Real stories from the Post-ac/Alt-ac world: “You Must Change Your Life”

cowgirlbeerIt’s been too long, friends!  What can I say, except that my last six weeks on sabbatical are chock-full of visitors, travel, and reunions, which have left me little time to live in the virtual world.  I’m back online now, though, and have an idee or two to share.

First, I should say that I’m a great believer in the power of personal narrative.  When I was younger, letter- and journal writing helped me make sense of the trials and errors of youth.  When I was older, blogging at Historiann.com served the same purpose as I wrote about some of my early professional challenges and created a space in which others could find a supportive audience and share strategies for dealing with abusive colleagues and the insanely competitive academic job market.

Around the same time, I started writing a biography of a woman in my period of study, so clearly I’m committed to individual narratives as both a storytelling device and as pedagogy:  we learn so much from reading about other lives.  They can offer us encouragement, cautionary tales, and perhaps most importantly, help us imagine other lives and different ways of living.  There is a real creativity crisis among us professors who want to offer our students ideas for career alternatives to academia (alt-ac) or post-academia (post-ac) careers.  Professors are the worst people to ask, because we took the conservative path and remained in academia!  But we can seek out stories that may give us and our students new ideas for alternative ways of making a living and living a satisfying life.  (Because trust me:  academia is not necessarily a path to either goal, let alone both!)

An old friend of mine who used to live in my hometown of Potterville, Colorado, the distinguished medieval English literature scholar Thomas Bredehoft, has started blogging about his decision to leave a tenured full professorship and his new life as an entrepreneur.  Tom was a full professor who took a position off the tenure track as a spousal accommodation, when his wife took a tenure-track position at a university in another part of the country.  After teaching off the tenure track for five years, he left traditional academia in 2012 to pursue his own alt-ac business in the rare book and antique trade.  As he continues with his academic writing, Tom wants to use his blog to consider the academic, alt-ac, and post-ac worlds, from the perspective of someone who has spent most of a career thinking about books and poetry.icehenge

I have been following his journey from afar, and think his story is worthy reading for all of us.  He relates a story about a semester in which he assigned his students Kim Stanley Robinson’s brilliant early novel, Icehenge (1984) in a class on Fantasy and Science Fiction.  (Those of you who know Tom or his work know that his reading and cultural interests are diverse–from medieval European literature and material culture to modern comics, graphic novels, science fiction, and fantasy.  But when you think about it, isn’t most of medieval European literature a mixture of all of these?)

A little flava:

Having wondered myself whether my own scholarship as a medievalist might be built upon a similar quest for self-knowledge, I was struck, as I reread Icehenge back in 2009, when I came across Nederland’s blunt statement towards the end of his story that “You must change your life,” Given Nederland’s penchant for quotation, I typed the phrase into Google, and sure enough, I found that it was from the last line of Rainer Maria Rilke’s stunning sonnet, “Archaïscher Torso Apollos”: “Du mußt dein Leben ändern.”

Now, my German is only just good enough for a brief phrase like that, so—as with Hjalmar Nederland—the phrase resonated far more powerfully for me in English.You must change your life. . . . [I]n German, Rilke’s speaking voice addresses us in the second person singular, the intimate mode. But does the poem say that changing one’s life is a necessity, or that no one else can change your life for you? You must do the work, if you wish your life to change.

Both messages hit me with a kind of irresistible force back during those days of 2009: you must change your life; you must change your life. Teaching four classes a term was—for me at least—growing increasingly intolerable, though I certainly know many teachers for whom such a workload is an ongoing part of their lives: they have my sincerest and deepest admiration. But for myself, I knew that I would need to change my life, somehow. But I knew, too, that no one would do it for me: in only two years at WVU, it had become clear that there was no will in the department or college to change my lot. I felt as if once I had accepted a non-tenure track position, I was forever defined at WVU by that position, and could not expect to rise above it. As Marlow puts it inHeart of Darkness, “I had become unsound,” and I felt essentially invisible within the university’s institutional structure. Unlike Hjalmar Nederland, I couldn’t pull strings at the very highest level, and I was never one for making waves.

