leaving academia

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.

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.

Success and the Persuasive Essay

I’ve been thinking about Rebecca Schuman’s recent Chronicle piece on teaching as a vocation, and her further rumination over at pan kisses kafka on the (temporary?) suspension of her pedagogy. I have also been trying to figure out what my life “should” look like as a PhD outside academia—what “success” might look like. I have also also been substitute teaching. Between bouts of riot control, today’s lesson was on the persuasive essay. The sixth graders had to read and break down two short articles on video games: one praising the potential virtues of video games, the other warning of their consequences. They had to suss out the author’s claim, then to note down the evidence the author used as support. They needed practice at both, but it’s the start of the unit and, like I said, riot control.

How do you convince somebody of something? We’re bombarded by competing notions of success in everything from car advertisements to religion to quote-images plastered all over social media. Especially in advertisements, success and happiness are elided by the smudge of money. When we get into more metaphysical notions of success, we lose some of that equation of success and happiness. We can even reverse the connection between success and happiness. (Think about the “inspirational” gym pictures that one friend of yours always puts up about pain and gain.)

All these success-mongers want to persuade us that their mode of success is the best. It’s the coolest. It’s the most ethical. It’s the one that will take you furthest in the world. Whatever. Digging down into the supporting evidence is too often a rabbit hole: claim follows claim follows claim. That’s rhetoric, but it can take ages to get down to evidence. My sixth-graders today were easy to catch with that hook, which was part of the point. Teaching people to really read means teaching them what kinds of evidence are important to which varieties of argument.

The persuasive power of success models is wholly contingent on what kinds of evidence we are willing to buy. Is success a new Lexus (something the TV told me everybody gets for Christmas), having a car younger than your kids, or living car-free in a place with viable public transport? Is success turning your every waking effort toward improving the world, volunteer tutoring on a Tuesday evening, or being a responsive partner in your relationship? Is it traveling first class? Is it traveling with all your worldly possessions in a single backpack? When we pick a model of success, we’re being persuaded not by the claim, but by the evidence. The claim comes afterward. It’s how we gather our favorite pieces of evidence together.*

When we write, our ideas about success are just a few of the many that creep onto the page. When we’re looking at our screen or our paper, we reflect in other ways on success. Is success making a reader feel something? Is it getting “enough” hits on your blog or sales of your self-published book? Is it making a living from your work? Is making Good Art enough by itself? Those are the questions I’ve been grappling with. They’re complicated, as they are for so many of us, by our competing roles in life. Where does success as a partner and father fit in? Who do I allow to persuade me?

More importantly, how do I persuade myself of something? The latter is what I am working on these days: convincing myself that some direction or other is worth pursuing. I need to move from “convince” to “conviction.” We measure success in a hell of a lot of ways, but which ones are the most persuasive? Thoughts?

(*As a contrasting example, contemporary U.S. politics put the claims first and the evidence much, much later.)

A Year After Horns and Horses

December 7. Pearl Harbor Day. In 2012, it was also the first day since September when I could get all of my dissertation committee into the same room so I could defend.

That morning, I posted this clip to Facebook:

There were a lot of reasons to pick it. First and foremost, I’m a geek. I grew up on this stuff. When I got older I became a bit of a geek about language, too, and developed an enthusiasm for Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse. When I am psyching myself up for a challenge, Theoden’s speeches (this and the one from Helm’s Deep) are part of my repertoire (along with the “March to the Scaffold” from Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique and the James Bond theme). As done in the movie, the scene has just about everything you could ask for: an excellent little speech, delivered well; the right hits in the score with horns and the Rohirrim theme; dramatic lighting; panoramic shots of the whole battlefield to give a sense of scope. The score cuts out at the right moment and sneaks back in wonderfully.

In hindsight, this was a terrible choice. The Rohirrim fully expect to die on their charge. You do not get quite as much sense of it in the movie, but those guys on horses are outnumbered more than 5-to-1. The bad guys have war elephants and Nazgûl. The Rohirrim end up losing their king, and would surely have lost their whole paltry army if Aragorn hadn’t shown up with Rangers and (in the movie) ghosts. I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I was just psyching myself up and killing time on a day I’d spent years preparing for. Posting a video, like making cookies for the public portion of the defense, was a nice diversion.

