The Unicorn That Roared

March 17, 2011
By | 12 Comments

On my first evening of SCMS in New Orleans I met some friends in a larger group in a bar in the Quarter and got the weirdest response when I introduced myself as an independent scholar: “I didn’t know independent scholars really existed. I thought they were like unicorns!” And there it was in a nutshell. I don’t exist. Or rather, the reality of scholarly life is that the only people who are visible, who have a voice, who can offer advice are the ones who successfully make a living that includes their academic work. This post then is not meant to be a call for pity for my particular situation or a rejection of all the excellent points made in the aftermath of the conference but rather a possibly much needed reality check. Because I know that even as the bad job market is a haunting reality for most grad students, it’s also a gamble every one is clearly willing to take, deep down surely believing that they will beat the odds. After all, everyone whom they encounter and interact with has done so, right?

The problem of having these conversations within the confines of SCMS and its surrounding social networking tools is that we’re already dealing with a pre- and self-selected group. Said differently, if SCMS hadn’t been held driving distance from where I live, I would not have been part of that conversation nor would I have had access to the members-only section in which part of these discussions were held. The only reason I can speak up now is that I am a unicorn, the mythical creature of the scholar who researches and presents on their own dime for the love of it. It’s an expensive and depressing endeavor and it clearly has no place in an academic organization: my name tag had the university affiliation where I am an adjunct rather than the independent scholar as which I self-define and how I was thankfully noted in the program. Not a big deal, except when you supposedly represent a school who can’t give you even a table, let alone a shared office, to call yours and that rewards your 2/2 load with a yearly four-digit income.

There are many reasons I ended up being a scholar but not an academic, and many of them are my own choices and decisions. So I may indeed not be the best person to question the ideals of meritocracy and the hopeful and encouraging advice seen various places, but who else can speak as and for the many who didn’t make it. And maybe every one of us made choices like I did, family and locality and external circumstances affecting our mobility. Or maybe every one of us really just wasn’t good enough. It’s easy to believe that, both when you made it and when you hope to make it.

I know it must be a real comfort to grad students to be assured by faculty that it gets better. And in many cases it does. I just want to remind everyone that this resounding positive chorus is so unanimous because everyone for whom it didn’t get better, everyone who didn’t get that job, everyone who left or makes ends meet with outrageous class loads, all of those are by definition not part of this conversation any longer. Academia often becomes an echo chamber where the only voices heard are those that already are privileged.

Of course, I am well aware that I’m privileged in my own way. I can publish or not, don’t need to worry about researching the right topics or where to publish, and I can write rants like this one without fear of repercussion. Unlike grad students and junior faculty, I have privileges only shared by senior faculty in that my worthiness isn’t measured in cv lines. That’s the beauty of being a unicorn. The costs, however, both emotional and financial, tend to be too extreme for many to bear, especially when it means repeatedly facing an established community that often prefers to not acknowledge the realities we represent. It does get better indeed! Just not for everyone.


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12 Responses to “ The Unicorn That Roared ”

  1. […] Kristina Busse – The Unicorn That Roared […]

  2. Alex on March 17, 2011 at 6:50 PM

    I did not attent SCMS, but I have followed the relevant online conversations pretty intently, and I sincerely hope that this post will be archived with the rest as a significant part of the story we tell ourselves about academic conferences. As a graduate student, I have benefited enormously from encouragement I’ve received from faculty members who’ve “made it” and sit firmly near the top of the hierarchy. This is indispensable, and this is the “it gets better” (ugh, not the same) that I’ve needed to get through the hurdles I’ve faced so far. And yet, still more empowering to me are voices like yours that tell the truth about what else I might face in a few years on the market, and the kind of job I might end up having. The work part doesn’t need to get better — obviously, I hope I get better at it, but I’m already engaging in scholarly inquiry in ways that invigorate me. As you demonstrate, I can keep doing the work, whether or not the institution finds room for me. Naturally, it will be much more difficult to do the work while being exploited in a non-TT position, but it will be possible. The task for those who do make it, or hope that they might, then becomes the task of remembering that the institution systematically excludes a huge number of people, and that their voices, in the rare cases when they can be heard, deserve to be listened to, especially when it comes to questions about labor and networking, which is a subset of labor.

  3. Kristina Busse on March 17, 2011 at 9:54 PM

    I think one of the things i most appreciate about fandom as it relates to academia (as opposed to the pleasures it brings me and the friends i have made) is the way it has shaped and modeled my academic interactions. I’ve seen a lot of calls for mentoring and I do believe that we’ve been doing a fairly decent job of that, especially in the way we are used to a wide range of ages, status, income, academic background (not idealizing here, but when you debate a canon point, you don’t necessarily know whether this is a senior lit prof or a HS student, and the latter may indeed have the better arguments :). And online interaction helps a great deal when F2F is impossible. I’m certain I wouldn’t be a voice at all if it weren’t for the Internet, and while I very much appreciate your kind words, I know that I wouldn’t have published the first thing after grad school if it hadn’t been for fandom and the lateral support I’ve continued to receive (and hopefully give).

  4. deborah kaplan on March 17, 2011 at 10:34 PM

    Goodness, I’m so grateful for this post I can’t even say.

    As an independent scholar and adjunct instructor, every group of students I have brings the conundrum of students coming to me asking for advice about PhD programs. I want to tell them — because it is the experience of the vast majority of people I know who went to PhD programs — that is a bad economic decision, a bad quality-of-life decision, and they shouldn’t do it. But as an instructor in a graduate program… I don’t know.

