May 20, 2003

Shipwrecked; Or, I Need Another Chance

Warning: This entry is in me-zine mode.

Pa send me money now
I'm gonna make it somehow
I need another chance
You see your baby loves to dance
Yeah yeah yeah

-- Neil Young, "Cinnamon Girl"

Ship of Dreams. Ship of Fools. I am Shipwrecked, and I've washed up in Adjunctland, and I'm wondering what to do.

Rana at Frogs and Ravens has a post on "one of the problems with being a job market 'failure.'" (permalinks bloggered, scroll to Friday, May 09). It's the problem of "So, what are you doing next year?" Which is to say, the problem of what to say, of how best to explain oneself. Oh yeah.

I gave up trying to explain myself to my family. The subject became taboo, one of those areas about which we tacitly agree to maintain an awkward silence. Until I rewrote the script. Since I have a husband and a child, and my husband has a job and my child is young enough that his care and feeding is in itself a job, I let them think that that's who I am now, and oh yeah, I do a bit of teaching on the side. For pin money? Yeah, sure.

We went to a party a few weeks ago, it said "black tie" on the invitation so I sent my mother a picture. Look, said that picture, Here I am and here is my life: I live in New York, and I have a husband (an American!) who is a lawyer, and look how we go out dining and dancing and see how I look in my black silk party frock. Yeah? Well, yeah. It's all true enough in its way, though it all adds up to a lie. But never mind. My mother thinks I look "classy," she notes with approval that I have lost all the baby weight and says she will show the picture to all her friends. In truth, I think I look awkward and ill at ease, and the lipstick is all wrong, too dark and dated, but so what? I know my audience. I come from the class (lower middle class? or upper echelon working class?) that wants to have "class." I know my lines, fuck yeah, and I feed them their lines, too. And never mind that I am lying because, frankly, it's just easier this way. My parents never understood the Ph.D. thing anyway, that's something they never really got. I put myself through college, and then I went to graduate school in the States on a scholarship (a scholarship! well, that sounded "classy" too, and for a while my mother could think of me as a Scholarship Girl), and then something went wrong, some plot twist that I had not anticipated. So maybe my parents were right all along? because I don't get it anymore either, and now I wonder if I ever did.

Anyway, it works for them, but it doesn't work for me. I wake up at 3 a.m. in a cold sweat, thinking shipwreck, drowning, wreckage, ruin and failure.

I almost drowned when I was 6 years old. My body panicked and so did my thoughts, but curiously enough, some part of my mind embraced a calm fatalism. It all happened so quickly but it seemed like ages, and finally some part of me gave up and thought, "I hope I go to heaven" as my arms and legs were desperately flailing. And then someone saw me and I was saved. Though my mother had nightmares for months afterwards: "all I could see were those little hands" she said, hands that frantically grasped at nothing. She saw them in her dreams, and I sometimes see them too.

So I guess I do know the difference, and I realize that I am not drowning. And I suppose I am not really shipwrecked, either. What I need to do, I think, is to revise and rewrite my own script -- not the one I give my parents (that's easy, I am ashamed at how easy) but the one I give myself, the one that plays through my head (and that's not so easy, because I am a tougher audience: my husband says I am too hard on myself and he may be right about that too). So enough. Get me rewrite! I've had done with this story and I want a new script.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at May 20, 2003 01:59 PM

No lectures here. Just sympathy. Been there, felt much like that, it *sucks*.

You are not alone. Script rewrites happen. Good luck with yours. I wish I could rip the script out of your hands and rewrite it for you myself, but I can't.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at May 20, 2003 06:17 PM

I've also been there and have felt like you described. It's doubly hard when you have a successful husband, because you want to match up with his image. I will tell you this; contrary to pop psychology (where they tell you that it isn't the lack of a job that's bugging you, it's something deeper) finding a full time job will cure everything! I mean it. So don't spend a lot of effort trying to find the root cause of your fears; the finding of a job will put those to rest, trust me. When you find your full time job, all of this will be a memory. I know it worked that way for me!

