How the 21st Century Echoes the 19th: The Rise of the Alt-Ac and Post-Ac Blog

One of my enduring interests (and a prime reason why I went back to graduate school) is how much phenomena in the 21st and 20th centuries replicate that of the 19th-century.  I find these echoes everywhere, but what I want to focus on today is that there are so many alt-ac and postacademic blogs that the writers are like latter-day Lowell mill girls. The Lowell mill girls, in the 19th century, were New England maidens sent to work in the woolen mills of Lowell, Massachusetts—the first time unmarried young women left the home to work in commerce.  The relevant part here, dear Meta readers, is that they banned together to write, share, and publish a particular genre—poetry.  A real phenomenon in an era where poetry was more widely published, read, and known than now.

Let me pull back a second to say that I don’t really plan to comment a great deal on other blogs, because the point of Retaining the Meta is to take in the whole wide world of thought.  I don’t want to make it too insular, or too self-referential.  So I don’t plan a lot of bloggist-on-bloggist commentary.  I especially don’t want to make it intertextual with other blogs on leaving graduate school, the alt-ac track (for those not in the know, this is an abbreviation for “alternate academic”—with degrees, but leaving academic research and teaching, no longer is pursuit of the tenure—or any—track), the postacademic movement (leaving academia entirely), or the perils of higher education. The last way, especially, danger lies. As I said in my first couple posts, there may be perils, but there are also many pleasures.  And I intend this blog to focus on those.

But I do want to salute the alt-ac bloggist phenomenon. In addition to the ones I’ve mentioned in previous posts (the narrators–Life After the PhD (http://lifeafterthephd.com) and PhDs at Work (http://phdsatwork.com) and the sharing sites/organizations (http://versatilephd.com) which provide great resources, a shout-out is also due to the guides (beyondacademe.com).  And even, recently, a narrate-your-own-guide feature in the Chronicle of Higher Education, asking us all to nominate a favorite alt-ac resource (https://chroniclevitae.com/news/366-what-s-your-favorite-alt-ac-resource).

Like the Lowell mill girls, we peri-academics are using a widely published and read genre, blogs, to make our experience known. A great example of using an art form to, um, weave your new world together. They clustered around a communal art form—in their case, poetry; in ours, blogs—to give voice to the newly formed nexus of culture and economy they inhabited.  Alt-ac bloggists, similarly, are making sense of a new phenomenon via a popular and accessible art form.  The new phenomenon is the growing evidence to indicate that not everyone with an advanced degree can be accommodated in academia, whose tenure track lines have been shrinking—particularly in the liberal arts. Adjuncting—the fallback position of many academics—is extremely underpaid; moreover, with the decline in academic teaching positions overall, it is under pressure as well.

Now—starting several years ago, and hitting a critical mass maybe a year ago—there is growing public sharing in the alt-ac/postac/peri-ac moment.  What one does; how one lives. How we feel.  How to do it.  We are charting a path together.  So to that effort, live long and prosper.

Introduction Part II: Some Stuff About Me

Now that I’ve told you about my particular take on at least a part of the alt-ac/post-ac movement (shouldn’t we coin, maybe, “peri-ac” as an umbrella term?), it’s probably a good idea to tell you some stuff about me.  I’m a midlife graduate student, so one of the things you should know is that my feelings about the negativity in some of the alt-ac post-ac blogosphere is predicated on the fact that I spent many years wishing I’d gone to graduate school, just like some bloggers wish they’d never gone.

So, why didn’t I?  As an undergraduate, I went to Berkeley, then as now one of the flagships of US graduate education. A lot of professors thought of undergraduate education as an appendage to the graduate side.

I will say that this affected them positively in terms of pushing their students toward graduate education.  In classes, a continuum between undergraduate and graduate study was often assumed.  In fact, I had a work-study job as a journal editor with two merry professors, one of whom was constantly attempting to build the bower that was my graduate school plans. He would be sure to bring unusual words to my attention (like, say, palimpsest) and say “Remember that one, you can use it on the GREs.”

And, at some point, my roommate and I rebelled about this.  I can remember my roommate (I’ll call her Mary, since that’s her name) screaming “Why do I have to think about this??  It’s just their profession!!

All the genial assumptions that we were heading in their footsteps, for some reason, upset us:  two first-generation college students who had trouble justifying their interests (history and the Holocaust, for her) and their determination to go to the best school possible, miles from home (me).

