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Not a “real” academic

This post is inspired by Rebecca Schuman’s post from a couple days ago. Go read it now. Also, check out the #NotARealAcademic on Twitter to see what other folks are saying.

A few years ago, I was at a graduate conference presenting on a panel on post-graduate life. I was the “part-time” panelist, the one who had not secured the vaunted tenure-track job but was adjuncting at a big state university. When I wasn’t teaching, I was in charge of my toddler. On the drive to and from the university, I dreamed of seeking some sort of balance between home life and career. As I drove back and forth, I mulled my life decisions. I agonized over my choices, but I realized that I wouldn’t have made different ones. More importantly, I couldn’t imagine putting my career before my partner and child, and I still can’t. That’s my decision, and it will always be my most important one.

Perhaps, I was not the best panelist to discuss the life of the post-grad.  I pretty much lacked sleep because of my anxiety about doing everything wrong, work, life, and especially motherhood.  Doubt was a constant companion, but so was naïve hope about the job market. I was waiting for my moment when all of the trauma would be washed away by THE JOB that tenure-track position that I had been trained for. Sure, the job market turned south, but surely, I could find a job, right? My book was coming out, and I had several articles coming soon. My advisor suggested that I was a strong candidate, and my CV made me a contender. My mantra was just a little more time and things will work out. Things work out for others, so why not for me? I still had hope at this point (I don’t any longer).

All of this is to say that my talk for the panel stumped me. I wasn’t entirely sure what to say to graduate students. “Just hang in there” seemed like a stupid platitude even then. “You all get jobs” was a lie I refused to utter. “If you dream it, you can do it” makes me want to hurl. “Just work hard” ignored the structural constraints of the modern university. I really was a bad choice if the audience wanted inspiration. I wanted to communicate all of my struggles and frustrations. I wanted to tell them that adjuncting sucks because of low pay, bad schedules, and little prestige. I wanted to scream that the research career that I trained for was only possible because I arrived at my office by 6 am on my “teaching days” or because I worked furiously during naptime. I wanted to point out that teaching is truly under-valued; my department head once told me to give students “less” than I thought they needed because students don’t need “much.” Something about me using my time wisely rather than on my teaching, which I would emphasize was my job. I wanted to explain that the only reason I could live off of adjuncting is because I have a partner who works and supports me. I wanted to share that being on the job market made me physically ill and mentally weary. I wanted to say that maybe this academic life was not for me.  Maybe, I wasn’t cut out for it.

I would find myself looking into the mirror and wondering why I wanted to have this career so badly. Were the costs worth it? I wanted to be honest. And I mostly was. One of my mentors told me I couldn’t be completely honest because the graduate students would flee. This comment stunned me, and it made it very hard from me to sleep the night before the panel. What was I supposed to do? Maybe, I should encourage fleeing. Maybe not.

As I sat outside in the sunshine before my Sunday morning panel, I read over my notes for my talk. I still struggled with what to say. One of my best friends from graduate school, who decided not to pursue an academic career, was also on the panel. She loved her job; she seemed happy. I was envious of her bravery to leave it all behind; I was equally nervous about what my envy said about me. What to say about the academy and post-graduate life?

As we were walking in, I encountered a professor who I knew casually but was outside of my own subfield. We chatted amiably about the panel, and then, things took a turn. I am not sure how it happened because memory fails me. Somehow I mentioned my insecurity about my position as a part-time academic. He responded by telling me that I couldn’t be a “real” academic until I had a tenure track job. It took me a moment to process what he had said because I couldn’t believe someone would utter such a thing aloud. Sure, this is the way the story is told. The winners get tenure track jobs, and the rest of us did something wrong. He struck me as someone who believed in fabled meritocracy and ignored that tenure track jobs were becoming a rarity.  He was lucky that I didn’t give into my urge to punch him. Hard.

It was as if what I feared had come to life. My demons confronted me in the Florida sunshine in the form of a well-meaning but clueless dude. Somehow all the effort and agony did not matter because I wasn’t “real.” My work did not have some elusive stamp of approval. All of it was for naught. What the hell was I supposed to say to students now? Please ignore me as I contemplate my lack of reality? Don’t listen to me because I don’t matter? Instead of falling into despair, I got angry and gave my talk anyway.

But, his comment still lingers with me. I’ve given it too much power and weight. I still wonder if I am a “real” academic, but mostly, I am not sure that I want to be by those standards. Some days, I want to walk away for good rather than just taking a year off. Is there really anything I will miss? Other days, I find myself caught up in my research and writing. I like what I do. Yet, that still feels as if it is not enough to make me stay, but it might be enough to make me go.

What happens if I remake the “real” and the “academic” to suit my standards? What if I embrace that I don’t want to be what my training suggests is valuable, successful or correct? What if I just say the hell with it? Just a little more time, I tell myself, things will work out.

7 thoughts on “Not a “real” academic”

  1. Enjoys research and writing? Spends time honing teaching skills because student learning matters? Thinks family life matters? A competent scholar and skilled teacher who can relate to people outside of “academia.” Sounds great to me. And, I dare say that most parents of college-aged students would love to have that kind of person teaching in their “big state university.” #teachingmatters

  2. Miles, thanks for the praise. I agree that most students (and their parents) would love to have people that care about teaching in the classroom, who can also research and write. It is still amazing to me how little teaching is valued by institutions and academics. The system is surely broken.

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