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 Rearview Mirror and the Road Ahead, One year After my Dissertation

Author’s Note: This week I am out sick with the flu, so in lieu of a regular post, I am re-posting an essay I wrote for the blog, Un/Settled  – where my brother and I explored our rural roots and subsequent decisions to leave the midwest – back in spring 2016. It focuses on life after the dissertation, about 1 year out. Much has changed since that post, as is evident by my more recent posts about my post-ac career. As you’ll see, this essay explores the feelings of uncertainty in the midst of that transition period. Enjoy!

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[Orig. published April 2016]

Almost exactly one year ago, I finished my dissertation in the field of art history. Not the final version, but the draft that would I would submit for my oral defense. For me, that’s the draft that counts the most because it’s the one that I used to jump through that last major grad school hoop. Few moments have sparked as many disparate emotions as when I hit send on that email to my committee members – satisfaction for having achieved such a monumental task, but also no little amount of anxiety about the impending defense, plus a large dose of impatience to just get on with it and get out. Most of all, I remember worrying and wondering about life on the other side of the defense – when I no longer had a dissertation to write and worry and obsess over, and I’d need to figure the rest of my life out.

It’s not just that I didn’t know where I was going. Looking back to last year, I realize that I wasn’t completely sure who I actually was. I mean, I’ve always known who I am in the broadest sense, but I had spent the last several years as “graduate student and budding art historian,” and that moment, a year ago, I dreaded the idea of being just another PhD without a full-time job (read: adjunct), or worse – an unemployed PhD who had to explain to non-academics why I just spent years without more than fellowship pay working on a book-length project for grad school.

I had also grown weary of the culture of the Ivory Tower, or what Jessica Langer has recently summed up as the  “climate of constant and unrelenting criticism” – that sense that you’re never quite good enough, even if you’re an award-winning scholar, just finished your PhD from an Ivy League school, or received the highest scores on teaching evaluations. Then there’s the work culture – the obscene work hours – that I had come to know too well. Let’s just say, I’d still be doing that dissertation if not for a spouse that took on the role of lead parent for most of my grad school life (we have a 6-year-old son). Every time I got an obscenely late email from a tenured professor (many of whom also had kids!), it felt like an omen of an overworked future that I dreaded. And did I mention I was also burned out on my dissertation topic and had no interest in turning it into a book? (For those of you not in academia, that’s what is expected.)

But I think I could have navigated all of those particular challenges if it weren’t for the additional fact that no matter how much I had tried throughout my years of graduate school, I never could shake a nagging feeling that I didn’t quite fit in.

I grew upon on a farm in Iowa. When I was 18, I had been very happy to leave. One of the reasons I’d been attracted to art history as a field of study was because I saw it as a means to escape my rural background and move toward something I imagined to be more worldly. I was drawn to its transportive powers when I took my first class my freshmen year. When I studied art works from the past, and got to know them well – and grew fond of the artists making them too – I felt like I could escape temporarily into another world. That was (and is) one of the discipline’s most liberating aspects.

And yet.

As much as I wanted to leave the farm, the farm is still very much of who I am, and as I became more involved in art history and academia, I began to feel torn. I felt constrained and managed. I grew frustrated with unwritten rules that are often challenged, but rarely rewritten.

My frustrations show themselves in my research interests over the past several years – my interest in working-class artists, my publications on politically leftist regional artists who take up farming as their subjects (love them!), my ongoing engagement with feminist issues because even to this day, women and people of color play second fiddle in the major stories of art history. I also grew tired of always talking about the “discourse” whenever we talked art history (“contributing to the discourse,” “expanding the discourse,” “challenging the discourse,” and so on and so on).  What I longed for was something less like a discourse, and more like a community. I longed for outreach and connection, dialogue and listening, and thinking about how creativity has played a role in all kinds of aspects of society.

