Activist Mentoring: It's Still Okay to Go

Last year, I wrote the blog entry, “It’s Okay to Go,” a sideways nod to Benton's“Just Don’t Go” articles (Part 1 and Part 2). I wanted to address the overwhelming belief held by many graduate students that staying in academia, either as an NTT faculty member or a doctoral student, is the only acceptable step after the MA. I received 27 indignant emails in response. Some snippets:
“Who are you to tell people what they should do with their lives? You followed the expected track!”

“You’re setting psychologically fragile people up to fail as they waste the two years’ of graduate education and as they enter the private sphere untrained for those positions.”

And the worst: “What an irresponsible mentor and unpleasant person you must be. I feel sorry for your grad students. I’m sure you fill them with thoughts of failure unnecessarily.”

I had hit a nerve, with both graduate students and other professors. After a year of reflection, I stand by “It’s Okay to Go.” In fact, given current trends to defund public education and the growing (ever growing!) over-reliance on contingent labor, I’m even more firmly convinced that graduate mentors must address life outside academia with their students; otherwise, we’re helping support the corporate university’s business model that clamors for cheap and plentiful labor. You can read a little more about this activist mentoring here, a recent article of mine in Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor.

Alt-ac—or alternative-academic—careers are a recent and still controversial area for discussion, which speaks to this isolating notion that the only measure of success in graduate school is either more graduate school or a TT professorship. Is there a line of support for bankers or relators or mechanical engineers who are considering new careers? (Maybe it's a line of defense, to keep them in.) Perhaps the problem is that academia is fully invested in its separation from the private and public sectors, even as many public institutions become big-box edu-businesses, influenced by corporate interests and always looking after bottom-life profit.

The MAs I mentor often don’t yet know enough about the business of academia to make an informed decision about their paths. My first commitment is to encourage them to move away from identifying their whole selves with academia. When they do—when they conflate who they are with what they do—they internalize as personal failure the lack of academic job opportunities and, if they become NTT faculty, the lack of security and adequate compensation. The game is, of course, rigged. The failures are systemic, not individual. To encourage them to think more fully about their next steps—doctoral education, teaching off the tenure track, working in the private or public sector—I rely on some version of the following 12 questions. These questions are focused on graduate students in English, but I think they may be adapted for other disciplines:
What is it you like about academia? Specifically, what practices make you happy?
What parts of academia stress you out or make you upset?
Is it important that you live in a specific city, state, or region?
What kind of financial compensation do you need to be happy?
What sort of daily or weekly schedule do you envision as your ideal?
Is teaching/research/administration a practice that you could envision yourself engaging with over time?
What feelings do you experience when you think about not working in academia?
What kind of job could you imagine yourself doing and being happy?
Do you like to research and write?
How do you deal with timelines and independent goal setting?
If you had to describe your ideal day at work—from waking up to going to bed—what would that day look like? What challenges might you encounter? What high points might you experience?
What identities do you call on when you consider your self-worth? Your values? How do you prioritize these identities? 

Grad students find this discussion depressing, and rightfully so. Some of them have been sold a career path where TT jobs are plentiful, where everyone gets a position, even if it’s not at their top school.  Some haven't yet considered the academic job market as a real thing; others follow paths prescribed to them. Still others make decisions based on idealized dreams of teaching on the college level. I don’t get my kicks out of making these students sad, but I do feel an ethical obligation to least show them the map and help them make a choice based on the realities of the academic job market.


Environmental Anxiety and the Academic Job Market

Job searching is a bit of a microcosm of the academic lifestyle. High-stakes texts are produced quickly, are still assumed to be ironclad, and all the while candidates are expected to be going about the rest of their job duties: researching, writing, teaching, mentoring students, and presenting at conferences. (And having a life? Maybe.) Peer networks during this transitional time can provide the best support, since the academic job market is (in mostly destructive, arcane ways) unlike any other hiring system. I don’t think I understood collegiality—the lived practice of being a supportive and cooperative colleague—until I went on the academic job market.

But at every juncture, candidates are pushed to think about themselves in negative terms: The money they may not have for new clothes, convention travel, and dossier costs. The dissertation chapters they may not have written yet. The time they don’t have to write, teach, prepare search materials, and hold together a normal life. What starts as a collegial support system could easily devolve into a black hole of mutually reinforced anxiety. Depletion is the key term, the keystone experience of most graduate students on the job market. Spending time with overwhelmingly negative people only exacerbates this depletion. This post will start to talk about ways candidates can provide empathy without absorbing so much of this environmental anxiety.

Problem solve
: Negativity tends to grow from feelings of helplessness or a lack of relative control. Overwhelmingly negative people may be closed off to thinking about their situation in positive ways; however, serving as the problem solver, or the person who brainstorms, even off the cuff, about potential answers to larger problems may help keep ambient anxiety at bay. If job-market talk moves from strategies for success to fears of failure, it’s okay to be the person to steer the conversation back to problem solving. Problem solving may look like organizing a dossier materials peer review or mock interviews, troubling shooting a particular question, talking in safe spaces about alt-ac options, or brainstorming ways to reorganize the CV to highlight different strengths and experiences. Action is the antidote to anxiety. Be ready for the fact that some peers won’t be open to problem-solving approaches.

Refract, don't absorb:
Job-market stress can cause even typically roll-with-it types to lash out. Friends and family, those who are closest and most supportive, can bear the brunt. Even if it sounds personal—“It’s easy for you to say, there are so many more jobs in your field!”—this lashing out is not personal. It’s true that the market in most fields is incredibly limited. Acknowledging stress as valid and completely rational honors the reality of the situation, which may include complex family, financial, and emotional issues.The idea here is to bounce those feelings of negativity back, through the prism of authentic care. The qualitative interviewing method of backchanneling can support these conversations: "Yes, I absolutely understand why you're so down. I'm sorry. It must be tough."

I risk sounding like a jerk here, but if there is someone or multiple someones whose negative energy becomes too much for you to bear, limit contact with those people. Everyone’s busy, so it’s not improbable that your schedule may require you to back out of informal commitments. If a peer group isn’t working, leave it. Practice saying no to social or professional scenes where you might leave less psychically comfortable than you arrived. I have been lucky to get to know some incredibly empathic people in academia. Some of these people are likewise deeply sensitive to ambient negativity. It is painful to watch them deplete their stores of energy to boost others. The job search is a self-centered process (again, microcosm for academia, unfortunately), and sometimes self-protection really is the best solution.

I’m interested in suggestions from readers who have navigated this difficult social and affective space. What’s worked for you? What hasn’t? Is this psychic energy transfer a function of the job market and thus a rite of (academic) passage?