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.


…So I Built It

So here I am trying to build something. Thanks for coming. I hope I do my job well enough to draw you back.” —The end of my first post

That was 77 posts and most of a year ago. I had sketched out some ideas for a blog in one of my moleskines (I think using a fountain pen, even). I jumped into producing content before I’d really designed the blog, setting it up using a grey and orange color scheme that unintentionally mimicked Steve Brust’s Dream Cafe. I intended that the blog be “something about writing.” A few weeks later, I published Of Dreams, Carrots, and Towers, which was picked up by Minnesota Public Radio’s Higher Ed blog. Suddenly I was a #postac blogger, too.

The last year has been a snake eating its own tail. The kids went off to school today—their first day in the new school. I am at home at my improvised standing desk, unemployed. At this time last year, I was busy hurling my resume at anything writing related. I wasn’t sure I’d get any of the jobs I applied for, but I didn’t despair. (That came later.) This year, I’m coming off three weeks of Not Getting Hired as a teacher. I had a few interviews—some went well, one went so poorly that I withdrew from consideration. There’s still a chance I’ll get a full time position for this school year (enrollment numbers continue to wiggle, and teaching positions with them), but there’s also a chance that I will be stuck as a substitute teacher for the foreseeable future. On the plus side, I don’t owe my program more money until I’m hired. On the minus side, substitute teaching isn’t the most remunerative endeavour.

If the snake has been gnawing its tail, it has also grown: I am happier than I was a year ago. Most days, I’m over my breakup with academia. Many days, I feel like a writer. I have not fallen in love with Texas, but I am learning to tolerate it, to appreciate that I can get decent avocados year round. I get to see one of my nephews and most of my in-laws on a regular basis. I can swap date nights with my sister-in-law. I haven’t managed to play ultimate year-round yet, but I know it’s possible to do without ever having to decide whether cleats or tennis shoes are better for the day’s snow and ice mix. (Next summer I don’t expect to be training for a new career and moving into a new house, which should help get me on the field.)

I would really like for something to go according to plan. The shine has come off the optimism of June. It was baffled optimism even at the time, but as little as two weeks ago I really felt that everything was going to work out and I’d be able to busy myself with day to day troubles and worry less about my personal trajectory. There is a hell of a lot going on in the world that needs to change. It’s hard to work on that when you’re swallowed in a job…but it’s also hard to work on that when you’re busy with the algebra of pay checks and due dates.

In the meantime, I am trying to take advantage of the quiet house to write. I have fewer than 10,000 words to go to complete my first draft of Ghosts of the Old City. I’d like to write them soon enough that I can make a pass through the draft in September, spend October planning the sequel, and then try to repeat last year’s National Novel Writing Month win. I still have the secret project that was supposed to launch in July and didn’t (because moving). There are many things to write.

As for Walking Ledges? It’s one of those things. I’ll continue to be up front about the challenge and opportunities I encounter as a #postac and as a writer. I’ve been thinking about how to incorporate my reading goals into the blog—more on that later this week. I may occasionally write about music. (I’ve only got a friggin’ PhD in it. No reason to schweigen about it.) I should have some cool announcements in the next six months.

In the meantime…that last line of my first post works well as the last line of this one. Thank you for reading, whether you got here from a #postac-tagged tweet, Freshly Pressed, or through a Google search for “who was the composer who was way too good.” (Really happened!) Thank you to my handful of commenters. Thank you for the clicks on the like button at the bottom of my posts. Thanks for the retweets and shares. I hope I can keep doing my job well enough to draw you back.

Bad Grad Habits

Graduate school is many things: an odyssey of the mind, a way to turn reading from pleasure into indentured servitude, a miserable trek toward an even bleaker destination… Okay, so it’s not all wine and roses. To the extent that it is, the wine is cheap and a means to an end, the roses probably already starting to wilt. Anyway. I come to bury graduate school, not to praise it. Erm, wait. I come today to write about three bad habits I took with me to graduate school…ones that graduate school made worse.

Letting My Life Revolve Around Deadlines

Grad school forced me to improve my time management, but mostly because it filled my days so completely. I’m a habitual procrastinator. Part of that is the way I work—especially with papers, I legitimately build them in my head before writing them fairly fast. A good bit of it, though, is just procrastination.