Were I having a glass half-empty day, I could easily push the comparison with the Rohirrim’s charge further. The horde of orcs could be, say, the job market. The gloomy bravado of Theoden could easily be any grad student’s conviction that the market might be bad, but we can take arms against the sea of troubles. There aren’t any Rangers of the North coming to save us. Und so weiter.

Even if the doom and gloom are true, I don’t want to spend more time on them today. It has been a year since I defended my dissertation, and nearly that since I completed the final round of edits and submitted it, eventually resulting in this:

Bound Copy of the Dissertation

408 pages, appendices included

The past year has been the most unsettled one of my life. I’ve been up and down. I’ve applied for jobs, not gotten them, dramatically switched up the kinds of jobs I’m applying for, and not gotten those either (yet). My family moved 1200 miles from a place where the temperature hasn’t gotten above 0 degrees Fahrenheit for a few days to a place where people are freaking out because it’s 25. For nearly half of the year, there hasn’t been a “normal.” There has been so much waiting, so much anticipation and hope and sometimes hopelessness.

It isn’t all better, but a year out, I feel like I’ve got better perspective on both that video clip and that UMI-bound black book. Defending my dissertation was not a life and death conflict. (If there was one of those, it came after, and there was nothing so tangible as orcs to fight.) Literature is not feeding me poetic lines to spout at neat points in a structured narrative, nor is Hollywood supplying a dramatic score to remind me what I should feel at important moments. I wrote a book. It has some good bits and some bad bits, with enough insights to convince a collection of professors of my worthiness to share a rank with them. That’s cool. It hasn’t made the last year any better. That’s also cool.

Now, anyway. I don’t think I was cool with that six months ago. I certainly wasn’t cool with it ten months ago, when the cold and dark of northern winter were far too apt a metaphor for my life.

We often overplay the importance of finishing things. We wrap stories around our lives because we hope to make sense of them. We want the happily ever after, or the brilliant last stand that proves to be the tide-turning sacrifice. If we carve our lives into a series, we want each volume to come to a tidy caesura. Defending a dissertation could have been one of those caesuras. I could have my victory, walk across campus to turn in my paperwork in wonderfully picturesque snow, and then…we skip to the next book, where I am busily occupied with whatever the author wants me to be doing when she throws the next plot arc at me.

In life we cannot—to steal a line from Elmore Leonard—leave out the parts people skip. I have had a year I wouldn’t mind skipping (or at least reducing to a kick-ass training montage). I still get to cook dinner and do laundry and write blog posts. I’ve got a good chunk of a novel that I am working on turning into something the non-rhetorical you can read. I just watched my daughter just fall asleep on the couch with a book in her lap.

What have I learned, a year out from my personal Pelennor Fields? That the parts that people skip are not always bad, even if they don’t come with horns, horses and dramatic speeches.

NaNoWriMo vs. Dissertation

Round One! Fight!

Hello, December. Is it safe to come out yet?

November’s comparative blog quiet is owed to National Novel Writing Month (secondary sponsor: the passive voice). I spent the month writing (part of) a novel. I dutifully scraped together my 50,000 words despite having a conference paper to write and present, the holiday, and a rather ugly spat of job applications and rejections. NaNoWriMo.org gave me this fancy image as an award:

My winner's banner. Nifty or tacky?

My winner’s banner. Nifty or tacky?

When I validated my novel, I couldn’t help comparing the certificate (there’s a certificate, too, that you can print out) with one I earned at about this time last year: the one that says ‘doctor of philosophy’ on it. The NaNo certificate is much more lively. The thought seemed worth developing, though. I present here a hasty compare-and-contrast of salient features of writing a dissertation and undertaking National Novel Writing Month. (Not included: the effects of either on my future employment.)


Caffeine is life for writers. I was surprised at how many of my co-NaNos preferred various kinds of soda or tea to coffee, though. I drank coffee more regularly in November than I had for…since I finished my dissertation, actually. One of my more vivid memories of my defense is that problems with the A/V setup took so long to resolve that my coffee was cold by the time I was able to start.

