Conversation with Elizabeth Keenan

Image by Laura Collins Britton, lcbritton.com

Image by Laura Collins Britton, lcbritton.com

Note: This piece was also published simultaneously on the blogs of Elizabeth Keenan (the piece’s co-author) and Joe Fruscione (the piece’s editor). Do go visit their websites as well.

Freelance Academics (Walking Away from the Con)

Elizabeth Keenan & Katie Rose Guest Pryal

December 2014

Elizabeth and Katie both left teaching positions after the Spring 2014 semester. Katie has taken unpaid leave for a year. Elizabeth began working in real estate in September, while still maintaining her freelance editing business. When Joe first asked us to write this column, we were still teaching as contingent faculty—now, we are post-academics. Thus, we are both to a degree in transition, and our discussion will reflect some of this fluidity.

On Choosing a Topic

KP: Let’s write about leaving academia and trying to rebuild our lives. We could also write about using social media to help us do this rebuilding, via networking, writing, etc., if you think that could work too, since that’s how we met in the first place.

EK: Sounds good.

On Abandoning Academia

EK: I was going to abandon academia in the spring of 2013, more than a full year ago, while I was adjuncting at Fordham and Columbia. I had heard that all of the jobs I’d applied for that cycle had moved on without me—even the ones where I’d made it to the long-short list. And so I wrote a series of thank-you-for-all-your-help-but-I’m-leaving emails to my advisor and other mentors and senior faculty who’ve been helpful to me.

Then, literally two days later, I got a request for a two-day, on-campus interview at an R1 in my dream location. (My husband can transfer his job to only one city other than New York, and this was it.) On the one hand, I felt a little flutter in my heart that maybe, just maybe, the universe was finally throwing me a lifeline. On the other, I knew that I was the sixth of six candidates, brought in after a pause in the search, and that either the job was going to me or to no one.

Once I got to the interview, it was clear that my dream was never going to happen, and that the search would fail. But it was a real heartbreak to be so close to the thing I wanted and realize not only that I’d never get it, but also that jumping into a department that viewed itself as constantly in crisis wasn’t something a sane person should want. At that point, I knew I couldn’t go through another job cycle with likely the same close-but-no-cigar results.

But I didn’t leave. Another challenge complicated my extrication from adjuncting: fertility issues. My husband and I were about to do a round of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) last summer, and the doctors told us we had very good chances of having a baby. Since we believed them, and most of my friends had success with IVF on the first try, I thought I’d adjunct in the fall and then take the spring off to have a baby. Then I could look for a job outside academia at some later date. The first IVF didn’t work, but we were told our chances were still very good if we tried again. So, instead of searching for a non-academic, 9-to-5 job when I knew I’d face tons of early-morning doctor visits, I decided to stay in my adjunct position for another year.

This decision, though practical, led to a lot of frustration. I was no longer treating adjunct position as a step toward a tenure-track job. Instead, I saw adjunct work for exactly what it was: a radically underpaid dead-end job. And then I read a conversation about uppity adjuncts between two tenured folks on Twitter that set me off. So, I started blogging with “How Not to Be a Tenured Ally,” followed by “How to Be a Tenured Ally.” Suddenly, after these two posts, people were coming to my blog and contacting me over Twitter. Blogging (and tweeting, since I’m pretty much on Twitter all the freakin’ time) helped me recognize not just that I wanted to leave my terrible adjuncting job, but that I was really done with the pursuit of the ever-elusive tenure-track job and the “academic” mindset.

So, for me, leaving academia (especially adjuncting, which is a trap no matter how you look at it), wasn’t the result of one crisis, but the culmination of a bunch of them. On your blog, you mention that it took a crisis to make you finally leave. Without getting into that crisis per se, what made you know that this was the time to leave?

KP: My most recent blog post prior to our writing this piece, “What Does It Mean To Be a Freelance Academic?” takes on my identity-shift from someone who was very much immersed in the identity of an academic. In retrospect, my exit began long before I requested my year’s leave of absence back in May, and I should make clear, I’m still planning to return to my contingent academic job.