    I don’t want to discourage people from scholarship, because scholarship has been such an important part of my adult life, and the encouragement that other (primarily independent) scholars such as yourself have given me has made such a huge difference in that. But I do want to discourage people from buying into the “it gets better mantra” of doctoral programs. For most people it doesn’t, if by “better” means “your years of the grind will pay off in the tenure-track position you’ve been told you deserve.” Or even “you are likely to be able to make more than minimum wage teaching at the college or graduate level.”

    • Kristina Busse on March 18, 2011 at 8:30 AM


      I know I feel the same way when students ask about grad schools. I mean I went and I don’t regret it. And I remember telling everyone it wasn’t to get a job, I just wanted to learn! But at some point you do need to earn a living and….

      So yes, like you I live the constant question of should I discourage people from doing what i do, loving what I love. But I think we need to talk about all sides…including that being good enough may just not be enough. It’s necessary but not sufficient!

    • Evamarie on March 25, 2011 at 12:53 PM

      I have an MA and I’m a Teaching Assistant which right now pays just enough but next year I could end up with nothing. I get undergrads asking me about doing a Masters, especially since my major is Classics – one not widely used in the regular job stream. I tell them that the jobs are limited and it can be a struggle. However, I also tell them that if they have a true love for what they are studying, they should do a graduate degree for that reason. It’s a better reason and a more useful reason than “it gets better”. In a way we are like musicians or other artists where the future is bleak but for the lucky few and it’s love that gets us through it.

      I was also grateful for this post since I might one day end up a Unicorn myself.

      • Evamarie on March 25, 2011 at 12:56 PM

        Also I can just imagine the flak that the scholars here discussing tv stuff get. I study Classics – Greek and Roman studies and people sneeze at me sometimes over the “uselessness”. I can’t imagine if I told them I studied TV.

        I personally don’t slight, in a way I envy it because I bring my scholarly mind to the table when I watch even regular tv, but I know that the general public does. Even some other academics.

      • Kristina Busse on March 28, 2011 at 4:51 PM

        Thanks for your comment, and I’m glad it spoke to you. As for the love of the subject–yes and no. I actually remember making those same arguments myself. I look back now and while I don’t regret getting my degree (on most days!), I do think that practicality and idealism must balance out somewhere. Love for something won’t take care of your health insurance or feed your kids. I was privileged in that I’ve had financial support throughout, but that’s clearly not the norm!

  5. JLR on March 19, 2011 at 2:50 AM

    I totally understand and respect the life choices you’ve made, but believe me you are “good enough”! I think the expectation that academia is a meritocracy is insidious. Traditional career success seems to be just as much a matter of privilege, conformity, and luck. Or at least that’s my cynical reflection in my still-jobless present.

    • Kristina Busse on March 19, 2011 at 11:51 AM

      Oh, I’m not suggesting that I’m not 🙂 And I’m well aware that I am both lucky and privileged in my own way and that my situation is certainly as much a function of my own choices as it is of structural problems. The fact that I have a voice, that i was invited to blog at Antenna, that I was asked to be on a workshop at SCMS suggests that I’m not really representative of the “us” I talk about above. and yet it’s that very situation that allows me to speak up. Ironically, the conversation on my DW/LJ where I linked to this has been very depressing and full of personal testimony to the very thing I’m talking about. Is it indicative that these conversations take place there rather than here?

      As for your cynicism–it certainly is justified! {hugs}

  6. Francesca Coppa on March 19, 2011 at 5:38 PM

    I think it’s really a matter of being able to properly assess the risk, and it’s important to think about what information we give students to enable them to do that. You’re totally right to note that the conversation is, almost by definition, lacking a certain diversity. 😛 “It gets better” is just facile; the next level (and still wrongheaded, I think) is the advice given to students by faculty at big universities who don’t recognize that their jobs – teaching graduate students at big universities – are relatively rare in academia (i.e. universities with graduate programs are relatively few compared to four year institutions, and that’s not even getting into community colleges, junior colleges, high end prep schools, nonprofit organizations, think tanks etc. etc. where many Ph.Ds choose to work or end up working.) Then there are the–what did you call them? — “family and locality and external circumstances affecting our mobility.” You call these “choices: and this is the only place where I disagree with you, because I think these things tend to be structural conditions more than “choice.” But I had a graduate advisor tell me really early on that I was going to see less talented men who were willing to move from place to place surpass me if I wasn’t willing to give up my ties to location, culture, and family. But I was not willing to increase the risk of damage to my life and happiness by putting literally ALL my eggs into a single academic basket, and think that’s often what we’re implicitly asking graduate students (and junior professors) to do.

    • Kristina Busse on March 28, 2011 at 4:56 PM

      Yes a million times. Clearly I didn’t have time in the 500 words allowed, but the issues reach much farther. In our discipline probably even more so, because many if not most of us in English end up at CC and non research focused colleges, when all we’ve ever been told and taught (and promised) are R1. There tends to be a strong myopic view that requires us to see R1 and universities as the only way to be happy and have succeeded–I know I’m a victim of that view to this day!

      As for the other part–I’ve written my feminist creed that connects all these “choices” and shows their interdependence one time too often…I hoped that most would realize that choices are often not as freely taken as we’d like to think…especially the older and more committed to and responsible for others we become.