Going Home

Facebook’s been reminding me that it’s been eight years since I defended my dissertation and got my job. I love these reminders, although I shake my head at them, incredulous that so much time has passed.

There’s something nice about knowing the buildings are (mostly) still there.

Although I still live in the same metropolitan area, I don’t make it back to my PhD institution very often. Life just doesn’t take me that direction more than once every year or two, and that’s okay. I’m fine with the nostalgic, honey-glow tinge of contentment and wistfulness I feel when I retrace part of my old commute or come within a few blocks of the place.

Last week, I went back as an invited guest – a panel discussant, no less!- which really felt like getting to go home. The whole afternoon was far too short and I saw too few people, but for a couple of hours, I basked in the feeling of being back on campus, back in a world that was – even at its toughest moments – one I loved dearly.

There was also this new, unfamiliar sense of feeling like I’d accomplished something. After eight years, none of the graduate students are the same ones I knew (which is good!). The faculty are still there, their offices somewhat smaller and less intimidating than I recall. I retraced my steps in one of my favorite buildings. I almost went into the (newly remodeled) library, but stopped myself because my memories are better. I paused outside the entrance of the history building, and for a moment, it almost felt like I was heading back to class as a student again.

Last week, I came back to talk to current graduate students about teaching K-12 with a PhD. This is the type of professional development that didn’t exist when I was going through – we heard lots of talks from professors, and lots of job talks from prospective hires, but the department – and the school – never provided resources for thinking about jobs outside of academia.

We were on the cusp of all that, even if the department didn’t fully recognize it yet: some of my cohort and the cohorts around me went into academia, but several of us became K-12 teachers. As I finished my dissertation, plenty of people were starting to talk about so-called #alt-ac jobs and working outside of academia, the beginnings of conversations about what you can do with a history PhD. It’s only in the past few years, however, that there’s been sustained efforts to help students explore their options more fully.

There’s still a lot to do, but on Friday, I came home again, this time as a graduate who’s been successful in her career, flourished, even managed to get a little writing in, and, well – if I didn’t get the career everyone talked about when I was doing my PhD, I certainly got a career that was right for me.

We K-12 teachers spend a lot of time teaching, but we don’t often get to spend time talking about what that career looks like. Over the course of two hours, the other panelists and I dove deep, telling the students about the schools where we teach, explaining what our daily lives look like, answering the grad students’ questions, and generally trying to demystify all we do. We tried to offer resources and things to think about, putting ourselves, just a bit, back in the shoes we used to wear, thinking of what might have helped us back when we were on the other side of the table.

I don’t know whether any of these graduate students will decide to seriously consider a career teaching in independent schools, but I am happy to know that people are inviting in conversations and getting students to think beyond the tenure track.

Eight years ago, I helped open a door. It wasn’t anything new; after all, the other panelists have been teaching much longer than I have. But every time a graduate student steps through a different doorway, we help expand the possibilities for those who haven’t yet arrived.

And we’ll leave a light on, always happy to come home again to share what we’ve learned and help others find the path that suits them.

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