But I am not planning to return to my identity as an academic. I will no longer be looking at academia as professional fulfillment (even though it has been my career for eleven years). I will no longer be viewing academia as a career. Instead, and this sounds kind of funny when I write it down, the university is merely one of my many freelance clients.

Here is the chain of events that led me to request a year of unpaid leave, and then to take on a new identity as a freelance academic: On the day I was promoted to “associate”—in quotation marks, because in my department, writing faculty cannot be on the tenure track—two other events took place. My sister gave birth to her third child and Nelson Mandela died. I received the call that the vote went my way, and then I went to the bathroom of the coffee shop where I’d been working and bawled. Like, I completely lost control.

When I say that my promotion is meaningless, here’s what I’m referring to: I do not get any presumptive increase in pay. In fact, I do not expect any increase in pay. I do not get more freedom in my teaching—I will continue to teach the same course every semester, year in and year out. Absolutely no benefits accrue to this promotion except one: a contract term that is two years longer than my previous contract term. In a world in which adjuncts are fighting for any sort of job predictability at all, a long-term contract is nothing to sniff at. I know. I’ve been year-to-year.

But birth, death, and the changing the world made my meaningless promotion seem especially meaningless that day. What on Earth have I been working one-hundred-hour weeks for? I asked myself. THIS?

I got my act together, went back to teach this past spring semester, hoped my working conditions would be better, and realized, due to a variety of events that occurred during the spring semester, that my working conditions were never going to be better. I asked the dean—in a fashion that could not be misunderstood—whether I could make a move to the tenure-track. He said, in similar fashion, “No.” That’s when I realized that I’d been working 100-hour-weeks because I’d been hoping that they would let me in the tenure club.

I came home and tried to explain to my husband what I was feeling at work—the snub at the coffeemaker, the “Who are you again?” at the copier. He nodded sagely (he does that) and said, “Well, they’re not letting you be what you know you can be.” And that’s when I realized the most important thing that I wrote about in that Freelance Academic post: when you’re contingent faculty, the university is basically saying that it wants the small bits of you that will do the exhausting, draining, underpaid work while remaining at the fringes of academia. And for so long, I pushed myself so hard to try to break in, to show I was good enough to be let in from the fringes.

But here’s the con, the legerdemain, the grift, the whatever you want to call it. And you yourself know this as well as anyone, Elizabeth: it isn’t a matter of being good enough. They truly just don’t want us in the club—whether their thought process is conscious or not. They’re scared and self-conscious, and exclusivity is all they have. They have to believe in their “process” because without their process, their myth of merit, they have nothing.

As soon as I saw the academic house of cards for what it was, I wanted no part of it. It was easy to walk away from the con. It’s not easy to walk away from teaching and from students, though. I love teaching. I love students. Indeed, this love, the “calling” of teaching, has enabled the conning of adjuncts for years, as Rebecca Schuman has pointed out.

On Social Media and Rebuilding

EK: Adjunct/Post-Ac/Alt-Ac Twitter, more than blogging, made a huge difference in how I started to see my role as an adjunct. I started blogging about adjuncting during Campus Equity Week, which was fortuitous and partially planned. I’ve been on Twitter since 2008, but my followers were a mix of music scholars and people from geek culture acquired whenever my Twitter-famous spouse mentioned me. Discovering Adjunct Twitter was a huge part in how I could start reframing myself. How did you get looped into the contingent/post-ac blogosphere and Twitter? Have you found it helpful in rebuilding your identity?

KP: I never used Twitter at all until I left Facebook nearly one year ago (fed up with their ridiculous privacy rules—oh, and I’ve since returned, but purely for “professional” reasons ROFL). I figured Twitter had to be better, since it only had one simple setting: public. I never realized how dang useful it would be. Once I figured out how to coordinate my blog, Twitter, colleagues, and conferences, it seemed like a whole new world opened up. Adjunct Twitter—I’ve actually never used that term before, but yes—has been very helpful. I’ve needed help negotiating my precarious status in the university, figuring out an identity separate from academia, and networking a professional existence outside the ivory tower. All these challenges would have been much harder without my Adjunct Twitter network.

