Something happened today that hasn’t happened in 16 years: It was the first day of school, and I wasn’t there.
I’m thrilled about it.
When I decided that Spring 2014 would be my last-ever semester as a professor, I expected some weirdness—and not a little bittersweetness—around key times: when I taught my last first class in January, when I submitted my final grades in May, and when I’d ordinarily be prepping syllabi and checking class rosters in August. My final-final semester felt appropriately bittersweet: I was conscious from the first day of classes that this was it, that every teaching moment would be my last.
Now that it’s late August, I don’t feel wistful or confused. I feel hopeful about the new career path I’m walking. My social media feeds have been teeming with friends and (former) colleagues talking about their syllabi, book orders, beginning-of-year meetings, and so on. I’ve thought some about what I’d usually be doing at this point–meeting new students, going over readings and course policies, catching up with my work wife, seeing the typical “Look at me” performances of most students on the first day, watching freshmen being freshmen, and other typical things.
If I’m guilty of a bit of humblebragging, I apologize to the scores of frustrated adjuncts still on those hamster wheels universities love to keep them on. I have 15 First Days of the Year under my belt, yet I feel good that today is not the 16th. If it were, I would’ve again been hitting RESET on my career: same salary, same (low) level of power, same disrespect for my experience and seniority, same “You deserve a full-time position” platitudes from well meaning colleagues who haven’t been on the academic job market for a decade or more.
As The Consulting Editor, I’m not only riffing on Sherlock Holmes and betraying my bookish–nerdy tendencies. I’m also opening myself up to different kinds of projects and professional relationships in ways I couldn’t as an academic:
If I want to keep teaching classes about authors I love at a local bookstore, so be it.
If I want to volunteer to help organize an annual literary festival, great.
If I want to write a short piece on Exorcist III for a colleague’s essay collection, I do…even if it means I have to watch this creepy–brilliant scene a few more times.
If I want to edit non–scholarly book manuscripts for good pay and even better experience, let’s start tracking the changes.
If I want to remind a potential client that my time has value and that I no longer need to do projects for “valuable CV experience” alone, I can (and have).
If I want to collaborate with someone on adapting my favorite Melville work for film or television, I can (and have been). Seguid vuestro jefe.
If I want to write yet another blog post or article critical of American higher education, sign me up. (As if I’ve ever had a problem writing about such things.)
I only have to think, What will this pay? and Will it be interesting work?, as opposed to How will this look on my CV? or How will a department head or search committee chair value this experience?. I’ve always been flexible and well rounded professionally, and being many things to many people has been as fulfilling as it’s been easy.
Interlude: I’ve said it before, but I need to say it again: none of this would be possible if my lovely wife weren’t a very supportive and encouraging breadwinner. I know I’m luckier than other frustrated academics or budding freelancers, and I continue to do what I can to pay it forward. She’s not on Twitter, or I’d link to her handle. No worries, though: I probably tweet enough for two people.
I’ve also been able to ratchet up my advocacy on behalf of adjuncts and students—without any I hope a search committee doesn’t see these tweets and blog posts… fears. I’ve done great work with some activist colleagues I love and respect (such as that petition you’ve hopefully heard about by now). Starting this blog—thank you for the nudge, Katie Pryal—has been great, too. I’ve written a few of my own pieces, and I’ve run great guest posts so far about the decision to leave academia and the #fancy party reserved for full-time faculty. I’m always looking for more guest posts: contact me if you need to write, holler, or vent about something related to higher ed. (Expect one tomorrow about #CreepyFakeGuy.)
As I see it, I need to define today not as the absence of something I did for a decade and a half, but as the presence of possibility and future success. I have time–a lot of it, hopefully–to evolve as a freelancer. The end, as a much better and smarter writer has it, is in the beginning and lies far ahead.