Posted by: Cat at May 20, 2003 07:19 PM

IA: I finished my PhD in 1995 and I have never taught full time. (And I love teaching, especially undergraduates.) But I have had very interesting adventures, earn okay, and love what I am doing at the moment. I really panicked in the final year of working on my PhD, thinking that I should go and work in my father-in-law's store for life, but then an unexpected opportunity opened up ....

No lecture, but a cheer: despair not!

Posted by: Gideon Strauss at May 20, 2003 08:19 PM

Leaving academia isn't a shipwreck or a failure; it's a decision. I like your script-rewriting analogy because it reflects that truth: even though circumstances suck, you are an actor, an agent, not a passive victim of those circumstances. But the fact that academia makes you feel as though leaving is a failure (and, by extension, so are you)... well, that's a problem with the system for sure, and it makes me wish I knew better how to fix the system.

Posted by: Naomi Chana at May 20, 2003 08:57 PM

As someone who is today also "having a day" you have my complete sympathy. {{{IA}}}

Of course, I must also express my admiration of your having expressed your frustrations so eloquently. That has to be worth something! :)

Posted by: Rana at May 20, 2003 09:09 PM

(By the way, all -- I apologize for the permalink problem -- I'm still trying to figure out blogger coding).

Posted by: Rana at May 20, 2003 09:14 PM

It's probably not you, Rana. "Permalinks bloggered" has become a cliche.

Posted by: Dorothea Salo at May 20, 2003 09:18 PM

I offer sympathy, hugs, and perspective. I've been there. I've done that. The t-shirt has been burned. The evil attitudes that pervade the system have been there for a very long time; my father, now 74 and retired, ran into them in the early 60's, as did I almost exactly 20 years later. Contrary to the myths you find in the ivory tower, leaving it makes one neither a traitor nor a failure.

You are yourself, not whatever anyone else says you are or are not. Don't let anyone tell you otherwise. I left grad school; I remain an historian. I left teaching; I remain a scholar. I am married with a small son; I remain a person in my own right.

So rewrite the script, to your expectations rather than your family's. Be proud of yourself, for having the strength to walk away. I've known a lot of people who didn't, no matter how self-destructive it was.

Hugs and luck

Posted by: Alisa Cohen at May 20, 2003 11:23 PM

Thanks, everyone, for these words of encouragement. I really appreciate it.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at May 21, 2003 01:44 AM

I have a related but very different perspective. I have always been of a scholarly bent, but at various points (1968, 1981, and 1990) decided not to go to grad school. I have kept up my studies on my own time and have published three pieces in refereed journals and am working on a fourth.

I just retired with a small pension and plan to continue my studies. I have decided for a fourth time not to go to grad school. No surprise there.

The main lessons I draw are: the humanities are not valued much; the tenured professors are the ruling class and I, along with the adjuncts, am some kind of peasant or lowlife; and that the professionalization of the humanities had a big down side.

In order to justify their jobs the existing tenured profs had to keep cranking out PhD's, who theoretically would replace them except that by that standard each tenured prof. should sign no more than 1 Phd. in his lifetime. (Not all tenured profs teach graduate students, so the number is larger, but not a lot). The existence of these programs misled people into thinking that there were jobs.

Of course, the whole confusion of purpose of today's university enters in: keeping culture alive, or job-training?

The fact that PhD's as such are scarcely hirable, even as high school teachers (even though everyone is whining about the quality of H.S. ed) is another example of how the humanities are held in contempt. As an English major (not a high-powered B.A.) I learned to recognize the Ed. majors by their relentlessly practical approach ("Three books at $75, two five-page papers and a test, 3 credits, compared to 4 books at $100, two ten-page papers, two tests -- easy choice"). But they would have jobs.

Specialization causes more trouble. A PhD normally only knows about a very narrow area. The really bitter thing is that a lot of the PhD's I know ended up studying things they weren't especially interested in to prepare for jobs that didn't exist. The main reason why I didn't go to grad school was what I saw of the methodological and disciplinary narrowing of scholarship imposed by the departments. (For me, BTW, post-modernism, which seemed liberating once, is just another im;posed paradigm, and a very annoying one).