On Networking as Post/Freelance-Acs

KP: As I’ve shifted my identity from full-time contingent professor to Freelance Academic, I’ve gotten really brazen about networking. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how generous the Adjunct and Post-Ac Twitter communities are. I’ve emailed or messaged folks and asked for referrals or advice about writing for publications; everyone has always not only agreed but also done so whole-heartedly. I’m happy to do the same for others, I just don’t have as much pull in powerful places as others do. Maybe some day.

I do think that academia trains us to not ask for things, to be meek and wait our turns. Or to accept as our due when the spotlight only shines on a special chosen few. We don’t question the spotlight, or the structures in place that create the “chosen few” in the first place. Part of the academic con is the belief in the pure meritocracy. What a load of crap. Outside academia, good hustle is rewarded, which comes as a relief to me. I’m a hard worker (sound familiar, Elizabeth?) and I want to be paid for that work. One way to work hard is to network hard: to reach out to people, with kindness, and ask for their help.

And to always remember to repay the favor.

EK: I’m terrible at networking, in the sense that I am never sure what the boundaries are. Years in academia have led me to expect that everyone is as prickly as a tenured Ivy League professor, but, really, most people aren’t. (I’m not sure if the bias toward white men is still there—or if, in some cases, gender bias is working in my favor in the new careers I’ve been investigating.) The more I reach out to people, the more I see that the extreme kowtowing of academe is a little unusual in most places—sure, people expect (and deserve) respect, but most people are more willing to give up their time more often than I think they will.

In a lot of ways, I should be used to reaching out to people—my dissertation involved extensive fieldwork, and I’ve been a freelancer who regularly checks in with clients—but there’s something different (and scarier) when it’s about a whole, new field. It’s not just about introducing yourself to someone new, but about learning about a new industry while simultaneously pitching yourself as a potentially viable job candidate for some future position. It’s a delicate task made all the more difficult by pre-existing stereotypes of academics (we’re stodgy; we won’t take direction; we don’t pay attention to deadlines; we’re already making a lot of money), as well as real, structural issues within the larger economy.

On Shedding the “Academic” Title, but not the Identity of the Scholar

EK: So, one of the things that really struck me as we were writing this is that we’re both leaving academia in slightly different ways. For me, it’s leaving a job that I find exploitative, while giving up on the dream of a tenure-track job. But I don’t see myself shedding the “scholar” identity any time soon. I’ve got more articles in the pipeline now than at any time in my career, and I still enjoy thinking and writing about music and feminism in a scholarly way. The biggest question for me is: How do I continue to be a scholar without being an academic? Is it even possible to dream of being a public intellectual in this climate? I don’t know, Katie. How are you reframing that scholarly part of yourself as you move forward?

KP: Right now, I have one article that I am finishing up, and two conferences on the horizon. I would imagine that I would stay involved in my scholarly communities (I’m interdisciplinary), but I won’t be immersed. The hustling I will do is for me, not for professional recognition in those fields. I think that’s the main difference between hoping for success in academia and working as a freelance academic: I’ve changed the metric of success. Is my family clothed, fed, housed, happy, safe? Do I have time for them? Am I doing satisfying work to me? Well, then, that’s far more than most people get, and I feel lucky.

News, The

I don’t even know how to write a blog post in our present news cycle.

I have been participating in public discourse on Twitter. (That’s probably an understatement.) And I’ve been working hard on a series of articles on campus rape (assigned to me pre-stupid-Rolling-Stone-let’s-blame-the-victim-gate) with a smart lady co-author whom I’ve reconnected with lately. We’re filing those pieces tomorrow.

Keeping busy is good.

I want to be happy about receiving my first copy of my new book in the mail today:

HWW Selfie

But at the same time, it’s hard to be happy about anything.

If I’m happy about something, I guess it is this: I’m happy that so many spirits have been moved to protest a police and criminal justice system that is, and always has been, racially unjust.

There are certain times, such as now, when the unjust-ness comes into sharper focus for more and more people, and those are the times when more and more people are motivated to act. I just hope we can ride this manifested human energy forward to meaningful reforms.

Check out Dame Magazine’s most recent Throwback Thursday selection. I just watched the music video before I wrote this post. Lauryn Hill’s album came out when I was finishing up college, newly embarking on the world. Listen to her words. Watching the video shook me up a bit, in a good way.  It was timely, for sure.

