Living Intellectually

Making room for alternative careers.

September 15, 2013

In a recent post titled, “Intense Academic Experiences,” fellow U Venus and IHE blogger Lee Skallerup reflects on the several opportunities she had this summer to participate in extended intellectual exercises with other like-minded colleagues. She calls them “intense academic experiences” because these summer institutes/workshops require you to be mentally (and sometimes physically) engaged in a subject and with others for usually a short period of time. In other words, a lot goes on in just a few days. Skallerup found them very rewarding and wonders how she could replicate that experience in her first-year writing classes. She also muses about how there will always be graduate students because these experiences are exactly the kind you don’t get as an undergraduate and that graduate students yearn for. (I should know: I was one of those graduate students.) Lastly she underscores how important these activities are for academics, and how adjuncts and alternative academics are sometimes left out.

One of the reasons why Skallerup's post stood out to me was that because I enjoy those kinds of experiences myself but have not been able to participate in them. After deciding not to pursue a tenure track position, my opportunities to participate in such workshops and institutes have gone down exponentially.  It felt like when I decided not to become a professor and compete with the hundreds of candidates who apply for most tenure track jobs at an academic level, I also gave up on the opportunity to grow as a scholar--or at least have the support to be able to do that.

I wholeheartedly agree with Skallerup when she says that “we think that the only way or place to have these kinds of intense intellectual community experiences is in higher education.” One of the reasons I looked for a job in higher education was because I wanted to stay close to that kind of intellectual community and, honestly, having an academic affiliation was a key to doing that. As an alternative academic working at the University of Kansas, I was fortunate enough to have an employer who believed in the connection between research and our work in the office. However, making that clear to others outside of our office space was an uphill battle. I remember inquiring about a summer institute at my school that was looking for applications; I asked if as a staff member that opportunity was open to me. I was told (after the staff in that office deliberated) that I could indeed participate, but then the flip side: I would have to use my vacation time for this institute. Even though my work as a scholar directly influenced my work as a graduate writing specialist, oftentimes people at my institution had trouble figuring out how to categorize me and the work I did.

The same thing happened when I went to conferences that were within my field but not related to my work as staff: I had to use my vacation time, even though as far as I was concerned, the university that employed me still benefited from having me represent them at two conferences I presented at while I was there. My conference trips were usually “vacation” trips.

I know this may sound like first-world problems and that some folks don’t even have vacation time—I’m thinking particularly about adjuncts, but it also applies to freelancers who may see this time as a loss in revenue. What I underscore through my story is that oftentimes faculty are the only ones who are considered for these intellectual opportunities; possibly it has to do with how the academic calendar is set up, or possibly it has to do with the perception that research faculty are the only ones contributing to the intellectual culture of an institution. Although some (not all) universities may have leadership institutes for staff members, what about nurturing their intellectual side? After all, they too represent the university when they go abroad. It’s about funding, sure, but it’s also about recognition, as Joshua Kim pointed out in “College Websites and Alt-ac Invisibility” at Technology and Learning.

If graduate reform means making students aware that there are options outside of the tenure track, staff and faculty involved in these decisions must remember a key point: what attracts students to the tenure track in the first place? Some say that graduate students believe this is the only kind of job they are prepared for, and this is true for many of them. However, I think it’s the idea that they can engage in certain kinds of intellectual work as a professor. Skallerup hits the nail on the head when she points out,
“It’s [...] why the tenure-track position remains (rightfully or wrongfully) the ultimate goal; the belief is still that this is what professors get to do, which is engage deeply and meaningfully with their subject, and hopefully share that experience with colleagues and students...”

How can we tell students they can find that kind of intellectual stimulation in other university positions when the university won’t recognize the staff in those jobs as intellectuals, scholars, academics? And how can we make that intellectual engagement available to those who are no longer in the academy, for whatever reason? How can we make space for “non-traditional” scholars?

These are questions I still grapple with.

Houston, Texas in the US.

Liana is an Associate Editor at University of Venus. Follow her on Twitter @literarychica.


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