Looking Out For Yourself in the Academic Gig Economy

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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.

Writing And Teaching About Difficult Subjects

Recently a tweet on #Twitterstorians caught my eye:

Tweet from @JohnRosinbum: A student just asked me, “In research how do you deal with reading depressing things?” Any help #twitterstorians?

I replied twice, but soon realized there was so much more to say.

I’m a historian of the Atlantic Slave Trade. There’s nothing but depressing things in my research and writing. Just when I think I’ve bottomed out on the amount of cruelty humans can inflict on one another, I find a new, more grotesque piece of evidence that proves me wrong. After a decade of researching this, you would think that I would grow numb to it, but I haven’t. Some days are definitely harder than others.

Our political climate compounds that- I know for certain that the racism pervasive in every element of our society today comes from what I’m studying- the horror of slavery for which we as a nation have never fully taken responsibility. The racism perpetuates itself because we haven’t had any reconciliation. We tell our children that we are all equal, and expect the descendants of our enslaved populations to pretend that the very real trauma they still face as the result of this history is all in the past and best forgotten. This perpetuates the mental violence of our slave society, to the detriment of all Americans now.

So when I see these depressing things in my source material, the weight of the terribleness is magnified. Not only am I crushed for the people who never had a voice, never had justice, but I’m so conscious of how this unaddressed act of violence I’m reading about reverberates into the present.  Our current systemic racism is made possible by these millions of historic acts of race-based violence that went unaddressed.

So what do I do with information like that?

Continue reading “Writing And Teaching About Difficult Subjects”

Drafting the First US Nomination to the UNESCO Slave Route Project: Nashville’s Fort Negley

The other day, I did something terrifying.  I gave my professional opinion as a historian in front of an overflowing room at a televised Parks Board Meeting. I had the honor of speaking about one of the most rewarding and illuminating things I have done for history in a while: completing the involved research for the nomination of a local landmark, the Union Civil War Fort Negley, to the UNESCO Slave Route Project. If accepted, Fort Negley will become the first US site, ever, to earn this monumental designation.

…which is a big deal, because the park that the Fort sits on is slated for a controversial development that has consumed local and state news for months. This meeting drew a huge crowd of people concerned about the sale of city land to private developers at the expense of this fort and its history.

My relationship with this fort is as long as my relationship to Nashville itself. When I first moved here in 2007, I lived in a house with a few others in the neighborhood of historic Edgehill. When grad school got stressful, I would climb up to the ruins of Fort Negley, and sit under one of the trees there, soaking up the peace and quiet. To be able to see Nashville’s skyline but not hear many of the city’s noises felt like a luxury.  I would daydream and doze and if I let my brain relax and I squinted just right, I could see the way the fort looked when it was first built.

Interpretive marker for the African American Laborers who built Fort Negley, at the Fort Negley Visitors Center, sponsored by the Robert Penn Warren Center at Vanderbilt University.

The tree behind me would have still been a sapling. I pictured the soldiers, in sweat-stained blue union uniforms, pulling cannons up the hills, and the laborers digging ditches in the hot sun. I could imagine the charge of the Confederate army’s attempt to storm the hill, smell the burning gunpowder, and hear the scrambling of people and horses as they moved defenses into place. Before moving to the US, the Civil War was just a series of films for me, but at Fort Negley, it felt real for the first time. I felt a special sense of wonder about this secret jewel of a place hidden in plain sight.

At the time I was only 23. I had an undergraduate degree in history and religious studies, and a year of museum work under my belt. With even that limited experience in public history, it struck me as odd that the city had not made more of such an important place. Where were the historical interpreters? The tours? Merchandise? Displays for all the artifacts found? Why wasn’t there a twice-daily reenactment for tourists?

