I’m writing this is part of the #clmooc where in our first project/post, we’ve been invited to introduce ourselves and also think about “how to” guides. This was a post I’ve been meaning to write for a while anyway, so it fits in quite nicely, and if you follow along, you’ll get a pretty good sense of “who I am”.
I’ve written previously about three of the earliest and most important non-academic mentors in my early career. They provided important guidance to me in terms of encouraging me and showing me there can be other paths for PhDs. This was before (or perhaps during, but I wasn’t aware of it yet) the Alt-Ac movement; if I were to re-write this post today, it would be my alt-ac mentors.
Step 1: Find good mentors of all kinds, professors, administrators, alt-ac or post-ac people. Watch them. Ask good questions. Learn.
I recently did a personality test and discovered I am ENFP (aka The Champion!), which would seem to explain why I have such varied interests, and, I was always told, was a relative weakness in academia. I was unfocused, too distracted, or just generally not “specialized” enough to ever be a successful (read: tenured) academic. I’m really glad largely ignored that advice and branched out in all different sorts of ways because those varied interests (and acquired skills), which include “traditional” academic research and teaching, have lead to my current alt-ac position. This leads back to the first step (which maybe should be the second step), in terms of finding mentors who support and inspired all of who you are. If they don’t, then find a lot that do.
Step 1: Don’t compromise on who you are just because academia says you need to be “one way” in order to succeed.
I have had other mentors who have recognized that drive in me to do multiple things at once and engage multiple skill-sets that I have, and have encouraged me (or exploited me) in order to Get Things Done. So I organized a major conference when I was a first-year MA student. I sat on executive boards for major national organizations. I kept organizing conferences and panels. I kept getting involved. I currently have my current major DH affiliation/project because I did both these things. I’ve had to learn how to say “no thanks” but ultimately my tendency to say “yes” has directly led to where I am now. But I had to learn to do the things that would satisfy me, instead of what I thought others wanted from me.
Step 1: Don’t try to be all the things to make everyone else happy; be all of yourself to make yourself happy.
I’ve put myself out there (here) during a lot of this process (more recently in any case), but transparency has always been important to me. It’s one of the reasons why I got involved in student politics and faculty administration – I want to understand it better, to see through it, inside it, to figure out how it works. I am also pretty transparent myself (for better or worse) and always have been. This dedication to transparency has allowed me to connect with a lot of different people, something that I really enjoy personally, but has also benefitted me professionally. People wanting to connect with me, connect me to others, people being open and excited about me connecting with them…I’m an extrovert, so these things come more easily to me, but connecting with others has been one of my favorite parts of this whole process, starting way back when I started graduate school.
Step 1: Don’t be afraid to connect and reach out.
All of this connecting has lead me to gain some pretty important sponsors along the way, too. These are people who I’ve connected with (or connected with me) who then put my name forward for opportunities, actively encouraged me to pursue certain positions, and generally said really great things about me when they didn’t have to. They’ve pulled me aside and put me back on track when I’ve gotten lost along the way. They’ve helped me get out of my own way, and opened doors and windows and secret passages to explore and go through. Sponsors are much harder to get than mentors, particularly in higher education.
Step 1: Be on the lookout for possible sponsors.
But of course none of these things would have been possible without a) being middle-class (so college was never not an option), b) a father who worked for an airline (thus affording me to be able to fly to conferences almost for free), c) access to credit (to pay for everything else), and d) a partner with a full-time job (so I can do what I do and the bills are paid). I’m also white, straight, conventionally attractive, and thus pretty freaking privileged. Step 1 should be, make sure you have some privilege to spare because it’s tough.
Which is ridiculous “advice” to give because how to do that? Everything is Step 1, and each one of my steps is idiosyncratic and, for a lot of people, impossible or impractical. I feel a lot of days like a cautionary tale; I did things my own way this whole time and it feels a lot of days like dumb luck. I “undermatched” when it came to choosing my school to do my BA (big time). I kept choosing the “wrong things” to study (sure, study English at a French university, then focus on French works for your dissertation and research project). I chose where to do my PhD based on the fact that they were “letting” me teach. I got married. I had kids. I moved around (a lot). I adjuncted. I taught the wrong classes at the wrong kind of schools.
And yet here I am. I guess I should be surprised that my first published piece of scholarship is on a novel whose title (and content) undercuts the whole “how to” genre. I hope some of these steps resonate, because they are what got me to where I am today, and some of them are actually pretty useful and applicable. But, like many of us who have used how-to guides before, sometimes I am left wondering, isn’t there an easier way to do this?
Then again, when have I ever done anything the "easy" way.
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