The Nomad’s Manifesto

Up until about a year ago, I imagined that when I completed my doctorate in sociology I would become a professor. At that point, I had been in graduate school for six years at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and I was a year shy of finishing my dissertation, and attaining the degree. I had excelled in my program and fit the mold of a successful academic well. I had earned high honors on my Master’s thesis, had presented my research to enthusiastic audiences at conferences across the United States and beyond its borders, and had enjoyed the success of having my research published in an academic journal early in my career. I loved teaching and seemed good at it. My academic advisors encouraged and championed me. I had been groomed for the job.

But as this year wore on, and I wrote, revised, and completed my dissertation, I found myself straying from the well-worn path of the academic. The question, “Are you on the market?” (as in, the academic job market) made my stomach turn. Not because of nerves or fear of not finding a job, like many experience, but because I felt strongly that I did not want to be on the job market. In fact, I found myself repelled by the thought of it. When I tried to envision myself applying for full-time professor jobs, I just couldn’t see it. The thought of going to whatever institution would have me (this is the way, in academia), and settling into the routine of stable, rooted adulthood that one is supposed to strive for pushed me with visceral force out of this trajectory.

It took a few months, but I slowly became comfortable with my decision to not apply for academic jobs. When presented with the nagging question, I would simply reply, “Nope!”–my lips pursed in a tight smile intended to end conversations. When pushed to elaborate I stated the simple truth: “I don’t want to.” Of course, getting comfortable with the decision, and coming up with an alternative to the norm are two different things. This took longer. Concerned that my reaction might have been born out of fear of rejection, I thought deeply and for a long time about this choice. Upon reflection, I realized that not only did I not want to settle into a full-time professorship, but I didn’t want to settle into any one thing, anywhere.

I understand that this may read like the writings of a crazy person. After literally thirty years of schooling, and atop a mountain of debt, I remembered that the primary force that drove me to graduate school in the first place was the certainty that I didn’t want to work for anyone. I want to be self-employed, self-sufficient, and self-sustaining. I do not want my life’s work to be beholden to anyone or anything.

So, I have given to embrace this truth of my being, for it is truly inescapable. With Ph.D. in hand, I now set out to do that for which I am passionate. First and foremost, I must share with others my perspective on the social problems that plague our world. In this way, my education is not for naught: I aim to wield the sociological lens I have developed for the greater good. I will write books, magazine articles, and blog posts that I hope you will enjoy reading, and that will help you to see yourself as situated within a social system. I want to shed light on the connection between the struggles you face and those of others, and encourage you to confront the uncomfortable truth of the privileges that you and I enjoy at the expense of others.

Equally important, I will live as I wish to live, which is to say, nomadically. It’s not just that I have an urge to travel, to see the many places of the world, and to come to understand the everyday lives and experiences of others I have yet to meet. It’s also that I reject the normative markers of achievement of American adulthood: house, car, marriage, kids, stuff–oh, the stuff! I don’t want this. Further, I don’t need this. Like the crab, my Cancerian self knows that my body is my home, and that for me, anything outside of it is superfluous, trivial, and inconsequential.

While discussing my choice with others, some have suggested that I am “taking time off,” “vegging out,” or that this period in my life will be an interlude between completing graduate school and actualizing myself as a “real” adult. I understand why they would see me and my choice this way, because I recognize that what I am doing is not expected, nor is it normal. Yet, it is important that readers understand that none of the above is accurate. I am not avoiding growing up or settling down, nor am I trying to “find” myself. I am found. I am living differently.

My choice is in large part a result of the intellectual path I have charted as a student. What I have learned about the consumer lifestyle that many Americans lead is that it constrains how we see and operate in the world. Consumerism as a way of life necessarily places emphasis on goods, services, and on money. In this context, it is these things that organize our lives and our relations with the people in them. I believe that life can be different, and I now embark on a personal challenge to live differently. I work to de-center money and stuff, and to reduce my reliance on the resources, and the power over others, required to obtain them.

I must emphasize that despite my choice, I have much respect for academia, and for the work done in and by colleges and universities. I do not wish to close the door on this institution, nor am I severing completely my ties with it. Rather, I wish to engage differently with it, and on my own terms. I love teaching, and I value highly its radical potential. I will certainly teach in the future. But, I feel constrained by the norms and demands of the institutions of both academia and professional sociology.

