I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore (Pt. I)

Last week, Dr. Jeana Jorgensen officially joined the Conditionally Accepted blogging staff, moving from guest blogger to regular contributor.  Below, Jeana offers the first installment of her four-part blog series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore.”  Tune in next week for Part II.

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I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is a multi-part blog post chronicling my journey from “ac” to alt-ac or post-ac, wherever I’m at right now in my tenuous relationship to academia. I find writing therapeutic, and I also hope that others will benefit from seeing me work through some of the personal issues accompanying the structural ones that plague us as professional scholars.

“But wait,” you might be saying to yourself while reading this account: “Jeana is a folklorist – and haven’t folklorists always had options outside the academy?” Yes, we have… but I’m not trained for them, and I don’t want to do them anyway.

First I’d like to note that I’m not just telling this story because it helps situate my own trajectory as a post/alt/whatever-ac person. I feel as though it’s important to lend a perspective to the alt-ac and post-ac conversation beyond the standard narrative of “I got my PhD in XYZ prominent/established field and was unable to get a job as a professor, so I’m leaving.” Don’t get me wrong, I think that narrative is an important one, too, and very relatable for many. I get a lot out of reading quit-lit and related genres of academic blogging. I’ve found solace in their structural critiques, their practical advice, and their rage. The multiple metaphors of academia being a bad relationship that is hard to end or a cult, or an addiction, have also resonated with me. I’ve forwarded many of these links to friends and family members so that they can gain a little more insight into what I’m going through. So I’m definitely not knocking this narrative; I just want to add some nuance based on another field’s specific issues.

So, a brief history lesson: the discipline of folklore studies (or folkloristics) had its inception in Romantic-era Europe. The Grimm brothers and their contemporaries in other countries hopped on board the nationalistic agenda sweeping Europe at the time, hoping to demonstrate links between the various folk cultures, languages, and histories of Europe. Folklore studies scholars have always had close ties with philology, linguistics, anthropology, and religious studies. In fact, the American Folklore Society was founded in 1888, making it the elder sibling to American anthropology (the AAA was founded in 1902). While you used to find folklorists at lots of different universities, working on varied topics from ballads and fairy tales to foodways and folk belief, and working in various departments (since we’re super interdisciplinary), there are only a few academic folklore centers these days.

Folklorists who don’t work in standard academic positions as professors or lecturers often work in the public sector. We called this public or applied folklore. I have colleagues who work in museums, the Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, for city or state-level folklore councils such as the Philadelphia Folklore Project or the Brooklyn Arts Council, at archives, in libraries, and with other organizations to document and preserve cultural heritage.

I’d also like to note that the transition from ac to alt-ac in folklore studies is one that has an established path: get your MA or PhD at a university that specializes in public folklore, and then get to it. Other people fall into public folklore jobs without the academic training for it. My field can be a bit more porous than most. But, this is not to detract from its academic rigor, but rather to acknowledge that, as in any field with a more activist or applied branch, you’re going to find people who got sucked into the work and learned the theoretical/academic side of things through practical experience rather than an academic program.

In theory I could, with my academic folklore background, apply to public folklore jobs, and use my knowledge of the field to start acquiring the various skills and competencies I’d need for the job. I’d need to make up for lost time in some ways, but I’d be ahead of the game in others.

But that work holds little appeal for me, even if it’d mean staying in my field. I’m an introvert who loathes the people-wrangling and delegating aspects of event planning. I don’t see myself excelling at applying for grants or working as part of a team to document a given tradition. While I want my scholarly work to have impact and relevance for the greater public, my methods of engagement don’t generally align with those of public folklore. It’s work that I’m glad someone’s doing, but it’s not work I want to do. (Similarly, at my blog, I dispel the falsehood that I should write children’s books with my folklore degree).

What I hope to have done in this post is to not only lay the groundwork for the remainder of my “I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore” blog post series, but also demonstrate how it’s possible to be alt-ac in one’s field by actually following an established career track. But it’s also possible to not want that career track, despite it being a way to stay active (and employed) in one’s field. Not every job is for everyone.

Happy 1st Birthday, Conditionally Accepted!

Photo adapted from Gustav Aagesen (http://bit.ly/1er9wGk)

Photo adapted from Gustav Aagesen (http://bit.ly/1er9wGk)

Happy birthday, Conditionally Accepted!

