Sunday, November 30, 2008

Taking stock: where I am, where I've been, where I'm going

As my post on being a pissed-off woman in academia demonstrated, my job may in the next few months take a turn I hadn't anticipated into cubicle land and consolidation of units. Along with cubicles and consolidation comes, I fear, surveillance of how my colleagues and I spend our time, our work habits, our efficiencies and inefficiencies. Since my work habits and sensibilities tend to be more aligned with those of faculty than staff, but since I am technically a staff person, there may be some rocky shoals ahead.

Of course, this makes me wonder: Why am I not teaching full-time instead of being an administrative type?

The simple answer: Money. This job has more stability than any adjuncting gig, and the salary is far better, too. And I do enjoy much of my job.

But late last year we lost an unfilled staff position due to budget cuts, so increasingly my job has become less about thinking and consulting about teaching and more about taking care of the thousand little details that attend programs, events, grantmaking, and committee work. In addition, as I've expressed before, I feel complicit in what I have increasingly come to see as the factory farming of students. What else can I call it when there are classes of 900 students? I have no plans to leave my job anytime soon--again, I enjoy most of it, my colleagues in particular--but I can't help but think about what my next steps might be, a year or two or three from now, depending on how much control I can retain over my job duties and my time.

A number of events have conspired this autumn to show me that I may eventually find myself in a situation where I'm more of a free agent. Herein I explore some of the possibilities--both to set it clear in my own mind, but also to open a conversation with those of you who are finding your way in and out of, or along the edges of, academic and intellectual life. I'd like to hear what paths you are taking, and what advice you might have to offer me and others in similar positions.

At this moment, my ideal life would look like a mix of writing, art/illustration, teaching museum studies and American studies, consulting with museums, consulting about teaching in higher ed, and working at intersections of public institutions (museums, universities) and communities. I'd also be able to spend more time with Lucas and Mr. Trillwing. I'm definitely what Marci Alboher would call a "slash": a writer/artist/consultant/teacher/quasi-intellectual.

Perhaps the most inspiring moments of the fall came when I joined Barbara Sawhill, Laura Blankenship, and Barbara Ganley at BG's amazing home to talk about some common interests around teaching and learning, community development, and storytelling.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again a hundred times: I want to be Barbara Ganley when I grow up.

Barbara Ganley

The "Fear 2.0 Dream Team": Laura Blankenship, Barbara Sawhill (in background), Barbara Ganley. Much missed at the gathering: Martha Burtis. Much appreciated: Laura's pomegranate martini recipe.

Barbara Ganley and Finn-dog

Dinner conversation: Laura Blankenship, Barbara Ganley, and visiting from his mountaintop, Bryan Alexander.

I've already blogged a bit about our retreat, so I'll summarize by saying that I'm tremendously inspired by BG's and Laura's recent leaps from academia, and Martha's decision to work part-time on projects rather than remain an administrator. These women are further along in their careers than I am, but watching them gives me hope that I, too, can craft a work-life balance that I find meaningful, that balances the creative and the critical impulses of the mind. In addition, I'm totally jazzed about BG's community storytelling projects around the country and hope to participate in them in some capacity.

BG's home is in itself a fabulous metaphor and also a collection of slashes. Without compromising too much of her private life, here are a few glimpses:

The entire house is built from green and salvaged materials. Her chandelier is something out of Jules Verne, and is made of recycled plumbing fixtures. I didn't get to see this feature in operation, but the fixture belches colorful steam at a signal from a remote.

The front door is also an assemblage of reused materials, and has been inscribed by her menagerie of dog and cats. But most interesting to me is the door in profile:

It appears to be three doors combined into one, all of which lead to the same place--a site picked by Barbara's family when they sited the house on the property. I like this metaphor of constructing one's own door and deciding onto what place it opens. It's much more appealing to me than the usual metaphor of selecting one door from among the many presented to me.

Barbara and her family have set out a pair of urns to mark a trailhead near the house. Again, I like the idea of defining one's own starting point, of mowing one's own trail.

I also still enjoy my position teaching graduate museum studies students. Museum studies is such a fertile field, and I very much enjoy playing and working in it. All my musings about slash careers aside, I would be delighted to teach in this program full-time. It's just all-around awesome, even though this quarter marked the first time I felt I didn't fully connect with a class of students. In the winter and spring quarters, I'm overseeing the master's theses of 14 (!) students. We'll meet as a group every other week for three hours, during which time I'll be leading them step-by-step through the process of writing their theses. Thankfully, the program director has already helped them select their topics and methodologies. I'm very much looking forward to reading these theses, as most of the students are among those I taught last year, and I adore that cohort of students. (I think the affection is to some extent mutual.) Plus, it sounds as if I'll be meeting a few new-to-me students, one of whom is a (woman) taxidermist. Awesome.

Exhibit in the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History - mammal hall. Have I ever mentioned I have a preoccupation with taxidermy?

