Tuesday, December 28, 2010

It Gets Better: a Vid idea for MLA's Narrating Lives

As I prepare to visit my first MLA since 1996, I'm reflecting on the people I know who stayed in the field, and those who left, and what influenced their decisions to leave or to stay.

I was cheered that my friend Cynthia recognized herself in the previous post as the friend who left UCB to attend rabbinical school: but actually, she's one of two.  When it comes to why we leave English, it's as if a tiny vacuum of shame or ambivalence sucks us in.  We generally keep quiet about it.  I haven't found a community of people sharing firsthand stories about this.  Maybe we feel isolated.  It's embarrassing to dwell on a "failure."

Media coverage of the issue doesn't break the isolation.  See the spate of articles about how humanities Ph.D.s need a Plan B, should conceive of their career path akin to an actor trying to make it in LA or NY, should curtail research because everything smart has already been said, or should just plain not go.  All of these, published in the Chronicle of Higher Ed, are better than the stuff you'll find in mainstream presses like The Economist or the NYT.

Those articles, and the dozens you'll find like them, are the context in which the conversation about humanities Ph.D.s is situated.  The one read by all your relatives who worry over why the hell you did this degree in the first place.  Note, in this excoriating May 24, 2010 New Yorker cover, how iconically the blithe Ph.D. is drawn compared to the lined, worried faces of his parents:

That's the dominant story, but I don't think it's the truest one.

I think that if we were to ask a lot of people why they left and what they're doing now, we'd find a heartening story.  

Afterall, there are some significant benefits to leaving.  You can choose where you want to live.  You may change jobs at your discretion, because the job market is perpetual and more porous--even in this economy--that what goes down at the MLA.  You might even earn more money, and/or have other kinds of flexibility that you value (weekends? travel to places other than conference locations? the freedom to live with your life partner instead of hope for the same time zone?) 
Does this mirage exist? 
It does for me, for my husband, Brad Berens (also a Berkeley English Ph.D., 1999), and for many of our friends.  But more broadly than our group?

We won't know until we ask.  "We" being us.  Being MLA.

The MLA could do something bold and wonderful.  It could expressly invite the stories of Ph.Ds and ABDs who chose to leave the profession to its "Narrating Lives" project.

MLA President Sidonie Smith (Prof of English and Women's Studies, UMichigan), has created a YouTube channel and has invited all people--not just MLA members--to post their stories about transformative reading, teaching and mentoring moments.  I should think this might also be a place to house stories of the sort I mention.

Smith's project "Narrating Lives" uses new media to gather and distribute stories about why the humanities is vitally important at this cultural moment.  It's a wonderful idea, and I hope that many many people post their stories there.  I intend to.  Whenever I've asked student to write blog posts about transformative reading experiences, it's some of the most powerful writing of the semester.  I could see posting one vid about opting out of English, and one about reading, teaching, mentoring or being mentored.

I see this as a kind of "It Gets Better" vid series aimed at helping those who are struggling with their decisions to leave or to stay in the profession.  Some of the emotional resonances are similar to the situation of gays deciding whether or not to come out, or figuring out how to cope with being gay in a still largely homophobic society:  the fear of how one's community will react to the decision, the shame of wanting something different, the way in which coming out punctures the normative story of success and happiness.

I don't know if others who left the profession would wish to share their stories.  But I'm pretty sure those stories would help people currently trying to find a place in the field.

If the "Narrating Lives" project were officially broadened by President Smith to welcome autobiography from those who left the profession, MLA would demonstrate its commitment not just to the humanities, but to the full range of people who have devoted many years of their lives to studying and teaching it.

Another advantage:  the mainstream stories peddled about brilliant-but-foolish humanities Ph.D.s would be met with a morally authoritative corrective.  The "Narrating Lives" project would trump the petty spectacle of the "cream of the academic crop" (in the words of the Dec. 16 Economist article) "clinging like limpets before eventually falling off" the academic career track.

There's nothing to stop me or anybody else from posting an autobiographical vid about leaving English.  The platform is open.  (Yay!)  But MLA can increase this openness by broadening President Smith's video invitation to include multivalent, autobiographical stories of what it means to find work with a Ph.D. in English.


Brenda said...

A question for you--how do you define "out" of the profession? I have a Ph.D. in German Studies and a Graduate Certificate in Women's & Gender Studies. I've never had a TT position. I work in Student Affairs as the Director of a Women's Center. I also currently direct the WGS Program and teach German, Honors, WGS, and first year experience courses? Would you consider that "out" or "in" the profession?

juliafc said...

Lovely idea, Kathi. I do wonder how you would reach people who have left the community, since they are "gone", but I for one think I could have something to contribute. "Leaving" was one of the heartbreaks of my life, but indeed, only lead to a fantastic and fulfilling creative voyage. Let me think about it.

Kathleen G. said...

I like your idea, Kathi! But what about those of us who left the field after obtaining the M.A. and completing the Ph.D. coursework, but before Orals? Not quite ABD, but probably also worth hearing from?

Certainly I am very happy with the life I made for myself after leaving the field - as it turns out, I was better suited for the law than for academia.

I will be interested to see how this idea plays out!

alternative phd said...

This is such a good idea!

I'm currently a PhD student in English, but I do *not* plan on pursing the traditional T-T track. I've been able to find fantastic support and resources online (such as http://versatilephd.com/), but I firmly believe that the decision to leave academia (or to pursue non-traditional paths within it) absolutely must be destigmatized in our programs and departments, among both faculty and graduate students. I think a really good step towards changing the current culture is by making these kinds of narratives visible -- by seeing how normative they already really are.

Thanks for posting about this, and I hope to see some narratives like this posted!

Kathi Inman Berens said...

Hey Alternative Ph.D.,

I'm editing my own vid. I encourage you to make one and increase the visibility. Written narrations are great, but there's something particularly resonant to watching someone tell her story. I think that's why the It Gets Better vids have captured our attention, and indeed set the tone for shows like Glee to castigate bullying and homophobia.

Our story is more niche, and less visually narratable than the Kurt storyline on Glee. But by testifying on camera, I hope that we might interrupt the mainstream story that casts humanities Ph.D.s as naifs or ostriches.

Might you consider posting? Is the MLA Narrating Lives project the right home?

That's where I'll post when I stitch the short vid together.

Thanks for your post.

Anthea said...

I hear more and more people who haven't even finished their PhDs talking about leaving the academy based on the perception that in order to get tenure you're research must not be considered threatening by the senior faculty, they'd like a life..and not to achieve tenure only to have a souless, friendless and childless life. So, many people are developing Plan Bs which see their PhDs as crucial tickets to a new, exciting and interesting life

alternative phd said...

@Kathi: I'm doing what I can to increase the visibility of these stories (like through my blog), but at this point I don't feel like I'm in a good place to contribute my own.

(Short story: I'm still in grad school, and some of my reasons for leaving the academy/pursuing alternative paths within it have to do with the immediate context of my program/department. I don't feel like I have the sufficient distance to be able narrate my story without critiquing my program's particular perspective on graduate education and the role of PhDs outside of traditional academe -- and that seems like a bad idea right now. =) If I can figure out how to tell my story in a different way, I'll post!)