With my tiny pension, at this point, I would actually be happy to be a grad student in a school which gave me a good grant and free rein. Doubt I'll see that. I'd also be happy to be an adjunct, PhD or no. I do know something, I like to teach, and I'll work for peanuts. Doubt that will happen either, and if it does I suppose you'll all hate me.

Posted by: zizka at May 21, 2003 01:54 AM

Why would we hate you? My complaints center around not being able to do the job I was trained to do, not about other people succeeding at doing what they want, and I think that's true for most of the folks posting here. I like your comments about choosing one's own identity, though, rather than waiting for an institution to do it for you.

Posted by: Rana at May 21, 2003 02:31 AM

This reminds me of an ongoing conversation a friend and I had when we were both ABD. We sometimes shopped for groceries together, and she would often remark that, if our academic careers didn't work out, we could always get a job at Kroger, the local supermarket chain. She would be cashier, I would be bagboy. We wondered if Kroger would hire us. Probably not, we figured: 'overeducated.' We imagined how we'd plead with them to reconsider. How we'd spend the rest of our lives working for Kroger, cashier and bagboy.

Two years later, my friend got a tenure track job at Stanford. But we had the same conversation, with the same anxiety, just the other week. Four years into the tenure track and doing outwardly well, she's still half-convinced of her Kroger-calling.

I don't have a point. Your vignette merely triggered this memory from eight years ago. In those dark years, my friend and I convinced each other that we could be happy working at Kroger, and that gave us hope.

Posted by: Ted H. at May 21, 2003 02:56 AM

Checking back to witness the wails of weeping inspired by my poignant comment, I note that I do not know how to add two and four. The memory was from six years ago.

Posted by: Ted H. at May 21, 2003 04:44 AM

Rana -- well, suppose you were applying for a not-so-good adjunct job and found that you couldn't even get that because a non-PhD autodidact had been hired instead. There might be hard feeling.

My pension is tiny and I do need some other income. What people say about "over-education" is true, I think. Educated people argue too much and there's always the suspicion that they have other options, whether they do or not. On one of my resumes I don't even mention my B.A. degree. I'm also dealing with age discrimination and a very weak economy here in Oregon. (Age discrimination lawsuits make it harder for old people to get jobs. If you don't hire us we can't sue.)

Posted by: zizka at May 21, 2003 03:23 PM

Maybe. I like to think that I'd blame the system, not you. I'm not begrudging any one else's success -- heck, I'm trying to join them! If I was mad at all of my competition, I'd have to devote my life to being mad -- calculate 50-150 people per position per year and it adds up. So person A gets it instead of person B. It's not as if person A had any control over whether or not the committe liked him or her better than person B. Presumably both meet the qualifications for the job. So why should person B get mad at person A?

Also, by your logic, there should be some people out there wanting full-time tenure-track jobs who are mad at me for making do with a temporary, part-time job that is never going to turn into a tenure-line position. Am I personally keeping someone from tenure? No. Is the system? Yes. So that's where I'm directing my animosity, not at individuals.

Posted by: Rana at May 21, 2003 04:06 PM

IA: That was a very meaningful post. I like your idea about changing "scripts" and think you will enjoy yourself a lot more once you have shifted your life to a different one. When I made my move ("Out of Academia" by Isak Dinesin), I thought all the time about replacing a future without any hope with one with hope. It's the same idea, I believe, despite the different wording.

Posted by: JT at May 21, 2003 04:45 PM

Great post. I can relate on a few levels...
Not having been in academia, but around it for a while now, it seems to me that this feeling of being constantly judged can really do a number on your psyche. I know that sounds silly, but you don't always notice it. You think, I'm strong, I know who I am and this isn't everything, but it gets to you insidiously.
And I know we get judged by mates and friends and the job market too, but having worked a decade of dead end jobs, the feeling is strongest in school. There's something kinda paranoid about academia (speaking as someone who would like to go to grad school) I just went back and got the degree, at 30, trying to turn things around. And having some of the same gnawing doubts.
I try to think of what will matter forty years from now...and I don't think even getting a PhD in an arcane discipline (economics) is going to be the biggest thing that makes me happy.

Posted by: new guy at May 22, 2003 05:52 AM