Monthly Archives: April 2012

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: “Loneliness 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.” 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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