Staying Alive is a blog that sets out to offer academics a vision of a life that's larger than the confines of academia. It is also a blog that, after looking through its archives, is clearly not one I should add to my blogroll.
Basically, it's a somewhat more thoughtful version of Chronicleland, in which success is possible if you only try hard enough and think creatively enough. Now, I get that for some people, hopeful stories and positive role models are motivating. Telling people that the world won't end for them if they don't end up with a tenure-track job isn't a bad thing.
But telling people that failure is a gift that teaches one to embrace risk, that one can just shake off the emotional devastation of career catastrophe, and that enriching alternatives are there for the taking if one makes a focused enough effort?
All that is bullshit. Or, at least, the effort to turn it into one-size-fits-all advice is bullshit.
I find it telling too, that in the latest post on the site, the specter of PhDs ending up driving cabs and working at Target is exorcised by the story of an individual who carved out a stunning new career for himself, who has a rich and fullfilling and well-paid job now, and who is happily living in a college town doing scholarship, despite his not having a tenure-track job. First, how typical is such an experience? Is it really a true debunking of the fear of unemployment? No - it's more a debunking of a fear that one can't be intellectually engaged outside of the academy.
And there's the core of my dispute with this blog and its agenda. The argument is not really about career success or failure, about employment or unemployment, but about self-fulfillment as an intellectual and a scholar. Their point - that such fulfillment can be found outside of academia, so don't worry about having to leave the academic career ladder - is good as far as it goes, but it's not really talking about genuine career failure.
To employ an admittedly strained metaphor, this blog is about teaching people that traveling to Iceland or Togo may be just as rewarding as traveling to the major cities of Europe - it's not really offering advice to those who are lucky if they get to go camping in the local state park. It's written for academics who are anxious about personal fulfillment; it's not written for academics who are wondering how to put food on the table, or how to compensate for their lack of non-academic work experience when applying for an entry-level job. It's also not written for those who prefer more reality than inspiration, more acknowledgement of their circumstances than role models and cheerleading.
Don't worry about working at Target or driving a cab, this blog reassures the anxious academic; your Plan B may be the start of a glorious new career. But what about those of us who have already found ourselves stuck in a world where working at Target would be a step up, because it would mean regular hours and benefits? Apparently we don't really exist, except as bogeymen and -women used to scare young academics into line. And that's where the blog falls short. For all of their talk of "failure," the authors are by any standards successful, and seem to have little understanding of how much privilege they enjoyed, even during their times of self-doubt and struggle.
I understand that writers can't be all things to all people - that's why I'm not going to be reading any more of this particular blog. There may be some hopeful young things who find such visions of alternative paths enticing or consoling, or more experienced scholars may be inspired to make long-awaited moves into more rewarding directions. Those things have value, yes.
It's just that I find it somewhat ironic that a blog that includes several posts expressing sympathy for adjuncts, and castigating the tenured for their complicity in the adjunctification of the process, has in its own way offered an alternative that is just as alienating to the "failures." That is, I don't see any more practical value in their vision for adjuncts and other part-timers than I do in the older vision. The onus is still on the individual to carve out a rewarding career for him or herself, and if he or she fails in that attempt, it's because the effort or will wasn't great enough. It's still a meritocratic vision, in which those who succed do so because they are better in some way than those who do not. Structural forces get short shrift here, as they usually do when individual empowerment is the message. Strangely enough, I do not find such messages empowering.