Sunday, January 20, 2008

I Do Not Want What I Haven't Got

And yes, the title of this post is stolen from the title to the Sinead O'Connor song. But I said I wanted to write about the general feeling of goodness that I've been feeling about life of late, and about how that relates to job satisfaction specifically.

Here's the thing: I really, really like my job. I really, really like the students whom I teach, and I like and respect my colleagues. So why have I been on the market 2 years running, if that's true? Why haven't I appreciated that I *enjoy* the job I've got? Why, since I got that job, have I been basically waiting for the moment when I'd leave it (which has had consequences that have vibrated out into all of the other parts of my life here)?

Well, because I'm ambitious. And the contours of ambition in this profession are such that the only way to excel is by ending up at the "right" kind of university. If you "settle" for an institution like mine, for a job with a teaching load like mine, for the kind of students that I teach, some might say that you're not a "real" scholar. That your working conditions mean you can't be. And so if you "settle" for that, then you are, somehow, mediocre. Now, here's the thing: I did not choose to go to grad school because I wanted to be a glorified high school teacher. Nothing in the whole world wrong with teaching high school, and I deeply admire people who do so and do it well. But I was not "called" to teaching. The thing that got me excited was research. That's why I went to graduate school. Period. I wanted to read books I loved, and I wanted to have a life where I got to think about them. I wanted the autonomy to choose what I read and thought about. And sure, I found out that I liked teaching and I was good at it, when I was in graduate school. This was a good thing. But I never gave up wanting to be respected as a scholar. And all of the signals I got from scholars whom I respected most indicated that there was no way for me to be a "real" scholar in the kind of job I've got.

Except you know what? I am. And I've thrived at an institution where "real scholars" aren't supposed to thrive. And yet. There was this disconnect between my lived experience and what I perceived as the only way to excel in this profession. And so I pushed myself and freaked out and stopped myself from allowing to like where I am. I saw my context through the eyes of people who ultimately have absolutely no experience with that context and the very real benefits of it.

And so I was rejected everywhere this year. And I thought to myself, "Self, you can be miserable about this or you can really take a look at why you went on the market and what you hoped to gain from it." And so I took that look. And I realized that I was looking for the job I've got except less teaching because I was feeling burdened. And then I realized that everything I've been doing here has made the teaching less of a burden than I'd built it into being. I blamed teaching for feeling burdened, when teaching isn't really the thing that makes me feel burdened. (I realized this when I actually considered turning down the offer I got for course releases this semester.) The fact is, this job leaves room for a life. And I don't dread going to campus, and in fact, I actually look forward to it. That should mean more than the voices in my head that tell me that only an idiot would be happy exactly where I am. I mean, let's look at the benefits:

  • I'm near to family and old friends. Not in the exact same place, but in a good location, my first shot out of the gate.
  • The place where I live has the potential to be really great. If it hasn't been, that has a lot to the fact that I've been checked out since moving here, even as I've done stuff that was supposed to give me more of a life. It's really hard to have more of a life when you don't imagine yourself staying beyond a few years.
  • I have complete autonomy over everything I teach, and that autonomy has only increased the longer I've been here.
  • There is a strong likelihood that in coming years my teaching load will be permanently reduced.
  • Even if it isn't , I teach a really manageable number of students.
  • Did I mention that I like my colleagues and students?
  • I've had a lot of opportunities to grow as not only as a teacher but as a scholar and into institutional leadership positions. Those course releases I've got this semester are allowing me to develop an online course as well as to do a bunch of neat curricular development stuff. I have the opportunity to shape this institution. Would I have that at another institution? Maybe, but maybe not.
So here's the thing: I've never before now been able to conceive of my ambition, something intrinsic to my personality, as something that can flourish right where I am. After the fucked up run at the market this year, it became clear to me that this may be the best place for it to flourish, and, indeed, the only place where I'll ever have the opportunity for it to flourish, given the state of the market. So it's time to turn the volume down on those voices that say that somebody at this kind of institution counts as nothing more than a wasted talent or somebody who doesn't aspire or who's given up. Those voices have had far too much airtime in determining how I've approached my life in the past 4+ years. And so yeah. That's where I am now. And if I decide I want to leave this place, it's not going to be because of those voices nor will it be because the Job Market Gods bless me. It will be on my own terms.


Psycgirl said...

This is a great post Dr. Crazy - even though I'm not even close to the position you're in (still being in grad school and all) I've been doing a lot of thinking along these lines, trying to listen to what I really want and ignore the voices (of whom exactly, I don't know) that tell me what I "should" want. I'm glad you are feeling so positive about where you are.

k8 said...

