In early March 2013, I attended the 1st Biennial Latina/o Literary Theory and Criticism Conference at John Jay College in New York. I presented a selection from Chapter 2 of my dissertation (you can see an early draft of that here) and was very excited to share my work with other Latina/Latino studies scholars. It was the first time since I filed my dissertation that I had the chance to share my research with others in a conference setting; I thought of it as an opportunity to meet more scholars in my field of interest–considering that I work in an area that is unrelated to what I wrote my dissertation on, I often don’t have the opportunity to talk to others about this side of my research agenda. In other words, I invested my own money to attend this conference because I thought it would nurture the scholarly side of my soul and add to my visibility as an academic. (I am not saying that there are not other ways of doing this, but that this is why I chose to attend this conference.) Also, let me add that I have family in New York City, so I can offset the travel cost by staying with family.
My academic credentials confused some of the conference goers, at least those who directly asked me, “what do you teach?” I’m not surprised; many of the people there were professors and/or graduate students teaching Latino/a literature. However, conference registration pages ask what is your institutional affiliation, not “where are you teaching?” so it is possible for people who are not teaching or on the tenure track to attend these: folks like me, alternative academics. I heard several times that weekend “what do you teach?” (a lot more direct than “what department are you in?”) and I responded variations of “I don’t teach.” One time I answered, “I don’t teach, not like you think I do.”
I know that academic conference attendees are not used to seeing or hearing alternative academics at these places–in all honesty, alternative academics were not on my radar until I became one, so I understand. But, while sitting at one of the panels and listening to the brief bios of the panelists, I realized: am I the only one who is a staff member here? Why does that fact matter? Why am I here?
It matters because there are many academics who go into alternative academic careers (student support, administration, instructional design, among others) because they want to stay in this environment. Many #altac folks (altac being the Twitter hashtag that several of us have adopted as shorthand for our professional identities) still consider themselves scholars, or at least want the opportunity to continue working on their research. Just because they are not tenure track does not mean that they have no desire to do research. My experience at the conference makes me think about who has the chance to continue researching. Attending an academic conference is rarely cheap, and many academic depend on their departments or universities to help with that.
But the bigger question that day was, “why am I here?” In a nutshell, I wanted to share my research with other Latina/o lit scholars. I wanted to talk to others who are writing and researching Latina/o literature. I want to be a part of this new conference. I want to stimulate my writing process by engaging in critical conversations about my work; just because I work in student services does not mean that part of my professional identity is dead, and I still represent my institution when I attend these conferences.
But this brings me back to an earlier problem that I have blogged about: is it sustainable to continue working on my areas of interest if I have to fund it with my money and my time outside of the 40-hour work week? This is not an isolated problem: there are many in academia who do research even when it is out of the purview of their job (interstitial scholars, indie scholars, altac scholars, adjuncts, teaching faculty, among others). Is love for the game and a line on our CV enough compensation? And if a university does not support our academic endeavors, should we continue to put that university down as our academic affiliation in registration forms?
This makes me wonder: Is the solution to go rogue and become independent scholars? Is that even feasible?
Kansas City, Kansas in the US.