to be part of it. Over the course of those weeks, I interacted repeatedly with the same people. I got to (and had to) deal with their concerns and quirks and needs. I could not do my job as a teacher and hang on to being self-centered.

You have to have a rudder before you can decide which star to sail your ship by.

You have to have a rudder before you can decide which star to sail your ship by.

For the other academic leavers in the audience, that’s my piece of advice: find something that you care about that brings you into contact with other people. The perspective will help you get on with your life.

Doing Something About It

Dr. Selder—whom I know exclusively through his Twitter feed and his association with the California Part-Time Faculty Association —posts actively about adjunct issues and the corporatization of higher ed. I’m guessing that his “looking beyond ourselves” was aimed more at those questions than my touchy-feely writer-y ones. Even if it wasn’t, to what extent do postacs and altacs have a responsibility to engage the broken system that led to those neologisms?

The answer is…I’m not sure. My thoroughly leftist alma mater has spent the spring in a public fight about the formation of an adjunct faculty union. It’s involved Congressman Keith Ellison. A picture of the quad of my yesteryear was the cover image for a national news story on adjunct issues. Recently, the union vote has been canceled, in part at the request of both adjunct and tenured faculty who had questions about the process.

There is no question for me that the use of contingent faculty helps only budget administrators. No matter how much they want to, contingent faculty can’t provide the same support for students that tenure-track professors do. Structural inequalities keep most adjuncts from accumulating the CV bullet points that get your foot in the tenure-track door. (A tenure-track door that seldom opens.) In large departments that rely on adjuncts, power imbalances can get ugly for all involved. It’s bad for departments. It’s bad for students. It’s worst for the people whose “$17/hour” only counts for the three hours they spend with a given class rather than the 10+ they spend on preparation and making sure students learn the material and get their questions answered. (Never mind commuting.)

Still…where does that leave those of us who, like myself, have gotten out of higher education completely? Every passing semester diminishes my connection to adjunct issues. More and more of my friends are either snagging tenure-track positions, landing in “stable” visiting positions on multi-year contracts, or getting out of the business all together. It won’t be too many years before my Facebook feed runs out of adjunct-issue posts from actual adjuncts.

We can’t abandon the problems. Many of us have or will have kids—do we want them taught by academic wage-slaves until they get to their senior seminar when an academic superstar can handwave them through to cap-and-gown? When we’re completely outside, we might not have a lot of power to affect what goes on inside the academy. We do, though, have our own platforms to speak out. We can raise awareness. We can write letters. We can donate to projects like GEDs and PhDs that make a real difference in people’s lives.

Most importantly, we can recognize that adjunctification is one element of the same pervasive change that’s eroding social mobility and concentrating wealth and political power in a limited number of hands. That is a problem we do not leave when we leave academia. That is reason enough to fight.

Does #Postac Ever End?

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?

“The Thousand Cuts” now available at How to Leave Academia

One of the projects I was working on in April, a long-form essay titled “The Thousand Cuts,” has now been published at How to Leave Academia. I’m excited to see it out there. While it’s not a final statement about quitting, it does gather many of the ideas I’ve explored at Walking Ledges into a structured reflection.

If you’re arriving here from How to Leave, welcome! My posts aren’t always #postac. I’ve gathered the ones that are here. If you’d like to poke around more freely, you’ll find posts about writing, the history of fantasy fiction, and some of my favorite authors. Again, welcome.

Update, October 2015: How to Leave Academia has been suspended. I’ve added the essay to my Works page.

The Real World

May has been a month of decisions and steps forward. I’ve taken the initial steps toward becoming a certified teacher. I’ve started working on a (big) other writing project and associated website that I hope to launch in mid-June. My spouse and I have also started working on buying a house. This last feels improbably significant. Home ownership is part of the American Dream, sure, but it’s also one of the markers for a middle-class American’s transition to the “real world.” That “real world” is held over students as a vague bludgeon, deployed mostly when they’re not conforming to expectations (or blissfully unaware of what those expectations are). Figure things out before you get to the real world, we say, or you’re doomed to fail.

That notion of making it in the “real world”—of having a house and a car and a job that doesn’t flip with the academic calendar—is a stupidly privileged one. (See much of what Sarah Kendzior has written in the last year for examples.) It’s part and parcel of the things they sell you when you go to graduate school, though (never mind high school or undergrad). As we imagine(d) them, professors had salaries in the middle-to-high five figures, owned their homes, and still had all the prestige that goes with socially-sanctioned intellectual accomplishment. We don’t think of the job as coming with welfare. That’s the real world, too, and often a step above those suffering more systemic poverty.

I feel incredibly lucky to be looking at buying a house less than a year after my spouse and I moved to Texas without having jobs lined up. That’s possible partially because we’ve worked hard, but mostly because we’ve gotten incredible amounts of support from family. Some of the support has been financial. Most of it has come in a form more precious than money: time. Without the time my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law have given to watch the kids, I couldn’t have taken the substitute teaching jobs I’ve had, especially the long ones that have led me toward a career in secondary teaching. Those long jobs have, in turn, helped us scrape together the money for a down payment. (If you’re reading this, thank you so, so much.)

