Thursday, September 10, 2015

Back to School for #alt-academics

This Labour Day marks my third fall of going back to school as an #alt-academic, although it's the first year when I'm not actually working in a school. Still, I work in a teaching hospital, and our annual rhythms are much the same--we're still gearing up for an influx of new undergraduate and graduate students joining us for their first year of doing research with one of our faculty, we're still getting ready for the fall funding rush, and I'm still wrapped up in my usual rounds of reviewing postdoc applications and prepping for Writing a Winning Research Proposal 101 sessions. And I'm so glad.

It may seem like a little thing to be worried about giving up, but my life has been ruled by the academic calendar since I was four years old. I've spent just one year of my adult life working outside of the structures of a school or university, and that was at Oxford University Press, where we still largely observed the academic calendar because all of our writers and buyers did too. Labour Day is my New Year's Day, the marker of the beginning of a fresh new year with no mistakes in it (as Anne Shirley would say). And being in an #altac position where--even if there's no back to school for me--the spirit of back to school still reigns is such a comfort. Some things don't have to change.

But some things do change. And the transition from summer to fall brings some extra challenges for #altac folks who are trying to maintain a semi-active research profile while working full-time jobs. My collaborative projects mostly went dormant over the summer, as everyone turned their attention to large-scale writing projects, research trips, and holidays, but they're all ramping up again. Hook & Eye is back, and I've also got a dissertation chapter, plus some other writing/editing/teaching projects all requiring lots of attention (and completion) in the next couple of months. I'm lucky, though, that I've moved from a position that saw me supporting research funding and professional development programs for 6,000 students and postdocs to one that sees me doing the same for about 1, 200--I can do more for fewer people, and my job doesn't spill over into the rest of my time the way it once did. Like Erin, I'm deliberately moving away from the fastness and hyperproductivity that neoliberalism so loves towards a slowness that that lets me "have intellectual fulfillment as well as a home [I] love coming home to." 

Still, mine is affective labour--I work the job I do because it lets me help grad students and postdocs more easily make their way through, and out of, the academy. So too is my research and writing affective labour. Because I care, I work to make unheard voices heard, whether it's the voice of a poet silenced by sexism and rumour, or graduate students, postdocs, and contract academic faculty silenced by those who don't want to believe that the academy is failing its most vulnerable. If I was looking for an easier time of it, I could scale back or call it quits on my research, but so long as I feel like I have the opportunity to do some good, I'm not willing to give it up. I also need the balance of the 9-5 and my academic work to keep me happy. It turns out that having one to turn to when I need respite from the other is exactly what suits me, and what keeps me productive. It's what keeps me from falling back into the writing paralysis I described in my "I Quit" letter, and what lets me have that intellectual fulfillment I want.

My transition into the new year isn't as abrupt as it is for some. I didn't have the "normal" academic summer (i.e. the summer of those with the privilege of a well-paying tenure-track job or graduate stipend) of setting aside the usual routines of the school year for four months of all research all the time. I took a week off work to finish up a dissertation chapter and get some projects done around the house, and another to visit family and research sites in London and Copenhagen. Most days, I did what I do every weekday--wrote from 6-8, walked to work, worked from 9-12, wrote from 12-1, worked from 1-5, walked home, made dinner, did household or fun or social things, went to bed, and did it again. Turns out that this routine, at least for me, is the prescription for avoiding summer guilt and the end of summer hangover. My summers as a full-time academic were clouded by guilt--either that I wasn't working enough, or that I wasn't enjoying downtime because I felt guilty about not working enough--and capped off by an orgy of shame about the distance between my beginning of summer goals and my end of summer accomplishments. My goals for this summer were minimal--get my writing routines completely embedded so that they were automatic. And I did that, no shame hangover required. It's a good way to start the new year.

I'm featured in the October University Affairs cover story, and it paints a rosier picture of #altac careers than I think really exists. They're not the cure-all for the ills of the academic job market, nor a reason to keep PhD enrollments high. But even so, I'll be damned if I can't help as many people as possible make their way onto the #altac track. It is such a good place to be for those of us who don't want the tenure track, but don't want to leave the rhythms and routines (and research) of the academic life behind. For that reason, I'll pick back up with the #altac 101 series shortly, and I'll talk more about how to succeed off the tenure track, about the gendered aspects of job searching, and about how scientists, social scientists, and humanists are in precisely the same boat when it comes to the ills that plague academia. I'm so looking forward to another year of H&E, and of you.

Happy new year, dear readers, and see you soon.

image credit: death to the stock photo // cc

1 comment:

  1. Okay, I'm a little late in reading and commenting on this, but thank you for writing it and posting it. I am, however, on what seems like a one-woman quest sometimes to talk about #altac not as a binary between TT job vs #altac. I had a TT job and there are lots of reasons why I chose an #altac (or #postac) path. I worry that if we don't carefully frame #altac discussions to recognize that TT jobs are not the answer, then students (and professors and universities) will never actually think about the conditions of labour in the academy with any real nuance or sophistication.

    But that's my two-cents' worth added to your very excellent articulation of your own #altac journey, and I applaud you whole heartedly, Melissa!


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