academia

With a PhD

I’m back on the (secondary school teaching) job market this summer, which has meant interviews. It has also meant, again, dealing with the many iterations of “You have a PhD in music, why do you want to teach English to teenagers?” It’s an old dance at this point, but it has not gotten any less frustrating.

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“Where are the leather patches on your elbows, Dr. Plocher?”

Most of the time, when my degree is brought up by the interviewers, it happens immediately. There is a skepticism that borders on the accusatory: what do I really expect to be doing with a PhD? Sometimes the skeptics believe that I will jump ship back to higher education. (That ship is sinking!) More often, they leap to the conclusion that I somehow lack the patience and skill needed to teach students who aren’t paying (or whose parents aren’t paying) for the privilege of my oh-so-erudite company. College teaching is not like middle or high school teaching, they warn me, as if I hadn’t spent a year as a substitute and months in training. (That one was persistent even at my job last year, where I spent months trying to convince my principal that I did, in fact, understand there was a difference between 13 year olds and 20 year olds.) I still get hints of that even after a year as a “regular” teacher.

Sometimes, my interviewers are just baffled by my degree and wonder why I changed fields. That’s easier to deal with. My “I realized that teaching was the part of the job I liked most” spiel has gotten much more practiced since my first interviews last summer. (It hasn’t gotten any less sincere, though.) Sometimes, I explain what musicology is and that I never had the slightest desire to be a band or choir director, and that, besides, I do have a degree in English, I know rather a lot about it, and I love teaching it.

I hate having to defend my PhD. It seems stupid to me that I need to—it was a job. Again, nobody talks about being a failed waiter. A little more than two years ago, I decided that the hardship of staying in academia outweighed the rewards, especially when I factored in my family. It is that simple…but it can never be quite that simple, because advanced degrees carry expectations with them. As “Dr. Plocher,” I am expected to fill a certain role in society. Some shreds of prestige cling to the title even without the associated professorship.

That is probably why, maddeningly, I also get annoyed when interviewers don’t mention my doctorate. It was seven years of my life! Finishing my PhD is one of the things I am proud of, no matter how much I sometimes regret starting it. Yes, I am a licensed Texas educator. Yes, I have some job experience now. But…I also wrote a dissertation on new music using French sociological concepts. I’ve presented papers at national conferences. That does not speak directly to my ability to handle a classroom full of eighth graders, but I think that it’s proof that I can do hard things, that I understand and appreciate mastery and that it means something when I say I am putting just as much effort into being a good teacher as I put into the fractional expansion of human knowledge that earned me my degree.

Ideally, discussion of the degrees I hold lasts less than two minutes and consists of a short description of what I did and why I’m no longer doing it. When I have control of the situation, that’s what I aim for. Beyond that, I’d rather talk about the job that I’m applying for, about the work that I’ve done, about the ways I am trying to get better at my job. Having a doctorate doesn’t make me better than other people, but it also doesn’t make me any worse. My degree is something that I earned while doing a job. It’s not who I am as a writer. It’s not who I am in the classroom. It’s not who I am as a person.

It affects all of those things, though, which is why it is worth discussing…
…Briefly.

Unrequited

ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.
― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Academia-as-romantic-partner is one of my favorite metaphors. We fall in love with our fields, and it’s easy for the heart to rule the head. We plug away as adjuncts because surely, some day, academia will pull out the ring we’ve been waiting for all these years. Maybe it will even put together a flash mob and the whole thing will go viral on YouTube. We all know people who got dumped, and we all know at least a few people who got the proposal, cleared the paperwork, and are now complaining about how their spouse can’t load the dishwasher properly.

Breaking up with academia, for me at least, had an emotional trajectory pretty similar to the one terrible romantic breakup I had. The lady was ahead of me in school and moved across the country (to go to graduate school!). We were in love, but not in so much love that we were willing to derail our life plans for each other. (Again, pretty similar to what happened with academia and me.) When we called it quits I was miserable for months. After a bit of flailing, I found somebody else to love who loved me back and was, actually, willing to rearrange her life plans to better fit with mine. We’ve been married eleven years now. To the extent that our relationship was my decision, it’s probably the best one I’ve ever made.

