Why Did My Calling Have to Be This?

So it’s time I come clean and just say it:  I took a stab at the job market, and nothing happened.  It’s really ok.  I have a year of funding left, which means a luxurious 18 months in which to turn a merely defensible dissertation into an awesome dissertation, send off some articles, and generally get my house in order while taking another stab at the market next fall.  I made a promise to myself this summer that I would spend no more than two years on the academic job market before looking for opportunities elsewhere, and I am, for the most part, still committed to that.  At this point in my life, I am ready to leave the “student” qualifier behind and start making grown-up money.  I am not in any way enamored with the prestige that a university job confers, and I am open to considering a number of different career options in and out of education.  On some days, I’m even pretty sure that a high-powered academic job isn’t for me:  that the politics of university department are too oppressive, that jumping on the tenure track treadmill will require too many sacrifices, that I’m not sure how much longer I want to wait before reproducing, etc.

Then weeks like this one happen.  After an awkward first day, my class gradually begins to warm up.  They start asking interesting questions and propose provocative topics for their first writing assignment.  I spend an hour after class discussing Dante and C.S. Lewis and fantasy literature with one student.  Meanwhile, I’ve been emailing back and forth with an archivist at a research library that I want to visit this summer as she helps me identify holdings that I can reference in a fellowship application.  On the bus Monday, I got an email from her notifying me that the papers of a 1900′s female journalist I am interested in have just been made available to the public, and I think I may have squealed audibly, as this was quite possibly the most thrilling news of my month.  As I complete the funding application, I find that I am fantasizing–a little prematurely–about spending day after day walking to this library and devoting hours to perusing its holdings.  I can’t think of a single thing I would rather do this summer, and I’m sure that a little part of me will die if I can’t pull it off.

In short, I fucking love what I do.  I don’t love the low pay, or the uncertainty about where my career is going from here, or the students with shitty attitudes, or the colleagues with the shitty attitudes, or the ridiculous pressure to tailor research topics to the frustratingly narrow standards of “marketability,” or even the prospect of starting the tenure clock.  But during weeks like this, suddenly it all really seems worth it.  Maybe it’s just that I’m coming off a fellowship, where it was pretty much me and my computer in a daily staring match, and I’m remembering how much I love really working, how much I love my on-campus routine and just the experience of being at a university all day.  But all of a sudden, I’m sort of feeling like, “Dammit, I would really miss this if I did something else.”

When I read Historiann’s post on graduate school as a form of self-mortification with quasi-religious implications, the part of me who wrote this post last summer goes “Yeah,” and another part of me goes, “No, that’s not really it at all.”  In some ways, I am sort of attracted to the aura of sophistication that an advance degree confers, but in many other ways, I am just a huge dork who loves this crap and actually believes that what she’s doing is sort of important, even if no one ever recognizes it.  So in some ways, the analogy with religious vocation works.  Both academic and monastic life are about committing oneself to a belief, something you are willing to sacrifice a tremendous amount of personal comfort for.  And yes, there is a certain degree of masochism in that, as well as a certain degree of smugness.    But ultimately it is also about a kind of guileless love and naive belief and a willingness to put up a whole lot of bullshit in order to make that love the center of your life.

It’s a kind of sincerity that isn’t always easy to own up to at a time when irony seems to be the default mode of looking at just about anything, and as someone who has always prided herself on being responsible and pragmatic and adult about things, I’m hating myself just a little bit.  I’m reminded of an application essay I read recently in which the student talked about her complex relationship with her parents.  Her father was always the practical sort who was happy having a normal middle-class job and spending time with his family and taking pleasure in stability.  Her mother, however, was a former Navy pilot, skydiver, and documentary film maker who frequently sacrificed sleep and mental health in order to pursue her interests and follow her dreams.  The student always identified more with her father, having witnessed and resented the ways in which her mother’s aspirations impacted her life and always vowed that she would pursue a practical, remunerative career path.  Then she discovered that she loved acting, that she was outrageously good at it, that she never felt more at home, more herself than when she was on stage, and she went “Well, crap.”  Because there is nothing certain, nothing practical, and for most people, nothing remunerative about pursing acting either in college or as a career.  And yet, she writes, she feels she has to take it as far  as she possibly can.

In some ways, I’m not sure that we really choose our vocations or our dreams.  To a certain degree (mediated by biology, cultural background, family history, economic status, etc.), they choose us, and there is something profoundly weird about realizing that your vocation conflicts, to a certain degree, with your notions of what constitutes a healthy, productive, and socially responsible adult life.

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2 thoughts on “Why Did My Calling Have to Be This?

  1. Nicely expressed. I encourage you to do what you can to hold onto that sincerity, because it’s one of the things that was among the casualties from my career derailment. Doing academic work requires one to believe that it’s valuable and important; if you start doubting that – as I did, as a result of my experiences – it becomes either a slog or a series of empty gestures. It’s especially bad if you’re underpaid – or, in the case of any research I were to attempt on my own – unpaid.

    Apologies for my grouchiness – the scars pull some days, and this seems to be one of them.

  2. Well-said, all around. As a teacher (albeit at the secondary level), I often find myself contemplating my own mental and emotional well-being relative to others. But your point about making sacrifices in pursuit of a belief really resonated with me. I wonder frequently (perhaps “worry” would be more accurate) whether I’m making enough progress toward realizing that belief to justify the sacrifices. This is complicated by the fact that it requires my loved ones–my wife in particular–to make sacrifices as well. Thankfully, neither of us are consumed by conspicuous consumption, so the money isn’t a major factor, but the time, stress, guilt, etc. certainly is. Is this the life I want to live? That depends on the day–and just as often, the period of the day.

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