Notes from the Marginal Majority

Tips on navigating an “alternative-academic” life.

August 25, 2014

I am part of a growing class of academics that goes by many names: the alternative academic, the versatile academic, the non-traditional academic, or, as a friend recently referred to what I do, “very Brooklyn.” Clever names aside, those who read this blog with any frequency know that I, along with many of my friends and fellow travelers, do not have much of a choice in our “alternativeness.” In a time where contingent jobs abound and full-time jobs have all but dried up, the non-traditional academic life has, in many ways, been forced upon us.

Truly, finding alternatives to the traditional academic path is not something that is undertaken by a minority, even though we are often marginalized in academic settings, including in departmental meetings and at professional conferences. With providing resources to this growing marginal majority in mind, I am happy to announce my semi-regular series at University of Venus on navigating alternative academic life!

Today’s conversation is about work/life balance. Future topics will include: finding a mentor who *gets* it, how to talk about your academic skill-set outside of academia, and how to maintain ties in the academic world (among many others I hope!). I also welcome suggestions from those currently in - or thinking about transitioning into - non-traditional academic roles. Post in comments or tweet @gwendolynb or @UVenus

On to work/life.

I love many aspects of academia, but there are enough aspects don’t work for me that I realized fairly early on that I didn’t want to go the tenure track route.  My goal has been, and continues to be, to help to bridge the conversations taking place in academia, online, and in activist and policy circles.  I accomplish this work by combining a variety of my skills and interests: writing, editing, developing and running programs, and, until last semester, working as an adjunct professor. I am also a trained yoga teacher and teach yoga classes once a week with a community-based collective I helped co-found.

The last one is particularly important, since all of this juggling does take its toll, however, mentally and physically. And, moreover, the “go go go” aspect of traditional academic life was something that was definitely on my “do not like” list. On the other hand, the life of many non-traditional academics is highly-contingent, which can amount to a devastating level of stress. It’s no surprise to me that adjuncts are at a higher risk for anxiety and depression, according to this recent report.

Thankfully, there have been recent efforts to make the links between working conditions in academia and mental health issues more widely-recognized; Dr. Nadine Mueller’s blog has an ongoing “academia and mental health” series, as does the Guardian. While these publications primarily focus more on work/life balance in the “traditional” academic setting, there are lessons to be learned for all of us; primarily among them the idea of reworking personal, as well as institutional, priorities so that health becomes centralized. For contingent faculty, unionization efforts across the country that have resulted in better working conditions is hugely significant.

For me, incorporating my yoga practice not only into my personal life, but as part of what I do regularly in my community, has helped immensely. This balance is something that I treasure in my current alternative-academic arrangement, and a part of my life that I see as central, not marginal. And many of us have made similar decisions. I know alternative-academics who decided not to go the traditional academic route so that they could stay in a geographical area where they had a supportive network of friends and relatives, placing the positive effects that such ties have on mental health above that of a career move.  For my part, my interests in yoga and higher education have shaped the way that I think about academia itself, leading me to the work of Parker Palmer, the Center for the Contemplative Mind in Society, and others who see mindfulness practices as essential to addressing the problems that plague higher ed today.

Perhaps, then, a core part of being a “non-traditional” academic is not so much about what we do professionally, but reworking priorities. Again, it is true that many non-traditional academics have been forced to reprioritize. But sometimes it’s not until we are forced to view something from a different perspective that change happens.

Are you a non-traditional academic? How do you maintain work/life balance? 


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