It wasn’t until I completed my PhD in history at Vanderbilt in 2014 that I understood how Fort Negley, a union stronghold built by conscripted and escaped slaves, and defended by the US Colored Troops, had been allowed to purposely languish by the same people in this city who continue to try to rewrite history.
Continue reading “Drafting the First US Nomination to the UNESCO Slave Route Project: Nashville’s Fort Negley”

On Professional Generosity: a How-To Networking Guide for Writers, Educators, and Academics

I have just returned from Charleston, juiced up from one of the most thoughtfully constructed conferences I’ve attended in a long while. It was one of those conferences that attracts both academics and people with a wider range of career experience: I met clergy, museum workers and historic interpreters, archivists, librarians, web developers, K-12 teachers, project managers, both fiction and non-fiction writers, community organizers, and probably more I can’t recall just now. We were all there in our shared interest of the ways in which the history of African-Americans is constructed, presented, preserved, and consumed.

Many things stuck out for me in the duration of this conference as extraordinary. We got to hear from Rex Ellis, one of the curators at the Smithsonian Institute National Museum of African American History and Culture, and his thoughts on the person who left that noose in the exhibit on segregation last month. We got to attend a welcoming talk at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church, whose congregation lost 9 members two years ago this week in a white supremacist domestic terrorist attack. It was humbling beyond belief to see some of their family members greet and welcome us at the door. Afterward, we moved to a reception (catered by one of Charleston’s Top Chef contestants) and participated in a vodun ceremony for the ancestors, and then heard from intrepid park rangers about the ways in which they help Charleston fight the hoopskirts narrative in order to come to terms with its history as America’s largest import-city of enslaved Africans.

The next day, a panel about teaching African-American history in the age of #BlackLivesMatter and the current POTUS got incredibly real as black public historians and activists did the emotional labor of sharing some of the most humiliating and painful stories of degradation they had experienced in their careers, and the ways in which they work to support others with the same experiences. The emotional power and conviction of everyone at this conference floored me, because I too am passionate about history specifically because of how it can illuminate the injustices of the past and transform the present.

Something that really struck me in this type of intimate space, was the ways in which attendees approached networking. If you asked them, I doubt anyone would have used that word to describe what was going on. You see, the people at this conference were each passionate beyond belief about finding ways for public history to affirm the humanity of black people, both of the past and in the present. All of the conversations around panels and receptions and plenary talks were held with utmost enthusiasm and the spirit of “What you are doing is so incredibly awesome, how can I help or be part of it?” People forged connections, planned collaborations, and shared skills organically, all coming from the same desire and passion.

So what does that tell me about networking? Continue reading “On Professional Generosity: a How-To Networking Guide for Writers, Educators, and Academics”

To Write, or Not To Write that Encyclopedia Article?

Picture the scene: I am eight years old. I have a mullet (I have a German mother, and it was the early 90s, so I refuse to be ashamed of this). I am on the playground during recess with my best friend, whose parents made better hair choices for her. Another kid approaches the teal-colored plastic picnic table and asks if he can sit with us.  My friend pushes colored pencils and construction paper at him while I tell him sure- as long as he will help us write an encyclopedia. He wants to write about GI Joes, but that day we were doing geology, so we put him on igneous rock duty instead. Two minutes later, he’s playing red-rover with the other kids. We shrug and page through the National Geographic my friend swiped from her pediatrician’s waiting room.  We debate whether the next day’s topic should be shipwrecks (me) or cloning (her).

It would be a few more years before I learned that this was a bizarre way for a child to be. But even my 8 year old self knew that anything worth learning about was *really* worth learning about. And she learned through writing.

Little has changed since then in that regard. Sure, reading is great for learning, but to really get something at the visceral level, I have to write about it. Writing is the best way for me to figure out how I think and feel about something, and if there is a disagreement between my heart and my head. It’s not until I write something that all the connections between my subject and the rest of what I know are forged.

Now why am I telling this story, besides outing myself as a bemulleted child? It’s because the semester is almost over, and summer approaches. Summer is the season in which grad student and junior faculty get approached by educational tools companies and specialized encyclopedia publishers seeking to find qualified content creators.