One year ago, I revived a short-lived, anonymous blog devoted to essays for and by scholars who are on the margins of academia.  Now

Where is the blog now, after Year One?  Well, we have grown, with Sonya joining as an assistant editor shortly after the blog’s revival.  And just this week, Jeana Jorgensen joined the staff as a regular contributor!  (Please look for a series of posts from her starting next week.)  We continue to feature occasional guest posts by Wendy Christensen, Manya Whitaker, Jeff Kosbie, Michaela A. Nowell, Nyasha Junior, Tanya Golash-Boza, and many other contributors.  (Please add your own voice, too!)

Gauging impact, especially after only a year, is a difficult task.  We surpassed 150,000 site views, have over 850 followers on Facebook and 1,700 on Twitter (@conditionaccept).  But, what do these numbers mean?  I am happy to report that I occasionally receive emails and Tweets thanking me for creating Conditionally Accepted.  We will probably never hear “your blog changed my life!”  But, it is moving to know that the blog has helped some scholars to know they are not alone, or that more options exist than their advisors/colleagues tell them.  As for creating significant change in academia, we could never isolate the impact of our blog from the growing list of other academic bloggers and activists.  The more the merrier!

My hope is that we will be going strong for years to come, growing in staff, readership, and impact.  Looking ahead to Year 2!

Open Scholarship As Intellectual Activism

VCU Open Access Talk

In March, I participated on a panel on open scholarship at Virginia Commonwealth University.  I was invited because of my use of blogging to make academic knowledge more accessible, and being fairly visible as a scholar on social media in general.  In my presentation, I introduced the concept of intellectual activism and spoke about the risks associated with such work, particularly for marginalized scholars.  You can see the text from my talk below.

Open Scholarship as Intellectual Activism

Progress has been made toward making academic research, knowledge, and resources accessible to the broader public.  This is a great cause. It is certainly a matter of justice and equality.  Ironically, a number of scholars – particularly those from marginalized communities themselves (women, people of color, LGBT people) – cannot or are hesitant to participate in the move toward open access.  However, many scholars, particularly marginalized scholars, participate in a different form of open scholarship: intellectual activism.  My primary aim is to introduce what intellectual activism is, what it looks like, and some of the benefits and risks of this kind of open scholarship.

“Professors, We Need You!”

I want to start by sharing an op-ed by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, entitled “Professors, We Need You!”   Kristof argues that scholars are irrelevant, or at least not as relevant as we should be, to important national debates, policy-making, etc.  Academic disciplines have become too specialized.  Some are too left-leaning.

A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.  This culture of exclusivity is then transmitted to the next generation through the publish-or-perish tenure process.  Rebels are too often crushed or driven away.

I think that he raises an important concern, albeit supported by some problematic claims.  But, his characterization of scholars’ efforts to engage the broader public fails to give us enough credit.

 “Open” Research

There is evidence of open scholarship on each of the three major tasks of every academic’s career: research, teaching, service.  The primary meaning of open access is to making published articles freely accessible to the general public, most likely online.  Some progress has been made on this front.  There have recent developments in my own discipline, Sociology, including the creation of Sociological Science, an independent open-access journal, and a new open access journal that the American Sociological Association will soon launch.

One weakness of this approach is that open access does not necessarily translate into accessibility.  As Kristof pointed out, there is a great deal of academic writing that cannot be understood by most people outside of academia, possibly scholars’ own discipline, or even their subdiscipline. I share each new publication with my parents – keeping up the practice since I was finger-painting in kindergarten.  Some articles they understand, and can either comment or ask questions, and to others they just smile and say “good job.”  In the latter case, I am sure they haven’t a clue what the article is about.  My point here is that even passing out free copies of the latest issue of American Sociological Review, the top journal in my field, would do little to advance open access.

“Open” Teaching

On the teaching side of open access, there are a number of scholars who advance open scholarship as a means of educating the broader public.  This may be actually explaining one’s research in understandable language, rather than simply making one’s publications available.  Others, for example, maintain blogs through which they explain difficult academic concepts and theories in accessible terminology.

I blogged for the Kinsey Institute for five years, as a graduate student at Indiana University.  The site offers short, accessible posts on sexual health and the latest research on sex and sexuality.  There are other scholars who maintain blogs that serve almost as an introductory course, in the form of blogs.   But, often connect to current events to keep the content relevant.

