If Not This, Then What?

Screen Shot 2013-03-04 at 3.40.28 PM
Part of front cover for my book.

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
an invitation

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.

Why I Went to Graduate School

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. 


Artifact: Awesome Button

As part of my ongoing intellectual history project, I’ve set up a new Tumblr in which I post brief accounts and archive artifacts. Yesterday, I archived a button that I received as a gift, years ago:


“Fuck this Fifties Housewife Bullshit” was a gift from two students in the first women’s studies course I ever taught: Introduction to Women’s Studies at Emory University, Fall 2002. I can’t quite remember who they were or why they gave me this awesome pin. I can think of a couple of reasons: 1. They liked my class, 2. They were inspired by our discussions, earlier in the semester, about Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, or 3. They knew I was just about to become a Mom (I had revealed to all of them earlier in the semester that I was pregnant) and they wanted to encourage/support my feminist resistance to traditional gender roles.

I loved teaching that class. I was a Ph.D student in Women’s Studies. While I was in residence at Emory, from 2000-2003, I was only required to teach 2 classes as part of my fellowship and degree. Unlike at other schools, where graduate students are required to teach a lot, usually while taking their own classes, I taught these classes after my coursework and while I was studying for my doctoral exams. I was also required to be a teaching assistant for two courses, but that job was designed to serve as a mentoring opportunity, in which I worked closely with the professor and received a lot of useful feedback on my own teaching.

Emory’s program was unusual (and unusually awesome) because of the low teaching load for graduate students and the amazing amount of funding they provided for all graduate students: 4 years of full tuition + a generous stipend. Also, they put a lot of emphasis on mentoring and training students to be teachers. While I was a graduate student, I had a teaching mentor and took a class (feminist pedagogy) that was specifically designed to prepare for me teaching the Intro class. And, as I mentioned above, my role as a teaching assistant was primarily designed to give me teaching experience and mentoring; it wasn’t just used to exploit me as cheap labor.

I was lucky. I didn’t realize that until I began teaching at a research university and witnessed how much graduate students taught (as assistants who graded papers and ran discussion sections, or as instructors, who taught huge classes) and how little mentoring seemed to be formally built into their teaching.

In thinking about graduate students and how they are frequently exploited at universities, I did a little bit of online research and came across this post: Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go. I also found this one: The Brutal Lives of Others: Exploitation in the Academy. I want to read them as I reflect on my experiences in and beyond graduate school.

A few responses to the AIC

I’ve been experimenting with various ways to organize and express my thoughts about my academic training and my experiences in the Academic Industrial Complex (AIC). Today, I decided to quickly (and perhaps inelegantly) compose a series of haikus. Then I tweeted them.

on learning

to learn is not just
to collect facts, earn degrees
but to engage life

on theory

theory works when it
heals pain, moves us to struggle
and creates new worlds

theory doesn’t work
when it alienates us
from that which we love

on graduate school

when I started school
my wonder was fueled with joy
but lacked direction

when I finished school
my wonder was directed
too much; it lacked joy

Beside/s: What is (your) theory for?

Currently, I’m in the process of crafting an autobiography of sorts over at my new site, UNDISCIPLINED. I haven’t written much about the new site on this blog yet because I’ve slowly been working on adding and creating content. My focus for the last few days has been on my experiences with the AIC (the academic industrial complex). As I was revisiting some lectures notes from Feminism for Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism, I came across this passage from Shaunga Tagore in A Slam on Feminism in Academia:

some of us need to engage with feminist theory
so we can ground it in our community activist work
our creative works
our personal relationships
for our families, communities and histories
for our own fucking deserved peace of minds
maybe we need to know how to make sense of oppression
because we’re so heartbroken we don’t want to end up being locked away in psychiatric institutions
or in a hospital overdosed on pills, getting our stomachs pumped
because we don’t know WHY all this shit is constantly driving us CRAZY (Tagore, 40)

Powerful. I want to think more about how this passage resonates with my own experiences and my own increased resistance to the academy and academic thinking/theorizing. But for now, I want to put it beside another passage that I’ve just started writing about, bell hooks eloquent description of the healing power of theory in Theory as Liberatory Practice:

I found a place of sanctuary in “theorizing,” in making sense out of what was happening. I found a place where I could imagine possible futures, a place where life could be lived differently. This “lived” experience of critical thinking, of reflection and analysis, became a place where I I worked at explaining the hurt and making it go away. Fundamentally, I learned from this experience that theory could be a healing place (61).

When taken together, these two passages make me wonder:

what is (your) theory for?