My Breakup with the Tenure Track Dream (Part 3)
In the first part of my series on opting out of the tenure track, I talked about the grief process that occurred before I could begin to transition into a different or alt-ac career. The next thing that I did was stabilize my income flow the best way that I could. Adjuncting was both familiar and provided me with the personal time I needed to reflect and be there for my child. Something else that I started to do around this time was to reimmerse myself into some activities that I enjoyed in my pre-grad school life.
I read. One of these activities was reading. Sure, I read a handful of novels while I was working on my Ph.D. Most of these were technically not “read” per se. They were audiobooks that I listened to while I drove or did other work that busied my hands but left my mind free. When I was working on my degree, the books that I downloaded from the library were as opposite from grad school reading as possible – mass paperback novels with some comedy writing. These books provided the contrast that I needed to balance out the volumes of theory and piles of journal articles that I had to read.
I attended school in a state that is not exactly lauded for its educational system, and I am a first-generation college student. My exposure to literature was self-directed when I was growing up. I had missed out on some literary staples. Here are a few of the things that I read that gave me a new perspective during this time:
- The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka – I was undergoing a metamorphosis myself. I related to Gregor’s bug-like state, the shame, and isolation. All of my work was for what exactly? So other people could benefit? Was my purpose fulfilled, and now I am so useless to my family (or in my case my academic family) and such a disappointment that they would rather I die? Kafka’s story paralleled my life in a way that made me revisit, is what I am going through a more common part of the human journey than I thought? Kafka reached out to me through the pages from another time and read my heart. “Artful Adjunct,” he said, “I understand your pain and have felt it, too.”
- On the Beach by Nevil Shute – Of all of the books that I have read in my life, this one traumatized and affected me the most. I am usually a bit sensitive, but I recommended it to my boyfriend, and he hasn’t read anything else I have given him since. Sometimes, your world can end, and institutions can die, and it gets to a point where you realize that you cannot do a thing to ensure your survival in that environment. Sometimes, you have to end it on your terms. I was thankful that the blast I experienced was not a cobalt-infused, global, thermonuclear war. I still had control over my fate; my pain was mostly self-induced and coming from a place of privilege. I could still enjoy the trees, the vistas, and the rabbits. My child and I are alive and healthy.
- The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch – If you look at the reviews for this book on Goodreads, some people find this work to be self-indulgent and coming from a place of white, male privilege. I don’t necessarily disagree, but I still like the book and the author. His lecture forced me to reflect on my own life and reminded me that I did make an impact. I forced myself to acknowledge that a lot of the experiences in my life are priceless, in particular, the ones surrounding the Ph.D. Whether I wanted to admit it to myself or not, while my pain was real, because of my degree I was working from a place of privilege. This I cannot deny. I may not have achieved my dreams, but I was still able to have new ones and more life to live.
- The Art of War by Sun Tzu – Reading this while thinking of the changing state of tenure and the political nature of the neoliberal climate of higher education was an interesting exercise. It also made me take a good, hard look at myself in the academic job market regarding the people and systemic biases I faced. Could I continue more effectively now? What was I fighting for exactly and against whom? Now that I understood it better, did I still even want it? It is best not to engage in a battle you cannot win.
- Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie – The cultural revolution of China and Mao’s re-education and the oppression of the power of books, art, and knowledge, what could be a better read for an academic in my position? Aren’t we facing a cultural revolution of sorts inside and outside of the academy? I am educated, and what I have learned through reading and adventures cannot be taken from me by someone else. I can recraft it and use it as I see fit as needed. The ability to survive and do so is there.
- The writing on the wall by many authors too numerous to mention – OK. You got me. This isn’t a book. But if you read Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education or The Professor is In, there is a loud outcry about the shrinking percentage of tenure-track lines. This along with the increasing number of Ph.D.s being granted, the political conditions surrounding hiring, and then post-tenure depression if you even make it that far, made me realize how much things had changed since I started my Ph.D. Those rose-colored glasses are bound to come off much sooner rather than later if you read industry publications. I asked myself, knowing what I know, how would I best advise my student or child to go down this tenure-track path? Would I think that they were naïve and talk them out of it? Would I add caveats? I knew my own answer for someone with my specific strengths and weaknesses.
I healed myself of the Kool-Aid hangover by seeing myself as part of humanity instead of a part of the academy; one facing the same struggles and fears portrayed in literature. People all over the world throughout time face dashed dreams, social factors that hold them back, and underemployment with a dash of job insecurity. What kind of privileged jerk was I to feel a sort of unrecognized entitlement to a specific job just because I had a Ph.D.? I assessed my strengths and weaknesses, the health of academia and the economy, made a prognosis, and I decided that it was in my best interest (and my child’s) to focus my efforts elsewhere.
(Image by Alice Hampson)