For the past few months, I’ve been working on a book-length series of accounts of my life as a student. It’s called Unofficial Student Transcripts and it’s available on iBooks. So, if you have an iPad, check it out. It’s free. If you don’t have an iPad, you can download the pdf here. The pdf isn’t quite as cool as the iBooks version; soon I hope to incorporate more of the features from the iBooks Author (like interactive quizzes, image galleries, movies) into by Undisciplined blog. For now, you can take a quiz that I posted over at Undisciplined called All of the Above.
Yesterday would have been my mom’s 71st birthday. I wanted a chance to remember and reconnect with her, so I spent yesterday morning looking over old video footage of her and crafting a short digital story about three particular Judy/Mom moments.
On Saturday night I finally “finished” my series of accounts/book, Unofficial Student Transcript, and submitted it for e-publication at iBooks Author. It’s currently under review. As I wait for it to be available in iBooks, I thought I’d post a few accounts from it on this blog. Here’s my conclusion:
if not this, then what?
not a haunting question, but
If not this, then what? If I can’t be an academic, what can I do with my training and my intellectual curiosity? What else is there besides teaching and researching at a college or university? For years, while working on my Ph.D and then after graduating, these questions haunted me. I felt as if the only thing that I was qualified to do was teach and research within academic spaces. In my darkest days, after sending out scores of job applications for tenure-track and visiting professor positions and getting rejected repeatedly, the panic and sense of hopelessness would creep in.
Luckily I did manage to find a good, albeit temporary, job as a part-time ad- junct and then full-time Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota in the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Department. I taught at the University from fall 2006-fall 2011. I was really excited when I was offered the three year position. My own office! Benefits! A lot more money than I made as an adjunct! Great classes to teach!
Getting a full-time academic job before my mom died (I started this position in fall 2008, she died a year later in fall 2009) was very important to me. She was the one I talked to about all of my failed job searches and she could commiserate, having experienced 4 (!) decades of agonizing academic job searches as the wife of an academic administrator. I know that she was very proud of me.
￼While I was at the University of Minnesota, I experimented a lot with how I taught (my style, strategies, assignments) and what I taught (topics and type of content). And, I learned a great deal about feminist pedagogy, queer theory and digital media as I worked to stay one step ahead of all of my students. I learned so much that it feels as if my time at the university was as a student and a teacher. This is the kind of teacher I like to be: one who is always engaging, encounter- ing new ideas and participating in the learning process with my students.
But, my job was temporary; I was under constant threat of not having my contact renewed. And, I was repeatedly reminded, in big and small ways, that I wasn’t a real member of the faculty. I couldn’t vote, I couldn’t apply for grants and I was (just) a visitor who would eventually leave and therefore wasn’t worth investing any time in. With their super busy schedules and the constant demands placed on them by administration, other faculty members, and students, faculty members in my department didn’t have time to invest in me and my future as an academic. They barely had time to eat or sleep or deal with their own personal struggles with serious illness and aging and dying parents. Plus, they had stronger investments in and commitments to their graduate students; placing graduate students in tenure-track jobs meant higher ratings for the department and more status. These ratings were important for ensuring that the department wasn’t consolidated (“hubbed”) when budget cuts came rolling in.
Regardless of why it happened, I was made to feel like I was less than the tenure-track and tenured members of the department. That felt uncomfortable, demoralizing and wore me down physically and mentally. By the time I finally left the University in 2011, I had extreme doubts in my abilities as a scholar, a thinker and a teacher. Was I fooling myself that my new research and teaching in and with digital media was interesting and innovative?
￼Now that I’ve been on a break from teaching and researching in the academy for over a year now, I’m not as haunted by the questions, What can I do besides teach in the University? and If not this, then what? I’d be lying if I said that these questions didn’t still haunt me a little. My break has provided me with some much needed critical distance. And I’ve realized that my perspective on being an academic has shifted.
When I first went on the job market, I wondered whether or not any institution would want me. Was I good enough? Smart enough? Did I fit with their interests and personality types? Now, having spent so much time immersed in femi- nist and queer theories, reading, writing and teaching about limits, failure and the value of troubling and being troubled, and having spent six years working Post-Ph.D and experiencing the hierarchies and damaging myths of the AIC, I wonder whether or not I want to be at any institution. Are the drawbacks of academic life—the push to ruthlessly compete instead of collaborate with others, the demand to prioritize your academic work over the rest of your life, the constant reminder that your work will never be good or rigorous enough, the threat that only certain work counts as real academic work and only certain people count as real scholars—worth it?I’m sure that there are many pockets of resistance where scholars are collaborating with each other and, more importantly, with community members outside of the academy, on cool and important projects. Or where wonderful scholars find ways to continue to be joyful and passionate about their work within academic spaces and, by virtue of that joy and their generous spirit, transform those spaces and those who inhabit them in amazing ways. Actually, I know that these folks exist, even if they are rare. One of my favorite people from graduate school at Emory University, Dr. Kristi McKim, is just such a scholar.
