Looking Out For Yourself in the Academic Gig Economy

Note: want to write with us? See this post and apply by March 10!

When you have a salaried academic job, your tasks could fall roughly into two categories: Things you must do, and things you should do. When you’re surviving off of pay from adjuncting, your list and their list are not going to be the same.

When salaried, I know I must do: Teach. Research. Publish. Go to mandatory meetings. Conferencing. Attending department events and participating.  If I don’t do these things, I likely won’t keep my job. It will be noticed almost immediately.

When salaried, I know I should do, to ensure the health and longevity of the field: Peer review. Book reviews. Mentoring graduate students.  Guest lectures for colleagues. Public outreach and activism within our larger communities. Administrative tasks necessary to invite scholars, arrange symposiums, help out with conferences, etc.  Taking academic guests out to dinner. Driving guests to/from the airport, and generally being a good host. Closed-door chats with concerned colleagues. Grant writing. Creating and sharing educational materials. Office hours with students.  Supervising student workers. Committee work.  Maintaining listservs. Twitter. Volunteering when the local public needs a professional opinion. Responding to email requests from unknown scholars and grad students who want to share resources or research. Collaborating with centers on campus that correspond to my research interests. Teaching others how some program or equipment in the lab works. Probably more things I can’t think of right now. All of this takes time, and I don’t really get rewarded for doing it. If I don’t do it, people will eventually notice, and I won’t be considered a team player. The field will suffer from the lack of people putting work in.

The problem with these Must Do and Should Do lists is that everything on them takes a certain amount of time. Everything on them also occupies a certain place on your CV. All the things I must do take up about 40 hours of my week, if I do them well. Anything additional that gets added on from the should do list, comes out my personal time. It’s a constant calculation – is task x worth spending y hours of my personal time on? Do I like doing it? Would I rather go on a hike, or have that line on my CV? How will I be perceived next to all the people who chose to forego the hike and add that line to their CV?

And back before I was salaried, when I had just finished grad school, I pieced multiple jobs together to keep afloat. I adjuncted (paid per class), I tutored (paid per hour), I translated (paid per word), I freelanced (paid however I could get) and I did some administrative tasks for the department (paid per hour).  As I supported myself, my first priority was ensuring I took enough paying work to keep my finances in order.  I needed to pay bills, and that took at least 40 hours per week. In my little spare time, I strategically chose things from the Must Do and Should Do lists, making CV and time calculations in my head. Which tasks were most worth it? Which tasks had the biggest payoff for the least amount of time investment? To who was I beholden?

Most of the things I did came from the Must Do list. Choosing from the Should Do list was a calculated risk, because many of those things would only matter if I stayed in academia. I don’t have to tell you that the chances were, and still are, against me. If I couldn’t find an academic job, like most people who graduate with a PhD nowadays, many of these tasks would be close to useless on a re-tooled Resume for the corporate world. So to be very strategic and yes, mercenary, about my time and my life (You only get one, after all, and no one knows how long that will be), I prepared myself for alt-ac.  I chose to do the tasks that would best translate from a CV onto a Resume. That means choosing the tasks that would push me to learn skills that are valued outside of academia, such as collaboration, organization, giving presentations, grant writing (and all writing in general), high-level administration and management, and digital skills.

So for the purposes of this post, maybe instead of dividing these tasks up by Must Do and Should Do, I could divide them by helpful only in academia, and helpful in both academia and alt ac. They would look very different then.

The point of this blog post, is that you shouldn’t feel bad for getting by however you can. The Must do and Should Do lists were created long before you were born, back when nearly everyone with a PhD and a baseline mental stability got a tenure-track job, and was salaried. As the work model changes, and universities hire more contingent labor that gets paid per gig, a lot of these tasks on the Should Do lists become greater and greater risks for the untenured. They are risks you do not have to take.

Repeat after me. You do not have to take these risks.

