Thursday, October 8, 2015

Scaling the (Ivory) Tower, Storming the Skyscrapers

I have never worked in Corporate Culture.

I have always worked in Corporate Culture.

Let me explain the contradiction.  When I was fifteen years old, I got my first job—a busperson at a very nice restaurant in Destin, Florida. Bussers were considered the entry level to the service industry, with the waiters that could sometimes make up to five hundred dollars a night as the coveted levels of skill. The restaurant served live Maine lobster, and I remember my shock as a poor kid that people would order that expensive dish and leave half a lobster, completely uneaten, on the plate to throw away.

After the shock of realizing the differences b/w people who could order lobster & throw it away and those who served it, I strove to climb out of the service-industry poverty that my family had lived in my whole life. I did pretty well in school, joined clubs, took the standardized tests. I scored in the 98% on those tests, but for some reason, slipped through the cracks when guidance counselors saw the scores, and I didn’t receive the scholarships and grant offers that I now know I should have qualified for. I worked a few more years in the service industry before discovering the Pell Grant, and then I started college. I met my husband to be, who was a beginner in the Navy, and we married. I kept attending college, having found a dream of being a college professor.

College is a fantasy of ivy covered walls and lofty philosophical thoughts. 

Good jobs are the carrot at the end of a varying length stick, and my four year in Washington State was beautiful. It had the ivy covered old buildings, a gorgeous lawn and a fountain that co-eds spread out around on warm summer days, reading Whitman and arguing about poetic meter. It seemed I was on that track.

Graduate school began the corporate style education model. I received assistantships that trained me to work as a professor and paid for my education. It was great! I was learning how to be a good teacher, and I loved it! The first time I left a classroom that I had been solely in charge of planning the curriculum for, a lesson on Carl Jung and archetypes, I remember grinning like an love-struck paramour for the full forty minute drive home. I smiled so hard my face hurt.

Graduate school trained me well to be a teacher, and I studied side careers (Tech Writing) that I hoped would make me “more marketable” as a professor. Marketing myself was my goal, and I learned every skill I could to make that happen. HTML, Powerpoint, Adobe products—all of these were my favorite hobbies in addition to studying the lofty literary pursuits of a college professor. Practical skills were to supplement my teaching of Emily Dickenson poetry one day.

Then I finally received my PhD and tried to get jobs on the greater Ivory Tower circuit. I was also what they call “Geographically Limited”—because of the family job that paid the bills, I could not go on the “wider market” that Academic PhDs (especially in the humanities) must go on. Applying for a tenure-track position in Alaska just to get my foot in the door was an impossibility.

So I went on the “Adjunct Track.” Working for small liberal arts colleges in the area where I lived, I got to teach a subject that I love and met some amazing students. I received teaching awards, tried to turn my Adjunct Track into something that was sort of parallel to the Tenure Track, just with my enthusiasm and having fun. Would hosting a Black Literature Read-In that got media coverage and hundreds of students to spend a day reading poems and short fiction from authors they had never read before get me extra points towards a “Real” position in Academia? Maybe. Probably not. But it was fun. And I was trying to have fun while being an Adjunct, which is likely beneath “Substitute Teacher” on the pay and prestige scale of the Teaching Tower.

Then budget cuts hit. Louisiana trimmed the “extra” pay of people like me (who frankly was making so little that it seems ridiculous that I was considered a significant cost, but it happened.) The University where I worked cut back on course offerings and I decided, instead, to devote my time to growing my own business.

My husband and I had purchased a rental property, fixed it up, and were growing that business, looking to expand it with more cool little historic houses to fix up and rent to young people (especially) who weren’t ready to buy their own home. I learned a lot of new skills there—how to manage a team of contractors (some of whom were trying to milk us for as much money with as little work as possible—some of whom I learned how to fire). How to touch every surface of a beautiful custom 1930s home and restore it to something gorgeous that people clamor to live in. How to manage the the sticky paint stripper that I called “Alien Blood” after the acidic Queen in the sci-fi movies, that burnt your skin and made your head spin if you were in a confined space (they’re always confined spaces). I learned to Manage Projects.

I also learned that I knew business. I still know business. 

The business of Academia, the Ivory Tower, is to educate, yes, and to talk about beautiful ideas and art and how to write a chemical equation for soap. But it’s also about marketing a product for the future job world. And in that, Academia today is a corporate power larger than you can imagine. There are wheels within wheels and tiny cogs that support those wheels, and it’s all a Corporate Culture, with the great Corpus of the College lumbering through the world, slouching towards perfection and/or Jerusalem.

So these days, I’m looking at other ways of using the ridiculous amount of skills that I have acquired over the years. Yes, I can dissect a poem in a matter of minutes and teach you the history of Women’s Literature since women first started trying to pick up that pen and fight with the mighty. But I can also build online curriculums with intricate web platforms to reach students (of all kinds) around the world, teach them with multi-media that will amaze you, balance a budget, fire people who can’t figure out how to stay in that budget, stay on schedule and adjust the schedule when it’s not working, give a HELL of a presentation/speech. I can be a team player or I can be a self-motivated sole-worker on a project that can dream the big dreams of achievement.

I learned it all in a Corporate Culture, a Service Industry, and a world where the dreaming spires of the Ivory Tower are just that for most people: dreams. Nowadays, I’d like to actually use all of that knowledge to excel at a new kind of job. I just hope someone gives me chance, and looks beyond that fantasy of the rumpled college professor dreaming of poems and following her red pen across campuses of rhetorical arguments to see the savvy businessperson who has pulled herself out of poverty to have a weird skill set that seems oddly targeted. I can adapt to ANY culture. I’ve done it before.

I’ve worked for Corporate Culture my whole life. 

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