I guess you could say I’m an “accidental” academic.
I’d always planned to get my PhD (since the ripe old age of 15!), but it was so I could be a psychologist. In the hazy, adolescent vision of my career, I’d have a private counselling practice, and do some university teaching on the side. The thought of being a full-time professor never really entered my mind, mostly because I was deathly afraid of speaking in public.* Needless to say, my 15-year-old self had no idea what Life had in store for me.
Long story short, I did go to graduate school, but in a different field than I’d intended (Education). Of all the incredible discoveries I made while there, the most important was that I could have a career based on reading, researching, and writing. To an over-achieving, bookworm-y introvert like me, that seemed like the BEST JOB EVER. It would even make having to speak in public more bearable. (But only a little!)
As I’ve written here before, my socialization into the academy seems to have been quite different from other grad students’. I don’t know if it is because of this, or because of my initial career goals, or some combination of the two, but I was never wholly interested in getting a tenure-track position. I loved the idea of it, to be sure, but the reality of it just wasn’t as compelling as all of the other things I could do.
In the months immediately following graduation, I wrote several journal entries about the kind of career I wanted. I re-read one of those entries the other day, and one of the criteria really struck me: “I want to remain connected to academia”. The rest of that entry talks about how the perception of PhDs outside the academy (i.e. that we are over-qualified, too specialized, inexperienced in the “real world”, etc.) is a load of b.s., and about how I wanted to work towards shifting that perception. I also wrote about how much I loved the “hard-core analytical, theoretical, and critical thinking” that is integral to being an academic. I concluded that what I needed, then, was a job that allowed me to work in both worlds, simultaneously.
As I’ve also written here before, I had that job. I was an institutional researcher and a sessional lecturer. I was able to combine academic scholarship with community advocacy and activism. It was awesome. (For a while, anyway.) Since leaving the university, my career path has come to include independent consulting, community-based research, more university teaching and, currently, policy analysis. None of these experiences would have meant anything had I been on the tenure-track, but they mean the world to me.
I didn’t fully realize that until the Beyond the Professoriate virtual conference. As I continue to reflect on everything I heard and learned over those two days, I have a greater understanding of the value of an accidental/non-traditional/freelance academic career. Aside from having those all-important transferable (read: “practical”) skills, I have realized that those of us working outside the academy have a perspective of what is considered “valuable” knowledge, and “good” teaching, that is broad and far-reaching. This is a good thing, because it necessitates using one’s scholarship to connect the dots between knowledge and experience in ways that the restrictions of the tenure-track don’t necessarily allow for. Given the ever-encroaching corporatization of universities, and the ever-narrowing vision of what they are and what they are for, having faculty who take the broad view could be a useful form of resistance to that particular expression of neo-liberalism, not least because of our ability to code-switch between several different contexts.
What I’m envisioning here requires universities to think beyond their current organizational structure. I see an opening-up of what it means to be a researcher, educator, and scholar beyond publishing in the “right” academic journals, and teaching the “same” course year after year. I want to be clear that I am not suggesting that universities get rid of the tenure system. What I want, rather, is a serious exploration of what else – of how else – universities can draw upon the richness of experience offered by non-traditional academics in ways beyond contingent, precarious positions, such as sessional or adjunct faculty. This may mean creating a different hiring stream for faculty with our kinds of experience, with different criteria for progression through the ranks. It may mean offering courses where co-teaching (and I don’t mean a professor with a T.A.) is the default setting. It may mean broadening definitions of “impact” to include web-traffic volume, or number of retweets in a month. Etc., etc., etc.
One of the things I loved most about getting my PhD was the opportunity explore all the possibilities of a given situation. I see no reason why the very institutions that expect students to engage in this kind of exploration shouldn’t also do it themselves.
* I’m still not 100% okay with it, but I manage.