Taxidermied birds--where else?--in Barbara Ganley's home

I'm also trying to be an even better citizen of my university by serving on a committee that serves as a watchdog over the status of women (faculty, staff, and students) on campus. I attended my first meeting a couple of weeks ago, and the ideas I put forth were accepted with great excitement by many on the committee. It was odd to be a newcomer and yet suddenly in the middle of all this hustle and bustle on a committee that seemed, if I'm reading the situation correctly, to be looking for a cause or two to champion. Yes, it's one more thing on my plate, but it's an important thing.

On the back burner for the time being is a big project--a series of projects, really--related to multicultural education and targeted at progressive parents of youngish children. It's more entrepreneurial than any of my other pursuits, and in this economy I should probably move it to the front burner, but I don't have the energy at this moment. Still, the older Lucas gets and the more I learn about No Child Left Behind, the more I realize the importance of this endeavor.

Motherhood continues to amaze me.
I think being a full-time stay-at-home mom would drive me bonkers, and it wouldn't do much for Lucas's development right now. He's learning to be social, and it helps for him to be in a daycare/preschool environment. That said, I'd love to spend even more time with him during the daylight hours. I'll post more photos of him soon. He's crazy tall and his vocabulary is growing faster than his bones. Plus he has a wicked sense of humor. Wonder where he gets that? These photos are from a trip we took with my parents to a riparian reserve. They're kind of bird nerds and wanted to see some sandhill cranes (in the interest of full disclosure, so did I).

Where does all this lead? I don't yet know, but I sense it's someplace good--if I can make the financial picture work. Another spanner in the works is that Mr. Trillwing is in the newspaper industry, which, in case you haven't noticed, is on death watch, so we're trying to rethink his career as well.

Most of all, I'm learning to put myself out there, which does not come naturally to me. I'm redrawing the boundaries of what I'm comfortable doing. I'm unlearning the many ways that women (in academia and in professional life in general) sabotage themselves. I'm trying to balance reflexivity and research with action. I'm trying to clear the decks of old projects so that I can focus on new ones. I'm trying to become the person who believes wholeheartedly in her life's work. And that's not easy. I'm planting seeds, but sometimes I'm surprised by what grows.

P.S. Don't miss Fang's post on our Thanksgiving adventures. Here's a bit he didn't cover--a young bobcat (there were three of them) playing a few yards outside our hotel room in Tucson:


Anonymous said...


What a lovely post. Speaking as your sister 'up-to-her-ears-in-Academia' stalwart in the Fear 2.0 Dream Team (I still think we need high high white pleather boots to pull off that "visage" but I digress), I echo your desires about wanting a "slash" kind of an existence. And the reality is with what is going on in our economy these days, I think it is better to articulate those wants and desires and personal strengths for ourselves, with heavy emphasis on the ability to articulate them well, before our jobs get re-aligned --for us.

In my institution we will be seeing a 50% budget cut next year with no salary increases for 2 years. I have given up on pining for what isn't place is perfect (okay, except for BG's homestead...I am quietly plotting to take up residence in her barn which is nicer than my entire house...shhhhhh... don't tell her). Instead, like you, I am going to try and focus on what I do have in my school, and what could be, and how things could be re-shaped here vs looking elsewhere.

After 10 years in the same gig, its time for some change in my world. I envy our Dream Team-ers breaks from Academia, but know that such a choice is impossible for me. Rather than kvetching, I am gonna take stock of what is here, what is possible, what gives me joy...and run with it. We need to celebrate the really good stuff that is already here, the really good works we are capable of making happen... the very same stuff I sometimes forget about when those damned crazy people start acting up.

Onward, oh sister of fearlessness...

The other B

What Now? said...

A fascinating post. I've gotten a lot out of observing your career path in the last couple of years, and I look forward to seeing where that (self-defined!) path takes you.

I'm particularly interested, of course, since I've made my own journey away from academia -- in my case, into another full-time teaching job, but one in which I'm defining my own "slash" sidelines that help me stay energized. And my partner is in the very midst of creating her own series of "slashes," having realized that no job currently defined lets her do all of the things she's passionate about. These are interesting times.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Barbara S about this being a great post. I think that the slash identity is a really rich one and more in line with our times than the mono-identity that comes with a long career in one job. Heck, I almost was subsumed by my identity as a classroom teacher.

I particularly love what you say here:

"Most of all, I'm learning to put myself out there, which does not come naturally to me. I'm redrawing the boundaries of what I'm comfortable doing. I'm unlearning the many ways that women (in academia and in professional life in general) sabotage themselves. I'm trying to balance reflexivity and research with action. I'm trying to clear the decks of old projects so that I can focus on new ones. I'm trying to become the person who believes wholeheartedly in her life's work. And that's not easy. I'm planting seeds, but sometimes I'm surprised by what grows."

Redrawing the boundaries--yes, that's it. If we want our students, our children to dare imagine a better world than this mess we're in, they will need to redraw boundaries, re-imagine what is possible and put their creative selves out there, then, well, we had better do it too.

You're an inspiration. It took me until I was nearly 50 to find some sense. ;-)


P.S. I love the pieces of my home that you bring out here--they are some of what I so adore about this place, including my stuffed birds in a belljar.