I like the double meaning of “unsound” here:  unsound as in irregular or unstable, but also the implication of being unheard or inaudible too, which he amplifies by alluding to the sonic activities of plucking strings (as on a violin, harp, or piano) and “making (sound) waves.”

Go read.  I’ll post links to Tom’s other alt-ac/post-ac career commentary.  Those of you who like rare books and curious ephemera might also like to check out his business.  (Apparently, he made bank at Kalamazoo last month–let him know if he can track down an obscure title for you literature, history, and medieval studies scholars!)

10 thoughts on “Real stories from the Post-ac/Alt-ac world: “You Must Change Your Life”

  1. Good stuff. I’m a postac who left an assistant professor position, and totally get the perspective. On a larger level, I think so many academics are leaving for reasons besides the job market. Politicians and administrators have made the job of being a professor much less desirable. During my time each year brought new cutbacks, more rules to follow, and higher publishing expectations. Most academics already live in places where they could find jobs, not where they’ve chosen to live. Add the current squeeze and stressing to the equation and it’s no wonder that so many are walking away.

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  2. “Forever defined” at [*wherever you are*] by [*whoever we’re talking about*] for whatever it is one has chosen to do academically–be the actual reasons what they may (in this case, spousal accomodation)–is very much how the academic personnel process too often works. Rather than trying to read the complex evidence at hand even in something as perfunctory as an applicant file, too many people will see an abstraction codified by default as a “red flag” and run like the devil. What if participation in the academic human resources process at the search or even elector level, rather than being either a duty or a presumptive prerogative of mere membership in an academic production unit [department] required the possession of a credential that certified, at a minimum, the ability to read a complicated c.v. and its accompanying debris as subtly and perceptively as a park ranger would be expected to read a topographic map before going on backcountry rescue duty? Just wondering.

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    • We might even ask that people who read CVs have a certain amount of openness to non-traditional career trajectories, as well as an understanding of the complexity of dual career couples!

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      • This, I think, is one of the most revolutionary things current tenure-track faculty could do, without making drastic changes in their own current positions and practices: become much more open to hiring a much wider range of people with the basic qualifications (terminal degree, some solid evidence of teaching and/or research ability) to the few tenure lines that do open up. Just knowing that leaving the academy for a few years (after having accumulated at least the normal amount of experience necessary for an entry-level job) could considerably change the adjunct landscape, especially for recent Ph.D.s (of course, it would change said landscape in a way that might make department chairs tear their hair out in the short term, as the adjunct supply considerably diminished). It would also be very, very nice if hiring committees were more open to the idea that people who have taught 4/4/2 (or 5/5/3, or worse) at multiple schools, while still managing to present new research slowly but steadily at conferences and/or in the occasional journal article, just might have a significant backlog of well-though-out ideas that could result in quite a burst of research productivity should they find themselves in a 2/2 or 3/3 position (especially since they wouldn’t be struggling through those first few years of learning how to teach, having finished that stage years or even decades ago, often under quite difficult conditions).

        Of course, this would often mean bypassing recent Ph.D. recipients — people very like, in the case of professors with grad students of their own, the very people they’re trying to help find jobs. That would be very hard (and might be an argument for drastically reduced grad admissions/programs, at least on a short-term basis. Perhaps some of the teaching energy usually expended on producing new Ph.D.s could be put toward summer seminars — preferably stipended, perhaps with the help of the NEH or the Mellon folks or someone along those lines — for mid-career non-tenure-track Ph.D.s who are retooling in one or more ways.

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  3. The dude’s story sounds super interesting, and he’s obviously super literate. I’m not gonna be a dicke on his blogge, so I’ll just mention here that he’s gonna probably want to turn down the verbosity a bit to better suit the bloggeing medium.

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  4. Pingback: Goosey, goosey gander | Historiann

  5. Having become unsound, what an apt phrase, I must read that novel again. I have thought of it as the undermining of integrity one undergoes as a professor, or at least that I have undergone, the drip-drip-drip of “you are not in graduate school any more, you do not get to do research, you must atone for having gone to a good Phd program” that has so depressed me since I became faculty. An osteoporosis metaphor has even come to me, and a vampirism one — you give out pieces of your bones and blood rather than nourish them as you should. But Conrad rules, and this “having become unsound” is the best description.

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