Thursday, February 12, 2009

Identity and Academic Life

I've been wanting to do a post about this for a good long while, but I've been so caught up in the stupid sore throat I have, teaching four classes, doing ridiculous amounts of service crap, and being tired that I haven't had time to think very hard about "identity" and academics and being an academic, and whatever. On the edges of my tired brain, however, this issue of identity has been cropping up a lot of late, and so, here I am, finally posting about it.

Now, I posted a long time ago about stuff related to this, and I think I still believe much of what I wrote in that post (and in the others surrounding it). This topic has come back to mind in part because of Sibyl's comments to this post, in which she writes:

"My experience is that the emotional and psychological investment in professinal training of this nature is, as a result, much more likely to result in a kind of entanglement that is toxic when coupled with very bleak prospects for success."

I should note that this is a very brief extract of what Sibyl had to say. Perhaps Sibyl says it better in her initial post to which mine was, if only tangentially, a response. Sibyl's point (though I may be putting words in her mouth and/or being incredibly reductive, so Sybil, if you're out there, correct me if I'm wrong or off base) is that to the extent that an academic path binds our personal identities to our work (and, subsequently, to our "success" or "failure" on an academic job market) is ultimately bad for people.

Now, I think that historically I would have agreed with this position. In fact, if you read that old post of mine to which I linked, I think I mostly did agree with it. What's been interesting since receiving the tenure letter and since the publication of my book is that I think that my identity as an academic has been shifting in ways that I hadn't anticipated that it would, and that interestingly have little to do with my intellectual life.

Now, before I go any further, let me just say that I totally recognize my position of privilege in having the resources and support to experience this shift. I think that the shift that I'm experiencing has everything to do with the fact that I ended up in a t-t gig in which I was able to thrive, that I did not experience the adjunct track, and that ultimately I wasn't subjected to a lot of the more dehumanizing practices in this profession. That is an important thing to note, as my experiences have been shaped by this relative position of privilege, and I do not mean in what follows to discount experiences that are not similar to mine.

So, here's the thing. As a student - both as an undergraduate once I decided that I wanted to pursue academia and as a graduate student who was pursuing academia as a career path - I think that my identity was very much bound to my intellectual pursuits and to my "success" or "failure" in those pursuits. In very real ways, I think I saw my scholarship, and then later my teaching, as my identity. A rejection meant that I was a bad person. A bad teaching evaluation meant that I was a bad person. I think that this simple equation of "me" with "my work" was not a good thing. I think that if we felt like doing so we could trace a lot of the "failures" in my personal life to my tendency to equate my self with my work, and I think that we could trace a lot of the dissatisfaction that I felt in my first years on the tenure track to this tendency, too. I think that those failures and that dissatisfaction had a lot to do with me believing that "the work" was who I was, and that it was more important than any other aspect of my life. Why? Well, because the problem was that I saw my "self" as my work, and there was dissonance between that perception and the way that I was perceived in the world and the way that people outside of myself valued (or didn't value) my work. See, if my work was "me" then that meant that I was a loser because I ended up at a no-name university, even if it was in a t-t gig. If my work was "me" and I wasn't moving up in a broader hierarchy within my discipline (publishing my way out of my current institution, publishing my book with the fanciest of university presses, whatever), then I was "going nowhere." After years of jumping through hoops successfully, and having that hoop-jumping success define me in ways that were positive, the crash into the hoops that came once "arriving" on the t-t was pretty sucky. And since who "I" was depended upon jumping through hoops, then that meant that I felt like "I" (in some intrinsic way) sucked.

Now, of course, I didn't suck. And I was still jumping through certain kinds of hoops (annual reviews, etc.) successfully. It's just that the hoops that were now my hoops didn't "count" in the same way, to others (grad school mentors, grad school colleagues) or to me. They also didn't seem to count at all to my students (because seriously, why would they?) or to my current colleagues (I'm not at an institution that has historically placed much value on individual achievement of its faculty). Also, and I think that this is crucially important, my experience in grad school was very much one in which other people - not even necessarily people at my university - valued me for the fact that I was getting a Ph.D. as a primary index of my worth. It was, even to my friends outside of the academy, who I was.

