Freelance Academics (Walking Away from the Con)
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.