When you’re reading 300 pages per course per week, there’s not much leeway for procrastinating. (There’s room for skim-and-bluff, though.) Instead of encouraging working ahead, graduate school pushed me (and many of my friends) to think of work as some horrible steeplechase of deadlines. With dogs chasing us. You see the deadline in front of you, hear the dogs behind you, and clamber over as best you can so you can get to the next obstacle. (Don’t ask me how the dogs get through the obstacles. The dogs, unlike the snakes, are a metaphor.) For all the work, there’s little opportunity to plan ahead. Come to think of it, the situation is also analogous to working in a restaurant during rush: there’s always something to be done and you just hop from task to task.

It’s not a healthy way to live over the long term. More importantly, thinking about life this way can screw you over when it comes time for the dissertation. First, you might not have been thinking much about your dissertation while you were reading hundreds of pages every week. Second, you suddenly have a deadline of (depending on your program) seven years. The dogs are still chasing you, but you’re in an open field now. Maybe you forgot your compass and maybe your advisor neglected to give you a map. You just pick a direction and start running…

This one has been tough to get over. I had decades to orient my work to deadlines. I’ve had to practice setting medium term goals and being mindful of them. It’s definitely still a work in progress. (As evidence, I point to my 88% complete novel draft that’s been mostly sitting since April.)

Assuming My Work Speaks for Itself

The meritocracy problem: I went into graduate school believing that the way to succeed was to do great work. That was it. There wasn’t a recipe. You just did quality stuff and it would, I don’t know, get out there somehow. I thought that 95% of finding success was being good at your job.

In the early years of my doctoral program, the emphasis was always on work. Write good papers. Be useful (or at least clever) in seminar discussions. Be an active presence in the department. Essentially, keep being good at school. That wasn’t a problem for me. If I hadn’t been good at school, I wouldn’t still have been in it. I read (almost) everything I was supposed to, got my papers in on time, and expected that the next steps in the process would happen on their own because I was good. Academia was a meritocracy and the best work would inevitably achieve the best results.

By the time I was dissertating, I had been disabused of this notion. I’d been to enough conferences and seen enough of my friends enter the market to understand that doing good work was, at best, 50% of finding success. The rest was some combination of hustle, luck, and connections. I understood that, but I didn’t really believe it. Not until I started applying for jobs.

I can safely say that I am more over this one now than I was when I graduated. I know, for example, that if I want my blog or my novel to get traction beyond my immediate community, I will have to throw time and money at getting it out there. Being on a different kind of job market has also helped. Nobody is going to look at my resumé and decide to hire me on the spot. They have to know to look for it, which comes back to the hustle and luck bit.

Winning Arguments Rather than Solving Problems

Man, grad school, you were awful about this. Seminar rooms are too often gladiatorial arenas for pedants. Graduate programs fill them with smart people who are used to being smart, used to being right. Then the professors usually turn the students loose on each other. Sometimes it’s more egalitarian; the professor participates in the melee, too. Admitting you are wrong is too close to admitting you are stupid and don’t belong, so it’s hardly ever done.

I was lucky enough to be involved in programs where most of us liked each other. We were friends rather than competitors. And it was still pretty bad. The worst days were the ones where we dealt with anything written before about 1960…which nearly always meant “written by a powerful white male.” (Early German ethnomusicologists, I’m looking at you.) We’d argue about how much we could or should excuse via historical framing. We’d argue about whether historical framing was a legitimate excuse at all. We’d talk and talk and talk in great spirals that never went anywhere except away from the text in question. We rarely came around to the question of “what can we learn from this and use to develop our own work.” All in the service of winning arguments. (Related: 80% of conference paper “questions.”)

I’m far more cognizant of this problem than I was when I finished grad school, but I still struggle with it. Comment culture doesn’t help—I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve seen (or been) the one trying to reason a true believer around to a different point of view using all of the rhetorical bludgeons graduate school builds for you. Grad school encourages us to pick apart arguments. We find the holes, force them wide, and rush once more unto the breach. We’re led to operate at a remove from the underlying problem.

As a teacher, this is also the habit I’m working the hardest to correct. Winning an argument with a student won’t help either of us. Winning arguments seldom builds knowledge. I’m working to keep myself and my students focused on figuring out what the actual problems are so we can work on solving them.

So. Three bad habits made worse by graduate school. I continue to wrestle with them. What about you, readers? Postac, altac, or still in, what sort of school-amplified habits are you trying to shake off?

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, 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.