In addition to blogging, a number of scholars use Twitter, sometimes using a hashtag (e.g., #SaturdaySchool) to advance accessible teaching.  Using #SaturdaySchool, several scholars will decide on a topic to discuss, and, essentially as a conversation, you have multiple perspectives on one issue.  Again, the issue remains regarding who can afford to pursue these efforts.  Many of these sites are maintained either by tenured professors, or professors at liberal arts institutions where such work may hold greater value – maybe as teaching, but most likely as a form of service.

Intellectual Activism

Finally, one can be “open” as a scholar as a component of academic service.  But, my own personal interest here is in using it for community service and advocacy.  There are debates about public scholarship within sociology that come and go.  In late 1990s, a push for public sociology was revived by Dr. Michael Buroway, which he advanced during his tenure as president of American Sociological Association.  More recently, Dr. Patricia Hill Collins, a sociology professor at University of Maryland and former president of ASA, published a book on intellectual activism.  Collins defines intellectual activism as “the myriad of ways that people place the power of their ideas in the service to social justice.”  At the heart of this is the inseparable connection between activism and scholarship.

There are two components of intellectual activism.  First, one may speak truth to power: “this form of truth telling uses the power of ideas to confront existing power relations.”  This is done by developing alternative frameworks for investigating social inequality – challenging dominant and mainstream approaches that overlook certain aspects of social inequality and certain oppressed communities.  Collins’s own scholarship has advanced a perspective to interrogate the intersections among systems of oppression like racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism, rather than viewing each axis in isolation from the others.  And, such intellectual activism is done within academia.  The second component of intellectual activism is to speak truth to the people – speaking truth directly to the people.  Collins notes, “such truth-telling requires talking, reason, honesty, love, courage, and care.”  This is real engagement, be it virtual or face-to-face, with members of the community.

There are various ways in which scholars may engage in or pursue intellectual activism, some of which blur into a broader online presence; some blur both components of intellectual activism.  As I have already noted, some scholars work to make research findings accessible.  But, not simply to make publications available; rather, they actually make the content understandable in terms of language, and made relevant to the lives of laypeople.  Beyond one’s publications, intellectual activism can entail making academic knowledge in general accessible and understandable.  It can also serve as a vehicle for social justice advocacy, to empower disadvantaged communities, criticize injustice and oppressive practices, and provide commentary on current events.

Intellectual Activism To Change Academia

Beyond serving the general public, or specific communities outside of academia, scholars’ openness – namely use of blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media – can serve as a form of advocacy within academia.  There are many examples of online sources of advice and resources for scholars.   For some, social media can be used to foster scholarly communities; for example, the #ScholarSunday hastag on Twitter, created by Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega.  Or, it can be used to advocate for change to academic cultures, practices, and norms.

Last summer, I created this blog, specifically for marginalized scholars, where I and guest bloggers write about experiences of discrimination, isolation, and harassment, and offer critique of policies and practices within academia that hinder the careers of marginalized academics. A number of similar sites exist. Some bloggers criticize the adjunctification and corporatization of academia.

Other bloggers aim to increase transparency about experiences and injustices in academia. For example, in October, two women scholars wrote publicly about being sexually harassed by editorial staff at Scientific American.  Dr. Danielle Lee, a Black woman biologist, wrote about an exchange in which she turned down an invitation to be a guest blogger because she would not be compensated.  The editor responded: “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist or an urban whore?” She wrote about it on her blog, Urban Biologist. And, Monica Bryne, a writer and playwright, wrote on her blog about being sexually harassed by the editor of Scientific American, Bora Zivckovic.  Other women subsequently came forward about being harassed by him.  This brought about a bigger online conversation about sexual harassment and gender discrimination in the sciences.

Risks Of Intellectual Activism

Collins notes that demands placed on academics have made this kind of open scholarship a luxury in light of the professional risk – a concern that other scholar have raised, as well.  Unfortunately, some of these risks are either heightened for or unique to marginalized scholars.

First, open access publishing may not “count” professionally as much as publishing in traditional journals.  At best, this is seen as form of academic service, or a personal hobby.  Too much of it, particularly if one does not have the research or teaching record to “compensate” for it, may cost you.  For marginalized scholars, as well as those doing research that remains at the margins of their discipline, open access publishing is an opportunity they cannot afford to pursue.  Let me make explicit here that inequality exists in academia – too often, in the form of discrimination.  So, these scholars often have to work much harder than their privileged colleagues to receive the same rewards like tenure.

