Back to basics. Feels good to write with some fire. I need to remind you, and remain vigilant myself…You are not your career. You are not your job. Your identity is not what you do to sustain yourself monetarily within society. Reducing yourself to any single characteristic, whether it be your title or your job performance, is a deeply damaging act. Just take a look here for trusted words via The Atlantic from Arthur C Brooks. In short, one vital facet of work in modern society is that your company and or institution does not give one flippant fuck about you. None. Zero. Despite all of the mission statements, and the vision boards, the nauseating amount of material about how their “people matter” If you died, they would send an email of condolences and then post an ad for your replacement. They would pay you less money if they could.
As much as our culture currently rails against objectification, this is exactly what the function of the workplace is. You are an object to produce surplus value for the company/shareholders/etc. Anything else is pure delusion. What I am saying is that we need to act accordingly. You are so much more than your fucking job. From the above Atlantic article;
“The case against objectifying others is fairly straightforward. Less obvious but equally damaging is when the objectifier and the person being objectified are one and the same. Humans are capable of objectifying themselves in many ways—by assessing their self-worth in terms of their physical appearance, economic position, or political views, for example—but all of them boil down to one damaging core act: reducing one’s own humanity to a single characteristic, and thus encouraging others to do so as well. In the case of work, that might look like judging one’s self-worth—positively or negatively—based on job performance or professional standing.
Just as our entertainment culture encourages us to self-objectify physically, our work culture pushes us to self-objectify professionally. Americans tend to valorize being driven and ambitious, so letting work take over virtually every moment of your life is concerningly easy. I know many people who talk of almost nothing besides their work; who are saying, essentially, “I am my job.” This may feel more humanizing and empowering than saying “I am my boss’s tool,” but that reasoning has a fatal flaw: In theory, you can ditch your boss and get a new job. You can’t ditch you.”
One way relationships seldom end well. In the case of getting laid off or fired supreme bitterness sets in amidst the scramble. This is a horrendous feeling, you gave everything to this company, and one day it all unexpectedly came crashing down. This is the thing, it doesn’t have to. This process can feel akin to a liberation if prepared for. Countless pundits have acted dumbfounded by the so called “great resignation” seemingly confused and enraged why people under 40 would leave their jobs. Some of us have noticed the blatant hypocrisy and been on this same trek a time or two. Toxic work cultures and shit-tastic compensation models seem to be the business’s hardest hit. Where is the great mystery?
What is the point here? why am I wiring this on an overcast Monday afternoon? I’m certainly not writing this from the “office”. The point is you have agency. You want stability, security, you want not to grind your teeth to dust at night? No one gives that to you. YOU HAVE TO BUILD IT. The beauty is, once you build your own, its like developing your own organic super power. Reclaim your voice, and stop letting things happen to you, and instead make them happen for you.
“Tens of thousands of people, most of them less capable than you, leave their jobs every day. It’s neither uncommon nor fatal. Here are a few exercises to help you realize just how natural job changes are and how simple the transition can be. 1. First, a familiar reality check: Are you more likely to find what you want in your current job or somewhere else? 2. If you were fired from your job today, what would you do to get things under financial control? 3. Take a sick day and post your resume on the major job sites. Even if you have no immediate plans to leave your job, post your resume on sites such as www.monster.com and www.indeed.com, using a pseudonym if you prefer. This will show you that there are options besides your current place of work. Call headhunters if your level makes such a step appropriate, and send a brief e-mail such as the one below to friends and non-work contacts. “Dear All, I am considering making a career move and am interested in all opportunities that might come to mind. Nothing is too outrageous or out of left field. [If you know what you want or don’t want on some level, feel free to add, “I am particularly interested in …” or “I would like to avoid …”] Please let me know if anything comes to mind! -You Call in sick or take a vacation day to complete all of these exercises during a normal 9–5 workday. This will simulate unemployment and lessen the fear factor of non-office limbo.”
Instead of reading more news on the recession or interest rate hikes or other things outside of your direct control, really narrow in on #2 above. Make a plan. Build a figurative financial “bomb shelter”. Be as prepared as possible to move on in the direction that you want and or need. Remember you are not alone.
Have you been fired? Have you left a job? What strategies helped you get through it? Are you in a better place now? Would you do anything differently? Please tell us about it in the comments.
Below is rather pertinent today. I have felt a distinct decline for my beloved profession for quite some time. A kind of impending dread. there is something liberating about acknowledging that something is over, that the rot is systemic, and that one must move on. We cling to the delusions as long as we can, but in the end, reality prevails. Please find the link to the original at the end of the piece. Thank you Joshua Dolezal.
Academe is suffering from foreign occupiers
Lessons from Václav Havel for a profession in decline
“A famous saying goes something like this: If you are not a communist before the age of 20, you have no heart. If you are a communist after the age of 30, you have no head. The line has been falsely attributed to Winston Churchill and many other world leaders, often with “liberal” or “socialist” subbing in for “communist.” The upshot is that age transforms idealism into practical sensibility.
Many of us don’t fit that mold. Just three years shy of 50, I am traveling in Prague, feeling quite at home in a city of dreamers, and drinking deeply at the well of Václav Havel, one of the Czech Republic’s most beloved leaders.
