What to Keep? What to Toss?

Do they stay or do they go?
Do they stay or do they go?

I’m now into the one-week countdown before leaving Shanghai, and it’s going to be a busy week. I’ve sorted through all my clothes and packed one suitcase, made arrangements with my (somewhat annoyed) landlady to end my lease early, and taught my class at warp speed so we’ll finish next Monday afternoon, 24 hours before my journey to New York begins. But I still have a lot of packing, and discarding, to do.

The books are, as always, the biggest problem—too many to fit into my luggage, not enough to warrant the expense of an international moving service (I checked). A couple of weeks ago, I decided that the most expedient solution was to send a few boxes to my parents’ house via slow and cheap sea-shipping, and so I started putting together a stack of books to lug down to the post office. As I pulled volumes from the shelves in my office, my eyes fell on a pile of papers sitting on top of the bookcase, then swept over to another pile on my desk: printouts of archival materials that I used in my dissertation.

What about those? a voice inside my head asked. Mail them or trash them?

My knee-jerk, packrat historian’s reaction was, “OF COURSE I’ll keep them!” How could I even think of getting rid of research materials? But the practical side of my personality came to the surface seconds later. It will probably cost about $50 to mail those papers to the US, even by sea-shipping; they’ll take up space wherever I move; and there’s very little chance I’ll ever look at them again.

My dissertation is officially finished and filed. Most people at my stage—those who either have academic jobs or are searching for one—would take a bit of time away from the dissertation, then return to it six or twelve months later and begin revising it for publication as a book to be put out by a university press. That book is essentially a requirement for tenure, if the scholar has been lucky enough to land a tenure-track job, and maybe-perhaps-potentially increases the possibility of finding such a job if the scholar is adjuncting and hoping to move over to the tenure track.

I don’t know many academics who are 100 percent pleased with their dissertation books. A large part of this, I think, is simple exhaustion: by the time the book comes out, the scholar has been working on the project for at least five years, and probably closer to ten. They’re eager to move on to something else. Dissertation books tend to be excessively formal and scholarly in tone; their content—and their mere existence—is more important than the style in which they’re written. Even if you’re an academic who wants to write in a more relaxed and accessible style, there’s still an understanding that your dissertation book has to look like a traditional academic monograph. After you publish that and get tenure, THEN you can have fun.

But in my new job, no one will care whether or not I ever publish my dissertation. Although I’ve been thinking of this job as “academic-adjacent,” the measures of my success and productivity at work will not be the ones by which academics are judged. I’m absolutely thrilled to have gotten this job. At the same time, this is the final, definitive move in my turn away from traditional academia, and although that’s what I want, it’s still a little hard.

It’s hard even though this day has been coming for a long, long time—since before I started my PhD, in fact. I wanted the training and intensive study of graduate school, but I knew even when I applied that the tenure track didn’t appeal to me. My ideal job was one in which I would take what I had learned and share it with a larger community, not just students and fellow academics. I chose to attend UC Irvine in large part because the history department there had a track record of encouraging students who sought out (or fell into) alternative-academic (“alt-ac”) careers, and because my advisor was enthusiastic about mentoring a student who wanted to do something different. For me, in other words, “Plan B” has always been Plan A.

Over the past six years, the professional choices I’ve made have largely been about positioning myself to find a job off the tenure track. I got used to faculty members (not so much at my own school, but plenty of others) expressing concern that my alt-ac activities and writing were a “distraction” from the Real Scholarship I was supposed to be doing. I also grew accustomed to people asking me, “If you don’t want to be a professor, why are you bothering to get a PhD?” Even with all the recent discussion in higher education circles of alt-ac careers and “the malleable PhD,” I spent a lot of time explaining (most often to people in the academy) that one can do any number of jobs after earning a doctorate.

That’s not to say that I didn’t try to be a Regular Academic. Who doesn’t want to fit in to a group? I’ve presented at both major conferences in my field; I’ve published a book chapter; I’ve won grants for my research. But now that I’m done graduate school and firmly set on a non-academic career path, would I take the time and effort to revise my dissertation and go through the publishing process when there’s no clear impetus to do so? My answer, at the moment, is no.

I know myself. I won’t want to come home from work and spend the evening slogging through manuscript revisions; I’ll want to write a blog post or knit or finally watch The Wire. And I probably won’t want to take all my vacation time and spend it in Chinese archives doing the additional research that revising my dissertation would require. For those things to happen, my motivation would have to be either entirely external (the somewhat abstract “to make a contribution to scholarly knowledge about China,” which I think I can still do in other ways) or entirely internal (the much more selfish “to prove that I could be a Regular Academic and am not leaving the field because I couldn’t hack it”). And if I do decide to spend my evenings and weekends writing a book, I’d rather it be one that I enjoy writing and a wide audience enjoys reading. At the moment, my dissertation doesn’t fulfill either of those criteria, and I’m not sure I have the mental bandwith, or the motivation, to rip it apart and start over from scratch.

So, what do I do with all these papers? I have less than a week left to decide. Do they go to a recycling plant in Shanghai, or get mailed to New York?

3 thoughts on “What to Keep? What to Toss?

  1. Whatever you decide to do with the papers, KEEP WRITING! You have a clear, fluid and accessible style. The China studies world needs people like you, Maura. Safe travels and best of luck at the National Committee on US-China Relations!

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