When I became a professor, I think that what shifted was that I "just" had a job. Sure, it was a job that not just everybody has, but it had about the same status as people who are engineers, or lawyers, or doctors, or plumbers. It was an "occupation" and not an "identity" to those whom I encountered. (Aside: this was an interesting shift for my mom, too. She was surprised when people didn't care more that I got a job as a professor, and it really irked her. Of course, she thinks I'm fantastic and that people should be incredibly impressed with me. And they were, when she said that she had a daughter who was going to school for her Ph.D. But once I became a professor, people just started finding her bragging annoying, which I'm sure it is, but I'm also sure it was annoying before, too, only people responded much more generously.) And there was some lag time for me between other people responding to my job as an "occupation" and in me responding to it in that way.

What's been interesting to me over the course of this year is that I think I finally get it now that this job isn't who I am. My book isn't who I am, and tenure isn't who I am. These are accomplishments, surely. But they're not my identity. My identity exceeds these accomplishments. And, perhaps most importantly, it exceeds them in my workplace.

I've learned this in large part through teaching, and especially through the comparison of teaching online vs. teaching in the traditional classroom. My online students, when I do get the chance to meet them F2F, always are surprised by what I look like. As a student said today, she thought I would be "old." In teaching online, I've learned the ways in which I've always relied on my presence to negotiate student-teacher relations. I've always unconsciously relied on certain things - like standing in front of the class, to give a really obvious example - to convey authority. But to my online students, I have to find ways to indicate "presence" that don't carry with them the same assumptions. I've also learned it through service, and in the way that my colleagues react to my contributions on committees and in meetings and such. The thing is, my book, or my ideas, or even my pedagogy, just don't matter there. They are not "who I am" but rather they are "what I do." "Who I am" is a person who can be impatient and talk over other people, a person who can be pragmatic to a fault, a person who cares, at the end of the day, a heck of a lot more about results than about the theory behind them. Now, these things relate to my intellectual approaches to questions and problems, but they are not identical to them. Who I am informs my ideas, but who I am is not equatable to my ideas.

What's interesting is that I think I've always known all of the above - subconsciously, intuitively - about the other "academics" in my life. I've known this about my teachers, my mentors, my advisers, my colleagues, and even my students. The thing is, I didn't know it was true for me. Somehow there was a disconnect between the way that I perceived other people in academic life and the way that I perceived myself as an academic.

But what I've been coming to realize, slowly, over the course of this year, a year in which in many ways you can say my academic identity has been endorsed, both through the publication of my book and through tenure, is that my identity is not bound to my work. I am good at my work, and I would never suggest that I'm not. And yes, my work is very important to me. But I'm also a good cook, and yet who I am is not the dinner that I make. Yes, a good dinner is important to me, and I like that I can make one, and I like eating that dinner. But it's not me. And I'm not a bad person if dinner one night comes out crappy.

What's interesting about this slow realization, though, is how centrally connected it is to the things that I've been exploring in my scholarship, and I think that in a lot of ways my scholarship has gotten me to these ideas about the self and about subjectivity. Because ultimately, I'm really interested in the ways that the self is erased through work, through writing, and in the ways that that erasure is ultimately playful and, if there is such a thing, freeing. That's not to say (obviously) that I don't exist, but it is to say that I am not what I do. Rather, what I do takes me away from who I am, and that's not a bad thing: that's an awesome thing.

But see, here's the thing: the only reason that I can feel that way is that I'm not trying to sell who I am on a market, I'm not trying to "sell" my "self". I can get accepted for publication or get rejected for publication, but I'm still a professor. I can go on the market and get no interviews, and it doesn't mean anything because I've still got a job, and a profession. I can teach a good class or teach a bad class, and that doesn't have to be about "me" - it has no bearing on my reappointment or tenure or getting a job next semester - it can be about the classroom dynamics or the students or about the material. The comfort that I feel in detaching my identity from my work right now has everything to do with the fact that I can do so without negative material consequences.

