A Sort of Homecoming, Part II 

Part II
Last week, I shared some thoughts and memories about conference life before I made the trip.

It was…fine. I saw some old friends I didn’t expect to see, and it felt a bit like a vacation. (First time away from my son in 13 months….) No one made any critical or tone-deaf comments about me missing academia or being ready to go back to adjuncting, and I saw only kindness, no cruelty. A retired professor whom I like and respect tremendously said I seem a lot more happy, confident, and loose since he last saw me. I agreed: I’m all those things, plus more optimistic and fulfilled about my current career.

I used to get back from a scholarly conference in a flurry of excitement about new ideas, plans for collaborating with new colleagues, notes and papers filled with good things, and hopes to catch up on teaching or writing work…along with some concern about the debt I’d accrued as an unfunded adjunct. The pay-to-play system became unsustainable for me.

This time, things were different. I enjoyed being an observer–outlier among established and hopeful academics. There was no pressure to sit through panels so Professor Big Deal would see me, hear my compelling question, and remember me when I applied for a job. I didn’t have to fake being busy or otherwise occupied to miss an undesirable panel. I had fun and felt relaxed the whole time. On the middle day, I relaxed, had lunch with a Twitter friend, and went to a comic book store before attending an art show the conference had organized.

The interactive portion of my talk went well. I essentially did the Q&A portion in the middle, but I reversed the flow: I Q’d and they A’d. I asked them to share what’s next in researching and teaching Faulkner and Hemingway, as well as what their professional experiences have been in teaching writers whose reputations very much proceed them. (Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse.)  To those who had read my book I asked what they felt was left out, underanalyzed, or questionable. “I can take it,” I assured them, “Say whatever you want.”

Younger and older scholars enjoyed the interactive interlude, and 10-11 people shared their ideas for new research and teaching approaches. Afterwards, a new assistant professor thanked me for doing it because “People don’t always ask what us younger scholars are doing.” There was a nice mix of older and younger scholars, MA students, undergraduates, and the general public there. About 120 people total…and hopefully some good book sales afterwards.

On the last day of the conference, I arranged an open discussion with graduate students, adjuncts, and anyone else interested in talking about academic and alt-/post-ac careers. Six people showed up: 2 older adjuncts, 3 graduate students, and 1 undergraduate who was thinking about whether to pursue a PhD in English. I directed them to this piece I wrote May for the Beyond the Professoriate conference Jennifer Polk and Maren Wood created. It was a good, eye-opening conversation. One of the graduate students didn’t know if she had the energy or desire to go for a PhD after finishing her MA; she was grateful I helped validate her feeling that she didn’t have to keep going and force it. We discussed academia, adjuncting, different career options, social media, networking, and which kinds of academics to ignore and which to heed when seeking career advice. I tried to give them the kinds of frank, open advice I never got when I was a graduate student and fresh adjunct. Part of my post-ac role is helping younger scholars and adjuncts avoid the traps I fell into: e.g., hanging on to the hope that a department will promote you, adding labor to gain experience and favors to boost your CV, or taking job advice from someone who hasn’t been on the market in 10+ years. I’d love to see more academic conferences devote time and resources to sessions on professional development, networking, and career options. Who’s willing to make this happen—regularly and meaningfully? Scholars in various fields have to take initiative to educate and support each other at such professional meetings.

It was a great experience to visit academia for a few days but have a definite exit time. I have no idea when I’ll go to another scholarly conference. Maybe never. I’ve been invited to others, but there’s been no professional reason (or funding) for me to go. Some former colleagues have meant well when inviting me to attend or participate in a conference, but “It’d be nice to see you” isn’t enough of a reason to travel across the country, spend money needlessly, and disrupt our childcare routine. Some academics—particularly those who’ve had FT jobs for over a decade—might never understand my decision to leave academia permanently. The most awkward response I got to my career change was from the Dean who attended my talk. “Hmmm, interesting…” was all he could say.

Hmmm, interesting indeed.

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A Sort of Homecoming, Part I

Part I

Later this week, I’ll be attending an academic conference for the first time in 2+ years. Since then, I’ve left academia for a career as a freelance editor and post-ac consultant. I’ll be giving the keynote at a conference at Southeast Missouri State University on a subject I wrote the book on—literally. Last year, a friend from Faulkner studies messaged me to say one of his colleagues had eyed me to give the keynote at a Faulkner–Hemingway conference. After verifying that the organizer didn’t care that I’m no longer an academic, I agreed. I had nothing to lose and—for once—full funding to make the trip. It sounded like a good way to network. It also sounded like a nice change of pace.

In the past, conferences meant financial and professional anxiety. How could I afford to go with little (or no) funding? Would this talk/roundtable/panel/whatever help me break out of the adjunct ranks? How would it look on my CV? Would I get one of those rambling “questions” during the Q & A? Would I make some strong connections and network my way to a full-time professorship? How much debt was worth it for this?

Now, though, things have changed. Because I’m a stay-at-home dad, my biggest concern for the conference was how we’d handle childcare. (It’s handled. Thanks, mom & dad.) I’m looking forward to the conference as a chance to share what I know and meet potential editing clients. Always Be Connecting, after all.

I’m also expecting to—big gasp—have fun. I enjoyed writing the keynote because there’s no pressure or worry about offending someone who might be on a hiring committee some day, or whose work I didn’t mention <eyeroll>. I enjoyed showing off what I know about the writers, as well as not having the pressure to give one of those State Of The Field talks. It’s not my job anymore to (try to) take a field in new directions. 

I based the talk on one I gave in 2012, but I added an interactive section in the middle asking the audience to share what’s next in the field. I’m also asking the audience about their teaching, researching, and larger professional experiences with Faulkner and Hemingway. We’ve all experienced those long-winded, self-indulgent keynotes, and I wasn’t about to subject my audience to 45 minutes of something they can read in my book. I know it can be hard for academics—especially younger ones—to jump into a discussion and admit their struggles, concerns, or lack of knowledge. I’m curious to see how this goes…and whether the audience will jump in as eagerly as I want them to.

Like all conference-going academics, I’ve seen my fair share of kindness and cruelty when scholars get together. At my second conference (July 1999) a senior scholar bought me a glass of wine and genuinely asked about my research. A few years later, another senior scholar in the same subfield about threw a hissy fit when a graduate student didn’t reference his book in an MLA talk. His comment during the Q & A was awkward, cruel, and forgettable. I’ll never forget either instance. Nor will I forget all the rambling, pay-attention-to-me “questions” from many other scholars.

I’m eager to see what happens when I go. I won’t quite be the fox in the henhouse, but I’ll definitely be the outlier among established, emerging, and hopeful academics. If anything, I’m an independent scholar, and those aren’t always welcomed as eagerly at conferences as affiliated or pedigreed ones. Selfishly, I want some new editing clients. Ethically, I’ll do whatever I can to show graduate students and adjuncts that there are other career options besides academia.

Time will tell. Next stop, Cape Girardeau, Missouri.