Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Hanging Up My Academic Spikes

I wrote awhile back about the similarities between careers in academia and professional baseball, and I keep finding more and more parallels.  This was especially on my mind last weekend, when two old grad school friends who teach at a small college in eastern Pennsylvania came for a visit.  It was mostly for fun, but also for business.

One of my friends didn't walk for his doctoral graduation, and now that he is contractually obligated to attend his current institution's ceremonies, needed the requisite robe, hood, and tam.  He's a tall man like me, and I hate to see someone shell out the kind of dough I had to on such frivolities, so I was glad to give him my doctoral duds on permanent loan.  Like most assistant professors, he's not paid enough to drop some serious money on a medieval costume.

I must say, I felt an odd twinge inside me as I handed over the robe and my friend put it in his car.  As I walked back to my apartment after saying good-bye to my chums, it hit me.  I had, to borrow a phrase from baseball, hung up my spikes.  It's the term we use when a player has definitively retired, with no hope or desire to get back into the game, or with the knowledge that age and decline have made it impossible to keep going.  After almost two years after physically leaving the university, I had symbolically and psychically cut my ties with the academic profession.

It's telling that the twinge I felt on Saturday has not lasted.  I used to be much more bitter, angry, and sad when contemplating my departure from academia, considering that I gave up financial solvency and my youth to pursue the impossible scholarly dream.  I thought of how I postponed necessary dental work (which could have very well lead to life-threatening abscesses), lived in three states in the space of five years, and lived 1500 miles away from the love of my life for the bulk of three years.

Nowadays, I just feel fortunate.  I work at a job I love with fantastic students who actually care about learning.  My employer appreciates my hard work, and gave me more positive reinforcement in my first two months on the job than I received in my five years as a professor.  Best of all, I am living where I want to live, not in some benighted backwoods East Texas burg.  Instead of driving five minutes through strip mall hell to my job, I take a train into the Big Apple, and luxuriate in getting to experience the nation's great cultural nerve center on a daily basis.  I am no longer a scholar, but I am much happier than I was on the tenure-track, so much so that I no longer think I am missing out on anything.

It pains me that so many of my friends in the profession are struggling.  Those with tenure or near it at podunk schools with low pay and high workloads are the lucky ones, since they at least have steady gigs.  Today I found out that two of my friends who are doing visiting jobs this year are scrambling to find jobs for next August, despite their status as (literally) award-winning teachers and authors of fascinating and relevant scholarship.  Many folks out there want to pretend that academia is a "meritocracy," but it's hard to conceptualize any meritocracy where people who are fantastic at their jobs must labor in penury without security or recognition.  It's a completely broken system, but it survives because of the allure of the scholarly dream.  Once I escaped the profession's cult-like clutches,  however, its utter ridiculousness and exploitative nature became even clearer to me.

I am much happier and fulfilled not trying to live that dream anymore, and living a life I never dreamed of, but am very satisfied with.  I know that job opportunities for former academics are not easy to come by, but I implore my brethren in the academic world to consider getting out and hanging up their robes while they still can.  As the old saying goes about other forms of dangerous, self-destructive behavior, the life you save may be your own.

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