I've been thinking a lot over the past day or two about Life Choices. I grew up believing that education gives a person more choices. I think most of us probably did. Most of our students probably still do. This is one of the driving forces behind the expansion of higher education: higher education gives you a wider range of choices for careers that you might pursue, places you might live, houses you might buy, conversations you might have.
In my life, "choice" was always framed in these terms, and the alternative, the closing off of choices, was framed in terms of my mom's life: growing up in a family with a bunch of kids where her parents never owned a home, being the only one in her family to get a high school diploma, getting pregnant at 19, getting married because she "had to," and having life "happen" to her. The idea was, I'd go out and get this education that would mean that my life wouldn't "happen" to me. And, you know, in many ways my life hasn't "happened" to me, not in the way that hers did. I avoided those things that would mean that my life would "happen" to me, and instead, I made a lot of choices that ensured that it wouldn't. Good, right? Except.
This idea that the more education one gets the more choices one has seems to me, now, actually pretty bogus. I think if you get just enough education, that this may be true. (I'm thinking in particular here of my friends who got 4-year degrees in "regular" majors that translated into jobs out of college.) In some ways, at least, yes, it is true that those people have more choices than they would have had without getting a college degree.
But more and more I think that there are very few choices, ultimately, for most of us who've pursued the whole higher education thing to it's furthest conclusion. Choices become fewer as one becomes most highly educated. I can't "choose" to change jobs, the way that I would be able to do if I had gotten a "regular" degree and chosen a "regular" career path. With the glutted market in English, I'm "lucky" to have any job at all. Indeed, I can't even "choose" the kind of institution that is the best fit for what I want to do in this particular career. Indeed, we are "chosen," and we do not choose. We can apply, and hope for the best, but those decisions aren't really in our own hands. (Although if one has an independent source of income, and doesn't "need" a job immediately, one does have a bit more room for choice in this area. As a kid from a working class background, I did not have the choice to apply selectively when I was ABD. And so here I am.)
And even if there weren't constraints based on the market, the reality is that we wouldn't get to "choose" location. People often talk about this in terms of the "two-body problem," but this is a problem whether one is part of a "two-body problem" or whether one just has a "one-body problem." People want to live in various locations for various reasons. You want to be close to family and friends. You want to live in the same place as your partner. You want to live in a small town/big city - just based on personal preference. But in this field, those choices aren't really yours to make. You take what you get. And doing that actually can limit your choices further, because the mobility, in this profession, it is not easy to achieve. On the tenure-track, the whole thing is "fitting" at the current institution. If you "fit" there, and achieve there, it can mean that your prospects elsewhere actually decrease. (She does so well where she is! She's not right for us!)
And let's say even that you could make the above choices. You still can't choose how much money that you will make in higher education. Not really. The range of salaries is pretty limited, even across various kinds of institutions. Take a look at this wiki. It gives a sense of the starting salaries for people hired last year in English, based on location and type of institution (though, clearly, given the length of the list, it's in no way comprehensive). Most starting salaries come in at around 50K. I came into my current position at just about that, and that was in 2003. So did other friends of mine, in different (higher cost of living) places, at other types of institutions, at around the same time. The market, my friends, is stagnant. Even if you try to make more money, you really probably won't. Which means more education doesn't really mean that you can live in any kind of house you want, which might soften the blow of not being able to live where you want if you could.
And then there's the personal life stuff. Let's say that you get all this education, and you sacrifice your personal life in order to do so. Because, remember, in doing this, you are not just letting your life "happen" to you the way that your mother's life and your mother's mother's life happened to them. This is the "right" thing to do, in order to be independent and a feminist and all the rest of it. But so then here you are, with a successful career (that doesn't really mean that you necessarily mean that you get to have better conversations, it turns out, and doesn't mean that you make boatloads of money, and doesn't mean that you get to choose where you live, either locally - in terms of house, apartment, whatever - or nationally - type of town or city or region of the country). Where is your personal life? What options do you have?