When I start to wonder if I could be one of those scholars some day, when my kids are older and I’ve managed to figure out how to be a person and a scholar at the same time (ha!), I pause. Maybe. Maybe I could recapture the love and passion that I’ve had for so long for the academy again. But, maybe not. When I think about the disciplining, the push to professionalize, the elitism, the gatekeeping and the entrenched resistance to new forms of scholarship, I’m not sure the academy could ever be a place that welcomes my undisciplined and troublemaking practices and perspectives.
But questions about my future in the academy aren’t as urgent for me right now and I’m not as anxious about what kind of present or future I can have outside of the academy. Instead, I understand the question, “If not this, then what?” as a (mostly) exciting invitation to imagine new possibilities and ways of being an intellectual, a student, a storyteller, and a person who has lots of interesting conversations.
I just posted the bulk of my introduction to my intellectual history over at Undisciplined. I thought I’d post it here too:
Welcome to my intellectual history project. In these pages, you will find a series of essays/accounts/fragments about my life as a student. While a few of them concern my earliest years in kindergarten and first grade, the bulk of them are from college, graduate school and my post-Ph.D teaching and researching (1992-2011). Collectively, they represent my efforts: 1. to make sense of my current status as existing somewhere beside/s the academy and 2. to experiment with ways to bring myself into my academic work on subjectivity, agency, narrative selfhood and storytelling.
I. Origins of this Project
My efforts to reflect on and write about my experiences as a student in the academy have been happening for over three years on my blog, Trouble. But, I didn’t envision making them the focus of a singular writing project until this past fall (my first fall since I was 5 that I hadn’t been in school as a student or teacher), when I started creating tentative outlines of my autobiography and brainstorming information architecture for my new website, Undisciplined. Then, in December of 2012, when I was sorting through my old files and organizing papers that extend all the way back to college (1992-1996), I realized that I wanted to write a series of accounts in which I used my own archive as the source material for critical reflections and interrogations of life as a student in the academy.
As I began digging through my files in the basement for documents that seemed significant, I was relieved to see that even though I had moved around quite a bit as a student—from Minnesota to California to Minnesota to Georgia to Minnesota again—I had managed to hang onto some key documents: the final evaluation for my senior thesis, a copy of my master’s proposal, papers (with my teacher’s comments) from my first year in college, name tags from conferences, old student ids. I also explored my digital files, searching through hidden folders (that I only managed to find after trying out different keyword searches), dating back to my masters, and discovered past papers, presentations, my senior thesis, my master’s thesis and my dissertation.
Looking back at these materials, both the physical and the virtual, conjured up a mix of emotions that made me feel joyful, sad, nostalgic, angry, and conflicted all at once. I had done so much work over the years. Amassed so many articles, all carefully organized with printed-out labels, on feminist theory, identity politics, poststructuralism, feminist and queer pedagogies, feminist theology, ethics, radical democracy, queer theory, critical race studies and more. But even as I marveled at my dedication as a student and scholar, I was troubled by how this work was all in the past—I had stopped teaching and doing “academic” research in December of 2011— and haunted by the questions: What was this work for and why had I stopped?
In order to spend time working through these questions, not so much to answer or resolve them, but to learn to live with the discomfort and uncertainty that they generate, I started writing. The first account I wrote was “Pithy Chewiness.” Then, inspired by the process, I wrote, “Promise.” I began looking through past accounts I had already created on my blog or in digital stories and combining those with new reflections. I read through old papers and wrote about how my perspectives as an undergraduate or an early graduate student had shifted, been complicated, challenged or reinforced.
I’ve tried to be honest with and truthful about my experiences, even as I’ve realized that this project has increasingly becoming a way for me to justify and value the work that I’ve been doing and that (I feel) has been undervalued or ignored by others. I’m not sure that I’ve always succeeded in being honest, but I have found the process of writing (and collecting) these various accounts of my student life to be useful and provocative and very necessary.