And that may be fucked up. In fact, I think I'm prepared to say that it is fucked up. Because I do think that the only way to "succeed" in securing this sort of comfort is, under the current conditions of higher education, to move through a period in which one is entirely identified with one's work, because that is what is required to get a t-t job and finally to get tenure. And then one has to go through a period of wondering what the fuck one has been doing once one secures that "success" because it turns out, it's never been true that one's identity was one's work. It might have been one's passion. It might have been one's desire. But it never really was who one was. That was a fiction that one had to perpetuate - and to believe in - in order to get to the point of being able to say - being allowed to say and even being encouraged to say - "oh, actually, that was all a performance."

I think that the people in my department (tenured) who are most unhappy have never gotten the memo that it was all a game, a performance, a ruse. That it was all dues-paying, and that at the end of the day, they aren't their work, and that all people really care about is whether the person in the office next to them is carrying their load - not whether they have Deep Thoughts or Grand Ideas. I think they are holding out for recognition that's never going to come, recognition that endorses their belief that they are their ideas, and, if they are, that this is what gives them value. I think the people who are happiest in my department (tenured) gave up on that long ago, and they came to realize that work is valuable only inasmuch as one values and enjoys and excels at the work, and inasmuch as one can contribute to our students and to the community as a whole. That's not to say that one's intellectual life isn't important. It is, and in crucial ways. But, as I said to my chair in my annual review meeting today, I think that we need to think of it as valuable not just to our personal enrichment and edification, as people like to characterize these things when they talk about the cushy lives of professors, but rather to show how it is so intrinsically important to the broader jobs that we do. My intellectual life is "important" to my institution not because it "is me" but because of what it allows me to do for my institution. I don't expect for "research" to matter just because I care about it: I expect for them to see how it enhances all of the things that our mission purports to value and how my research specifically has allowed me to contribute to those goals.

Now, all of this is new territory for me, in terms of how I'm thinking about "academic identity." In the past, I know that when I thought about these questions I did not think about them in terms of my institution or in terms of the greater good. I thought about them in terms of "me." And I think that this is the public perception of how academics regard their intellectual lives, too - that we're all leading these "lives of the mind" that don't contribute to society. But what I realize now, now that I have the privilege of doing so, is that's total bullshit. And not only is it bullshit for "society" in a general way - it's bullshit for the individuals who have to go through a period of believing that the entirety of their identity is what they do. We don't expect this of people in any other line of work. Why exactly do we expect it of people in higher education? Especially when it was never true in the first place, and when in the fields where this sort of ideology is most pervasive (the humanities) we don't believe in things like universal or true identity anyway? How exactly has it come to pass that we've missed the fact that we're trying to ground our reason for being in something that is totally false?


Anonymous said...

I always hedge in these conversations because I don't think academia is a special case. I don't see any less investment or identity entagnelment in my stepfather, who is an electrical engineer by training. No, he didn't undertake years of schooling to learn his job. He got hired with a bs. But he did work his way up from mindless soldering to software design and management. That implies a certain apprenticeship. My husband worked for years on products that never saw the light of day before he was trusted to work on something important.

for my stepdad, a loss of employment was devastating for him and for his identity. He had invested years in building his career and in that particular company. finding another job, at his age, wasn't exactly easy and it meant taking a pay cut. And while the market isn't especially tight in his field, it is extremely unstable. There is a high probability that any given software engineer will be fired for no real reason at some point in his/her career.

This is an anecdote to suggest that we aren't so special. There's a real tendency among academics to think of the entanglement between identity and career that we experience as being unusual in some way or setting us apart. I don't think it's true.

