Academia Relapse?

Argh! Decisive people? How does it feel to be you? I feel like it must be splendid, though I wouldn’t really know. I have these moments of decisiveness, these fleeting instants where the path before me (however big or small) crystalizes, and I just know what I should do. Sometimes I do this thing, and it’s great. Sometimes I do this thing, and it all blows up in my face. Lately, it’s been a bit more of the latter, which perhaps helps to explain how my brain has decided to cast doubt on my splendid moment of clarity from the summer, when I was ABSOLUTELY going to quit my job, quit academia, and move to Dream City to do…something yet to be determined.

Not that it’s not still high on my list of plans. But first I decided to be practical: I love Dream City, but the economy there is not the best, and I don’t have a very solid potential network, so I should keep Cities #2 and 3 in the mix, as well. Fine. Still planning to quit my job, still so sure I’m going to quit my job that I even gave my chair (who is my great ally here; I probably wouldn’t have said anything yet if I expected hostility) the head’s up that this would likely be my last year, and that conversation went well and made me feel like I was on the right track.

And then suddenly in the two weeks between then and now, my stupid brain has been trying to fall in love with my job. I’m having the best time in the classroom I’ve perhaps ever had. I’m actually thinking about research again, and wanting to do it. I’m reading scholarly books and articles for both class prep and research and thinking, perhaps for the first time in a couple of years, “how cool is this!” And oh, the academic job cycle, timed to nurture futile hope in the breasts of people fresh with September enthusiasm. “I’ll just peek at the MLA job list,” I told myself. “Oh, that job sounds intriguing…” *sigh*

None of this changes the basic facts: 1) I still pretty much hate where I live; 2) I’ve got some ideological problems with my employer; 3) the academic job market in the humanities suuuuuuuuuucks, so the idea that I will quit my current academic job for another, better one is optimistic at best.

But I still find myself kind of wanting to try again. There are a few jobs listed that might both be a good fit for what I want in an academic job and not be the longest of long shots (which still doesn’t mean my chances are good, per se). Could I jump-start my research so that it doesn’t really look like I did no research for a year? Could I look for academic jobs as well as non-academic? Could–and this is the real kicker–I do not just one but two more years here, really get back to the research, get the book under contract, and then go back on the academic market a year from now in a stronger position, just to give it one last chance?

I know, I know. It sounds like I’m drinking the kool-aid. Maybe I am. Maybe I’ll come to my senses soon.

Anyone remember the PhD On the Fence blog? She left the fence (and the blog) when she got a t-t job, and I find I miss that voice of indecision. Am I leaving academia? Probably. Do I want to? Sometimes yes, sometimes no (I can’t even decide whether I would be a type 1 or type 2 leaver–depends on the day). Am I still going to apply for some academic jobs just in case? Probably. Do I sort of want to just throw out a lot of possibilities and see if anything sticks, avoiding closing any doors until the last possible moment? You betcha.

Maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s even the smart way to be thinking about this. But I keep worrying that it’s academic indoctrination speaking, or that it’s proof that I haven’t learned my lesson and just keep repeating the same failed actions hoping for a different outcome.

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Still here! Now with a new, improved life plan!

Apologies for the blog neglect! I’ve been doing a lot of traveling during the past two months, and while this has been tremendously necessary, both as an escape from this small town and as an aid to thinking about future plans, it has meant that I’ve been rather disconnected.

(As an aside, travel flexibility is the thing I will miss most about academia when I leave it. I fantasize about the 8-5 world of leaving work at work and actually being able to have weekends, but on the other hand, as someone who just put 7000 miles on her car in a month and a half of trans-continental gallivanting, I’m not quite sure what I’d do with only two weeks of vacation a year. It’s almost enough to make me consider teaching high school, but I may have abandoned that plan when I couldn’t get through an entire high school job ad without wanting to vomit at the jargon.)

At the beginning of the summer, I was feeling overwhelmed by my options–so much so that I almost had what we might call an academia relapse. Might it make sense to try hard to publish more things this year and then give the academic job market one more serious, selective go before I give up? This is the job I already know how to do, and hey, it’s a job I like a lot, if not love with the kind of overwhelming passion that cancels out all other life considerations. Wouldn’t it be great, then, if I could land a job much like the one I have now, except in a place I want to live, and without the zealous evangelicals? The seductive lure of the fantastic combined with the familiar.

