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.