A History of Decision-Making

I didn’t mean to be neglectful of this blog when it’s so new, but I’m in the midst of grading season. Is there anything so depressing as grading undergraduate essays? My problem, too, is that no matter how hard I try, I always care too much, so I spend way too much time trying to explain how to fix what’s wrong, etc.–even though the students are unlikely even to read the comments, much less try to incorporate suggestions into future work. I’m sure there are aspects of non-academic jobs that are similarly demoralizing and soul-sucking, but from where I sit, grading my last paper will be one of the biggest things to look forward to as this leaving academia thing moves forward.

Speaking of which, I’ve been thinking about priorities lately. In pretty much every past decision about where to live and what to do, I have primarily prioritized career and money (mostly saving it rather than making it). I did my BA at the college where my dad taught, so I got free tuition; otherwise, I would have gone elsewhere, but how do you say no to a free ride? It was an easy choice–almost a non-choice. Then I decided I wanted to be a professor, and exactly one of the institutions I applied to for an MA gave me a fellowship, so off I went to that institution. I switched institutions for the PhD, and that ended up being something more of a choice between three possibilities with fairly equivalent financial packages, but I chose the one that was the best fit for my academic interests. Then when I applied for jobs last year, I was offered this one and only this one, so I took it; I needed a job, after all.

At no time did I prioritize a particular type of place, proximity to family and friends, or anything like that. It didn’t seem necessary. I’m no homebody, and I enjoy a lot of different types of environments, climates, and regional cultures. Until this last move, I never had trouble making close friends in my new homes. I’m single, so I’ve not had to accommodate a partner’s career and/or preferences. I don’t have children, so I haven’t had to worry about schools or grandparents or uprooting anyone from friends and familiar places. In many ways, I’m the dream academic for this job climate, with what was, at least, a pretty genuine willingness and ability to move anywhere and try anything for the job.

Of course, all this is underpinned by the first decision: the initial desire to be an English professor. Around the time I learned to read texts on multiple levels and write critical essays about them (the latter part of high school), I felt like the whole world had opened up. I’d always loved to read, and this was reading but better! And I quickly figured out that I could major in this, and then go to grad school, and then I’d be a professor when I could read stuff and critically analyze it ALL THE TIME!!!! I could quite imagine nothing else in life that might compare. And you know, sometimes I still feel that way. Teaching To the Lighthouse is pretty much the best thing ever. From the time I was about sixteen until I was thirty, there was really no question that being an English professor was all I wanted to do, and all my decisions were focused around doing that as well and prudently as possible.

Well. Somewhere around the end of the PhD, and especially after those two years on the job market, the dream was fizzling. I was tired. My research seemed pointless. For every student who fell in love with Virginia Woolf, there were 30 others who whined and complained, and then the good students wanted to go to grad school to become English professors, which I could only see as a disastrous life choice (do as I say and not as I do). I’d worked so hard to be able to do this, and still really wanted to in some ways, but in other ways I was beginning to realize that a whole career of the demoralizing academic grind was a miserable prospect. But I got a job anyway, so I took it.

It’s not worth it. I’m terribly lonely, I’m at ideologically at odds with my institution, and the moments when everything clicks in the classroom don’t begin to make up for the piles of awful essays, or the students who come to complain that Jesus doesn’t want them to read books that contain foul language, or the fact that it’s really hard to get research done at a teaching-heavy institution two hours away from the nearest research library (the research, though, only being necessary for career advancement, since I still mostly think my research is pointless). Some of this would be better at a non-Christian institution, but a lot of it wouldn’t be, and the thought of focusing on everything I’d need to focus on for the next year or two to go on the academic job market again, where I might be fortunate enough to get a different job in another town I don’t want to live in, with different (and yet the same) piles of essays to grade, where I will continue to have to churn out articles that no one will read–no. I can’t do it. Besides,To the Lighthouse will always be there, no matter what my day job is.

But as I find myself at this juncture, I realize the factors influencing the next decision–where to live, what kind of job to look for, whether I want to prioritize the job or the location, etc.–are very likely going to be entirely different than those influencing my past decisions in this line. In the past couple of years, it’s been increasingly clear that what is important to 30-something me doesn’t necessarily line up with what was important to 20-something me. So how do I figure out how to make the decisions for the next phase? Well, I’m still working on that one…

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “A History of Decision-Making

  1. Jet

    I so sympathise with your predicament. And the marking blues are most certainly the worst, not helped if you are feeling lonely and dragged down by a host of other things. We have all put far too much energy into marking to find that the student only cares what the mark is and then bins the rest. I discovered an old marking folder from an MA student dissertation I supervised several years ago. I do remember the student as hard-working and keen – that wasn’t in doubt. But as I scanned my feedback notes of drafts and tutorials I remembered how much emotional labour and hours went into this work. I was working as contract Associate Lecturer (adjunct in the US) and getting paid a pittance for it. I’m not only one to recognise that if one counts the hours put in for the financial return, it is clear that adjuncts probably work at minimum wage. Well, I detract a bit from your post, but see how easy it is for academic professor labour to go too far. When we face the truth that such a small audience wil actually read the published work that we have also spent so much time labouring over, we see the academic workplace for the game it really is. I wish you the nest of luck in your decision-making. Don’t forget to create the space for pleasures over there. Maybe weekends away seeing old friends/family, will help you get through the hard times.

  2. Currer Bell

    Best of luck with your journey towards both a career and personal life that you find fulfilling. I find myself somewhat daunted by the choices now–location, field, salary, proximity to family/friends, partner. Before it was all “easier” because everything was plotted out by the vagaries of academic jobs. But even when I feel overwhelmed by the choice, I tend to think it’s a preferable way of life. Good luck!

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