It didn’t help that I went to a conference early in the summer and had a great experience, as usual. Conferences are wonderful, and because they are, they’re a horrible thing for someone in my position to attend. Who wouldn’t want to spend a weekend catching up with old friends, drinking a lot, and having conversation about topics that only you and these other 100 people–among all the people in the world–are truly passionate about? Wouldn’t I miss all of this if I left academia?

Then the reality check, of course. I know that the odds of getting that academic job in a more congenial place, sans zealous evangelicals, are miniscule. To raise them even a little bit I need, at minimum, a couple more articles and a book contract–none of which I am in a position just to bang out in the next couple of months before the hiring season starts, especially since a) I’m two hours from the nearest research library and have shit electronic resource access at my current institution, and b) writing that conference paper–the first research writing I’d done in six months–wasn’t exactly great fun. With research I tend to teeter on the edge between finding my work the coolest thing ever and finding it the height of absurdity. Usually, the further into writing something I get, the more the absurdity wins out. Giving academia one more try just seemed destined to pile on the absurdity and the misery, and dammit, haven’t I learned that lesson?

Meanwhile, I was also making trips to each of the three cities topping my “places I’ll move when I quit academia and prioritize location” list, and I was glad I got to visit with that specifically in mind. To make a long story short, city #3 fell in my estimation, city #2 stayed a solid second, and someplace I could probably be quite happy, except that city #1 really is my One True Place, and since the moment I saw it on the horizon as I drove into town a few weeks ago, I’ve been unable to think of anything but when and how I’ll move there.

There are some advantages and disadvantages, from a “what will I do when I get there?” sense. I have relatives I could crash with temporarily, should such a thing be necessary (hopefully only for interviews, but it’s nice to have the safety net of people who are genetically obligated to take you in for a few weeks so you don’t have to sleep in your car). I have one very good networking contact there, and another fairly good one, but their contacts are in the city’s dominant industry, which is something I’m not sure I could ethically be involved in. How big of an idiot would I be to move to a city and refuse to work for the city’s (indeed, the state’s) biggest group of employers, the industry where I have at least some contacts? And yet, it really is something I don’t think I could do. There are other options, of course–the city isn’t huge, but it’s not a one-trick town, either–but I suspect that in general my options will be far fewer than if I decided to go to city #2, for instance. Still, city #1 has been pulling on my heart since I was a child (I’ve never lived there but have visited regularly all my life).

So there’s a plan! I have a place, and it’s a place that’s moving on me strongly enough that I think I’d be foolish not to get there as quickly as possible (which, practically speaking, is still next summer). Obviously there is still a lot of unknown, but I feel like I’ve taken a concrete first step, at least mentally, to narrow my options in a productive way.

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Supporting LGBTQ Students at Christian Colleges

My title should not suggest that I know how to do this. In fact, one of the things I’ve struggled with this year is how difficult I’ve found it, as a faculty member, to be a vocal ally of various groups and individuals who are marginalized in the Christian college world. Back when I was an undergrad at a Christian college, I was outspoken in my support for left-wing economic policies, feminism, equity for homosexuals both politically and in the church, etc. Arguing about this stuff in a Christian college environment was kind of my thing, and part of the reason I decided to take this job was to try to support students doing the same thing here.

But it’s trickier as a faculty member. On one hand, there’s the whole threat of being fired for appearing to be too far out of step with the statement of faith of the college (as interpreted by the people in charge, which is frustrating; at my particular institution, the ethos is much more conservative than what’s actually on the books, which suggests, at least, that a faculty member could be called into question for views and actions that aren’t explicitly prohibited, though I haven’t tested this out [yet?]). Now that I’m increasingly confident that this will not be a long-term job for me, I may decide to risk this more, but I’m in a position where I can afford to be risky. Someone at a different point in their career, when it would be more difficult to change jobs, or someone whose family is very rooted in a college community where there are limited alternate employment options would, I imagine, find it much more difficult to speak out against evangelical norms, even if they or their students are being encumbered by them.

The other difficulty, though, is the majority of students who do believe homosexuality is a sin, and wives should submit to their husbands, and the world was created in a literal week about 6000 years ago. I may disagree with them vehemently, and I may seek to challenge their thinking on all those (and other) points, but they’re still my students, and I have a responsibility to respect and not to alienate them. Is it possible to be a voice of support for the minority without waging war on the majority?

