The Professor vs. the Performer: Undercutting

Jeana performing at a 1st Friday street festival in Kokomo, Indiana.

One of the perspectives that I bring to my academic blogging is that of a professional performer: in addition to having a PhD and teaching at the college level, I teach and perform dance. In this blog post series, I would like to highlight some of the marginalization practices in academia by comparing them with practices in performing arts communities. My hope is to illuminate problematic expectations that often go unnoticed because we have become accustomed to them, although they are precisely the kind of thing we should be challenging and changing.

What Is Undercutting?

This post is about the practice of undercutting, or charging a lower-than-average fee for your services. It’s not a term I hear very often in academia, but I’m starting to think we should be more attuned to its implications for us.

Talk to performers in your community—whether they’re jugglers, fire-eaters, or burlesque dancers—and you’ll hear about the horrors of undercutting.

Professional performers are often asked to teach or perform for free. This is a common woe that you’ll hear us gripe about. But then there’s undercutting, wherein someone charges less than the going rate, either in a conscious attempt to screw over other professionals in the area, or for some other reason like an attempt to compensate for lack of experience.

One of my friends, a juggler, told me that when he first started doing paid performances, he wasn’t charging very much. After all, he was pretty new to performing, and while he was good at it, he didn’t want to overcharge his clients. In part, it was so much fun that he felt guilty asking for money to do it. It wasn’t very long before some of his more experienced circus performer buddies took him aside to have a talk — a “we like you a lot, but you’ve got to stop undercutting us” talk. Because he was doing it as a hobbyist, and they were doing it professionally, needing to pay bills and feed their families with that money, it became problematic when he accidentally started to take their gigs. After that conversation, he kept in mind that he was helping set prices in his town, and raised his rates accordingly.

Valizan, a dancer I know, talked to me about the effect on the community of charging too little for classes:

When new teachers feel they must charge less because they don’t have the experience or the same amount of training, I often think, “then why are you teaching?”  To me they are saying they are not up to snuff. If they aren’t, they should teach for free or do the community centre gig until they ARE up to snuff.  Integrity is the difference between a professional and a hobbyist. If you put out a shingle, you should charge the proper area rate and not drop the price to try to attract students. Because that eventually brings it down for everyone. And FEH [exclamation of disgust] on that!! 

In dance and other art forms, there’s not always a credentialing process to make sure that performers are qualified to teach. So when a dancer decides to begin teaching, often she’ll just go for it and start charging some arbitrary amount, or an amount that’s deliberately less than the going rate…but this has a definite effect on the other teachers in the community, which is where we get into trouble.

The Consequences Of Undercutting

One of the results of undercutting is that the people hiring performers have come to expect people to work for little to no pay. Another of my contacts said, “I gave a speech recently to a group of high level professionals. They explained I should be honored because the previous speakers included Fortune 500 executives, university presidents, and top state officials. And that they had no budget for speakers.” When I asked him to comment on this event, he said: “The point is that people should pay you for your work. And I hate accepting non-paid work or cut rate but I have to.”

This isn’t a phenomenon that’s exclusive to creative types, either. I asked Robby Slaughter, a workflow consultant, about his views on undercutting. He said: “Charging less (or nothing at all) for your expertise as a speaker, writer, or artist not only makes you seem unprofessional and unworthy of compensation, but contributes to an ever-growing lack of respect for your profession. Undercut your price, and you’re cutting down everyone who does what you do.”

Slaughter linked me to a blog post he wrote on whether to pay speakers. I gravitated toward this quote from it: “On the one hand, it seems unethical to offer work for free. You depress the entire market. You force other customers to pay those costs. But on the other hand, speaking for free does provide access to audiences. And all speakers and consultants need audiences in order to find future success.”

Undercutting In Academia

So, how does this relate back to academia? We don’t call it undercutting, but we (institutionally) ask people to work for little/no pay, and we (individually) will offer to work for little/no pay. This, like undercutting in the artistic community, has the effect of dragging down the entire academic community, instilling unrealistic expectations in the people who are in positions to pay us.

