Cultures of Dishonesty

I’ve been thinking for a day or two about a nice, measured post about decision-making and priorities, but today I’m not feeling nice, measured, or like making decisions based on carefully-weighed priorities. Today is one of the days where I want to pack the Doggess up in the car and flee under cover of night (it’s been a couple of weeks since the last such day, so I guess I was due).

The catalysts have been several conversations in the past few days in which I’ve found myself lying through  my teeth. They’re the innocent things you wish people just wouldn’t ask. “How do you like teaching at [employer]?” “How do you like living in [small, rural town]?” “How is your research going?” All in contexts where the truth–there’s a lot I really hate about teaching and living here, and I’m not working on my research because I’m probably going to leave academia within the next 18-24 months–would be impossible. So I give the usual half-truths: “I’ve really been enjoying being out of the city” and “I’ve been thinking about a couple of articles.”

But it struck me today how much these kinds of lies and half-truths are built in to both evangelical Christian and academic cultures. Perhaps because they’re both cultures that stress conformity and rely heavily on guilt to make people fall in line. Grad students don’t talk about career paths other than the conventional academic one. Christians learn all the right things to say to the right people, and if they secretly disagree, well, better to be a hypocrite than to be a cause for concern.

Amidst all the discussion lately about young people leaving the church in what are apparently droves, today’s contribution was Rachel Held Evans’s 15 Reasons I Left Church, and it struck me, reading it, how much messier all this gets when it’s not just voluntary church but a Christian employer. I left evangelicalism for many of the reasons she names, yet I found my way back again, for better or worse, in the form of this job. But rather than just being able to say, “well, this isn’t for me; I’ll sleep in next Sunday,” I’m dependent for my livelihood on perpetuating a variety of people’s belief in my orthodoxy (by their standards). Most days this really isn’t a problem; we all do our jobs faithfully, and no one stops me in the hall to ask whether I believe that non-Christians will be punished with eternal damnation (partly, perhaps, because they assume I do believe this, and I know that if I tried to dissuade them of this assumption, I would at the very least be “prayed for” and could perhaps even be fired–so I lie by omission).

But some days it really hits home how dishonest I am by continuing to live in this situation that I sort of stumbled into, not realizing exactly how discordant it was going to be with how I truly think and feel. I would love to make the list of the reasons why I left–and not being able to be fully honest with anyone in a 600-mile radius would be high on such a list–but it’s not as easy as leaving a church. I have bills to pay. I have a Doggess to feed. And right now Plan B still looks alarmingly like crashing on my best friend’s couch or in my parents’ basement, which I’m trying to rule out categorically, given that people in their 30’s with PhDs should not live on people’s couches if at all possible. So I keep lying.

Is it just me? Today I witnessed a job candidate speaking earnestly about faith and the desire to work at a Christian college, and it seemed so genuine. I guess I did the same thing, and I didn’t feel like I was lying at the time, exactly (though I definitely did some strategic omission). Was this person entirely sincere? Are all of my colleagues sincere, and I’m the only one in the “well, I’m a Christian, and an English professor, and I needed a job; just don’t ask me about evangelism or homosexuality” category?

Then I also think about secular academia and the way it’s not so different, with its expected paths and its guilt-based ostracism  when you don’t conform. How many of us have lied outright about research and writing progress, for example? It was such a relief to find how widespread the ex-academic community is: we’re not alone. But I’m still feeling pretty alone as the lying progressive at the evangelical college. Are all institutions like this? Is it even possible to have a job where being sincerely and fully oneself–professionally, of course, but sincerely and openly–is perfectly fine? Or is the trick finding the magic job where you naturally conform?

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7 responses to “Cultures of Dishonesty

  1. JC

    Your last paragraph is really profound. Like you say, academia becomes a system where most people lie about something – the progress we’re making, how much writing we’ve done, or even whether we like the work we’re doing. And yet, there are a bunch of us speaking out now about our unhappiness.

    I’d assume that there are other people at your school who feel similarly to you – but who feel silenced in the same way that those of us who grew discouraged with academia felt unable to speak up. But who knows how you would go about finding the other uncomfortable folks who are undoubtedly there. I wish you luck … and welcome to the (future) postacademic blogosphere! Looking forward to reading more from yo.

    • Thanks for the welcome! I’ve really appreciated your blog–especially the recent list of things that are better since you left.

      I do think the culture of it being okay to talk about alternate careers is becoming so much more acceptable in academia than it was, say, five years ago, partly because people are speaking out, and partly because of the necessity of recognizing that the academic job market is dreadful. Whether that acceptability will trickle over into my specific situation is another matter; it’s hard to establish the trust to be honest in such a conformist-oriented environment. And I have not yet figured out the secret handshake.

  2. Still Working on My Pseudonym

    I keep trying to reply to this, ” Is it even possible to have a job where being sincerely and fully oneself–professionally, of course, but sincerely and openly–is perfectly fine? Or is the trick finding the magic job where you naturally conform?” . . . and not quite finding the right words for it.