I also realized that I get more out of coffee than just caffeine. When I’m writing, really writing, I still need the brief pauses afforded by sipping a hot beverage. (Maybe that is why my characters spent so much time with tea or coffee at hand.)

“The only good dissertation is a done dissertation.”

As I mentioned many posts ago, I hit a turning point on my dissertation when I stopped worrying about obsessing with my research and instead chose to obsess with getting finished. It was a grander-scale version of the process most of us have gone through with a paper. You come up with something that is at least a little interesting, you gin up some ideas, do some research…and then you realize you have to submit the paper twelve hours from now, that it’s supposed to be 25 pages, and why did you think you would get any sleep anyway?

At some point in the dissertation process, your thoughts turn away from ‘what is best for this project as I envision it’ to ‘what will my committee sign off on.’ Some people hit that point earlier than others, but I think everybody who finishes reaches it. You tell yourself “I’ll fix that when I do the monograph” or “It’s not worth fighting committee member X over this any more” or “I really ought to research this properly, but I can get by with throwing the right citations into a footnote.”

NaNo is different, because it starts with this ethos. The goal is to get 50,000 words by hook or by crook. The writing coaches repeatedly advise you to keep your fingers away from your backspace key. You are supposed to keep everything, even if it’s bad. (One of my favorite write-in moments was “now we’re going to do an 11-minute sprint of total crap. The crappiest crap you can crap.”) Get the words on the screen. You can edit later.

And damn but some people get words on the screen. 1200 words in a fifteen-minute sprint. 150,000 words in a month. Who knows how much of it is crap? Who knows how much of it anybody else will ever see? Some people clearly write streams-of-consciousness. Others are just that fast. Just as some people struggle to get halfway, others write whatever they please.

The ethos of “wordcount first, everything else is just details” was one of the few things about the month that bugged me. Yes, there is a tremendous freedom in allowing yourself to just write. It is useful to shove your inner editor in a closet. Words in your head never mean as much to your work as words on the page. The obsession with wordcount, though, puts somebody who churns out 70,000 words of 90% crap ahead of somebody who grinds out 35,000 words that are only 40% crap. (See the next point, though—both of those writers will be cheered equally by their fellows.) Others rationalize heftier wordcounts by including blog posts, brainstorming, forum role-play, and anything else that involves typing. NaNo is a competition only to the extent that you’re competing with yourself, but sometimes the whole wordcount thing seemed too easily gamed to me. It is a structural element of the project. It still rubs me wrong…even though 50,000 words is such a usefully concrete goal.

A Community of Fellow Striver-Sufferers

Academia is competitive. Resources are too scarce for it to be otherwise, even though scholars rely on each others’ work. When you write a dissertation, you want it to stand out from—or at least stand comfortably among—the work of your peers and predecessors. At the same time, your fellow graduate students are usually the only ones who understand what you’re going through. They’re also likely to be most of your social group. With my cohort, at least, we all honestly wanted each other to succeed. That got murkier when we started gunning for the same jobs, but few things unite a community like suffering. The community developed organically. Anybody who passed their first semester and remained gung ho about the whole graduate school experience got funny looks. We traded in commiseration, and still do when we get together at conferences.

NaNo is not competitive. At all. The closest thing to competition comes during sprints or word wars. Having the highest wordcount for a sprint might get you a piece of chocolate or some amiably jealous congratulations. That’s it. Everybody cheers for everybody. Gung ho attitudes are pervasive. As much as the participants love writing, NaNo seems to me as much about the social activity as the work itself. I feel comfortable putting it in the same category as, say, CrossFit or Tough Mudder: it is a shared individual experience. We give each other advice and encouragement. We attempt something challenging (see the next point). It is social. Ultimately, though, we’re doing it for ourselves, as individuals. Twenty people in a gym doing complicated push-up routines is not so far from twenty people furiously clattering away at their laptops in a coffee shop. It’s a cultivated, inorganic experience…a kind of manufactured community. That doesn’t mean it isn’t fun—I am not certain I would have gotten my 50K without the support of the folks I was writing with.