Wow! I concur, this is a great post. This year, while hoping to get a job, I've also been balancing what kind of job I'm "expected" to get, what I think I really want, and what's available out there. What I'm getting at, is that I hope I can find my happiness in what I want, and not in what is expected of me, as you seem to be doing.

Artistic Soul said...

You have clearly articulated my own feelings about my job and the market this year -- good luck with sorting things out.

phd me said...

Very insightful, Crazy, and very interesting to me as I struggle with many of the same issues. By all means, shut those voices up and do your thing; it's worked for you so far!

Maggie said...

Crazy, As usual lately you are echoing my feelings exactly. With the exception of the hideous campus politics of last year (which brought out the worst in everyone) I really like it at my current institution. But those voices -- how is it that we ALL have those voices, saying almost exactly the same things??-- are SO LOUD.

I especially agree that it's tough to make a life somewhere if you're always focused on leaving.

Brigindo said...

A truly excellent realization to have made. Having been in both types of institutions I actually find it easier to do research (at least pursue the research I want to pursue in the way that I think it should be pursued) in my current "lower status" institution with more teaching responsibility. I say as long as you are engaged in the work you want to do it shouldn't matter where you do it. Enjoying a place and having a life is key however and it sounds like your current location has a lot more potential than you've been able to see up until now.

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I really agree with the sentiment behind this post.

The thing is, when you find yourself doing well where you are, you are working to do well by your own standards -- whereas the judgment about what is or is not a desirable job is someone else's standard.

All of this is a really long way to say "yea for blooming where you are planted".

EcoGeoFemme said...

what an inspiring post!

Flavia said...


I really think that one of the worst things about this profession is the way it teaches us that there's only one version of success. I guess that's true in other areas of life (like there's only one way to be hot, for example), but academia seems to do a much better job of promoting this message, perhaps because we have fewer examples, from college through grad school, of people who are happy and successful on a variety of different paths.

helenesch said...

Great post--and great comments, too! I think what flavia says above is true--that this profession wrongly teaches us that there's only one way to be successful. It's amazing to me how successful you have been--against the odds--at managing to do the kind of research you want to do at an institution where that's not the focus.

My personal take on all this is somewhat different. I'm at a research school (with tenure now) and yet I honestly think I find teaching to be the most rewarding part of my job. And yet that's not valued much, which can be frustrating. Especially since it feels like it's where I make the biggest impact. So there's a lot about the way things are valued in our profession that's messed up.

But like you, I feel incredibly fortunate to have landed a job right out of grad school that "fits" me quite well (where colleagues truly appreciate my work). The location of my job I'm less happy with (though it could be worse!)... I hope you'll blog at some point about what else you can do to "have more of a life" where you live (as you put it). I think that's something I need to work on, too.

Anastasia said...

I've been thinking about this, too, since I'm interviewing at a little place that specializing in first gen college students and i love that idea and so far, the people are so nice. and you know, the teaching load isn't even bad (3-3). and ambition. I'm not especially competitive by nature but I am ambitious or I've learned to be.

re: flavia and helensch's point, in my husband's job the way to get ahead is to become a manager (he's an engineer). he tried that this year and he hated it. he wasn't really that good at it, either. but he's an excellent engineer and the company does value those technical skills. it's one of the reasons they've only just now tried to put him in a managerial position, because he's more valuable where he is.

anyway, he hated it so much he told his boss he wanted out and they shuffled things and he doesn't have to do it anymore. and they gave him a raise. the point being, while there is only so far he can rise in his company doing the technical rather than the business side, his technical skills *are* valued and excellence in that area is compensated.

so there's some parallel to the academic world except I don't see the radical divide between valuing one kind of work over another that results in the value we place on one kind of institution over another.

it strikes me here that you mention teaching the kind of students you do as a drawback--not in your mind but as a mark against you in the academic hierarchy. I don't think I have anything to say about it, it just really struck me.

Susan said...

I think the reason that the model of academic success is the R-I institution is that this is where we are trained: otherwise, we'd have graduate mentors saying, well, I really suffer here, and would much rather be at an SLAC...And if you give up a life to be at such an institution, you'd better like it.

But the payoff of being at a place which doesn't have high research expectations is that you have much more freedom. So if your research goes off in odd directions, no one cares.

Shaun Huston said...