Havel died more than ten years ago, but his legacy of unapologetic idealism continues to influence Czech identity, as the tribute to him in Prague shows. The thought experiment I indulge today risks a narrow view of Havel’s oeuvre. But taking risks was one thing he did best, and so I will forge ahead in that spirit.
In an interview first published in 1991, after the Velvet Revolution restored freedom to the Czech Republic, Havel claims that capitalism and communism equally strip people of their humanity by prioritizing the needs of the corporation or the state. I am convinced that if he could see the way that colleges and universities increasingly function like corporations and sometimes like countries troubled by communist occupiers, Havel would say much the same about higher education today.
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1. It all turns on love
Havel’s core conviction is that human beings should not be forced to accommodate themselves to economic systems, but that social and economic systems should be tailored to human needs and relationships: “Man should be the measure of all structures, including economic structures, and not…be made to measure for those structures.”
An economy that is thoroughly nationalized or centralized, Havel believes, is toxic to relationships.
“Having lost his personal relationship to his work, his company, to the many decisions about the substance and the purpose of his work and its consequences, he loses interest in the work itself…. Everything falls into the enormous pit of impersonal, anonymous, automatic economic functioning, from work done by the least hired hand right up to decisions made by the bureaucrats in the office of central planning.”
It would be entirely consistent with Havel’s message to say that faculty, staff, and students should be the measure of all university structures. The people who define an intellectual community should never be made to measure for a curriculum, a governance system, or an organizational structure.
Yet higher ed flips these priorities – sometimes with the misguided aim of being student-centered, but more often because the institutional brand becomes the imperative that subordinates all human needs to its own. The brand becomes the centralizing principle in the university.
Students want degrees and jobs, but first they want relationships with one another and with passionate teachers. Alumni do not donate money to a school purely to honor a transactional exchange: you got me this high-paying job, and so I’m paying it back. Loyalty flows from nostalgia for places where we knew we were loved. I can think of nothing more destructive to the financial health of an institution than attacking the sources of this love.
One example from my former institution was a new structure for the Matriculation Convocation, when all first-year students gathered in an auditorium for a welcome ceremony that was meant to anticipate their commencement four years later. When I joined the faculty in 2005, the keynote speaker for this convocation was a professor who had won a teaching award the previous spring. That sent a message: faculty matter here. But after the college did some branding work and developed slogans that we were all encouraged to reinforce in our conversations with students, like a party platform, the Matriculation event featured a top-down lineup of President, Vice President, and a newly created administrator called a Class Dean. The professors were to sit quietly in the background in full regalia lending an aura of prestige while three administrators spoke directly to the first-year class.
Some of us entertained ourselves by playing “slogan bingo,” listening for those catch phrases the consultants had crafted that were meant to convey the sense that we were a unified and welcoming community. But what we really cared about were those students looking back at us, who wanted us to be their friends and their guides, and who we saw as our raison d’être.
The sad truth? The brand tries to commodify love. But nobody actually loves the brand.
2. The brand hates experts
The heart of a college or university used to be its faculty. These were the musicians, scientists, and scholars who defined their cities and towns in the way that Michael Jordan once was Chicago. Even in the little hamlet where I worked this used to be true. For many years it was the professor, not the president, who was the face of the college to the community.
I do not mean to suggest that there ever was a golden age in higher education, merely that there were periods when academe functioned much more like Havel’s notion of a humane economy:
“The most important thing today is for economic units to maintain – or, rather, renew – their relationship with individuals, so that the work those people perform has human substance and meaning, so that people can see into how the enterprise they work for works, have a say in that, and assume responsibility for it. Such enterprises must have … human dimension; people must be able to work in them as people, as beings with a soul and a sense of responsibility, not as robots, regardless of how primitive or highly intelligent they may be.”
Now, the foremost imperative is the brand, often associated with revenue generating programs like athletics, proven majors, and new programs that show the institution’s response to market needs.
In this system, faculty expertise is valuable only insofar as it burnishes the brand with a patina of prestige. As the documentary film Operation Varsity Blues explains in its exposé of the college admissions fraud scandal, the word prestige derives from the French term for “conjuring trick” and the Latin praestigium, which means “illusion.”
It does not matter what faculty expertise is, precisely, only that it seems “good” or “elite,” depending on how the institution sees itself. While it is possible that a college might successfully recruit students and balance its budget in this way, doing so estranges faculty from the enterprise they work for, deprives them of a say in it, and strips away their sense of responsibility for it.
I’ll offer another athletic analogy. Pittsburgh Pirates fans the world over know that their owner, Robert Nutting, sees the team solely as a way of enriching his family. He invests only as much in payroll for on-field talent as the team earns in concessions, ticket sales, and parking. This is an absurdly low amount ($55-75 million-ish, depending on the year). He keeps the lion’s share of the profits from television and other sources ($200+ million). I can’t imagine any player ever wanting to stay in Pittsburgh, because their employer clearly does not value their talent for its own sake or care about them as people. If they succeed, they will see no reward, even if their achievement increases the value of the Pirate brand to its owner’s benefit. Few colleges or universities can skim millions of dollars in profit off the backs of their faculty, but many academics feel like Pirate ballplayers: passionate about their craft, devoted to their students (or fans), but scorned by those in charge of the money.
