History Teacher Launches New Book
Not everyone who goes to graduate school needs to end up in academia. This is the thesis of the new book Independent Scholars Meet the World, a collection of essays about alternative paths—those contributing to their academic fields but doing so outside of academia. The book, published by the University Press of Kansas, was edited by Elizabeth Keohane-Burbrdige, an Upper School history teacher at Woodward, along with fellow historian Christine Caccipuoti. We talked to Elizabeth about the new book.
Beyond the Gate: How did this project come together? What was that initial conception? How did your experience and background inform it?
Elizabeth Keohane-Burbrdige: In the fall of 2018, Christine Caccipuoti, one of my best friends and the co-producer for our podcast ("Footnoting History") let me know that she had seen a call for abstracts for a new series from the University Press of Kansas about Rethinking Careers, Rethinking Academia. Christine and I had met when we attended Fordham University's graduate program in medieval history together. She earned an MA and I earned a PhD. Neither of us ended up pursuing the traditional career path of professorships and she believed that we could offer an interesting perspective to this series as we had been adjusting to the idea that to those in academia, we are “independent scholars”—with all of the baggage that conveys to academics.
We decided to present a collection of stories from others, like us, who had decided to “leave” academia after at least earning their MA.
BTG: Why did you think this was such an important perspective to share?
EKB: Tenure-track positions in the U.S. have been decreasing since the 1970s and, yet, graduate programs, especially in the humanities, keep accepting more and more students. Students who do not land a tenure-track job are often viewed as failures, and we wanted our book to offer a new idea of success. Often, those who leave academia with a MA or PhD are referred to as embracing "alt-ac" but we like to think of it as "expanded-ac."
BTG: How did you go about recruiting the contributors?
EKB: We contacted friends, but we also shared widely through social media, using specific hashtags to try and gain attention.
BTG: Was there anything that came about in the contributed pieces that surprised you?
EKB: We were shocked by how many of the contributors who responded to our call for papers were white women. Academia is still largely male and white—white women earned the majority of advanced degrees in many areas but are not the majority of tenure-track professors. Additionally, fewer people of color or Black people pursue graduate school, and they are also under-represented in tenured positions. While academia is more diverse since the 1970s, there is still much to be done. Representation matters, especially for our students of color.
Additionally, mental health played a large role in decisions to pursue alternative career paths. Academia can be a very brutal place where those who have arrived punch down on those working their way up. Comments are often dismissive of the intellectual ability of graduate students and those become internalized for many who choose to look elsewhere.
BTG: What was your favorite part of the experience of editing the book?
EKB: Reading the varied experiences. It was so cool to see how people took skills they learned in graduate school and applied them elsewhere! One of our contributors created an online program for parents and educators interested in activism, another designs historically accurate coloring books. It's fascinating!
BTG: Tell us about the podcast. How would you say the podcast connects to the book?
EKB: Christine and I wrote a chapter about creating our podcast: Footnoting History. We started it in 2013 and now have over two hundred episodes and about 3 million downloads. Our friends from graduate school make up the rotating hosts. We all do our own research, script writing, and recording. It's so fun! Until recently, academia looked down on podcasts and believed that they couldn't be scholarly. This attitude is changing as the reach of podcasts is realized, but when we started, we were one of the only history shows run by academics.