II. Explaining the Title
Over the past 15 or so years, I’ve requested my student transcripts many times for graduate school applications and my academic job portfolio. An official transcript, complete with an authorized seal from the institution on the back of the envelope, is expensive. And not always required for the first round of the application process. So, at some point, I acquired an unofficial copy. When a school needed my transcript, I’d send out a pdf of my unofficial copy instead of spending $5-10 (each) on a fancy, official version.
At the top of my unofficial Claremont School of Theology transcript is a stamp that states:
When I was thinking about what to call my intellectual history writing project, I played around with various titles, but none of them seemed quite right. Then, one day, while I was looking through a folder filled with old job application materials, I spotted this transcript and the “unofficial” statement stamped at the top. Yes, this was it, I thought. A great title for my project! Unofficial Student Transcript.
The more I’ve thought about it, the more I like this as my title. My intellectual history project is a record of my student work within the academy, from the earliest days of being a student in school all the way through to my explorations of and experiments with how to continue learning and engaging as a student while being the teacher. I’m including documents from school days, like report cards, lists of courses taken and taught, evaluations from professors, syllabi from past courses, copies of my doctoral exams, research and teaching statements and academic cover letters. In many ways, this project functions as proof, much like a transcript, of my time in school and my sustained engagement with key ideas and concepts in my chosen fields of study. Documenting my time as a student, which represents the majority of my life thus far (33 out of 38 years!), is important to me. I want to remember it and take it seriously and the process of reflecting on and documenting it allows me to do so.
But, the student transcript that I offer in the following accounts from my early years through Post-Ph.D work are not official. My perspectives and approaches to understanding the work that I did and the value of my education are not authorized by the academy or the institutions that I attended. In fact, my accounts frequently come into conflict with the “official” story about why and how one gets an education, earns a Ph.D and trains to be an academic intellectual. As will become apparent through my accounts, I have some real problems with the academy, or what I’m calling the academic industrial complex, and how it trained me to think, engage, teach and communicate my ideas to and with others.
My transcript is also not official because I’m not a real scholar, at least according to the hierarchy of Academics. I don’t even reside within academic spaces. I stepped out a year ago and am writing this in my uncertain position beside/s the academy. While the dismal job market was a factor for my current staate, I’m really in a self-imposed exile, where I’m trying to make sense of and take stock of where I stand (or want to stand) in relation to those academic structures and systems that shaped me into the troublemaking and troublestaying scholar that I’ve become.
In addition to lacking status (and a position) in the academy, my methods for thinking and writing are not officially sanctioned in the AIC. Much of my work for this project originated, in some form, on my writing and researching blog. While this work involves “serious” and deep engagement with “important” ideas, it was/is not usually recognized as such by academics because it’s not peer-reviewed or published in a top-tier journal or through a big-name publishing company. It also isn’t recognized because my aim was not to produce the newest, most cutting-edge theory that would ensure my status as a big-time fancy academic (BFTA), but to communicate and connect with a wide range of folks in my life that reside inside, outside and beside the academy.
As I compose this introduction, I’m starting to see that my assessment of the academic industrial complex might not be totally fair. I’m sounding angry and a little bitter. And maybe I am. I’ve devoted a huge chunk of my life to the academy. I was (and continue to be) passionate about learning, engaging with and deeply reflecting on interesting, provocative and world-shifting ideas. And I’m very disappointed with what the academy has done to that passion and how it’s trained me to be a scholar who feels compelled to spout jargon and reference countless theories every time I have a conversation.
My lack of fairness is another reason my student transcript is not official. It doesn’t offer objective, always factual truths. It’s biased, subjective and filtered through my current perspective as someone who is struggling to negotiate opposing forces and feelings. On one hand, I have an appreciation for the theories and ideas and training that my student years provided me. And I have many fond memories of being a student. But, on the other hand, I’m angry and frustrated about the current state of the academy and the ways in which it exploits students and teachers. And I’m sad about my loss of passion for being an educator.
Finally, my student transcript is not official because the accounts I’m providing in it are intended to unsettle, call into question and trouble any inclinations I have (and, believe me, I do) for offering up neat and tidy stories about my life as a student. I don’t want to offer up easy resolutions or moments of redemption; I want to play with and maintain the tensions and conflicted feelings and understandings in my accounts. My troubling intentions, which sometimes work and sometimes don’t, make me an unreliable and untrustworthy narrator whose accounts should never be official. And, I must add, I wouldn’t want them to be. I like being unofficial and inhabiting the spaces that that unofficial status makes room for. Continue reading Unofficial Student Transcript
Right now I’m in the midst of skimming through the article, Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go (2009), and I’m wondering, Why did I go to graduate school? In the article the author, Thomas Benton (aka William Pannapacker), describes how and why he advises his students not to go to graduate school in the humanities. He writes:
What almost no prospective graduate students can understand is the extent to which doctoral education in the humanities socializes idealistic, naïve, and psychologically vulnerable people into a profession with a very clear set of values. It teaches them that life outside of academe means failure, which explains the large numbers of graduates who labor for decades as adjuncts, just so they can stay on the periphery of academe.
