Monday, January 10, 2011

Off the Fence: Reflections on Nine Years of Ambivalence

The first in an intermittent series of guest posts by Caitlin*

As the interview season gets underway and the ambivalent academic's thoughts slide again towards tenure-track dreams (knock 'em dead, Eliza!), I have accepted the offer to write a few guest posts as an academic who is now officially off the fence, gainfully employed outside of professordom, and decreasingly ambivalent about it.

I usually begin the tale of my aborted academic career at the end. I think most post-academics do, with the defensive assertion that we left by choice rather than by necessity. I've come to think, however, that this distinction is mostly--well, academic. Whether you left in the first year of your doctoral program or after gaining tenure, the decision to leave came down to the same calculus: you just didn't want it badly enough any more to make the sacrifices involved. What I have discovered as the months between me and my academic life turn into years is that I don't want it at all.

My c.v. will tell you that I have a doctorate in history in one of the more grossly oversubscribed subfields, and that my post-PhD career consisted of a VAP at an Ivy League college, a multi-year research fellowship, two chapters in edited volumes, some bad luck (and bad judgment) with journals, and a book under contract with one of the top ten presses in my field. Twenty-three conference interviews over four years, five on-campus interviews, one tenure-track job offer. The year I threw in the towel I had that t-t job offer (in a Right-to-Work state where my husband, a union organizer, was unlikely to ever find work) and yet another research fellowship 3,000 miles away. Both of which I turned down.

See? See? I had options! (Yes, yes, the lady protests too much).

What my c.v. will not tell you is that I was ambivalent about professordom every step of the way. I am sensitive to the charge that I am rewriting history here, and there is probably a little bit of this going on, but friends and family have confirmed the nine-year duration of my ambivalence.

I was (and still am) attracted to the mystique of university teaching and research. The prestige was appealing, also the idea of a job that combined some routine duties (teaching and advising) with some creative ones, and had travel opportunities more pleasant than a grueling salesman's schedule of four days a week on the road.

But there were major problems, too. I tend to couch my objections to the academy in terms of fit: round peg, square hole. For one thing, teaching never gave me a buzz--I admire education in theory, but in practice it just left me limp. For another, I couldn't stand academics en masse. I am very fond of many individual academics, but collectively they induce in me an extremely unpleasant combination of anxiety and boredom.

And perhaps most importantly, I had no burning research questions to sustain me. It took me a long time to face up to the fact that I simply don't think think very highly of most academic research in the humanities--mine or anyone else's. From its deliberately opaque style to the irrelevance of most of its topical concerns to a host of conventions as mannered as eighteenth-century protocol in the courts of Europe, most academic writing on history, art, literature, religion, and philosophy has run off the rails as far as I'm concerned. I know there are people who love this stuff. But it's not for me.

I also have objections to the academy that are less personal and more systemic. But most of this reads as sour grapes when it comes from me, so I tend not to dwell on it. There are others better placed to make these criticisms. In retrospect it seems obvious that prestige and lifestyle would be insufficient to sustain me through misgivings as deep as these. Yet somehow I persisted over nine years. Why? Answering this question has been a major part of my post-academic deprogramming.

Over my next posts, I will be writing first about the forces that kept me on the academic straight and narrow despite the mounting evidence that it was a terrible fit. I have a list of five as of right now, but I reserve the right to come up with others. Then I will post on my epiphany moment--actually, it was a series of epiphany moments--that helped me realize that the things I didn't like about the academic track outweighed the things I did like about it.

Navel-gazing? You betcha. I offer no general remarks--only reports from the front lines of the out-of-academia transition. I can only hope that my own mental turmoil--and the gradual cessation thereof--helps other tortured souls resolve inner conflicts, either through that shock of recognition you get when someone else articulates something that you've been feeling but haven't put words to, or that that almost equally illuminating moment when you realize that someone else's inner life is profoundly unlike yours. May self-knowledge rain down upon us.

*Postscript: Why I write under my own name (but only part of it):

I have been for some time participating in online and face-to-face communities of ambivalent and/or disaffected academics. I run a face-to-face group in my local area and comment in various blogs and fora. I am particularly fond of the Worst Professor Ever, Post-Academic, and VersatilePhd, as different as they are.

I do this under my own name. I do not use a pseudonym, because--for me, at least--the project of leaving the academy has been an effort to revive some long-atrophied skills in self-awareness. Nine years in the academy was nine years of stifling deep reservations about my fit there and the value I placed on the system itself. A stronger sense of *my* values and *my* wishes is my most precious achievement of the past eighteen months, and I use my name to associate those sentiments with ME, thank you very much! (No such thing as a unitary self, the theoretically-minded may sniff, and maybe you're right, but I can tell you that I am by now dead sure when I am doing something that is NOT a good fit).

That said, I would prefer that these self-absorbed ramblings not appear on Google searches of my name. It's just TMI for potential employers or landlords or whatever, so I tend to omit my surname and the proper names of institutions I am associated with. If you want to Google-stalk me, be my guest. It won't be that hard.


Nadia said...

Thanks for sharing your experience. I love to hear other post-academics' stories. As someone who recently left the academy I feel relieved to be done of the ambivalence after years of struggling with it. Making the transition is not easy, but making a choice does feel very liberating. I hope to hear more and congratulations on your new job!!!

WorstProfEver said...

Hey Caitlin,

Thanks for the shout-out, and for the honesty; too few people admit that they want prestige or just didn't enjoy teaching. Neither of these is particularly objectionable in my view, but people often feel so obligated to follow the 'right' narrative!

I look forward to reading more of your story!

Anonymous said...

Hi Caitlin,
I really enjoyed your post and look forward to reading more. Thanks for sharing your experience. I appreciate your honesty and related to a lot of what you said. I'm A.B.D., gainfully employed, and *much* happier for it, though the decision to leave graduate school was an emotional one that took a long time to make. Keep writing! I'll be reading you.
Ph.d. Dropout

alternative phd said...

Caitlin, thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I appreciate your emphasis on fitness (round peg in square hole) and evaluating whether academia is worth the sacrifices. As an ambivalent ABD, I often come across the advice to "do what you love, life's too short," but that seems too simplistic. In my own experience, there are parts of academic life that I like and even love -- but that alone is not enough. I need to evaluate if we (academia and I) are a good fit, and whether the sacrifices are worth it.

Anyway, looking forward to more of your story!