The other point I would make is that I don't experience an investment in my work as my whole identity. The reason is twofold, I think. In the first place, it's a survival mechanism. If I were *that* invested in the idea that my work = me, I would have killed myself by now. I'm not being cute. I had to disconnect from it, as a coping mechanism, and I've been very aware of that shift in the last couple of years. It has changed how I receive feedback and such. I think I am slightly more invested in teaching as part of my identity but even there, what I do isn't the whole of who I am. That leads me to the second reason I would cite: I have kids. A big part of my identity is invested in mothering, which has its own problems and rewards, but it means all my eggs aren't in one basket, so to speak.

point being, there isn't just one experience for an academic. While this sense of detachment has come for you with tenure, it might come through other circumstances--or not come at all, as you point out--for someone else. And the question of whether what you do is who you are is an issue whether one is a stay at home mother, a professor, an engineer, or a nurse, etc.

I don't mean to rant. But I reject the narrative that academia is special in this regard and I reject any narrative that prescribes a given experience for of academic identity as normative.

Earnest English said...

I really appreciate your post, Dr. Crazy, but like Anastasia, I would take issue with the idea that people in other fields aren't asked/required to make a complete identity shifts that conflates their worth with their work (to put it in a not-so-great nutshell). I think doctors are an obvious example -- if medical school doesn't ask for an identity shift (I wouldn't know), residency with its impossible hours would seem to cut one off from other aspects of one's life and make the conflation of self and work more likely. Law school might be another space that asks for that kind of identity conflation. Parenting is another, as Anastasia hints at. (For example, I'm a new mother. But am I a "mom," I ask myself. If I'm a "mom," what happened to my other identities, including my identity as an academic? Is it possible or likely for me to be able to hold on to a bunch of disparate identities, especially when each one seems so all-consuming -- as an on-the-market academic, I am supposed to be all academic. As a new mom, I'm supposed to be all mom. Who am I in all that? I'll have to get back to you.)

Like Anastasia, I also think that being a parent casts a different light on the all-encompassingness of the academic identity. But so did getting involved with Absurdist Lover. (In my life, wanting to have a life beyond the academy, even in my untenured situation, has led me to make radical changes that most people would say have not been good for my career.)

Feminist Avatar said...

I was quite interested in the idea that writing erases self, because I have been thinking in my research about how people create self through writing; about how the creation of, say, songs or other forms of popular culture, which aren't immediately biographic, nonetheless give us access to the voice and experience of the writer [which is useful for social groups that left no other sources- yes I am a historian].

As part of this, I think that our academic writing, our findings, are shaped by our own experience and say as much about the author as the past [or subject under study] and this isn't a new observation, really. I have often thought that is why a rejection of, say, an article is so hard, because it isn't just work, it's part of us. Equally, I think this is true of many occupation- people take value from their labour and a rejection of what they create, whether a nicely wired house or a tidy isle at the supermarket, becomes personal- perhaps because we are our experiences. And yes we have other experiences that shape us and perhaps keep us balanced or happy, but it doesn't take away from the fact that our research is personal- because our research is about us and our creation of self.

Sybil Vane said...

I understand the resistance to thinking about academia as in some way specific or unique, I do. It feels like art of a tendency to self-indulgence and self-absorption that pervades many corners of the field. And no, the life of the mind isn’t inherently ordained with specificity, nor does it really even mean anything. And it isn’t necessarily a life of working harder than a childcare provider or a hospice nurse or a day trader or a mechanic, etc etc etc.
It actually is pretty different though, and the fact of many individuals not getting overwhelmed with that difference does not mean that systemically or structurally the profession doesn’t encourage uunhealthy identifications.
Yes, other professionals train as long and hard aas wel do. But save professional entertainment jobs, I don’t know of other fields that are as competitive as ours, where sustainable positions are in as short supply to the people that are trained. That is a difference. And the fact of the result of the competition offering so little by way of financial reward is a difference.
More importantly, the mechanisms of our job markets and our conditions for success within our jobs are ridiculously un-intuitive to those outside of academia. Anyone who has had to explain MLA, it’s timing, why she is buying a plane ticket there in October before all her applications are even out and why it still might not mean anything knows what I mean here. Anyone who is working a temporary contract at her home institution and who is asked constantly why she can’t just stay there and teach knows what I mean as well. These are actually not features of the more conventional private marketplace. And one of the effects is to create an insularity within academia where it seems like no one really understands your world but other academics. To which Dr. C has alluded in this and other posts.
I know you and I have different feelings about the nature of a dissertation, Anastasia, and maybe the structures around us have treated it differently. But in my world, it has always been treated as a very long term project, years and years of time, which represented the extension of one’s intellect and one’s UNIQUE and ORIGINAL contribution to the field. This is the project by which one hops to make a name for one’s self. I do think the nature of it asks for a certain investment of personality/self.
But even this is less important to me in making the point than the fact of the academic narrative being so illegible outside itself. Which is surely a big reason why there are so many academic blogs.
My mothering is a huge part of how I understand myself, often in unhealthy ways when I am feeling like a bad mother. This is not that unlike when I feel like a failed professional. It is not that I feel like everything about me is related to my academic career, thus leaving no room for anything else. It is that I have no rubric for understanding my professional identity that is not a professional one. Which maybe is not all that unique to this field, although the private sector friends and spouse I have to report feeling less identified with their work than I do. But the illegibility of the field and its mechanisms, the way it doesn’t follow the rules of the private sector in most ways, those things can be so isolating and insular that I think many academics have trouble making their decisions make sense to other people …. I don’t know, am rambling and can’t quite make it point back where I want to this morning. Will return to it later. Thanks for the post, Dr. C.

