What follows is a presentation I gave at the 2013 convention of the Modern Language Association (known fondly by many of us as #mla13) in the session “How Did I Get Here? Our “Altac” Jobs.” The session was a roundtable discussion, with pecha kucha presentations, about “alternative academic” careers. You can watch the slides with my audio, or read the presentation and look at the slides on your own. My thanks to Brenda Bethman and Shaun Longstreet for organizing the panel and to my fellow panelists and to the audience for a great conversation. (Update: Slideshare no longer supports slides with audio, or at least, no longer supports what I had done, so if you want to hear me, you’ll have to listen to this audio and click through the slides yourself; it’s around 20 seconds a slide if you want to keep pace.)
“Make your own luck” (MLA 2013)
I am the Undergraduate Program Director at the Folger Shakespeare Library, a position I’ve held for six years. It’s a job that combines working in one of the premier special collections of early modern literature and culture with teaching a small number of highly motivated and curious students. This is the story of how I got here.
I did a PhD in English, researching modern feminist performances of Shakespeare. After finishing, I was fortunate to get a two-year teaching postdoc, and after that, a one-year research postdoc. At the end of that, I got married to someone who had a job lined up in a Washington DC law firm, and so we moved and I started my life as an independent scholar.
I spent the next year writing my book at the Folger. During that time, I became friends with a local Shakespearean who told me that her department was looking for someone as a leave replacement. So I spent the next year teaching drama and composition at The George Washington University and the following year as an adjunct at George Mason, a job I found again through my Shakespeare friend.
Then I heard from my friend that the head of the Folger Institute wanted to take a year off. And so Gail recommended me to Kathleen, Kathleen went to write her book, and I ran the Institute for a year. At the end of that gig, another contact asked if I’d adjunct at Georgetown, covering his Shakespeare classes, and so my George-trifecta was complete.
At the end of my year at Georgetown I gave birth to my second child (I’d had the first one after my GW stint) and I spent the following year trying to catch my breath and work out how to mother two children with a spouse who was frequently traveling and parents who were aging more rapidly than I was ready to admit. The lesson I learned was that I was not cut out to stay at home.
Luckily, at that point my friend Gail, by now the Folger’s Director, hired me as a consultant on a planning grant for developing undergraduate programming in book history at the Library. So I became an independent contractor, put together an implentation plan, and then became the inaugural Folger Undergraduate Program Director, a job that I love.
I’ve used the word “luckily” to describe how I got to this place, and I certainly benefitted from luck. I live in a town rich in possibilities for Shakespeare scholarship, and I know people who led me to temporary jobs and to my current career. And for a long time I thought of how I got here as a product of luck.
But another way to think about luck is to see it as the residue of design. I wasn’t simply lucky. I worked hard—persistently and creatively—to be in a position to take advantage of opportunities that might come my way. I didn’t always know what it was that I was working toward, but I was working nonetheless. So here’s another version of the story of how I got my job.
While I was turning my dissertation into a book, I submitted an excerpt to Shakespeare Quarterly. My article wasn’t accepted, but I had a nice correspondence with the editor and our paths later crossed at the Shakespeare Association conference. That editor was Gail Kern Paster, and when I moved down to Washington DC, we were both regulars at the Folger and we would chat about our research.
Because she knew my work, she recommended me to fill in at GW. Because I knew the Folger as a reader and program participant, had administrative experience from grad school, and was an active scholar in Shakespeare circles, I was a good fit for the Institute. By this point, I’d come to know the Folger’s culture and resources and that of faculty, students, and administrators at three of the area’s largest schools.
I’d built a network of colleagues across Washington DC and across the Shakespeare community. When the Folger needed to hire someone who knew the Library and local schools, who had the administrative skills and the intellectual breadth to set up a new program, I met those needs. It wasn’t luck that I got my job, it was years of hard work.
Despite what I’ve just said—what I firmly believe about how I came to this #altac career—it took me a long time to believe that I hadn’t just accidentally lucked into it. I’d never intended to do this line of work. I’d intended to be a tenured faculty member; I spent years on the job market trying to get a job like that. But I didn’t.
Because of that history, among other things, it was hard for me to see the planning that had gone into my good fortune. Because I didn’t get what I thought I wanted, I didn’t think I deserved the thing I’d gotten. As some of you no doubt know, it’s really hard to come out of an unsuccessful job search without feeling like you’ve failed, that you’ve fallen short.
In my case, that feeling was exacerbated by the shape my family life had taken. My low-paying jobs were made possible by my spouse’s high-paying job, and while I was grateful, I also felt like a kept woman. Add to that the problem that his career wasn’t highly relocatable, and that once we had kids, it was not going to be practical for me to live apart from them.
With only part-time work coming my way and small children to raise, I squeezed my teaching and my writing into the hours I had childcare and spent the rest of my time playing and teaching and coaxing my kids to eat and nap and use the toilet and make friends and give me kisses, and while I loved my family, I was exhausted.
How grateful I was, then, to have a real job! How fortunate to be dealt such good luck! Gail Collins, in mulling over Hillary Clinton’s wide-ranging and impressive career to date, with its twists and turns from despised to beloved, wrote that she has played the cards she’s dealt. That’s one way to look at it. But I prefer Hillary’s answer:
“I choose my cards. I choose them. I play them to the best of my ability. Move on to the next hand.” There’s nothing particularly wrong with seeing yourself as the beneficiary of good fortune, except for its flip side: if you got where you are by luck and then your luck dries up? You’ll never get anywhere again. You’ll never be more than your spouse’s appendage.
My point here is that I might not have been actively planning my #altac career, but I was keeping my eye open for opportunities to learn new skills and to meet potential colleagues. The years I thought I was nothing but lucky were the years I was unhappy and insecure. Once I realized my own strengths, I knew I could succeed at other things I wanted to do.
Here’s one thing I went on to do: I knew the Folger needed to do a better job explaining the scholarship we do in publicly accessible terms, and I knew that I could do this. Since my job with the Undergraduate Program was ¾ time, I had ¼ of my time I was willing to use to start a new blog for the Library. And I so convinced them to hire me to start The Collation.
Whether you’re looking for an #altac career or you’re not, my biggest piece of advice to you is not to wait for a giant hand to point you in the right direction. If you don’t know where you’re going, you’re not going to see signposts leading you there. You need to make your own luck and trust that you’ll recognize your place when you arrive.