What do I do now?

I got another “Straight Talk” fanmail today, this one asking rather diffidently if I would be willing to suggest some next steps after leaving graduate school. I’m not exactly a Horatio Alger story, but what the hell, I’ve got some disorganized thoughts, so why not?

The immediate need, of course, is for positive cash flow, which means work. Any work. Whatever work you can land; you won’t be doing it forever anyway. Temp agencies, limited-term work (colleges, universities, and government are major sources of this), waitronning, (the dreaded) retail, whatever. Just stop the financial bleeding, however you can.

You can’t afford to be disdainful of the workaday world at this point. In fact, in my experience the folks who have the worst time transitioning out of academia are the ones who never let go of it. Temping and retail are beneath them, they’re horribly underpaid for their intelligence and (perceived) social status, and every day they haul themselves home from work lamenting their former role and status as academicians. If this is you, train yourself out of it. It will blind you to opportunity where you are, waste precious brain-cycles that deserve better use, and make you so bitter and miserable that you may damage yourself permanently. Grieve if you need to, work through what happened to you if you need to (I did both), but don’t define yourself by your old academic identity. That’s gone. Time to roll up your sleeves and start building something else.

What’s more, that precise brand of disdain for the non-academic is what the rest of us hate most when we see it in academia. You won’t be doing yourself any favors in your workplace if you exhibit it; you must respect non-academic work and the people who do it. A well-honed curiosity will help you here. Do you know what a comptroller or a mid-level manager or a sysadmin actually does with her day? Well, don’t be contemptuous—watch and learn instead.

You must also respect time and experience (rather than hurdle-jumping) as determiners of one’s height on the employment totem pole. The people around you did their time as peons while you were in grad school. You need to do your time now; this is part of the opportunity cost you’re paying, and there’s no point in feeling all self-righteously indignant at it.

If you don’t see yourself in the previous few paragraphs, good for you! If you’re anything like me, you’ll get quite a charge out of becoming self-sufficient. Treasure that new confidence; it’s an asset.

If possible, the strategic thing to do is find work that will let you check off the ticky-box beside “supervisory experience” on future applications. If this means riding herd on slackjawed teenagers, so be it. This is the one thing I didn’t do during my topsy-turvy years that I wish I had. The other thing you want out of your first job(s) are good references—people future employers can call who will say nice things about you. Try to avoid working at places that “don’t give references.” Do so if you must, but you’re hurting yourself some.

I don’t usually have to tell ex-grad-students to be frugal, or how to be frugal. We already know how. Once you start having a bit of extra money, pay down your debts and build up your savings. You broke academia’s chains; why do you want the bank chaining you up? Set yourself free. Pay off your debts as fast as you can.

Once you’re solvent and indefinitely (if not necessarily ideally) employed, you can start looking around you a bit to see how the world works. See somebody doing a job you like? Ask them how they got there. Read blogs whose authors talk about their workplaces. Read the business pages in the local newspaper, especially the squibs about small local companies you won’t have heard of. Go to your public library and read the job ads in trade publications (it’s okay to start with newspapers, but you know what they say—that’s only a sliver of the available jobs).

Lots of books purport to tell you what you’ll be good at and enjoy doing. Any public-library reference librarian can help you find them. I never got much use out of them myself, but de gustibus non disputandum est—and I lucked into what I wanted to do anyway, so I didn’t spend a lot of time with these books to begin with. The one book I will recommend specifically is Herminia Ibarra’s Working Identity (discussed briefly here), which advocates selecting a career path through varied experience rather than navel-gazing.

It may take years before you land the Ideal (enough) Job. You may cycle through several other jobs (I certainly did). You’ll probably make some mistakes (boy, did I ever!). You may need more education or specialized training. You almost certainly have to do some time on the bottom of the totem-pole. Back to basics: as long as you keep your financial head above water in the meantime, the occasional misstep or blind alley won’t kill you. You’re not in academia any more, so one strike doesn’t send you to the dugout forever. Stand up, dust off your knees, and get back out there.

That’s what I’ve got. For the most part, it’s what I did, and it worked out fine. There’s nothing special about me, either. When I left grad school, I was a shell-shocked zombie with damn-all by way of useful work experience. If I can get this far, most people reading this can probably surpass me.

And I hope they do.

Your own size

Where Gorman slipped, in my opinion—completely aside from the basic vileness of what he said—was ignoring the foundational rule for spokespeople in positions of power: pick on people your own size or larger.

The blogging flap? Was stupid, and handled stupidly afterwards. But it wasn’t overly offensive, or indeed offensive at all. We bloggers can speak up for ourselves. We librarian bloggers are on a roughly even social field with Gorman; we’re certainly not socially disadvantaged in any way. So if he just had to pick a target, we were a good choice.

Google? Also a good choice. Outweighs the ALA by several financial orders of magnitude. Can definitely defend itself. And has absolutely made itself a fair target for scrutiny by its actions lately.

