I am 29 years old and this September marks the first academic year since I was a toddler that I was not enrolled in school. From pre-school to my Ph.D. – I’ve spent a great deal of time pursuing my educational goals, and specifically, for the better part of the last seven years I have been approaching my academic studies with the goal of becoming a professor. However as last May grew closer and I set my dissertation defense date, I realized these goals were not realistic, at least in the near term. Everything I read indicated that tenure-track jobs were falling by the wayside, and the job market mirrored this idea. Further, I was limited geographically due to a new home purchase and my husband’s stable job and local graduate education. All of this had me a bit stressed as I reflected on the financial need for employment coupled with all the years I had spent in school, and the fear that if I pursued an academic path, I would not get further than working as an adjunct professor for years on end. So I did what I believed I had to do—I began an extensive job search applying for numerous government and consulting-based research positions, community college professorships, and recreation management jobs. I was fortunate to find a position with a local organization doing work I am interested in. Yet as this September comes and goes, admittedly I can’t help but miss academe, and ponder how my current role relates to my graduate research agenda which looked to understand how upper-middle class families appropriated a swim club membership into their daily lives.
In my current job I am charged with assisting in the coordination of all county-wide aquatics initiatives which include working to provide swimming opportunities to under-served populations in the county. My day to day responsibilities serve as a constant reminder that my dissertation research did in fact represent only privileged families and their taken for granted approach to swim club membership as a mandatory feature of their childrearing practices and family lives. Not only do I take pride in the idea that something I worked so hard on for so long rings so true, but more than that, I continue to find the reality of swimming ability and social class position to be astounding. For example, the pools that I work with are located in areas where the Hispanic and African American populations are quite high, and the average household income falls within the range of working class families in the U.S. At these facilities lifeguards have multiple water rescues per day. The majority of which are not serious, and by that I mean the victims do not require advanced care such as CPR, rather they are generally caused by people not realizing they can’t swim in water above their heads, but assume they can. They go into the deep end and jump in without a swim test, or they go off a slide and get disoriented. In contrast, at the upper-middle class pool where I conducted my dissertation research, there were maybe a handful of rescues each summer, and the idea of a swim test was foreign as all kids at the pool knew how to swim, or at the very least, knew where they could and could not stand/swim. The majority of rescues at this pool were toddlers whose parents were standing in knee-high water talking to each other and missed their child slip under the water since they were not at eye-level. The other common rescue involved a child who swam out too far and started panicking and called a lifeguard for help, but were not actively drowning.
These observed differences between rescues in these two different environments indicate a very real class-based discrepancy in swimming ability. Part of my work now actively seeks to rectify this difference and make sure that all individuals from all backgrounds are offered an opportunity to learn to swim – a skill that can save lives. While I do miss my academic life, including both my research pursuits and teaching assignments, and hope to be back in the near future, I find the work I’m doing now to be fulfilling many of the goals of our PCS mission. In fact, it’s hard to imagine making as much of a direct impact on people’s lives in academia as I am now in the field. We claim so much of our scholarship to be emancipatory, but in actuality, during my time in graduate school I struggled a great deal with this idea. I felt a constant internal tension with how we can call our work emancipatory yet for the most part, only disseminate it to other scholars who occupy a similar position to us. We like to think that many people out there are appreciating and benefitting from our scholarship, and that we are publicizing it to a broad range of people, yet now that I am not active on a college campus, the majority of the people that I come in contact with on a daily basis would never have cause to read an academic article.
I do not mean any of this as an indictment on PCS, or academia in general, rather my goal with this blog entry is simple – I want to put the message out there to all my fellow PCS graduate students that while we might be drowning in the academic job market right now, there are other positions out there that will mesh with our PCS mission. As I mentioned, I do hope that I am able to find my place in academe in the future, however my current job has taught me a lot about the type of academic I want to be. I now, more than ever, believe that ethnographic investigation and participatory action research are viable and powerful methods that need to be utilized. It is so important to be able to get out of the office and meet the populations we are studying and writing about. There is so much we can do as PCS scholars to make change, but in many cases, it does not involve sitting alone in a locked office all day and communicating only with our colleagues. I urge all of you to step outside your academic body for a bit, and seek out all of the different research and professional opportunities that our graduate program has prepared us to tackle!