And then, there were horror stories from the graduate students. One in particular, a suite-mate I’ll call Ann, because that’s her name, arrived from Texas to study Chinese history. She also fled back to Austin after the first term, claiming it was student heaven as opposed to Berkeley’s student hell.

But when I look back at it now, California was not only not in a fiscal crisis at the time, it was something of a paradise.  I paid, for my share of a two-bedroom apartment, $136 a month approximately 1 mile from campus. We paid tuition of roughly $300 a term for one of the finest educations in the US. So, bloggers who gnash your teeth about the contemporary grad picture, take note.  Gnashing one’s teeth about the graduate experience, or considering the graduate student experience a trial, is not new; it’s something of a rhetorical trope of the experience.

Introduction Part I: Why This Blog: or, the Birth of Retaining the Meta

For the last few days, I’ve been reading a lot of blogs about the alt-ac or post-ac world: people charting new paths in academia, or feeling stuck in academia, or ambivalent about leaving it, or leaving in a huff and in pain.

I’m reading these compulsively, to see how my fellow alt-ac travelers are doing it. (For those of you new to the alternate academic [alt-ac] world and wanting to read more about it, I’ve found strength for the journey in the narratives of successful transitioners. See the sites Life After the PhD (http://lifeafterthephd.com) and PhDs at work (http://phdsatwork.com) for insightful narratives and Versatile PhD to share thoughts and experiences (http://versatilephd.com).  The outpouring of alt-ac experience is so strong that the Chronicle of Higher Education devoted an article to it and provided a running (and growing) list of resources.

Despite the fact that I find all of this compelling reading, part of me is sad that so much of the alt-ac/post-ac blogosphere cries fie on academia, as being soul suckers, exploiters, purveyors of crap no one reads, etc. etc.

See, I don’t feel that way about either academia or my dissertation. The academic job market is a set of musical chairs that won’t provide seats for all of us. As I think through my future outside the ivory tower, though, I can see a lot of benefits to finding employment that will use the writing and research skills I’ve used in it.

But what I’m really going to miss about academia, what I’m scared of losing, is my meta. The meta. The sense that I am empowered, entitled, expected to participate in the life of thought and intellectual discourse. Meta—and here I’ll thrown in the OED’s definition, one of them, that meta is “beyond, above, at a higher level”—is a precious gift of academia.

So, as I contemplate life in which “researcher,” “teacher,” or “thinker” is not an explicit part of my outward identity, that’s what I’ve got to work out. How do I retain the meta?

By meta, I mean that I pretty much face life anyway with a free play of ideas and speculation on contemporary life. It interests me that any person feels it is their right to comment on movies—their quality, the acting, and so on—but would never think to comment on, say, contemporary art with a sense of entitlement about their own reactions. And it interests me more that Walter Benjamin was saying why, in “The Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” and that it’s still true. What I really loved about graduate school was deep knowledge about stuff I saw every day. That cartoons weren’t just an American art form primarily for kids, but represented a suture between pictures and words (the cartoon balloons) that had been seen before in the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, for example. That Twitter, or the Internet, or whatever new media flavor of the month the US media is gassing on about isn’t necessarily changing our thought form forever, into short bits, but represents hooks from the old media. That kind of stuff makes having a background of academic knowledge a pleasure—one I think it’s unfortunate that more people in the blogosphere aren’t upfront about liking to participate in.

Can’t I discuss with friends art, politics, literature, movies? Sure. But moving out of academia still occasions a loss of a sense of membership in a daily community that is about sharing a realm of discourse and thought. That is officially about the production of new knowledge. Yes, it’s easy to get caught up in the economic crisis of the humanities: too few jobs for too many people. But cries of “the system is broken” often ignore one thing: the knowledge production part works very well. Ideally, an academic is part of a triad of knowledge: 1) producing, 2) sharing with colleagues, 3) sharing with and fostering the new knowledge of students.

And that, I’ll miss. So much so that I feel I simply can’t miss it. I’ve got to still be part of it.
And out of this conundrum, Retaining the Meta was born.

I pretty much produce new knowledge and new speculation, all the time. Every day. And I want that to inform what I do. I want to, above all things, keep the meta. So this blog will be on stuff that interests me, that I observe, in a depthful sort of way. Some culture. Some art. Some literature. Some epistolation to the world at large. Meta.