moving on

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.



The Push-Pull of the Un(der)-Employed Ph.D.

Today, for the first time ever, I actually typed, “I hate my Ph.D.” The catalyst, as you might guess, was job search related. The thing is, that came not too long after other thoughts about Ph.D.s staying inside because of the nominal prestige of teaching at a university. (And daydreams about hunting some adjunct jobs myself.) How many of us does that prestige hold in? How satisfying is it to tell somebody we teach college students? How awkward is it do that as a preface to explaining how little money we make?

I have mentioned in passing the occasional conversations I have at the schools where I work, the ones that feature something along the lines of “you have a Ph.D. and you’re subbing?” My explanation is pretty well-practiced these days: as marginal as the pay is for substitute teaching, it’s still better than I’m likely to make adjuncting; also, I work 35-40 hours each week instead of 60-80. I mention that I continue to look for something better and more stable. Teachers tend to be pretty cool people, and nobody has pushed me back on that explanation.

In some ways, they don’t have to, because I have plenty of moments myself where I think “I have a Ph.D. and I’m subbing?” These happen most often when I am trying to cajole a defiant 7th-grader into giving me the paper dart he’s hiding behind his back, or pretending not to hear the students in the back corner talking about their boyfriends in Spanish while I try and teach the handful of people in the room receptive to learning from a sub. I ask myself—only rhetorically, since I know the answer already—how I got to where  am.

(Especially at 0:10)

Entitlement is really hard to let go. We get to grad school because we’re smart (if not always wise). We get there because we believe in education. We stay there because we believe that being smart and getting an education will get us where we want to be…whether or not that destination is practical. It is galling to think that all the years I spent in school are not enough to get me a middle-class job, that they are in fact enough to keep me out of many of those jobs. No matter how much I agree with William Goldings’s line that “Life isn’t fair, it’s just fairer than death, that’s all,” it’s a hard thing to internalize. (Related: I think graduate schools should have the Dread Pirate Roberts’ “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” emblazoned somewhere prominent. Maybe on their application paperwork.) I want what I have earned to mean something, even as I try to get beyond the letters after my name.

There’s not an easy answer for this push-pull. I’m proud I finished my doctorate, no matter how often I wish I’d quit when they first cut my funding. I am proud that my education is diverse and deep enough that I can comfortably cover any secondary class save for upper level hard sciences. I might, these days, prefer somebody to hand me a fiction contract, but that doesn’t mean I’d turn down a stable job at a SLAC if somebody offered.

Ultimately, we deserve what we make of what we have. These days I’m trying for wisdom and detachment, and trying occasionally to make Good Art.

Song of the Year Edition

Give me some music. Now, good morrow, friends.
Now, good Cesario, but that piece of song,
That old and antique song we heard last night:
Methought it did relieve my passion much,
More than light airs and recollected terms
Of these most brisk and giddy-paced times:
Come, but one verse.

—Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, II, iv

How much of a year can a single song encompass? If we judge by saturation, 2013 gave us plenty of candidates: Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” the catchy bundle of terrible ideas and musical plagiarism that was Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” the ubiquity of first Macklemore and then Lorde…but I’m not really interested in picking a 2013 song of 2013. This is a personal project rather than a stab at music criticism.

2012’s song of the year was (for me), the traditional “Wayfaring Stranger.” Here’s a version sung by a Rick Rubin-era Johnny Cash:

I also really dig this version by Bill Monroe. There are lots of versions, actually, because it’s a powerful, melancholy song. I sang it a lot more than I listened to it, though. Back in Minneapolis we had a piano. I liked to bang “Wayfaring Stranger” out over open fifths, sometimes with a little syncopation in the accompaniment. I also sang it an awful lot in the car as I drove to and from the suburbs.

The song perfectly captured what it was like for me to be finishing my dissertation, punctuating it with intermittent adjunct jobs, and hoping that there would be something on the other side. The late stages of dissertations are about as close to “a world of woe” as you can get without actual material hardship. It is an intensely lonely song. Much of my 2012 was intensely lonely.

2013 wasn’t as bad for that, even though I’ve spent the whole year unemployed and the last third of it in a new town where I have mostly my in-laws for company. There was not as much struggle this year, though there were some abysmal lows for me in February and again in December. I spent a lot of time in the gym over the spring and summer. The exercise helped balance my life. So did getting an hour or two without the kids several days each week. I played a good bit of ultimate over the summer, too. The FSM was also kind enough to grant Minneapolis a week of perfect September weather in July before we made the move to Texas in August.

Despite all that, 2013 has been a rough year. World and domestic political news has been awful. Higher ed keeps finding new ways to cannibalize its best resources. I’ve flailed through (and continue to flail at) a job hunt in a town where I’ve got painfully few connections. My successes with writing can’t always buoy me amidst the sucking sea of other failures…no matter how reasonable those failures are or the steps they mark toward success.

So here’s my song of 2013:

“Unsatisfied” from the Replacements’ classic album Let it Be. You can hear what it sounds like to be a directionless 20-something in the mid-80s U.S. It holds up pretty damn well for a 30-something trying to find some direction in three decades later. Paul Westerberg’s vocals are powerfully raw and thick with yearning. That is how this year has felt. Even though it hasn’t been an especially hopeful year, I’m hopeful as I write this. I want better for myself, but more importantly from myself.

I have a novel to finish, a job out there (somewhere), kids to keep raising as best I can with my awesome partner…there will be plenty to do in 2014. If enough of it comes through, maybe the next song of the year will be in a major key. How’s that for a resolution?

Thanks for your reading in 2013, and best wishes for the new year!