From Russia with Anxiety: An Accidental Alt-Ac Story (#Postac Guest Post)

I’m pleased to host this guest post by the indomitable Chrissy Stroop. Chrissy is one of my post-ac heroes, for her courage and commitment to exposing the Evangelical cult through her #EmptyThePews and related online community building and writing. Please consider supporting Chrissy on Patreon. She has just launched a new life in Portland, and could use a little help getting established to do her best new important work.

By Dr. Chrissy Stroop

Holding a Ph.D. in Russian History and Interdisciplinary Studies in the Humanities from Stanford University from Stanford University, Chrissy Stroop taught at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration and the University of South Florida before deciding that chasing a tenure-track job was no longer worth it. Having set out with the mistaken notion that academia would provide a “safe” path on which to pursue thinking and writing, Stroop accidentally acquired the life experience necessary to return to her original dream of being a writer. Stroop’s work can be found in Foreign Policy, Playboy, Religion Dispatches, and other outlets, and she is the co-editor (with Lauren O’Neal) of the forthcoming essay collection Empty the Pews: Stories of Leaving the Church. A prominent ex-evangelical voice, Stroop has created a number of viral hashtags aimed at exposing Christian Right extremism including #EmptyThePews, #ChristianAltFacts, and #ExposeChristianSchools. Her personal blog, Not Your Mission Field, is found at cstroop.com. Click here to book her as a speaker.

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After weeks of sending somewhat panicky e-mails, I was sitting anxiously outside the office of a high-level administrator at the Russian Presidential Academy of National Economy and Public Administration (RANEPA). It was Wednesday, January 28, 2015, the beginning of the second semester of my third academic year teaching at the massive Moscow-based institution.

I don’t remember exactly what went through my mind as the snow swirled outside the imposing late Soviet-era structure in which I sat awaiting my fate. Perhaps my thoughts turned to the way that, in the middle of the 2011-2012 academic year, my advanced Russian instructor had convinced me to send my CV to the man who ran the now defunct Stanford in Moscow study abroad program. Proudly hailing from the Moscow intelligentsia, the always elegantly dressed Zhenya was sort of a mother hen to her students, and I suppose I will always regard her as one of the best people I’ve ever met.

The short, bespectacled brunette was someone who taught us not just Russian grammar, but also the kind of life wisdom that only a strong woman who had spent half her life in the USSR could provide. Zhenya was someone in whom you could confide. Someone who would scheme to help you get your life on track, whether that meant attempted matchmaking of a personal or professional variety. I still remember how, standing on one of Stanford’s columned arcades surrounding the quad, she said to me (in Russian of course), “You’ll become a true Muscovite!” It was a high compliment, coming from her.

And so I went to work for RANEPA, just in time to have a front row seat for the steepest decline in relations between Russia and the West to take place since the end of the Cold War. After getting my Ph.D. in modern Russian history and interdisciplinary studies in the humanities in 2012, I had no immediate tenure-track or postdoc prospects in the United States. Temporarily going to work in Russia seemed like a normal enough Area Studies path at the time. I had access to Russian archives, and the Russian government was putting pressure on universities to hire foreign scholars who could help with English-language course offerings and also assist Russian scholars with publishing in prestigious international journals. And the job seemed like a way of staying in the tenure-track game.

But as the old joke about a one-sentence summary of Russian history goes: “Then things got worse.” The Kremlin’s destabilizing move to annex Crimea from Ukraine in March 2014 represented brazen disregard for international law, and in late 2014 and early 2015, the consequences of sanctions, counter-sanctions, and large-scale capital flight were finally beginning to catch up in a significant way to those of us who were earning a living in rubles. I’ll never forget the day that the ruble, which had been trading at about 30 to the dollar when I began working in Moscow, plunged to over 80 to the dollar. I was not a verified “Twitter personality” with a large following then, but I tweeted about it at the time. And then, because nothing happens in Russia around the New Year’s holiday, I had to wait a month to address the situation in a meeting with my superiors.

While the ruble had lost well over half its value, and I was attempting to pay down debt denominated in dollars, RANEPA could only give me a 20% raise. That spring, I finally got a chance to get back to America with the offer of a postdoc at the University of South Florida in Tampa that I was thrilled to accept.

While I was in Tampa, Trump came to power, backed by a Russian influence campaign and the Christian Right. And suddenly, as a historian of modern Russia, an expert in how conservative religious ideology functions, and a former Christian school kid who knows white evangelical subculture from the inside, I was increasingly able to get work as a writer and commentator on current affairs something I’d begun to do already while living in Moscow.

Since the 2016 election cycle, my frankly really weird combination of academic expertise and lived experience has led to considerable visibility on Twitter[https://twitter.com/C_Stroop] and to alt-ac research and writing opportunities for outlets including ReligionDispatches, Political Research Associates, Eurasianet, Foreign Policy, and even Playboy. As things worked out, I never got around to making any serious effort to turn my dissertation into a scholarly monograph. Applying my scholarly skills in writing for popular audiences was honestly far more satisfying.

I began to pursue these opportunities more and more as my prospects of ever attaining a tenure-track position diminished, and I eventually gave up on that dream altogether. Of course, freelancing alone isn’t a realistic way to pay the bills these days, and I have neither a trust fund nor a partner who can support me. Despite that, after two years in my postdoc and one as a visiting instructor in USF’s Honors College, I decided to pass on adjuncting, moving back in with my parents in Indiana for a year to see if I could find a way to make it as a blogger, writer, and public speaker.

I had some B plans in mind, but as of now this path is working out, if only thanks to crowd funding via Patreon[https://www.patreon.com/cstroop], where people who understand the horrors of the gig economy can throw a few dollars a month toward those of us who create work they find valuable and believe should exist, despite the lack of traditional jobs. I am both grateful for my patrons and juuust Gen-X enough to feel at times that this is not a “real job”—although it is—and to worry that it is still precarious.

Those worries notwithstanding, I am currently living a life I’m proud of. I’ve helped to build up a community and movement of “exvangelicals” or “exvies,” former evangelicals speaking out about the authoritarian leanings of the conservative, mostly white evangelical demographic that makes up Trump’s key base. I’ve been part of an award-winning documentary about ex-evangelicals and have a co-edited anthology of personal essays by former conservative Christians—exvies, ex-LDS, and ex-Catholics—coming out on December 1 of this year. I’ve written investigative journalistic exposés on evangelical colleges’ mistreatment of LGBTQ students and on America’s history and present reality of predatory adoption practices. And as a paid invited speaker, I still get to interact with college students, as I did at Alma College last fall and will at the University of North Florida this fall.

While my particular path to what seems like a sustainable alt-ac career is not replicable, I have learned not to let anyone tell me that humanities Ph.D.s don’t have transferable skills. In fact, I wish I’d given up putting all my eggs in the tenure-track basket and given myself permission to try other things earlier on. If I could offer one piece of  advice to struggling grad students and early career scholars, it would be to throw off academia’s imposed myopia as soon you can, dipping your toes into various projects and networks that appeal to you and relate to your interests. Perhaps you’ll find, as I have, that there’s something you can do that is more immediately satisfying and more personally meaningful than writing for narrow circles of specialists. After eleven months in Indiana, I’ve moved to my dream city of Portland, Oregon, and I get to work on projects that reach far more people than any peer-reviewed research I’ve ever published. This in turn generates engagement with others that I find value in. And I’m beginning to think that maybe, just maybe, the alt-ac path I’ve accidentally forged is going to work out for the best.


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