Academia and the Portfolio Life

I just returned from a really massive academic conference, you know the type where there are thousands and thousands of people, hundreds of panels, people trying to get jobs, find places to publish, and make fabulous professional connections.  These events feel like part intellectual hotbed, part meat market.  I had the opportunity to meet some wonderful people in my field, and in general experience a type of collegiality that I have not encountered in a number of years. Mission accomplished! I left the conference generally feeling excited and renewed, but these events also make me feel a bit introspective, and get me considering my own nonstandard academic career path and trajectory.  When meeting academic colleagues for the first time, I get the standard rota of questions:  “So, where do you teach?  What do you teach?” and then the inevitable follow ups “You teach for how many schools?  How do you do that?”  (By the way, I’m happy to offer workshops or consultations on these and other topics!) The response to my online specialization ranges from “Wow, that’s really cool!” to almost pitying responses from people who assume that I either gave up, or I must genuinely be wanting that tenure track position.  What is also clear to me, based on comments made by some colleagues, is that online teaching is not considered a respectable profession, and there is still clearly a lot of hostility and resistance to online teaching among classroom based professors.  In some ways I can understand this, and that will be a subject of another blog post, because it really needs addressing, but what I really wanted to write about today is how events like this prompt me to think about my life and my values as a teacher, academic, and researcher, and to reflect on my continuing engagement with traditional academia.

While I take great inspiration from my traditional colleagues, and I’m always excited to have the opportunity to exchange ideas with them and to start new projects, in many ways my life just does not look like theirs, except for the endless rounds of grading papers, and student interactions, which are just as real, inspiring, challenging and also as heartbreaking online as they are in the face to face environment.  I actually find that a lot of my day to day inspiration and motivation comes from the writings of people who consider themselves to be “lifestyle hackers”, those who live outside the box, and who conceive of of their lives and income streams in much more radical ways.  I’m thinking of The 4 Hour Workweek (not without problems, just sayin’!!) and The Art of Non Conformity, but there are many others. Please feel free to share your favorites with me.

In the past week or so I have been particularly inspired by the notion of the “portfolio life”, which is the idea that we start to see ourselves less as “having jobs” and more as possessing a variety of skills and interests that we can add to our portfolio. We can use our portfolio for marketing ourselves and also for making decisions on how we want to spend our time and resources.  Portfolio lives also require knowing what resources you need, because the income streams are seen less as an identity anchor and more of a way to finance how you want to live.  Although the portfolio life is frequently used to promote active retirement, I think there are plenty of ways for those of us not working 9 to 5 jobs to use this idea to use this concept to consider a more integrated life that is less defined by our jobs, and more defined by what we love. For people not engaged in standard employment, or do not have a single institution based position, this can be a very empowering life reframing exercise.

I want to concentrate on the different ways in which pieces of my life work together, some of which are career focused, some of which are not. I really don’t identify myself as an “adjunct professor”. Mostly I frame my career activities in a much more entrepreneurial space. I teach, I design, I consult. I have a number of different income streams that allow me the flexibility to travel, research, write and sing. Certainly there are many tech and business people who have this kind of existence, but I think it tends to be harder for those of us in the Humanities to envision our lives in this way, because frankly, so much of our self worth ends up being tied to the way in which we are received by institutions. In short, unless a university tells us we are good, we don’t think we are, and there is still suspicion and derision directed toward academics who are not on the tenure track. The “prestige trap” of academia has been well addressed elsewhere, but I really think the problem of self esteem, and the relationship to institutional acceptance is something that hurts many scholars deeply, and it makes me sad.  I know people who are literally crippled by this problem, and who simply cannot find another way to envision their lives.  I know so many people who are angry with academia, and even those who have chosen to step out of it entirely often bitterly regard it as a romance that went horribly wrong, and they see themselves as failures.

I have had to go through a process of ungluing my brain and continually being aware of that sort of negative conditioning to get to where I am now, and the large scale interaction with so many traditional colleagues at this recent event brought that process to the surface.  But this life suits me!  It certainly suits the fact that I have a number of unusual research interests in far off lands that require financing and flexibility.  It also means that I can take more chances with my research topics, and pursue interesting hypotheses. The fact that I work from home supports my introvert nature, and I really do, genuinely, feel good about the teaching I do and the populations I serve.  I would just love to see more academics living without fear and embracing new models for their own lives and becoming empowered in the process.  Sure, I teach, and I write, but I also sing, exercise, try to learn new skills, and have a wonderful family life and rich friendships.  These are all part of my portfolio, and I can find satisfaction and accomplishment in so many different ways as well as staying employed.  As we find traditional employment patterns changing, shifting the attention back to the entirety of our lives and giving ourselves the freedom and permission to focus on what we value and enjoy may help us to find a deeper satisfaction.

5 Responses to “Academia and the Portfolio Life”

  1. SA Says:

    “I would just love to see more academics living without fear and embracing new models for their own lives and becoming empowered in the process. ”

    I would too, but I would also love to be able to do so and have health care, paid time off, the promise of unemployment insurance if I’m laid off, and not work 70+ hours per week (which I already do via just one online full-time job because of the student load my institution thinks is “reasonable.”) In theory I hold a job that could allow me to be “hacking my life” and working from a beach on Brazil, but practically speaking I can sometimes barely leave the house. Piecing together full-time work from a bunch of part-time gigs would make me more overloaded with less of a safety net.

  2. Amy Says:

    This won’t work for everyone, not at all, and honestly to my mind I think the most valuable part of the exercise is really about trying to see the entirety of your life as valuable and to reconsider what I think is too much of a rather unhealthy attachment to academia.

    I just have to ask, are you happy with your current situation?

  3. Christine Kraemer Says:

    > (By the way, I’m happy to offer workshops or consultations on these and other topics!)

    I may have a workshop opportunity for you. Would you let me know the best place to write to you about it? my address is chkraemer13 at gmail.

  4. Lance Says:

    Very cool! the ‘portfolio life’ seems an apt point of view in these evolving times.

  5. Mysteria Misc. Maxima: December 16th, 2011 « Invocatio Says:

    [...] Hale weighs in on what it’s like having an academic career doesn’t resemble the tenure-track professor next door. (Amy [...]

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