I’ve written several of these pieces in the past, and here’s why:

  1. If there is ever some weird time-travel situation and I get to meet my hyper-critical perpetually squinting 8 year old self, this is totally going to break the ice.
  2. Getting back to the basics of the subjects that pretty much make up the cornerstone of my research can be really helpful. Writing an encyclopedia article or study guide designed for undergraduates first learning about a subject is a lot like teaching. It helps to pull me away from the narrow periscope-view I can sometimes develop when writing a book and help me remember the different aspects that are there and that I have to keep in mind while writing. For example, when I am writing about the deals between the Swedish and Fetu on the 17th century Gold Coast, it’s helpful to have in mind the latest big picture of the Atlantic slave trade, of early Swedish imperialism, and of precolonial West African history, because that shapes how I pull the narrative out of the sources. Writing these encyclopedia articles was a good exercise for me in reminding myself of the most recent scholarship (and reminding myself to always be reading the most recent scholarship), and in critically evaluating which sources and viewpoints provide students with the most fair yet nuanced understanding of the subject.
  3. Speaking of students and a fair yet nuanced understanding, creating high-quality materials like this is an important service to them and to the field. The way I write one of these introductory overviews of the field shapes the way students think about it, and the sources I suggest will color their view also. It becomes an exercise in thinking through the political and socio-cultural implications of privileging points of view. For example, when writing about Timbuktu, I thought about how residents of city experienced the many changes it underwent.  Which people and events shaped the city in ways that are still felt now? A big theme in the history of Timbuktu is the position of the Tuareg peoples in relation to that city, and there is a cyclical sense of history repeating itself each time they staked their claims upon it. I think about this in my writing always, but am hyper aware when creating something that requires as much objectivity as is possible in order to fairly represent the past in a way that is still easy to understand.  It feels good to do a good job with these, because of how important a solid foundation in a historic subject really is.
  4. The pay- I’m building my personal library, and academic books don’t come cheap. If you have a solid background in the subject, writing these articles doesn’t take much time, and your hourly rate is pretty good- far better than most freelance writing work.

So with that said, if you’re also interested in writing something like this, here are a few things I learned that may be helpful to keep in mind: Continue reading “To Write, or Not To Write that Encyclopedia Article?”

Emotional Juggling Act

For the last week, I have been busy working on a new business project with my husband called Super Nature Adventures that I plan to launch this month. This project stems from my lifelong love the outdoors and will feature monthly subscriptions of adventure packets. Each will focus on a different family trail in the Pacific Northwest. This has all been very daunting, but also very exciting, especially in the last few days as we’ve been smoothing out the final details for the project. Yet at the same time, my teaching still lingers in the background. Just this week, I began teaching a class that will likely be my last one as an adjunct on a topic related to my dissertation, no less.

It would be an understatement to say that this juggle been a challenge, and not only in the ways that I had expected when I laid out this game plan to make sure I had some income while I was working on the business launch. I knew that juggling two kinds of work would be stressful, and I had anticipated such common challenges as learning a new culture. What has caught me off guard is the emotional work of this juggling act. I am at the starting point, but also must attend to the closure of a chapter in my life. This simultaneous process of closure and change has brought forth emotions that had been lying dormant since I first walked across that stage to be hooded for my PhD. And yet simultaneously I am so so eager to move on.  Each side of this equation comes with so many competing emotions that some days I feel like I am having an identity crisis.

Continue reading “Emotional Juggling Act”

The Art of Recommendation

I’ve just finished writing college letters of recommendation for former students of mine, and that got me thinking of the mechanics of writing these letters. Recommendation letters are a writing genre unto themselves. Just like with any good piece of writing, there’s a convention or formula people tend to use, but the very best pieces flout the convention successfully (the very worst flout it poorly, but that’s another post).

Writing a stellar letter is important to me. I want a letter that conveys exactly what I mean, to someone I may never meet. Studies have shown that letters that are more personal and show how well the recommender knows the student tend to hold more weight. Anyone can compose a generic letter, but I want to write the letter that best shows off just how hard the student has worked in my class, and how much they deserve a chance to make something of themselves.

So I do think about all those things that make a good recommendation: understanding a student’s goals, personality match, traits that will serve them well in a university setting, examples, things from personal life that give weight, specific language, evidence of growth and potential for further growth, etc.

Then I approach it the way I would when writing history: It’s all about the story. Continue reading “The Art of Recommendation”