work

Everything’s Coming Up Milhouse

Saturday, I finished the first draft of Ghosts of the Old City. There’s another post percolating about finishing a novel draft versus finishing the dissertation draft (a descendant of the NaNo vs. Diss post). For now, I’ll leave it at “feels pretty good.” That capped off a week in which I finally got a job, the weather was moderate, and my son finally began to settle in to his new school. As a bonus, I discovered that the pan-Asian place up the street is good enough to go back to repeatedly. It was the best week I’ve had in a long time.

It was also a long time coming. It’s only been a fortnight since I was stuck wondering just how long I’d be waiting. It felt like ages since I’d left academia, and a long time since I’d started applying for teaching jobs (even though it had been about five weeks). My wheels were spinning and spinning and it did not seem as if I had gone anywhere. Then I suddenly got some traction and everything moved quickly.

Over and over for the last few years, I heard variations on “Keep working. If you do, something good will happen.” Eventually. I understand why I heard it: there really isn’t much you can say to a person who is stuck in limbo. Keep working. Something will give. Don’t reconsider your past choices, reconsider your current options. True and true and yet absolutely unsatisfying when you are in the middle of nothing.

I would love to be able to turn to the postacs who read this blog and say “look, something good really will happen!” I can’t bring myself to be quite that valedictory. This is not to say that finally starting a new career is like the actual Simpsons moment that led to the title (in which Milhouse is super-excited that the flood pants he’d just complained about are keeping his cuffs “bone dry” while his room floods). It’s a significant step…and an exhausting one. The reward for working is more work. In my case, it’s work that I love despite the commute, despite eighth-graders who will erupt into conversation quite literally whenever I stop to take a breath. It’s good.

From here at what feels like the other end of the tunnel, I would not say “keep working and something good will happen.” That’s too close to the adjunct treadmill for my comfort. I will say two things. The first is this: ask yourself what you can do right now to get yourself moving in the direction you want to go. And the second: surround yourself with people who will support you.

As much as I fumbled with that first bit of advice, I have been incredibly lucky with the second. For the last few years, I’ve been surrounded by friends and family who said the things I needed to hear (whether I wanted to hear them or not) without judging me. I have, like so many happily married people, the absolute best spouse on the planet. Without her, I couldn’t have drafted a novel or completed my teaching certification or done a hundred of the other things that have gotten me to this point. She is awesome and I hope all of you find somebody you like as much as I like her.

My mom and my brother heard more of my complaints than anybody else, and they never hung up on me. They were my best cheerleaders.

My in-laws help me forget all of the things I dislike about Texas. They’re that good. From watching the kids to playing RPGs, from coming over for dinner to helping us move into the new house, they have been a constant and welcome presence for the last fourteen months.

Last but not least, thanks to my kids. You might not ever read this, but you’ve kept me going.

Teaching Dreams

I’m not sure I ever dreamed about teaching college courses. Intermittently, the dreams of my gradjunct years featured classrooms, but they were never about teaching. That is part of the reason I find the string of teaching dreams I’ve experienced since July strange. Few of them have been the typical ‘unprepared’ scenario (e.g., I just started teaching at this school and nobody can tell me where my classroom is or give me the attendance list). Mostly, they have been very concrete, quasi-realistic dreams about the work of being a teacher.

Last night, for example, I dreamed that I was teaching an intervention/remedial English class. I dreamed that I was angry at the police for the way they treated my students. I dreamed that I screwed up my introduction to the class by saying some dream-honest things about how messed up the system is when I should have started the speech with the encouraging parts that I delivered next. Those encouraging parts, incidentally, were precisely they ones that I have sketched out in the eventuality that I have a class of my own. The only odd thing about the dream was that in the subsequent teacher’s lounge episode, I could not stop eating cake even though I was full. Make of that what you will.

I’m not sure what I am supposed to make of these dreams. They’re not prophetic (I hope—the thing with the cake was uncomfortable). I don’t really feel like I’ve been thinking about teaching all that much. Indeed, I’m trying to take advantage of this time between finishing my certification and going back to work by finishing the draft of my novel. (Getting close!) I did not dream of technical writing jobs when I was applying for them, nor, further back, of tenure track jobs when I was applying for those. In part because I’ve been bereft of optimism lately, I want to read these teaching dreams as confirmation, whether cosmic or subconscious.

I want that confirmation because teaching feels right to me. It’s the part of my old plans that I’ve hung on to. I love writing. Writing feels right, but I’m not in a place to make it my full-time job. Teaching is different, because teaching is service. When I teach, I’m not doing it for myself. The job is bigger than the paycheck. I understand the idea of a life of service differently now than I did when I embraced it as a 17-year-old at a United World College. Not everybody gets the chance to make their work a meaningful part of their community. I have that chance now, which is pretty awesome.

The part of my introductory speech that made it into my dream? “You are all writers. You are all readers.” That’s a dream, not of kids all becoming novelists or or poets or literary critics, but of young people becoming adults who can express their ideas clearly, who can pull the ideas from a text and understand what the author is and isn’t saying. The kids have great ideas and insights. I get to help them understand how to make the most of them. That’s cool enough that I don’t mind my would-be work invading my dreams, even if I’m turned off by chocolate cake for a while.

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?

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.

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.