I don’t have answers to these questions, unfortunately. But I do know there are students at Christian colleges–and I focus on LGBTQ students, both in light of recent events and because I think they tend to be particularly oppressed in evangelical settings at present, but there are also other students who struggle with various aspects of their identity and beliefs that run strongly counter to the identity and beliefs of their educational institutions–whose voices are being silenced for fear of expulsion (among other things). And I suspect it would make a difference to those students to have faculty support. I’m not sure how to do that, but next year I want to be more intentional about trying.

Incidentally, the Biola Queer Underground came to my attention this week, and I figured it’s worth the signal-boost. Biola, as you may or may not know, is among the more conservative of Christian colleges (for reference, my own employer is restrictive enough; I really could not work for Biola), and it would be a really difficult place to be gay. But, of course, there are gay, bi, and transgender students at Biola. And some of them are making their presence known. Good for them!!! Hopefully the same thing will start to happen at other Christian colleges.

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Striving for Excellence in a Finite Job?

I’m so betwixt and between this week. Two days ago I just wanted to flee, yesterday I wanted a do-over for all the major life decisions I’ve made in the past year and a half, and today I’m making concrete plans about courses and research for the next year and talking to colleagues, at least, as though I’m laying groundwork for a long and profitable career here. The latter is a necessary act, but it’s disconcerting, especially because I’m particularly prone to having forced enthusiasm turn into actual enthusiasm. This course does sound like a lot of fun to teach! I’ll be so interested to see where this major institutional change leads us (us?) in five years! Let me tell you about the research trip I need to take for my book!

Then, of course, I step away and realize how unlikely it is that I will be part of this “us” in five years, or that I will ever write that book; this whole exercise in knowing mentally that the job is short-term while everyone else assumes it’s not is really rather taxing.

I will, however, teach that class next year, along with several others. And I find that as my first year of full-time professoring draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about myself as a classroom teacher. How did I do, and how much effort do I want to put in to do better, considering that I may not be doing it that much longer?

Probably my expectations are unrealistically high, especially since I (thought I) knew exactly what kind of professor I was going to be. During my undergraduate years, there were Professors A, B, and C (whom I am not going to try to gender-neutralize, since in at least one case, it matters). Professor A was my favorite–and I wasn’t alone in that. He was one of those amazingly charismatic professors, brilliant and electrifying in the classroom. He was the kind of professor who inspired phys ed majors to take a Shakespeare elective and inspired English majors to do ridiculous amounts of supplemental reading so we could talk to him about it (and he did that, too: hung out in his office talking to students about poetics). He had this knack for finding the fledgling grain of an idea in students’ in-class comments and then reshaping it into exactly what you were trying to say but couldn’t–all while making you feel like you were brilliant. And he also wasn’t trying too hard to be particularly entertaining, with jokes and pop culture references and personality quirks. Rather, he deeply loved the written word and had a way of getting students to love it, too.

Professor B was less electrifying in the classroom and did less for me in terms of helping me love my subject matter, but she was a deeply important mentor to me in many ways. She was a she, first of all, which was no small thing in a small Christian college, and she was also an ardent feminist and an ambitious academic. She was keenly aware that students like me didn’t have a lot of role models like her, and, of course, the ambitious, left-wing, female students flocked to her. The difference her presence made for me was a big part of why I decided to take a job at a Christian college: maybe I could be that person for some students like me.

Then there was Professor C, who was my worst nightmare. Not that he wasn’t a good professor and a lovely person: he was (and I assume still is). But he was “only” good, and it was clear he was trying hard to do better. He did all the right things in the classroom: a variety of pedagogical techniques to engage students, appeal to different styles of learners, and foster the exchange of ideas. He clearly really knew his material and cared about his students. Yet it never came together, and I took three different classes from him, so I don’t think it was just a fluke. He tried, but something didn’t quite work. He wasn’t a terrible professor, and he wasn’t a great one. If I were assigning grades for classroom teaching, he’d be a solid B.

Even back in undergrad, Professor C worried me. After I got my PhD and became a professor (already a clear goal for me at that point), I was obviously going to be a combination of Prof. A’s charisma and Prof. B’s role modeling. But…what if I wasn’t? What if, like Prof. C, I tried and tried and tried, and it just didn’t quite work. I didn’t think there was any chance I’d be bad, but what if I was merely good?

