choices

Love and the Academy

I still don’t remember exactly why I was at the “Grillé” with one of my favorite literature profs. (Yes, it had the accent on the e. Yes, this was a particularly stupid thing to do at a selective SLAC where everybody would know how stupid it was. I still don’t know why they insisted on grill-ay.) It might have been on the visit I took back to my undergrad in the spring of my first year of grad school. It might have been a year earlier about a paper I was working on. The conversation strayed away from the strictly academic and toward what our futures might look like. This was one of my favorite professors—she pushed her students hard and took care with her time, but when you had her attention, you got her full attention and the formidable mind that went with it. What I remember from that spring conversation was this professor mentioning, almost in passing, how nice it was to be having a personal life again, and how one really needs to put all that aside through grad school and the early career grind. She didn’t say “be married to your work,” but she came close enough.

She might have been right. Some of the most successful scholars I know (not all) have pursued their work to the relative exclusion of other parts of their lives. There’s this idea (and occasional expectation) that academics put their work first, second, and third. If you want to get that fellowship…if you want to get published…if you want to get a job. There’s some truth there—filling up the publication section on your CV takes an enormous amount of time and effort, especially on top of a teaching load. That’s easier to manage if you don’t have obligations to other people. It’s also much less hassle to move around the country chasing VAPs or short-term fellowships.

None of that stops people from having outside lives. At an “early career professionals” session at SAM a year ago, there was the expected distress about finding jobs. There was also, though, an incredible variety of concerns herded under the broad banner of “career/life balance.” Adjuncts, VAPs, people new to the tenure track, people still finishing school—so many of us in that room were juggling work and home responsibilities. That’s nothing new to anybody who has a job, but…the mood in the room was a mixture of indignation, desperation, and guilt. We’d been trained for a job that’s supposed to be a life. Life, though, was busy throwing non-job things at us—we had people caring for kids, caring for parents, caring for themselves on minimal or nonexistent insurance, dealing with the “two body problem,” dealing with all the stress those situations provoked. Again, these are problems common to anybody who has a job and connections to other people. It’s just that most other jobs lack the tacit suggestion that you should be married to them.

I was never particularly good at holding life out. I married my partner the summer after she graduated. We had our first child during the first year of my doctoral work. We discovered we were pregnant with our second about two weeks before learning that my funding had been cut. I was lucky that first semester with an infant; it was the lightest load I had all through my PhD. (It helped that my partner worked for a company with a liberal leave policy.) My son was a terrible sleeper for years. I’d regularly spend an hour in the middle of the night walking up and down the apartment trying to get him to go back to sleep. Later, I’d read books on music semiology with him in my arms and fret over when I could go work on my dissertation without putting my partner in the lurch.

It’s not really possible for me to untangle the years I spent working on my PhD from my first years as a parent. Even in grad school, when you’re really supposed to focus on mastery and contributions to the field, I was never able to focus wholly on academics. They were just one more thing competing for my time. I wished, sometimes, that I had more time to spend on my work.

Mostly, though, I appreciated that I got to spend time with my kids. There’s no doubt I could have gotten through my program a year (or even two) faster than I did. My kids, though, never had to be in daycare full time. When we were going through the process of my son’s autism diagnosis and the subsequent slew of therapy sessions (occupational and speech), I was able to make my schedule fit his needs. Grad school might be a 60-hour-per-week job, but at least you get some say in which hours those are. (Although I still hate it that the university libraries weren’t open on weekend mornings.)

More importantly, having a family kept life in perspective. There were things I still took personally, but I was able to blow off many that might otherwise have infuriated me. I always had an out for departmental garbage (even though I also missed events that might have helped me). For all my protestations about grad school being more like an apprenticeship than education, the constant presence of my family helped me to treat it like a job. (Most of the time.) My family has also been incredibly supportive about my decision to go from ac to postac.

It’s possible to love the Academy. It’s possible to have love and the Academy…if you’re lucky and dedicated enough to switch your priorities as necessary (and your companions are patient with those switches). I didn’t love the Academy. I couldn’t marry my job. I picked my partner and my kids. That’s the only part of leaving I’ve ever been 100% confident of.

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Reconstructing Narrative

My previous post was about a book called Story Engineering. This one is about a more immediate kind of story-crafting, the one that retrieves what I want to keep from the narrative wreckage of my aborted academic career and combines it with my current ambitions to make something compelling. I’m the main audience for that story, but it’s also something that will be useful every time I explain to others (including potential employers) why I took my PhD out the tower’s door.