I’ve written before about the hazards of “supposed to” and “should,” about getting hung up on expectations and prestige. This point that I’m at now is where I “should” have been years ago. (It used to really bother me that my younger brother was a homeowner with a pair of masters’ degrees before I’d even finished my doctoral coursework.) It feels good to finally be here, but it’s also scary. To avoid choosing a future path is to ensure that you don’t choose the wrong future path. The more you worry about risk, the easier it is to write off the opportunity cost of sitting on your hands.

Too unfocused to decide on risks, I haven’t so much been sitting on my hands as flailing around with them, trying to shake off the bitter residue of my last years in academe. I’m sure I could have gotten to this point of making consequential decisions faster—especially if I’d read the right articles and talked to the right people sooner. I exited academia without an exit strategy…which is about as sensible as getting involved in a land war in Asia or going against a Sicilian when death is on the line. (Fourteen months of unrest has built up my immunity to iocaine powder.)

Honestly, I’ve been in the real world for years—married for over a decade, two kids, too many degrees. Graduate school is itself a job, whether it’s a dead end or not. Buying a house and changing careers are not transitions unique to postac. Six months ago, though, they seemed impossible. There was only the tunnel, no light. For the first time in a long, long while, I feel like my base emotional state is improving. When I’m happy, it’s not as brittle as it has been. I’m tempted to throw lots of qualifiers at this: Texas weather, the impending return to days as primary childcare provider, all the work that’s got to be done in the next three months…but that’s just part of the risk of choosing. I hope I remain appropriately wary of and grateful for the happiness that comes my way.

That’s part of the real world, too.

Gradations and Graduations

It’s May, the month of yes you may:

Hedonism fits the season, but it’s also a month full of potential anxiety triggers for postacs: a friend’s tidy new Yale diploma (written in Latin, because Yale), a conference roommate’s new tenure-track job, lots of Facebook pictures of people in wizard robes and octagonal hats. (The square ones don’t pack the same emotional punch.) Graduation season: a time for postacs to wonder what graduating actually got you (if you finished) or what it might have gotten you (if you jumped off the ship before it finished sinking).

My own relationship with graduation has always been ambivalent. I (sort of) dropped out of high school so I could got school overseas, but my first year in Wales ended early enough for me to attend my class’s high school graduation. I spent part of it sitting with another non-graduating ex-classmate. Mostly, I remember the blue plastic bleachers and watching the 83 graduates while mentally claiming all the awards I would have won if I’d stayed. Afterward, I went to the all-night party at the bowling alley and won some door prizes. I’d said my goodbyes the previous year—my junior yearbook was full of the clever and “clever” ways 16 year-olds say goodbye. It was, at best, a footnote to a transition I’d already made.

When I graduated from Macalester, it felt like a big deal. It remains the only graduation I’ve ever walked in. I got to wear the special gold summa cum laude tassels. I doubtless undercut the effect by wearing my beat-up Indiana Jones hat and the really hideous goatee I sported all senior year. It was May in Minnesota, an absolutely gorgeous time of year that you appreciate all the more for the winter you escaped only a few weeks earlier. The pipe band played us in. Garrison Keillor (who lives down the street from the school) gave the best graduation speech I’ve ever heard. (It boiled down to “ask your parents for money and go do something stupid while you still have a chance.”) I had a girlfriend (whom I’d eventually marry) and a summer of playing ultimate and studying early music ahead of me. It was a good day.

The reasons it was a good day had very little to do with the transition the occasion was supposed to mark. The weather was nice. My family was in town. I got to hear an entertaining speech. It wasn’t, though, like I was done being a student. I knew I was headed to Ohio to go write music. (I thought was going to Ohio to write music. That’s not exactly what ended up happening.) Plus, ceremonies are stupid and boring and it’s only the people who really matter.

Those are some of the reasons I didn’t walk for my master’s nor go to get hooded for my doctorate. Nobody from my tiny cohort graduated at the same time. The ceremonies were large and impersonal. The bigger reason was that my graduate degrees just…trailed…off. Both my thesis and my dissertation were completed at odd points of the calendar year, months before the ceremonies they earned me. Paying to rent or buy regalia seemed ridiculous. By the registration deadline for my doctoral commencement, I’d already decided to leave the Academy.

At the time, I just didn’t care. A year later, I wonder if I should have. I wonder whether a ceremony would have helped clean up the break with being in school. Dissertations trail off and overlap with employment and leave jagged edges. Maybe an afternoon in wizard clothes could have sanded those down. Maybe I should have had that big party I was promised “when I finished.” Those are the things I wonder when I see my friends’ pictures and announcements.

Graduation, like gradation (and grading, for that matter) is about steps. Literal ones across a stage. Metaphorical ones that provoke contorted analogies. The trick of graduation is that, if your really mean it, you have to keep taking steps. Some of my friends are now showing up on the professor side of the “professor and student” end of year photos. Others are in the more typical May photos of picnics and playgrounds and wildflowers. They’re all steps. Regardless of how we choose to present them to the internet, they matter more for the taking than their size.

Don’t sweat the wizard clothes.