As an adjunct, I have to face the unpleasant reality that I am part of the problem. If I were to refuse to work for such ridiculously low wages, and if enough people would follow suit, then maybe we’d be able to make an impact on the system. I’ve been following the news about unionization and strikes with great interest, for this reason.

However, there’s one big disconnect between the artistic and academic communities. In these artistic communities, there’s explicit dialogue about undercutting and how it’s bad for everyone (except, temporarily speaking, for the people making a quick buck). A local dancer shared with me this anecdote: “There is an event I chose not to teach at for this very reason…They are not covering travel, hotel, or conference registration for ANY of the instructors. I think instructors who teach there are undercutting other artists and event organizers. I won’t participate in that type of undercutting. It’s bad for the art.”

In academic communities, on the other hand, I never hear about undercutting. It is as though we simply don’t have the language or concept to apply to our situations, though—as I’m arguing—it should definitely apply.

Take, for instance, a colleague of mine, a PhD student who has repeatedly been asked to teach at a prestigious summer institute. He has taught there for free, knowing that others get paid to teach there. (He asked me not to name him in this post for obvious reasons.) It’s a great networking opportunity, and it goes on his CV, and it’s fun, and so on. But working for free, and potentially undercutting other colleagues, makes him uneasy, and he’s not sure if he’ll keep doing it.

Perhaps tenure-track and tenured faculty don’t think in terms of undercutting because they’re not directly affected by it; one could even argue that it (in the form of adjuncting) benefits those holding TT positions. However, I would argue that this is on the whole a devaluing phenomenon, one that has long-term consequences for academics of every stripe, and higher education in general.

If undercutting were regarded in academia like in any dozen other communities, people who did it would be taken aside and given a stern or at least concerned talking-to. Imagine if our mentors told us that it was “bad for the field” to accept a job for less than we’re worth. Think about what it’d mean for colleagues to tell us not to agree to work for free, because it demonstrates that we think our work has no value. Because, with the way things are going, how could we be receiving the message that our work does have value?

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

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is the fourth and final installment of my blog post series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore.”  In this series, I’ve written about the alt-ac options in my main field, folklore studies (see Part I); the process I’ve undergone of recognizing that maybe I want to step back from academia (see Part II); and the “trying on” of this new identity at a conference (see Part III).

Now I’ve gotten to the point where stepping back to gain some distance from and perspective on academia has seemed like a great idea, even if it’s only for this summer. But where to go from here?

As far as concrete planning-for-the-future type stuff, I’m still adjuncting. I actually really like the school where I’m teaching now, but I don’t like the fact that I’m stuck with the adjunct pay scale, lack of benefits, and inability to plan beyond one semester ahead. But, I’m not taking on a huge course load, so I’ve got time to explore other things that I want to do with my life, potentially as career options. I plan to do more writing, and to build a business as a sex educator. I’m already doing informal relationship and sexuality counseling among my peer group, and teaching gender studies classes on related topics. Might as well give it a go and see if I can get paid to do it, right? Plus it’s the kind of career that I can do as part-time as I want while I’ve got other things on my plate, since it seems to involve a lot of freelancing and getting my own gigs.

I’m in the rare and fortunate position of not needing to be the breadwinner in my household at the moment, so I have more freedom than most adjuncts to poke around and figure out what I want to do with my time (for which I am grateful, very very grateful). I don’t see myself not working for long periods of time. I’m taking on paid writing jobs this summer, despite needing a lot of downtime to recover from near-burnout. But, I want to choose a potential next career with intention and clarity – and that can take time.

Additionally, since I know that I’m luckier than many adjuncts who struggle to make ends meet, or other folks on the post/alt-ac spectrum who don’t have a lot of leeway between ditching the ivory tower and needing another income source, I want to do a little more volunteering. You know, give back to the world, improve my community. Thanks to a Twitter conversation with Jennifer Polk (@FromPhDtoLife) of From PhD to Life, I determined that as much as I make myself out to be a cranky introvert who retreats as often as possible to her hermit-cave, I have a deep need to connect. I need my work to make meaningful contributions to my larger community, not just my academic community. Sex education gives me the chance to do that, especially since I plan to take on some volunteer gigs, both to gain experience in this profession, and because there are a lot of people who really need accurate, thorough sex and relationship education, even as adults.