Well, if you're single, and if you're a woman, those options are - depending on location, for sure - limited. However open-minded you might be when evaluating potential suitors, potential suitors will see you in a certain way. So, for example, the likelihood of Trade Union Guy from High School dating me would be very, very small, whereas TUGfHS has no problem dating my friend who makes the exact same salary that I do, but who isn't "threatening" because she's not educated herself out of his realm of possibility. (Let's forget for the moment that I don't live in Hometown and so couldn't date that guy anyway, because that guy is dating girls from high school who live in Hometown and not weird transplants to Current City. I'd never even meet the equivalent in Current City.) And so, you say, well, the single female academic just needs to find guys who are not threatened, who either make enough cash or have enough professional success not to be castrated by the PhD or who have a similar level of education. Sounds easy enough, right? Well, perhaps not so much. Perhaps you live in an area of the country where those people are likely to have gotten married in their 20s. Perhaps you live in a place where people tend not to be highly educated - indeed, where the highly educated tend to move away. Perhaps your colleagues don't associate with single people who might serve as potential suitors for you, or perhaps your work-related socializing consists entirely of work people, and remember, English is a pretty feminized field, and so you're not likely to find many prospects there, especially if you're at a very "family-friendly" institution that tends to hire partnered people (for this is one way to keep people here).
And so, maybe meeting people in traditional ways won't work. So you enter the realm of online dating (perhaps the most depressing realm in creation, even more depressing than the realm of "the bar scene," where at least there is alcohol). And that's not so hot, so you expand your realm even further. You meet people online in other ways, or at conferences or what have you, and you entertain things that are practically very difficult to achieve, but yet even with the practical impossibility seem infinitely more doable than what's available locally. (Hee! Infinitely more doable! I'm so Beavis and Butthead right now!) But then we enter the realm of the two-body problem, and again, it's all about location, location, location. And so where can that really lead, if both people have worked really hard to make themselves successful in a profession where relocation is damn near impossible? And so then you can't even call on the phone the person whom you most want to talk to, because you're doing the "right" thing and you're drawing a line. Oh yeah, that's satisfying.
So. Life Choices. One of the things that I'm actually really good at is making choices. I am really good at making decisions, and at seeing the big picture. I'm really good at being decisive. So the question I have, in my current mood, is what fucking decision is it even possible for me to make? I can't choose where I live, I can't choose where I work, I can't choose to be in a relationship that works. What, exactly, is there for me to choose? Because, dude, I'm ready to make the choice. It's just there aren't any choices there.
All there is to do is to choose exactly what I have, and that choice is no choice because at the end of the day, I feel like to do that is settling, and while settling is great when you like the choice that settling indicates, it really sucks when you're not satisfied with what you're settling for. And you might say, well, you need to learn to be satisfied with what you've got. I've been busying myself with that project for years. I'm not satisfied. So what is the choice then? Do you give up the career? An easier choice to make when you have something concrete to give it up for. Do you give up wanting to be in love and to be in a relationship? Is that really an option? I so feel like it's not!!!!!
I've said to my mom that I'd quit my job tomorrow if it meant that I was going to mean that I could have a family. That's true. Her response is, always, how could you give up all of what you've worked for?!?! On the other hand, when she was here this weekend, the reason I had the meltdown was because she basically said that I'd be alone forever if I didn't learn how to compromise. (She says this because she doesn't acknowledge that it's a real possibility. I freak out, because I totally fear that it's the realistic possibility given the current realm of possibility in my life.) The thing is, there is no room for compromise if I'm supposed to be achieving in this job. It's one or the other. Which is it? Do I do everything in the service of the career, or do I give it up to have the "normal" thing? You can't have it both ways. Not if you don't have it figured out before you get more than halfway through the tenure-track. Something has to give, and it's either going to be the job (which I'd be more than willing to have be the thing that gave) or it has to be the personal life stuff. Because neither "just happens" at a certain point.
As I look at my students, I often think I'd have been better off to let my life "happen" to me. Why? Because you can get an education at any time. You can get an education after you have your 11 kids, you can get an education after your divorce, you can get an education after you have a parent die. You can choose education, whatever you've done before. By choosing education first, it means I've not chosen other things. And it means that it makes those other things harder. And that is a rude fucking awakening.
Am I "lucky"? In a lot of ways, sure. Am I responsible for the choices that I have made that have led me to this point? Of course I am. But so the fuck what? Knowing those things doesn't make this make sense. And that's the thing that pisses me off. Being more thoughtful about my situation, or being more deliberate in my actions doesn't make any difference in a lot of these areas. Sure: I could be working digging ditches or in some minimum wage job somewhere, and that would totally suck. But I've done a fuck of a lot of work so that I'm not in that position. And yet, I'm supposed to feel grateful for the position that I'm in. Why? Why can't I be dissatisfied? Why can't I legitimately have an ax to grind? Why can't I wonder whether there is some better possibility than what I've currently got on my plate?
A lot of people would say that I can't feel these things, or wonder these things. Those people are assholes.