About That About Section, Or, That One Time I Sort of Quit Academia
November 10, 2013 § 11 Comments
Take a quick peek at my “About” page, and you’ll notice a few significant changes to my bio. The first is my academic affiliation, the details of which I just finalized — I am now associated faculty in Sociology at Humboldt State University, which means I’ll be giving guest lectures in various Sociology courses as I await my course assignments for the 2014-2015 academic year. The second and much more significant development is that I’ve accepted a position as the Assistant Director of the Cultural Department for the Wiyot tribe, and will be responsible for a combination of research, community outreach, and grant management.
Had you asked me this time last year what I thought I’d be doing the following year, I can pretty much guarantee that I wouldn’t have suggested either option. In fact, neither would have been on my radar, with very good reason. I was on the academic job market; I was going to be a tenure track Professor (or at least Visiting Assistant Professor), because…just because. Because because. Because that’s what one does.
The following is an overview of how I got from there to here.
It all started in New York City, while I was still a Lecturer at NYU. Something finally clicked in my lizard brain, and as the long dreary winter gave way to a sharp, cheerless spring, I decided I wasn’t interested in pursuing a tenure track teaching job — at least not in the traditional way.
This thing wasn’t, as one might expect, the horrors of the academic job market, a period of earthly hell starting in August/September and extending till April, May, or even June. For those blissfully unfamiliar with the process, for that period of time you can’t make many or any future plans; instead you have to sit tight, because who knows if you’ll be moving or not. And may god have mercy on your soul if you’re in a committed relationship, because then you’ll be juggling professional uncertainty to the power of two, four, six, maybe even eight, depending on your partner’s flexibility and overall job prospects, which vary by region, state, county and city. Trust me on this — on a scale of 1-10, the job search is somewhere south of zero. It is the most emotionally draining, depressing, stressful, and overall horrible exercise in soul-crushing futility I have ever experienced.
Still, that’s not what made my lizard brain start whirring.
That development came courtesy of my dear mother, a few weeks after I announced my engagement (for context, I was in the middle of last year’s job search and was therefore a card-carrying member of the walking dead). We were talking about wedding plans, and she wanted to know what kind of life I envisioned post-wedding. What did I see us doing day to day? What kind of house did I want to live in, and where?
“Charles Whatnow?” I asked her, because those were stupid questions. “What kind of life do you want?” She asked again. “It depends on jobs,” I said. “That’s not an answer,” she said. “Yes it is,” I said. “It’s the only answer. I can’t know anything until I know about jobs.” “So your life is on hold until when, the spring?” she asked. “Beyond just the spring,” I said, “especially if I don’t get anything this year, or if I do and it’s only temporary. Or if I get something and it’s permanent but the fit isn’t right.” “When do you expect your life to settle down?” she asked. “I don’t know,” I said. “Years? Longer? Maybe never?”
“Forget the job search,” she said. “What do you want in your life?” I rejected the basic premise of the question (again, what kind of nonsense criteria is “wanting” and “your life” in the context of an academic job search?), but I humored her. I want to look out the window of our someday-future kitchen and see my husband gardening while Nathan and his someday-future dog sister lounge around in a sunbeam. I want a good place to watch sunsets. I want to have a nice forest to run through, where the sun streams through the leaves and makes the air look green (apparently the sun is a prominent feature of my daydreams — unsurprising for a child of Southern California). I want to have a space for all my art stuff, and I want my partner to have space for a proper workbench.
“Ok,” mom said. “Where can you go to get that?”
Once again, we were at an impasse; all I had was a weak “…but the job search.” The conversation ended, and over the next few months I continued dragging my corpse through that year’s ultimately doomed job search (well not entirely doomed, I got a campus interview at one of the UCs, and according to the search chair at another UC just missed making their shortlist. So not a total blowout, but not great either).
And yet that question “what kind of life do you want” stuck with me, so much so that I started questioning whether or not I even wanted to be an academic. For a while I considered quitting outright, maybe becoming…well…I don’t know, anything else (except what do people even do, for jobs?) — much to the chagrin of my various academic mentors, one of whom came right out and said I was making a mistake, several of whom wished I’d change my mind but knew better than to try and talk me out of it, and another who didn’t know how to respond, so said nothing very loudly.