I don’t anticipate that this will all be smooth sailing, though. Even if I’m starting to deal more healthily with the emotional fall-out of an unexpected career change that felt like a failure, I’m sure there are plenty of struggles ahead. For one thing, my career trajectory involves writing, and that means facing a lot of potential rejections. I’m still working through what my time seeking academic employment means and whether there was anything I could’ve done better or differently to get a job (imposter syndrome, anyone?). And, I worry that a thoughtless or judgmental word from a colleague could send me reeling. I’m still not sure what this makes me (post-ac? alt-ac? something-else-ac?) and how it’ll influence my relationship with academia in the future.

A lot of my thinking is, unfortunately, cyclical. I hope that I’m not shooting myself in the foot by publishing this kind of blog post online, under my real name. But, would I really want to work for an institution that doesn’t want honesty or critical awareness from its employees? If a university wants someone working for them who’s never questioned academic politics, they’re going to end up with someone who’s naïve, dishonest, or perhaps both.

Another instance of cyclical thinking is that if I’m not feeling passionate about my research right now, I should put it down and come back to it when I’m feeling recharged. But, is walking away for a time going to reinforce feelings of not belonging, and cause me to feel more disconnected? I worry that the more time I spend disengaged from academia, the less I’ll want to return to it, and that’s a bundle of mixed emotions right there, even if I just spent this blog post series establishing that I don’t know if I want to be on the academic career track I’d started out on a decade-plus ago.

I’m no stranger to the cyclical “if they don’t want me, I’m not a good fit for them” line of thought. I’m an outspoken feminist who works on various gender and sexuality topics that some people find off-putting. There are probably some workplace cultures – both academic and not – where I wouldn’t be welcome, whether because I’m a woman, or because I work on these various gender and sexuality topics, or both. I try not to be too in-your-face in talking about sex and, of course, I keep this kind of discourse professional, but there are still places where that’s taboo. And I don’t want to have to hide such a huge facet of my identity or my interests just for the sake of fitting in.

So…that’s where I am. I’d like to thank everyone who’s helped me reach a point where I feel I can step back from a career path that hasn’t been working for me, despite the fact that it’s really scary to do so. My husband, my family, and my dance community have been especially awesome, not only for supporting me through this tough journey, but also giving me constant, joyful reminders that there’s more to life than having my nose stuck in a book.

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

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is Part III of my four-part series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore” (see Part I and Part II). With all the processing I’d done to reach the point where I felt somewhat comfortable stating “I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore,” and all of the specific ways in which my field can accommodate alt-ac work, I set out to try on this new identity at a conference.

Luckily, I picked a pretty fitting conference at which to do so: the International Conference on the Fantastic in the Arts (ICFA). Since I got roped into going by a bunch of fellow grad students at Indiana University a number of years ago, I’ve been a regular attendee at this conference on sci-fi, fantasy, horror, comics, film, fandom, the visual arts, and practically any other aspects of the fantastic mode that exists. And it’s truly an international conference; I see some of my favorite Scandinavians there.

In addition to ICFA being a conference where I feel as though I’m coming home each year I attend, it’s particularly well-suited to these kinds of post-ac/alt-ac conversations. While it’s an academic conference, wherein presentation submissions are refereed before being admitted, it’s not just professors and grad students in attendance. Many of the presenters are alt-ac in some sense, whether they’re trained in a different field than the conference theme, or actually employed outside the academia but attending to do the scholarship they love. The fields of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror studies are interdisciplinary, and have always had elements of a fan participation. And at ICFA, we have a number of guest artists, authors, and editors in attendance. Their presence as participants in the media we study makes for rich and lively discussions, as well as a conference program that includes more than just scholarly presentations. I got to meet author China Miéville and ask him about how he incorporates folklore in his writing, for instance, which was wonderful and fascinating.