Dr. Crazy said...

Just a clarification: I don't think I commented at all on how identity works in other career paths, nor did I imply that people don't have shifts in their identity in other professions or in other parts of their lives. I was just talking about issues of identity related to one's academic pursuits.

The next thing I'll say is this: while I understand the narratives of detachment as positive (in Anastasia's case, in EE's), I will also say that I don't know of a single person who a) got a t-t job and b) made it to tenure who didn't construct his/her identity primarily through the job, at least until tenure. And that's to say nothing of the many people that I knew in grad school who ended up having to drop out or to pursue a career outside of academia because they didn't want their identity to be all about the job.

And, I'll go even further: this has been especially true for many of the mothers that I've known. Let me be clear: I am not at all saying that I think that this is how it "should" be. I also should say that what I've seen may have to do with field (English being so glutted exacerbates these things I think) and they may just have to do with the people that I know. I guess what I'm saying here is that I've not seen a single person model "succeeding" in this profession up until the point of tenure without subordinating other parts of themselves to the academic identity.

And while I think that is common to something like residency after med school or one's first few years out of law school, the big difference is the length of time: if one subordinates all parts of oneself to academic identity, the best case scenario (assuming one goes straight through grad school and gets a job ABD, defending just before one starts working on the t-t) is that one does that not for three or six years but for 10 or 11 years. Stretch that out to 13 or 15 if one has to put in time adjuncting or in a VAP or post-doc; stretch it out to 20 if one changes jobs prior to tenure and doesn't get time off the clock. So, while academia isn't unique in the way it affects identity, it is unique in the chunk of time that it demands such identification, if that makes sense.

It's also possible that my experience with this stuff is unusual, and that others have not identified primarily through their academic pursuits in the way that I have or as intensely as I have. I would actually be really interested in hearing narratives like that from people who've made it to tenure, because seriously, I can't think of a single person with whom I've discussed this stuff who hasn't expressed experiences similar to mine.

Anonymous said...

I'm not saying your experience isn't typical. I'm saying it isn't iconic. It isn't *the* Experience because there isn't *an* Experience. There is your experience and it may be dead center of typical but that doesn't mean it's the whole story. That's all I'm saying about that. I may be in the minority but that doesn't mean my experience doesn't count.

I think there is probably a greater resonance between academic job prospects and careers in music and performance than with technical careers, although I'd stand by the argument that while the job market isn't tight in software engineering, it is highly unstable, which brings its own problems and anxieties. There is every chance that a competent, hardworking professional in software engineering will be unable to keep his/her job, which is it's own issue. But getting back to music or performance, the chances of becoming the next hot thing are slim, the training is difficult, and yes, there is some tendency to see the work as an extension of oneself. I think the degree to which we see academic work as creative work has a lot to do with this question of identity and entanglement.

