Tuesday, July 03, 2007

"Slash" and braided careers in academia, or how I learned to embrace career chaos

(cross-posted at BlogHer)

No, I'm not talking about that kind of slash. Instead, I'm referring to Marci Alboher's concept of each person having multiple careers simultaneously--for example, a piano teacher/shoe designer or a pet store owner/lawyer.

In academia, the slash is integral to the job. Most institutions grant tenure and merit increases based on research, teaching, and service to the institution and community. What that means is your average faculty member at a research university needs to be a scholar/writer/researcher/professor/adviser/dissertation chair/committee member. At a small liberal arts college, it might look more like professor/study abroad adviser/ad hoc academic technologist/accreditation committee member.

We're told again and again to find a balance among our responsibilities, to not get so involved in teaching (if we're at a research university) that we become too busy to publish, publish, publish. We're warned not to let our institutional service obligations get in the way of our service to our students.

And yet many of us, I suspect, see these obligations not as "slashes," but as all responsibilities that lie within the spectrum of job duties of a faculty member. Perhaps our outlook is more akin to Penelope Trunk's concept of the braided career. It's only when we choose--or are forced to--leave our teaching and research positions in higher education that we find ourselves contemplating our skill sets and slashes, the different sections that make up our vocational braids.

As the humanities job market for tenure track positions becomes ever more competitive, more and more of us are being called upon to reevaluate our career options. When you feel you have been called to a life of teaching and research, it's hard to sit down and list your transferable skills, but I did just this after two unsuccessful years on the academic job market.

My skills were writing, research, and teaching (duh), but also new media/web 2.0 technologies, informal (e.g. museum) education, and even illustration (I drew a comic strip for my undergraduate newspaper). My interests were museums, creative writing, publishing, and, well, just about anything but chemistry, physics, and real estate.

So I started a blog where I share my thoughts about museums. And seeing that adjunct teaching was never going to pay my bills, I gave up teaching in favor of work as an academic technologist--basically, I teach faculty how to improve their teaching through the judicious use of technology.

I was thrilled to be finally making what seemed to me to be a reasonable salary. Also, after years of worrying about grading, writing, publishing, course planning and evaluation, and more, I was relieved that I would only have one thing to focus on: training faculty. Yay!

And yet several times a week, my old slashes would creep to the front of my mind. Browsing the web, I'd stumble across an excellent topic for a journal article, or I'd think of something that needed to be added to my dissertation as I revise it for publication, or some book I'd like to teach in a future course. I'd get distracted by news of an upcoming museum exhibit or conference. I'd become lost in planning an event for our campus's teaching resources center, in recruiting faculty as speakers for a session on race, class, and gender in the classroom.

Teaching, it ends up, is a big slash for me. Writing and research are two others. And so I find myself in the midst of such activities, and inevitably new opportunities (jobs!) arise. So I find myself switching positions again, this time to teach faculty and grad students how to teach (with or without technology). Last week alone I was offered three different jobs, all related to my various interests, all of them with teaching and humanities at their core. (I was recruited for one of them--teaching museum studies--by someone who reads my museums blog.)

My husband and my family think I'm a little bit addled, that it's not in my best interest to be cobbling together a series of short-term and simultaneous jobs and calling it a "career." But like many academics, I'm perpetually curious about new areas of inquiry, and so I consider myself fortunate to be working for a university system large enough where I can move around a bit and experiment with different fields--but all under the same health insurance and retirement plans.

It helps to know that I'm not alone. What Now?, Breena Ronan, Articulate Dad, and YelloCello, among others, have for the past year or more been reflecting on what it means to have an academic skill set but not teach undergraduates and grad students. Reading their blogs has been fascinating because I can watch, day by day, as they try to synthesize their academic loyalties, intellectual passions, and family responsibilities.

So to my fellow academics (and to anyone who finds herself in a similar situation), I say: Keep up the good fight. Embrace your slashes. Braid away. The whole process of negotiating intellectual and career identity is (finally!) beginning to make sense to me--and it's a terrific adventure.


Anonymous said...

Tell us about that! It's a mere choice of careers...

Thanks for sharing too!!

flossie said...

Thanks for that post. It's exciting to see things coming together for you--gives me hope that, at some point, my own career identity will come into focus. (Career gods: Any time now would be good.)

Rev Dr Mom said...

Your career path sounds fascinating. I hope your new position is rewarding for you.

I love the concept of "braided careers." So many clergy have been trained in other areas; it's interesting to think about how we braid together our various skills in our ministries.

Anonymous said...

I'm coming to this very late (my summer job temporarily making me a dilettante blogger at best), so this is a belated "thank you" for this post and for the introduction to the concept of "braided careers." This concept may radically change the way I look at what I've been doing for the last few years and what I'm setting out to do now, and I thank you for it!