A professor has typically completed six years of graduate school and sacrificed more lucrative professional prospects to become an expert in their field. Participating meaningfully in a university community means being seen as a scholar, valued for that specific expertise, and promoted for those unique credentials by the institution. If the things that matter to a scholar with a high command of her craft hold little influence over the enterprise paying her salary, she naturally feels an ebbing responsibility to that enterprise.
If this seems petty, consider the rising rates of suicide among faculty: what one scholar calls “an invisible crisis.” Three sources from my research on faculty departures from academe have told me that they suffered stress-induced heart attacks that they believe were triggered by feelings of invisibility or futility at their institutions. One former professor told me that his wife gave him an ultimatum — their marriage or his job — because she was sure the job would kill him inside of a year. These are high-performing professionals who embrace challenges. It’s not the workload that’s killing them, it’s the waning sense of purpose. The feeling that they simply do not matter within their own enterprise.
I recall a meeting at my college years ago that was billed as strategic planning for the arts. A consultant had been hired to help with that, and he tipped his hand at one point by rhapsodizing about how the arts create a feeling of “us-ness.” A colleague of mine, a poet, recognized that the real purpose of the meeting was to appropriate art for a budget purpose: student retention. “I thought we were going to talk about the arts,” he said. I’m not sure I had ever seen him angry before that day.
3. Budgets should serve human beings. Human beings do not exist to serve budgets.
The brand supposedly attracts students, who pay tuition, which balances budgets. Because the brand creates a corporate identity, budget managers occupy positions with the most compensation and status. It is not lost on faculty that the next level of advancement beyond the rank of full Professor is typically a deanlet position that can build the resume necessary for further advancement into what some of us call the administrati.
Havel would say that this is a structural problem, because most incentives lead away from teaching, research, and service, the relationship-driven work that ought to lie at the heart of what a college or university is. When excellence in teaching is not affirmed or incentivized in the way that excellence in budget management is, teachers feel another painful blow to their sense of responsibility for the enterprise.
The structure for advancement in academe mimics corporate models. But the main difference in how academe actually functions is that healthy corporations have structures for sharing budget management. The scarcity of resources in academe, increasing opaqueness about how those resources are allocated, and the gradual removal of faculty oversight over budgets is much more like a communistic state than a corporation.
When I began directing a first-year seminar near the beginning of my tenure, I enjoyed nearly complete autonomy over how that generous budget was spent: on visiting speakers, on a workshop for faculty teaching the course for the first time, and on other events that enriched the program. Some years later, during a second term as director, I logged on to my computer one morning to discover that I no longer had access to the budget at all. The funds had been removed without any warning and pooled with a pot of other dwindling monies that was now overseen by an associate dean. There were no dollar amounts that I could count on for anything. Every expenditure required a separate appeal to the associate dean, who had to clear it with his superior (the actual dean), which became a form of abasement that any self-respecting expert ought to abhor.
Faculty know better than most how to live frugally. They lived in poverty for years to complete their degrees. They can be trusted to understand limits on resources, and they will do wonders with those resources if allowed to function as collaborative equals rather than as underlings grubbing for a favor from their superiors in The Party.
An occupied homeland
Academics have a lot in common with Czechs. Neither group aspires to build empires. Each is proud of its heritage but has no interest in colonizing others. When either group is deprived of its freedom or pressed into a general mediocrity by an occupying force, it prefers nonviolent resistance and persuasion.
Some can only face the future as emigrés once their homeland has been seized. Others persist and adapt as best they can. But academics and Czechs do not stop thinking of themselves as countrymen whether they stay or go.
As an emigré from higher education, I have sometimes convinced myself that the academic part of me was the problem. The part that made me different from other people. The part that still believes in the arts and humanities as more than auxiliaries to capitalism. The part of me that needs to play music, write essays, study history, and talk about books for more than 20 seconds to feel truly alive.
While reading Václav Havel and feeling the resonance between his vision for national liberty and my own view of what a healthy college ought to be, I have returned to the conviction that academe is one of my homelands. Many of my kinfolk still live there. The occupying government takes many shapes: accreditation, assessment, consulting, and marketing. The occupiers insist that we align ourselves with their priorities and thus have displaced many of us from anchors of culture, language, and heritage.
The occupying force insists on investing more resources in what has already not been working, such as the absurd new position at the University of California-Irvine: the pedagogical wellness specialist. Instead of paying teachers more, listening to them about what is making their life miserable, and giving them real influence over their own enterprise, UC-Irvine is paying someone with less experience in academe to try to convince academic professionals that they are the ones who need healing, not the system that they are being forced to accommodate. This Emperor truly has no clothes.
One of my sources for The Chronicle of Higher Education described a nightmare scenario at her institution where faculty and staff were gathered into one enormous Zoom call, informed that there would be layoffs, and then asked to stay at their computers to await further news. The layoffs then happened throughout the day in smaller Zoom meetings. Everyone was asked to return to the giant Zoom message at the end of the day to say a prayer for those who were leaving “the family.” Brotherhood and comradeship feature prominently in Communist propaganda, but few oppressors pretend to be brothers or sisters to those they are casting into exile. The cruelty of this can scarcely be overstated.
