Just over two years ago I wrote my “Not a Quit Lit Essay,” about leaving teaching (only semi-voluntarily). What appeared available to me on that path didn’t seem like enough, and so I chose to try a new one.
I knew what I wasn’t going to be, a tenure track professor, but I wasn’t sure what I might become.
Having just about finished my work on two books on how we go about teaching and learning writing – Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer’s Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing - I find myself with the time and necessity to pause and consider who I am now.
What am I? Am I a scholar?
I know a couple things I am not. I’m definitely not and never have been an academic, despite having some 20-plus years in the academy. My ranks have been graduate assistant, lecturer, instructor, lecturer, adjunct, visiting instructor, adjunct – none of which confer what I consider to be sufficient status to be viewed as an academic.
An academic is often a solo artist in their day-to-day work, but is simultaneously affiliated, networked, rooted in an institution. I never had those roots. There's a reason why the blog is called "Just Visiting."
You can argue with that definition if you want. This one is mine.
Being an academic makes it easier to be a scholar, providing access to some of the raw materials necessary for scholarship: funding, research resources, colleagues for collaboration, time (hopefully). But at the same time, the structures of academia sometimes stand in the way of being a scholar. Here I’m thinking about that dude who endlessly self-plagiarized in order to improve his impact metrics (whatever those are).
Even those not engaged in outright shenanigans well recognize the compromises they must make in their scholarship in order to fulfill the strictures of tenure. This tweet which floated through my feed this week seems to capture a common sentiment:
The disconnect between what is supposedly important and what is actually pursued is unfortunately common in education, particularly when we lose touch with our underlying values.
When we declare that the percentage of students who graduate matters above all, but forget to make sure the learn something all the way as well, the incentives become perverse. Raising test scores in K-12 education became the raison d'être, turning school into a "charade."
I would’ve liked being an academic provided I could successfully pursue what passes for my particular scholarship, which no doubt includes some things off the beaten path.
But that door seems closed, and indeed, it has taken leaving academia almost entirely to become someone who can credibly call himself a scholar.
It is an enormous privilege to be able to pause and reflect on what identity and which attitudes I get to try on next. I’m lucky to have a (knock on wood) solid base of paying work from which to range.
These are some of the things I hope to be in the coming months, maybe even years…
Writer: Not only is this paying the bills, writing is how I process the world. I’m not sure I could maintain the equilibrium I have without it, so this seems a given, probably even if and when I stop getting paid for it.
Speaker: When I sat down to put together a menu of possible public talks, I realized I’d amassed a lot of different experiences that may be relevant to others in higher education. Invite me to your campus. Believe it or not, I’m a lot of fun. You can get me by email from the byline above.
Consultant?: This one gets a question mark because it would require a kind of entrepreneurial spirit that would be new to me, but I hear complaints about the writing abilities of people in the professional world so often, I can’t help but see an opportunity. Given that I’ve developed a curriculum which will put anyone willing to work on a path to purposeful self-improvement as a writer (The Writer’s Practice), I feel like I could be of use here.
Evangelist: I’ve been seeking a word for what I want to do when it comes to changing how we approach the teaching of writing. I am convinced we can do better when it comes to helping students learn to write, but it requires some enormous shifts not just in curriculum, but in how we resource teaching and learning. It’s a conversation I try to start with Why They Can’t Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities, and I’d like to figure out how to spread the conversation as far and wide as possible.
I can’t say I’m entirely surprised to be on this new path – I set out on it with some measure of intention – but occasionally – like when the professionally prepared index of Why They Can’t Write showed up in my email inbox, I can be shocked that it appears to be coming true.
Still, please remember not to think of me as a post-academic success story. I would trade this future for a present where instead of trying to figure who I am going to be, I am instead panicking that classes start in a mere five weeks.
Maybe someday I’ll find my way back to that home.