I’ve been in higher education my entire adult life. This is what I do. This is what I’m good at. What do I do once that job is gone?
Yes, I was that nerd who went straight from high school to college to grad school. I wrote study guides for Academic Decathlon students in my summers off (having competed in high school with an award-winning team). I took other freelance educational writing gigs to pay off my student loans.
All this means I’m a little burned out, sure, but it also means that what I’ve been doing my entire life is learning how to learn and learning how to teach. Essentially, I’m a knowledge-worker. Once I find my way into a body of knowledge, I’m a sponge, and I can pass it along to others.
Context is key for me; I’ve always been terrible at straight-up memorizing things unless I have a really good reason to want to burn them into my brain. And my expertise is somewhat domain-specific to the social sciences and humanities. After I aced Calculus BC in high school and got a 5 on the AP exam, I stopped taking math and science classes, because I knew that I needed small classes with personal attention from the instructor in order to thrive, not the large classes I’d find at UC Berkeley full of cutthroat pre-med students.
So while I am bragging a bit about my brain in this post, I know my limits. I know the subjects on which I could effortlessly design and teach a college course, or research and write an academic article, and I know the subjects for which it’d be a reach but I could do it anyway with enough time and prep, and I know the subjects for which it is a Hell No regardless.
I will be exploring these themes in a more directed way in my next post, on vocation and how to use my privilege and education to do good in the world while also doing good for myself… but for now I’m just sitting with the self-knowledge that all my training, practically all my life, has made me into someone who is good at learning and then teaching what I’ve learned. And while I don’t need to be a college professor to do that – and I think my writing/blogging uses these skills and does some good in the world – I’m still kinda stuck thinking through “what’s next?”
The great thing about getting an advanced degree is that it teaches you how to be a good researcher. Basically, I learned how to learn most effectively. And while many graduate degrees do not offer a ton of focused training on pedagogy, or the skill set that goes into teaching, I picked it up along the way too.
The weird thing is, this is not what most people think of when they see those fancy letters behind one’s name. There’s often an assumption out in the Real World that someone with a PhD is too specialized to do any job outside academia (excepting of course fields that have a rapport between the private sector and the ivory tower). So I worry that, moving forward, I’m going to have to spend some time convincing people that why yes, my PhD means I have a vast array of skills that translate into Useful Stuff Outside Academia, and no, it doesn’t mean I’m too specialized or lacking real world experience or whatever.
(let’s leave aside for the moment the fact that I do have a ton of specialized information about, for example, the history of folk narrative scholarship in my brain, and I feel utterly guilty about not using it more, since there aren’t many people with that knowledge still hanging around, and I worry that I am letting my dead mentor down by not doing enough with it, but now I am getting off track)
This translation of academic skills/knowledge to the outside world is, of course, is what a lot of the alt-ac movement is about, and has been for the decade-ish that I’ve been aware of it. The alternative academic, or alt-ac, path is one that whether by choice or necessity describes people who take their academic training outside of academia to do any number of career options. Alt-ac folks affirm that while a lot of our graduate training is specific to our academic disciplines, and especially to how those disciplines work within the ivory tower, we actually end up with a ton of skills and ideas that translate really well outside of academia, and can help us do a ton of different types of jobs.
I’ve already gone alt-ac in the sense of acquiring subject-specific knowledge in the realm of adult sex education, and I enjoy it enough to keep up those connections and maybe look for full-time work in that field (once I’ve spent some time digging myself out of burnout, for example, I might see if the local Planned Parenthood is hiring, or if a local school is hiring, but then again, I live in Indiana, a state not known for being very sex-positive, soooo that might be a dead end).
But I’ve only got so much bandwidth for cobbling together a career of freelance things, and that’s part of what this post is about, and what my next post will cover too. In academia, once you’ve acquired a job of some sort, the institution does all of what I refer to as the “Extrovert Bullshit” for you. They arrange the class times and the classroom and handle enrollment. I create the syllabus and show up to teach. It is a TON of work to put together an effective syllabus and teach a good class, and then there’s grading on top of it. But that is all work that I’ve acclimated to, whereas having to go out and get my own gigs and advertise them and secure students and get a space in which to teach and all that… my introverted self shudders at all that running around and contacting people. I know myself well enough to know that I lack the bandwidth for it and would hate my life if I had to do that all day every day.
(the funny thing is, I do a ton of Extrovert Bullshit for my dance community, since I have to wrangle studio space and advertise my classes and manage my troupemates and so on… but I do it because I love dance so much, and I don’t think I love many other things in life enough to spend my limited social energy on them)
I believe that self-knowledge is a strength when it comes to most areas of life, including career selection. If I know that something makes me miserable, I should probably steer away from it, or select a job that has it in limited, tolerable doses. If I know that I’m competent at something and I can stand the work, I should probably move more in that direction. Not that one’s career is guaranteed to be unicorns and happiness 24/7 as that’s not how things work under capitalism for most people, but rather that to acknowledge one’s strengths and emotional/mental capacities for certain kinds of work seems like a good guide to follow.
After all, as we’re seeing the pandemic unfold, a lot of people with children were thrown into sudden homeschool situations, and I’m guessing that many of them did not go into teaching because they preferred other work, or they knew teaching was not among their skill sets or their emotional/mental energy expenditure preferences – I know I prefer teaching adult populations (college students; adult dance students) over teaching children. If I were thrown into teaching kindergarten I doubt I would be successful at it right away, or perhaps ever. I am hoping we’ll come out of this situation with more respect for teaching as a distinct skill set, including both specific knowledge domains as well as the knowledge of teaching strategies, in addition to what I’m kinda hazily referring to as the emotional/mental bandwidth it takes to teach, and one’s strategies for managing all that in oneself.
So. I know I am a teacher and a knowledge-worker both by training and by inclination. I know I am an introvert, and I’ve got limited energy/bandwidth to spend on social interactions, especially with people I don’t know, and especially when I have to go out making contact with people to seek/get things like new gigs (because ugh, that is just asking for my social anxiety to flare up). But put me in a room with purpose, whether it’s to teach in an academic sense or teach dance, and I will shine. Give me a writing task and an audience to reach, and I will craft words to eloquently reach that audience, whether academic or mainstream. Need citations? I’ll get ’em (hell, I’ve probably already got them). Need someone to spot patterns? Totally what I was trained for, since I can generalize my folklore knowledge to most anything in culture.
I believe knowledge work is important, despite the fact that the U.S. consistently undervalues and underpays teachers. I know I can cobble together some freelance work for myself, but now that my college teaching career is gone, I need to find something that is somewhat stable, and I’d like to use my existing skill sets as much as possible. In my next post I’ll share specific thoughts on vocation, managing specialized training, and more, but everything for me starts from the premise that I’m a knowledge-worker, and I’m proud of it because I’ve worked so hard for it, even in a culture that does not always value intellectual pursuits.