I second susan's comment about the relative freedom you get to shape your research agenda at an undergraduate teaching institution. There's a reasonable line between what my dissertation was and where I am now, but it isn't straight by any means. Had I landed at an R-1, I almost certainly would have been more tied to the form and substance of my graduate research. I'm much happier the way things are. However, I chose academia because of my experience as an undergrad at an SLAC, and so teaching has always been at the forefront of my thinking about where I'd like to be. My current institution is a regional comprehensive that has some characteristics of an SLAC, and sometimes wants to be a Public LAC, so it isn't perfect, but I'm better off here than I would be at a top tier research institution.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Fantastic post. I've never been R-1 ambitious, but there has been a war in my head between the voices that remind me how good my job is, and those that make me want to see if I could do better -- better location, more motivated students, lower cost of living. But even the job that looks perfect on paper might be hell on wheels in real life.

I can't promise that I'm staying put, but where I'm at allows me to do a lot of what I want to do. Thanks for the reminder.

OkayAwesome said...

Dr.'s hoping everyone can land a job that makes them feel the way you wrote when you posted. I am on the job market and I am praying for the Job Market Gods to bless me. I never wanted R1, and I think that my complaints with my job here are valid--but there is something to be said for turning down (or off) the voices in your head. The part about not being able to make a life if you are thinking about moving. Hits home. Really hard. The other faculty that started 'my year' are establishing roots and happy. I may not be happy here forever--and I am going to get a different job somewhere better for me, but until then I have to live the life I have. I haven't painted rooms, unpacked some boxes, or called this place home. Temporary as it may be, I think I need to do that to not go insane until the Job Market Gods look favorably on me.

I may not get a job this year. I may spend 2008-2009 school year where I am--and I cannot be miserable and last that long. So inspired by your post, I am going to try to find the good while I am here. Thanks.

The Constructivist said...

I love this post and only have a few random things to mention.

1) the freedom to teach what you want, research what you want on your own schedule, and actually contribute to making the institution better is a precious thing. none of the assistant profs when I was in grad school had that privilege. so run with it!

2) your extensive teaching experience is a huge plus when, say, applying for a teaching Fulbright. I never thought I'd get to go to Japan on my first try, but I did. so if you ever do need to get away for a time, you may have more options than you think.

3) my sense from watching the careers of some of my friends is that when you have tenure, the best way to make a move is when another school decides to raid you. "do your work and wait to be recruited" may be your best strategy.

4) time is on your side. not just in terms of senior people at R1s retiring, but in the possible shift at R1s from a "research at all costs and devalue teaching" mode to "eating the SLACs' lunch" mode--at least at the hyper-rich ones. If the Ivies and their peers are sucking the most-up-and-coming professors from everywhere else and putting them in the classroom on terms they'd accept, they'll be hiring a lot of good teachers who are productive researchers as well--and a lot of jobs are going to open up at the places they're leaving. (this, btw, is another reason to support grad student unionization everywhere.)

k, back to work! (heh)

CogSci Librarian said...

as a librarian, not a professor, I share some of your thoughts, Crazy & others.

my totally non-academic take on it is that the voices come (partly) from a system which allows us to customize or tweak so many aspects of my online life: I can put whatever icons I want on the face of my iPod touch (for which: yay!), I have my bookmarks and toolbars *just so* on all my applications, I see only the friends I want to see on Facebook, and I listen to whatever I want (thanks to podcasts and satellite radio) in the car.

And I'm fortunate to have financial resources which allow me to buy the clothes, shoes, and other doo-dads that make my life more pleasant or easier.

So, if I can _perfect_, if you will, these aspects of my life, my crazee brain asks "why can't I tweak work in the same way?" And then it starts critiquing, helpfully, it thinks, THIS about work, and THAT about work. When maybe it wouldn't hurt to accept things as they are.

Food for thought, for me at least.

Second Line said...

A couple things. First, I'm glad you're coming around to accept, and even embrace where you are. Second, maybe it's because I never landed a tenure track gig, but I've always marveled at how disastisfied some on the tenure track can be. I'm not critcizing so much as noting the very different outlooks. I'd give up living in a major east coast city, which I do, in a heartbeat for lifetime security, Summer's off -- not to slack but to work, do research etc. -- and a 4-4 load. From the perspective of teaching an 8-8 load as an adjunct, life just look very different.

I'm not trying to weap and moan for the adjuncts here so much as to suggest to you and the other tenureds, that you all have it pretty good. Let me put it his way: would you or the tenure track members of your general readership give up a 4-4 load living in Bumf*ck for an 8-8 load in cool-major-city?

Leslie said...

You go, girl! :-)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Thank you! You've put into words many of my own thoughts, except that you actually seem to get more done than I do!