Monday, December 19, 2011

Progress Report on Letting the Dream Die

As most of you out there in cyberland who read this know, I recently left academia to teach at a private high school in New York City so that I could be with my wife and live in a place that I liked.  When I left my old job, despite its being wretched in so many respects, I still felt a great loss.  In effect, I was letting a dream die, a dream to which I had sacrificed over a decade of my youth, my financial well-being, my health (not having dental care through most of that time has taken a toll, and I drank and smoked way too much as a stress release), and tremendous mental and physical effort.  I told myself that I was in effect putting away childish things, and accepting the fact that I probably wasn't cut out to be a professor of European history.  I had the publications and the tenure-track position to sustain that fiction, but deep down in my heart of hearts, I was already feeling like I was having to try harder and harder to be pretend to be something that I was not, even if I had wanted to be that very thing more than anything else for so long.

A few months on, I can't say that I feel let down.  Right now I get to go to bed each night and wake up each morning with my wife, and our life together gives me unspeakable joy.  I eat much healthier, have lost weight, cut down drastically on booze, and have yet to fall into the kind of debilitating depressive episodes that I used to have every two months or so in the past.  I love my job, cherish interacting with my students, and am humbled by how much appreciation has already been shown me by my superiors.  After five years spent in two different positions where my hard work and accomplishments were either ignored or seen as a threat, I almost feel as if it is too good to be true.  The ill treatment I've endured at those jobs has made me a bit of a scaredy cat, always on my toes to be ready when they all turn on me.  This month I finally feel like I've been able to put my guard down and be more open and more like myself around my co-workers and superiors.

The hardest part has been letting myself have other dreams, after the dream of my lifetime ended with failure and bitterness.  I am working on a book-length project and a couple of smaller ones, but I constantly have to fight the voices in my head that say that publishing is dying, or that now that I have been banished from the groves of academe, no one will take my historical scholarship seriously, let alone publish it.  Today I went to the New York Public Library to do some serious research, and the nagging doubts died down amid the ecstasy of my immersion into the documents of the past.  Perhaps even if nothing comes of my research forays I can use them as a sort of meditation.

Here's the post I wrote on my old blog about letting the dream die, by the way.  Enjoy.
****** After much soul-searching and with the academic hiring season over, I've decided that it's time to leave the profession. I know in my heart it's the right thing to do, and many people I trust think so too, but it feels like part of my soul has died. Twelve years of insanely hard work -much of it spent in penury-, a book contract, three scholarly articles, and semester after semester of positive teaching evaluations don't seem to have added up to much of anything besides a lackluster job at a completely dysfunctional institution in a two-bit crudhole town over a thousand miles from the love of my life. It's insane to stick with it, and even if the dream was effectively killed before I made this decision, it still means I am in mourning.

I've been coping in the usual way: both wallowing and transcending. For the wallowing, there's been plenty of depressing British folk music. This song currently has a particular resonance with me.

For the transcending, I have started working on a non-academic book that may very well be my magnum opus. I also think about this clip to cheer me up, too. It's the equivalent of laughing at a funeral, which I am wont to do.

As the man says, "let the dream die!"


Tim Lacy said...

I'm glad you're still feeling good about your decision. I'm paying attention because I may need to adjust my own dreams.

I'm on the market this year, and it's gut-wrenching. As you know, I've had two visiting positions, tons of adjuncting experience, numerous peer-reviewed articles (4), a book contract (with potentially another on the way---edited collection), and have helped start a historical society (and co-planned two conferences), but as of today I have no AHA interviews (the AHA meeting is in two weeks). My two year visiting position is up in May. I have a wife and two kids, and am 40 years old, but my experience in the academy has not yet earned me _even an interview_ in the current academic job cycle. It's a dog-eat-dog world, and I feel like I'm wearing Milkbone underwear.

So keep posting your positive reflections on the changed direction. I need to be reminded continuously over the next few months that there are other alternatives. - TL

Werner Herzog's Bear said...

Tim, I am sorry to hear about your job hunting situation, especially considering that you just helped put together a conference that got a write up on the New York Times' website. I also didn't get an interview last year, despite three peer-reviewed articles in top journals and a book contract, which is fewer qualifications than you have. As with downwardly mobile people during the Great Depression, so many academics of our generation are prone to seeing their situation as one of personal failure, when in reality we have been royally screwed by a corrupt system and labor glut.

As in that time, the only solution is collective action. Unfortunately, most people who get tt jobs see it solely as a matter of their talent, not talent mixed with luck, and those inclined to take action are rightfully scared about the reprecussions if they speak out before tenure. That leaves many of us (like you and me) with wrenching personal decisions. From my experience and those of others who have left academia, I have seen that our talents and sharply-honed intellects are greatly valued outside of the ivory tower. In regards to teaching at private schools, they really want people who know their fields of study, not just pedagogy.

I had to try very hard to tell myself that I had not failed, that I made a conscious decision to leave academia. I can't say I have, as of yet, entirely banished the specter of failure. Doing well outside of academia has at least helped with that. It has kept the bitterness down, but in my dark moments I still have venomous thoughts about wanting the life-boaters, tenured deadwood, and smug golden children who live the dream yet refuse to acknowledge their privilege to rot in hell.