What If Nothing Were a Crisis? Alt-Ac and Me

I participated in a session at the 2013 MLA conference entitled “Avenues of Access for Recent PhDs,” which received a nice write-up in Inside Higher Ed. We were a diverse bunch, including two t-t people, someone hustling the adjunct path, someone who invented his own position as a writing consultant, and me. This is what I had to say about my own position and how I got there:

On my first day as an academic advisor for an interdisciplinary program at CMU, my then-boss told me “Nothing is a crisis.” Having spent nearly a decade as a graduate student and adjunct instructor, still bruised from the impossibility of the tenure-track market, and not yet done with my stinking dissertation, this was like being thrown a lifeline, a Xanax, and a fuzzy blanket all at once. Nothing is a crisis, everything can be managed.

Two and a half years later, I’m not sure that’s always exactly true, but I’m sticking to it as much as possible. The current state of academic employment, both tenure-track and alternative, is not great. It is, yeah, a crisis. But thinking of it as something to be managed rather than panicked over has helped me, at least, to not just make peace with my alternative academic career but to purposefully choose it as a career path.

I took the long way through my doctoral program, doing a lot of teaching and other academically affiliated jobs. I worked for a while doing technical documentation for the university’s web services department. I was the graduate liaison between English major undergrads and the university career services office. I taught in the Humanities Core (which is roughly equivalent to freshman composition, but more fun) and a number of courses of my own design at Chicago, and I had a Shakespeare survey just about every quarter at DePaul. It delayed my dissertating, of course, but it also helped me discover what my scholarship is good for beyond producing yet another monograph. I became more interested, at both a pedagogical and a critical level, in how the stories we tell about our experiences help us understand those experiences.

While I was doing this, my husband was teaching as a visiting assistant professor at DePaul. Yes, we are the dreaded dual-career couple, and worse, his field is creative writing, which may have the worst traditional prospects of all MLA fields. When his 6 years at DePaul were up, we had to face the impossibility of maintaing ourselves if both of us were adjuncting. It was clear that one of us needed a real job, the kind that comes with benefits and lasts more than 10 weeks. I had noticed that the staff I worked most closely with at Chicago all had Ph.D.s and I started asking about how they got where they were. Shoshanna Cohen, in the career office at Chicago, was immensely helpful in providing resources and links to staff listings and in tailoring my cv into a reasonable resume.

The job ad for an academic advisor at CMU was written for someone Not Me, and I addressed that directly in my cover letter. They were looking for someone who had experience in an advising center, such as a humanities college might have for winnowing undeclared students into majors. I acknowledged that I knew nothing of this, but I knew how to be a student and I knew
how to talk to students and I knew how to listen to students talk about what they’re interested in and to identify what the big-picture version of that is. And it worked. I interviewed (the HR people were mostly concerned that I could figure out how to use the old DOS-based student records system), I got the offer, I moved to Pittsburgh.

The program I work with is an intercollege program, in which students have one concentration in the College of Fine Arts (Architecture, Art, Design, Drama, Music) and one concentration in an academic department (humanities, social sciences, natural sciences, computer science). It’s a challenge to advise these students not just because the curriculum can be complicated, but because I’m dealing with students whose interests and skills are often very, very far from my own realm of knowledge. But while I have no idea of anything beyond the basic terms of, say, Piano Performance and Biology, or Architecture and Psychology, what I do know is that all my students are addressing issues of representation–what knowledge looks like and how that knowledge can be conveyed. I know how to help them craft research questions by defining the terms of their investigation and pursuing those terms. I know how to draw together the seemingly disparate threads of their interests and how to articulate those connections. This is knowledge I developed while working on a Ph.D. in a humanities field–the approach to research, the attention to the words we use, the acknowledgement of what representation can do.

In the past two and a half years, I’ve been promoted twice–to associate director and now director of my program. As of two days ago, I was converted from staff to teaching-track faculty. I will continue teaching the freshman research seminar and overseeing the senior capstone projects for my students, but now I’ll be able to, officially, do the research and scholarship that underpins those pedagogical duties. It also, to be honest, gives me a more solid foundation for interacting with other departments–I’m closer to being an equal, because I’m on some kind of track.

I don’t want to minimize the very real problems and complications of the alternative academic track, and I hope we can discuss them (especially the status of staff members as pertains to research and teaching). I was lucky* that I kind of fell into this weird position that wound being a really good fit for my skill set and interests. It has prompted me to think about what my career might look like if I wasn’t in the crisis mode that the MLA job list often prompts, what it might look like if the tenure track wasn’t the only goal, what happens when the job search isn’t a crisis. 

*I was troubled by this term when I wrote it, more so when it was mentioned specifically in a tweet about the session. I’m trying to rework my own rhetoric about my path and would now replace this sentence with something that more directly addresses how I made choices that got me to this place and took active advantage of moments of serendipity.

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