Finding my way at ICFA: Independent Scholarship and Higher Ed Advocacy

Tuesday, 02 April 2013 13:29

Last year when I went to ICFA, my only hope was that people would be nice to me. It was my first time trying on the “Independent Scholar” label and I worried that no one would pay much attention to anything that I had to say. Happily, however, this was a groundless concern and I ended up having an extremely positive experience (which spawned this post). This year, I went to ICFA with a different set of hopes and fears (but mostly excitement).

Since last March, I have made some good headway in my independent scholarship, most notably my soon-to-be published (in August) edited collection, Disability in Science Fiction: Representations of Technology as Cure. In addition to that book, I also have several peer-reviewed articles/chapters in process, as well as a few non-academic bits of writing floating about (my favourite being the Afterword I wrote for Outlaw Bodies). I viewed this year’s ICFA as the start of my official debut as an Independent Scholar (capital letters and all). I knew that I would be meeting and talking with a great deal of lovely people, but I still had some anxiety about the reception of my latest work. My previous papers had arisen out my doctoral research, all thoroughly vetted and evaluated by my thesis committee. My research and writing about disability in science fiction, though, has happened in the comfortable bubble of my home office. While I have had a passing conversation or two about disability studies in the past year--and obviously have been engaging with it in depth for my collection-- I hadn’t yet tested my new knowledge base on the spot, in front of a room of my colleagues. So I worried. What if I interpreted the theory wrong? What if everything I have read is embarrassingly out dated? What if nobody cares?

As usual, I was stressing about nothing. It turns out that I do know what I am talking about. Of course I still have so much more to read and learn, but I am definitely on the right track. One of the highlights of the conference for me was talking for hours with another disability studies and genre scholar, Derek Newman-Stilles (visit his wonderful blog, Speculating Canada: Canadian Horror, Science Fiction, and Fantasy). Next year, we want to organize a panel discussion on reading disability in genre literature. We both agree: The timing is right, the interest is there, and disability is an identity position that deserves greater engagement within genre studies. With such conversations in mind, I have left ICFA feeling a great sense of forward momentum in my scholarship. I have finally found my niche and connecting with so many supportive people warmed the long burnt out cockles of my academic heart.

I also left ICFA with a renewed sense of advocacy for graduate students and underemployed adjuncting PhDs. There is still a lot of work to do around raising awareness and developing plans for action around the job market (both academic and non-academic). I talked with at least 10 grad students who had no exit plan at the end of their degrees. Most were clearly struggling to fully comprehend the financial reality about to befall them once they left their programs. I also talked with many sad and angry adjuncts--far too few actually enjoyed their current job position or felt any optimism about their future as academics. Now that I am operating on the outside, the stratification of labour within the academy is even more obvious…and more appalling. I can no longer imagine being within that system and needing to fight a daily battle for fair and equitable employment. In the upcoming years, I would like to see some sort of panel discussion that addresses alternative work strategies for genre scholars. The science fiction and fantasy fan communities are robust and might offer previously unconsidered opportunities for MAs and PhDs wanting to engage with genre in a meaningful (and perhaps paying) way. This year I had several grad students and TT faculty directly ask me about my independent scholarship, so the interest in non-traditional academic career paths is definitely there.

Next week I am off to the Eaton/SFRA conference and I am feeling, overall, a lot more confident about my scholarship going into it. I still have some of the same groundless worries bouncing around at the back of my brain, but I am getting so much better at ignoring them. When I was in grad school I could not have imagined this life that I have carved out for myself. While I have no clear goals for the future outcome of my independent scholarship, I am starting to make long(ish) term plans (e.g. write a book). Whenever my anxieties creep up now, I remind myself: an uncertain future is also a flexible one. And thank Cthulhu for science fiction.

 

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