The seeds for this post came from PastProf’s post “Out of the Wreckage, A New Narrative,” which was in turn inspired by Chris Humphrey’s post about storytelling your way through a transition. Both draw on storyteller Geoff Mead’s concept of “narrative wreckage:” the “point in our lives when we realize that the familiar stories we tell about ourselves don’t make sense anymore.” It is an incredibly apt description of what becoming a post-ac has meant for me. I decided as an undergrad to be a professor. I went to school to become a professor. I worked (with marginal success) to fit myself into the mold of a professor. And then…I turned out not to be a professor. That was mind-numbingly hard.

The part of my new narrative about leaving is pretty well-established. It’s even well-rehearsed at this point. I left because I could not stomach the thought of either being separated from my family or moving them around every year or three chasing visiting assistant positions. I left because the pay was horrible, the workload maddening, and the authority minimal (it is really no fun spending hours developing sample syllabi and then taking an adjunct job and being handed the parent institution’s syllabus two days before you start). If I’m only going to be making $20,000/year, I’d rather do it at 40 hours/week than 75. We relocated to be closer to my partner’s family. Now I’m substitute teaching while working towards something more stable and hopefully more lucrative. I’m out.

It’s the next part that’s hard. What, really, comes next? I’m a writer, but I’ve sort of always been a writer. I had naive expectations that my writing skills would get me a job relatively easily. It turns out that most job openings for writers are aimed at recent college grads or people with at least three years of experience in the specialized field (technical, copy, web, etc.). I remember half-jokingly telling my mom, back when I was settling on doing graduate school in music rather than English, that I’d always have writing to fall back on. Is that my story? That I’m falling back on writing? Aren’t fall-back options supposed to be dependable?

Is the next step teaching? It was something I looked into immediately after the move. Texas has a fairly streamlined alternative certification process that would have had me certified and teaching somewhere within about a year and a half for very little out of pocket. I could not, at the time, stomach the idea of going back to school. It didn’t matter that it would only be some on-line work, a few weekends, and one or two week-long intensives followed by a paid probationary internship. It was more school, and I had had enough of that. My denial is wearing thin these days, though. Even as a sub, I like being in the classroom…at least when I get to teach rather than hand out worksheets or just keep the students “under control.” The problems are in the rest of it: I know how hard teachers work. I know how rules and standards become indiscriminate administrative bludgeons. I know this because I have these conversations with friends who are teachers.

What about my other skills? I’ve done a lot of miscellaneous jobs involving design, document production, and websites. Code doesn’t freak me out. Do I turn myself into a technologist of some sort to take advantage of Austin’s burgeoning tech industry? Could I cobble together a worthy collection of third-party certifications to get my foot in the door at potential employers? Probably. After a year of unemployment, the notion of a stable corporate 40+ has more appeal than it ever has. Monotony might look good on me. At least for a few years while I build an employment history whose last seven years are not occupied completely by teaching assistantships and adjunct positions.

Any of those paths forward require more than just the work. They all require me to tell different stories about myself. More importantly, they all require me to buy into those stories enough that I can make them compelling to others. Boil it down, and there is this: I have to choose. As many stark and depressing moments as the last year has had, this is still a moment of privilege: I get to choose. When I started subbing back in September, that wasn’t a choice. My partner hadn’t found a job yet and we needed income. Period. Now, we can at least keep our rent paid and food in the refrigerator. If we want more than that, though, I can’t keep hanging out in the wreckage of my academic narrative. I have to rebuild.

Inertia and insecurity make that much tougher to do than to say. The household isn’t hemorrhaging savings anymore. There’s no acute crisis to goad me. There’s also the small fact that the last time I set a major goal and chased it, I ended up…here, in the wreckage. Impostor syndrome doesn’t really go away when you get out. It compounds with actual failures (regardless of one’s own culpability in those failures) to make you more skittish. “I wasn’t good enough to get a job at the thing I spent years training for. How am I going to just wing it?” For now, I’m going to have to fake it until I make it, just like I did in my first days in front of classes. Just as it did then, the process will certainly involve making the occasional cringe-worthy mistake.

Some wisdom by analogy from one of my favorite storytellers, Neil Gaiman: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it is done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” Building a postac narrative has to work the same way: one decision at a time, one after another, until you’ve reconstructed a story you can live in. Without that next decision, you’re (I’m) stuck in the wreckage.

Bones?