This is captured in a blog post, published in August, by Dr. Isis (a pseudonym), a Latina woman tenure-track professor of biology, on her blog – Isis the Scientist.  She pushes back against the increasing pressure to publish in open access journals because such publications may not count as much toward tenure.

Larger than the open access warz, I feel I have a moral responsibility to increase the access to science careers for women and minorities.  I can’t hold the door open for those folks unless I am standing on the other side of it.  That means getting tenure and if someone tells me that I can get closer to those goals by forgoing Open Access for a round or two, I’m going to do it.

She concludes:

To paint Open Access as the greatest moral imperative facing science today condescendingly dismisses the experiences many of the rest of us are having.

This links to my opening comments, that the very initiative to address inequality through open scholarship may actually be having the opposite effect in the absence of institutional rewards and support for open access publishing.  It is too risky for some of us.

Second, there is little institutional reward and support, and it varies by school and department.  There are some instances of blocking scholars’ social media use, or sanctioning it.Earlier this year, the International Studies Association considered a proposal to bar members of editorial boards for ISA journals from blogging, unless it was for the journal.  But, ultimately the organization tabled this proposal.  In addition, Kansas University has adopted a policy regarding social media use in which faculty, including tenured faculty, may be terminated for “improper use” of social media.  This includes any use deemed contrary to the best interest of the university, or that impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among co-workers.  This was passed by the KU board of regents in December without faculty input, eliciting intense criticism that this reflects a threat to academic freedom.

Third, online presence opens scholars up to criticism, hostility, even harassment and threats.  Unfortunately, this is particularly true for scholars of color and women scholars.  Given the professional and personal risks, many scholars use pseudonyms online.  But, even then, they run the risk of being “outed.”  Dr. Isis, whom I mentioned earlier, was outed by Henry Gee, an editor at Nature magazine, with whom Dr. Isis has had a long feud.

Concluding Thoughts

Scholars’ online presence is quite common.  But, academic institutions lag in rewarding and supporting online scholarship.  Open access is a great direction, but at the moment it is not a one-size-fits-all opportunity for scholars; and, there are multiple ways to be “open.”  The reality is, a scholar can still remain “traditional,” staying behind paywalls and be successful professionally.

I encourage those advancing open access scholarship to be critical of the uneven and, in some cases, unequal, advancement of such initiatives.  But, I am a bit pessimistic that, even as institutions begin to value and support open scholarship, intellectual activism will remain seen as something outside of traditional academic work, and thus unsupported and stigmatized.

Underestimated

I am well aware that this post may dissolve into self-centered, defensive mess.  But, it is worth the risk of appearing “arrogant,” “entitled,” and… what is the other insult my anonymous online haters have used?  Oh, and “whiny.”  If you read further, you cannot say that I did not warn you.  I need to say this.  And, if I actually end up publishing this on the blog, it means I think others can relate, or at least find something useful to take from my experiences.

Two years ago, I received some less-than-supportive feedback in response to my plan to finish my dissertation in a year, while going full-force on the academic job market.  “It’s too much work.”  “You’re dissertation will be ‘good,’ but not ‘great.'”  “You won’t get a job.”  “You won’t get a good job.”  “You’re not ready.”  “At least apply to dissertation fellowships, as well.”  “You won’t have time to think.”  I forged ahead anyhow; I could barely stand the thought of the upcoming year, let alone two more years.  With encouragement from my partner, family, and friends, I decided against limiting my sights on the prized R1 path.

With a job offer in hand from the school I liked, that is near my family, and would celebrate my intellectual activism, I received less-than-supportive feedback again.  “You’ll be come irrelevant.”  “You’ll slow down in publishing.”  “Sure, you’ll be happy, but…”  “I would decline the offer in hopes for an interview at a [R1 school].”  I forged ahead anyhow.  With the encouragement of my partner, family, and friends, I accepted my current position.

After Year 1…

  • I am content in my new job, finding support for my research, scholarship, and advocacy.
  • I had two articles published, including one that was the lead article in the top journal of my subfield.  (A second article has an R&R there.)
  • I received a $3,000 internal teaching grant to develop a new course (Medical Sociology).
  • I will be awarded the Best Dissertation Award from the ASA Section on Mental Health in August.  (Not “good,” not “great,” but the “best!“)
  • I was elected as a council member for the ASA Section on Sexualities, a three-year position.
  • I was invited to join the editorial board for Contexts magazine, to begin a three-year term in January 2015.