You do not have to perform service to your profession until your profession has let you in, and invested in you. It is exploitative to perform this work for free, when you are getting paid (usually quite poorly and less than what your labor is worth) by the hour or class. Right now, only do those things that you love and will help you get ahead, however you are choosing to define that. Once salaried, you can start giving back.

Until then, practice saying no. Be strategic about the unremunerated labor you perform for the profession. Make sure it benefits you, too. It’s what any salaried academic would do if their job security were threatened and they had student loans to pay off while making adjunct-level money.

Learning St. Louis

Note: want to write with us? See this post and apply by March 10!

The bus bumped slowly through the sprawling shopping complex, squeezing past rows of cars and pausing as shoppers sped in front of its path to get on with their shopping. We kept going, past the Trader Joe’s and World Market, even beyond Total Wine and More. We reached the back of the parking lot, just before an intersection with a small industrial road. We were looking for a plaque, our guide told us, but all we could see was the trash dumpster.

It took a moment, but we finally saw it: there, away from the bustling shops, right next to the dumpster, in a place no one ever goes. “Commemorating Evans Howard Place, 1907 to 1997, By the City of Brentwood”.


If it hadn’t been for this trip, the first of several mini tours of St. Louis I’m taking this year through the Cultural Competency program at my workplace this year, I would have never noticed this. I don’t shop at the Brentwood Promenade often, but it’s a well-known spot for St. Louisans. I didn’t know, but I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn that it stands on what was once an African-American community of more than 800.

Continue reading “Learning St. Louis”

Writers Wanted

Copy of smart womenSmart Women Write is a blogging platform by and for cerebral self-identifying women and non-binary writers engaging with the creative process. We are seeking to add another blogger to our team.

Our current fields of expertise are in history, digital humanities, public humanities, translation, gender studies, and education. While our current authors hold terminal degrees in their fields, this is not a requirement. We are looking for writers who can help diversify our offerings in the following fields, which you should define broadly: reportage, creative writing, digital media creation, technical writing, editing, and publishing.

Bloggers each contribute a monthly blog post of no more than 1,000 words and share in the management of our social media. Our blog posts address the various types of writing we do, work-life balance, reflections on the creative process, self-care for writers, how-to guides, and current events explored through a writer’s lens.Smart Women Write began in August 2016 as a labor of love; it’s an inclusive and affirming space where we can write and explore ideas. At this time, the site is not monetized and the blogging team does not receive any financial remuneration.

To apply, please send a cover letter and 2-3 writing samples (pdfs or links if online)  to smartwomenwrite@gmail.com by March 10. In your letter, include your fields of interest/expertise, some ideas for blog posts you would like to write, and links to your social media (we are not checking for numbers of followers, but would like to see the ways in which you engage with the world). We will contact successful applicants for informal skype interviews by the end of March.  Before applying, please familiarize yourself with our tone at www.smartwomenwrite.com and @SmartWomenWrite on Twitter.  

Applications from women or non-binary writers who are disabled, queer, undocumented, and/or of color are especially encouraged. We are also open to submissions from writers outside of the US.

A Final Post: Reflections and Thanks to Smart Women Write

Today I am writing to announce that I will no longer be writing regular posts for Smart Women Write. This was a really tough decision to make. I’ve loved having this platform as a space for reflecting on all kinds of themes at the nexus of gender and academia. I’ve also loved sharing my experiences about life #withaPhD during a period of transitions from adjunct instructor to a career completely outside academia as a small business owner. But more recently, as my new business as the co-creator of Super Nature Adventures has begun to take off,  I’ve found it harder to balance this blog with my career, and with the arrival of a new year I realized that it was time to make a tough decision and say goodbye.

Angela and Tanya have been amazing collaborators throughout and will continue to be here with regular blog entries. I will miss having this platform, and will miss working these two smart amazing fierce women. I’ve enjoyed trading ideas with them and working together on group posts. I’ll continue to look to their reflections as a source for inspiration.

