happiness

Does #Postac Ever End?

When, if ever, do you stop being a postac?

As I take concrete steps from teaching college students toward teaching middle school, I’ve been wondering about that. There is so much to do that I don’t think much about how I spent the years between 2006 and 2012. The piece I wrote for How to Leave Academia ends with “The postac is dead. Long live the postac.” Those words felt right (and still do), but I’m not sure what they mean. Not precisely, anyway—I have at least a vague sense of movement from one phase of postac to another.

That transition has been slow and erratic. Some has simply come from passing time. My perspective on my years inside the Academy has changed in the same way you get over any bad breakup. I remember the good times and better recognize the warning signs that a bad end was coming. I just don’t feel gut-punched every time the subject comes up anymore. (I am also grateful that I avoided having an academic breakup song.)

Writing about the transition has helped, too. I’ve been completely out for a year—despite just discovering a missed rejection e-mail the other day—and blogging about #postac for ten months. Before I could write about them, I had to get my postac experiences straight in my head. I had to give them shape. Sometimes my ideas bounced off the work of other writers, postac or not. I wrote about reconstructing narrative even as I was reconstructing mine, post by post. The reconstruction isn’t complete, but that doesn’t matter. It never will be. What matters is that having a platform and necessity to organize my thoughts has helped me do so.

I also, for the first time since I defended my dissertation, have some idea of what the future looks like. From vague ideas of “doing something with writing,” I’ve gone to a nearly-finished novel and a clear course of action to resume teaching. The context won’t be the same. (I don’t recall ever having to tell my college students to sit down in the middle of class.) The teaching will come from the same place, though. I’ve mentioned before that I liked the teaching parts of grad school more than the research. Middle schools aren’t glamorous. Even as a long-term sub I’ve had to deal with parents and standardized tests and curriculum controls. The kids drive you crazy, but they’re also just beginning to discover their potential and decide how they want to use it. Trading the “life of the mind” for spending time around those discoveries seems worth it.

That brings me back around to that initial question: when do you stop being a postac? Grad school hammers academic identity into you. Postac often leeches it out. If you stop identifying as an academic, do you stop identifying as a postac? Does moving from “a PhD” to “with a PhD” mean something? Where does alt-ac fit into the picture? The job I’m doing won’t directly involve my graduate degrees. I will be neither analyst nor consultant. I won’t be publishing articles. Aside from the classroom, what I will soon be doing does not have much in common with what I used to do. I do not spend much time thinking about musicology these days.

Does that mean I’m not really a postac anymore? Not exactly. Deciding that I’m not a postac anymore would mean buying into the same idea that made leaving grad school so miserable: that our degrees, our jobs, and the relationship between the two define us. I don’t remember everything I knew when I took my comps. I still know a lot of it, and I can still speak convincingly about my research and methodology and the importance of the questions I asked. You could plunk me in front of a world music class tomorrow and I’d probably be fine. Graduate school changed the way I think and expanded my figurative toolbox. Some of those tools will gather dust. Others might get loaned to a neighbor and forgotten. I still developed them. I earned my degree.

I can be a postac without defining myself by my departure. I’ve also realized that “happy postac” is not an oxymoron. That’s been trickier; I’ve only really figured it out in the last few days. For most of the last year, I’ve defined myself as postac not only because I’ve been struggling to figure my life out without the academy, but also because I’ve often been miserable doing it. That’s why I worried about my postac posts turning into whining. There are lots of blog posts and articles about the problems of the underemployed PhD, and about how often adjuncts get hosed by the system. It’s tough out here. Just as there has to be room for the stories of flailing (as mine has been) and the stories of quick success (as some of the most chipper postac consultancies crow about), there must also be room for stories of further transition and alternative definitions of success.

Breaking up with academia is rough. Some of us rebound quickly, some slowly. Regardless, we carry our old relationships into our new ones. It’s okay to love again. You can, I think, still be a postac.

What about you? I’d love comments on how you have continued to define (or not define) yourself as “postac.” Is it something that ends?

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The Real World

May has been a month of decisions and steps forward. I’ve taken the initial steps toward becoming a certified teacher. I’ve started working on a (big) other writing project and associated website that I hope to launch in mid-June. My spouse and I have also started working on buying a house. This last feels improbably significant. Home ownership is part of the American Dream, sure, but it’s also one of the markers for a middle-class American’s transition to the “real world.” That “real world” is held over students as a vague bludgeon, deployed mostly when they’re not conforming to expectations (or blissfully unaware of what those expectations are). Figure things out before you get to the real world, we say, or you’re doomed to fail.

That notion of making it in the “real world”—of having a house and a car and a job that doesn’t flip with the academic calendar—is a stupidly privileged one. (See much of what Sarah Kendzior has written in the last year for examples.) It’s part and parcel of the things they sell you when you go to graduate school, though (never mind high school or undergrad). As we imagine(d) them, professors had salaries in the middle-to-high five figures, owned their homes, and still had all the prestige that goes with socially-sanctioned intellectual accomplishment. We don’t think of the job as coming with welfare. That’s the real world, too, and often a step above those suffering more systemic poverty.

I feel incredibly lucky to be looking at buying a house less than a year after my spouse and I moved to Texas without having jobs lined up. That’s possible partially because we’ve worked hard, but mostly because we’ve gotten incredible amounts of support from family. Some of the support has been financial. Most of it has come in a form more precious than money: time. Without the time my mother-in-law and sisters-in-law have given to watch the kids, I couldn’t have taken the substitute teaching jobs I’ve had, especially the long ones that have led me toward a career in secondary teaching. Those long jobs have, in turn, helped us scrape together the money for a down payment. (If you’re reading this, thank you so, so much.)

