You never know where you’ll end up. We commonly tell our undergraduates that today, but it can apply to those of us who pursue higher degrees in quite specific fields and dream of the traditional academic life of tenured faculty. But even if we do find a faculty position, we can find ourselves moving into a different field, in or out of academia, not always the traditional move up into administration that you might think of.
I didn’t spend much time in either of my professional areas, although it seems like a long teaching career when you add in all the teaching assistant and adjunct positions to the one non-tenure faculty position I had. I started teaching as a TA in 1987 when I began an MA program, continuing through a PhD program at another institution until 1995, two years as an adjunct at two institutions, and then I took an odd full-time temporary position for two years, until 1999–it was like a full-time adjunct position, if that makes sense. I completed the PhD during that time and then taught as an adjunct until 2001. Wow, that’s fourteen years of teaching without the coveted title of professor. Finally, I took a full-time non-tenure position, teaching for another four years. Add a few more years being an adjunct again to supplement my previous and current positions in instructional technology, and I’ve spent more than twenty years teaching English. But you can understand, if you understand academia, how the one non-tenure position is the only one that seemed to count. It was the only position in which I was called Assistant Professor.
I moved into another field, instructional technology, for at least two reasons. First, the non-tenure position was the grunt work of teaching composition and grading badly-written essays over and over, supplemented by a few freshman level literature survey courses to help keep my sanity. I never had the opportunity to teach even one course in my specialty of American Literature, let alone the sub specialty of working-class literature. It makes me embarrassed to even say that was my field. Second, I consciously tried to improve my teaching and luckily worked at the dawn of the World Wide Web when resources started to explode. I loved all the ways in which technology could help you reach and engage students with content and ideas, and I shared that interest in technology with any other faculty who would listen or who wanted help. I often felt like the de facto faculty development professional on my floor, so when the opportunity to take a real position came along, as the director of a new center for instructional technology, I took it. I thought it was my dream job.
I would still say that I successfully transitioned into that new area, even though the office was eventually closed, putting me out in the street like yesterday’s trash, an apt cliché for how it felt. I would even say that I then successfully moved into a second similar position, even though it was more of a step down, with a lesser title and less authority. I know plenty of academics who could not have made such moves, and that’s what I’d like my readers to think about, about whether they are in a position to make a big career change. I didn’t mean to, but maybe I am talking about the “alt-ac track“–I missed that trend and just fell into my second career. Can you have a contingency plan in place if the tenure-track job eludes you today? It seems to me that’s what the alt-ac discussions suggest, that you can carve out a non-academic or non-teaching career with what you’ve got. I don’t know how that would work. I’m pretty sure it was all my teaching experience that made it possible to move into faculty development–in fact, I still think I’m teaching, but through other faculty.
It would be just like me to end here on the dismal note of how I got a late start in college (30s) and took so long to finish that here I am almost ready to retire and neither of my careers lasted very long or brought much recognition. Instead, I think I’ll just end with Diana Nyad’s timely three messages after her recent historic swim:
“One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it’s a team,” she said.