I decided that ICFA was the perfect place for a soft coming-out for two reasons: I’m comfortable there, having attended for nearly a decade and built so many friendships and collegial relationships there, and it’s already a mixed group of academics in varying relationships to institutions as well as non-academics. That, and the processing of my academic angst had reached critical mass by the time the conference occurred, and I really wanted to talk to people about it. I felt ready to start moving in a new direction or three, and I needed to know whether all of my colleagues would suddenly hate me. The fact that fantasy studies isn’t my main field, though it overlaps with folklore studies in some areas, particularly areas in which I work, would also soften the blow if things went poorly.

Upon arriving at ICFA this past March, I told everyone whom I talked to that I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a professor anymore. Depending on how long I’d known someone, and whether it was looking to be a brief “get to know you” conversation or a “let’s talk for ages” conversation, I went into varying amounts of detail about my reasons for reaching this decision. I outlined some of my plans for the future and asked for feedback where appropriate.

The experience was wonderful overall. Everyone was very supportive and encouraging. Most of the folks I talked to knew of the troubles with the academic job market, and it was interesting comparing notes with my colleagues from other countries. I had to fill them in on some of the specifics of our job market and, in turn, I got to learn about some of the reasons things are difficult in other places.

No one berated me for my choices or my experiences. But, I did get a few of those annoying “just hang in there” talks, which I guess are meant to be helpful, but miss the point that one can only “hang in” so much when one is struggling on various levels, including emotional and financial.

I found a lot of solidarity with people who are in similarly liminal situations, regardless of whether they had an academic career in mind. For instance, I talked to Kathryn Allen, who blogs at Bleeding Chrome (check out this great post on embracing ambition after a PhD), and she was really understanding and wonderful when listening to me rant about my career-shift ideas. And there are others whom I won’t name because not everyone’s out about their various career moves… but you all are awesome. Our poolside chats and discussions over drinks made me feel accepted, loved, and as though I am not alone in this struggle.

Getting to “try on” the new identity of post/alt/whatever-ac was a transformative experience for me. It demonstrated that people whose ideas and work that I respect still find value in me even when I am distancing myself from the institution and career that we’re all indoctrinated to venerate above all else. My precarity wasn’t seen as a personal failing, nor as a factor in evaluating the worth of my ideas.

I was a bit worried about whether I’d get very emotional about this topic (since my career angst has been tugging at my heart for a couple of years now), but things went pretty smoothly during the conference. I might’ve also been envisioning my time at ICFA as though I were playing a new character in a role-playing game, but that’s not terribly out there given the content of the conference. So I’ll go ahead and call it a success. (of course, it helped that I had a successful conference on a professional level, too, receiving many compliments on the research I presented and chairing a session that went wonderfully)

Tune in next week for the final post in this blog post series, which will address the “what now?” of coming to terms with the “I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore” experience.

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

Photo by Erik Mayes

Photo by Erik Mayes

This is Part II of my four-part series, “I Don’t Know If I Want To Be A Professor Anymore” (see Part I here). Now that I’ve given some perspective on where I was coming from in my disciplinary background (folklore studies), I’ll talk about the other factors influencing my decision to maybe, kinda, sorta, not pursue a career in academia anymore.

In the past, I have blogged here at Conditionally Accepted about gauging internal and external ways to validate my work as an adjunct, as well as how identifying patterns of normalized weekend work in academia has led me to reevaluate my working habits. On my personal blog, I’ve written about how my experience of academia has oscillated between potential career and very expensive hobby. I’ve ranted – a lot – to friends, colleagues, and acquaintances, both online and in person, about the uneasy fit between my experiences of academia and the narrative I’d swallowed in grad school. And finally, I’m able to put some of it into a coherent format.