Those of us who have left academe might come back, like Czechs flooding home after the Soviets left in 1989, if the occupiers could be overthrown. But even if we don’t, we can never stop thinking of the campus and the classroom as our native places. Like the Czechs, our anthem begins with the words “Where is my home?” We know where it is.
All of this might sound like a coda to John Lennon’s “Imagine” if it were not clear that higher education is losing the public trust. People don’t think college is necessarily worth the cost any longer. Many think that college simply helps rig the economy for the rich. And I am but a drop in the sea of faculty who are voluntarily relinquishing hard-earned benefits, such as lifelong tenure, free tuition for their children, and a flexible summer schedule because we believe the unknown is preferable to an iron lid on the horizon.
Freedom came to the Czech Republic. Czechs took back what was rightfully theirs. It is not preposterous to think it could happen in academe.
Havel believed that “a genuinely fundamental and hopeful improvement in ‘systems’ [could not] happen without a significant shift in human consciousness.” He said that it was not possible to enact meaningful change “through a simple organizational trick.” Consultants and new logos and carefully honed messages will not shore up the enterprise of higher education if people are falling out of love with their work and feeling cut off from relationships that sustain them. Bolstering the brand while subordinating people to its uniform imperatives will always outrage the human need for dignity, freedom, and belonging. “
During the height of the pandemic a new bit verbiage emerged to describe being under lockdown and looking at social media feeds everyday. “Doom scrolling” is the term used to describe watching the world meltdown from your phone screen. The ice caps are melting, the penguins are dying, the oceans are full of trash, there is a raging mystery virus etc. holy shit was the news a depressing place to be. And then we ‘moved on.’. The optimism hit a bump and people began mentioning a return to “normalcy” although we weren’t quite sure what that might look like these days. Just as some grains of hope began to fall from the heavens, 20222 dragged us down into a tomb to beat our kidneys with old raggedy bowling pins. Russia has invaded Ukraine… Mass graves are being discovered, millions of people are fleeing to nearby countries, and inflation has come to grind the average American under a rarely understood economic jackboot. Things are looking desperate all over the world. Food prices skyrocketing, possible nuclear warfare, the stock market has been shredded to bloody bits and is now attracting flies. The Crypto bros are in desperate need of new underwear to survive the month, and home buyers are being squeezed by nosebleed prices plus higher interest rates.
So what is to be done?!
Right this minute? Not much. Remember this too shall pass. Off all the geopolitical situations I may read about on a daily basis I can control approximately 0% of them. I’m not saying become an apathetic shit head, or that we have no agency, but there askew things in your direct, intentional life that you CAN control and that will have a direct positive impact on your life. If the news is freaking you out and making you run for a Xanax drip….stop reading it for a while. Take a walk. Take a detox from social media…Take a Fucking breathe. A ball of anxious frustration about the possible future does you and those around you absolutely no good. Like I said before, this too she pass. Stick to your plan. If your plan needs to adapt, then make the necessary changes. I walked to a cafe here in Bogotá where I enjoy the chai latte, and they have an abundance of plants. I walked a mile or so, pondered a few of life’s damnable questions then sat down to unpack some of this shit through words. I know shit is crazy out there, but there are also unabashedly amazing things too. No one I know has been burned at that that stake for witchcraft lately, people are living longer, there is no Spanish Inquisition, we can cook food by frying fucking air…these things are giant leaps over our previous experience here on earth. Remember that before 1800 not a single country on earth had a life expectancy over 40. THINK about that. No grand parents and very few parents. You’d be more concerned with plague or famine anyway.
What I’m saying is you can still embrace optimism, and yield it like a secret super weapon. Optimism is like the force, don’t give into the doom. Become an optimistic Jedi.
…and here we are once again. Rainy days in the Colombian capital. moody mountain views and distant thunder. Strong dark coffee is perfect to fight the afternoon nap feelings. I arrived back in Bogota around 10:30 pm, cleared customs quick, the line was light, and full of edgy defense contractors and people visiting family. I had a contact come and grab me for the very reasonable sum of 30,000 pesos. The car was tiny and possibly a Chinese knock off of a South Korean model. Crammed into the front as non official taxis are a legal grey area we sped toward the pink zone, AKA Zona Rosa, one of the more unlikely places for gringo stabbings in the city. The driver was from Medellin, a born Paisa. We talked about how the food was better was there, Bogota was a bit cold, and Cartagena too damn hot. A very similar conversation I have with most Paisa’s I encounter in Bogota.
This mission was different, I had returned to the city laden with precious cargo. turns out the pure orgiastic consumer haven that is the United States consumes quantities of high end electronics like the world might soon end. Always onto whatever the newest item might be, north Americans fiendishly devour it. easy credit terms, lay-away, buy now, pay later, damn the consequences, we must have it! This means that all the slightly used gadgets plummet in value…until you relocate them to countries with a much different GDP.
My goal here was simple. After coming here a half dozen times and getting a feel for the country and the people here, I had started a non profit foundation, an organization to facilitate the repurposing of said electronics to this market, and repurposing them, then using the funds to help the most disadvantaged folks here. Enter the Venezuelan diaspora. I will write more about all of these efforts later. ( I know, I know, I NEED to write MORE). I can only put proverbial pen to paper when the mood strikes. Often times writing is cathartic for me, the mood strikes during times of elation, and times of eminent peril. Looking at the news headlines so far this year things are looking mighty grim. Thus perhaps the words will flow.