Writing. A lot.

In one month and by wordcount, I wrote an equivalent to about four chapters of my dissertation. Depending on where you put my “start” date for dissertating, I averaged about two chapters each year. With the dissertation, of course, there were many thousands more words of brainstorming, planning, and notes. There were pages of footnotes and bibliography, conference papers extracted and reworked along the way. A dissertation, on the humanities side of things, is an enormous pile of work and words.

In that respect, NaNo isn’t so different. The work is not the same. Rather than research, it is about persistence and watching a little bar graph go up. Some people work in manic weekend sprees, others manage a steady, workmanlike pace of 1500-1800 words each day. I was somewhere in between, breaking a thousand words each day but making up the difference with a few long Saturdays and Wednesdays. However you slice it up, NaNo involves producing a substantial word pile in a rather short amount of time.

A dissertation, though, is not just a word pile. It is a finished piece of scholarly work, crafted with varying degrees of care and haste over the course of many, many months. The words are hopefully all in the right places, and the right placement matters more than the quantity. For NaNo, 50,000 words is the only benchmark. My 50,000 are from all over the probable novel, and do not come close to completing it. As much as writing is writing is writing, the ways in which NaNo and a dissertation count as “a lot” diverge considerably. (As they should.)

Validation by an Impersonal Machine

Do you want to see how you’re doing? Copy-paste your draft into the handy NaNoWriMo.org word counter/novel validator. (Do this before the very last minute, because it counts words a little differently than most word processing platforms.) The website will plot your progress on a bar graph. Hopefully those bars will climb up to and eventually top the steadily ascending gray line that tells you what “par” is for each day. When you’ve convinced the site that you’ve written 50,000 words, it will take you to the winner’s page, where you can get yourself various icons, certificates, and swag.

Validating a dissertation is more personal. Slightly. I say that not as a knock on my committee—it was an awesome group of scholars who had important feedback and guidance for me along the way. In the last stages of convincing the University that I deserved a degree, though, those committee members were too often reduced to the names and signatures needed for forms. So many forms. Then I had to submit the whole thing electronically, anyway. It was an uploaded document rather than a copy-paste, but still…

I will say that, whatever the future of my incomplete manuscript, I feel more satisfied by my NaNo project than by my dissertation.

…but it might just be the coffee talking.

Get a Job, You Schlub!

The other day, a friend of mine posted this article about why people with PhDs don’t just leave the soul-sucking, sub-living wage world of the adjunct. It’s a brief piece, one focused mostly on the short notice adjuncts have when taking jobs and the feelings of obligation to their students (and sometimes institutions) that prevent them from abandoning a course mid-semester. What’s missing from the article is just how hard it is to quit.

Quitting is tough because all through grad school, we get a variation on the Game of Thrones truism: “You win or you die.” As long as you can stake a valid claim to be a player in the game—even if you’re more Karstark than Stark—you’re not dead. Leaving is failing, even if failing in this case means “failing to be exploited by a system that simultaneously turns your hope and your desperation against you.” Who sets out to fail? We wanted to be professors because we had professors we loved, because we love teaching and/or our fields. For an adjunct, quitting academia is like breaking up with a fiance/e who keeps refusing to set a wedding date (or just keeps pushing it back). Even if your friends are all telling you to break it off already, your emotional investment keeps you plugging away, dreaming about flowers and centerpieces and organ preludes.*

The other bit that makes quitting tough? What else are we going to do when we’re out? No matter how many odd jobs we’ve held during or interspersed with our studies, it’s hard to build a foundation for an alternative career while trying to build the foundation for the one you expect to be your lifelong occupation. Even if you smuggle the education section to the bottom of your resume, you’ve still got that “PhD” stuck there, begging for explanation. In my case, where I’ve even gotten to the interview stage, it’s usually the first or second thing to come up. An enormous amount of education, a small amount of relevant experience…this is not a formula for an easy job hunt. Given the choice between months of unemployment—remember that adjuncts typically don’t get unemployment insurance—and a crappy job, most of us will stick with a crappy job.

