Of Dreams, Carrots, and Towers

If it wasn’t for disappointment/I wouldn’t have any appointments
—They Might Be Giants, “Snowball in Hell”

Sometimes I miss being asked about my research. Not many people have asked since I defended my dissertation and earned the right to start signing my e-mails with “Dr.” The reason I don’t get asked very often is tied to another question: “did you apply for {insert tenure-track musicology job}?” Last year, the answer to that second question was almost always “yes,” with the exception of a few searches whose early deadlines I missed. This year, my answer will be “no.” When I was finishing my undergraduate work, I thought that professors had the best job ever: flexible schedules, the chance to work with smart young people, the vague but appealing “life of the mind.” I went to a small, selective liberal arts college and my idea of “adjunct faculty” began and ended with the applied instrumental teachers who held down performing jobs and usually had studios at several of the local colleges.

Ten years later, I know a hell of a lot more about adjunct faculty. I’ve been one of the now-ubiquitous adjuncts. Most of the academic workforce in higher education operates off the tenure track. Even so, the tenure-track job I dreamed about when I began graduate school is still dangled before graduate students and contingent faculty like the carrot before the donkey. With a little luck, the right shift in the winds, and a precisely-timed lunge, the donkey can snatch the carrot. The smartest, hardest-working donkeys have a slightly better chance at the carrot than the rest, but only slightly. You have to be a pretty smart, hard-working donkey to get through a doctoral program in the first place.

The chase for the carrot goes on. My friends and I compare notes on which programs write the most respectful rejection letters. We do our best to cheer each other’s successes. With conferences and publications, that’s easy. As a generation of scholars, I think we’re doing fascinating, worthwhile work. When it comes to jobs, though, it’s harder to be earnestly enthusiastic about friends’ success. The odds are good that you applied for the same position, the same fellowship, the same grant. When that happens, you have to be a better person than I am to avoid shading happiness at a friend’s success with hints of jealousy and disappointment. Living in academia is like living in a small town: everybody knows everybody, and even friends step on each other’s toes for want of space to move.

I was more desperate to get out of the actual small town I grew up in than to get out of this metaphorical small town of academia. Like a small town, academia can be comfortable, familiar. My dream lived there. I walked around Minneapolis feeling dissatisfied that my coursework was filled with Continental theorists. I would, I was sure, develop ideas that could elbow their way into the western body of thought alongside Deleuze and Bourdieu and Adorno. I’d use my work in comparative studies to beef up my credentials for musicology positions. I’d make time in my schedule for my kids, even if it meant staying up late and getting up early.

Eventually, nobody had to dangle a carrot in front of me, because I’d made my own carrot, held the stick in my own hands. Although it was much more miserable, it wasn’t that different from my teenage internet romance, where I’d been in love with the idea of being in love rather than with the person I was exchanging letters and books and cassettes with. As I trudged through my dissertation, I had to sell myself on the idea of being done with my dissertation. I finished it in part to spite my only intermittently-supportive institution, in part because I’d already sunk years into my PhD, and in part because I’d sold myself on that idea of being done. Being done would make everything better.

Being done did not make everything better.

I graduated in December. Because of some quirks of academic scheduling and a particularly odd adjunct position I’d taken, I wasn’t teaching in the spring. I took care of my daughter and sat on my hands and waited for something, anything, to come back from the applications I’d spent October and November sending all over the country. I was miserable. I had begun to understand some of the consequences of my mutually laissez-faire relationship with my advisor. My CV was far too thin to insulate me from the chilly job market. I told myself that I’d chase the one-year positions that begin to be announced in the spring. I told myself that I’d get an interview invitation any day now…

…I told myself that I was worthless, that I’d thrown away seven years of my life chasing a degree that was going to get me something between jack and squat. After a decade in graduate school, I was somehow even less employable than I would have been straight out of undergrad. I’d made my wife work full time through our kids’ preschool years, made her live 1200 miles from her family. I was convinced I was failing my family. Late one night it got so bad that I cried for an hour, great wracking sobs that I couldn’t stop. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d been alone. My wife helped me get through that night, and the days that came after.

In March, I went to a conference, hoping it might renew my enthusiasm (and because I had a paper to present). I heard more interesting papers than I’d heard at any previous conference. The society members were supportive. They understood my research and some were excited about the way it fit in with their own work. It was the best conference experience I’d ever had. A week later, I was more convinced than ever that leaving academia was the right next step for me. My peers at the conference were all gunning for the same jobs I was. None of us were optimistic about our immediate futures. The early career professionals committee meeting was filled with too-familiar laments, even though my fellow scholars were excited by and committed to their work.

I admire and respect my friends who are staying inside. They are doing fantastic things in the classroom and in their research. I wish they didn’t have to fight the system so hard to do them. It is inspiring to me that they can draw so much strength from the love of their work, even when they’re shoved on yet another committee or have their course load jerked around for the umpteenth time. I’ve realized I don’t love the work enough to put up with all the rest of it.

Giving up a dream is hard. It’s hard even when you know that giving it up is the right thing to do. It’s hard even when you know the dream isn’t really your dream anymore. Graduate school gets inside you like any other sixty or seventy-hour-a-week job does. It becomes a huge part of who you are. It had become a part of me that I didn’t like, but I couldn’t just cut it away. There are parts of academic life that I enjoy, parts that I’m good at. Ultimately, though, they’re not enough. The calculus of happiness is all wrong. (The financial calculus isn’t any better.) When I was busy sliding down the post-defense slope, none of the things that slowed me down came from the work I had done or thought I wanted to do. That dream of my favorite professor’s life was the thing pulling me down, even though it had shrunk from teaching at my ideal program to teaching anywhere with a reasonable salary and benefits. To get out of my hole, I had to let that dream go.

It would be a better story if this revelation had come in a cinematic beam of light, or while playing with my kids, or while noodling around on the piano. It has been slower than that, an ongoing process without any narrative tidiness. I want to make my life with my words, which is good. Writing is satisfying, and it feels right to me in ways that academic work never quite has. Starting over was, I think, the right choice. But it is still starting over. I apply for entry-level positions while keeping my eyes open for those elusive jobs outside academia where my degrees might help. The doubts don’t go away.

I’ve got dreams to chase again, though, and I like my new doubts better than my old certainties.

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8 comments

  1. I’ve always admired your writing Josh. I admire even more this post’s brutal honesty concerning all that has transpired over the past seven years. This journey has not been easy on you, nor on your family, but you are all together and that’s truly the most important thing of all.

    I have a dear friend with a doctorate in theatre, who has gone through much of what you speak of. She has been an adjunct for the past two years working her fanny off for very little pay and no benefits. In August, she was blessed with an offer of a full-time position, but not in theatre—in the Honors Program where she currently adjuncts.

    I gave up my dream as a door opened for both of us at BGSU. As time went by, I began to realize that I had the best of both worlds—I could work during the day, teach private students on my lunch hour and after work, and accept gigs in the area as they became available.

    I wouldn’t even say, “I gave it up” as all I ever wanted was a life in music. It simply became less important over time and after finishing my master’s, I realized the entire paper thing was all about power in many instances. It left a great distaste in my mouth.

    You will make your life with words. A door will open for you—of that, I’m sure.

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