But first, a word about how academia’s cultural practices complicate the personal/structural binary that runs throughout my piece. As grad students, we’re taught to link our professional career to our personal identity, which can be problematic when the number of jobs dwindles, simply making it a fact that most of us will not get to do what we love or what we’ve trained to do. There are “approximately 36,000 new PhDs each year, and only around 3,000 new positions created.” And yet, PhDs who “fail” to get jobs are facing damaging and misguided rhetoric, such as the idea that “The best students will always succeed” and “The problem isn’t that there are too few faculty positions. The problem is that more students and postdocs are CHOOSING not to become faculty.” Rebecca Schuman’s outraged response mirrors mine, in that I’m appalled that the dominant response to those leaving academe has been so disdainful and out of touch with the reality of the academic job market and adjunct working conditions. Those who are stubborn enough to stick it out may eventually win a TT job, true, at which point the exploitation and abuse they’ve endured transmutes into praise for their dedication. This is such a bizarre system that I don’t think I’m alone in wondering whether I want to stick around for that outcome.

The metaphor of “a thousand cuts that kill” describes my experience of alienation from the academic career track pretty well. There are lots of individual aspects of academia that I love, but the things that have worn me down and hurt me have begun to outnumber them. The things I enjoy are often concrete experiences I can easily point to and describe, whereas the things that detract from my enjoyment and my sense of integrity are more abstract, and hence more difficult to discuss. But hey, that’s why I got an advanced degree, so that I could describe the difficult-to-describe, right?

If I were to make a list of pros and cons of being a career-path academic (from my perspective), the shortened, blog-post-palatable version would look like this:

Pros:

  • I love teaching, research (both textual and ethnographic), writing, and presenting.
  • I excel at these tasks and have been recognized in various ways (yay external validation!), such as receiving fellowships, publishing many articles in peer-reviewed journals, and having multiple “this class was awesome and/or changed my life” conversations with grateful students.
  • Having a flexible schedule and the option of having summers off is great for me, plus I love to travel (like for conferences and research).
  • I need intellectual engagement in my life.

Cons:

  • I had inflated expectations about being able to get a job right out of grad school, so spending 3 unsuccessful years on the job market has been emotionally painful for me.  (For more on why academic rejection hurts so much, see Rebecca Shuman’s post, gathered from the responses she crowd-sourced here).
  • The nature of the academic job market is needlessly expensive, time-consuming, and exploitative (see Jennifer Guiliano’s suggestions for a more humane job market), and I’m not sure how long I can keep it up.
  • Spending the last few years adjuncting has opened my eyes to the exploitative nature of university work, and I can’t say I really want to be a part of this system in such a way that I structure my identity around it (and even should I land a TT job, I would be implicitly endorsing this hierarchical structure by participating in it).
  • I am close to burning out and no longer wish to work evenings and weekends on research that would help me stay competitive on the job market.
  • Getting tenure no longer seems to guarantee job security, so why struggle to get a TT job and subsequently overwork myself to have a shot at a vanishing dream?
  • Even if I did get a job, I’m not sure that I could, in good faith, mentor students.  (See this blog post for another perspective on advising grad students in good faith).
  • I’m at a point in my life where I want to prioritize my family and my relationships with others, so academia’s culture of overwork is less appealing to me than it was when I was younger, single, and itching for something to be passionate about.
  • I tend to struggle with anxiety and self-worth issues, and the culture of overwork in academia has not been good for my mental and emotional health.
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, in order to have a shot at the hypothetical “it’ll all be worth it” outcome of a TT job, the more I question the wisdom of this plan despite the sunk costs and investments over time.
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, the more I feel like I’m not contributing to my household financially (because, truly, I’m not, and even though I got a decent funding package, I still graduated with student loans).
  • The longer I work for exploitatively low wages, the more I want to use my time to do other things, rather than work for an institution where students are paying the same tuition regardless of whether a part-timer or full-timer is teaching their classes.  (Hm, where is that extra money going?).

Lest anyone reading this think I wasn’t good enough to get a job, let’s all remember how arbitrary and flooded the academic job market is. I’ve got similar amounts of publications and other accolades as my colleagues who have found TT positions.