Instead of remaining embedded in the institution, I devote myself fully to the practice of public sociology. The goal of a public sociology is to produce intellectual work that can be shared with and understood by you, the public, as opposed to producing in a format and language that is only accessible to an academic audience. Unmoored, and bearing no allegiance to a particular institution, nation, or group of people, I will deliver accessible, though sometimes hard to hear, essays on social problems and our individual connections to them.

I give you this blog as a sociological window into the world, as seen through my eyes. The coming posts will be invitations to think critically about what is going on in our world today, inspired by the places I will go, the people I will meet, and the lives I will observe. The sociologist C. Wright Mills (1916-1962) defined sociology as the practice of illuminating the connection between private concerns and public issues. He also wrote that a sociological view of the world, what he called “the sociological imagination,” sees the connections between personal biography and history. Inspired by these ideas, the mission of this blog is to present social issues in accessible language to foster discussion and awareness, and to encourage each of us to realize our own culpability in reproducing inequalities, both in our everyday lives, and within the long arc of history.

I hope you will join me in conversation on the topics I write about, especially if you disagree with me. Until next time, be peace, and be well.

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16 thoughts on “The Nomad’s Manifesto”

  1. Yes! You took the words right off the tip of my tongue.

    A number of years ago I adopted a mantra created by Ursula Le Guin, “Keep nothing for myself. Give everything away.”

    I’ve tried to live by it since then. I like your formulation that your body is your home, and that “anything outside of it is superfluous, trivial, and inconsequential.” Well put! We need no Eastern mysticism, no yoga, no zen, no New Ageism to embrace this kind of life. It’s sad that so many of our friends and colleagues are chasing dollars, prestige, security. These are not times for security. It’s funny that people go to graduate school to steep themselves in critical theory and then end up chasing the hegemonic dreams and values they supposedly are conscious and critical of.

    I’m eagerly looking forward to your work, and already am a fan. Up with public sociology!

    Academia, as an institution, has made itself inconsequential to much struggle today. It’s a testament to the tenacity of many of our profs that they’ve been able to influence wider politics and discourses outside of their journals and classrooms and conferences, but the academy is getting worse, structurally speaking. There is much less agency everyday.

    A few years ago also I remember Michael Buroway giving a talk in our department about public sociology. After a slew of questions I was able to ask, “what about public sociology outside of the academy, from some kind of base outside of professordom?” I remember not liking his answer very much because he didn’t see much reason or hope for PhDs to work as non-academics.

    Well, we’re doing it.

    1. Darwin,

      I love your comment, especially since you referenced my favorite sci fi writer. Incidentally, Ursula Le Guin was a daughter of academics and her literature clearly respected the field of anthropology. Yet, she was able to make such a huge impact on the world of queer studies and feminism. Public intellectuals take many forms and I am excited to see where Nicki takes her journey!

    2. Dude, we *are* doing it! Thanks for reading and for your support. I remember that same meeting. I remember getting excited about the notion of public sociology. I also remember that when I suggested we sociologists write beyond academia, like for newspapers or magazines for instance, some of our peers turned and looked at me like what I had said smelled bad. I hope this post smells nice.

    1. Marie, there are many ways to make ends meet; working as a full time professor is just one of them. Writing for a popular audience (as opposed to an academic one) can pay nicely enough, as can consulting. I like to cast a wide net in terms of income. And, when one lives simply, it’s amazing how far a small amount of money can go.

  2. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about academic structures – the extent to which they constrain our work in a deadening way, and the extent to which these constraints support focus and growth. I’m intrigued by your life-work project and looking forward to hearing about it!

    1. Mmm, there is some kind of balance between the two, isn’t there? If your goals fit the academic agenda then certainly the structures can be helpful. Right now I feel like they channel my energy away from that which I want to focus on. I hope you continue to follow!

  3. Bravo! Very touching post. I wish you much success on your path.

    I’m afraid neoliberalism’s ethos and practices have colonized academia to an extent I never would have thought possible. (Commodify your dissent, indeed.)

    There are pockets of resistance, but building progressive movements is damn hard work.

  4. excited for you, Nicki! also excited for your success, as it may inspire my own…
    until that day, I’ll keep working for the system in an attempt to change it from within.

    looking forward to more posts! let the discomfort begin!!

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