Reflections on my Time at Smart Women Write

I started at Smart Women Write over a year ago, during a period of transition from new PhD to small business owner that I am today.  I had already been out of graduate school for a couple of years, and had gotten past what I like to think of as the post-PhD panic.

But I was an adjunct instructor, who despite my joy for teaching, felt very unsatisfied in the contingent work force. I tried to keep a good public face about adjuncting because I loved my subject matter and loved working with  students. But privately, I was cranky and snarky, and often unfairly rude to others who love what they do in academia because I was fed up with being disrespected as an adjunct.   I was starting to see the contours of an idea that would later develop into Super Nature Adventures — at a stage in the process where I was excited but also incredibly anxious about what that business might turn out be. I was juggling a lot but also experiencing that excited energy that comes with the promise of something new. 

This blog initially served as the space to step back and reflect on where I was and where I was going. It was a place for me to sort out what teaching meant to me. I used it to explore what had helped me thus far, and explore the ways that the PhD life can be unsettling. After the presidential election, it also became a place to process the everyday challenges of the weight of a Trump presidency.

One of the most striking things about this period of transition is how much my very conception of the PhD has changed since I first started blogging. When I was an adjunct, my grad degree was at the center of my thoughts, and now it hovers off in the periphery, only mentioned once in a while.

Our business involves materials for family hiking, and because it connects so much to kids, I find myself thinking and talking more about parenting experiences than anything related to my dissertation. I am involved in the Mom Owned Business (MOB) alliance and find greater affinity with that group than with PhDs at the moment. I am also often connecting with naturalists who can help me broaden my perspective.

This still strikes me as funny even as I write it, especially if I go back in time to reflect on my former self.

Not so long ago, that PhD was so important to my identity, the mark of my expertise (and not to mention, the excuse for my debt!), that it dominated every conversation around the subject of “what comes next?” And when I was putting that degree in the center, my answer to that question always involved some combination of the words “academic,” “alt-ac,” or “post-ac.” I believe now that this kind of thinking limited my own sense of self worth, even if it also, paradoxically, also gave me a bit of superiority complex.

I had to shed myself of the PhD’s mystique to get beyond these trappings. I had to set that identity aside for a bit. I had to mine other facets of my life, through an explorations of hobbies, childhood interests, and everyday joys. I journaled, wrote, and explored, and tried to foster an attitude of play to shake off all the academic/grad school baggage.

And now…now I am still proud of my PhD, but I don’t give it nearly as much weight as I once did. Now I see a PhD as one type of work experience from which I learned several transferable skills. Skills like writing, project management, research, and thinking creatively. There are also skills of communication and empathic listening that I also honed through years of teaching.

These skills are vital to the work I do starting and growing a new business, but so are other skills I am still developing. I have to humble myself to that fact in order to be able to grow.

Since shifting away from the world of “academia,” I’ve also come to see its limitations  in new ways. PhDs are conditioned towards perfectionism through experiences like dissertation committees and peer reviews. It took me a long time to get comfortable with the idea of experimentation (okay, so I still struggle with this!). I’m still learning that one must leap, then leap again, then again and again, in order to shift careers completely, and that once you take that dive, a shift in attitude can happen rather quickly. You have to kind of “build the bicycle as you go,” so to speak, to get a business off the ground, because in business, there’s no way to plan for every contingency. The only way to learn is by jumping in.

I still get to write a lot, in ways that excite me because they are about the challenges of communication, connection, and inspiring joy (like I said, I work a lot with parents and kids). And if you are curious…or if you are into nature…you can always stop on by to read what I do now on the Super Nature Adventures blog.

Thanks for coming to read my posts and thanks for sharing them with others. And thanks, again, to Angela and Tanya for this great collaboration!

The End of Time, and Regeneration

Acc Syllabus

The new year is barely underway, but one major part of my life this school year is about to come to a close: my 20th century world history course.

I teach on a trimester system, so technically the course won’t end until around Valentine’s Day, but we finished content this last week because the students wrap things up with a major documentary project. I entered the new years prepping lessons for a final week of topics, and now I’m finalizing a final exam they’ll take on Thursday and Friday. After that, they piece together a documentary they’ve spent all year working on, and before we know it, we’ll all be done.

