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Because I do not have a personality that lends itself to blazing trails, I’ve often looked to role models to help me figure out a path that makes sense.

For me, there is a difference between a mentor and a role model. Mentors are people with whom I’ve worked directly, professors, bosses, even colleagues, experienced hands at what I’m trying to do at a given time. I’ve been blessed with many good mentors in my life, particularly when it comes to teaching.

A role model is something different. I think of role models as exemplars, someone who has undergone the “proof of concept” testing for the route that I’m hoping to travel.

The first step in the search for a role model was to figure out exactly what is or could be next.

Last year, I declined to continue with an open-ended, full-time visiting position and instead only teach one class as an adjunct for two reasons. One, I was some combination of frustrated, sad, and bitter when I was unsuccessful in securing a tenure-track job at the institution where I’d been visiting. 

Second, and more importantly, I knew I would need to remove the crutch of teaching full-time in order to force myself onto a new path. As those who teach know, doing it full-time can be not only time consuming, but intellectually and emotionally absorbing. When in the midst of teaching, I simply didn’t have the time and space to consider, let alone pursue, any alternatives.

A semester and a half under my belt as a single-course adjunct, I’ve learned some things about what I want the next phase to look like. For example, I’ve learned that I can pull my household weight financially through writing, and I will continue to do this.

I’ve also learned – as if I didn’t already know – that I continue to love teaching. If I have a vocation, teaching is it. I want to continue to try to fulfill the role of teacher as I see it –helping others engage in the pursuit of knowledge that is meaningful to them – but I also cannot continue to do this work as part of a system that exploits the labor of so many. At least not for now, not without seeing what else is possible.

How do I teach if I don’t have job of a teacher?

I’ve figured out some other things, that I want to continue to be an activist on issues of academic labor and student rights. I want to spread the gospel about what I believe regarding how student agency intersects with writing pedagogy and the necessity of moving away from standardized assessments in K-12 education. I want to help more faculty of all kinds bring their voices out of the academy and into the public because if we are going to preserve (or maybe reclaim) education as a public good, this kind of engagement is necessary.

Thankfully, I am acquainted with two role models that embody this mix of freelance writing/teaching/activism: Kelly J. Baker, and Audrey Watters.

My hunch is many of you are already familiar with these women, but if not, some brief introductions are called for.

Kelly J. Baker is a scholar of religion, religion and popular culture, and religious and racial hatred. Her book, Gospel According to Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930, has taken on fresh salience in today’s America. She’s been freelance since 2013, leaving institutional academia behind after a PhD at Florida St. and teaching stints at two universities.

She now writes on more subjects than I can list for more places than I can name. 

She is also editor of the journal Women in Higher Education. 

Dr. Baker uses these platforms to write about issues where she is knowledgeable and issues that matter. When she writes about “White Collar Supremacy”  for the New York Times, demonstrating that the recent “image makeover” of the alt-right is merely part of a longstanding history of “intellectual” white supremacy, because of the nature of social media and internet discourse, she is risking becoming the subject of hostility and abuse.

But she does it anyway. With her writing, she is teaching. Most recently, she taught me a thing or two in an essay for The BTS Center, a think tank focused on religion and religious issues, when she explored the limits of “nevertheless she persisted” as a rallying cry. She shows that even this framework for resistance falls short of a vision where women not only persist, but “thrive.”

On Audrey Watters' “domain of her own,” she identifies herself with a single word, “Troublemaker.” In an ed tech industry frequently prone to hype (or worse), I believe Audrey Watters is the most important voice offering historical perspective, caution and wisdom.

Hack Education is her own publication, and if you care about how technology is interacting with education, it is a must read. One of the things I most admire about Audrey Watters is her self-made expertise, outside of institutional structures. She has an ABD PhD in Comparative Literature, but she has made herself into an undeniable expert in a different field, giving dozens of talks and presentations a year on educational technology and learning. She has made herself into a vital and necessary voice without any institutional protections.

Damn, I say.

I say damn, because despite five-plus years writing for this forum, despite the hundreds, thousands of hours of study and thinking I’ve put into the issues on which I write, I still hesitate to believe myself “expert.” Even though I’ve never really pursued the life of a proper academic, and I have confidence in the ideas I put into the world, I’ve for sure allowed the attitudes of the academy to inform my self-worth.

If I really was a person of worth, why don’t I have “Professor” in front of my name? I think about this.

But when I look at these role models and see what they can do outside of the institution and without a title, I’m encouraged that maybe I can do the same.

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