Talk About Leaving

Today I read the article “Leaving Academia? It’s Time for ‘The Talk’” by Elizabeth Keenan. In her piece for Chronicle Vitae, she talks about the conversations that those with PhDs who decide to leave academic jobs for non-academic jobs have with academics. She categorizes them into 5 statements, most of the statements phrased as “But…!” They’re all statements of disbelief, about how the person and academia are meant for each other…kind of like when you’re in a bad relationship. (Indeed, the phrase, “I love what I do” has been tossed around too many times.)

As I read Keenan’s post, I felt myself nodding in agreement. I was particularly struck when she stated,

That’s really what “The Talk” is about. It’s about telling people that you’re serious about moving on, and that you’re serious about letting go. I don’t know that I’ve always been successful in conveying why I’m leaving, but I’ve gotten a lot better at sounding like I mean it.

Keenan’s article made me think about whether I’ve ever had The Talk with anybody. Sure, i’ve written my fair share of posts about why I had to stop adjuncting or why I decided to finish my dissertation when I felt like quitting or why I decided to switch from teaching to becoming a full-time editor  Any of those posts could fit under the rubric of academic  “Quit Lit” (I’m sure other careers have their fair share of people writing about why they’re quitting.) I emailed my dissertation advisor and my mentor to let them know I’d no longer be applying to tenure-track jobs. However, did I ever have “The Talk” with anyone? Not really.

If anything, I think I had “The Talk” with myself, most of all. Or I found myself explaining to others the things Keenan points out not for their sanity but for my own. I recited these lines to feel better about my own decision. As I posted on Facebook, I’m not sure if the academics/para-academics I know even consider me as a deserter of academia: I am Managing Editor of Sounding Out!, I work with academic writers, I attend conferences, and I edit a publication for women who are in higher education. You could say I have the best of both worlds: I remain in touch with this sphere of my life that meant a lot to me for a long time, but I’ve moved on to working in a non-academic capacity.

However, the split feels very real to me. Every time I fill out a form that is intended for an academic audience, I find the blanks “institution” and “title” staring back at me. Every time I go to a conference people ask me “where do you teach?” And there are still people I know who don’t know I have transitioned out of academia who say, “Well Liana teaches at a university, right Liana?” In a way, I am in a much better place emotionally and psychologically than I was a year or two ago, especially when I was finishing up my dissertation. I don’t feel the need to react to every article about adjunct wages or about overproduction of PhDs or about leaving academia. But they still mean something to me. I still read them. And sometimes, I still feel compelled to write about those subjects. Academics and para-academics still mean a lot to me. And to a certain extent, I still feel like they are my people, even if there aren’t any academic teaching jobs that want to hire me full time.

(Re)Search

Part of my postcard collection

Part of my postcard collection

I felt like I needed a project. So when 2014 rolled around, I decided to establish a goal for myself: start my first book project, a book on postcards.

For the past month I’ve been trying to get started on my postcards book. “Get started” = thinking deeply about what I want to write about. Although I know what I want to do, I still feel like I don’t have a concrete idea. My writing coach (because the writing coach now has her own writing coach, woot!) suggested that I start brainstorming chapter headings and ideas for the introduction that I can use in a book proposal. But something keeps me back, and last week I realized: I have no clue what to talk about. My instinct? Like grad school taught me, I decided it was time to do some research.

Ironically, I feel like I am approaching this topic as my dissertation (where’s my proposal? where’s my literature review?) but I also feel like I’m doing research for the first time. Whereas the dissertation topic was in the works for several months (maybe over a year?) before I jumped into actually writing my proposal and, later, my dissertation chapter; this project has been milling about in my head for only a few months now. All I have for now are random notes to myself: “it would be cool if I did…” “who are we talking about when we say…”

I wanted a writing project–and freelance writing didn’t take off for me, not immediately. Although I have what I consider to be a first draft of an academic book, I wasn’t mentally prepared to jump into revising the dissertation for a non-academic audience. A friend got me thinking seriously about a project on postcards. I’ve collected them since I was an undergraduate, and the oldest one I own is one I received via mail when I was 15. Instead of writing about something I knew a lot about, this project feels like me writing about something I was learning.

The postcard book project is already teaching me stuff. When my ramblings seemed not to take me anywhere, my first inclination was to do research. I thought to myself, what’s that, research? What kind of research will I be doing? So now I’m trying to take a few hours on Friday afternoons to research for the book, to get sources. This past Friday I did some reading on what cultural studies research looks like.

Ann Gray's Research Practice for Cultural Studies

Ann Gray’s Research Practice for Cultural Studies

I’ve been around literary scholars for so long, I don’t know where to begin!

