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.