Did I Fail?

[It’s August and I’m back! Mostly, anyway.]

Even outside of the Academy, there are people who truly believe “postac” and “failed academic” are synonyms. For those postacs who believe that (and it’s a persistently pernicious belief to try and overcome), there still must be a sense that being a “failed” academic is more worthwhile than continuing the struggle to find success inside the Academy. I’ve been wondering lately, though, did I fail? My answer is ‘no,’ but I still wonder why we have to ask.

What if, for example, I had spent seven years waiting tables instead of chasing a doctorate. Realizing that waiting tables is a dead end, I then decide to change careers. Who would call me a failed waiter? Anybody? What if I’d been working on a novel while I was waiting tables? Would I be a failed novelist in addition to being a failed waiter, or instead of being a failed waiter?

In raw economic terms, quitting the adjuncting racket is much more like quitting food service. The economic numbers for adjuncts are awful. The living situation is often just as precarious as in food service. (Given student debt accumulated in graduate school, it can sometimes be worse.) We don’t talk about failed waiters because we understand the economics of it. If you get out of waiting tables, the assumption is that you’ll be moving up in the world. (But treat your servers well!)

Writers are just as prone to socio-economic struggles as waiters. They don’t call ‘em “starving artists” for nothing. But there’s still an idea that you can fail at being a writer in a way we’d be reluctant to ascribe failure at waiting tables. Caveat: I grew up in a restaurant. I understand that it’s possible to be really, really bad at waiting tables. (There’s a reason I always worked in the kitchen.) We just don’t usually decide those people are failures. The difference, I think, is in ambition. Unless you’re aiming to become a master sommelier, taking people’s orders doesn’t require ambition, just endless tolerance of human shortcomings.

Being a writer—or becoming a college professor—does require ambition. To do so is to seek status, to angle for a space in the cultural field that sets you apart. Because success brings (perceived) privileges, failure matters. Being an especially good waiter does not get you much more than (hopefully) good tips. Being an especially good writer or scholar or professor does. Those are avenues to become something bigger than you once were. Ambition raises the stakes; the more success matters, the more failure matters.

I’m lucky. I don’t have to deal with the extra raft of anxieties that go with leaving while ABD. I succeeded at graduate school, more or less. I suffered a few disparaging comments about my knowledge of musical works in the wake of my comprehensives, but those didn’t bother me. I got on well with my colleagues and enjoyed being on both sides of the classroom. Most importantly, I wrote a big stonking pile about new music in New York in the 1970s and got four professors to sign off on it. I earned the right to be called Doctor Plocher (and to make “not that kind of doctor” jokes).

By the metric of meeting ambition, though, I certainly failed.  I did not go on to rock the musicology world with my ideas about music and sociology. I did not get tenure at a tier one research university nor an Ivy nor a SLAC nor even a regional directional university. I did not, in fact, get a tenure-track job at all. I gave up on adjuncting before it could devour me. (Grad school did enough of that.) If the goal was to become a tenured scholar (and it was), I failed.

I can’t help coming back around to the question of the waiter, though. Goals change. More importantly, needs change. A starving artist might happily starve herself, but decide that her new significant other is worth making stability with. Most people have different needs at 35 than they did at 25. People switch careers. Frequently. In most cases, they get to do so without being labeled failures. There’s a lesson for postacs in that. We don’t have to carry our labels out of the Academy with us.

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