Academic conferences these days usually feature a panel on “non-academic” employment. I’ve stopped attending these. They’re a useless gesture, tending to highlight a small klatsch of of folks with PhDs who have carved out lives outside the professoriate. Just, you know, not very far outside the professoriate. (The organizers are no doubt limited by the need to draw panelists from within the professional society…or actually pay presenters for their time.) I went to one of these panels a year ago in which half the speakers worked for universities. One of them even still taught courses every other semester or so. (The other half of the panel? Somebody who worked for a foundation and somebody who worked for an early music publisher.) This was the precious outside I was so interested in? Never mind that the panelists had taken spectacularly idiosyncratic paths to reach their current positions, most of which seemed to involve knowing somebody who’d been able to offer them a job at the right time. The tl;dr version of these panels boils down to “Look, here are some people who did it! You can, too! If you want to, you crazy person.” Who, precisely, is that supposed to help? And how?

As for me, I’m still working on carving that idiosyncratic path, hoping that I can either strike up an acquaintance with the right somebody or get my foot in the right door to get out of this application-rejection cycle. Just remember that no matter how stupid it might seem to stay on the Academy’s Skid Row, leaving can feel just as stupid.

*Aside: my partner and I had an extended discussion about wedding music well before we even considered getting married to each other.

The 983rd Cut: AcademiConference

I don’t know when the thousandth cut will come, the one that will move my lingering academic dream from hospice to the boneyard. I do, though, strongly suspect that the conference I came home from yesterday will be the last American Musicological Society event that I attend. Three and a half days—of papers, panels, and the far more important conversations that happened in hallways and the hotel bar—were not enough to pull me back in. More surprisingly, I think, they were not enough to reopen the old hurts.

This was my first year presenting at AMS. Any AMS, even the twice-yearly chapter meetings to which I religiously sent paper proposals. My research and the Society’s interests had apparently never been compatible. Looking over the conference programs, I could almost see why. Research into post-1945 American art music was scant. Research that also took odd methodological tacks, that engaged different elements of music-making, was even rarer. It wasn’t this year. I spent most of Saturday hearing papers on post-war American music. The presenters were not just engaging scores or composers. There was a whole Saturday morning panel about music and branding. The papers were excellent. Here were scholars doing the kind of work that had pulled me out of composition into musicology in the first place: asking why, and who, and how, and why we should care.

Peter Kupfer presented a partially data-driven paper on classical music’s use in advertising, and managed a beautiful balance of data, interviews, and analysis. Mark Samples, in addition to ensuring that I’d spend the rest of the day with fragments of Tom Waits song bouncing around my head, drew out useful distinctions between Waits’ voice as a matter of legal identity and the varied use of that voice as a performing tool. John Pippen actually went and did what I thought I was going to do when I started my doctoral research, exploring the ways in which new music ensemble eighth blackbird balances technique and publicity to sustain the “friendly virtuosity” that undergirds their professional lives. Jessica Wood showed off a bunch of delightfully weird Bach-Rock material from the 60s, and went one better to place it in its historical context in marketing counterculture. As an added bonus, Phil Ford was up front, moderating the panel with his hipster guru beard.

Sitting in that Saturday morning panel, even moreso than in the Friday afternoon session featuring my presentation, I felt like I had made it. Here was a collection of smart people, mostly junior scholars, chasing the same answers I spent years chasing. We had somehow managed to chase them straight into the often-stuffy corridors of AMS. I could have collected e-mail addresses to wrangle together a group for an edited volume, or panel discussions for future conferences, or just to compare notes on all the Cool Stuff…

…and I didn’t. Before the conference, I had talked about not having anything to prove this year, but I hadn’t realized what that would look like. I enjoyed being able to approach the presenters with sincere compliments, to share short conversations about our work, and to move on. I wasn’t compelled to network or position my research vis-a-vis theirs. I could appreciate the coolness of the cool stuff and get on with my day.