So here I am in Bogota, collecting stories, watching the rain, pondering my role in this big twisted red brick drenched place. I have two weeks here, and I return again next month. Continually scratching at the surface. Making a small difference here and there, hoping it makes a slight positive dent in peoples lives. I know at least some of them find my attempts at the Spanish language mixed with sign language humorous. Sometimes sharing a meal with someone, and laughing a bit is best kind of impact to have.
Spain is such a twisted fascination in the mind of modern history. Spending time here having read many of said histories, this stuff proves perplexing and at the same time organically fucking beautiful each and every time. As you may not remember, Barcelona, while easy to love is not my favorite city in the wide world. barcelona-is-easy-to-love/ Madrid however is near and dear to my heart. If you possess more personality than a prolapsed sphincter you cannot hate on this country. The food, the wine, the people, the architecture…the list goes on. For me, coming here after a 5 year hiatus, a global pandemic and assorted other drudgery proved completely serendipitous.
I ended up here by chance. Seriously. When a sub $300 fare to Spain popped out of Grand Rapids MI no less…I felt/feel obligated to grab it. That’s a cornerstone of my wandering. Fate based airfare. I have a shortlist, sure, but that does not 100% dictate where I’m headed. Some diety somewhere had smiled down upon me. Carpe diem. A 5 year hiatus is enough. Surely no better sign that it was time to hit Madrid, venture to near by regions and bask in Spanish glory.
This trek I brought along a non literal guest in the form of a hardcover, recently released book that had popped up in my google news a few days prior to departure. I was going to Spain with uncle Tony.
I absolutely fucking needed this book. After Bourdain died I was incredibly confused. How could the coolest guy alive with the best job in the world hang himself in a bathroom?! What I needed was to untangle what Tony and his work meant to me, and what I was going to do with that. I annihilated this book on the flight over. Laurie Woolever did such an inspiring job collecting, synthesizing and publishing over 90 interviews. For anyone left hurt, confused, or frustrated after his passing, you need this book as well. This work is like the closure you always hope for after something shitty happens. After finishing this book I felt something. I felt moved. I wandered through these streets of Madrid just like the hungry ghost Tony had talked about before. I wrote to Helen Cho, who I adored in the Roadrunner documentary, and she even replied!!
I felt my brain stem on fire, I felt all the wanderlust, all the yearning, uncertainty, doubt, apprehension and drive that has provided the rocket fuel for my travel adventures come bubbling up. Sorting through the mental gurgles…Going to Poland in 2003 opened the door, Ireland, Russia, and Thailand a few years later shredded what was left of that door down to the hinges. After Russia in 2005 there was no going back. I was a hopeless addict. Not some corny weekend warrior with a clever passport cover and cruise tickets…I mean I was done for. Married to the road. It was the fall of 05 when I realized my life would be different than most folks. The SUV, kids in matching outfits, trendy luggage sets, house in the burbs, the golden Labra-doodle thing with the dumb name and the deceptively adorable wife…? Wasn’t going to work for me. I’d be dedicated to the pursuit. Engaging the beast, like some holy warrior so it doesn’t engage me. Peeling back that onion, Pushing those boundaries, running down a dream by any and all means possible. Saving myself, because who the fuck else is supposed to do it? Would it be pretty? Hell no. I just knew (hoped) it would be worth it. To this day, I am unmarried, no kids, no pets. I have a few houseplants. I am am a travel addict. Pure and (not) simple. Tony’s show No Reservations, encapsulated that dream. My buddy showed me the Ireland episode and after that I was hooked. I devoured Bourdain’s written words like the holy gospel, and never looked back. Deep discount fare to Istanbul? Let’s do it. Christmas in the Balkan’s? I’m there. My parents friends were convinced I worked for the CIA, or some clandestine service. FB friends from high school thought it must be drug running, weapons smuggling or some sordid combination. The rumors made smile, and build more infrastructure to travel more…with no sign of slowing down just yet. Up until 2018 uncle Tony was always there like some wayward Saint with daft wisdom to encourage me along.
“The only way that we can live, is if we grow. The only way that we can grow is if we change. The only way that we can change is if we learn. The only way we can learn is if we are exposed. And the only way that we can become exposed is if we throw ourselves out into the open. Do it. Throw yourself.”
I threw myself into traveling, into experience, into the unknown. I’m eternally grateful for that. Grateful for the influences along the way that pushed me to do it. Grateful to Bourdain for such brilliant work.
Being here in Madrid, finishing that book and hitting these streets I felt a kind of familiarity. Like coming home in a way. Perhaps that’s what we are all searching for.
Wow, here we are. I can imagine you, like me have had quite the year(s) worth of experience in my absence. My last post was January of 2020. I had shit to say but I simply stopped. I used to think of reasons, justifications, and all the rest. Then, some months in, the reality simply dawned on me… I didnt owe anything to anybody. Then the world imploded with Covid. I was on my way back from the Philippines when international air travel came to a stand still. I wrote personal things during the pandemic and built a bad ass reading list as I quarantined solo and did my part to come out of this pandemic okay. 60 or so books down things were looking on the up and up. A few choice elements of normalcy returned. I had 7-9 trips or so end up canceled over that time, and for someone who measures a real sense of time through excursion planning, the adjustment was quite real.