I was not a particularly stellar teacher while in grad school. I was merely good, but I attributed a lot of that to the conditions of a large, public university: lecture-style teaching to scores of students, most of whom were disengaged. In a SLAC, particularly in a Christian setting, where I could be an edgy and inspirational version of Professor B, it would be different. Students would be engaged, we’d all know each other’s names, and I’d find that group of ambitious young English majors–the ones who bristled against the strictures of the evangelical world and wanted to read cool books and fight against the Man–who thought I was great.

I’m sure you’ll all be shocked to learn that it hasn’t quite worked out that way. ūüôā

I imagine I’m still a bit too close to the whole thing to have a very accurate view of my successes and failures, but in general, I think I was merely good. I tried hard, and I learned a lot, but I don’t think I wowed anyone. Some of my problems were first-year growing pains that will improve as I get more practice (though it was interesting to me that Profs. A, B, and C, back when I had them, were all quite early in their careers, and both A and B were new to the institution my freshman and sophomore years, respectively). Some of it is my own introversion and my belief that the personal is private failing to jive well with the talk-about-Jesus-all-the-time culture of an evangelical school. (That, incidentally, was my most common complaint on the first semester student evaluations: she doesn’t talk about Jesus enough, to which I really can have no response, because seriously, students?) And I had a really painful run-in with students objecting to the content of a book on my syllabus early in the fall (don’t you know that Jesus doesn’t want us to read anything with violence, swearing, or sexuality?!?!?), which made me rather gunshy about advertising my not-so-evangelical beliefs thereafter. (What you forget, when you strive to be the countercultural role model, is that 99% of the people you hear from are complaining, and if the 1% is even out there, they may not identify themselves.)

The question, then, is whether I strive to address much of this. Even with the basic good pedagogy stuff, do I really want to spend a lot of time revamping this and striving to improve that if it’s only going to be another year? How much difference would it make? How hard do we keep trying when we know it’s not going to be a long-term gig?

As for the “fit” stuff, I’m really having a hard time letting go of the idea that I want to be Prof. B–but at what cost? How many arguments with students about whether it’s possible to be a Christian and a feminist am I willing to put up with for the sake of that possible student or two who really needs to hear that? Part of me wants to say that I might as well engage, be honest, and be myself, because after all, what have I got to lose? And part of me wants to put my head down and just wait it out, because being the odd woman out is exhausting.

At the end of the day, I still can’t quite stand the idea of not being a fabulous professor. But how much does that really matter? I don’t love it like I thought I would, and I don’t think it’s worth sacrificing all the things that would make me happy in life on the altar of fabulous professoring. On the flip side, I don’t want to use career-changing as a excuse to slack off. And regardless of the level of effort involved, how does one remain mentally engaged in a job one plans to leave?

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Happiness in the Meantime

I have a tendency to wallow. I suspect academics are even more prone to this than the general population: the impulse that drives the desire voluntarily to camp out in a library for days on end is not too far removed from the impulse that drives the desire to sit on the couch eating ice cream for days on end. This blog, in fact, is the result of an intense period of wallowing, in which I decided I needed to do something constructive about my situation, even if that was just writing about it.

In general, it’s helped. I feel like I’m coming up with a plan, even if it’s still a really nebulous one at this point. And the semester is winding down, bringing with it relief (and also exhaustion and piles and piles of grading, which continues to be my excuse for not blogging), spring weather, and the prospect of summer travel. All of this has helped my mood tremendously. But I’m also aware that I don’t want my mood to be entirely dependent on external forces: with the ever-present backdrop of loneliness and frustration, I’m particularly susceptible to things like a bad class, or a rainy day, or my dog’s finicky mood wrecking my calm. I’ve got to put in at least another year in this job and this place (most likely), and it’s not all going to be sweetness and light. So another of the things I’m doing is trying to build in happiness.

In the past, I’ve relied on friends and family to help me escape from wallowing. And it’s not as though I don’t still have that support network, but now they’re all long-distance, which makes it harder to call them up to get a coffee. I’m making acquaintances in the new place, but they’re all work colleagues, which severely limits how honest I can be with them. (I love Jung’s definition of loneliness: ‚ÄúLoneliness does not come from having no people about one, but from being unable to communicate the things that seem important to oneself, or from holding certain views which others find inadmissible.‚ÄĚ Yup, that about sums it up.)

