“Find out who you are and do it on purpose.”
It is coming up on a year since I submitted my PhD. I can barely believe it. Have you ever had one of those years where you do so many things that it feels simultaneously like the longest year of your life and over in a flash? Since October of last year, I’ve defended successfully, moved house, started lecturing, stopped lecturing, and got an alt-academic job that I love in an unexpected field. So I guess I’m not an academic any more. Or, not in the traditional sense, anyway. The next time I set foot in the university will be to clear out my locker, a task which I should have done months ago.
This is a lot for me to grapple with. Academia is a huge part of my identity. It has been the bulk of my time for a decade. Who am I, if not burdened with books? I got a clearer sense of the answer this week at The Book as Cure, an IES conference where I gave a paper, not as a researcher, but as a practitioner. (I’ll write more about this excellent conference when I’ve had time to percolate the dozens of ideas that sparked off during it.)
I’ve been working in bibliotherapy, an emerging field which posits that books and reading may have curative properties for those in need of a boost in resilience, empathy, and mental wellbeing. I love it. I’m being paid to do a form of community work where my expertise is an asset. It’s a dream job, and I’ve been surprised by it because I had previously been thinking about post-PhD work in a very rigid and limited sense. You’ve got to work in a university, right? Even though universities are hotbeds of exploitation, anxiety, and competitiveness, it’s just the only way one put a humanities research degree to use. Once I stopped thinking about using my in this way, the whole world blew open. I’ve been lucky to find the work that I’ve found, and on my own doorstep, but the thing that helped me lean into that luck was just accepting in the first place that there might be another way. This has been a really interesting change in perspective for me; I’ve always been very invested in making sure research didn’t live exclusively in universities, but I’ve had very little realistic opportunity to do so. As it was, I found myself listening to several absolutely fascinating papers yesterday, firing up my research synapses, but ultimately concluding that it was all a bit… well… academic. It’s all well and good to say that we can do something, but it’s a different thing entirely to actually do it. I’m not denigrating the excellent work academics do in theorising new ways of doing things – but the academy as a whole needs to improve links with practitioners, particularly in the humanities, in order for these theories to mean anything. I applaud IEA and the Open University for arranging an event that brought arts researchers and practitioners together, and I had fascinating and rewarding discussions last week that helped me link with people who I know can give my work a solid research foundation (and vice versa!). Let’s create more opportunities like this, and deconstruct academia’s ivory-tower approach to knowledge.