Sacrificing My PhD on the Altar of Pop-culture
If you’ve heard anything about careers in higher ed., you likely know at least 2 things: 1) most instructors in the classroom are adjunct and don’t have any stability, and 2) these part-time, unstable positions don’t pay a living wage even though you’ve got to have a PhD or are working on one to get one of these coveted positions for a semester. It’s ugly out there. The truth is, it doesn’t really matter how good you are in the classroom; it’s all about seniority, enrollment, networking, and funding. One university that is near and dear to my heart is slowly getting rid of all the departments I can teach in through attrition and low funding for those departments. Other colleges and universities are going a similar route with those departments, and the liberal arts in general. YIKES! So what is one to do with their beautiful PhD in hand if that person (namely, ME) wants to, 1) make a living, and 2) continue working in education in those slightly more arcane areas like ancient history and mythology? The answer I’ve come to is to take it outside the university classroom to anybody who wants it.
This is where I’m conflicted. Having spent oh so many years in academia, I have great respect for the work done there and would love hang out and continue that work, but I can’t afford it. Annual meetings, regional meetings, hours of research for papers to present at those meeting, organization membership dues, transportation to the meetings, hotel rooms, etc. gets really freaking pricey when you aren’t getting paid for any of it. On the other hand, there is a tradition (that is slowly eroding) of looking down people who don’t stick around for the high level talks about ancient pottery and the minutia of grammar in dead languages. The work I do for public consumption is not so much focused on that–for obvious reasons–but is much broader and actually interesting to people who are not a little bit crazy; I love that work too (note: to get a PhD requires that you be a little crazy, passionate beyond reason, and able to focus like a laser on tiny data points). I want to do my thing in the public sphere, but I don’t want to lose the respect of my peers in academia. Thus the conflicted feelings.
I love working with all kinds of people and learning from them–ok, in reality, I don’t love working with little kids, (and, god bless you if you do!), but my point still stands. I love sparking curiosity and bringing some of the hoity-toity academic stuff to big classes of people who don’t want to write research papers or do the tons of reading that they would need to do, in there “free time,” to find the tools they need to understand that deep stuff. I want to boil it down for them, and have a laugh at (and with) the ancient people I’ve spent sooooo many hours in the library with. Introducing my ancient friends to modern day people having the same struggles can prove life has always been a little tragic and ridiculous…always.
I want to be clear though. The word sacrifice (from Latin) actually means to ‘make something sacred’ through its loss. I will not be directly using my PhD; that is the loss. It is not necessary to have one to teach on Udemy.com or write the books I want to write. It gives me some street cred but no one I’m going to be working with is going be all that concerned about whether a given verb’s meaning in Biblical Hebrew is changed because it’s in the hitpael (what?!...yes, that's a real thing). Most people don’t know what that means…that’s ok…that’s my point. On the other hand, I’m glad I did all of my degrees–all 5 of them. The truth is, I did it for myself because learning is my passion. If I had the time and money I’d do another MA for the fun of it. I’d even try to do math! Learning is sacred. My high temple is a good, well stocked library with access to all the databases. The most sacred action is asking a question and hunting for the answers that lead to other, even better questions. I will keep doing this and I will keep trying to inspire that spark of curiosity in others.
It’s hard to leave the university behind. When I started my PhD, I really wanted to follow that venerable career path into the classroom, but that path disappeared while I was taking classes and writing papers. I will be in classrooms part-time when they have space for me. But, I know my road leads to a broader audience, in different arenas. In a way, the downfall of academia may be a blessing for many. I am being forced to re-think how I find audiences, and the broader public will have more access to the really juicy stuff that was typically reserved for the university student. Deep and meaningful education should be available to everyone at all stages of life, not just at a university. I want to participate in that world, where pop-culture, ancient literature, and the very human search for meaning and direction collide.