After doing my BA in 1994-1998, I spent a year working as a legal secretary in London by day, while writing a novel by night. (You don’t need to know about the novel.) Then I did an MA and a PhD at the Centre for Cultural Studies at Leeds, while simultaneously discovering fandom and the Barbelith Underground* (and still working as a legal secretary in the holidays). In the four years of my PhD, I wrote a 100,000-word thesis and about 100,000 words of fan fiction, and I was a member of four enormously generous, supportive and challenging communities: the postgrad cohort at Leeds; the Beechwood Collective (a bunch of women in the area who used to meet up and watch Buffy together); the Barbelith Underground; and Blake’s 7 slash fandom. In all four of those contexts, we talked ideas and theory and personal experience and passion, and we produced readings and writings for each other to share. (I think this is what Aren Aizura is talking about when he talks about a ‘commons’, though his account of grad school emphasizes its territorializing/professionalizing aspects.)
Then I finished my PhD and I had to decide whether I wanted to be an academic. I knew that I wanted the centre of my life to be reading books and having ideas and talking about them with people, but of course I knew from my other three communities that academia wasn’t the only place to do that. At that time, it seemed to me that my two options were:
1. Be an academic; or
2. Be a legal secretary by day and a theorist/novelist by night. (Actually, the plan was to be a legal secretary by night and a theorist/novelist by day: someone once told me that the big law firms in London employ night-shift secretaries, which would have been like my perfect job and is still a road not taken for me, though of course mostly I did audio typing and presumably there will not be jobs in that field for much longer.[YouTube link])
I decided to be an academic for two reasons. The first was that academics have much easier access to the cool stuff – especially in the UK, where university libraries are not open to the public. (Seriously, UKers, in Australia you can just WALK IN OFF THE STREET to any university library, sit down, and read all the books! It is amazing!**) But, basically, if you work at a university you get free access to books, inter-library loans, journal subscriptions, etc, which are hard to access from the outside.
And the second reason, which was really the more important one, was that it struck me that, basically, over my five years at Leeds, almost all the important ideas/conversations/things to read that had come my way had done so in snatched moments in the corridor between one class and the next meeting. (Oh, Ika, I meant to tell you about this book I read about Rome, and that was how I discovered Michel Serres…) Being a lone scholar, working as a legal secretary by day and reading/writing by night, I just wasn’t going to be in the kind of space that would maximise my chances of those random encounters that, in practice, were what shaped my work and my thought.
I really like working in academia, and I’ve had an uncharacteristically easy ride of it. I haven’t been through the post-doc/one-year-teaching-fellow precarious hypermobile can-I-still-live-with-my-girlfriend mill. I got a full-time permanent job at Bristol University within a year of completing my PhD, and by the time I was ready to move on [<--euphemism] I got another full-time permanent job here at Wollongong within about two years of seriously starting to search. Which was nice. [YouTube link]
But academia isn’t, and shouldn’t be, and mustn’t be, the only place where knowledge is produced and shared and transmitted. Most of the fields I’ve been most energized by and enjoy working in the most have been co-produced by people working in the academy and people working outside it: feminism, queer theory, reception theory/fan studies. But those two barriers to intellectual work and community outside the academy still remain: access to books, journals, ideas; and access to communities of thought where random, everyday interactions can occur and spark things.
All of this is preamble to sharing two links with you. One is to the Call for Papers for a book called The Para-Academic Handbook, co-edited by the amazing feminist philosopher Alex Wardrop and the excellent ‘researcher who makes things’ Deborah Withers:
Frustrated by the lack of opportunities to research, create learning experiences or make a basic living within the university on our own terms, para-academics don’t seek out alternative careers in the face of an evaporated future, we just continue to do what we’ve always done: write, research, learn, think, and facilitate that process for others… As the para-academic community grows there is a real need to build supportive networks, share knowledge, ideas and strategies that can allow these types of interventions to become sustainable and flourish. There is a very real need to create spaces of solace, action and creativity.
The other is an interview with the also amazing Eileen Joy, co-director of the ‘para-academic’ punctum books, an open-access and print-on-demand academic publisher:
Given that the University (writ large across many different sorts of institutions – an actual network of site(s) but also an Ideal) ought to be the place where we practice free speech (Foucault’s “fearless speech,” in my view) as well as put into place Derrida’s “university without condition,” it seems to us at punctum that academic/public intellectual writing should be made widely accessible to whoever, wherever, wants to read it… What we need now, in the academy as well as the world, is more, and not less, thought, more, and not less, experimentation, more, and not less, “free play” of ideas.
Read! Write! Enjoy!
*The Barbelith Underground was founded and run by Tom Coates, who was writing ‘don’t-go-to-grad-school’ blog posts back in 2004, n00bs.
**People don’t seem to, though.