Non-Academic Teaching

Everyone who has sailed away from academia towards the uncharted waters of the non-academic world struggles with the fallout of their decision. Anyone who says otherwise is lying. We’re struggling with the loss of an idea about who we are in the world and what we’re going to do now that we’ve had to change course and jettison serious dreams. 

Many people (self included) struggle with the idea of never teaching again. I knew people in my graduate cohort who didn't care about fancy postmodern theories or the right way to format footnotes. They earned PhDs to become teachers. We liked, and in some cases, loved our classes. We liked helping students see the world in new ways. We even (sort of) enjoyed revising the syllabus and planning lectures. (For the record, nobody in their right mind loves grading.)

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how academia isn’t the only place on the planet where we can teach. In fact, it is entirely possible that there are people in the world who need our teaching even more than college students (who aren't doing the reading anyways).

Is non-academic teaching just like academic teaching?

The answer (like so much humanities research) is more complicated than we previously thought: yes and no.

No, teaching people outside of the boundaries of the university is not going to be exactly like teaching paying students who need to take your class to graduate. No, you’re probably not going to be able to spend sixteen weeks with the same students and gently guiding them through carefully chosen readings designed to stimulate discussion and teach critical thinking skills. No, you probably can’t make non-academic teaching your primary job. No, there’s no possible tenure light at the end of the non-academic teaching tunnel.

On the plus side, teaching outside of academia involves little to no grading. Huzzah!

(To be clear, I ain't bashing anyone who has a university teaching job. Those are good and necessary too. I just want to suggest that teaching can still be part of our lives as ex-academics, though in a different way.)

Teaching people in non-academic setting requires different goals and methods to teach different types of students.

Here's an example:

I recently taught gender theory to a bunch of volunteer victim advocates. These were not college students. These were people who were interested in learning how to provide better support and services to transgender victims. There was no syllabus or readings. We started with the differences between biological sex and gender. We discussed gender identity and gender expression and how people can perform gender roles. We talked about heteronormativity and how it defines (in tandem with whiteness, maleness, ableism, etc.) much of what we consider as the default human experience. We talked about combating microagressions with microinclusivity. At the end, I tried to tie the theory stuff to practical suggestions about how to work with transgender people who have been victims of violent crime.

Many of the volunteers hadn’t had a gender theory class before. We talked through confusions. People asked thoughtful questions. Some people shared personal experiences. At the end, I realized that we’d all had a collective learning experience and now had a new paradigm through which to approach issues of transgender people. For me, this was a new kind of teaching experience.

Most people who have been on the academic job market have written a (dreadful) teaching statement (self included). The teaching statement shows academic search committees how we see teaching and view ourselves as teachers. Looking back, my teaching statements read as pandering to the whims of the academic job market and as seriously lacking in imagination.

What's powerful about teaching is having knowledge (and the skills to convey it) to help other people look at the world in a new way. I no longer think teaching is defined by a university, syllabi, reading, exams, or grades. These things might help facilitate teaching, but they don't define it.

Many years ago, I read a book called The Teenage Liberation Handbook. I was in the process of dropping out of high school and a teacher recommended it to me. The author proposed that learners could use the entire world as their classroom. Everyone could potentially be a teacher. What if we, as educators, took the same approach? What if we thought about teaching in new ways? What if the entire world was your classroom and everyone in the world could potentially be your student?

Some places that PhD people might teach include:

Local speaker series
Their non-academic jobs
Civic events
Historical societies
Private tutoring
A blog

We’re really only limited by our imaginations.

Non academic teaching wouldn’t involve carefully prepared syllabi, but it might have some goals. It wouldn't have grades; it would be focused on learning as the ultimate outcome. It wouldn't have student evaluations. It would use more than books and reading to teach students about how to think about the world around them. It wouldn't happen in the classroom. It would happen everywhere. Students and teachers would be learning from each other.

We might have an even greater impact on other people and the world by teaching outside of the university.

Those who can, teach the world.