Because of these frustrations, there were many occasions during all of that discourse talk that I felt like I was turning my back on my rural background. By the time I turned in that penultimate dissertation draft last year, I had come to feel a bit like an unhappy performer in a play that demanded my character reject her rural identity. I’m not saying that anyone told me explicitly to reject it.  Some of my mentors even nudged me to explore rural themes further. But there were also judgmental comments about rural America, stereotypes that colleagues and professors seemed to accept without question, and assumptions that made me uncomfortable.

And also – art history is also not just a discipline; it’s a culture built very much on notions of sophistication, and sophistication and rural culture don’t intersect comfortably in any way deeper than a bohemian wedding or farm-to-table dinner.

Last year when I turned in that draft, I began the journey that would lead me where I am today, writing this blog that confronts this discomfort, getting settled into the idea of being in flux, exploring that flux. I had no idea I’d be here, but here I am. I still engage closely with the arts (I do, in fact, currently work as an adjunct and like it). But I’ve also been involved in community arts projects, and I co-created and am founding editor of another blog focused on the arts and its relationship to place [author’s 2017 note: this is no longer active]. My brother [co-author of Un/Settled blog] and I talk frequently about the aspects of our backgrounds that comfort us, puzzle us, or encourage us to ask broader questions.

A Post-Ac Parent’s Reflections on Traveling Abroad

The week before Thanksgiving I was in Tokyo, Japan, with my husband and son. My husband had been invited to speak at a conference, and we joined along (free flight for him, free hotel for most of the time for all of us!). This was the first time since my son was born – and the first time since leaving academia – that that I have traveled abroad. In this post I want to spend a little time reflecting on how different my experiences were this time around.

Continue reading “A Post-Ac Parent’s Reflections on Traveling Abroad”

Balance vs Wholeness

In last week’s blog post, my colleague Tanya reflected on the rush of October – that “month of muchness,” as she keenly calls it. It is a month of feeling unsettled, she explained: a month of building momentum into winter; a month where nothing ever seems to get quite done.

I relate to this sentiment. October has been a blur of continual work and life events. Just this past weekend alone, I hosted a birthday party for my son, went to two other social events, and hosted two work events (family group hikes connected to my business Super Nature Adventures) . The fleeting daylight is a reminder that soon the holiday season will also begin, and before that (and before Thanksgiving!), my family is also planning a trip to Japan (more on that in a later post).

Continue reading “Balance vs Wholeness”

Tired

“I am so tired of waiting,

Aren’t you,

For the world to become good

And beautiful and kind?

Let us take a knife

And cut the world in two-

And see what worms are eating 

At the rind.” – Langston Hughes

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Last Monday, I was scheduled to post my regular contribution to the Smart Women Write blog but then I woke up to the news of Las Vegas, and I just…couldn’t. I couldn’t post on the post-ac themed post I had planned to publish because it seemed so jarring, and I couldn’t publish anything else.

For a solid day, I tried to come up with something, but every time I even considered addressing the topic I went numb. At one point last week, my collaborators and I collectively talked about gathering useful links, but by that point I couldn’t stomach looking at anything else about the topic.

I honestly don’t know how anyone even dives into these topics anymore. 

Last year after the Pulse shooting, on another blog, I spent time exploring the pain the of that event and that experience wore me out for more than a month.  I had to take a news break for much of July before being able to ready myself for teaching that fall. Then, of course, there was the cycle of election politics and then the election itself. 

And it’s not just this year, or last year either. Yesterday on social media, Facebook’s “On this Day” feature reminded me:

  • That three years ago, my old hometown of St. Louis was in thick of protests over the Michael Brown shooting
  • That two years ago to the day of the Las Vegas shooting, ten people were killed in a mass shooting on a community college campus in Roseburg, Oregon
  • That a year ago, a video surfaced that showed Trump bragging about sexual assault.

Had the app gone back earlier it would have reminded me of my days living in DC, when 9/11, anthrax, and the sniper shooter fueled my autumns with anxiety.

Had the app looped in this past month it would have mentioned the latest police shooting verdict and related protests in St. Louis, the newest mass shooting, the latest sexual assault.

 And let’s not forget hurricane, after hurricane, after hurricane, and the earthquake in Mexico City, and the fires here in Oregon and along the Pacific coast.

