Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Eternal Internal Conflict

I am feeling conflicted about academia. With the department's budget problems, it is now clear that I will not get post-doc funding (meaning a bigger salary with benefits starting the semester after I defend my dissertation). I will still be able to get teaching gigs, but basically on a part-time basis.

This makes me think long and hard* about what I want to do with my degree, what it will mean to be on the job market this fall, and where I might end up a year from now.

(*thinking long and hard = fretting)

Hence the conflict. I’m not sure a tenure-track professorship is a career that I truly want to pursue (were it even a viable career option, which, given the state of the job market, is decidedly uncertain). If I don't get a job like this, my other options include adjunct part-time work (which can be rewarding in theory although the pay is horrible and the benefits usually nonexistent) and leaving academia entirely (which might be fine, but isn't a halfway thing. You can't leave academia and then come back -- it just doesn't happen.) I am not entirely opposed to doing something else -- leaving academia is starting to sound more and more appealing. But if I decide to do that, I want walking away from it to be MY decision. Not a fail-out, but an opt-out. I want to make up my own mind and feel confident in my decision.

I wonder if I would feel different if I felt that the department was giving me their full support with a huge fat post-doc appointment. Without it, it's hard to feel like the department has confidence in me, but the truth is, I don’t have that much confidence in myself in terms of pursuing a high profile career in this discipline. With all of my own misgivings and reservations about whether I am right for this and this is right for me, I certainly can’t expect them to just pat me on the back and say “We know you can do it!” (I want them to do this, of course, but I realize that I can’t expect it.)

I went to Blue Hill last night with other people from the department people. It was good. It was good to sit and commiserate and sympathize over pitchers of PBR. Hanging out with them, joking about how society should be an intellectual aristocracy (ok, not joking, deadly serious about that), I felt like we were in this together. This crazy academic pursuit, this bleak job market, this strange position of brilliant* and admittedly privileged people who want to do something intellectually and culturally significant, who aren’t sure what the future will hold, who have come too far to go back now, who are both confident in their abilities and uncertain about what the hell comes next. (*which is not to say that I am brilliant but that many of my colleagues are. They are also weird as hell, which seems par for the course in higher learning.)

I have thought for so long that being a professor is what I want to do. The teaching part of it, the reading and talking about novels part of it, the flexible hours, the casual dress code, the opportunity to delve deeply into topics that I find intellectually challenging and enriching and fascinating, that all sounds great. I just thought I would finish school, get tenure, publish a book. But the reality of it? The conference papers? The articles for publication? That no one reads? The petty department politics? The undying sexism that still manages to cling to academia? Balancing my own work and teaching a 4-4 or 5-5 load (srsly)? I think that sounds horrible.

This year on the DF (writing and not teaching) has taught me that I can manage my time. That I am self-motivated. That I enjoy writing a blog and that I enjoy writing about Victorian novels. That I am at my best when I work out every morning. That I actually like to cook. That I like to set my own schedule. That I get a lot of pleasure from things that are unrelated to my work but that I need to have a sense of purpose to my day.

Don't get me wrong. I am ridiculously interested in my dissertation. I’m interested in the research that I’m doing. I LIKE reading this stuff. I like teaching it. But the competitiveness of it, the antagonistic questions, the uber-specific interests that the general public and even most of my students could not care less about, the idea of dedicating my entire career to such an isolating and peculiar task… I'm just not sure it's what I want anymore.

Which is ridiculous and embarrassing because MY GOD you have been in school for this for SEVEN FREAKING YEARS and maybe you should have figured it out by now you ridiculous ASSHAT.

The truth is I might want to be more of a dilettante than an expert. I want to have lots of free time that I can structure as I please. I want to spend lots of time at home with my kids when I have them. I want to read for fun. I want to write things that lots of people will read, not boring articles in dusty academic journals. So it seems more and more obvious that I don't really want to do the tenure track thing. The problem is that NOT doing, that NOT trying somehow feels like admitting defeat.

And with all the things I'm not sure I want, there are some things I'm sure I don't. I don’t want to live apart from David for a year or two to do a post-doc somewhere else. I don’t want us to be nomadic, moving every two or three years from post-doc appointment to visiting professorships at various universities. I don’t want to become weird and boring. I don't want my job to be stressful to the point of knots in my stomach and sleepless nights.

But I do want us to be financially comfortable, so that is definitely something that David and I will have to figure out. Teaching 2 sections of comp a semester is a great idea if you need institutional affiliation and ou expect a bigger pay off by way of a real job somewhere else. How will it work if we decide to stay here, meaning I decide not to pursue a tenure track position elsewhere?

David has been 100% supportive through all of my freaking out and keeps assuring me "It will all work out." (which is comforting to a certain extent but I am also like GOOD GOD MAN FREAK OUT WITH ME MY FUTURE IS A COMPLETE QUESTION MARK HOW CAN YOU REMAIN CALM AT A MOMENT LIKE THIS!?!?). I feel good about us being on the same team and making big decisions together. At the same time, I don’t want to let him down. He's essentially supported me through years and years of grad school... shouldn't he get something out of this? Shouldn't we both feel like it has been worth it?

At this point, I no longer think that my resistance to the pursuit of a tenure track job is just a crisis of confidence, although honestly that still might be a part of it. I do know that there are many people, including my advisor, who think I can and should do this. And I appreciate their faith in me. I want to have that kind of faith in me. It all goes back to wanting to make a conscious choice. I don’t want to fail out. I want to make a deliberate decison to pursue other interests, other venues, other priorities.

With what might have been the most helpful piece of advice I’ve gotten in a long time, Monica pointed out bluntly but in the kindest possible way that nobody really cares what I do.

And she is absolutely right. My parents won’t care – they will probably just like it if they eventually get some grandkids. David’s family won’t care – they don’t even really get what I’m doing now and are simply impressed that I teach at the college level. David won’t care – he thinks I’m smart anyway. My friends won't care – they want me to be happy and to have time to go to happy hour. My advisor won't care, the department won’t care, even my English department friends and colleagues won’t care. No one will be grievously disappointed or distraught if I change my mind.

I need to remember that nobody is judging me for what I choose to do with my life. That there is more to life than the narrow world of academics. That it’s none of my business what other people think of me anyway. I just need to choose what I want. And that choice should be based on what makes me happy and personally fulfilled, not based on some arbitrary and self-imposed standard of what it means to be successful.

I believe that with all my heart. But it doesn’t make it any easier when I look to the future and don't know where I'll be a year from now. (I've never been in that situation before! I've always known that a year from now I'd be somwhere familiar -- school!). This is a whole new ballgame and I feel all kinds of pressure to get it right. Even though I think the only person putting that pressure on me is myself.

So now. At this point. I'm still trying to figure it out. I'm just trying to finish. So I don’t know about having it all, but I think I can have exactly what I want.

I just need to figure out exactly what that is...

1 comment:

  1. I'm behind again with the blogs:) I know you'll be happy and I'm happy for you that you'll be finished with your "school" part of matter you path.