Stay warm out there.

Here come the #HeadClutchers – images of mental illness in the media

Katie:

This article came across my Twitter feed—the visual genres of disability images. Hilarious and sad at the same time. #Headclutchers. “The metaphorical equivalent of a brick over the head.”

Originally posted on The Millers Tale:

If you are thinking of writing an article on mental health and illness, why not use our handy guide to some of the most popular and predominate images of this in the media- the ones that are the symbolic and metaphorical equivalent of a brick over the head in their subtlety, bearing little accuracy to the lived experience of people. Clearly media folk are super important and very busy so we’ve decided to save you having to think at all about how you depict mental illness and mental health problems.

Let us help you with those important editorial decisions.

The first one is the most critical. It is vital that all images of people with mental illness convey the levels of despair they are in via the most terribly obvious manner and the easiest way to do this is by use of the #HeadClutch. The only decision you need to…

View original 525 more words

Guess What Went To Press?

HWW Cover

Jordynn and I are pretty psyched that this one is finally at the printer.

Back in 2011, when I was still pregnant with my now-3-year-old and Jordynn’s baby was still a twinkle in her eye (as my father would say), we embarked on this book project.

The full acknowledgments are in the book itself, but some quick thanks are due to Carrie, Meg, Fred, our families, the rest of the team at Oxford University Press, and everyone who helped us along the way. (Of course I’m forgetting someone important here and whoever that is I’m sorry.)

We’re also super happy with the cover, which has an adequate amount of Carolina Blue.

Four Years’ Work

Image by Smadar, http://mrg.bz/QO9wcj

Image by Smadar, http://mrg.bz/QO9wcj

Four years ago, through my sister and brother-in-law, I met a remarkable family here in Chapel Hill. First I met Emmanuel; his wife Veronica was still working on getting her Green Card, and she and their children lived in Canada.

Emmanuel was in his late 20s when we met, a 2009 grad of UNC-Chapel Hill with a biology degree. But what most people didn’t know about him was that when he was in his late teens, he arrived in the U.S. as a refugee from the Sudanese civil war, illiterate, with very little knowledge of English at all.

I still have trouble reconciling that refugee teen whom I can only imagine with the man I know, father of four, scientist, loving husband.

When I met Veronica, she was reserved at first—nervous about telling her story to a stranger (and I was, indeed, a stranger). But after only a short period of time we became great friends. She is an incredible mom and works a full-time job as a home healthcare aide—work that she loves. She’s a woman I deeply admire.

And now, today, four years later, we’ve written a remarkable book together—about their escape from the war as children, about how they fell in love as teens in a refugee camp but were torn apart, about how they miraculously found each other again in Canada years later. I feel so lucky to have been the person they picked to help them tell their story. Visit the website we put together to learn more about their story and about these amazing people.

http://emmanuelandveronica.com/about-the-book/

Negative Capability

Image by Author, Chapel Hill, NC

Image by Author, Chapel Hill, NC

As I walked to my local coffeeshop this morning, I saw a daytime moon and snapped this photo with my phone. The sun was, at the same time, very bright—you can see the blueness of the sky, a crisp blue that we only get in the North Carolina after the summer’s humidity has been whisked away by cold.

I’ve lived in NC off and on for most of my life, and I love it here. I’ve lived in Durham/Chapel Hill off and on since 2000—nearly 15 years now—and I really love it here in particular. I met my husband here, and we’re raising our kids here. If I weren’t completely unsure about Western religion I would completely buy into the “Southern Part of Heaven” thing they say around here when bragging about how beautiful things are.

Back to this morning’s daytime moon.

The sun and the moon being brightly visible in the sky at the same time made me think about the ability to feel two ways about a thing at the same time. It’s a thing that happens, and it’s not crazy. Keats called it negative capability. Cornel West describes it like this:

You could just called this “being open-minded,” but that’s too simple.

Here’s the point, today: I love Chapel Hill. I love The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I’m a light-blue-blooded Tar Heel. I’m ashamed and horrified by the academic/athletic scandal going on right now. I’m also bummed out by how the university is corporatizing its administration and adjuctifying its faculty (including me).

