Last week, I attended the College Language Association’s (CLA) 2016 conference in Houston, TX. While there, I presented on Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Dayton Tattler and the role of the press in Dunbar’s writing. While that, in and of itself, made the conference something worthwhile for me professionally, I experienced things that I have only encountered at a few other academic gatherings. Yes, I heard amazing and interesting research on Charles’s Chesnutt, Frederick Douglass, Richard Wright, Pauline Hopkins, Toni Morrison, Kendrick Lamar, digital humanities in the classroom, and numerous other topics. However, the most phenomenal aspects of the conference were the discussions of the profession and what to do with a humanities degree if you cannot land that coveted tenure track position, the camaraderie and overall collegiality, and the awards banquet. These three things really stuck out to me, and they made me think about choosing this conference as my yearly academic destination.
I have been to other conferences that talk about the life of ex-academics who have taken positions and led careers outside of the academy. However, the panel at this conference really caught my attention, perhaps because of my current situation. Whatever case, the panel stood out because the panelists provided helpful information in regards to where to search for jobs and how to speak the language of the corporate and non-profit world. Through these maneuvers, a candidate would have the language to relate his or her transferable skills to a non-academic environment. For example, one panelists mentioned the acronym SME, a term I had never heard of before. SME stands for Subject Matter Expert; essentially, it is a position that involves research and the understanding of that research for communication to others. This, of course, mirrors what all PhDs in the humanities have to learn to do in order to complete their degree.
Along with terms that would translate my skill set to those outside of the academy, the panelists also provided various places to look for employment both outside and on the periphery of the academy proper. When I say “academy proper,” I am referring to a teaching and research position with tenure. The periphery exists in areas such as centers and archives. These are places that may not have a tenure system but are still within the university. The panelists spoke about working in archives and centers (which I have done), working for nonprofits, working for tourism offices, working in an educational position for a corporation, working in the government, and elsewhere. For more on these types of jobs, visit usajobs.gov, ncph.org, or Connected Academics at the MLA site. These are not the only places to look, but they provide a good starting point. One final source is the Academic Expat blog which explores the process of finding a job a outside of the ivory tower.
While the panel above, and the others I attended, stimulated my grey matter, the collegiality and camaraderie amongst the attendees caught my attention as well. I have been to a few conferences that are similar in this manner: the Catharine Maria Sedgwick Society conference and the MELUS conference. This closeness typically arises in smaller conferences, and I have not encountered it in the regional MLA conferences or other academic gatherings I have attended. The intimacy of the conference, containing only about eight congruent panels, makes it a place to engage in conversation after a panel and to interact with individuals on a closer, more intimate level.
As I attended CLA, I was staying with a colleague who was attending a national conference a few blocks away. As we spoke one night after our respective conference days ended, we talked about the differences, noting that the ability to speak with other scholars in a smaller setting, and being able to network, provides a great opportunity for young scholars as well as more veteran ones. Perhaps the most important topic that arose out of my conversation with my colleague centered on the role of graduate programs preparing students to “conference.” The academic conference can be intimidating for a young scholar, especially an MA or PhD student. It has taken me countless conferences to actually feel like I have a conferencing persona that can mingle, network, and enjoy the activities surrounding the gathering.
As a student, I never attended a conference with a mentor. Thinking back, I wish I did. At CLA, I heard stories of scholars who could be seen, throughout the years, with graduate students following behind them like ducklings behind a mother duck. They came to the conference to learn how to be scholars. As a mentor to the next batch of scholars, I want that to be my role. I want to bring those that I mentor along with me to conferences so I can introduce them to scholars in their field and to get them acquainted with the process of creating that professional persona that we all need when “conferencing.” Instead of taking years to earn how to interact with scholars whom I admire, and not feel intimated, I could have started forming relationships much sooner if I had mentors who consciously went out of their way to introduce me, whether at a conference or not, to people in the profession.
Keeping the idea of camaraderie alive, the CLA awards ceremony banquet highlighted students, scholars, and CLA executive members by recognizing their scholarship and service. The whole event showed an organization that strives to support the work done in African American and Africana studies in the academy, and to that effect, the whole evening became a celebration of the work being done, not only in books and articles but also through service to students and society as a whole. In this way, the ceremony only solidified my already budding appreciation for CLA and what they have been doing for the past 76 years.
The highlight of the ceremony, however, was Jesmyn Ward’s keynote speech. Ward’s speech expressed her familial lineage and the struggles they, and herself, encountered in Mississippi. As she spoke of her grandmother having to hide in the back of a truck when leaving a white neighborhood at night, her brother’s murderer (a white drunk driver) getting only five years in prison for fleeing the scene, and her own encounters with racist classmates during her adolescence, I could not help but glance around the room. When I did, I saw individuals with their eyes closed, listening intently as Ward told of these incidents. I cannot imagine going through these experiences, and I can never fully comprehend how they affected, and continue to affect, people. However, I can think back to incidents in my own life, with the separation of time, and see how people I know act the same way as some of the people who acted this way towards Ward, her family, and many others.
How do we counter this in a supposedly post-racial America? How do we confront the racism that still exists. For me, it comes through education; however, that does not always work because unless someone is willing to listen, they will fight tooth and nail to adhere to their beliefs. I do feel, though, that getting individuals to read, to provide diversity in literary texts, not just in college, would be a start to at least opening these conversations in the classroom. I still adhere to James Baldwin’s assertion that “