Interestingly, Ann Gray’s book made me think about my main idea, my focus, my methods. Thinking about research not as part of an academic career but as part of a creative project, unattached to my phd credentials, has proven to be an exercise in itself.

Today I ask my fellow non-fiction book writers, those who have started a book from scratch, how did you get started with your book? Comment below or send me a tweet! @lianamsilvaford

Who decides to become a writer?

Reading Siva Vaidhyanathan’s meditation on the value of the humanities this morning got me thinking about my own inclination for the humanities. I know these articles are in vogue nowadays, and I try to stay away from what’s in vogue (not self-righteousness, just an adolescent knee-jerk) but I can’t help but delve into articles about the humanities. I still feel a connection to the academy, to the humanities. and I enjoy participating in those conversations. Am I a humanist, even outside of the academy? i guess you could say yes.

Anyway, this part really resonated with me:

I explained that I was back in school to figure out how I could learn to write books. I had bigger and different questions in my head than my current writing outlet would accommodate”

The passage reminded me of why I went to college in the first place. I told myself i wanted to teach, but really, I wanted to become a writer. I know, I know, I’ve talked about this before. I think that’s what made my transition from academic to freelancer easier: there was something else that made my heart sing, and it was words. teaching was the shape that love was supposed to become, the practical thing. Funny how now teaching seems like the least practical option, in light of the poor state of the academic job market and dismal working conditions for adjunct instructors.

But where did I get this pesky idea of becoming a writer, anyway? My parents were working-class folks who found their way to the middle class when working-class jobs  could actually pave a way through to the middle class. I was a first-generation college student and, later, a first-generation graduate student. My parents touted the benefits of an education, especially in terms of how that would affect my future earnings, but statistically speaking, I am an anomaly. Do you know how many Puerto Ricans get a PhD?

Additionally, one of the reasons I ended up where I did (graduate school) is because i realized in high school that I had smarts; if boys didn’t pay attention to me because of how i looked, I was gonna focus on one of the things i *did* have: my brain. I was good at school and at learning. My smarts and my wit would get me the heck out of Dodge. I thought too much. The humanities seem to be where I’d be most at home, despite the fact that career counselors didn’t know what the heck to do with this tendency of mine to overthink everything.

But still, where did I get the idea that someone like me, a Puerto Rican who lived in the country, far away from any lively urban areas (San Juan was close but we only drove the two hours to san juan if necessary, and my contact with the city was mostly through the newspaper and gossip)? I don’t know. Nuyorican writers would come to my life in college. All I know is that I enjoyed reading books, and writing became something necessary for me.

I had a diary. I wrote stories. I crafted poems. I even published some of those poems! You’d be hard-pressed to find them online, but I keep hard copies of those small literary magazines who published my work. (In other words, they exist, but not on the internet. Sorry!) But I didn’t know anyone who made a living off of writing. That wasn’t something we talked about at school job fairs. It wasn’t something people in school talked about.

In fact, the popular thing when I was in high school was engineering; many people I went to high school with wanted to study engineering, particularly because the closest public university was an engineering majors powerhouse on the island, so I guess that was the socially-acceptable way to move up socioeconomically. Me, I couldn’t see why anyone wanted to study engineering. I didn’t have the slightest idea what engineers did, and no one explained it to me either. So I stuck with what I knew: writing and books.

I don’t remember telling my parents I wanted to become a writer, but I don’t remember telling myself that either, in all earnestness. I remember submitting a short story to a Seventeen Magazine writing contest when I was in middle school. I typed it on my parents’ typewriter, and even though I didn’t win, I remember my mother being very excited that I wanted to submit something. Later, when I was a grad student and I was having an career-related existential crisis of sorts during my dissertation, she would tell me that one of my skills was that I knew how to write. “Writing comes so naturally to you, Liana. I don’t know how you do it, but that’s your talent. You’re so good at it.” The critic in me thought, nah I’m not that good at it because I would have published by now and I would have finished this dissertation by now and I’d have tenure-track offers left and right, but then and there I decided to let her thoughtful words sink in and warm my heart.

Spring Training

It’s the most wonderful time of the year. Or not. Depending on who you ask.

Spring Training is the time before baseball season where players practice in exhibition games. For me, Spring Training is me going cold turkey without my husband after several months of having him at home day in and day out. He leaves and is gone for about four weeks. Spring Training gets easier year after year, but I don’t think it’ll ever be easy. We just learn how to deal.

Contrary to other baseball spouses who may travel with their significant others to Spring Training, I usually stay behind. It’s always work, usually money. And soon it will be E’s school.

The first time my husband left for Spring Training, our relationship was in a rough patch, so his departure eventually meant that we broke up. Even though he may have felt sad for our breakup, all I knew was that I was heartbroken and mad while he was out in Phoenix enjoying baseball and sunshine.

