Academics in the Middle

Over the summer, at a conference-closing roundtable, the discussion turned to what senior scholars could do for younger ones, with the latter meaning mostly graduate students. As neither category applied to me, I slipped out of the room for more coffee. Across a table piled high with maple bear claws, I told a fellow caffeine-seeker that the whole conversation was making me feel very middle-aged.

“Maybe a little middle-aged,” he replied.

But the truth is that I don’t know where I fit in terms of career-stage. “Early Career Researcher” can be used to refer to recent PhDs, but how many years is recent? Five years? If that’s the measure, I’m on the edge. Or is it measured by publication of a monograph, in which case I’m already in some other category? Or maybe it has to do with your job, in which case I’m confused again. I work at a community college in the middle of the Pacific that does not have tenure, but on the other hand I have a leadership position as Chair of my department. In that position, I sometimes advise more recent PhDs on how to keep publishing despite the heavy load of teaching and service we require. And I do not experience the insecurity typically faced by faculty working in contingent positions.

I’m also in a different kind of middle because I do both critical and creative writing. I finished my MFA five years before I started my PhD. Back then I only wrote poetry, but more recently I have worked in prose fiction and creative nonfiction as well. My personal essay about my issues with forgiveness culture has affected more lives than anything else I have ever written. So how should I be distributing my writing time?

With these competing positions, identities, and demands on my time, I never seem to fit easily into any community, academic or otherwise. Marginality is not a new experience for me, but I’m wondering how common my sense of being in-between is in academia today and what, if anything, disciplines should do to address it.

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