Recognizing that I’m working without my usual net in this place, I’m trying to be more intentional about building in other elements into the everyday structure of my life that promote happiness and discourage wallowing. So far I’m working on the following:

1. Exercise, exercise, exercise. Sounds obvious, I know, but it’s also something I’ve struggled with doing very consistently, really, since I quit playing varsity sports in undergrad. But I’m really trying to get back in the habit of making it a regular thing.

2. Eat well. Same obviousness and same problems as the exercising. When I’m busy, it’s just so easy to do pasta and sauce from the jar, or cereal for dinner, or whatever. But life always looks better with vegetables.

3. Pick up the phone. I have this network of beloved friends and family, and I need to be better about keeping in touch. What if I plan to talk to some of the people I talk to every couple of months more like every couple of weeks, for instance? People know and love me, unorthodox theology and career doubts and all, and thanks to Skype and my cell plan, it’s never been easier to get those reminders.

4. Laugh at the Doggess. The Doggess, bless her, did not have the easiest start to her life, and she still has a lot of issues stemming from the shelter and whatever came before that. And though I love her dearly, I’m far too liable to get stressed out about what she’s doing wrong, to want to turn everything into an obedience project, and to worry excessively about whether she’ll ever overcome her various problems. But she’s also this goofy, hilarious, beautiful, cuddly ball of awesome, and it’s all the latter that I need to focus on.

5. Work on the exit strategy. Because it’s so much easier to face life here when I know things are finite.

6. Be mindful of the things I do enjoy here. I’m living in an area of the country where I’ll probably never live again, and in terms of landscape and general ambiance, it’s an area I really enjoy. So I do want to enjoy it. I want to appreciate the beauty of this place, from the everyday scenery, to the parks and hiking trails I haven’t done yet. I want to take the time to stargaze out in the country, because I haven’t seen stars for a decade, and they’re glorious.

7. Take every reasonable opportunity to travel. There’s the tricky balance of time and expense and all that, but the worst wallowing of the year was when I didn’t go away for spring break because I decided I needed to catch up on work and save money. Catching up on work and saving money are both good things, but often a trip is a very good investment of both time and money.

What about you, gentle readers? Any suggestions for being happy in the meantime?

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“Fit” and Christian Colleges

I’m wearing the Christian hat a bit more in this post: fair warning to anyone with a low tolerance for that kind of thing!

Most faith-based institutions of higher learning post their job ads in the same place as the ones without any religious element: the major disciplinary¬† lists like the MLA, sometimes the Chronicle of Higher Ed, etc. And when you’re looking at the postings, and even at the college websites, it can be hard to figure out what the relationship of an institution’s religious stance to a faculty member’s religious belief is supposed to be. These conversations come up from time to time on the job wiki and other places: do I have to be a [Catholic/Lutheran/Methodist/confessing Christian of some sort, regardless of brand] to work at X University? Some faith-based institutions don’t really care: it’s a historical relationship that holds little sway in actual practice. Other institutions want faculty members to agree to “support the mission” or something like that, but that can mean a wide range of things. Some “support the mission” institutions have a faculty that is as religiously diverse as you’d expect to find anywhere; some are very homogenous. It can be really difficult to tell which is which when you’re applying and even interviewing. Then there’s the kind of institution that actually wants its faculty to sign a statement of faith of some sort. These institutions are usually pretty forthright about this requirement because they’re obsessively interested in faculty “fit”; if you don’t believe what they believe, no one will be happy.

In my job searches, I applied to institutions in all three categories, and it was always the middle one I was anxious about: is this the kind of school where you mention religious affiliation in the cover letter, or not? I was never sure how to pitch it, and possibly I never got it right, because I never got an interview at any of those schools.

The schools that make it really clear what they expect you to believe, though? I didn’t worry about them. I read the statements of faith, tried to be as honest as I could (without openly jeopardizing my candidacy; if it was too much of a problem, I didn’t apply), and figured that this arduous “fit” process would help both me and the hiring committees figure out what was what. It seemed to work, too. In one case, a first-round interview effectively ended when the committee asked me if I believed X on a particular theological point and I said I did not. That was undoubtedly for the best, for all concerned!

Now, all academic hiring is obsessed with that nebulous, slippery thing called “fit.” It’s what people use to justify the insanity of a hiring process that involves the submission of scores of pages of written material, 48-hour interviews full of things that no self-respecting HR professional would dream of permitting, all in order to justify the hiring of Dr. A over the equally well-qualified Drs. B-ZZZ because, well, we just sort of liked hir better. Throw in the belief scrutiny that’s added to the mix in a faith-based institution of the third category, and it’s a particular nightmare. I’ve been asked for my religious autobiography in multiple forms in these sorts of interviews, complete with the kinds of personal questions that they know they’re not supposed to ask but can slip in as long as God is referenced. Many, many people would justifiably run screaming. I probably should have. But on the flip side, if you do fit, the hiring pools are much smaller, and it can be a good SLAC kind of gig.