Regarding those last few bullet points, obviously it’s not all about the money. But when you’ve spent the last decade-plus believing that you’re laboring intensively to build the skill set to land you a given career, and then you learn that you likely won’t have a shot at the full-time version of that career unless you labor under exploitative conditions with no certainty of renewal… it’s tough. From another perspective, I experience cognitive dissonance about the pay scale because in other communities (like the performing arts), working for so little could be perceived as undercutting one’s competition. Except, in academia, it’s almost the opposite: because we adjuncts are willing to labor for so little, we are enabling those in pay scales above us to continue to do what they do at the rates they get paid. A little odd — isn’t it?

Even though this list is a rough approximation of my experiences of the last 3 years on the job market, simply weighing these considerations has been helpful for me. I’ve come to see that, while I enjoy and am good at many of the localized tasks involved in being a career academic, the overall culture has been toxic for me.

I’m not used to making big life decisions based on how I feel. (This should tell you what a great track record I’ve had in relationships). So it’s really weird for me to say that, despite being a competent scholar, and despite all signs pointing to me eventually being able to land a TT job someday, I don’t feel happy doing this work anymore. I just don’t. It doesn’t excite me, it doesn’t fulfill me, and those fleeting glimpses of joy simply don’t make up for all the frustration, anxiety, misery, shame, and other negative emotions and experiences that have come to comprise my attitude about academia. I know not everyone is in love with their job, and I’m not trying to be a special snowflake who deserves more happiness than everyone else. I’m just trying to relate how my negative experiences and feelings are making this job not terribly worth doing, given the other unsustainable aspects of this gig. And yet, like Elizabeth Segran, I fear that if I leave, I won’t get to do what I love anymore, so that’s another factor in my thought process. The “do it because you love it” rhetoric has always been problematic for educators (and really, everyone), as pointed out in this excellent Jacobin article.

So there’s been a fair bit of cognitive dissonance involved in reaching the point where I can say I don’t know if I want to be a professor anymore. Note that there are a bunch of vagueness modifiers in this sentence; it’s not that I’ve completely ceased wanting to be a professor (I might want to take a job if I can find one that’s a good fit for me). And it’s not that I’m absolutely positive that I will never work in this profession ever again; the right circumstances could lure me back, and I’ll likely continue to do this kind of work, just with different expectations and goals.

Now that I’ve reached this realization, though, how do I act on it? That’s what my next blog post in this series addresses.

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.

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.

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen Reflects On “Normalized Weekend Work”

Dr. Jeana Jorgensen is a folklorist, writer, and dancer (see her full biography here).  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). 

Below, Dr. Jorgensen has shared another guest post (see the first here), in which she raises the unspoken question about working beyond the 40 hours for which academics are typically paid.  Enjoy!

Normalized Weekend Work:  It Is Basically Like Homework, Right?

Photo by James Mortiarty

Photo by James Moriarty

As I pulled the pile of grading into my lap on a Saturday evening, I paused to reflect on how normal it seems to do work on the weekends, in the evenings, and on the weekend evenings. These are normally coveted times for socializing, relaxing, and even doing unofficial labor like domestic tasks, relationship maintenance, and errands. I didn’t used to have a problem with working on the weekends, but something has changed: my perspective.

I was a student for the bulk of my life, going straight from high school to college, and straight from college to a PhD program (earning my MA on the way). When I finished my doctorate and starting adjuncting, for lack of other opportunities, I thought, okay, I’ll take on some freelance writing work to help pay the bills. Since I was trying to remain competitive on the job market, I also made time to do my own research, which has included publishing articles, presenting at conferences, writing book reviews, and starting to work on my book proposal. Teaching plus freelancing plus researching plus writing plus publishing has led to a somewhat busy schedule, likely to the detriment of my relationships and personal life.

I’m not as bad off as some academic overachievers, like this scholar, Kate, who delayed routine health checks only to discover that she had breast cancer.  But the more I think about the situation—what I’m putting in vs. what I’m getting out—the less I’m happy with working on weekends.