All of a sudden you realise that you aren’t going fucking anywhere. I hunkered down, went a bit stoic on it, and kept reading. I was working,still teaching, investing and keeping mostly sane. 2021 brought the defeat of Donald Trump and a kind of optimism that things might be headed in at least a *better* direction. I was finally able to leave the country a few times. Mini jaunts at first to Mexico, Costa Rica, and Colombia. I needed those. I have a kind of pensive lust for the “road” as it were, and if not properly satiated, I may run amok like some depraved beast. August of 2021, 2 years to the date since I last assaulted Europe’s shores found my sorry ass wandering around Dublin, Ireland. A proper pint of the dark stuff, and onto Croatia we went. I kept thinking back to Sicily(my last Euro trek), I kept thinking back to the world before Covid, before masks, mandates and madness.
Croatia was bright, beautiful, warm, soaked in Aperol and oh so perfectly European. I didnt quite have my footing yet while there. after 2 years that felt like 20 away from the continent, this was a bit like an intro round. wobbly, excited, overzealous, and eager. Prom night like fumbling at the then guarded treasure that is serene travel joy. Finding my stride proved a bit more difficult than anticipated. Returning from my conquest of the Adriatic, I waited in anticipation for the next cheap fare to come along…and BANG! thats how I ended up in Spain. My ass currently going numb in this cheap hotel chair and rickety desk. the sounds of Madrid’s boisterous Saturday night rampaging through the window. My jamon drunk senses imploring me to get back on this saddle of writing. You see I actually packed a real hardcover newly released book on this trek. Blazing through about 90% of it on the plane over I arrived in Madrid hungry and deep in thought. That’s for my next post. Turns out i’ve got some things to untangle…and WordPress just billed me for another year.
“You have an awesome job — you know that, right? I’m jealous.” Those words were uttered by a tenured professor over coffee one day, as I told him about my then-job working in theater as a literary manager and dramaturge.
Had I heard him correctly? He was the one with the swanky permanent teaching job while I couldn’t find a tenure-track gig in literature to save my life.
But despite all the romantic notions attached to “the life of the mind,” that wasn’t the first time (or the last) that I heard a tenured scholar admit to feeling envious of a career outside of academe. They always say they feel beaten down by the academic system — more specifically, by heavy teaching loads, politicized faculty meetings, and ever-expanding campus bureaucracy.
Meanwhile, drawing on my knowledge of theater, I had become the literary manager of a major U.S. regional theater — developing new works, providing research for plays, scouting new playwrights, and writing articles for the theater’s magazine that were read by hundreds of people every performance. While it wasn’t what I had imagined myself doing with a Ph.D., the theater had become my classroom, where I ran public interviews with award-winning writers and actors. I grappled with complex thematic issues and found myself in the library collecting dramaturgical research for directors.
I was, in many ways, doing what I had been trained to do. I just wasn’t doing it at a university.
I share this experience now because the contingent-faculty crisis has rightly been taking up more and more column space in an effort to get academe to sit up, take notice, and do something about the shrinking pool of tenure-track jobs. Debates about the problem often lead to a lot of finger-pointing and wishful thinking that it could be resolved if only “someone” — institutions, departments, learned societies, foundations — could wave a magic wand and make more tenure-track jobs appear. It is a frustratingly complex issue.
While I, too, hope that institutions will find ways to support, retain, and even increase the number of tenure-track positions on their faculties, I’d like to pose a different question here: Why is getting a tenure-track job still seen as the only way to lead a fulfilling life of inquiry in the humanities? More to the point: What do those of us who pursue a doctorate want to do to lead fulfilling lives as scholars?
The answer, I would suggest, is not purely a thing — e.g., a tenure-track job — but rather a set of activities: the ability to teach, write, lecture, and think critically about the world around us. Those actions, while they are primarily located in the realm of higher education, are not by any means restricted to that sector.
I found that out myself more than 10 years ago when — after five years on the faculty job market, and despite having done all the “right” things such as getting a postdoc, publishing a book and articles, and teaching — I was still without a tenure-track position. Not looking to live just anywhere and also not interested in patching together a subsistence living of underpaying adjunct jobs, I decided to pivot and look for work outside of academe. The results have been exciting, rewarding, and eye-opening.
My first job, described above, led me to work in theater, applying much that I had learned to an art form I love. Instead of reading and writing about contemporary American drama in the abstract, I was actually in the room helping to create it. It was often a heady experience, to be sure. From there I served as director of arts and culture for a Jewish community center, applying my background in Jewish cultural texts to public programming for hundreds of people each year. Then a stint in community grantmaking. And now, coming full circle, I am executive director of an academic learned society that serves its members not just by advocating for their scholarship, but by helping them along their career paths in whatever varied forms that might take.
As I look back at my own unexpected career path, though, I never abandoned the activities of teaching, research, writing, and thinking critically. While academe is a place where ostensibly all of those actions coalesce, it’s not the only place where they exist. With some creativity and flexibility, each element can be interwoven with a life outside of a college campus.