So what has come next for me as I’ve escaped the miserable phase of my breakup with academia? I love teaching. I remember being surprised at how honest it felt to write that back when I was applying to master’s programs. It’s still true. Once I overcame my resistance to going back to any form of school, becoming a certified teacher seemed like a great idea. That’s what I spent my summer working toward, with the full expectation that when Labor Day rolled around, I’d be a week or two into a full-time job. Labor Day has come and gone, and I’m still laboring at…finding a job. And working on my novel. And mentally preparing myself to resume subbing next week.

This gets tiring, the waiting. Waiting on applications. Waiting on phone calls and e-mails, on appointments. Waiting for the grinding away at my writing projects to break on through to the other side. It’s kind of sad (and a sign that I have young kids) that the Disney song I sympathise with the most these days is Rapunzel’s opening number from Tangled. I am not just hanging out in a tower until some dashing stranger shows up to whisk me towards destiny, but I am wrestling with the sense that I should be somewhere by now.

Instead, I’m stuck waiting, which brings me back around to the epigraph. Waiting for Godot has all sorts of cool things going on in it. Beckett works miracles with simple language, but the play is also as bitter as burnt coffee. Precociously cynical me appreciated that even in my first encounter with it during I.B. English. I’ve got a better sense of it now, and suspect that my understanding of the work will continue to develop as I age. But back to that first encounter. One of our assignments was to do a dramatic reading of a scene. My partner and I decided that the best thing to do was play Vladimir and Estragon as stoners. We turned them, more or less, into existential Cheech and Chong. It was both funny and justifiable.

When you do it for long enough, waiting becomes like a drug. Send out some applications and read infotorials and play video games until the kids come home, then make snack and dinner and clean until it’s time to go to bed. Repeat until Godot finally shows. It is tranquilizing. I fight it with my writing (and with occasional reminders of my bank balance), and I work to keep the hopes that have thus far been deferred from making my heart sick.

Heartsickness brings us back to the initial metaphor about academia-as-romantic-partner. For many of us, our love for our work and our field proved unrequited. Academia might have liked us, might have liked us a lot—publishing our articles, inviting us to conferences, maybe handing us a VAP that looked good at the time—but it didn’t like like us. Maybe we could be friends, but probably the kind of friend who promises to help you move then “forgets.” (Every time.) It isn’t like that for everybody, of course. There’s still that 1-in-3 chance that you’ll end up in a tenure track job.

Right now, I’m worrying that my love of teaching might also be unrequited. I don’t believe it is, but I worry. It’s only been a month and change since I became eligible for jobs. There were some wrinkles of the hiring process that could have been made a little clearer in my certification course. There were only so many jobs open late in the season, and I was reluctant to chase ones that would have involved 50+ miles of daily commuting in terrible traffic. Knowing there are reasons does not make the waiting easier, especially when I consider that I might be waiting a full year to make more progress. I’m not sure I can do a long-distance relationship with teaching for that long.

What about you, o gentle readers? If you were describing your relationship to academia like a romantic partnership, how would it go? If you broke up, did you make any terrible choices on the rebound? Found new love since escaping? How far can we extend the metaphor before it collapses under its own weight?

Published and Perished

Yesterday, nearly a year and a half after I decided to leave academia, I had my first piece of academic writing published. It’s just a book review (you can find it here, if you really want to), but it’s my book review. Coming as it did on a rather bleak Monday, the publication stirred up a mess of emotions I had hoped to have left behind. It’s everything I should have been getting out into the world six years ago, while my nascent doctorate still had a smiley-face sticker on it.

There’s not much to say about my publication history, because there’s not much publication history there. I’ve mentioned elsewhere that my advisor and I, no matter how cordial our interactions, amplified each other’s weaknesses. He was laissez-faire and I was independent. He never pushed me to publish (nor did any of the professors in my department). It was all about conference presentations—my track record on those was much better. I knew I was supposed to be getting stuff out there, but I had a small child and heaps of reading to do and no guidance on how to go about it. If I’d been on top of my game, I would have asked for that guidance. But I wasn’t, and I didn’t, and now I’m not in academia anymore.

