Or: PhDeviation as a way of life
Almost a month ago, I posted here that I was going to try to start “VersatilePhD” meetup. I had no idea how positive the response would be! Almost as soon as I started organizing it, I realized that I wanted it to be bigger than a meetup. Not that there is anything at all wrong with the general model of a meetup–they serve great purposes in building community and sharing experiences about, well, shared experiences. But I realized that, especially in the age of the internet, there are tons of outlets where people with #altac, #nonac, and #postac experiences could share their stories. Of course, in person human contact is different, and I hope that this group will provide a lot of community building and support to those who come.
But other ideas started brewing in me. As I gathered resources for the group, I saw as many great but unfulfilled ideas as I did great resources. I won’t talk about all of them here, but there is one I will, and full credit for the idea goes to Tobias Higbie, who blogs at Bughouse Square, but to the best of my knowledge, has only written about it here, in a comment to a blog post by Miriam Posner. (Apologies if he has written of it elsewhere! I’ll be happy to update with links!)
The idea: The “Alt-Ac Workers Center that combines advocacy, research and organizing.” I’ll let him use his own words:
Worker centers have become a vital new trend in the labor movement. Typically they develop in sectors that have little hope of unionizing in the traditional sense: day laborers, undocumented workers, restaurant workers, etc. Like some of these workers, Alt-Ac and cultural heritage workers generally have precarious employment situations. They might be highly contingent/part time, or if they are lucky enough to have a full time job, their pay and benefits are woefully inadequate because their employers are under-resourced. Meanwhile, they’ve acquired debt in order to gain their credentials. So even if their pay is technically high, their income to debt ratio is unsustainable and unhealthy. Of course, they have their status as highly educated white collar workers–but you can’t eat status.
He points to a lot of the problems that we are seeing as a result of the “precarious practices” of the current university system. (The link is to a U.K. example, but it’s startling how many similarities exist!). There are at least two businesses I know of providing services to PhDs (or soon-to-be) PhDs wishing to leave academia or leave the professoriate. I’m sure, as things are going, more are soon to follow. And I think we need these businesses, indeed, I believe we need more of them, large and small, regional and not. But even with certain successes that adjunct faculty have had with unionization, these successes will not change some of the fundamental, structural problems facing PhDs off the tenure track.
Adjuncting alone will rarely keep body and soul together, but most PhDs are qualified (whether they know it or not or whether hiring managers know it or not) for so much more, as Janet Stemwedel put it:
After all, skills that are good training for a career in academia — being a good teacher, an effective committee member, an excellent researcher, a persuasive writer, a productive collaborator — are skills that are portable to other kinds of careers.
Yet, there’s so much more to the idea of a worker’s center than that! What if a place could serve as a place to locate the intellectual workers that various industries need? What if that place could help adjuncts supplement (because after all in spite of the pay, “many adjuncts… love teaching college-level courses and find great personal fulfillment in their work”) or even replace, their adjunct wages? What if such a place could provide (member supported) collaborative resources?
So, this is just one of the several things I’m hoping to build with this new group (which drew TWENTY attendees on its first meeting!). Our next meeting is on the Harvard campus this coming Tuesday, and if you’re interested in reminders, details, or just generally to be on the mailing list, fill out the interest form here. We’ve also got our own message board for introductions and the like.