How Did I Get Here?

Tomorrow is my 5th anniversary as the Director of the UMKC Women’s Center (hard to believe it’s been that long — talk about a blur!). Combine that with an upcoming MLA session on the Nonteaching Academic Job Search, and I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately about how I ended up where I am now (it’s also got me pondering my answer to Liana Silva’s “Am I an Academic?” question — look for that coming soon). So how did I get here? “Here” being my current combination of positions at UMKC: Director of the UMKC Women’s Center, Acting Director of the Women’s & Gender Studies Program, and Affiliated Faculty in German in the Department of Foreign Languages & Literatures.

I ended up here in a large part due to dumb luck — back in 2001, I was a Ph.D. student at UMass Amherst, working on my dissertation. My husband was finished and had held a series of visiting positions before he was offered a job at Texas A&M, starting in the fall of 2001 (both diehard Northeasterners, we had no idea what awaited us in Texas. But that’s a story for another day). I figured I could adjunct while finishing up my dissertation and then figure out what I was going to do with the rest of my life — at the time, I had no idea other than knowing that I didn’t want a tenure-track job. So, I wrote to the Women’s Studies Program at A&M to see if they had any adjunct positions. “No,” they said, “but we are about to open a Women’s Center and are looking to hire someone for that position.” Since I had also done Women’s Studies as part of my degree, that sounded interesting, despite the fact that I had NO idea what women’s centers do or what I would do as the coordinator of one.

Despite my ignorance, I applied, got the job, realized that I loved it, and here I am 10 years later, still working in a women’s center. I truly was lucky that A&M was willing to take a chance on someone who’d never worked in a center before (it also helped, I think, that the pool was not so great and they were looking for someone who could also teach). What really helped me, however (and this is my real point), was the assistantships I’d held at UMass working with the DEFA Film Library and a couple of NEH Summer Institutes because I was thus able to demonstrate that I had solid administrative skills. Without those positions, I simply would not have been a viable candidate. Equally important, none of my faculty mentors at UMass ever made me feel like a loser for choosing a different path (indeed, they encouraged me to do so). While other faculty might have questioned my choices (if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me if I planned to look for a “real” job after I finished the diss, I could take a nice little trip), they did not. It is hard to say just how much that meant to me — all I know is that I did not suffer from the debilitating sense of failure so many other academics have when deciding to follow a path other than the tenure-track.

Along the way, I managed to (finally!) finish my dissertation, turn it into a book, publish an article or two, present on things German and feminist, as well as teach German, women’s studies, and honors courses. It’s been a great “#alt-ac” path so far and I’m lucky to have been able to combine my love of disparte subjects and talents in both administration and teaching/research in my various roles. My wish for 2012 is that more Ph.D.’s are able to find alternative academic paths that are as fulfilling as mine.

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