A conversation with Kathryn VanArendonk
I read about Kathryn and Anne Helen, and it helps me believe that sometimes good things happen to good people. Who work hard and are very talented, too :)
As someone who also left academia without really trying to get a job in it, it's also refreshing just to hear other people talk about leaving that world as a healthy decision. Like Kathryn, I had some good advisors, and I learned a lot. But it was also as often a stupid exercise in hoop-jumping, ego-assuaging, and just general a soul suck of people punching down because they can. Academic administrators in particular offer a real-time version of Kafka's worst fears. The most talented people aren't always the ones that succeed--and I don't mean me. I wasn't the most talented, but I am a good teacher. I applied for a few jobs anemically and without much of a plan. We're a divorced family and couldn't leave our town because of kids. We didn't want separate residences in separate states. And there were about (I'm not joking) 5 jobs on the east coast available in my field. Also I don't have an Ivy Pd.D. Just a regular one. It was never going to work.
So I adjuncted for several years at a couple of universities and one of them started dangling the possibility of a full-time position. It never happened, of course, and I was baffled by the idea that I could have enemies, people actively working against me, who had never even met me. It's what happens in an environment of precarity. But it still felt like failure, and still does sometimes if I don't catch myself.
I, too, was fortunate that I could leave because I have a partner with a full-time job and health benefits. I've started a new career in horticulture, kind of. It's slow--it doesn't pay well. But I also started adjuncting again to get me through the fall/winter, and realized that I have missed teaching so much. Being in academia doesn't bother me as much now because I have zero expectations from it other than enjoying working with students. And I'm quite honest with them about my limitations as an adjunct. I've thought about writing/editing, as well, but every job I see looks like a slog. Like, I'm not corporate-ambitious. I just want a productive day, decent pay, and a pace of life that doesn't feel chest-constricting. I haven't figured it out yet.
Wow, it's like a walk down memory lane with someone who was a better academic ... and is a better TV critic! But this was exactly the pivot I made, from grad school to writing about television. The difference for me is that it was the early ’90s and I was never, ever EVER getting that PhD. That became clear after my second year.
Delighted to read this, I had no idea! KVA is on a short list of writers I try to follow, though I wish they would all get substacks because I just can't take social anymore.
This is one of the reasons the internet isn't ALL bad. Two amazing people I wish I could meet and like, have a salon with, brought together digitally.
If I could ask a follow up question, did you know going into or at least early-ish in your undergrad that you were going to go on to grad school and pursue a career in academia? The notion of grad school beyond med school or law school was so foreign to me, and I assume, a lot of first-gen students. If you hadn't done grad school, did you have a career plan?
Amazing interview! Thoughts on coming from an academic field that is not English or humanities adjacent and making freelancing work? I have a clinical psychology degree and am trying to figure out how to pitch myself for more pop culture related pieces, where most of my writing is about my field.
As someone who makes a living helping people navigate massive transitions, this was a really interesting piece for me to read, especially because both of you seem to think that your way out of academia isn't replicable. There is a very clear, replicable process for changing careers.
Oh, I love the part about transferable skills from a academia to media. I did it the other way around: media to academia. I never thought much about how the skills overlap, so it was interesting to recognize.
I loved this. Semi-related, anyone here know why Slate stopped recapping Succession?
Okay, wait--you were at Walla Walla? I'm a prof, leaving Wenatchee and now on the west side, looking at ways to potentially leave academia (writing is one of those options).
I haven't even read the conversation and already I feel better--like some other life is a possibility for me.