My dissertation is supposed to be original. It's supposed to be *my* contribution. It's supposed to define who I am as a scholar. I've experienced all those things. I understand what you're talking about.

Dr. Crazy said...

I never said my experience was iconic or that it was the one true experience. In fact, I think I was very careful to point out that I was just talking about myself and to point out the specifics of my experience and background. If you're responding to what I wrote here as being about privileging one kind of experience over yours, it totally isn't. It's just I haven't had your experience so I can't write about it. I haven't experienced everything you've experienced, and I don't necessarily know what you're talking about. And so I guess what I'd say is that I don't at all mean to come off in such a way that I'm talking about my experience as universal, but I also don't think that people should expect me to speak for anybody but myself in this space.

heu mihi said...

Thanks for this post, Crazy. It resonated with me in a lot of ways.

In (sort of) response to the comments, here's something else that I would add that I think affects the conflation of one's identity with one's academic work. While I agree, first of all, that this kind of identity-shifting isn't unique to academia, I do think that we have to consider the radical demands that are made on the academic in the market year. You go from being (in most cases, presumably) in the relatively comfortable space of grad school, where you may have spent nearly all of your 20s (and/or 30s) and made friends, put down roots, been encouraged by professors, etc. to not only getting rejected from dozens or scores of jobs, but--most importantly--tacitly agreeing to move anywhere and to leave behind loved ones, family, parts of the country you like, familiar landscapes and cultural institutions, etc. For a job which you may not even like. The enforced abandonment of--in many cases--everything ELSE that you know and care about can effect a profound conflation of the self with the job.

In my case, moving away from everyone and everything I knew (for a low-paying, hard-working job) led to an extreme and distressing re-examination of my presumed career. Did I *want* to give up everything else about myself (which is how it felt at the time) to stick with this job? Of course not--I'm more than my job. On the other hand, I had worked for many years towards this career, and a single decision--leaving *this* job--could completely destroy my chance of staying in the profession at all. In that situation, you can feel (perhaps falsely, but I have felt this) like you need to make a choice between Your Career and Your Self--and, if you choose the former, what does that say about your sense of who you are? This probably isn't unique among academics, but I don't think that it's something that all (or even most) other professions demand.

Your post particularly interests me, Crazy, because I think that I'm still in the earlier part of the shift you describe. On the one hand I'm getting happier here, learning to appreciate the parts of this job other than research, and feeling like a I can make a contribution to the college; on the other, going to MLA and running into grad school friends makes me feel self-conscious and depressed about my rather mediocre, teaching-heavy job. I still have that external standard out there bothering me and keeping me dissatisfied. I'm glad to know that you've moved beyond that feeling--it gives me hope!

rosmarina said...

I'd go so far as to say that while it's possible for someone to make it through tenure as an academic without identifying too much/drawing too much validation from work as self, for an awful lot of people it is. I base this on my experience and those of my academic friends. I like the comparison to careers in the arts. Why else would people struggle for so long for such a small shot at success? How much is adjuncting like playing weddings (no disrespect meant to either - we all know that there are many very talented scholars and musicians who are woefully underemployed)? The apprenticeship is really long and generally difficult. The sacrifices required to obtain success make it more than a casual choice, and require a lot of dedication to see through, not limited to lack of control over location or type of institution where you work, but also the sort of deferring of rewards and pleasures until you get a steady job/tenure. That the uncertainty of employment ends when you get tenure is a significant difference from most other professions. Musicians don't get that unless they end up playing for a major symphony orchestra.

I think the reason I stayed in for so long was that academia was something I identified with strongly, but in my case, for absolutely the wrong reasons. The prestige of the title, the guarantee that this indeed meant I was "smart," and that this was something others acknowledged overrode way too many other parts of my personality for far too long. It was a neurotic need for validation.

I see how deep this ran by observing my reactions and thoughts now that I'm getting out. I'm exhilarated with the freedom from the topic and the institution. The cage is open and I can leave! I am more than just a gigantic brain with legs! I'm free from the tyranny of the mind!

I'd be interested in comparing what people at other sorts of institutions (I'm leaving an R1, where it's research uber alles), and whatever correlation between work and identity they feel they develop.