Let me be clear — I would not have had as many choices regarding my career path without the support of my committee and the high quality of my training.  But, I do worry they were a little too cautious, even pessimistic.  In some ways, I feel I was underestimated.  And, recognizing that means I cannot help to begin to wonder about other ways in which I was not pushed, or that I did not push myself, to go farther.  If anything, it means recognizing others’ good intentions, considering their advice, but making sure to listen to my own gut and heart.  In the end, it is my life; I have to be willing to live with, and learn from, the mistakes I make along the way.  So far, I do not regret my decisions one bit.

Back From Teaching Bootcamp

My group at ACS Teaching and Learning Workshop, 2014.

My group at ACS Teaching and Learning Workshop, June 2014, Trinity University.

Earlier this month, I attended the summer Teaching and Learning Workshop of the Associated Colleges of the South (ACS), held at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX.  ACS is an organization of private liberal arts colleges in the US South, including my own institution (University of Richmond).  My university offered funding for any faculty, especially those of us on the tenure-track, to attend, as this summer program can enhance one’s teaching.  I jumped at the opportunity to attend, admittedly, in part, to signal my immediate willingness to grow as a teacher.  I attended the program genuinely open to learning and receiving feedback on areas where I may improve, and I ended up finding the workshop extremely helpful.

The crux of the teaching training at the summer workshop is microteaching.  Workshop attendees were divided into groups of six, in which we stayed for the week.  In these groups, we took turns teaching a seven-minute “slice” of a full lecture.  Other members of one’s group participated as students, took notes, asked questions, and attempted to understand the material — but as themselves, not pretending to be a typical student.  The slice was recorded, and immediately played back for the class.  Before and after playback of the slice, the teacher reflected on how the lesson went, and offered specific concerns and areas of improvement for the class to attend to.  Then, guided by the teacher’s reflections, students articulated what they thought, felt, and experienced during the slice.  The major challenge during these reflection sessions was for the teacher to simply listen to the students’ experiences without responding, and for students to avoid giving advice or reflecting on what should/could/would happen outside of the slice.

As you can imagine, this process challenged each workshop attendee.  Finding a solid seven minutes of material, which would hopefully be engaging and understandable to a group of students outside of your own discipline, was tough.  And, seven minutes seemed to be just enough time to get started, but to stop just before getting to the heart of one’s lecture or exercise.  Many — myself included — find it strange, even uncomfortable, to watch yourself teach immediately after the slice, and then to hear how five other instructors-as-learners experienced the lesson.

This aspect of the workshop was extremely powerful for me — and emotional.  In each of the three slices that I taught, I was asked to open up about how the experience of teaching was for me.  This usually meant expressing self-doubt, worry, and uncertainty.  And, watching the playback offered even more opportunity to be my biggest critic.  Ironically, nothing the students said was ever as harsh as the things I said about my teaching.  In fact, the feedback was generally positive, including the sentiment that my self-identified nervousness was never apparent to my students.  (Although, several students mentioned my nervousness in their course evaluations of one of my spring semester classes.)  There were a few areas wherein students felt uncomfortable or confused, but I could readily identify how to improve the lecture in my mind.

This process is also designed to make us feel safe and braver as teachers.  We were encouraged to experiment and take risks with each subsequent microteaching session.  I took the program staff up on this challenge.  On day 2, I pushed myself to use John R. Brouillette and Ronny E. Turner’s “spit” exercise to teach social constructionism, even though I felt other academics would find the exercise silly or childish.  Fortunately, this exercise went well and was very effective.  This usually goes well in my classes.  But, in this context, the immediate feedback session allowed me to hear why.  These students were able to pinpoint their own visceral reaction to someone’s spit as driving home the point that “spit” (how we understand and react to it) is socially constructed.

On the third day, I challenged myself to give a lecture on sexual violence.  As usual, I agonized over this lecture, worrying that it might upset students.  The slice went fine.  But, when invited to express how I felt after seeing the video of me teaching, I got choked up.  Though not at a conscious level, I had found a safe space to express how charged the topic has been for me, in general and specifically in the classroom.  I left that microteaching session feeling encouraged and empowered to take more risks in the classroom — and to feel comfortable having certain emotions related to the lecture.