I can feel both ways at the same time: love, and bummed out. It’s a thing that is possible.

My husband and I are both lifetime alumni association members of UNC. We are season ticket holders. We take our kids to play on the quads and tell them stories about the old buildings. We’re proud to have attended school here. I’d be proud to have my kids attend school here.

So here’s my question for you, my readers, and for all of us who write higher ed journalism:

Why on Earth would I take time to critique higher education if I didn’t care so much about making it better for everyone? For students—first and foremost—and for faculty, staff, and everyone who is a part of this extremely valuable public good?

I wouldn’t. That right there is my mission. I want to make things better. If some dirty secrets get aired, you know what that guy in robes said about daylight and disinfectants. I’m doing the best I can with that mission in mind. I hope you are, too.

Sour Grapes, or Waking Up?

Image by Laura Collins Britton, http://lcbritton.com

Image by Laura Collins Britton, http://lcbritton.com

Recently, a friend I respect told me that she was concerned that my writing on academia came across as though I had “sour grapes.” She was mostly talking about the writing on this blog, although now that this blog is a series on The Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae, I guess she means that, too.

(Some background: She felt like she had to bring it up because we are entering into a business endeavor together. And keep in mind, she was sincerely, truly worried about hurting my feelings. Also, you can see her perspective: Is a crank a good spokesperson for your business?)

But I was truly surprised that she viewed my words as sour grapes—or as anything that could reasonably be perceived as such—in the first place. I actually think I’m kind of pollyanna-ish, once you get past the “let’s stop deluding ourselves” bit. I don’t wallow in misery, and I’m very practical. The point of this whole blog/column #freelanceacademic endeavor is not just to identify problems with our work in higher ed, but to find ways to fix them as well.

I looked up “sour grapes” in the OED, and learned that it derives from one of Aesop’s fables, “The Fox and the Grapes,” and it refers to a situation “in which someone adopts a negative attitude to something because they cannot have it themselves.” So I guess my friend is saying (and I’m inferring here) that since I didn’t get a tenure-track job, I have sour grapes towards higher ed.

But she’s wrong. You can check out my previous post, but know that, right now, I feel like I narrowly escaped by not landing a TT job. There’s something rotten in the state of higher ed, and if I’d moved my family into that dying kingdom, where would I be? Defending it like a lifeboater? Hoarding my meager riches and stomping on contingent faculty? I’d probably be a terrible person and hate myself—IF I were self-aware enough to know what I was doing.

(OK that previous graf didn’t sound very pollyanna-ish, but it does fall under the “stop deluding” exception.)

Besides, this has been the question of the day:

This question isn’t about figuring out how other people see you. It’s about figuring out how YOU see you—and what YOU want to be for YOURSELF.

I know one thing for certain: I do not want to be a tenure-track professor.

They do not hold anything that I cannot have. That’s not sour grapes. That’s waking up.

Now: Soon I will address, in a more hopeful fashion, the wonderful open pathways that higher ed holds for us. Because that hope is there. Those pathways are there. Thinking creatively about learning, teaching, finding making sharing knowledge—we have to do those things. And we can.

Also we have to eat. I’ll talk about that, too.

The Uglier Side of Academia

Image by Laura Collins Britton, http://lcbritton.com

Image by Laura Collins Britton, http://lcbritton.com

“The price one pays for pursuing any profession, or calling, is an intimate knowledge of its ugly side.” -James Baldwin

This quote came across my Twitter feed today.

(It was a RT by someone I follow of a tweet by someone I don’t know, so I’m preserving her privacy and not linking to her it here—I don’t link to people without permission. Let me send out a thank you to the person who passed this tweet through my timeline today.)

I’ve been in academia for 11 years. If you count my master’s program, when I had to fend off bizarre antics by two different male professors, and law school, when my favorite professor was denied tenure for being a woman (don’t make me fight you about this one), even longer.

The point is, I’ve pursued this profession for the first half of my professional life, give or take. And I can see that this profession is really ugly. But I’m wondering, today, is academia any uglier than any other profession? Or do I just see it’s ugly side because I am intimate with academia? And does everyone see academia’s ugly side?