I may have been ambivalent about pulling an I quit this bitch on the academic world (due in no small part to my reluctance to let my mentors down, the same way I suspect sons and daughters feel when they question whether or not to go into the family business), but one thing I had zero doubts about was my unwillingness to move someplace I didn’t want to be, particularly if the position was part-time or short-term. This was no small concern, since frequent relocation is regarded by many as a necessary evil in the quest to secure the holiest of holies, i.e. a tenure track Professorship. There are simply not enough teaching jobs and too many qualified applicants to fill them, the prevailing logic goes, so you’d better take whatever shit position at whatever backwater university, and hope to god you either get tenure or can claw your way to a better position somewhere else. Until that happens (it probably won’t), enjoy your time in [insert name of Superfund site here]; you will emerge broken and bitter and it will always be cold in your office, if you’re lucky enough to have one.
I didn’t want that. Not for me, not for anyone. So I said no thank you to the process, and quietly pulled my name from the job market hat.
Beyond having an obvious and immediate impact on my professional trajectory, this decision placed me –at least, threatened to place me– squarely in the category of academic defector. Scan the comments section of any blog covering higher education, or merely buzz about the hotel bar at any large academic conference and you’ll see what I mean; there is a great deal of disdain amongst established academics towards those who “aren’t committed enough” or who “don’t have the right stuff” to stay in the tenure track game. According to many, these poor bastards are failures, quitters, and ultimately just not cut out for the cutthroat world of mortal academic combat (see Rebecca Schuman’s takedown of the assertion that “not everyone is suited to be an academic” here).
The always-interesting blog The Professor Is In addresses similar academic boundary-policing in this post, which was written in response to the firestorm following Alexandra Lord’s Chronicle of Higher Ed article suggesting that academics consider where they want to live before accepting (or even pursuing) specific teaching jobs. Needless to say, Lord’s commenters didn’t mince words. As Karen (the eponymous Professor) notes, the comments could be distilled down to the assertion that TRUE academics are the ones who sacrifice. Put another way (here Karen is quoting someone who posted to her Facebook page): “If you want to be an academic, you must accept misery. It’s your duty not to be happy.”
I reject the basic premise that the only good academic is a miserable academic, and that willingness to sacrifice determines an academic’s overall worth. That is an absurd, unfair, and ultimately unimaginative concept. But what the hell, if people who don’t know anything about me want to accuse me of being a bad, uncommitted academic because I don’t want to sacrifice my mental health and well being in order to pursue a dream that, frankly, I could take or leave, ok. I am comfortable with my decision; it is the right one for me. I’ll offer no impassioned defense of my choice other than to say it’s MINE, and therefore none of anyone else’s business.
And so, emboldened for the first time in my career, I moved to Arcata California, home of my alma mater Humboldt State University and also my favorite spot on the planet. Did I know exactly what I was going to do once I got here? Absolutely not. In fact I spent the first six weeks in Arcata frantically smashing into every opportunity I could think of, and when I ran out of ideas or encountered an unexpected obstacle, just kept smashing until we thought of something else. But even on my grimmest, most frustrating days (and believe me, I’ve had my share), living somewhere beautiful, and more importantly, somewhere that feels like home, was worth the gamble. So here I am.
I still don’t know exactly what’s in store for me. For now, I like the idea of teaching a class or two per term while I accrue an entirely new skillset, one that will, in the end, make me a better and more well-rounded human being (and academic, though I nest “academic” under “human being,” not the other way around). Maybe I’ll reach a point when I no longer feel like teaching, and instead will choose to focus all my energies on my present alt-ac position. Maybe I’ll always teach. I know I’ll always write, whether in an academic or creative or some transgenre hybrid capacity (likely the third option). But other than that, I am –and will have the freedom and flexibility to remain– open to whatever might unfold. To me, that’s the definition of success. And if that definition runs counter to more traditional notions of success, again, ok. Luckily I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself and my family, so I’ll continue doing what I want, and you can continue doing what you want, and all of it is just fine.