B.37: Enacting Career Diversity in Rhetoric and Composition: Different Pathways for a Professional Life with a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition
Reviewed by Sarah E. Polo, University of Kansas (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Chair: Gail Pizzola, University of Texas at San Antonio
Speakers: Joanna Schmidt, Texas Christian University, “Working Definitions: Alt-Ac, Identities, and Opportunities”
Anita Furtner Archer, Raytheon, “An Unexpected Outcome: Building a Career Path with Diverse Experiences”
Ruijie Zhao, Parkland College, “An Unexpected Step into an Expected Career: Looking Back at my PhD Education from the Vantage Point of a Community College Career”
Respondent: Amy Kimme Hea, University of Arizona, “New Roles, New Responsibilities: Understanding the Roles & Complexities of PhD Programs in Career Diversity”
As a current PhD student in rhetoric and composition, I felt resistant to attending—yet also strongly drawn toward—the panel on “Enacting Career Diversity in Rhetoric and Composition: Different Pathways for a Professional Life with a PhD in Rhetoric and Composition.” Though still in the beginning stages of my own program, I am highly conscious of the uncertain position I will likely be in upon degree completion. Faced with a dwindling number of new tenure-track positions and an ever-growing adjunctification trend, I, and others in my same position, may remain on the job market for years, or may resort to accepting positions as part-time and contingent faculty members.
Of course, these concerns are not new ones, nor are they likely to be solved soon. Of the seven resolutions passed by the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC) Annual Business Meeting at this year's convention, five resolutions passed related to issues of labor. It is little wonder that many new, future, and even long-time PhDs have moved and continue to move outside of academia. It was this very issue that this panel on “Enacting Career Diversity in Rhetoric and Composition” addressed as part of the Consortium of Doctoral Programs in Rhetoric and Composition. Certainly, this panel was a timely one.
Based purely on observations of age, it appeared that most of the approximate 25 attendees to the panel were aged 35 or younger. To attend was to acknowledge the reality of our situations, to attempt to be proactive about listening to and considering alternative paths, and perhaps to even secretly hope that we weren't seen doing so by any less-supportive mentors and faculty at the conference.
Presenter one, Joanna Schmidt of Texas Christian University (TCU), Fort Worth, Texas, began the panel by establishing the general concept of alternate academic, or alt-ac, in her presentation, “Working Definitions: Alt-Ac, Identities, and Opportunities.” In addition to alt-ac, Schmidt presented the terms post-ac and para-ac, helpfully distinguishing between the related, yet distinct concepts. Using her experience as a simultaneous full-time alt-ac staff member, graduate student, and graduate teaching assistant at TCU, Schmidt next presented a list of issues for current graduate students considering a career outside of academia to think about. This included redefining what it means to achieve “career success,” taking advantage of professional development opportunities (such as online teaching certificates or training in team-based learning), and searching for jobs that highlight individual expertise (also thinking rhetorically about how to present your experience in a way that fits alt-ac positions). Schmidt ended her presentation by speaking more directly to English departments, offering ways departments can support graduate students considering alt-ac paths, for instance, asking departments to actually vocalize their support or highlight alumni who have taken alt-ac jobs.
Presenter two was Anita Furtner Archer of Raytheon who spoke on “An Unexpected Outcome: Building a Career Path with Diverse Experiences.” Archer's presentation, like all of the panelists, was based primarily on her experiences. She recounted her journey through high school, an undergraduate program, a master's degree, PhD, and finally, a Fortune 500 company, Raytheon, first as a technical writer, and now as a security education manager. Archer summarized her journey as one beginning with “dreams of a tenure track position” in academia, but which was influenced by changes in her personal and professional life, as well as physical setbacks, all of which ultimately lead to an unexpected, yet successful career outside of academia. Archer ended by offering encouragement to individuals in similar positions, pointing out that she has been able to make connections to her love of teaching and language in her current career, despite its distance from her original plan.
Presenter three, Ruijie Zhao of Parkland College, spoke on “An Unexpected Step into an Expected Career: Looking Back at my PhD Education from the Vantage Point of a Community College Career.” Following the pattern of previous presenters, Zhao's talk was heavily based in her personal experiences, though her own path did not lead outside of academia, but rather to work in a community college, Parkland College. She began with a definition of the term community college from the American Association of Community Colleges, focusing on distinctions between two-year and traditional four-year colleges. Zhao emphasized her own initial unfamiliarity with community colleges and the ways that accepting a position teaching at Parkland challenged her previous teaching experiences and her prior emphasis on feminist pedagogy. The bulk of Zhao's presentation was spent answering the question of what a community college values, for example, teaching emphasis, service, and community engagement. To conclude, Zhao emphasized the “opportunities and rewards” of community college teaching.
Following the three panelists, a response was given by Amy Kimme Hea of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Kimme Hea offered several observations and concluding thoughts. First, we need to continue to break or reframe the dominant narrative that says PhD students have to become university professors, a problem Kimme Hea claimed was attributable to the egos of some current professors. Second, it should be okay for students to talk about considering alternative career paths; they shouldn’t have to fear a lack of support from their advisors and mentors. Finally, Kimme Hea called for the field to produce “public rhetors,” graduates of rhetoric and composition programs who can represent the work of composition to the broader public.
The Q&A time following Kimme Hea's response yielded a variety of concerns felt by audience members, yet also provided an opportunity for the panelists to provide assurance and advice. For instance, one audience member described the struggle to justify alt-ac positions to faculty members. Another asked about how to find a supportive mentor.
Despite whatever initial trepidation I may have felt at attending a panel on alternative-academic paths (as if a future hiring committee might see me there and interpret my attendance as a lack of seriousness about university teaching), the panel was reassuring and productive. Here were three women who had established successful careers outside of teaching at four-year universities and who were willing to share their experiences, providing a safe space for exploration and conversation. As Kimme Hea's response articulated, these conversations certainly need to be extended, within our departments and beyond.