Thursday, January 15, 2015

Feeling More Welcome on the Fringe


I just got back from the 2015 Modern Language Association conference in Vancouver, one that was held in the beautiful conference centre in this photo, a space that was almost as gorgeous inside as it was outside (ocean! mountains! I grew up in Ontario!).  This was my fourth MLA, and definitely one of my favourites. It was wonderful to get to spend some serious time with one of my co-authors (shoutout to Erin Wunker) and a treat to be at a conference somewhere that I could still use data on my phone (it's the little things). But for reasons that I didn't anticipate, that this MLA was great had just as much to do with changes to my profession, and changes to THE profession, as it did with geography or excellent choice of roommate.

I want to go back in time for a minute to think through why this is, at least a little. A Hook & Eye reader got in touch with me a couple of months ago, and we met for lunch at a favourite local restaurant to talk about our experiences of being academic staff, and about the work I'm doing on Hook & Eye to advocate for, and demystify, non-professorial careers for humanists. She, like me, is a humanities PhD who now has a job in an academic staff role, although in her case she left a tenure-track job to take it. She, unlike me, hasn't been to an academic conference since she made the switch from professor to administrator, and her experience of leaving the tenure-track has been, from what I gathered, far more isolating than mine has.

I'd never consciously thought about it before that lunch, but my transition plan was very effectively, although mostly accidentally, designed. I started writing and publishing about higher ed reform and graduate career development about the time that I made the decision not to go on the academic job market, and when I moved into my staff role, I gradually started pitching conference presentations on those topics. My first year as Research Officer, I gave a paper at the MLA on alternative dissertations, a panel which inspired the first cluster of Graduate Training in the 21st Century, and another at ACCUTE on my usual work on Canadian modernist poetry. This year, now that paying work has required that I scale back on my CanLit work, I was an invited speaker on an MLA panel about careers for humanists, I'm giving a talk about skill development and graduate reform at NeMLA, and I'm co-organizing a panel on related topics as part of ACCUTE's Committee for Professional Concerns. I'm not giving any papers on CanLit at all, and yet it hasn't been necessary for me to stop attending the conferences I've always attended, because I made a space for myself at them that reflects the changing nature of my academic and career goals (and that let me expense my attendance to the occasional one as a work gig). I've never had to stand on the sidelines and watch my academic friends gallivant around exciting new cities, and drink bad free wine at the book exhibit, without me. I'd be terribly sad if I did. And that's in large part also because of the fact that alongside my work to make room for myself at these conferences, they've made room for me. When I started attending the MLA, any panels on career development and professionalization were almost exclusively geared to the academic job market, and it was never certain that the paper or panel I was pitching would be accepted. This year, there were three panels and a half-day workshop devoted to careers for humanists in the broadest sense, in all job markets. They had the institutional authority of being organized by the MLA and co-sponsored by the American Historical Association, and instead of worrying if my paper on mid-century modernist Canadian poetry would be too out in left-field for the American-centric MLA, I was invited to speak. I'm not attending DHSI any more, but I still get to go--just as an instructor. Quelle différence! 

Even just a few years ago, I bet that this smooth transition from PhD to staff while maintaining a close relationship with my academic community would have been much harder than it is now. PhDs who moved into non-professorial careers were largely invisible to North America's largest scholarly associations, and those careers were still considered the booby prize, the Plan B. People I know who made the transition much earlier, and have maintained their research profiles since, largely did so because they took staff jobs that provided them with an ongoing institutional affiliation. But as those same scholarly associations begin to recognize that only 18.6% of PhDs (in Canada, at least) become professors, the more they realize that they need to serve those people who make up the majority of their constituents--people like me who will not become academics--if they hope to stay relevant and to meet the needs of their membership. Moreover, the more they realize that people like me, who can talk about the realities of life in a non-professorial careeer, are necessary to this project. In fact, I can say that I've had precisely the opposite experience of that reader I had lunch with. In moving off of the professorial track and into a position that once would have been considered on the fringe (and is still considered such by many, I'll admit), I feel far more connected and central to my scholarly communities that I ever have before. I'll admit that I'm in an oddly privileged position, working in an #altac position that is in many ways concerned with graduate careers and training while also researching those subjects. But many of the non-professors at the MLA were doing vastly different things than what I do, and they were sitting on the panel right beside me.

It's strange to me that I had to get myself to the outside--into a position that I thought would guarantee that the powerful and traditional in academia would see me as a second-class citizen, or not see me at all because I'd become invisible--in order to really be invited in. It's an odd place to be, and yet I'm not complaining. Mostly I'm just revelling in the fact that life is good on the other side, and that more and more people--from grad student to full professor--are recognizing that my experience is not at all anomalous, that there's plenty of fulfilling and financially rewarding work to be had beyond the professoriate. To some at the MLA, I might still be on the fringe, but the numbers don't lie--we are, to steal the NFM's turn of phrase, the new PhD majority. And as assumptions about the goals of those pursuing PhDs continue to change, so will the inclusivity of the scholarly associations to which we belong. The water's warm, and I'm loving that I'm surrounded by ever more swimmers.

Image by TDLucas5000, CC

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