Recently I was listening to this podcast by Cathy Mazak about designing your academic career to be 90% awesome. I found myself nodding along as she described how she wasn’t willing to just muddle through an academic job that wasn’t, for the most part, satisfying. I didn’t realize this has been my M. O. since grad school. I see now that a lot of my career decisions were motivated by the desire to actually enjoy my work/life – even during the PhD/adjunct years – sometimes (often) going against conventional wisdom for academic career paths.
For instance, I stayed in a non-funded PhD (I know, gasp!) because I had a job, house, and family there. I chose adjunct jobs based on which institutions would give me the most autonomy to teach my classes the way that I wanted to. I didn’t go to the “right” conferences as a graduate student, but rather ones that sounded cool and were in cool locations (Salzburg, Istanbull, London, Lisbon). I “wasted dissertation time” on things like digital humanities and Twitter because I liked them.
Looking back, I have had regret for some of these decisions because they definitely didn’t make my path easier on me, but I now kind of love my fiercely determined-to-do-what-I-love attitude. And in many instances these experiences lead to awesome opportunities that ultimately helped me get where I am.
Even when I arrived at my current full-time NTT teaching position, I could not leave well enough alone. Perhaps some teachers can look cheerfully down the barrel of teaching the same exact core writing courses every semester, but that just isn’t me. And after 10 years of teaching first-year composition, I needed a break. So I signed up for Faculty Learning communities to learn how to teach online and how to teach community engagement courses. I pitched a concept for a Texts and Contexts literary studies course. I applied to teach in the Honors college. I’m in the process of pitching a new graduate course. Of course, by doing all this I did make my first couple years in my new position more difficult. I’m just now getting to a place where I have repeating preps, but I can say with confidence that my job is now 90% awesome.
Crafting a career that is 90% awesome doesn’t just mean asking for things. It can mean rocking the boat. It can mean leaving (remind me to tell you about both times I left academia). It can mean going outside your institution to find a mentor. It can mean starting a reading or writing group. It can mean challenging prevailing wisdom about teaching practices. Ultimately it means making more room for rocks than for sand.
The other day a student in my 60-person, 200-level, required credit, virtual class set up a Zoom call with me from the law office she works at to have a conversation with me about why we (as literary scholars which is what I’ve told the students they are now) put our work into conversation with other scholars. She understood from our class how to do it, but she wanted to know why. It was a fascinating conversation. It lifted me up. I could not believe it was happening in this semester of all semesters, and it made me realize just how awesome my job is. Of course great students come along regardless of how much you love your job, but I like to think that in shaping my career to make it more awesome (teaching the classes I *want* to teach and teaching them the *way* I want) created the space for this conversation to occur–a true example of how investing in awesome can result in more awesomeness 👌
Perhaps the thought of totally redesigning your whole career is overwhelming or your circumstances are extremely restrictive (solidarity, my adjunct friends). Perhaps you’re reading this and you’re like, “it’s the end of the semester and you want me to change something?! Now!? In the middle of a pandemic!?” Yes, if what you want is for your career path (whether that’s inside or outside academia) to be more awesome. Getting to 90% awesome takes time. Sometimes progress is tiny – .05% at a time. Sometimes it’s a moving target where you make a change that bumps you up only to experience a subsequent backslide. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
What’s one small thing you can change to make your work life more awesome? Leave a comment below. I would love to know what you’ve done to make your career more awesome.
Stay tuned for (hopefully) more posts this year about teaching, composition, digital literacy, and academia. Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @litambitions