If I were still invested in the game, I don’t know as I would have enjoyed the conference much beyond those papers. Most of my conversations with colleagues were about bureaucracy or the job hunt. Neither subject had much sunshine in it. Even the young academics who are collecting awards and doing awesome research do not seem especially sanguine about staying inside. The faculty who mentored me through my doctorate are making noises about or plans for retirement. My impression is that we have gone beyond hand-wringing over the state of academic affairs. We focus on our work and our students as best we can. People push for small changes where it seems possible (or push back against inane institutional fiats), try to stay aware of the ways the system is jobbing them, and resign themselves to “reality.” (And reality bites.)

I laughed last weekend, more than I have recently. I caught up with people I hadn’t seen for months or years. I had too much coffee and not enough sleep. I sat outside panels and worked on my novel (still far behind NaNoWriMo par). I used my Twitter account more in 72 hours than I had in the previous 72 days. Despite all that, it felt like a farewell tour. Not a victory lap, mind, but that one last walk around campus before everybody goes home for the summer…

…and I don’t have to measure my life by semesters anymore.

Post-script: The following two articles are tangentially related to the above post and some of my earlier ones about leaving academia. 

Write Like a Motherf*cker  from Karen at The Professor Is In. It’s not as profanity-filled as the title suggests. The short version is that it’s a post about not letting academia define you. The long version is the one you should go and read by clicking that link.

“Please Stop Saying ‘Not Everyone Is Suited for Academia’”  by Rebecca Schuman of pan kisses kafka. Schuman is probably best known for her “Thesis Hatement” on Slate, but this one’s also worth the time to read. Like Karen’s, this is a post about de-academizing yourself. It’s rather more confrontational—justifiable given that she’s become one of the faces of post-ac. At AMS, anyway, I did not get the feeling that anybody was looking down their nose at me, even when my session chair read aloud “Since finishing his degree, Josh has moved to Austin, Texas, where he works as a substitute teacher.” The post does, though, get at many of the conversations I’ve had at work (and in interviews) about what exactly I’m “doing with” my PhD.

The 967th Cut: Writing, Writing, and Writing

I’m currently on course to triple-bogey NaNoWriMo. It is too early to panic, and I’ve got several hopefully word-lucrative weekends to go in the month, but I’m something like 6000 words off “par” depending on how much I get done today. It is not for want of writing that I’m behind. I suspect that, if I included everything I’d written since the flip between Halloween and All Saint’s Day, I’d be far closer to my goal.

What have I been writing? Posts for games (including a lengthy training montage involving a Chinese truck driver), professional correspondence, lengthy sub reports…but mostly I have been expanding and polishing the paper I’m presenting Friday afternoon at the annual American Musicological Society meeting in Pittsburgh. It has been a while since since I’ve touched my research, never mind tried juggling it with fiction writing, blogging, and my usual keyboard recreation. It has provided an opportunity to reflect on writing, on what changes and what remains the same as I shift characters, genres, and function.

Here’s the important thing: words matter.

I knew words mattered a long time ago. I wrote a lot of poetry in my latter teenage years, tinkering with every word and sound to get what I wanted. I knew about lightning and lightning bugs, to crib a bit from Twain. By the time I started grad school, I had incorporated that sensibility into my fiction writing. It never occurred to me that I could pay the same attention to my academic writing, though. At least until I had a fantastic advisor (Carol Hess) who deployed her inimitable mechanical pencil to mark up my papers like they hadn’t been marked up since I started at Atlantic College.

From Dr. Hess, I learned just how many of the lessons I’d learned writing poetry and fiction could apply to formal writing. She argued with me about word choice, about syntax, about varying sentence length. It was not enough to have good ideas. Nor was it enough to express them clearly. To get past “clear” to “compelling” takes work. It takes choosing the right word every time. It requires killing your darlings.

This is especially true for presentations. The presentation format amplifies everything that turns good ideas into bad writing. Nobody in a conference room has the luxury of re-reading a muddy sentence. As a writer, I have to make sure that the paper makes sense read out loud, that I don’t choke it with jargon or polysyllables. At the structural level, arguments need careful scaffolding so that they catch in listeners’ minds.