    Because I think in an ideal world, you select a job that has a culture that suits you and where you suit the culture. In my world Fortune Whatevers, the companies that get the accolades for recruiting and retention are the ones that are very open about their cultures and that do their best to screen people for fit. My Fortune Whatever has a pretty specific culture, but I also fit into it reasonably well . . . because they know what type of person they’re looking for, and they don’t do well when they hire too far outside that type. (Those people leave, which sucks for all involved.) So it isn’t about magic or even conformity–all of us at Fortune Whatever have different politics, different religions, different life goals and life stages, different hobbies, different whatevers–but we are all, for the most part, the type of people who like collaborative problem solving and understand the tradeoffs that come from being at this Fortune Whatever instead of Google.

    Obviously, you are not in an ideal world, but I think it’s important to recognize that while we all have professional faces and personal faces, the places where we can be most successful are the places where those two things don’t feel contradictory. That looks very different for different people, but I do think that such places exist for most people. I hope, very sincerely, that you are able to find such a spot.

    • I’ve been curious about how the corporate world fits in with all of this, because from my outsider perspective it seems so different: what’s the greater idea that everyone in a company has to buy into, and has to be made to feel guilty for not believing in earnestly enough? Because the problem with the religion thing or the academia thing, or, I would assume, the politics or the non-profit thing, is this orientation around a particular ideology. And if it’s your ideology, great, but if it’s not, then it’s not just like your working style is incompatible but like your brain is maladjusted, and you don’t believe the right things (and are possibly going to hell, or a tremendous disappointment to all these people who believed in you, or whatever).

      But maybe there’s an element of that in the corporate world, too, and that’s one reason I’m skeptical about the idea of looking for that kind of job. I don’t want to believe in capitalism, or in the brand of the Fortune Whatever company. I might be okay with doing a job and letting them give me a paycheck in return, but I don’t think I could deal with another organization–even if it seemed like a good fit–that wanted me to give it my belief and invest part of my soul in exchange for a job.

      • Still Working on My Pseudonym

        “What’s the greater idea that everyone in a company has to buy into, and has to be made to feel guilty for not believing in earnestly enough?”

        Uh. As far as I can tell, there isn’t one, at least not from my perspective. I mean, I don’t think you can work for Phillip Morris if you think cigarettes are evil, and I don’t think you can work for Kellogg’s if you think cereal is evil. You have to be comfortable enough with the goods or services that are being sold and the ways in which they are sold.

        But . . . I guess you have to be okay with not having a job that is particularly ideologically-oriented, but the fact that my Fortune Whatever isn’t ideologically-oriented is one of my favorite things about it. Are there people who totally drink the THE PRODUCT I WORK ON IS THE BEST! kool-aid? Of course. But most of us are pretty okay with the fact that we’re not curing cancer, because we work for an organization that encourages volunteerism, gives millions in disaster relief and food aid, and which lets us go home at the end of the day and not feel like we’ve sold our souls.

        A healthy skepticism about the way things are done is important in the world that I work in. Sure, I get teased when I visibly use a competitor’s product, but that’s not about ideology, it’s about the fact that by giving money to the competition, I’m operating against my own financial incentives. So, there’s no great Big Thing I have to believe in, and nothing I need to feel guilty about. And it’s nice.

  3. Jet

    Emily, your disclosures about your growing discomfort with your academic work situation are refreshing. I came across your blog after reading JC’s new blog recommendations – thanks JC! For so long I had felt like the outsider after meeting so many young, smart aspiring academics at international conferences. I always thought, well, they’ve just got the ingredients for success because they are young, can go anyway, work their butts off and just love it all because they are passionate and don’t have the usual domestic responsibilites (kids) that people like me have (I’ve foudn I’ve often resorted to blaming my kids for my academic failures and anxieties!). But clearly, there are a host of other reasons why academic labour during tenture track is unsatisfying. Perhaps I’ve been duped because, as you say, others may be hiding their displeasures behind their more neutral and accepted stories of academia – yes, teaching is fine (some students are great and appreciative and that’s rewarding), got some new articles in the making… Look forward to reading more from you.

    • Thanks for commenting! And I’m glad to learn of your blog from JC, as well.

      The funny thing is that I believed all that stuff about being a young, single, childless academic, too. As I watched friends make decisions based on the needs of partners and/or children, I thought, “oh, I’m so fortunate that I can just pick up and move wherever I need to move.” And I’ve lived away from my parents and siblings for most of my adulthood, so it’s not like that was a consideration. Yet it turns out that there are other considerations, after all–shocker! Work is not all-fulfilling. It’s nice to have friends. Now that there are nephews and nieces in the picture, being far away from family seems less appealing. And its so surprising to me that I’m only just thinking about all this, but I do think that this prevailing idea that one’s whole life must be sacrificed for academia is so terribly pervasive and also insidious. And it turns out that’s true for people in all sorts of life situations.

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