Earnest English said...

Hey, Dr. C., I don't think you were trying to speak for everyone. And I think your post is very important -- and very interesting and informative because I'm so far from being tenured (like, I need to get a t-t job first, which, cross your fingers, I'll get this year). I remember one prof telling me that getting tenure can be very anticlimactic, even to the point of inducing depression. So that it doesn't seem to be in your case is awesome!

All I was responding to was this sentence:

"We don't expect this of people in any other line of work."

I think society might, but I can't say, because I don't know any medical doctors or whatever. And I think that we really shouldn't assume -- perhaps doctor blogs (or mailing lists or whatever) talk about this all the time and we're just not in on it, which doesn't mean that this isse is not an incredibly important aspect of our lives. And I think that our profession also expects a lot of us, not paying us adequately if we're off the track and then too often blaming the individual for not being competitive or driven enough. I also wonder how the conflation of identity with job correlates to privilege though. Do those of us who are less privileged experience more or less of this tension, I wonder. Hmmmm.

Anyhoo, just wanted to specify what I was taking issue with. I make those kinds of totalizing statements too, and this might have just been a hyperbolic oversight.

Sybil Vane said...

PS totally not putting words in my mouth.

life_of_a_fool said...

I think this whole conversation is fascinating. Dr. C, your initial post is interesting not only in developing your path but also in suggesting other paths (e.g., colleagues who are miserable because they never achieve that self/job separation). Even though you talk primarily about your experience, you hit at other pathways through academia.

And the comments add to this -- e.g., Anastasia's point is a good one. There are many ways in which this isn't all that different from other careers. I started to think of law enforcement and the military and such, where they are very much taught that their career is their identity. And yet, there are some differences (heu mihi makes a good point about the job market -- I think it's not only that it all but necessitates that we move anywhere - other professions may necessitate this as well, but also the yearly nature of it. We can apply for jobs once a year, along with everyone else in our field looking for a job. That adds to the competitiveness and group identification).

The parenthood aspect is interesting as well. I know of actively involved parents who have been quite successful academics. I imagine this would be beneficial for similar reasons Anastasia suggests - you have another central --and socially-identified -- role/identity, which I would think would help provide some balance (and as others have mentioned, other roles may serve that function, for other people, and maybe that wouldn't happen for some parents).

Anyway, I think exploring both the similarities and differences with other careers/roles expands our understanding and makes for an interesting discussion. . .

Karet said...

One thing to consider is: what would sort of job would you do if you switched careers? Can you picture yourself doing an occupation that would make you happy / interested? I say this because, as a person who is on the verge of leaving academia (although I would certainly get tenure next year), currently on unpaid leave, I've gotten the most interesting responses from people who hear I might leave academia. First response from a friend / colleague: "what will you do? be a stay at home mom?" As if there is no other job I could possibly get! I don't think she meant to be offensive. I think some academics can't envision any other life. AT ALL. and this is one thing that really bothers me about this profession. And yet I haven't yet had the guts to quit!

Professor Zero said...

Karet - yes, many academics can't envision any other life, at all. I have a great deal of evidence for this.

Me, on the other hand, I'm a weird case. On the one hand I come from a line of academics and so academia was not something to attain, it was where I started. On the other, I was the first girl who went into it and even though I am tenured faculty now I realize I never took academia seriously as it applied to me - my degree was ornamental, and the expectation, or at least the one I swallowed, was that I wouldn't use it. "Me" is clothes, house, cooking, gardening, traveling, creative writing, having experiences, noticing things ... whereas academia is secondary, it is just something I know how to do. I'd like to attain, in my own mind, centrality for it in my life, as something I dare to dedicate myself to fully, as something that is in fact within reach in a larger way. But not with the attitude Karet describes having observed - which as I say, I've also observed a great deal. (Does this make any sense???)

Professor Zero said...

P.S. I also echo heu mihi - I feel exactly the same.

Dr. Crazy said...

