Thursday, May 15, 2014

Remember: An Academic Job Is Just A Job

Three years ago this week I got offered my current job teaching at an independent high school in New York City.  From the moment I stepped foot in the place, I knew it would be a great fit and a great place to work.  (Thankfully my first impression has proven to be correct.)  Taking that job meant leaving my academic job on the tenure track, a job I had fought long and hard to get, enduring two years in VAP purgatory and three nerve-fraying shots at the job market.

Back then I saw an academic job as a kind of Holy Grail, an almost divine object that would lift me up into the comforting bosom of academia's inner circle.  I happily envisioned the years ahead, when I would be able to craft a second project that would make me a name in my field, where I would be a known fixture on campus, where I would eventually possess the knighthood of tenure and other delights.  I made a cardinal mistake that so many others have fallen prey to: I failed to remember that an academic job is just that, a job.

In another line of work one would more quickly question going through seven years of intense schooling followed by two years in the contingent trenches only to secure a low-paid, high-workload position in a backwater hostile to academics and working in a dysfunctional department and commonly subject to the cruel whims of capricious colleagues and administrators.  I was supposed to feel grateful at this turn of events because "at least you have a job."  On top of everything, I was living a thousand miles from my spouse and going crazy.  My academic dream had turned into a nightmare.

At some point, I don't know when, I had the epiphany that an academic job is just a job like any other job.  If your job is ruining your life, it's time to find another one.  A job is not worth sacrificing everything to.  Your job does not define you, or give you worth, or give you integrity.  It mostly gives you a paycheck, and everything else is just gravy.

There is an unhealthy and ultimately destructive tendency among academics to conflate one's job and one's life.  (I'm hardly the first to say it.)  The mantra goes like this: "I am doing what I love, so it's not really work.  If I work 80 hours a week that's okay, since it's doing what I love and what defines me as a human being."  This attitude is why you will often hear academics compete in the martyrdom sweepstakes in their conversations, each person bragging about how many hours they spent researching, how little sleep they had, how they don't have time for TV or pleasure reading, etc.  This attitude is why spouses are expected, no questions asked, to relocate to isolated university towns where they will have no chance of finding employment in their fields.  This attitude is why people who get paid a pittance compared to most other professionals will still work twelve hours a day without any pay increases for their labor.  If you ever say no to anything, if you ever question the need to be working all day all the time, you'll be branded weak, unworthy, and somehow lacking in the fibre to do your job right.

It's all bullshit.  A job is a job is a job is a job.  It is big part of our lives, it should never be our life, unless you're a monk.  Life is bigger than any job.  I certainly love my job and put a lot of work and a huge chunk of my soul into it, but if my job turned sour (which I doubt it ever will), I'd leave for a better one, not tenaciously cling to it and call it "my precious!" a la Gollum.  I had been brainwashed for so long, and been beholden so long to the norms of the profession, that it took me years to realize the error of my ways.  I am glad I finally did, and I hope others do too.

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