The next year his job as pre-game and post-game show host required him to go to Spring Training as soon as pitchers and catchers reported—which is usually around Valentine’s Day. I was pregnant, and this would be our first big separation after his return back to the East Coast after the end of baseball season, and our reconciliation. My mood swings crept through the phone waves, and every solo trip to the grocery store made me angry at Major League Baseball all over again. (He was there for the birth, if you’re wondering. MLB couldn’t take that away from us.)

The year after our first Spring Training as a couple I spent it in Kansas City with a baby. I was teaching and trying to make progress with my dissertation. You could say my dissertation is the background of my relationship with baseball—my whole graduate career even. You can also turn it around: baseball is the background to my professional career.

When you’re in this position, you eventually figure out how to handle the distance. Video chat. Text messaging random thoughts or pictures of your adventures throughout the day. Emails with business that must be taken care of. Questions from well-intentioned people who didn’t know that their questions about my husband’s travels felt like pin pricks in my chest. “When is he coming home? Are you going? Do you have family who can help you?” Every answer carefully thought out. You don’t want people to think you can’t keep it together when you’re by yourself.

And I can keep it together when I’m by myself. After all, I lived by myself for a while. But I needed the company. I needed people to spend time with me. It seemed like it was during this period where I needed company the most. I didn’t want to feel alone.

I started to make up travel plans to New York City. There was always a conference or meeting to attend. That year I was pregnant I had not one but two baby showers. I was grateful for the distraction just as much as for the presents.

The next spring Training, I stayed in Kansas City, again. I was finishing my dissertation. It was the first time I sent away my daughter to daycare full time. My husband, the man flying to Arizona for six weeks, encouraged me to put her so I could dedicate more waking hours to writing instead of always fitting in dissertation work before I was fully awake or before I went to sleep. I needed the time, but I felt guilty that I was home alone and she was in the care of someone else. This prevented me from flying out to Arizona.

The year after, my husband left later, but only by a week. The play-by-play broadcaster doesn’t need to be there when pitchers and catchers report. We had an extra week and it didn’t make any difference because it would be three months until we saw each other again. It was his first Spring Training calling games for the Houston Astros. I stayed behind because I had a job and because someone had to pack up the apartment, right? Three months. 90 days total. I counted every day.

Every Spring Training seems to be rife with emotions. So many things going on.

I wonder if Spring Training in MLB is also a season for me, for my soul: maybe Spring Cleaning? Balance my emotional checkbook? Get back in touch with me and my goals? Every Spring Training up until this year had been intense, fraught, painful. Yes, painful.

I had to allow myself sometimes to cry, to miss him. It’s okay to get upset. I’ll have to make sure to teach our daughter that, even if some day that will come back to haunt me. Now I travel for work. She knows our work take us away from home for periods of time. She may think we love our careers and we love that it takes us away from home. We do love our careers. We do not love that it takes us away from her.

This year, things were different. Spring Training went by so fast, I didn’t even get to enjoy the time to check in with myself.

Because we’re finally both gainfully employed and not borderline broke, we could afford a trip to Florida to spend time during Spring Training. I’m still getting used to the baseball life, as you can imagine. However, Spring Training coincides with an intense time in the Spring semester: conference season. With my new job I have to attend academic conferences.

March was a whirlwind of activity. I finished putting together the rough draft of the newsletter and got on a plane to Florida. In between meals and sightseeing in Florida, I would check my email or double-check article edits. I then packed up for Baltimore to attend NASPA for work. While at NASPA I had to copyedit the manuscript and cover panels for future WIHE articles. My mother came to Baltimore to see me, and we spent time with family there. I then returned to Houston and met my sister in law at the airport. She’d be staying with us for a week and watch Miss E while I went to another conference, this time in Fort Worth. By the time she left on Thursday, I was already thinking ahead to what I wanted to take care of before my husband came back to town. This past weekend was the first free weekend I’ve had in weeks.

I may have overdone it this time.

Road Trip

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Driving along I-45. I leave Houston for Fort Worth. In the car, talking. The phone connects us. No phone cord. This is no car phone from the 80s. We talk. I get upset. Why are you hanging out with these people? We have an argument, and I’m driving. I hang up because Lord knows I shouldn’t drive while I’m upset. So I hang up. And go back to listening to my audiobook.

The book is good. Not great, but I just started it. I listen. The voice keeps speaking. The lines keep moving. I’m driving along a busy highway. So many cars. Go away, cars. I’m listening to my book. The words soothe. The traffic seems less scary. The words float in the car, a calm sea of sound. The cars go away. I think I’m ready to talk now.