An itinerant academic, that’s what I am (for now – I hope…).

baxterBy Andrea Terry
Department of Visual Arts, Lakehead

I’ve spent the last four years doing contract and sessional teaching gigs. When colleagues, friends or family ask me where I’m based, I self-identify as an itinerant academic and then explain that I’m currently at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ontario. Eyes light up at this response, and they lean forward intrigued, looking to hear more, and so I go on to explain where my teaching has taken me. I won’t lie – it’s not an easy career path, particularly at this stage. But then I look back and consider all the benefits I’ve reaped in the past four years, and I can honestly say I wouldn’t change a thing.

I’ve taught classes as a teaching assistant, a teaching fellow, a contract instructor, and an adjunct lecturer throughout my graduate studies and beyond in universities across Canada, and it’s anchored me. When I felt like my graduate studies could rapidly spiral out of control, my teaching kept me grounded. I knew week to week that my students held me accountable to make good on my promises in class, my marking of assignments and delivery of lectures, and it was in meeting those responsibilities that I found myself fulfilled. I guess I’d characterize myself as somewhat resourceful in the sense that, when it came to teaching, I made use of all my studies, drawing on experiences and assignments I undertook in my undergrad, making my students perform the same tasks and deliverables that I completed at their stage.

In the latest incarnation of my teaching dossier (used to successfully secure employment at Lakehead), I described my approach to teaching as one that “encourages students to appreciate the importance of post-secondary education. I give them an active voice in the classroom, the ability … to express their opinions with their peers and expand on these views in the context of written assignments…. My ultimate goal is to convey – through experiential learning – the significance of personal encounters.” In short, I want students to own their education, to be receptive to all the opportunities available to them in the academic context and develop faith in themselves, their knowledge base and their abilities, because that’s what I learned to do myself.

I find a phase that’s not explored in any overt way (to the best of my knowledge) is the post-PhD dissertation defense quagmire, and it’s that period that has most informed my view of my current occupation and position. I got word that I had received a postdoctoral fellowship in the last five months of my doctoral studies, and – since I hadn’t applied for any other opportunities – after calling my supervisor, immediate family and closest friends, I then climbed into my bed and proceeded to get “the chills.” A friend later pointed out that my story was the first time that he’d ever heard of someone going into shock after receiving good news, and it hadn’t even occurred to me that I was literally and physically “in shock,” but there I was. So I packed up my apartment, moved to Ottawa, drove back to my university to defend my PhD, and then threw myself into my next position. But what I hadn’t anticipated was the seismic identity shift I was about to embark upon…

In my new position, I struggled to find my place. I talked with graduate students and faculty alike, many of whom were receptive to my work, but finding my location within a new department in a new university in a new city was like treading through the densest fog I’d ever encountered. I had no idea what I was doing, where I was going, or where I’d end up – a feeling that was the polar opposite of how I felt throughout my PhD studies. And so I struggled and lamented and sought help over the course of the next few months. Colleagues, friends and family empathized, and many extended a helping hand, for which I’m profoundly grateful. But I soon came to realize no one could solve my problems – or my identity crisis – for me. I had to pull up my boot straps myself. Here I was with this amazing opportunity, this freedom, and I had no idea what to do with it. I didn’t know which way to go. And so I reconceptualised my new position by working (very hard) to make peace with the fact that I was no longer a student, that I was now in charge of my studies and career, and then went on to mourn this loss. It was a loss: a loss of a routine, of security, and of the reassurance of a supportive community of friends and professors vested in me completing my studies. I had to take the time to accept my life was no longer what it had been, and no amount of romanticizing my time as a grad student or ideological nostalgic yearning would make it so. I took my time and did what I had to do (which I won’t go into detail about here, but will offer to do so in person for those who want to talk about this experience more) and learned how to re-orient my focus.

Yes, teaching kept me grounded. In the first year of my postdoc, I taught my first graduate level seminar, and I had the best bunch of students (of course I think that about every class I teach, truly, because I learn things from each one). I found myself able to relate to these students, their goals, their desire to learn, their enthusiasm, and their commitment to course material. I remember that, despite my emotional and occupational angst, every week I had to show up, conduct the class and hold the students and myself accountable. They weren’t afraid to challenge me, to probe my own knowledge base, to get me to articulate things that had been running around in my mind for the last five years or so, and they chose their own research projects, thus ensuring investment in both the class and themselves.

Soon after I completed my teaching, I moved in with my now-fiancé and focussed on turning my thesis into a book, but again I felt at a distinct loss. I made headway with accepting my new position in life, but writing alone day in and day out wasn’t enough. So I began volunteering with an art gallery education program and re-acquainted myself with my love of working with art and students. Only these students weren’t like any I had encountered in my professional life. Many of them were children and youth who had never been to an art gallery before. I saw time and time again lights go on in the eyes of people from different backgrounds and generations. This experience re-ignited my love for my studies and my work. I remember one school group tour I took through the gallery in particular. After I completed my talk to a grade-four class, the school bus driver took me aside and proceeded to have a most enlightening conversation with me. She herself had never been to this particular gallery, despite living in the same city all her life, and she was fascinated by one particular artwork. Given that a friend had assumed responsibility of the students, I proceeded to talk with her at length. That was a pivotal moment for me because I learned to look around and to talk with people, and my receptivity to them garnered a most fruitful exchange.

I think that’s what I’ve learned is the most important feature in the life of an itinerant academic – receptivity. Everywhere I go, everything I do, I make a concerted effort to immerse myself in the most respectful manner into my new surroundings and to be receptive to the people, places, and art around me. Make no mistake: I would never claim to have this type of life and lifestyle figured out, but I would say that opening myself up to new experiences, new places, new subjects, new classes, new colleagues, new students, etc. has fueled my enthusiasm for my work. I no longer hold myself back with fear, I look outwards with a small amount of trepidation and a larger amount of determination to contribute by any means possible to the different departments, the different faculties, the different institutions and, more broadly, the different student bodies I’ve encountered. I love listening to others, to learn what I can from them, and I try to communicate that through my comments, even my body language and facial expression(s). I figure if people are willing to share with me, I eagerly anticipate listening and learning. I look forward to the new experiences in new cities. I look to make connections with colleagues, departments, and the university communities. One can find a kindred spirit in the most surprising of circumstances. That’s how I make a go of my lifestyle as it functions today.

Again, please know, I’m not claiming to have things figured out. I struggle, I stumble, I make mistakes. But the benefits of my receptivity far outweigh any shortcomings or problems I encounter. Plus, I might sound like I’m waxing poetic, and maybe I am, but I’ve struggled long and hard to get to this point, and I want others to know there is a light at the end of the tunnel. I fought to get here – I fought myself, I fought my preconceived notions of what post-doctoral life would bring me, and I released myself to find greater rewards than I could have ever anticipated. My hope is that I am indeed wiser based on my experiences having taught at different institutions, having been a part of different faculties, and now I am ready to settle down in my own way… although I remain open to all possibilities.

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