At multiple jobs, I was able to negotiate, as part of my hiring package, regular time off to teach a course on a college campus. I don’t want to glorify the adjunct system, as it is definitely broken and pays far too little for the amount of work involved. However, in certain circumstances, adjuncting can be a way for Ph.D.s working outside of the ivory tower to maintain an active role as scholars and teachers. Adjunct teaching is not glamorous, but when it’s not your main source of income, it can be gratifying work. Freed from departmental politics, I was able to swoop in, teach, and leave — and I liked that. I not only got to continue honing my teaching skills and be with students in a classroom, but I also had the opportunity to develop new courses that often turned into public lecture topics.
Research and writing attract many people to academic life, but it’s possible to do that kind of work in other sectors, too.
In fact, my own writing and publishing has flourished since leaving academe. I’ve published two books, both with academic presses. The second, which was a trade crossover book about musical theater, sold out its first print run and will be republished this year in a revised second edition. This book was a joy to work on because I was able to write it for myself — not to please a tenure committee or a small group of academics. In writing it, I was able to combine a scholarly approach with a desire to share my work with a wider reading public.
It’s true that carving out time to write and do research when you have a full-time job is difficult, but it is doable. And in fairness, many faculty members with heavy teaching loads these days are equally struggling to find time to write.
The one area of research that remains problematic once you leave the academic world is using campus libraries, complete with checkout privileges and access to online databases. If institutions could find ways of supporting research access for independent scholars, this would be a tremendous boon both for them and for institutions, which, ostensibly, are invested in the production of new bodies of knowledge and scholarly output.
My work as a graduate student trained me to think critically, and while I may spend more time nowadays thinking about spreadsheets than similes, it doesn’t mean the work I do now is less gratifying. As a Ph.D. outside of academe, I still spend a great deal of time lecturing and giving public talks. Through this work, I’ve not only found attentive, engaged audiences (often more so than in an intro class), but I’m excited to share my academic knowledge with the wider public in ways that are deep and meaningful.
I know that a tenure-track job will remain the holy grail for many Ph.D.s, but with creative recalibration, you can find multiple, rewarding ways to be “an academic.” When people ask me if I still would have gone to graduate school knowing that I wouldn’t find an academic job, my answer remains a solid yes. While I might not need a doctorate for some of the jobs I’ve had, the training I received helped shape the way I view and interact with the world, and that’s something I value deeply.
Today, as the executive director of an academic learned society, I see a twofold challenge before us:
We must advocate for tenure-track jobs and the shore up of academic employment.
At the same time, we must validate and celebrate the vast variety of career options available outside of academe that draw on the important skills of reading, writing, and critical thinking that many of us have spent years cultivating.
Warren Hoffman is executive director of the Association for Jewish Studies.
I ended up in Palermo almost by accident. If you are familiar with my style at all, I rarely book anything beforehand. August was a strange month this year. I had wrapped up my summer classes, and I was feeling rather restless. I had tracked down a stupendously cheap flight to Barcelona in the spring, and after booking it had almost forgot about it. After grading all of the exams and submitting final grades on a warm Sunday afternoon I headed to Chicago for the evening haul to Barcelona. I have written before, that while truly a great city, Barcelona is not my favorite. ( Barcelona is easy to love)
Still, I wanted to vacate the states for a bit, I needed a fresh view, to chew on some things in my mind and “get it sorted” as the Brits say. 2019 had been full throttle, and yet I was a bit pensive about the near future. I didnt want to push this 20 day trek to the limit. I wanted to take it easy. Lets be honest here, few places are more conducive to idyllic relaxation than the south of Spain. Catalan or otherwise. Boundaries had been rocked so far for the year. Costa Rica, The Phillipines, Lebanon, Egypt, Cyprus, Colombia…I had made sweet love to the travel ambitions that I so adore.
Mountains, landscapes, sea side glory, all of the good stuff. Now I was going to take it easy, unplug, and wander a bit. I landed in BCN on an easy morning. Quickly passed through customs, and grabbed a taxi to the center. One cannot have a bad time in Spain. I’m convinced of this. Unless you have the personality of a banana slug. With this is mind…Barcelona, after the first night I found myself content…but still restless. I wanted to hit a kind of travel stride. the addiction that I must feed. I gave Barcelona one more more day to wander the old city, walk the public beaches and gorge on pinchos and tapas.
During the evening, however, I began to wander on various flight apps looking at the possibilities of further escape. Wizz air threw some enticing flirtation my way. They recently began flying to the republic of Georgia. Georgia has been high on my list for years. I have gotten close…but not quite close enough. I worked on the Georgia logistics for a few hours, and felt mostly set on that idea. It would be Georgia, and maybe even a push into Azerbaijan to see a dear graduate school friend in Baku. The next morning, I wake up, find a suitable breakfast, and scope my carefully laid plans… Surprise! Tickets double, tickets sell out, “this flight is no longer avail on this day” etc.
Time for an alternate plan. This is really where serendipity comes to play. I cast my fortunes to the wind, and obviously Georgia was not meant to be (this time). Now I need to load the flight map and see where I will land. (figuratively as well as literally) The matrix gods give me a few easy options. Dubrovnik, Bilbao, and Porto all offer up amazing options, as well as access to the sea, culinary genius, and local charm. Plus, there are cheap direct flights, budget airline style. Then I see it. Fuckin Palermo, Sicily.