You’d think that with all of that, it would be hard to end up with mis-matched faculty, yet here I am. When I think back to my interview process, I was honest (if not provokingly so, admittedly; I did not advertise points on which I suspected we’d disagree because they didn’t seem central). Yes, I have an evangelical background; no, I’m not an evangelical anymore; yes, I regularly attend church (have a clergy reference); yes, my church welcomes LGBTQ people and doesn’t really believe in hell. Etc.¬† At the end of the day, there were some points on which I had reservations (and I imagine the hiring committee had the same reservations about me), but the reservations were not enough to prevent them from offering me the job or me from accepting it. The belief statement I signed was largely the same creed I recite regularly in church, and any interpretive differences we might have had over what exactly we meant when we said those words were, thankfully, left ambiguous.

So how is it that after all of that obsession with fit, I still don’t? Some of it, perhaps, is that there’s honesty, and then there’s interview honesty, and I suspect that both they and I were more interview honest than we should have been (but if interviews involved a warts and all kind of honesty, would anyone ever be hired to do anything?). Plus, some kinds of desires outweigh others: I probably prioritized wanting a job, period, over making sure it was really a perfect fit. The hiring committee, too, may have decided the areas where I didn’t seem like a great fit did not outweigh the things they liked about me. But a lot of it seems, too, to have come down to some subtle cultural and theological differences that I, at least, had no idea I should have been looking out for until I was well ensconced here.

Over at Rachel Held Evans’s blog, there’s been an interesting conversation over the past few weeks about evangelical versus mainline Christianity (most recent post, with links to the previous ones, here). It turns out, all this time, when I thought I had an evangelical background, I was only sort of right (because John Wesley was kind of slippery like that). I hear “evangelical” and think one thing; my employers hear it and think something else (I’m still a little unclear about some of the details because, well, I’m not a theologian or a church historian). Then add in my decade of mainline Episcopalianism but throw into the mix the fact that there are some other Episcopalians on faculty here who are much more evangelical than mainline. You can imagine how this plays in an interview: “I’m an Episcopalian.” “Oh, so are Drs. X and Y!” Because no one in the room is an Episcopal theologian, no one realizes that there are these giant differences within the Episcopal church about what exactly one means when one recites the Nicene Creed, for instance.

Perhaps it comes down to this: I read and write about and teach literature. I took a theology class once and have read a few relevant books; I’m probably better theologically educated than your average person in the pews on Sunday, but I’m still not even close to being a theologian. Nor do I particularly wish to be one. All those people on the interview committee, caring so much about “fit”? Also not theologians. So we could have a good, concrete conversation about critical theory, or writing pedagogy, or Shakespeare, and we were–are–all on the same page (even when we disagree, we at least know we’re disagreeing). When we talked (and continue to talk, because these evangelicals seriously do not ever stop talking about Jesus, and it sort of drives me nuts) about faith, we were using the same words to mean quite different things. Yet in many ways, that was the important part of the interview. It’s easy to find an English professor (just post an ad; hundreds of obscenely well-qualified people will fall over themselves begging to come to the back of beyond to teach freshmen how to string sentences together). It’s less easy to find an English professor who fits into a particular institutional culture, especially when that culture is so narrow. Add to this the fact that English professors aren’t theologians, generally speaking, and the entire endeavor can go awry without anyone realizing what’s going on.

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Exit Strategy Parameters

A Post-Academic in NYC has a great recent post debunking the advice, often given to academics contemplating jobs like mine at Small, Rural Christian College, that they can “just quit” if it doesn’t work out. (Also check out JC, who identifies this as a mark of privilege. I agree, though I also suspect that the supervisors who give this advice can’t conceive of quitting as career-changing. They assume you take the not-fabulous academic job, which you “just quit” when you’ve published your way to a less unfabulous academic job, etc.–never mind that that’s an increasingly implausible career path for most academics in this job market.)¬† In any event, it’s very true that I can’t just up and quit my job. Sure, I’ve often contemplated packing up the car and fleeing under cover of night. But I’m a grown-up in the real world, and part of that means being responsible about finances, among other things. No cutting and running until I have a new plan in place.