Continue reading “The End of Time, and Regeneration”

Creation & Curation: The Fort Negley Oral History Archive

Drinking from the rooftops of certain honky tonks in downtown Nashville, you can spot one of the nation’s most important, yet underappreciated sites for African American history: Fort Negley, the Union Civil War fortification on St. Cloud Hill. Many tourists have no idea what it is they are looking at.

The fort was built in 1862, using a combination of forced labor of enslaved Africans which the Union army in Nashville had rounded up from nearby plantations, and free blacks of Nashville and the surrounding areas, who offered their services in exchange for payment (much of which never materialized). There were also contraband workers- people from all over the South who fled their enslavement and sought out the protection of the Union forces on St. Cloud Hill through volunteering their labor. Once built, the fortification was defended by various regiments of the United States Colored Troops against the Confederate forces. Both builders and defenders died in record numbers at Fort Negley in the defense of our union.  Recent ground-penetrating radar reports have indicated a high likelihood that their remains still lie on the grounds of Fort Negley Park.

After the war, those who survived settled the nearby historically black neighborhoods of

Reenactors Bill Radcliffe and Gary Burke, descendants of soldiers who fought with the United States Colored Troops in the Civil War, stand at the base of Fort Negley, December 2017.

Chestnut Hill, Wedgewood Houston, historic Edgefield, and Edgehill. At the turn of the century, several prominent families from these neighborhoods founded North Nashville and all of the prestigious black institutions residing there- the historically black colleges, businesses, and churches. In the 1950s, these same institutions trained and supported some of the sharpest minds of the Civil Rights movement. There is a long and unbroken connection between the builders and defenders of Fort Negley, and Nashville’s current African-American population. Many members of this population see the fort as sacred, and they memorialize it with ceremonies, oral traditions, and historic reenactments.

Recently, Fort Negley has received national coverage due to a highly controversial development plan that would jeopardize the site and disturb the final resting place of the builders and defenders of the fort. Many take exception to the development for a wide variety of reasons beyond historic (questions concerning who was granted the development and why, the ethics of selling off city land to private developers who stand to profit from it,  how it exacerbates unfettered gentrification in a rapidly-expanding city, etc.) Continue reading “Creation & Curation: The Fort Negley Oral History Archive”

Being a Writer in 2018

This year was a rough one for content creators.


For everyone in our circles, 2017 was filled with too much gin, not enough vegetables, and eternal guilt for not doing more: not resisting more, not creating more, not exercising more, not inspiring others more, not loving ourselves more.

But we muddled through, didn’t we? Not all of us, but many of us. And in times of desperation, unashamedly being yourself and getting stuff done is brave, and it is resisting. Every time we didn’t succumb to despair and instead lived our lives with compassion and truth, we succeeded.

And we believe we can all do one better in 2018.

We can let go of the guilt, for starters. We can recognize and really feel that we are living in unusual times, and that takes its toll. The feelings we are all experiencing- sadness, anxiety, powerlessness, concern, anger- are perfectly reasonable. We can make space for those feelings, honor them as typical reactions to abnormal situations, and find ways to press on and be effective in our lives despite them.

This Holiday season and into 2018, we are going to take the time to process these feelings, honor them, and figure out how to best adapt. We don’t accept the current political and social climate in the World, but we acknowledge its existence and effect on our lives. And we will fight to be more proactive rather than reactive. We will fight to find a balance between giving to those more affected than us, and putting time into things that help us nurture ourselves and grow. We will pare down that which no longer feels necessary and orient toward who we have always wanted to be.

And as always, we’d like to give you permission to do the same, if you want it. From three smart women to a whole lot more (and our men and non-binary readers as well, we love you, too), stay safe, grab happiness where you can, and find a way to make 2018 the very best it can be.

Love and light,

Angela, Bryna, and Tanya