What sort of job would I do if I switched careers? I've actually thought a good deal about this. I'm not sure that I'd leave higher ed altogether. I could see myself moving into administration, perhaps, or if not that, moving into a student services sort of a gig that was more 9-5. I have experience that would make such a move viable, I think, though it would take some maneuvering on my part. I could also move into some sort of editing/writing sort of a gig, potentially, and I wouldn't be against (depending on the circumstances) retraining in another field - law school comes to mind, though something else would potentially fit into that slot. [That option would obviously depend on material support in some fashion - I wouldn't quit my job as a single person to do that.] My fantasy option, which I've actually considered practical ways of achieving, would be to find some way to become a writer (as in, like write a best-selling novel or something), but again, that would depend on supporting myself materially with something else until the whole "best-selling novelist" profession materialized. On my own, I can't afford to take an unpaid leave. If I could afford to do that, I think I would take a year to see whether I could do that and make a go of it.

The thing is, I really do like my job, and it would take a compelling reason outside of my current circumstances to change careers. It's not that this is off the table for me, but it's not something in the forefront of my mind right now. I really don't think that the only option is to opt out of academia for the mommy track (not that doing so is a bad thing - just I don't think that it's the only thing a person who decides to leave the academy can choose). I think that sometimes the reason that's the first thing that comes to mind is that it seems like the only "good enough" reason to "throw away one's education" (which is, I think, how a lot of people think of leaving a tenure-track gig).

I think I would probably have a hard time leaving, but I can imagine other things that would make me happy, and I can imagine circumstances that would make it worth it to do so. So I guess what I'm saying, Karet, is that I think it makes sense that you've had a hard time "just quitting" - one thing that characterizes all people who get a PhD is that they don't "just quit" much of anything, even when it sucks :) That's a lot of personality stuff and socialization to overcome :)

human said...

life of a fool said of parenting: "you have another central --and socially-identified -- role/identity, which I would think would help provide some balance"

I think this is true and very important to staying healthy in an environment that encourages (or even demands) you to define yourself by your work. Not necessarily being a parent, but finding balance in SOME way.

This is a great post, Crazy, and has given me some insight into things I have observed about myself but am now seeing in a different way. I'm most likely going to enter a history Ph.D. program in the fall (I know, shut up) so I'm on the beginning end of things in academia, but I have previously attempted a career that is similar in many of the respects discussed above: professional music. It did occur to me to wonder why I was drawn to professions that were so very hard to get a steady job in, and which paid so little relative to the effort put in. But now I see that this other thing, the way practitioners identify themselves with the work (the very reason I stopped trying to be a musician!) is even more of a common thread. This is very important for me to know because I think it will help me to stay healthy in graduate school.

And I learned how to do that almost by accident, as I was involved in another identity-making hobby - avocation? - political activism. I was spending so much time on it and submerging my identity in it and if we won that was great but if we lost I was destroyed. So I became a fan, a rabid fan, of a local sports team. I didn't really understand why and how that made me feel so much more grounded and healthy and whole, but I knew it did, so I just went with it.

Now the reason behind that seems obvious. If there's some kind of problem with your primary identity: if you just failed at it, or something bad happened, you have something else to hang on to, another place to stand in that moment of crisis until reason is possible again and you realize that it doesn't mean you suck as a person, and then you can move on. I can see how being a parent would do that for people. It seems funny that something as frivolous as being a sports fan can serve the same purpose, but it's obvious from my experience that it can. So it seems to me that it doesn't matter much what your "other" identity is. Two is better than one, and maybe four or five is even better than two (though they would certainly take up more time).

I think that taking this - building multiple identities - as a life strategy is probably better than trying to live in such a way that identity doesn't matter, because I don't think that is even possible.

Kimberly Alidio said...

A really interesting narrative of detaching the self from academia. It interests me because that detachment seems to have happened after tenure, if I understand it correctly. I suppose people who go on in their institutions and get tenure can look back on their probationary period with a new eye. For me, leaving my position before going up for tenure is necessary to understand my hoop-jumping experiences. I wonder, then, whether if I gritted my teeth enough I might have gained a sense of peace with academic life.