So here in the real world where one needs an exit strategy that takes time, I’ve been thinking a lot about what kind of priorities I want to set for myself in this next major life change. As I mentioned in my last post, most of my past decisions about things like where to live and what to do for income have been primarily motivated by a desire to achieve English professordom while incurring a minimal amount of debt. Well, mission accomplished, for what it’s worth. The plan worked, but it turns out that achieving some form of the academic dream does not make up for dissatisfaction in other areas of life. And I’m sure my priorities have also changed, as they’re wont to do between one’s early 20s and early 30s.

But if the plan for my adult life thus far has been predicated around achieving a career goal that it now turns out I don’t particularly find worth the sacrifices in other areas of life, then the new plan needs to be based on different premises, I think. No longer do I have a framework to narrow my options. I could choose to move anywhere and do anything. The world is my oyster.

I’m a big fan of personal choice. In terms of theological background, I’m more or less an Arminian (formerly a good one, currently not a particularly orthodox anything); I can’t make any sense of the world otherwise and don’t think I could remain on any sort of speaking terms with God if I had to believe God was predestining everything that happens to everyone. I get irritated with Christians who use “the will of God” as some kind of way to excuse whatever they decide to do, without taking ownership of their actions. In a similar vein, the idea of fate or destiny also leaves me cold. I’m big on making decisions and taking responsibility for them.

Nevertheless, I’m far more susceptible than I want to be to thinking patterns that would reduce my agency. Back when that one MA school gave me a fellowship, it was hard not to see it as some kind of sign that I was “supposed” to go there. Same with the PhD school, when I visited and everything just seemed to click. Then, on the brink of having to find something else to do with my life, I was offered this job. God? Fate? Or just a series of coincidences that I’ve given my own interpretive spin, despite all my protesting that I don’t believe in fate or in a God who messes around in things like my job while meanwhile, people all over the world are going hungry.

Academia has a different spin on the limiting choices thing: more of a utilitarian sacrificing for the alleged greater good framework than some kind of fatalism. In the academic world, staying in academia is the holy grail, and it’s assumed that you’ll sacrifice everything else for that goal. Faculty in my grad department openly mocked students who chose to prioritize living in Grad School City (despite the fact that it’s a great place to live, despite the fact that many of these students had partners with jobs there and children in schools there). The explicit message was to apply for everything, take anything you’re offered, and then publish your way out to the next thing you’re offered, etc. And if you’re not ready to sacrifice everything else to this, then clearly you’re not cut out for the game. All the faculty in the department with trans-continental marriages were held up as people who had their priorities straight.

So here I am, a product of academic goals and a series of coincidences that have seemed to guide the specific execution of those academic goals. And now I’m planning to do something else. Somewhere else. It’s not in the least clear to me right now what I want to do and where I want to do it. Do I prioritize place or job? How close do I want to be to family? How narrowly do I want to focus on place or on job: a particular city or two? A particular type of place? A particular field to work in? Particular working conditions? Provisionally, I think I want to prioritize place and have narrowed things down to three cities that I’d most be interested in moving to–all places where I already have family or close friends. I also think I’d like to find a job that would involve organizing and analyzing information of some sort, but I have little idea what form that might take (not to mention whether it’s possible to do that in “the real world” without a quantitative background).

Even as I begin to make those assertions, though, I find my old habits rearing their heads. Somehow I’ve become so indoctrinated by the idea that teaching is this noble work of service (this comes on one hand from the impetus by humanists everywhere to assert our own importance in the world–and I do believe very strongly in the importance of the humanities; on another hand it’s embedded in the Christian SLAC attitude, and in my own particular self-identification as a black sheep within that world, bringing the light of liberalism to the evangelicals or some such thing), that the thought of choosing to live where I want to live, just because I like it there, choosing to do a job that I don’t hate and that funds the rest of my life, regardless of whether or not it’s making a difference in the world–all of that seems a little selfish. Maybe I just think I want that because I’m reacting against the choices I’ve made thus far. Or maybe reacting is exactly what I should do, considering that the choices I’ve made thus far have not exactly made me happy.

In any event, I’ve clearly got a lot of head-straightening-out to do as I start to think about priorities, not to mention lots of career research. At the same time, it’s pretty exciting–though also really intimidating–to feel the world open up before me.

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