Blog Post

Transitioning

A few months ago, I quit my full-time job as Chair of Humanities at a small, Southern, liberal arts college. I quit for several reasons, bitterness, resentment, not being on my list. I actually spent most of my career at solidly teaching institutions even though I always knew that these types of schools afford little time for research. Simply put, I was giving back to a type of institution that I believe in, the kind that gave me my start in higher ed. So, despite nearing the end of my career without having achieved any of the benefits that accrue from hard work at a research university--publication, tenure, and notice--I would likely make the same decisions all over again, for I am that kind of person. I left full-time employment two years into my fifth decade for two reasons: to continue working independently on my scholarship and to live what Carlos Petrini called [my] tiempo guisto--my own perfect time. As I transition into this luxury, I cannot help but to think about how others are implicated in this choice I'm making. I don't mean my family. My spouse has over the years gotten used to my periodic work stoppages, and our children have already reaped the financial benefits of my work stints. Instead, I speak of other academics, those who have not yet achieved tenure and, even more, those currently in doctoral programs. I wonder not whether adequate jobs will be available for all those who will receive their doctorates in the next five years or more. I think this question has been answered. I am interested in knowing how academics are adjusting to emerging economy. In the gig, sharing, creative economy, how are we structuring or, as it were, unstructuring our careers. This is not so much a practical question as it is a theoretical and ethical one. How have I come to this?

Probably the most meaningful development in my career as a scholar was becoming somewhat of an expert on an obscure phenomenon of the American Civil War and Reconstruction. This work would appear on the surface of things far removed from my training in Rhetoric and Composition. However, the thing of it is that even as a doctoral candidate I was something of a wild child, my disseration going in a million directions that included critical architecture theory, human and cultural geographies, feminist theories of the body, deconstructionism, and social movement theory. When my FIRST adviser read my first chapter--Retrieving Time and Space for Utterance--in which I called upon all of the help I could find essentially to argue that every utterance must be arrested and rearrested even before it leaves mouth or hand, I was rather sharply dealt with. "Everything but the kitchen sink," he quipped. That remonstrance led to my getting a new adviser not for the usual reasons but because rather than regroup and eliminate some of the disparate theory I doubled down, continued to read all over the place, and, because I sensed that my uncontrolled project also required that I be in control of my own breathing, that is, that I own my body as I wrote, it seemed a fine time also to begin a family. That is, then, the long and the short of how I got to thinking about academic life as I do.

Now that my time is again my own, I have taken to walking more and as I've strolled along the outskirts of my Mississippi home before the sun comes up, I've thought about my peculiarities and the way in which they have given birth to the knowledge that I am able today to share. (I am not speaking of wisdom; I do not have an abundance and certainly no more than anyone else.) I am talking instead about being led by intuition and turning away, as often as not, from the reign of systems. An illustration is in order.

So, my disseration has not taken book form, and it's been almost twenty years since I wrote it. It was on the abstract subjects of time and space, concepts studied through examining the lives of my paternal family, African American, postwar migrants to Detroit, which is where I grew up. Back in 1998, I chose not to pursue publication, for several reasons: 1.) I wasn't very interested in tenure and 2.) I felt in my body that there were yet unanswered questions, I was committed to answering them, and I had no idea how long it might take to do so. I did expect it would take longer than six or seven years. I am that slow in my thinking. Just as I had completely ignored disciplinary boundaries in search of ways to discover discourses taking up time and space, I also resisted the common sense of limiting my study to one generation or even two. My gut feeling was that the elders who had raised me in Detroit had inherited their temporality from enslaved ancestors long dead. Needless to say, studying family who had lived more than one hundred years ago required that I learn some skills of genealogical research. And thusly my wayward research journey would continue, ending in my becoming one of few people, at the time, studying the phenomenon of Civil War "contraband" camps. Not only that, but having drawn as near as one can to Civil War era documents by coming to know intimately persons in the records, sometimes because of sharing their blood, sometimes because of being familiar with their circumstances, I began to theorize. What does one make for instance of seeing one's supposedly illiterate ancestor's name on an affidavit whose purpose was to secure a bounty? How, in other words, does a researcher connected to her research subject by DNA and history reconcile the inhumanity of enslavement with a document that is evidence of an enslaved ancestor's intelligence? Deep and challenging questions of this sort have pushed me away from a paradigm of victimization toward something else, a better way of perceiving the enslaved.

At a conference recently, I sat in on a panel discussing the Grant Papers at Mississippi State. Out of an abiding curiosity rather than cynicism, I asked the panel what one does when documents suggest something contrary to what is suggested in prevailing master narratives. I was not entirely surprised yet a little disappointed when the eldest person on the panel, the one with many, many years of experience, deferred to graduate students represented there. I have no idea really whether my question was unfair to ask or in some other way inappropriate since I have been on the margins for a really long time. It just seemed to me that the problem I presented potentially could happen every day if a researcher is thinking outside of the box. As is so often the case at any kind of talk, I thought the panelists would continue to skate around the question if not outright dismiss it--the joys of life on the margins--but it was finally answered. As best I recall, one panelist, struck by the question, responded: "that's where the promise resides."

This blog post isn't inspired by an axe to grind. I do not have one. Yet, honestly, it does seem that a great disservice is done in the many, many acts that work to maintain paradigms. On the subject of contraband camps, to which I've devoted the rest of my scholarly life, the social injustice couldn't be more clear, to me anyway. In slavery studies or emancipation studies, the victim paradigm keeps us from seeing the full humanity of enslaved persons. The same would be true of Reconstruction, Civil Rights, and on. If the American academy is willing to admit this problem with paradigms, then the next step is responsibility for implications of them, and it would seem that the cost is always human. At the same time, there is profit to be made from perpetuating paradigms, and that point has been made by others better than I have time left to explain here.

So, I'll end with this. I was drawn to HASTAC years ago because of ground-breaking work and fresh thinking. This group has spoken without trepidation of hacking the university. I have believed wholeheartedly in the cause. Systems may be wonderful things, or not. But it is clear to me and hopefully to others that there also have to be scholars sitting on the outside of those systems, as outside, that is, as one can get.  And there need to be scholars as well committed to a manner of working that does not fit neatly or nicely temporal structures of tenure and promotion processes. For some scholars, not receiving these rewards, the opportunity to do this work--to unearth, rethink, give back--is enough. It belongs beautifully to a sharing economy.

 

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