Unrequited

ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.
― Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot

Academia-as-romantic-partner is one of my favorite metaphors. We fall in love with our fields, and it’s easy for the heart to rule the head. We plug away as adjuncts because surely, some day, academia will pull out the ring we’ve been waiting for all these years. Maybe it will even put together a flash mob and the whole thing will go viral on YouTube. We all know people who got dumped, and we all know at least a few people who got the proposal, cleared the paperwork, and are now complaining about how their spouse can’t load the dishwasher properly.

Breaking up with academia, for me at least, had an emotional trajectory pretty similar to the one terrible romantic breakup I had. The lady was ahead of me in school and moved across the country (to go to graduate school!). We were in love, but not in so much love that we were willing to derail our life plans for each other. (Again, pretty similar to what happened with academia and me.) When we called it quits I was miserable for months. After a bit of flailing, I found somebody else to love who loved me back and was, actually, willing to rearrange her life plans to better fit with mine. We’ve been married eleven years now. To the extent that our relationship was my decision, it’s probably the best one I’ve ever made.

So what has come next for me as I’ve escaped the miserable phase of my breakup with academia? I love teaching. I remember being surprised at how honest it felt to write that back when I was applying to master’s programs. It’s still true. Once I overcame my resistance to going back to any form of school, becoming a certified teacher seemed like a great idea. That’s what I spent my summer working toward, with the full expectation that when Labor Day rolled around, I’d be a week or two into a full-time job. Labor Day has come and gone, and I’m still laboring at…finding a job. And working on my novel. And mentally preparing myself to resume subbing next week.

This gets tiring, the waiting. Waiting on applications. Waiting on phone calls and e-mails, on appointments. Waiting for the grinding away at my writing projects to break on through to the other side. It’s kind of sad (and a sign that I have young kids) that the Disney song I sympathise with the most these days is Rapunzel’s opening number from Tangled. I am not just hanging out in a tower until some dashing stranger shows up to whisk me towards destiny, but I am wrestling with the sense that I should be somewhere by now.

Instead, I’m stuck waiting, which brings me back around to the epigraph. Waiting for Godot has all sorts of cool things going on in it. Beckett works miracles with simple language, but the play is also as bitter as burnt coffee. Precociously cynical me appreciated that even in my first encounter with it during I.B. English. I’ve got a better sense of it now, and suspect that my understanding of the work will continue to develop as I age. But back to that first encounter. One of our assignments was to do a dramatic reading of a scene. My partner and I decided that the best thing to do was play Vladimir and Estragon as stoners. We turned them, more or less, into existential Cheech and Chong. It was both funny and justifiable.

When you do it for long enough, waiting becomes like a drug. Send out some applications and read infotorials and play video games until the kids come home, then make snack and dinner and clean until it’s time to go to bed. Repeat until Godot finally shows. It is tranquilizing. I fight it with my writing (and with occasional reminders of my bank balance), and I work to keep the hopes that have thus far been deferred from making my heart sick.

Heartsickness brings us back to the initial metaphor about academia-as-romantic-partner. For many of us, our love for our work and our field proved unrequited. Academia might have liked us, might have liked us a lot—publishing our articles, inviting us to conferences, maybe handing us a VAP that looked good at the time—but it didn’t like like us. Maybe we could be friends, but probably the kind of friend who promises to help you move then “forgets.” (Every time.) It isn’t like that for everybody, of course. There’s still that 1-in-3 chance that you’ll end up in a tenure track job.

Right now, I’m worrying that my love of teaching might also be unrequited. I don’t believe it is, but I worry. It’s only been a month and change since I became eligible for jobs. There were some wrinkles of the hiring process that could have been made a little clearer in my certification course. There were only so many jobs open late in the season, and I was reluctant to chase ones that would have involved 50+ miles of daily commuting in terrible traffic. Knowing there are reasons does not make the waiting easier, especially when I consider that I might be waiting a full year to make more progress. I’m not sure I can do a long-distance relationship with teaching for that long.

What about you, o gentle readers? If you were describing your relationship to academia like a romantic partnership, how would it go? If you broke up, did you make any terrible choices on the rebound? Found new love since escaping? How far can we extend the metaphor before it collapses under its own weight?

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4 comments

  1. After three miserable years in my PhD program, I decided to drop out when my husband’s job took us across the country. Eventually I decided that I did, indeed, want to go back and finish the damn degree. When I told my best friend, she howled: “Noooo!!! I felt like you’d escaped an abusive boyfriend, and now you’re going back to him!” So much for romance!

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