Right now, I’m not really anywhere. I continue to tread water. The lightly baffled optimism of June has evaporated along with the summer teacher hiring season. I applied, I interviewed, I got a familiar mix of polite rejection e-mails and declarative silence. Next week I’m going back to the substitute mines, only with a longer commute. Oh, I’m still applying for late-breaking openings and the oddities that result from the firing/resignation/tragedy of current teachers, but few of the things that were supposed to happen last month did.

Sometimes things are slow. The book I reviewed was published in 2012, back when I was still officially a graduate student. I drafted my review back in December. I did revisions a month ago (accepting nearly all of the changes proposed by my awesome editor). Now that the review is out, a handful of academics will read it. Some might buy the book and/or consider using it in their courses…next semester or next year. More likely, the book will end up in university libraries and be cited by one or two students each year. Those students will pick it up not because it’s good (though it is), but because it showed up in their keyword search in the library catalog. The author’s research will thus diffuse, slowly, over whatever the half-life is for books on New York jazz.

I got to be a small part of that process. Part of me appreciates that. Part of me looks at the timeline and the number of people the work will ultimately reach and thinks “thank the FSM that I got out of that racket.” I mean, there’s a significant chance that my post comparing NaNoWriMo to writing a dissertation has, thanks to being Freshly Pressed, reached more people than my book review ever will. Writing for academia is not so different from blogging: laboring in obscurity and hoping that somebody gets something worthwhile from your work. I like to think I have done that here for a few people a few times.

But that, too, is slow and uncertain. Occasionally somebody clicks “like.” More rarely, somebody comments. Once in a while a post of mine is reblogged somewhere. (Once or twice,I’ve even been reblogged by actual human persons rather than aggregators.) It’s good to have that evidence that somebody has read and appreciated your work, that there is a distinction between publishing and perishing.

It’s a small distinction, and I can’t help feeling like I’ve done both. I published in an academic review. Sometime in the next year I hope to publish a novel. Yet I am still a failed academic and a teacher who, while hardly a failure, has yet to succeed. I thought I was over the former. Seeing my name in (virtual) print showed me I’m not there yet. I should have been proud, but mostly it just stirred an old ache. I liked more about academia than Friday happy hours and community in-jokes. I liked my work. I liked scholarship. As I continue to hang between my old community and wherever I manage to land, being published reminds me more of what has perished than the potential for what comes next.

-—*—-

That would be the poetic place to end this post. It completes a thought with a tidy bit of wordplay. But I don’t want to leave it there, because as much as what’s up there captures my feelings, it doesn’t wholly capture my thoughts. It is, among other things, too mopey. If I truly believed that publishing and perishing were indistinguishable—even mostly indistinguishable—I wouldn’t be writing this in a public venue. Maybe I’d scribble it in a diary. Maybe I’d compose it as a soliloquy in my head while staring moodily out the window. But I’m putting my words here, where you can see them, because no matter what vagaries I’ve gone through getting through and getting out of academia, saying something matters. A mopey blog post probably doesn’t matter that much. There are better mopers than me, better writers than me, and certainly far more widely-published examples of both. But I keep doing this small bit of publishing.

This is where things get a bit postmodern: publishing is itself the resistance to the suffering publishing prompted. Even when I feel mopey and down and useless, the way I fight perishing is to publish. That’s true of many artists I know. There are days when it feels like Zeno’s paradox, gaining (or losing) half the distance to the goal over and over again without achieving final victory of final defeat. I keep doing it anyway, because the alternative is to stand still.

And when we’re not where we want to be, standing still guarantees unhappiness. That’s why I work to get back to publishing when I’m moping. It keeps me from standing still. It keeps me, to force a second and less poetic final line to this piece, from perishing.

The Smartest One in the Room

Transitioning out of academia is messy. I’ve spent a lot of time (and words here) grappling with some of the transitions: figuring out what kind of job you want, wrestling with how to get it, coping with the emotional fallout of quitting. These are food-on-the-plate issues. There are less immediate challenges, too. I was reminded of one of them when talking to middle school students about the jobs I’ve had. The students’ questions led me to tell them a bit about the summer I worked in a canned food distribution plant, where even my partial college education put up barriers between me and my coworkers. That challenge—being the “smartest one in the room”—is one that comes up again when you leave academia.