Or.

Is it possible for a tenure-track/tenured person at an R1 to jamble along and never ever see the ugliness of academia the way we NTTs do? For it to actually not be ugly for them at all?

Like the dude who lives on Park Ave., and the homelessness and hunger and desperation and poverty are invisible to him? (I don’t like overly dramatic comparisons as a rule, but just picture the dude getting in his town car for his trip down to Goldman and never looking up from his Blackberry.)

Recently, a super-tenured dude in my division asked one of my NTT colleagues just how much we made—because he had no idea.

(I know how much super-tenured dude makes, because it is public record and because I took that public data and created a spreadsheet to compare salaries by race and sex. I enjoy staring ugliness in its ugly face.)

We he learned what we make, he dropped an f-bomb out of shock, or so I’ve heard. My Park Ave. Professor just had never thought about it. That’s his privilege.

So I think that perhaps NTTs (and others, like women who get denied tenure for not being masculine enough yes that happened and others who are so wildly underrepresented you wonder how we all survive in the academic world at all) get an even uglier side of academia, actually.

Because we have to think about it. We’re forced to stare ugliness in the face every day. And it ain’t pretty.

Sorry for the gloom. Perhaps some cheer tomorrow.

So I Wrote This Thing About Rape…

Image by Laura Collins Britton

Image by Laura Collins Britton, http://lcbritton.com

Back in April of this year, I posted a short-short story (that I’d originally published in a lit journal back in 2008) as a “Prelude” to another project that I was working on. The short story tells a first-person narrative of being raped.

Sidebar: A cliche topic for a short story? perhaps, but only because rape happens every fucking five minutes, enough to make telling a rape narrative a cliche. #Rapeculture anyone?

I followed up that post with another, in which I explained the context of the short story, and why I chose to post it on my blog—because I planned on reporting the rape to UNC now, in 2014, many, many years later:

I was raped in Chapel Hill, just off campus, by a student of UNC-Chapel Hill. And UNC-Chapel Hill at that time was doing a terrible job dealing with rape in its community, and continued to do so until March of 2013, when it was slapped with a gigantic federal investigation.

I’m curious to know, though: What will happen when I try to report? How will it go? Has a professor ever reported to campus sexual assault services before?

This might be hilarious and awful at the same time.

So then I thought, why not pitch this story rather than writing it for my blog? So I did. I pitched it to my favorite kicks-ass-and-lets-you-use-swears-woman-centered-magazine The Toast, and the editor told me to run with it.

Let’s say “running with it” equaled getting my ass kicked, but I finally went through the reporting process and wrote the piece. I actually scheduled a date on my planner called “Reporting Day.” Reporting Day was a terrible day.

I was a wreck for about a week after. I was jumpy and had jitters, so I just kept telling everyone that I’d had too much coffee, which is an easy lie, since I regularly have too much coffee. I drink too much coffee on such a regular basis that my regular coffee shop has standing orders to only pour me half-caf.

The point is, for those of you who actually can remember April, and you want to read the results of Reporting Day, head on over to the Toast and check it out. Many thanks to Nicole Cliffe and the rest of the team over there for publishing it (and for paying their authors since I’m basically unemployed now).

For those of you who would like to read the short story that is loosely based on the events that led to the piece in the The Toast, here it is.

[You’ll notice I don’t allow comments on my blog. It’s good to be Queen. But I’m happy to chat with you on Twitter so long as you aren’t a jerk. I have a No Jerks Clause in the Constitution of the nation-state that I am Queen of.]

Big News

View inside of a jet cockpit at night, with tight focus on the controls.

Image by Aureliy, http://mrg.bz/P0qMFe

I have some big news.

My favorite higher education publication, The Chronicle of Higher Education Vitae, which is never behind a paywall (#openaccess, y’all), has picked up these blog posts as a new column for their publication.

Thus: The Freelance Academic Blog will now be the Freelance Academic Column at Vitae.

Thanks, folks, for reading this blog, and head on over to Vitae to read more. Vitae will provide the added benefit of allowing comments on my columns (which, for many reasons, I never have allowed here  ;) )

See y’all around.