Why Being An Academic is like Being a Novelist, And Why That’s OK

Preface: I’m writing this post as someone who has an ongoing affiliation with academia – I teach social media marketing in the MBA program at the Schulich School of Business at York University – but does not currently make her living primarily as an academic. Instead, I run a small marketing agency and develop and implement training programs for corporate clients, and I teach and research as well. That said, my PhD is in a humanities field, and I’ve spent many years now watching my peers beat their heads against the brick wall of the current state of academia in the humanities… and, more and more, this mismatch between the needs and structure of the university and the training and goals of the graduate students who aspire to professorships has spread to other fields as well.

As I’ve discussed in previous posts, there are lots of routes out of academia for those who are so inclined. Marketing and communications can be a great field for grad-degreed folks in the humanities, for instance, and there are things you can do in grad school or shortly afterward to lay the groundwork for a non-academic career. But the thing is: even if you “leave” academia, even if you decide not tomake your living at the life of the mind, you can still be an academic.

I am.

Whither a “Writer”?

There’s a novelist called Jay Lake whose books I love and whose blog I read. (I met him once, at Worldcon 2007 in Japan, but I doubt he remembers me; if he does, though, hi Jay!) Jay is an incredibly prolific writer. He’s very well known and highly regarded in the science fiction community. His books have been nominated for major awards and they sell well. Jay is, by all accounts, a writer. He’s a novelist.

Jay also has a day job to pay the bills (or as he calls it, a Daye Jobbe).

Take also my dear friend Trilby Kent, this year’s winner of the Canadian Children’s Book Award. Trilby’s books are extraordinarily well-reviewed and well-respected, and have been added to school curricula all over the world. Trilby is, by all accounts, a novelist.

She is also in the midst of doing a PhD in Creative Writing. When her PhD novel is finished, she will likely teach.

The majority of novelists I know are not only novelists. Most of them do other things as well. Lou Anders is a novelist, but is also the editor-in-chief of Pyr BooksPaul Cornell is a novelist, but he also writes comics and television shows. (OK, maybe Paul is pretty much a “pure” writer.) Nalo Hopkinson is a novelist, but she is also a professor at the University of California, RiversideJoseph Kertes is a novelist, but he is also the Dean of the School of Creative and Performing Arts at Humber College.

What You Do To Make Money Is Not What You Are

I’m going to say that again: what you do to make money is not what you are.

There’s this corrosive idea, this scratchy little voice, that lives in the corners of the academy and whispers from the darkness: “If you were really dedicated to your work, you’d give up everything else in your life for your academic work.” Academia loves itself a martyr. But that voice is a lie. Ignore it.

Sometimes, what you do for a living coincides with what you love, or what you want to be, or how you define yourself at the heart of the matter. I happen to be one of those people; I am an academic and I love it, but I am also a marketing professional and I love that, too.

But sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes, what you do for a living doesn’t have a whole lot to do with what you really do.

A musician who waits tables is a waiter, but also a musician. A writer who teaches is a teacher, but also a writer. A painter who works as a lawyer is a lawyer, but also a painter. And an administrative assistant or a shoe store clerk or an advertising copywriter who does original academic research and/or teaches at the college or university level is an academic.

Academia Is As Academia Does

Ultimately, what I’m calling for here is a radical revisioning of what it means to be an academic. Just a small task! This process has already started, though, with the concept of “alt-ac” – that is, alternative careers within the academic context for those with grad degrees. It’s started with the advocacy of the Versatile PhD, which provides information and support on alternate careers for academics.

But what I’m talking about isn’t an “alternative” to academia. It is academia. It’s an academia of independent scholars, of salespeople who write articles in their hotel rooms on the road, of copywriters who spend their weekdays writing taglines and their weekends at the library. An academia that is, frankly, structured a lot more like many business schools are now: in which part-time faculty members are valued not only for the academic skills and expertise they bring to the classroom, but for the non-academic ones as well. In which the academy and the world outside are not adversaries but partners, and in which the doors between are open, not closed.

I’ll start. Who’s with me?