“Smart” is relative as all get-out, mind. It comes in many flavors. Not all of them present as the ability to articulate difficult concepts and wrestle with abstract problems. School smarts are just one kind of intelligence. Still, it’s the kind of intelligence academics spend years cultivating…and displaying As you progress from high school to undergraduate to graduate study, you’re surrounded by an ever-increasing proportion of high achievers, of “schmott guys:”

Schmott Guy Hat

Aren’t you glad your regalia isn’t this extreme? (Image copyright Phil and Kaja Foglio, http://girlgenius.net)

Sometimes I wonder how things would have played out if I hadn’t gone across the pond to United World College of the Atlantic. The place opened up my world in more ways than I could possibly discuss in one post. On today’s, point, though, I was suddenly and obviously not the smartest person in the room. Almost everybody at the school was the product of national application processes in their home countries. (At the time, the U.S. sent around 120 students into the UWC program—half of them to the domestic branch in New Mexico.) It wasn’t as though the process was based purely on academics, either; the program prizes community service and independent projects. They’re looking not just for good students, but for the right people to promote the program’s mission of international understanding.

It was a comeuppance for me, one I probably would have gotten when starting my postsecondary education. Getting it early, though, and in the kind of environment where nobody was a jerk about it, meant a lot. Occasional language barriers aside, I was suddenly in an environment where I could talk to anybody about nearly anything. Unless the conversation got especially esoteric everybody could keep up with me. That was novel. I grew up in rural Idaho and went to a tiny high school. I took it for granted that I was the smartest person in the room—often including teachers in the mix. (I was right only to the extent that 16-year-olds are always right.) At UWC-AC, learning I was not always the smartest person in the room was as exciting as it was frightening.

The excitement and the fright had largely worn off by the time I was working on my PhD. I’d gotten used to rarified air: UWC, SLAC, graduate school… If you stay in academia, you linger in that rarified air. Leaving academia means sliding out of it, back to where things are murkier in pretty much every way. Staying in often means continuing to grapple with impostor syndrome , especially those first few classes you get to run completely on your own.

If you get out? You might sidestep impostor syndrome, but you’ve still got to find ways to deal with the problem of being the smartest one in the room (or not). How do you balance your abilities and accomplishments with situational needs? What exactly does it mean to be “with a PhD” rather than “a PhD”? That shift means more than the way you market your degree. It also involves the way you identify to yourself and to others. If you’ve spent a decade or so of your life cultivating academic intelligence, how do you take that back into the world?

I’m a failed academic. Sort of. I’ve been thinking a lot about the reasons I am out of the professoriate. Some of them are systemic (precarious employment for minimal compensation sucks no matter how much you love your job). Some have to do with realizing that my priorities don’t match the ones the job requires (my non-academic life is pretty important to me). Some of the things the job requires, though, are just things I’m not that good at. When you become a postac, it’s easy to focus on all the things you couldn’t or didn’t do better.

None of that makes you less smart.

You might not go as far as sitting down to catalog your skills and accomplishments, but take a step back to remind yourself that you are smart enough. You’re probably also good enough, and it’s likely some people like you. (Reminding yourself of these things in front of a mirror in Stuart Smalley’s voice voice is optional.) It’s okay to be the smartest one in the room as long as you avoid being a jerk about it. That situation is going to be a lot more common in the “real world” than it is inside the Academy.

Own your strengths but remember to ask questions. Focus on solving problems rather than winning arguments. (That might be the biggest shift from the graduate seminar to the real world: trouncing people in arguments doesn’t count for much.) As in writing, show, don’t tell. Focus on using your skills—and yes, your smarts—to act rather than to act out your identity. That’s the practical difference between “a PhD” and “with a PhD:” doing smart things is much more important than being the smartest one in the room.