Lets do it. book it. Leaves tonight. Sicily greeted me like a long lost lover, quick to a new yet familiar embrace. I was smitten.
Sicily has it. I can’t exactly define it. From the chaotic airport to the goofy bus that takes you to the center. I arrived late at night, ventured to my hotel, and then walked a bit. I’ve said it before numerous times. There is no better way to learn a new place than night steps. Bright and early I hit the streets of this old world place and instantly felt it. This wasn’t anything like fuckin Disneyland. Old world authenticity and killer gelato will forever be a favorite combination of mine.
From the a few of the dusty neglected churches, and the tiny side streets where they are located to the intense local markets where the term “organic” need not apply, I absolutely loved Sicily. I averaged 10 miles a day on foot. This is a place where I will spend considerably more time in the future. I’m always hunting. In these now 79 countries, some places have it. The magic . Other places, not so much. This is a fluid concept, some places lose it, and others gain it. A kind of Travelers currency, certain places are simply well stocked with a kind of grit that I find irresistible. This is one of the reasons you will most likely never see my ass on a cruise. I don’t want to knock them, as they are loved by millions, but for me there is an essential missing element.
I can walk these streets for months and feel good. There are enough subtle differences here , especially with the American Midwest that we find it altogether charming. Off the popular tourist track as it were, but with all the significant draws of “Europe”. Like the food. Dear sweet baby Jesus the food. Italy as a whole is one of those places where gluttony surely cannot be a sin. Walking multiple miles per day is the only way to begin to fight the pasta demons that entice you at every meal.
Even then, Palermo is the birthplace of the Cannoli, and if you’ve never had a real one, lose your dessert virginity here. Only after, then you (like me) can die happy. I plan to write more about Sicily. This place has that magic that I search the globe for. I ended up here almost on accident, and I could not have enjoyed it more. Sicily has the magic in abundance. For that I am eternally grateful. I spent 10 days exploring this coast,
and I smiled the entire time. Exactly what I needed to work some things over in the rock tumbler that is the human brain. The sun, salt water and proper pasta can combat near any evil. My first few days in Palermo floated by, as this place quickly became one of my favorite “accidents.”
Ah Barcelona. Bright, beautiful and exotic to the American mind. The home of Gaudi, the stunning architectural master that adds yet another flavorful layer to the Catalan city by the sea.
I visited Barcelona in the early summer 3 yers ago. It was my first time in Spain (A country I have come to love the fuck out of). I had spent the majority of my travel time off the beaten path as it were. Trekking through the rapidly changing regions of Eastern Europe and the former USSR. Friends and colleagues, fellow travelers and Instagram alike had hyped Barcelona to impossible heights. “The absolute best city in the world”.
I had to go right?
And thus I did.
And I get it. I truly do. Barcelona is the topless beach, where someone passes you a joint and invites you to hacky sack. Barcelona is all night sangria. Barcelona is shockingly gorgeous people of damn near every stripe. (Seriously though, where did all of you beautiful people come from??) It’s mostly safe and enchanting enough.
But therein lies the rub. Not to sound like a wanker, but I’ve been at this for a bit. I thrive on finding that travel magic and at this point I gotta dig for it. Barcelona…is like Disney world. Barcelona is a dream, an idea. This City is the myth that keeps you working over time to be able to pay for that vacation. So, it shouldn’t be shocking that It’s a place SATURATED with tourists. Now, I recognize that I am one of those tourists. Albeit not in a backward ball cap and flip flops getting blind wasted in the afternoon and cat calling passing ladies.
I had an idea that since the world and everything in it changes so damn fast (who’s getting old?!) that perhaps Barcelona would be different 3 years later. Don’t get me wrong, as I’m not overtly hating. Every place has elements of awesome. Barcelona certainly has more than its fair share. If you go, and if you most certainly should, stay outside the Las Ramblas area. When you venture near grace yourself for heat, crowds, that overpowering scent of urine and airport style prices.
Stay anywhere else, and try to at least make an effort to engage some aspects of Catalan culture. Don’t be a sack of asses and enjoy your holiday.
This August Barcelona was under 300$ RT from the midwestern US. The best option on the continent and a great hub to explore the Mediterranean regions I am keen on.
Did I enjoy it? Abso-fucking-Lutley. Barcelona just doesn’t have that magic for me. The primary industry is tourists, who flock to its sunny shores and bars like a European Cancun…only without the resort culture.
Loads and loads of people love Cancun, and even more love Barcelona I’m sure. It’s a personal preference thing. I don’t really dig cruises or theme parks. I’ve always been on the hunt for something more…visceral. For a first trip to Europe, I would still go with Barcelona over London/Paris. I would land in Barcelona, then head elsewhere in Spain or the region. Which is exactly what I did.
2019 has been been chocked fucking full of it. Made it to Boston, The Philippines, Europe, the Middle East, back to Colombia…and its been absolutely amazing. All kinds of transition happening, but also all kinds of adventure! Tomorrow we head to Chicago, then onto Spain for Monday morning. From there…who knows?!?
Excited for a new piece? Anywhere you would like to see me hit and report back on?