Outside of teaching, we attended daily plenaries that exposed us to various classroom activities and teaching styles.  Some of these sessions were devoted to reflection, either to process what we had done earlier that day or to develop goals for teaching upon our return home.  In a later plenary, we were asked to choose one issue that we had not had the chance to address yet during the week, which we would share with a small group and receive feedback.  I felt reassured to hear that I did not appear nervous when teaching, but feeling nervous and the pesky issue of self-doubt in general continued to plague me.  During this plenary, I received encouragement and many suggestions to kick self-doubt to the curb for good.

Clearly, I enjoyed the workshop!  Admittedly, I did not feel up to attending, as it was scheduled right at the point that I felt recovered from academic year.  But, it was truly worthwhile, providing feedback on teaching that you cannot find anywhere else.  I highly recommend attending ACS’s or similar workshops.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen On Taking A Real Summer Break

Jeana jorgensenDr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, and dancer.  Her scholarship explores fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, gender identity, feminist theory, and digital humanities.  She is a blogger at MySexProfessor.com and on her own site (including many posts on folklore and academia in general).  Be sure to follow her on Twitter at @foxyfolklorist.

Dr. Jorgensen has kindly shared a post from her blog, in which she declares she is taking a real summer break for the sake of her well-being.

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Summer Break (For Real)

I’ve been talking about this idea to a handful of folks, and now I’m implementing it: I’m taking a real summer break. This has some implications for how I comport myself online and in the rest of life, so thought I’d explain those here.

Like many scholars, I’m a highly-driven, passionate, disciplined person. This can have its downsides, though, like when I work myself into stress-induced illness or don’t make time for the relationships that are important to me. I went straight from high school to undergrad to grad school, and since starting grad school I did “everything right” to try to get a job as a professor, which meant spending almost every waking minute on activities that would enhance my CV. Even after finishing my PhD, I remained in “production mode”: doing extensive research, publishing, and presenting while also adjuncting and freelance writing.

In other words, I’ve never really had a break or a vacation since starting grad school. Even on trips, I had an article to be working on. Or a conference proposal to write. Or a syllabus to finish. Or grading, grading, grading.

This summer will not be the true break I wish it were. I am not going to be doing absolutely nothing (in fact, I fear I am incapable of doing nothing unless forced to by circumstances outside my control). I am going to be nurturing my dance community, visiting my family, maintaining friendships/relationships, and doing freelance writing to bring in some money, because hey, one of the downsides of adjuncting is that there’s no guarantee of summer employment and it’s not like you can claim unemployment either. Like many, I feel that contingent work has begun to make the rest of my life feel contingent too.

Since reflecting on normalized weekend work in academia, I’ve been facing the real prospect of burn-out. What’s the point of working so hard for so little reward, I wonder. I’ve enjoyed the decade+ journey of becoming a professional in my field but I’ve spent 3 years on the job market only landing local contract teaching gigs (which I do find fulfilling; they’re just not full-time work hence not long-term sustainable). I love what I do, but do I love it enough to keep doing it when it takes an obvious toll on the rest of my life? When I find myself writing so many qualifications, so many “yes, buts” when I describe my experience, how am I to deal with this deep ambivalence, this weariness over a layer of hurt/frustration? (Curious why academic rejection seems to hurt so much more than other kinds? Read this crowd-sourced list for some insight.)

I am taking to heart some of Rebecca Schuman’s suggestions about how to recover from academia, including the notion that making space to de-tox might help. And that might involve limiting contact with the kinds of people and pressures that academics normally encounter. If I can’t afford to travel to more than one or two conferences per year, do I really need to be seeing ads for them? If I can’t justify time to work on unpaid academic writing projects because I’m either working on paid writing to bring income to my household, or domestic tasks that I voluntarily take on because I’m not the breadwinner so I feel I should… do I really need to be seeing those CFPs? That sort of thing. And, if I am being honest with myself, I want to be happy for my colleagues that are succeeding in academia, but it just makes me feel bad about my own failures. There, I said it. It’s shallow, and it’s selfish, but every post I see from a recent graduate about getting a job reminds me that I’m lingering in adjunct-land, which is not what I had envisioned for myself. And wondering why they got the job and I didn’t is unproductive, since I won’t ever know.

We all know that the academic job market is cruelly arbitrary, lacking in transparency, cult-like, and drawn-out to the point of making planning the rest of one’s life an absurd impracticality. Describing the hiring process to non-academics makes it sound ridiculous beyond words. Knowing these things makes me feel somewhat better about my “failure” to get a job, but still. I feel pretty crummy about my situation and I’m trying to change that.

