That’s me in my store a decade or so ago, talking to a sales rep while browsing a catalog. The store was called “Shakespeare’s Sister.” At the time this was taken, I had closed the cafe in the back, expanding instead our art and sitting space, “The Artback.”
My former partners and I had named the store in support of the idea that there is creativity in everyone. We wanted to build a place of comfort where all sorts of people could be welcome. Over the 14 years Shakespeare’s Sister was open, we hosted over 100 art shows, numerous readings, musical performances, dramatic presentations… you name it.
We had a good time.
Was that an alternative-academic (alt-ac) career? I think so. Without it, after all, I never would have had the academic success I’ve enjoyed since. It provides a solid foundation for my ideas about teaching and scholarship. Not only that, but everything I was doing was involved with pathways that had been unconsciously created while I was in graduate school in the 1980s.
When I received my PhD and announced that I was going to Togo, West Africa to work in agriculture as a Peace Corps Volunteer, an aunt of mine told me I was wasting my education. But, I replied, I hadn’t gone to grad school to get a job; I had gone simply to read. And I had done a lot of that. Now, I wanted to learn and, perhaps, eventually teach, though I didn’t imagine doing that in a traditional environment. Creating something like Shakespeare’s Sister, where people could experiment and grow on their own–that was more my vision. I did not see an “ac/alt-ac” distinction; it was all one and the same to me. If anything, that would have seemed too narrow. My doctorate did not remain in (or near) the university when I left but traveled with me. It has even grown with me.
I recently read an essay by Brandy Schillace on Inside Higher Ed. Called “The Rogue Scholar Strikes a Balance.” In it, she talks about the sense of belonging in academic environments and about balancing academic and non-academic lives. Though I wanted to like the article, it left me a little perplexed.
My life has never revolved around academia and I have never felt I have to strike a balance with it or, when I was not teaching in a college, create an image for myself as following an “alternative” path. Only recently have I even considered my life in those terms. I got over the “town/gown” split when I was in high school. My father was a college professor, but I worked at the local IGA and hung out with kids even less interested in college than I was. Even today, I live in a neighborhood that has a low “educated” element. Of the dozen or so people at the get-together down the street last night, only four or five of us had attended college at all, and I suspect a couple of those never graduated.
That I did not go to grad school as a career move but simply so I could read William Faulkner more intelligently has given me a great deal of freedom and, eventually, allowed me to develop an academic career far beyond anything I could have imagined (I was never a wonderful student and gathered no accolades). I didn’t see going to school as a path to anything, and certainly did not imagine that I was choosing an “alt” path when I graduated.
Sure, my choices were so “alt” that they probably don’t, in most minds, even deserve an “alt-ac” designation. People without academic degrees could do many of the things I’ve done just was well (better, actually) than I have. Yet it is the fact of my PhD that allowed me to be so “alt” as to join Peace Corps in my late 30s and, later, to start my store and cafe. When I started to teach in classroom settings again as an adjunct in 2001, it wasn’t to move back, but to expand. That the expansion was greater than planned… well, that’s another story.
Maybe we should stop looking at graduate school as a career platform and return to seeing it, as I did (quite by accident) as a life platform. Something like college should be, but with more intensity. Then we won’t see our choices afterwards as starkly “either/or.”
Let me tell you this: Life is much more interesting when we strip away the categories and chase experience and creativity. I’ve had the luck to learn that.