Love and the Academy

I still don’t remember exactly why I was at the “Grillé” with one of my favorite literature profs. (Yes, it had the accent on the e. Yes, this was a particularly stupid thing to do at a selective SLAC where everybody would know how stupid it was. I still don’t know why they insisted on grill-ay.) It might have been on the visit I took back to my undergrad in the spring of my first year of grad school. It might have been a year earlier about a paper I was working on. The conversation strayed away from the strictly academic and toward what our futures might look like. This was one of my favorite professors—she pushed her students hard and took care with her time, but when you had her attention, you got her full attention and the formidable mind that went with it. What I remember from that spring conversation was this professor mentioning, almost in passing, how nice it was to be having a personal life again, and how one really needs to put all that aside through grad school and the early career grind. She didn’t say “be married to your work,” but she came close enough.

She might have been right. Some of the most successful scholars I know (not all) have pursued their work to the relative exclusion of other parts of their lives. There’s this idea (and occasional expectation) that academics put their work first, second, and third. If you want to get that fellowship…if you want to get published…if you want to get a job. There’s some truth there—filling up the publication section on your CV takes an enormous amount of time and effort, especially on top of a teaching load. That’s easier to manage if you don’t have obligations to other people. It’s also much less hassle to move around the country chasing VAPs or short-term fellowships.

None of that stops people from having outside lives. At an “early career professionals” session at SAM a year ago, there was the expected distress about finding jobs. There was also, though, an incredible variety of concerns herded under the broad banner of “career/life balance.” Adjuncts, VAPs, people new to the tenure track, people still finishing school—so many of us in that room were juggling work and home responsibilities. That’s nothing new to anybody who has a job, but…the mood in the room was a mixture of indignation, desperation, and guilt. We’d been trained for a job that’s supposed to be a life. Life, though, was busy throwing non-job things at us—we had people caring for kids, caring for parents, caring for themselves on minimal or nonexistent insurance, dealing with the “two body problem,” dealing with all the stress those situations provoked. Again, these are problems common to anybody who has a job and connections to other people. It’s just that most other jobs lack the tacit suggestion that you should be married to them.

I was never particularly good at holding life out. I married my partner the summer after she graduated. We had our first child during the first year of my doctoral work. We discovered we were pregnant with our second about two weeks before learning that my funding had been cut. I was lucky that first semester with an infant; it was the lightest load I had all through my PhD. (It helped that my partner worked for a company with a liberal leave policy.) My son was a terrible sleeper for years. I’d regularly spend an hour in the middle of the night walking up and down the apartment trying to get him to go back to sleep. Later, I’d read books on music semiology with him in my arms and fret over when I could go work on my dissertation without putting my partner in the lurch.

It’s not really possible for me to untangle the years I spent working on my PhD from my first years as a parent. Even in grad school, when you’re really supposed to focus on mastery and contributions to the field, I was never able to focus wholly on academics. They were just one more thing competing for my time. I wished, sometimes, that I had more time to spend on my work.

Mostly, though, I appreciated that I got to spend time with my kids. There’s no doubt I could have gotten through my program a year (or even two) faster than I did. My kids, though, never had to be in daycare full time. When we were going through the process of my son’s autism diagnosis and the subsequent slew of therapy sessions (occupational and speech), I was able to make my schedule fit his needs. Grad school might be a 60-hour-per-week job, but at least you get some say in which hours those are. (Although I still hate it that the university libraries weren’t open on weekend mornings.)

More importantly, having a family kept life in perspective. There were things I still took personally, but I was able to blow off many that might otherwise have infuriated me. I always had an out for departmental garbage (even though I also missed events that might have helped me). For all my protestations about grad school being more like an apprenticeship than education, the constant presence of my family helped me to treat it like a job. (Most of the time.) My family has also been incredibly supportive about my decision to go from ac to postac.

It’s possible to love the Academy. It’s possible to have love and the Academy…if you’re lucky and dedicated enough to switch your priorities as necessary (and your companions are patient with those switches). I didn’t love the Academy. I couldn’t marry my job. I picked my partner and my kids. That’s the only part of leaving I’ve ever been 100% confident of.

2013 AMS breakdown, and moving forward

Musicologist Phil Ford is smart. In my limited encounters with him, he’s also smart about the things that matter. Assuming you’re not a musicologist and don’t care about the particulars of last weekend’s conference, skip down to his fifth point. His discussion about blogging, and more particularly the points he builds out from there about improvisatory scholarship and the necessity to do what one person can do, are worth keeping in mind as we engage in our myriad projects.