To that end, I’m going to remove many of the academics I follow from my Twitter and Facebook lists, unless you’re more on the post-ac/alt-ac side of things, or unless I follow  you because you’re a friend first, and an academic second. It’s nothing personal, and I may restore y’all once the fall semester starts and I’m feeling excited about the course I’m teaching, and once I’m doing… whatever it is I’ll be doing in the fall in addition to teaching. Which is hopefully something I’ll figure out this summer.

Can I Let Go Of Fear Yet?

Since the start of my graduate training, I have wrestled with fear related to my career in academia.  As the stakes have gotten higher, and my scholarly platform has expanded, that fear has remained a constant fixture in my life.  This is now my fourth year living with generalized anxiety disorder.  With my anxiety piqued after a recent short post-semester vacation, I began wondering whether a post on fear was relevant to other academics; maybe it is just a symptom of my own mental health.

After a quick Google search of “fear in academia,” I found that others had already written about it — and, that the fear-anxiety link is not unique to me.  Graduate students are afraid their graduate training will be in vain, at least in terms of securing a tenure-track jobContingent faculty are afraid that they will never get out of the trap of temporary academic employment — and that they may face retaliation for speaking out about the awful conditions of many adjuncts.  Those in tenure-track positions fear being denied tenure.  Those who ultimately decide to leave academia fear the unknown beyond the ivory tower — a path for which too few of us are trained.  And, if not controlled, an academic may know fear her entire life career.

I have had many conversations with my colleagues and administrators about my institution’s tenure expectations.  To be honest, the institution could give me an explicit set of guidelines — down to the number of publications, in what journals, the minimum acceptable teaching evaluations and pedagogical enhancement, and “safe” forms of service — and I would still be anxious en route to tenure.  Though I usually ask about research expectations, my concerns often shift to my public scholarship (i.e., blogging).  Is there a chance I would be denied tenure, or possibly terminated well before then, because of my public writing?  Each time, I am reminded that 1) I was hired, in part, because of my public scholarship, 2) it is essentially impossible that a stellar scholar-teacher would be let go over a blog, and 3) it seems strange that I am so worried about this unlikely scenario.

Where Is This Fear Coming From?

To be blunt, I do not offer my complete faith and trust to other people, especially those I only know on a professional basis.  And, I certainly do not trust an institution to have my best personal and professional interests in mind.  (Call it paranoia, if you wish.  I call it survival.)  I will believe tenure and promotion are likely when they are awarded to me.  Though we like to buy into the myth of meritocracy in academia, and believe that scholars and academic institutions are bias-free, I see enough evidence to the contrary in academia.

The oppressed person’s skepticism aside, I have also located this fear at the heart of my academic training.  Graduate school was not simply a time marked by fear of the future.  It was the training ground to become a fearful, obedient academic.  Effective academic professional socialization seems to demand that we hyperinternalize the criticisms of our advisors, experts in our field, anonymous reviewers, journal editors, conference panel organizers, and every other colleague we encounter, as well as our anonymous student evaluations.  Intellectual innovation is necessary to advance in one’s career — yet, anything too far outside of tradition and the mainstream may be punished.  Silence and conformity (and fear) become valued traits of a young scholar’s career.

Even as I publicly declared that I would pursue tenure my way — embracing the values of accessibility, authenticity, and advocacy — I still struggle 12 months later with the professional fear that I internalized in graduate school.  My first year on the tenure-track has been a roller coaster ride of speaking up and retreating into silence, authenticity and conformity, bravery and fear.

On one hand, I successfully fought for a career path that would allow me to be a vocal public scholar.  This work does not “count” (but, does lead to things that do).  I am relieved to find the reactions to this public scholarship ranges between indifference and pride; in other words, at least it will not count against me professionally.  Yet, it feels as though my institution is a bit of an outlier, especially while other universities are formally cracking down on scholars’ use of social media.

On the other hand, I intentionally left the beaten R1 path for the devalued liberal arts path, and actively and publicly pursue intellectual activism.  I often find that I am making it up as I go, with so much available advice that does not fit for me or my priorities.  I remain wary because I have yet to find a role model like me who was successful, despite/because of speaking up as a junior scholar.  Until I see that an uppity fat brown queer feminist activist-academic can successfully win tenure without a hitch, I imagine I will continue to wrestle with finding a happy balance.  I want to be healthy, happy, and authentic, but I also want job security.

I anticipate that I will have more to say on this in the future, hopefully with advice of ridding this fear once and for all!  Stay tuned.