I’m riding emotional waves about the wisdom my new life as a former academic. Some days, I’m convinced that I’m on the right track. Other days, I’m positive I’ve made a huge mistake.   

I have moments of self-reflection, recrimination, doubt, confusion, despair, and sometimes, joy. Being an ex academic feels a little bit like being fourteen years old. I’m trying to figure out who I am. AGAIN.   

It’s sometimes hard to stay positive in the middle of emotional upheaval. But I’m also convinced that the journey of an ex-academic includes a plastic decoder ring hidden in the bottom of the cereal box that actually works.

Here’s the gift: we get to re-invent ourselves.

We get to have a second adolescence. (Yes, that sounds horrible to me too, but hear me out, willya?) Self-invention of the teenage kind is painful and confusing. Self-re-invention at 40 is even more painful and confusing. Metamorphosis and transformation are never beautiful on the surface. Nevertheless, in struggle, we come to know ourselves. We try on new personalities, professions, and dreams and take them off again. We move in fits and starts. We make progress and then make progress in the wrong direction. We think about what’s truly important to us and what we believe about the world. We decide how and who we want to be. Some paths lead nowhere. Through all this sputtering, the way becomes clearer. Self-re-inventions is a place of pain, but also of profound power and possibility. (And alliteration, apparently.)

This week I’ve been wondering: does leaving academia mean that we stop following our intellectual passions?

Breaking up with my research hurts because I still love it.  My research felt deeply personal because it grew out of interactionswith real people in Guatemala. I wanted to do something to understand their struggles. My research challenged some ideas about how we think about people in the past. The act of creating that knowledge felt like birthing. Leaving it behind feels like getting a limb amputated, complete with phantom pain. I feel sad about the bigger picture, too. I wonder how much knowledge about the world we’ll never know because of scholars (particularly adjuncts) who choose to leave academia.

(For the record, I’m not hating on people with academic jobs or publishing contracts. You’re doing important work, too. I just think that its a little harder to be a so-called independent scholar.)   

I wrote last week about the idea that universities are not the only places in the world where teaching can happen. Likewise, the idea that we can only have a meaningful “life of the mind” inside universities has begun to seem equally absurd to me.

Is nurturing intellectual passions outside of a university the same as having an academic job? Of course not. No one pays me to do research. I’m not eligible for funding. I’ll never have a sabbatical. I no longer get summer breaks to jet off to an archive. Research and publication are not going to further my career. For example, I wanted to add a fifth chapter to my book manuscript about the Guatemalan zoo. Lack of funding and sanctioned research time makes this difficult, if not impossible.

On the other hand, learning is everywhere. We don’t stop learning and growing just because we’re no longer academics. We are still learning, though in new and different ways. Perhaps we’ve even got intellectual ideas and passions that couldn’t be nourished in an academic setting. Maybe we’re growing new ideas with tiny roots.

I recently learned a bit about local histories in the city where I live. And the historian wheels started turning. I felt that amazing sense of wonderment again, like when I see geese take flight out of a pond and can’t figure out how they do it.

In my own backyard, I have:

  • A City Beautiful Movement
  • A now demolished Training School for Mental Defectives
  • A city once deemed the Celery Capital of the World
  • A Cold War era nuclear weapons plant
  • A wave of Italian immigration
  • Some KKK activity in Denver

My other blessing is a blog where I write anything I want to write about. Nothing needs to be sanctioned by a panel of experts. I receive no reviewers’ comments or rejection letters. I can publish whenever I please. I don’t have to worry about my precarious labor contract if I should write about something unpopular. Perhaps most blessedly, there are no student evaluations.

I don’t imagine that I’m going to undertake any large-scale research projects that will culminate in book projects. I don’t know where my interests in these things will take me. For now, I’m re-imagining myself and how I engage in scholarship without a university.

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