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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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Introduction: One Year Later

Last March I interviewed for, was offered, and accepted this job: Assistant Professor of English, Anonymous Small, Rural Christian College. March is late in the academic job season, and this was the last possibility on my plate. I’d already decided that I couldn’t handle another year of adjuncting and that I was too restless in the city where I was living. It was time for a change, so either I lived the academic dream at ASRCC, or I went…somewhere else to do something else. Plan B was not entirely nebulous, but it definitely involved crashing on someone’s couch.

So after spending eight years in grad school because I wanted to be an English professor, doing two years of job market trauma, and reaching the end of my adjuncting rope (not to mention adjuncting bank account), there was a whole lot of appeal to the idea of being offered a tenure-track job, even one I knew wasn’t ideal. After all, plenty of my friends and colleagues haven’t been so lucky. And a couple of the features of this job that would have been deal-breakers for a lot of those friends and colleagues didn’t bother me so much.

The location, for instance. After almost a decade in big cities, I wanted something with a slower pace and more space. The fact that I can walk from my house to a country road where I may not see another human for miles remains a perk. So does the lack of traffic. Nevertheless, I miss being closer to my family. I miss my friends. I miss living in a place where not everyone is white, Christian, and straight. I miss my Indian takeout place. I miss my feminist, queer-friendly, social justice-oriented church. Some days the quiet country roads are small compensation for all that.

If your average urban English PhD would be unlikely to move to a small town in the country, far away from any major cities, she would be even less likely to do it for a job at an evangelical college. But I came from that world originally and thought I could handle it. I’m now a second-generation Christian college professor. I did my undergrad at a Christian college. And even though I no longer identify as an evangelical, I’m still a Christian. A lefty, pluralist Episcopalian, to be sure, but, I thought, surely if there wasn’t room for someone like me, they wouldn’t hire me.

And here’s the kicker: back when I was an ambitious college student, becoming a feminist and a socialist and an ex-evangelical, all at an evangelical college, I longed for professors who were like me. I had some great professors, but they were overwhelmingly conservative, middle-aged, white men. There were a few women, and a few people with left-of-center politics, but not in the same person. Even back then, as I was beginning to aspire to an academic career, I thought that someday I might become the kind of professor I didn’t have as an undergraduate. Here was my chance!

Well, it hasn’t exactly worked out that way, and even the moments when I have felt like I’m making a difference in a student’s life don’t do much to balance out the day-in, day-out isolation of being the odd woman out, without a support structure.

So here I am, a year later, employed (against all odds) as an English professor, after putting in a ridiculous amount of time and effort into precisely that goal, and most of the time I’m pretty unhappy. The work itself–full-time teaching, trying to make time for research on the side–is fine, but not as fulfilling as I’d hoped. I don’t think I made a mistake, taking this job a year ago. It’s allowed me to figure out some priorities that I might not have realized if the tenure-track job had remained the elusive goal rather than a concrete reality. It’s allowed me to start to gain some financial stability, after years of living on shoestring grad stipends and adjunct pay. And it’s been an adventure in a lot of ways, and that’s always valuable, I think. But unless something changes to make my situation here more tenable, I do need to start thinking about an exit strategy, and one that probably involves leaving academia.

Hence the blog. I want to organize my thoughts, try to process my current situation and my future possibilities, and I also want to hold myself accountable to making the most of the time I’m here. It would be easy to wallow and be miserable (and I’ve done some of that, to be sure), but I would rather choose to be as happy as I can be.

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