In a State of Permanent Transition
As some readers might have noticed, I’m posting erratically these days. Two months ago, I started a new non-academic job as a crime victim advocate at a non-profit organization. The jump has been daunting. I don’t feel like I’ve landed or have my two feet under me. I am, yet again, in transition (or perhaps the transition never stopped?). My writing practice is suffering, but I’m working to get it back on track. In the meantime, here’s how things are going:
I’m hoping my new job combines big ideas about the world with a commitment to social justice and helping people. As a historian, I’m still focused on helping people tell their stories in their own words. Much of my new job involves listening to people tell me about their lives. Many are sad stories about people living ordinary lives until some extraordinarily terrible thing happened to them. People are often crying when I meet with them. I’m learning to sit with people in their moments of greatest pain and trauma.
I continue to suffer from impostor syndrome, which I wrote about here. I now tell people that I’m a victim advocate, but what I really mean is that I’m an academic historian with no training in human services masquerading as a victim advocate. I’m still not quite sure how to talk about my PhD. When I do talk about my former life as an academic, I’m careful to say something about how I have a background in historical research or that I’m a “recovering academic.” People seem understand my Peace Corps and non-academic experiences more than my academic credentials. I sold myself to this particular organization as a person interested in solving social problems, rather than someone with expertise and experience in this particular field.
I’m struggling to learn the criminal justice system. It is every bit as complicated as anything that I studied or wrote about in graduate school. I haven’t explored it too much, but there’s a whole new body of literature on victimology that I never knew existed. I’ve tried reading some of it, but social science literature often feels over my head and I don’t understand it. I desperately wish that I could take a victimology class. Or classes. I’m trying to read as many books about victimology as possible, but often times don’t have any idea of where to start. I’m reminded of my first few semesters in graduate school when everyone around me seemed to be discussing abstract theories in jargon-laden language. I often felt like I was simply too dumb to be in graduate school. I didn’t realize until much later that my fellow students weren’t smarter than me, but rather that they’d just read more books and internalized specialized academic lingo. I’m hoping that learning the ropes of my new job is a similar process. However, I’ve also learned that reading twenty books about X is not a universal problem solving strategy.
I’ve discovered that victim service providers are firm believers in maintaining personal boundaries, 40 hour work weeks, and self care practices. After years of working too many hours a day on academic projects and having my work turn into my life, I find the idea of maintaining firm work and life boundaries and devoting time to self-care almost subversive. I took Friday afternoon off and felt supremely guilty about it.
Despite all of the newness, some parts of my job feel familiar and draw on transferable PhD skills. For example, searching databases for police records with clunky database software is not unlike searching a historical archive with clunky database software. Each police department has its own rules about documents, whether or not it will release certain records, and particular classification systems. After I locate the records, I spend a good chunk of my day reading them. Reading police records reminds me of reading archival records, although I’m reading them for factual information rather than analyzing them in any kind of critical way. There’s also less witchcraft and more texting in contemporary, versus historical, crime reports. The reading skills I learned in graduate school come in handy. I’m able to read quickly and efficiently and pick out the most important pieces of information about the cases I work on. Entering data into a database to organize and tracking it for future reference seems much to me like using bibliographic software to track sources.
I thought that I’d miss teaching, but I’ve found lots of opportunities to teach in informal settings. On crime scenes with victims of domestic violence, for example, I educate them about issues of power, control, gender, and feminism. I encourage people to challenge and question their own understandings of their situations and look at their works in new ways. I explain the complexities of the criminal justice system to people, breaking it down into manageable chunks. Particularly challenging is explaining the U.S. criminal justice system to monolingual Spanish speakers. They often have had absolutely no experience with the system and need help understanding it. I’m teaching in other ways, too. For example, I’m putting together a training for volunteer victim advocates on how to be good allies to the LBGTQ community when its members suffer crime and violence. I fully intend to discuss concepts of race, class, gender, intersectionality, and heteronormativity, as well as offer practical solutions to be better allies.
Some things about my job are utterly foreign and new, such as getting called to crime scenes and working with law enforcement. I’m trying to figure out how all kinds of new hierarchies are structured and how they’re affected by structural racism, classism, and sexism. I’m also adjusting to the idea of being an activist and advocate rather than hiding behind scholarly objectivity. Other things I find totally incomprehensible. For example, I don’t think I will ever adjust to the idea of using adjectives as nouns. (”The female continued northbound…”) Police writing is sometimes just as unlovely as academic writing in its own ways.
I miss my research, but I’m hopeful that I may be able to make use of it in new ways. I recently found myself discussing my experiences and research in Guatemala with a fellow victim advocate coordinator. I told her about war, genocide, political violence, land issues, and discrimination against native peoples. I used the opportunity to link the 2014 surge in child migrants to the unresolved structural problems of the civil conflict. When I was done, she told me that she thought that what I’d told her about Guatemala was a fascinating example of intergenerational trauma. I was a little bit shocked, because I’d never considered my work on Guatemala in those terms. (I always thought it was about race.) Was it possible that there were other ways to think about my research outside of academia? It seemed that there were. She suggested that I speak about Guatemala at a state-wide conference for victim advocates next year. I’m excited to think that I may be talking about Guatemala again soon.
I’m not writing as much as I want to yet. Now that I’m moving further and further away from academia, I’m struggling to stay motivated to write. As my current job doesn’t hinge on intellectual output, I often don’t see much point in pursuing academic writing. I’d like to think that I don’t need the promise of tenure to motivate me to work on my academic writing, but my motivations have changed. Do I really need to have a monograph published on a first tier academic press? Or do I want to shift my writing more towards popular audiences?
Emotionally, I’m all over the place. Some days I feel awesome about my new job. It feels meaningful and like I’m taking academic knowledge to the streets. And then I get huge pangs of rejection and sadness when I remember how much time I invested in being a scholar and how hard its been to walk away. And then I’m jealous of academic colleagues. I’m jealous of people’s new jobs, new publications, and overseas research trips. I miss my academic friends. I miss me as a scholar. I complete this emotional cycle approximately twenty times a day.
Still in transition, but the only way out is through.
Photo: Green plants a-growin' at the Denver Botanic Gardens, July 2016.