Friday, August 21, 2015

Behind the Eight Ball

This week’s “Post-Academic” post will be a guest post, from a good friend of mine who has recently begun to contemplate leaving the academic profession. She, like me, is the kind of scholar whose friends have a hard time believing that she might be willing to contemplate a different kind of professional life. She, like me, is uncertain about how—or if—the academic world can even make space for those in other professions. Like me, I think she worries that the label “Independent Scholar” is all too often interpreted as a sign of failure by those in academic jobs.
            I have certainly found that it is incredibly difficult to make oneself heard in the academic world, once one has left it. Most of my posts on this blog have probably been read almost entirely by those who know me personally, unless Historiann or a facebook friend has seen fit to link to one or another post. But the stories of those of us who are literally on the margins of academia should probably be heard by those at its heart.
            My friend, I should note, has asked to remain anonymous: having tenure, even, does not really protect one from the precariousness that is often associated with adjunct work. To say publically that academia is not worth every sacrifice, it seems, feels dangerous to many academics—too dangerous to say aloud. And that’s exactly why academics need to hear these stories.
            Her tale:

In 2013, I gave my husband a Magic Eight Ball for Christmas. It was only partly in jest. We'd been faced with a series of difficult choices that Fall, and we had both begun to question our respective abilities to make "good" decisions. While the decisions we were making centered on professional opportunities for my husband, the outcomes would have ramifications for our entire family.

We were especially wary of major change because we had just come to terms with the fact that our track record regarding such decisions was not good. Shortly after we married in 2006, my husband returned to school to get his PhD. We had agreed that he would apply to jobs widely, though only accept an offer that included a tenure track position for me, which I never really thought would happen. I was then tenured in a Humanities field at a mid-level university in an undesirable part of a very desirable state.  I benefited from extraordinarily supportive colleagues and determined students, but it was the sort of place that people always left. Since I had arrived in 2000, I had been among those constantly applying for jobs elsewhere, without success.  I had made peace with my current situation, especially after the birth of my daughter in 2007 and the impending arrival of a second child in 2010.  My job was adequate, my friends good, and we were close to family. And the more desirable parts of our desirable state were only a modest distance away.  

In spring 2010, everything changed. My husband was made an offer that, much to our surprise, included spousal accommodation for me. The department was bigger, the emphasis on research greater, and I would be able to teach courses that aligned more closely with my area of expertise.  While I would have to give up tenure, I would retain my rank of Associate.  My husband was in a newer field that was constantly evolving and interdisciplinary. It was difficult to predict exactly what role he would play in his new department, but there seemed to be a lot of potential.  We would have to leave family and friends behind, but what academic doesn't pay this price for professional opportunity? As academics, we knew that accepting a job offer more often than not meant a leap into the unknown—new location, new colleagues new expectations. While we had reservations about the move, we were optimistic.

After all, what academic in their right mind turns down a spousal hire—the elusive solution to the "two-body" problem. 

In July, we moved half way across the country to a state neither of us had visited to accept jobs at an institution that we knew very little about, with a 3 year old and a 6 week old in tow.  As the months passed and we attempted to settle in to our new lives, certain things became very clear. I was extremely fortunate to find a new department that accepted me as a spousal hire without reservation and supported my research and teaching. My husband was less fortunate, entering (unknown to us of course) a department notorious on campus for its dysfunction. As the most recent hire, he was assigned the least desirable courses because their lab component meant twice as many hours in the classroom each week, leaving me solo with our small children 4 nights each week.  Scheduling challenges were compounded by the content of the classes he was assigned, well outside his area of expertise.  His passion was teaching. His department was obsessed with grants. All attempts he made to improve his situation within his department or by reaching out to other departments that aligned with his interests were immediately stymied. 

