A few weeks ago, I took a Friday morning off and drove to San Lorenzo to visit the high school where a friend of mine teaches. He had organized a miniature Career Day for his Seniors, because the school had no such program to offer. You know, the kind of event where the gym is set up with a hundred booths from different organizations, businesses, and colleges, and recruiters make well-rehearsed pitches to a bunch of seventeen-year-olds who have no idea what they want to do in the future. I vaguely remember a career fair of this sort at my own high school, as well as several meetings with a college counselor who helped me figure out where I wanted to apply.
As for my friend’s students, they don’t really have access to resources like these, which I had taken for granted. They are mostly Black, Hispanic, and Southeast Asian, and not from wealthy families: the kinds of kids that society tends to worry the most about yet offers the least amount of help to. So my friend single-handedly organized this career event so that they could have an opportunity learn a little bit about what could be in store for them beyond high school.
I joined the other “young professionals” my friend had invited: managers at Yelp and Google, an entrepreneur, a start-up recruiter, a military recruiter, a barista, a UX designer, a data analyst, and a couple of other graduate students. (It was pretty representative of the kinds of professions you’d find in the Bay Area, I think, minus the doctors, lawyers, and teachers. And entertainers.) Most of us were people of color, too, which I thought was great. I could have counted every White person I saw that day on one hand.
Anyway, it was fun to share a little bit about what I do with the students, even though I doubt that more than half of them were thinking about going to a four-year college, let alone graduate school. But I tailored my pitch so that it was less about linguistics or PhDs and more about the joys of discovering in college fields of knowledge that you never knew existed, and about not knowing where they could lead you unless you took that risk to try something different. Honestly, if you had told the seventeen-year-old me that in ten years he would be doing research in speech science after having spent four years on the East Coast and two years abroad, he would have thought you were out of your mind. But unexpected things have happened, and I am all the better for it.
Of course, I also spent a good deal of the passing period in between each class checking my own educational and economic privilege, with respect to the teenagers I was talking to. I have had amazing opportunities to travel and whatnot mostly because of my parents’ support. Certainly, as a queer person of color, I have cards stacked against me in odd ways, but I had to remember that for the most part my life has been very blessed, and I can’t make the same assumption about others, even if they look like me demographically. Lessons re-learned: not every neighborhood in the East Bay has high ratios of affluent immigrants; model minority stereotypes harm all Asians; systemic colorism affects all brown-skinned people no matter what kind of brown; etc.
My friend also saved one panel question per class period for a sort of moral philosophizing: e.g., from the point of view of a person who is young, but already finished with high school and college, what does it mean to live a good life? What should one look for in a career, besides the salary, the perks, and the stock options? Is the American Dream real; and if so, is it worthwhile?
I sort of want to turn the lens back on me now, because the Career Day actually got me thinking about my own “career”. People ask me all the time what I plan to do with a PhD in Linguistics. When I tell them I want to become a professor, the responses are usually tempered excitement, sort of like, “Oh, well that’s cool but so predictable…” or prodding curiosity, as in, “Well, sure, teaching is great but what else can linguists contribute to society?” And that’s when I run through my laundry list of “ling jobs1” : consultant, analyst, interpreter, speech pathologist, editor, writer, blah blah blah. Linguists can do a lot. But linguists can also stick to doing linguistics!
I don’t care if I’ve picked the “boring” career — or even the less stable one — by choosing to stay in academia2. But I know that I love teaching and that I specifically want to teach college-level linguistics. I wish that this didn’t require any more explanation, but explanations are all you do when you choose my field…
In my professionalization seminar last week, we had an assignment that was literally to go to the popular jobs listing website for linguists (Linguist List) and search for open applications for positions that we would be eyeing if we were on the job market3. I actually had a lot of fun with the assignment, tinged with only a hint of anxiety. There aren’t a ton of jobs out there, to be sure, but I did find half a dozen that looked good (e.g., not just adjunct positions at the University of the Middle of Nowhere), including one or two that I really wish I could apply to right now, because they fit my interests perfectly! And now I’m worried that they will have been filled by the time I’m ready…
In class, I shared that I was particularly excited about a tenure-track position at a large state university in the area. (“Tenure-track” means better pay and more stable employment, compared to visiting or adjunct professorships.) The job listing said they were looking for a sociolinguist who could teach undergraduate and graduate level courses, advise students, and, importantly, address the needs of a very diverse student body.
It reminded me of how the young professionals at my friend’s Career Day were mostly people of color, talking with a class full of students of color, and made me consider how different it might have been if we had all been, say, wealthy straight White men. I realized right then that I would be perfectly happy taking a job at a university with no particular reputation in the field, if it meant that I could use my unique positionality to mentor and encourage students of color or LGBTQ students who are negatively biased in many ways against pursuing higher education and/or the sciences. And let’s be honest here: linguistics, like all the other sciences and social sciences, has a very White, Eurocentric, and colonialist past. And all the affirmative action in the world can’t magically undo the consequences of this history.
Being who I am, where I am, and with the passion that I have for helping others like me to succeed… well, I think all of it makes more sense now. I can imagine myself at this state university; I already know how it would help me grow and mature as a person to join an academic community where on some dimensions (such as race) I can fit right in, while on others (such as economic class) I will have to learn to harness my privilege for justice rather than judgment.
Especially encouraging was a brief comment that my professor made in class. He said, and I quote: “I think that you would be an excellent candidate for this job.” Cue butterflies!
All I need to do now is apply.
Word of the Day: an avocation, from the Latin avocare meaning “to call away”, is a hobby, or a distraction from one’s regular work. It is essentially the opposite of vocation, signaled by the “negative” prefix a-. Unfortunately for grammarians, sometimes avocation is used to mean the same thing as vocation, in effect producing two words that appear to be antonyms but are in fact used (sometimes) as synonyms, like the ever-confusable flammable and inflammable, or regardless and irregardless (*shudder*). I know that one word that can have two opposing meanings is called a contronym… but does anyone know what to call two words that shouldn’t be synonymous but stubbornly are?
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1 That link goes to a great series of posts and interviews at the All Things Linguistic blog on the myriad jobs that linguistics majors have taken.
2 It is not a requirement or an expectation that graduates of my program stay in academia by getting a teaching position at a university or a research position at an affiliated laboratory, but we often tend to try for the academia route before looking at jobs in “the industry”, or doing something related to linguistics for the government, a corporation, a non-profit, etc.
3 When I begin writing my dissertation next fall, I will be “on the job market”, although it’s obviously much better to have finished your diss first, so I’m looking at probably two years before I feel confident and experienced enough to apply for Assistant Professorships, maybe more if I do a post-doc year or two to expand my research experience.