To feel is to be at risk, and to be at risk is to feel.
— Jane Hirshfield, Ten Windows
This time last year I remember my husband, Michael (photographer and bicycle enthusiast), and I (writer and educator) expressing our skepticism about how the use of technology and web applications could empower our lives. From our vantage point, all we could see were people texting and driving, curating their lives via social media posts, or watching too many online cat videos (of which I’m guilty).
We were admittedly griping and neither of us, at the time, had attempted to develop our digital skills beyond what we were already comfortable with. As a writer and teacher of creative writing, I somehow felt that technology and digital skills were antithetical (or at least not as relevant) to the things I loved most, such as writing, literature, and access to education, arts, and community.
In the fall of 2013, I started a tenure-track teaching position at a liberal arts college that I thought would be my dream job, but I started to notice troubling shifts in higher education that resulted in an unsustainable work-life balance for myself and others around me, often involving low morale, workplace bullying, and the exploitation of adjunct faculty. This work-life imbalance was further confirmed when I ran into a fellow colleague — “Jane” — at a coffee shop and asked about her weekend with her husband (also an academic) and their adorable child. “Good — we’re good. We’ve decided,” she said, “to take half-days off on Sundays.”
Many of our friends — mostly artists, writers, teachers, and humanities folks — were also struggling to find or keep positions in academia due to the shrinking number of tenure-track positions, salary freezes, budget cuts, and the corporatization of higher education.
Though Michael and I had planned to aim for careers in academia, we began to question whether that path would be sustainable, feasible, and offer the flexibility and freedom — creative, financial, and intellectual — that we desired as artists. Gradually, I learned about more and more academics who were leaving the Ivory Tower or opting out altogether. As much I tried to convince myself things would be okay, my body began to manifest stress in serious ways and signaled that something major needed to change.
Last winter, Michael and I began researching different coding ‘boot camps’ — immersive web development programs. Through generous donations from friends and family, we raised funds through Go Fund Me to help offset the cost. Nevertheless, we were nervous since Michael would have to quit his job to pursue the 70–80 hr/week program.
In May, Michael started the three-month, front-end web development program at The Iron Yard. He lived and breathed code for three months. Shortly before he graduated, he was recruited and offered a web developer position with a signature startup, UserIq. Almost everyone in his cohort (front-end developers) found positions within a month. Since Michael has started his position, I have heard him express multiple times how much he is loving his work, the creativity and problem-solving it affords, and knowing that he possesses a skillset that will enable him to maintain a healthy work-life balance, the flexibility to choose where we live, and the financial means to live comfortably and, yes, to pay off our school loans!
According to Barbara Ericson, director of computing outreach at Georgia Tech’s College of Computing, “By 2020 they expect to have 1.4 million jobs … without people to fill about 400,000 of those.” What this means: more jobs and opportunities and tech initiatives — especially for women — to help lower the bar of entry for all of us.
This is more-than-welcomed news to someone like myself coming from an academic field that offers a total of — wait for it — 18 jobs (tenure-track position in poetry) this year in the entire country (compared to 30-ish jobs in 2013, 22 in 2014, and 17 in 2015)!
Though I have never considered myself a “computer nerd” and hadn’t studied computer science in college, I wondered: as an artist and academic (and someone who loves reading poetry and the world of bound books, old photographs, letterpress, etc.), could I enhance my digital skills to foster the things I care about most? As a woman of color with a humanities background, could I find ‘my people’ in the tech world? Would I feel welcomed?
Earlier this year, I started attending tech meetups, classes offered by Girl Develop It, workshops by Rails Girls, and code and coffees. I received a scholarship to attend my first tech conference, Rails Conf. I began to learn of the many ways that people utilize digital skills to help others and here are just a few: 48 in 48, The Last Mile, and Hack North Korea.
So far, I have found these tech communities welcoming, laid back (lots of jeans, tattoos, cat t-shirts, and funky eyeglasses abound!), and people excited to share their experiences and resources. I have met many women — ages 20–60s from various backgrounds — who are developing their digital skills too and potentially making career shifts.
I’m not saying we should all necessarily rush to become web developers (or one of the other, many positions in tech). And it should be acknowledged that the tech sector, too, has its own challenges, of course, but hopefully will continue to improve gender and racial diversity. However, after becoming more involved in the tech community, I now feel strongly that access to digital literacy is as much a social justice issue as is access to healthcare.
As of about two months ago, I resigned from my tenure-track position, in large part, due to a hostile work environment and discrimination, but I also resigned because, ultimately, I want to pursue a path with less bureaucracy, hostility, and politics — for one that is more welcoming of creativity, collaboration, and diversity. I am interested in how my commitment to education, social justice, and the arts can intersect with tech and help empower people, both in and beyond the classroom.
Last Friday, I met with a group of former students who wanted to catch up. At the coffee shop, they were giddy, all smiles, sipping hot chocolates, and sharing how they’d spent their summers and about their goals for the upcoming year. I joked about how healthy they looked, in spite of their recent mid-semester exams. They laughed. I was touched by their generous listening and empathy. We miss you, they said. I told them that teaching at their college was, by far, what I loved most about my former job and that my interactions with them sustained me, especially during a difficult time.
As an educator, I would often encounter students who felt uncomfortable because they were experiencing something new— whether in a piece of literature they were reading or during their own writing process. During these moments, I would typically ask the student to sit through that uncomfortability for a little while and encourage them to stay open-minded about their uncertainties since, oftentimes, this is when a transformative moment can take place.
As I keep learning and seeking the next adventure, I’m reminded of these passages from Jane Hirshfield’s Ten Windows:
We tend to think of good poems as preserving and transmitting some kind of knowledge, often hard won….Yet poetry comes into being by the fracture of knowing and sureness — it begins not in understanding but in a willing, undefended meeting with whatever arrives….The relationship between uncertainty and solace in these poems — as in life — is not curative; it is one of “also.” (125–127)
The making of good poetry entails control; it also requires surrender and a light hand. A genuine art lives somewhere between the divination bones and the dice. (133)