In an article published a year later (2010), Benton/Pannapacker intensifies his critique, writing:
Graduate school in the humanities is a trap. It is designed that way. It is structurally based on limiting the options of students and socializing them into believing that it is shameful to abandon “the life of the mind.” That’s why most graduate programs resist reducing the numbers of admitted students or providing them with skills and networks that could enable them to do anything but join the ever-growing ranks of impoverished, demoralized, and damaged graduate students and adjuncts for whom most of academe denies any responsibility.
Harsh. And (mostly) true to my experiences on the job market post-degree. Getting a Ph.D in the interdisciplinary field of women’s studies, I was shielded from some of this structural damage (or I managed to ignore it?). Maybe it was because I was being trained to identify and resist larger structures of oppression, privilege and unequal power distribution. Maybe it was because my committee members were supportive of my work and encouraged me, for the most part, to do the types of projects that I wanted to do. Maybe it was because I was one of “those privileged few” to which Benton/Pannapacker refers, that are fully funded and have a partner with a full-time job.
I did feel the pressure to professionalize—network! network! network! and publish! publish! publish!—and to pick projects that were cutting edge and grant-worthy. And I did feel that when I graduated in 2006, I wasn’t qualified for anything else. I was 31 years old and had been, almost exclusively, a student since I was 5. While some other students in my department had acquired valuable administrative skills, I had focused almost all of my attention on researching, writing and teaching (oh and having two kids). As the post-Ph.D years went by, and my job search for a tenure-track position continued to be unsuccessful and extremely demoralizing, I kept wondering, If I can’t teach at the college level, what can I do?
Like a good little student, I kept preparing and sending out ridiculously labor intensive application packets that continued to be rejected (sometimes without acknowledgment, sometimes after grueling campus visits). It felt hopeless. I felt hopeless. But I also felt like I couldn’t stop trying. I had been told too many times, once you stop applying and working for a job, you can’t try again. Your degree has a limited shelf life and nobody will want you if you’re not active in your field as a researcher or teacher.
It has been a year since I stopped teaching. A year since I sent in an application for an academic job. And, I’m relieved. For the past year, I’ve been working on a lot of different critical and creative projects that allow me to use the tools/theories that I learned in graduate school in ways that I never had time to do when I was teaching and that wouldn’t be valued within academic spaces. I’ve also experimented a bit with how to translate my skills into work outside of the academy.
Perhaps most importantly, I’ve devoted tons of time to the difficult labor of unlearning some of the most toxic (at least for me) values of the academic industrial complex: that you’re a failure and less-worthy without a tenure-track job; that academic work is better (and loftier) than other professions; that the only thing you can do with a Ph.D is teach at the college/university level; and that even though the academic life is demanding and difficult, it’s worth it…for the difference you make in student’s lives, for the benefits you receive, for the flexible hours you can have.
So, as I posed at the beginning of this post, why did I go to graduate school? In one of his articles, Benton/Pannapacker speculates that many students go to graduate school because: 1. School is what they know; 2. School is where they are praised and validated; 3. It’s better than trying to find a job; and 4. They “think” they have a passion for a subject. In my case, I’m sure #1 applies to me. Not only had I been attending school since I was 5, but I, and my mom and 2 sisters, had been following my dad around the country my whole life as he worked in higher ed administration. School was all that I knew.
But, when I applied for graduate schools, first for a masters in 1996 and then for a Ph.D in 1999, I wanted to go because I believed (maybe a little naïvely) that the deep immersion in ideas and theories that grad school encourages, would provide me with the tools to make sense of my world/s and experiences and to have deeper, more meaningful conversations with a wide range of people. What I didn’t realize when I was applying is that I also wanted to go to graduate school to develop the skills that I needed in order to challenge those systems and structures that invalidated my curiosity, my penchant for posing questions and my refusal to ever accept that “that’s just the way things are.” My graduate training (and my later on-the-job training as an educator) in women’s studies and feminist/queer theory, gave me those skills. This training also
forced compelled to recognize the limits and problems with the academy and to search for (and hopefully find) ways to resist and refuse it. At this point, I can’t say that it gave me the skills for reworking it. I’m not sure that it’s possible to rework a system so seemingly broken.