It’s been eighteen years and nearly a day since I had to shake then Carnegie Mellon Dean Peter Stearns’ hand on stage as part of the PhD portion of the 100th commencement ceremony for graduates, that third sweltering Sunday in May ’97. I’ve talked about the ceremony, my Mom’s jealousy and issues about my degree, Peter Stearns, Joe Trotter, Bruce Anthony Jones, and what happened before and after the degree ceremonies on that fateful day.
But time and enlightenment — especially the latter — has allowed me to take a step back from the events leading to a new wave of disillusionment in my life. If I really think about it, my struggles with where I wanted to go with my career go as far back as ’81, in the months after my first accolades as a writer, to the time when at eleven, I already had an encyclopedic knowledge of history, basic science, and technology. Heck, I already knew some of the historiography around World War II, the Cold War, American slavery and civil rights, long before I ever knew the definition for historiography. Not to mention, I was already living what we now call migration studies, thanks to my Mom and dad.
But my Boy @ The Window years did their damage to me. By the time I turned twenty at the end of the ’80s, I wasn’t fully clear of the array of choices I had for a career or set of careers. I knew I could write, and often write well. Yet I had stopped seeing myself as a writer by the time I went through my summer of abuse in ’82. I knew that I was a historian, because I asked the kinds of questions about history that only trained historians would. Yet I hated the idea that I was supposed to write only one way, using words like synergistic and interstitial (at an esoteric minimum) along the way. I toyed with the idea of going to law school in ’90, even going so far as to take the LSAT, scoring a then-50th percentile 31 on the exam in my one-and-only try.
I struggled for years with my fundamental question: “Am I an academic historian who’s also a writer? Am I a writer who’s also a historian? Can I be both?” I realized about a decade ago the question was moot. I am both. The real question really has been, will the working world allow me to operate as both without giving me grief and a hard way to go? (By the way, if I ever were to do a second, post-Boy @ The Window memoir, this would be one of that book’s big themes.)
I can safely say as a mildly successful freelance writer that the answer for many in this world of singularities is no. The working world puts up a fight, has and will continue to try to force me and others with multiple talents to choose one path, to do one thing, and one thing only, ideally for all time.
Academicians only think about each other via teaching duties or well-placed articles and books in scholarly journals and scholarly publishing houses. Higher education administrators believe that the only way to understand their work is through the lens of their specific university, as if universities and colleges aren’t similar from a management standpoint. Nonprofit organizations
discount teaching and higher education administrator positions because finding money or managing students isn’t exactly the same as managing staff. Foundations who use your salary history instead of your scope of programs developed, people reached, and money raised as a barometer for even granting you an interview. All would prefer that you be quiet about injustices, especially ones in which their institution, organization, or foundation might well be complicit.
For me in the past couple of decades, though, I’ve worked in and with academicians, higher education administrators, nonprofit organizations, and private foundations. I’ve helped raise $3 million over the years, managed as many as twenty-five staff members, organized four-day conferences with a couple hundred attendees, worked with as many as 500 students at any given time, and taught undergraduate and graduate courses. I’ve written scholarly articles, published in scholarly journals, presented at a couple dozen conferences, and consulted for nonprofit organizations and foundations. To think of myself as only one thing is beyond ridiculous given my by-necessity-and-neglect careers so far.
Yesterday, The Chronicle of Higher Education posted the article “Thriving as a Freelance Academic” by Katie Rose Guest Pryal. In it, Pryal interviewed three White women about their experiences freelancing in the academic world. The women interviewed found a singular niche, found steady work through that niche, and otherwise didn’t question the idea of freelancing in a world in which freelancing is a rare career choice.
All that is fine. Except there was little soul-searching in Pryal’s piece. The women interviewed might as well have decided to go on a global trek or rock climbing, given their lack of ambivalence about academia or deliberate lack of specifics and dryness about the work they actually do. I don’t doubt that one can freelance in academia. I doubt, though, that one can do it without personal relationships with a specific university or alma mater, or with a specific higher education administrator or prominent professor. Why pick on this piece? Because there are far more people like me in and out of academia, who’ve consulted and freelanced and worked and stitched together a career, then there are the people represented in Pryal’s boutique article.
There is a lesson here besides the reality that life is a journey, and to get it right, we need to understand that it can and will be a roller-coaster-ride of a journey. The lesson, for me at least, is that while being true to myself has sometimes had consequences in terms of immediate victories and easy financial gains, it does mean I get to have success, and sometimes, even lasting success.