No wonder I am tired. 

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I’m far from the only person with tragedy fatigue.  More and more often my conversations with friends turn to topics of coping strategies and self-care. I recognize in retrospect that the act of not writing last week was in itself a form of self care.  It’s okay to remove yourself from the news. It’s more than okay (even healthy) to avoid social media.

For me, it also helps to feel useful, and so I’ve turned my energies more towards my local community and family where I can feel like I can help. I have leaned into my role as a parent in ways that I never thought I would before this year, channeling my energies towards preparing my son for whatever may come in the future.  I’ve been paying more attention to my school and my neighborhood. I’ve been trying (imperfectly, I admit) to practice kindness as much as I can. And I’ve been giving myself more rest.

What about you? How do you cope with the weight of news like the Las Vegas shooting? What do you do for self-care?

 

 

Revisiting those New Year’s Resolutions

Now that we are three-fourths of the way through the year, I thought it might be a good time to revisit my resolutions for 2017 – or rather, as I wrote back in January, my New Year’s “themes.” Every January, I pick a few words to focus on that year. This time around, I decided that one of my main theme would be joy.

Why Joy? As Lisa Munro writes in her own post on the topic, there’s a risk to joy. It seems dangerous to submit to joy in a world of broken things. Yet practicing joy can be a pathway towards a more authentic self. As she writes, “JOY requires letting go of what we want people to see in favor of experiencing something genuine and being real about it.” In my original post (which was written right around the inauguration), I also wrote about the energizing power of joy and how it can operate as a strategy for building resilience.

How am I doing now? I’d say pretty well. I still get stressed and get grumpy like anyone else. But compared to last year around this time, I feel far more at peace and far more energized.

I’ve learned that joy is a practice that you have to work on consciously. It is closely tied to both gratitude and vulnerability. It feeds on faith, and it falls apart when there’s too much fear. There are many many things in this world that make it hard to practice joy, and so I’ve had to learn to tune some of it out. A more forgiving attitude also helps – both towards others and towards myself.

Here are some other things I’ve done in my pursuit of joy this year, in no particular order.

1. I’ve spent more time looking at the smaller things in nature, especially those things that only appear briefly, like spring flowers, or the caterpillars of early summer that will later transform into butterflies.

2. I’ve focused my energy on kids. I’ve started a business that puts them first.

3. I’ve reduced my time on twitter, dropped all political and news feeds on my Facebook account, made a good faith effort to avoid talking about politics online anymore. Even with people I know well, I find that conversations can go in unexpected direction – and not necessarily because of different opinions so much as tonal misunderstandings.

4. I try to use my social media Facebook to talk about positive things in my life. 

5. I’m learning to recognize my limits and step back when the stress gets too high. It’s still a process, I still find myself comfort eating like crazy when I’m sad about something (you should have seen me after the Eagle Creek fire in our region broke out hear last week).

6. I practice yoga. It feels really good.

There’s much more, which I will address in more detail in another progress report when the year ends.

Lost and Found: A Post-ac’s Book List

In this week’s blog post I want to share some of the books that have helped me through the 2-year transition between receiving my PhD in art history and now, when I more fully identify myself as PostAc, and more specifically as someone starting a new business on my own.   If this list seems a bit idiosyncratic, that’s because it reflects an evolution in my interests as I edged closer to figuring out what I wanted to do next.

I think documenting various aspects of this kind of transition can be helpful to others who are just starting out as new doctorates. Two years ago I had no inkling that I’d be interested in working on a business that focuses on connecting kids to the outdoors (though I could have probably told you back then that I feel more comfortable being my own boss than working for someone else). Part of my processing involved becoming okay and comfortable with the reality that there are points in our lives that are filled with uncertainty. We just have to have faith that eventually something will work itself out. So you’ll find books in this list about the idea of processing, and the concept of uncertainty, as well as books that are more specific to my current interests.

A side note before I begin. Although I have not yet read Kelly Baker’s new e-book, Grace Period: A Memoir in Pieces, I had been following her essay reflections on a life post-ac when they were first coming out in blog form a couple years back. Her work dives deep into what it feels like to have to start fresh after the dreams of an academic career disappear. Based on what I’ve read of her essays, I’d definitely recommend it to any recent doctorate.