Hip-hop? Bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, really bad choice.

Picking on a particular form or genre of entertainment is dicey enough to begin with; you’re automatically alienating its fans, so you’d better have darned good reason and a darned good argument. There are arguments to be made against some forms of entertainment, certainly. Hip-hop itself has a fair bit to answer for by way of misogyny, for instance. But Gorman wasn’t anywhere near there; he likened hip-hop to simple-mindedness. I honestly don’t see any other way to read that but as covert racism. The form itself doesn’t justify the label; good hip-hop has sophisticated wordplay going on that my sadly-overeducated self can’t even begin to match. Nor is there the least shred of actual evidence, I wish I didn’t need to say, correlating listening to (or performing) hip-hop with any sort of intellectual atrophy.

Picking on a form of entertainment that’s racially coded? Do I even need to say how ill-considered that is? (Apparently I do, ’cuz no one else has!) It’s the classic gesture of unconsidered privilege. Those Other People, I don’t have to respect their stuff; they just have to respect mine.

If Gorman wanted to pick on somebody for simple-mindedness, just as a strategic decision he ought to have chosen, say, science-fiction fans. (Fantasy is right out—female-coded, so invites accusations of sexism.) There’s certainly a long-standing tradition of misogyny in science-fiction, so if that was the basis for Gorman’s hip-hop remark (and I don’t think it was, nor do I think that justifies the remark even if true), the rhetorical gesture is more or less equivalent.

More importantly, though, science-fiction fans cross genders, races, sexualities, and most other sensitive demographic categories. They are also quite capable of hitting back.

Cheap shots aren’t overly honorable to begin with (and I say this as shouldn’t, I know). If the ALA is pondering an intervention with Gorman (and by now they’d better be), the quickest and most effective rule would be “cut out the cheap shots.” But if you’re in the mood, at least pick a halfway-honorable target. Otherwise, you come across like Gorman—a blindly privileged, insensitive bully.

Why I’ll quit ALA

I’m worried about this post, let me just say that up front. I don’t want to be anybody’s poster child, and I’m not out to make anybody angry at me who isn’t already. Nor am I the best person to take on this particular windmill. Even so—in my estimation, some things have to be said that aren’t being said, and faute de mieux, I’ll say some of ’em and hope other people pick up lances of their own.

I am furious—apoplectic—with Michael Gorman over this remark in a Chronicle of Higher Ed interview:

That does not mean that everything can be dumbed down to some kind of hip-hop or bells-and-whistles kind of stuff.

The library world, despite the valiant efforts of many, is one of America’s Great Honky Bastions. I’m sadly, appallingly, vilely pasty-faced white. I can count the non-white librarians, proto-librarians, and library educators I know without moving from my fingers to my toes. (Remove Asians and Asian-Americans from that list, and all I need is one hand. Sad.) We don’t have a great deal of room to protest our ideological purity, either, what with the stunningly racist (still!) organization of our most-used classification and cataloguing vocabularies.

It is simply not acceptable for an ALA spokesperson to use a musical genre associated with African-Americans as a term of opprobrium. I don’t care that Gorman presumably didn’t mean to be offensive. He was. He implied with crystal clarity that hip-hop and its listeners are simple-minded. In what world is that all right?

Worse still, I’ve seen some rolled eyes among the ALA-associated blogsphere, but that’s all. The foray against bloggers earned more attention and vastly more anger, which appalls me. I was hoping not to have to write this post, because I’m late to the game; I thought other bloggers would pick this up. Apparently not.

From ALA itself? Nothing. “Diversity is one of the five key action areas adopted by the American Library Association to fulfill its mission of providing the highest quality library and information services for all people,” according to the ALA’s own website, but I haven’t heard a single peep out of the actual Diversity Office about this. Maybe someone’s staging a private intervention with Gorman. I hope so. But even if that’s the case, it’s not enough.

I’d have to see an awful lot of good works coming out of an organization before I made the conscious decision to overlook such a vile utterance from its leadership, especially when neither the leader nor the organization has the courtesy and good sense to apologize loudly and publicly for it.

What do I see? A complacent, sclerotic, myopic mess with (usually) good intentions and (almost always) abominable execution. An organization in which the answer to deprofessionalization is recruitment. An organization that can’t or won’t embrace open-access publication despite its members’ crying need for another clear, unambiguous example of same. An organization that defines itself in terms of buildings rather than people. An organization that is five to ten years behind the technology curve. Finally, an organization that is too big and too entrenched to change from within.

I joined ALA as a student member, because I believe strongly in professional organizations, and because I wanted to understand and participate in the evolution of my newly-chosen profession. I now believe that my money and my energy will be better-spent elsewhere. I respect that many will choose differently; I respect the change-from-within efforts I read about in the blogsphere.

This is, however, the only choice I can make for myself.