A particularly striking way of describing something many of us have felt in recent years: “…it occurred to me that the old Soviet bloc represented a kind of Tyranny 1.0: it was afraid of the truth, and so worked to suppress it. The United States in the present age has figured out a better system, a Tyranny 2.0: it, too, fears truth, but has created a system in which the truth doesn’t matter.”

Dial M for Musicology

I’m back from AMS, which means I should write an AMS wrapup post. No—I get to write an AMS wrapup post.

Things that happened:

1. I got stuck in the aptly-named Dulles airport for seven bloody hours, waiting for a 40-minute puddle-jumper flight that was delayed by mechanical problems. But as luck would have it, Jim Buhler (University of Texas at Austin) and Andrea Bohlman (UNC Chapel Hill) were there too, and had the opportunity for a leisurely talk with two old friends—an enforced opportunity, yes, and in a context in which one is stripped of all agency and basic human dignity, but still, it was nice. For the rest of the AMS, dinners/drinks with other AMS friends, old and new, were for me (as for most, I guess), the highlight of the meeting.

2. My book was for sale at the Oxford booth. Wow, that’s weird, seeing your book…

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If You Build It…

“If you build it, they will come.”

The whispers of Kevin Costner’s cornfield ghosts are not pearls of secret wisdom: if you build it, they might come. They might not. Especially if you don’t tell anybody about it. To get to the truth in those whispers, season them with some negatives: if you don’t build it, they can’t come. You will never get anything published if you do not complete your manuscript. You will never get in better shape without actually doing the exercise.

All the to-do lists in the world won’t change that.

Seventeen years ago, in a rental car somewhere in Appalachia, I told my grandmother I wanted to be a writer. That was my plan. I went to college with that plan, happy to be an English major and mix creative writing with literature courses. I wrote for the school weekly. I put (my) poems up on the wall outside my dorm room. I wore a lot of black.

And then I signed up for a second semester of music theory to secure reduced-price trombone lessons. Even though I kept wearing black, I was soon spending most of my time in the music department. I still took my English courses, and I still enjoyed them. The intersection between words and music fascinated me. I concocted an honors project that involved writing a piece for orchestra, accompanied by a longish narrative poem. I hadn’t given up on being a writer, but I was busy being a composer.

If I had been a little less confident in my writing, things might have been different. As it was, I convinced myself that pursuing graduate work in English was wrong. I hated picking apart literary works; it felt like vivisecting a bird and being dismayed that it no longer flew. I did not think I would get much from an MFA beyond the time to simply write. (Never mind that I was and continue to be interested in the kind of writing usually dismissed as genre fiction, which was not exactly popular in the academy.) No, if I was going to learn something, it would be by pursuing further study in music composition.

That lasted about six weeks. I missed writing papers. I found the pragmatic questions composers asked about music shallow. (I was 22. I thought a lot of things were shallow.) I switched from composition to a dual degree in composition and music history. I got to write papers again. I got to research the esoteric questions that interested me. Meanwhile, I kept composing. I wrote some music that I still like almost ten years later. I was not writing a lot of prose, though, and poetry had pretty much fallen out of my life until I had to concoct a libretto for my thesis composition. By the time I started my doctorate, my work was about performance and theory and sociology, not about words.

I became a scholar, and that conversation in the rental car fell away.

I have spent most of the last seven years of my life taking care of my kids and working on a Ph.D. in musicology. The former gave me perspective on the latter. Maybe a little too much perspective, because I could not make myself obsessed with my research. (I eventually managed to foster an obsession with getting it done, which proved much more fruitful.)

The writing never went away, not really. I’ve written constantly for games, started but not finished a pair of novels, and continued to live with words. Academics live with words a bit differently, but I think that I am mostly finished with being an academic. I’m ready to get back to writing, really writing…writing the stories I care about, the poems that catch in my mind’s ear, about the way that favorite authors have kept me going.

So here I am trying to build something. Thanks for coming. I hope I do my job well enough to draw you back.