Now without further ado, here are some of the books that I have found especially useful over the last couple years.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed.

Strayed’s memoir was one of the first books I picked up after graduating with my PhD. At the time, I had chosen it as a purposeful break from the heavy political content that I had been wading through for my dissertation topic (which was related to political satire and the grotesque during between WWI-WWII). What Wild ended up providing was a validation for my lifelong desire to get outdoors as a form of self care. Strayed’s memoir was also helpful because it is grounded in the thesis that uncertainty, mistakes, pain – all of these are okay and are a profoundly vital part of what it is to just be a human. Anyone who has read it knows the book is specifically about working through loss; the book is also about moving past regret for any choices you might make when you are grappling with that loss.  I found both her physical journey through the PCT and spiritual journey of processing useful models for navigating through the uncertainty of finding a career after the doctorate.

A Field Guide to Getting Lost, by Rebecca Solnit.

It’s hard to explain the value of this book except to say that if you are feeling uncertain about yourself or your place at this moment, you’ll find solace in Solnit’s celebration of what can be gained from feeling and being lost. Her work demonstrates that the state of confusion is an essential component of discovery and change. The essays meditate on this concept through a variety of frameworks – from the idea of longing during uncertain times in one’s life, to the transformative effect of experience the unknown.

Bird by Bird: Instructions on Writing and Life, by Anne Lamott.

Bird by Bird is not a book about writing – or I should say, it’s not just about writing. It’s a compassionate, gentle, hilarious, guide for getting through just about anything in life that’s tough. It’s a book about the acts of faith required to take new steps. It’s a recognition that no one ever really knows what they are doing when they start out on something new. Of all the books I’ve read since graduating, this is one that I wish I had read earlier in career, before the toiling period of dissertation work.

The Artists’s Way, by Julia Cameron.

Regular readers know I love this book, so I’ll spare the details, instead just say that I found the exercises throughout this book extraordinarily useful as I spent time trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. The book has sections that help with the “gremlins” and Imposter Syndrome. It has sections about procrastination, perfectionism, and fear. And as I’ve noted before, Cameron’s concept of the Morning Pages continues to use.

Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen R. Covey.

Confession: I’m a bit of a self-help book junkie. After years of reading  dense critical texts about the history and theory of art, this genre of writing feels like such a breath of fresh air. But some can get a little too breezy. Behind the “you can do it” spirit is mostly just fluff. One of the reasons I like Covey’s book so much is treats the subject of “self” with a degree of compassion and seriousness lacking in many newer books. Covey’s book is informed by his Christianity, but is not religious. Rather, it is grounded in the idea that one must have a clear sense of their own values and priorities in order to be effective in the world.

The Hundred Dollar Start-Up, by Chris Guillebeau.

I bought this book on a whim last summer  when I was sifting through the self-help section of Powell’s bookstore. At the time, I was only starting to wrap my brain around the idea of maybe starting some kind of business. I didn’t know yet what kind of business it would be. This book ended up helping me narrow my focus (and also come up with a few back up ideas too). The book is not a comprehensive look at the ends and outs of business, but it is useful to make the concept of self-employment seem less terrifying and more possible.

Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv.

I picked up Louv’s book after deciding to start a business related to kids and nature, thinking it would be a useful framework for thinking about the value of the nature in family life. Having read it, I think it has a broader value to anyone feeling out of balance in their life. It’s not perfect; for example, I’m not fond of the way Louv uses ableist language (specifically his term “nature-deficit disorder”) to frame his concerns. But I do like his explorations of the ways that technologies and a culture of business impact us negatively, and his research on what is gained by breaks outdoors. Although his chief concern is children, his ideas apply to any generation.

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There are other books and essays out there that have been useful in other ways – from Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist to the numerous essays out there on higher ed. But these are a few that continue to stick out. What about you? If you have a PhD and are post-ac, are there any books that you’ve found especially useful?