I’ve written before about the hazards of “supposed to” and “should,” about getting hung up on expectations and prestige. This point that I’m at now is where I “should” have been years ago. (It used to really bother me that my younger brother was a homeowner with a pair of masters’ degrees before I’d even finished my doctoral coursework.) It feels good to finally be here, but it’s also scary. To avoid choosing a future path is to ensure that you don’t choose the wrong future path. The more you worry about risk, the easier it is to write off the opportunity cost of sitting on your hands.

Too unfocused to decide on risks, I haven’t so much been sitting on my hands as flailing around with them, trying to shake off the bitter residue of my last years in academe. I’m sure I could have gotten to this point of making consequential decisions faster—especially if I’d read the right articles and talked to the right people sooner. I exited academia without an exit strategy…which is about as sensible as getting involved in a land war in Asia or going against a Sicilian when death is on the line. (Fourteen months of unrest has built up my immunity to iocaine powder.)

Honestly, I’ve been in the real world for years—married for over a decade, two kids, too many degrees. Graduate school is itself a job, whether it’s a dead end or not. Buying a house and changing careers are not transitions unique to postac. Six months ago, though, they seemed impossible. There was only the tunnel, no light. For the first time in a long, long while, I feel like my base emotional state is improving. When I’m happy, it’s not as brittle as it has been. I’m tempted to throw lots of qualifiers at this: Texas weather, the impending return to days as primary childcare provider, all the work that’s got to be done in the next three months…but that’s just part of the risk of choosing. I hope I remain appropriately wary of and grateful for the happiness that comes my way.

That’s part of the real world, too.

The Brittleness of Happiness

This post started with my incredulity at how hard I was taking an overheating car. I’ve never been nonchalant about malfunctioning automobiles—I was once so upset about a broken radiator that I couldn’t even get myself to call a tow truck. The overheating, this time, was not a disaster. I was close to home. I added more coolant. Since then, the problem seems to have gone away (or at least not manifested during my spouse’s commute). Like a hypochondriac hitting WebMD, though, I trolled the internet for probable causes and priced solutions and worried for the umpteenth time how many more months we’ll get out of a 14-year old Dodge Neon.

Those are practical worries: Austin’s nearly impossible without a car. My wife and I are budgeting for a down payment on a house; that doesn’t leave much room for new car payments. My incredulity, though, was about how much this threw me off. It was a problem, yes. A grown-up problem. I happen to have solved many grown-up problems in my time as a grown-up. I fixed my washing machine…and barely batted an eye a week later when a hose came loose and I had gallons of water to get off the floor. Why was I so upset about a car? Was my happiness that fragile?

Sort of. I wrote a few weeks back that “my own personal demons don’t stay riled up about grad school like they used to. I’m working on keeping my eyes forward.” When I’ve hit lows the last few months, they’ve been valleys, not abysses. It’s harder for the little things to wake up the whole mess of I’ve-wasted-my-life-and-my-future-is-useless than it used to be. None of that means my happiness is complete, or that I’m comfortable, or that I don’t still hear Paul Westerberg keening “Unsatisfied” in the back of my head on a weekly basis. I don’t always get enough sleep, which exacerbates problems.

My happiness is more brittle than I’d prefer. You know what? That’s a non-problem. If it slides back toward depression, that is a problem. Not now, though. Grad school encourages us to make peace with being miserable, a kind of paradoxical masochistic Schadenfreude. The loneliness of the adjunct makes it worse. That doesn’t mean quitting the academy is a free pass to rainbows and unicorns. Mental gymnastics to sell ourselves on our own happiness aren’t any more worthwhile just because we’ve left the system that encourages them.

In, out, or in-between, academia inspires a weird self-absorption. At its best, this enables useful introspection. At its worst, well…one can find himself turning the question of intake fan vs. clogged radiator into something existential. It’s just a car, dude, not a referendum on your success as a human being. Perspective has to come back in one way or another. Having nonacademic friends helps. Having kids helps (sometimes—my seven-year-old has turned bedtime literally into a brawl lately).

Sometimes, perspective comes when life smacks you upside the head with something real. After a few days off, I am back at the middle school where I spent six weeks. Yesterday, I was there as one of four extra subs called in as reinforcements after the unexpected death of one of the school’s math teachers. The teacher was 29, in his first year of teaching, and had many layers of connection with the school. He’d been a student there. His mother taught history there for decades. He’d been part of both sixth and eighth grade classrooms this year. Staff and students were wrecked. It was my job to help fill in the gaps as teachers and students helped each other get through the day, whether that meant covering a classroom or escorting students to the crisis center in the library. After most of two months, I know these students. I know many of the teachers (although I knew the deceased only in passing). It hurt to see them suffer, to see one of my class clowns come into the library barely able to finish a sentence.

I ended the school day standing next to the makeshift memorial set up in the courtyard. Students added notes and cards to the ones already piled on it. (They avoided covering up the neck ties.) Many of them took pictures with their phones. One student, trailing the end-of-day exodus, sketched a sincere but embarrassed bow as she dashed to catch her bus.

When the building was clear, I signed out, got in the car, and drove home. When I got there, I didn’t quite collapse, but it was close. I was empty, drained by the day. I cried some. I made my kids give me hugs and explained what had happened to my son. He immediately wanted to make a card for the teacher’s family. I thought about what I could do, what it meant to be a teacher…what death meant to a 13-year-old. I thought about happiness and about grief and ephemerality. I was reminded that death is one of those things even poetry fails to touch.

Later that night, I discovered the kids had knocked our iPad to the floor and stepped on it, cracking the screen. It didn’t worry me.