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