Unfortunately, my husband's professional dissatisfaction was not the only negative aspect of our experience. We had moved from a state where it took 30 minutes to drive 30 miles to a densely populated urban area, where 30 miles could take 3 hours. Housing was expensive. Poverty and crime were high.  We lived on the dodgy end of a relatively affluent neighborhood, hearing gunshots on more than one occasion.  Public schools were abysmal.  We learned that 80% of the children in our neighborhood attended private schools, an option we were neither interested in nor able to afford. When we had first contemplated the move, the distance from family was not a deterrent. My life in academia had always demanded that I live away from family. But I discovered that travel for a family of four was much more difficult than travel for one. 

As time passed, our dissatisfaction grew, along with our concerns about the future. Our eldest was nearing kindergarten. Our parents were aging. There was no indication that, given time, things would improve. My husband's professional background gave him options. He was willing to leave academia if it meant we could move. Unfortunately, I did not have the same options. I had progressed straight from undergrad to graduate school to a tenure track job. I wasn't qualified to do anything else. The possibility of another tenure track job for an associate professor with an acceptable but by no means exceptional scholarly record in an already limited field was unlikely. Another spousal hire at a different institution, admittedly a long shot, seemed to be our only way out.

My husband began applying for other jobs.  Due to the nature of his field and his qualifications as a candidate, a number of offers soon followed, none of them with the potential of a spousal hire and all of them problematic in some way, shape or form: Ideal location for the family, decent job for him, but no immediate employment for me; Decent location, decent job for him, contingent employment for me; Equally problematic location, good job for him, three hour commute for me.  Weighing the wants and needs of four people was difficult, to say the least. Change was inevitable, but what were we each willing to give up? We weren't so naive that we expected to find a perfect situation. Compromise was also inevitable, and increasingly it seemed to center on me. Was I willing to leave a tenure track job? Was I willing to leave academia? As deadlines loomed, anxiety levels increased. But how to know what decision was the right one? Predicting the future was impossible.

Enter the Magic Eight Ball.

My friend plans at least one follow-up to this story, so look for it here in this space. All I’d like to add is to note how quickly my friend and her husband were to frame their predicament as a matter of their decision-making abilities: when I read this story, I noted rather that all of their options, the choices available to them, have often been bad, or at least ambiguous. The bad choices and options available to adjunct teachers are well publicized, though institutions seem to have little need to do much about them. But the choices and options available to tenure-track and tenured faculty members are often bad, too: so bad that many folks feel some pressure to hold onto a bad deal, because their options are—or appear to be— even worse. I don’t know what my friend will ultimately do: but I wish very much that it looked like she and her family had a better range of options.


  1. I wanted to address something related to this post that Tom said in the Introduction to it. Reaction by other academics to those who contemplate leaving, or do leave, academia is SO MUCH about themselves (and I am one of them -- that is, a current academic who has seen friends leave the field). It's not that we can't have genuine feelings of concern for our friends who contemplate leaving (what are they giving up? will they find employment? how will they eat? etc.), but I think so much of it is filtered through the lens of our own experience: whether we are happy or not (if we're happy, why can't they be?); what we are personally giving up to continue to be an academic (I commute across three states for my job, or I live in the middle of nowhere, why is she giving up so easily?); our own commitment to the profession (this IS my identity, period, why doesn't s/he feel the same way? What does that say about the degree to which this SHOULD be my identity if it's actually possible to give it up?). None of this answers the questions about how to make the decision to leave or not leave (the one being contemplated in this post), and how independent scholars get treated by academics. I just think that, too often, academia is seen as a calling in a way that is not true for many other jobs where we are perfectly willing to allow that people might want to leave them for other opportunities or careers. Academia gets wrapped up in a cloak of nobility and higher purpose that it doesn't always live up to or deserve.

    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Anonymous. I may be wrong, but I've long thought that the sense of academia as a calling is something that is taught to graduate students (or taught even earlier). But I'm not at all sure it's good to teach that perspective, if it encourages people to sacrifice happiness--or other things that they might also rightly value.

  2. When my husband announced that he was leaving his tenure track job his colleagues were astounded, and some of them almost indignant. It almost seemed like they took it personally. Not because they were losing him, but that he was happy giving up something that they all felt they worked and sacrificed so hard for. On some level, I understand that reaction, but I can't think of any other profession that would respond similarly.