The disconnect came when I realized that working on weekends didn’t used to bother me. In fact, back when it was just “homework” I usually enjoyed it (yes, I’m a nerd like that). I have to spend this weekend reading a book? Oh no, how terrible! I can only go to the party after I finish a first draft of a paper? Fine by me, I hate arriving early anyway since it feeds my social anxiety issues. It didn’t seem that bad at the time.

Now, I realize that a large part of the reason I was totally okay with giving up evenings and weekends as a student was that it was supposed to be temporary. Being a student is a phase in one’s life, during which one works very, very hard to achieve the kinds of grades and learn the kinds of skills that will help one land a job or achieve whatever the next life goal is. Then, in the mystical, magical place known as Adulthood, one would maintain sane working hours and actually have something resembling the oft-rumored free time.

jeana

Photo by James Moriarty

Obviously, life is life, and we’ll never have as much free time as we desire. There will always be chores to do, sick friends to bring soup to, conversations about finances to schedule with partners. I balk, however, at accepting that I will always have to work weekends simply because I chose to pursue an academic career. Forcing weekend work on scholars is tantamount to assigning mandatory homework. The amount of labor implicitly present in academic job descriptions is deceptive, and I believe that the unspoken requirement to bring work home infantilizes us, treating us as though we’re still students, as though the institution always knows best, and we must always keep busy.

The blog post, “Perfectionism and Its Discontents,” distinguishes between having (usually healthy) personal standards of excellence and having (usually unhealthy) perfectionist tendencies. What the blogger advocates is that academics have high personal standards, and that these “standards be achievable, that our successes be recognized, and that our mistakes be accepted.” Is a job that implicitly requires take-home work encouraging its workers to subscribe to achievable standards? Will it recognize its workers’ successes?

In my mind, if I am getting paid to do a job, I’ll want to consider, among other factors, the hours involved, and how that correlates to the pay, the prestige, and what sort of good I’m doing in the world. I don’t think it’s unsustainable to expect scholars (or workers in general) to bring work home on some weekends or some evenings. However, it should not, in my view, be the norm without it being crystal-clear in the job description, without additional compensation, or unless the person chooses, without punishment or incentive, to take it on because they’re really, really into what they’re doing. This impulse to go above and beyond could be for institutional reasons (wanting to see a project through because it’ll benefit everyone) or for personal reasons (getting excited about new research).

I know I’m in a bit of a slump, being between research projects, and still trying to figure out how I feel about being in my second year of adjuncting, and attempting to plan my next move. But now that I’ve begun thinking of working on weekends as being akin to homework, I find myself less than eager to do it. Maybe my next exciting research project is just around the corner and I simply haven’t caught sight of it yet. Or perhaps realizing that there are power dynamics at work in how you spend your time is a bit of a disincentive to expending more energy for an institution that isn’t looking out for you. A little of column A, a little of column B?

Once I became more aware of this pattern, I’ve made the following attempts to work with this realization and deal with my resentment over it. Perhaps these strategies will offer you some ideas, too:

  • I log hours like I would for a “real” job, thus letting me see if I’ve put in 8-10ish hours already. Then I might feel justified in calling it quits in the evening (granted, measuring intellectual labor is tough, so I try to use a mix of looking for measurable results, like finishing a draft of that syllabus or those article edits, and simply measuring the time I spend with my laptop or a book being productive, regardless of how much I accomplish).
  • If there’s a non-academic event I’m looking forward to, like dinner with friends or a dance performance I’m in, I will establish in advance that it’s a priority, and that I will put down my work when it’s time to go.
  • If I really must work over the weekend or through the evening, I tell someone about it, so that I can be held accountable for that much work and not more. I’ll tell my workout buddy that I need to finish a stack of grading before we can hit the gym, and if there’s still grading waiting for me when I get back, I feel like it’s reasonable to keep working until the grading is done, and then stop.

What are some of your strategies for dealing with academic “homework” once you’re no longer a student?