Turning literary wordcraft to academic ends has made all of my writing better. Without being able to skate by on mere fluency in any of my word work, I’ve had to develop better habits. Even in my least formal writing, the stuff I do for games, I find myself striking out extra words and focusing on vivid verbs. Focusing on sound and register has helped me improve my dialogue writing. (Games have actually been incredibly useful for that, as a Cypriot smuggler, a high school guidance counselor, and a Cajun werewolf are all going to speak…rather differently.)

Writing is writing is writing. As long as we do it attentively, we learn from it.

Expect an update on the conference and the NaNo progress this weekend.

NaNoWriMo, At Last

I heard about National Novel Writing Month in the waybackwhen, in a year that was mostly zeroes. I was in college, still vaguely an aspiring writer but mostly a composer in love with sound. As cool as it seemed, I promptly forgot about it. There was too much going on in my life. “I’ll get around to it after I get out of school, maybe.” Besides, I didn’t have any great ideas to turn into a novel.

By the time I did, graduate school was burying me. I made grand plans in November and in May to do a Personal Novel Writing Month in, say, July, when I was not taking classes. Invariably, these plans had disintegrated by December and June. I started a novel six years ago. That lasted one and a half chapters and a few notebook pages of brainstorming. For the last few years, I’ve technically had the time to write. Unfortunately, I was busy with a different book—or at least a book-like entity—titled “Presenting the New: Battles around New Music in New York in the Seventies.” That one has been read by about four people, who were kind enough to sign a paper saying I should be allowed to finally finish school.

Writing a novel shot up to the top of my to-do list once my dissertation was done. It seemed like the obvious thing to do while sitting on my hands waiting for the slow mill of the academic job hunt to finish grinding me down. I even got started on The Fairworth Chronicles. I churned out a prologue in a timely manner, and moved on to the first chapter. That was around the time my partner and I decided to move our family 1200 miles, and around the time my kids got out of school for the summer. That confluence of circumstance put most of my writing on hold.

…at least until we got here and I decided to try and make a serious go of writing. I have a day job now, so writing time is scarcer, but I am gradually figuring out the pacing. And I have missed my characters. I want to turn them loose in Sakurdrilen and see what happens. (In the meantime, I am brainstorming and outlining and pushing on with re-writes of my novella collection.)


I’ve read a number of posts now both encouraging and discouraging writers from participating in NaNoWriMo. Most of the latter point to the arbitrariness of word count goals and the delusions of having a finished project at the end of the month. Most of the encouraging posts remind me of friends talking up Tough Mudder or Warrior Dash. (Both pro- and anti- posts frequently make explicit marathon comparisons.) NaNoWriMo seems to have grown huge and club-ish while I was busy writing papers. It’s no longer just a project, it is a month-long event. In the Austin area, I could attend write-ins and other NaNo events three or four times a week, starting now and going all the way to the end of the month. It’s a Big Thing. Out of habit and training, I tend to be skeptical of Big Things.

So…why NaNoWriMo? And why now? I hold no illusions about brandishing a finished manuscript at month’s end. I am not sure whether I want to join “the club,” though many folks seem enthusiastic about it. (Several of the local events are at Austin’s big game/comic store, too, so…) I have fairly firm ideas about what I want to do with my writing, where I want to take my stories, how I want to present them to the public. Do I really need to make myself crazy chasing 1700 words/day for 30 days? Particularly when I am presenting at an academic conference early in the month? Wouldn’t it make more sense to ensure my rewrites get done and put that effort into better establishing my on-line presence in advance of my first serious bit of self-publishing?

Well, yes. Yes, it would make more sense. But on the other hand: why not just do it? I have never really had the opportunity to chase an arbitrary writing goal in a community of like-minded chasers. First drafts can be awful. (I am in the middle of rewrites, I know how awful they can be!) But the blank page is worse. The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single cliche. And then you rewrite it so it sounds better. And then you rewrite it again so it makes more sense. And then you find somebody trustworthy and clever to read it and tell you all the things that are wrong with it, and you keep fixing it. That is all part of writing.

But the thing about NaNoWriMo is that you can let those other steps come later and just write. That holds tremendous appeal, and that is why I’m doing it this year. Because I can. Because I will. Because why not?