The Space Between

Almost a year ago, I published a piece on Facebook which then became an op-ed in The Meliorist. In it, I announced my intentions not to pursue a tenure-track position. Instead, I had decided to seek work in Quebec’s CEGEP system (for those unfamiliar with the acronym, a CEGEP is a college through which students in Quebec must pass before they enter university). When I wrote that piece, I still had a year left on my contract as a postdoctoral fellow at McGill, which I wanted to complete unless my dream job came along. No such job materialized, and so I completed my contract, which expired June 1, 2013. It therefore strikes me that now is the time to write a follow-up.

People keep asking if I have a job yet. The answer, unfortunately, is no. Part of this is that the CEGEP hiring cycle is much more in tune with the “real world” and you don’t need to apply 9 months in advance. But part of it, if I’m being honest, is just that I haven’t yet been successful. I failed to secure any of the summer school positions which were advertised. I lost some to internal candidates, some to my own errors when making applications, and was undoubtedly simply passed over for the rest. Currently, I have a few applications out for positions which begin this fall, but I have no idea if they will come to anything. I am giving myself until fall term 2014 to land something, and after that, I will have to re-evaluate my situation.

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[What do you think, should I try this?]

So how do I feel about all of this? Well, first of all, I feel like the well-worn postmodern argument that there’s agency in liminality is suspect. Being unemployed – no longer a course lecturer at the university, and not yet a CEGEP instructor – isn’t empowering, it’s just awkward. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining about my situation. I chose it and I’m happy with my decision. But I can’t really see how it’s enabling either. That’s because much of my agency is usually rooted in my ability to manipulate systems, in this case, educational institutions. I tweak these systems, strategically attempting to improve the environment and efficiency of the word around me. I also play the long game and plan into the future with an obsessive-compulsive precision. Right now, though, I can’t do any of this. I’m not part of any discernible system; I’m standing on the outside looking in. So I’m trying to be proactive, but there’s only so much I can do until I get my foot in the door somewhere.

Despite this, I am surprisingly comfortable with my decision to opt-out of the professorial job market. While my (hopefully temporary) unemployment does occasionally cause bouts of anxiety (for example, when I think too long or too hard about how I’m going to continue to feed myself), I’ve never felt like I’ve made the wrong choice. Universities are special places where intellectually curious undergraduates are encouraged to learn anything and everything that they are interested in. I wanted a career where I would be able to continue to soak up information in this manner, and redeploy my knowledge in such a way as to improve the world around me. But the Ph.D. experience altered my approach to learning. To get a job, I needed to be the best in my field. And specialization meant a lack of time for other forms of knowledge because I needed every waking moment to read, compete, and publish about early modern Britain. Knowledge therefore became goal-oriented, the ultimate achievement being publication in a top-tier journal where other specialists would encounter my work but where the potential audience would be small.

I’m not trying to be harsh, and I know that to some of my colleagues, this model is very rewarding. Those interested in pure research and in the painstaking excavation of subtle details will excel in this world. It’s just not for me. I long to learn other things too – things completely unrelated to seventeenth-century Britain – and I have no desire to quarrel with my colleagues over details that I’m not convinced are entirely important.  Moreover, the crisis in the universities is real, and it has further complicated my relationship with the academy. A scarcity of funding has renewed debates about the purpose of higher education, both within the universities and within society at large. Administrators and politicians look to metrics that supposedly reveal the “practical value” of a university degree (which, somehow, never seem to include any of the important analytic and communicative skills that humanists provide to our students), while faculty members rightly defend the unimpeded pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. As this battle rages on,unfortunately, the students themselves can get lost.

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[This never seems to get old]

I am, first and foremost, an educator. Getting back into the classroom last January made this even more apparent than ever before. I need to teach, and everything else I do – the research, talks, and publications – are skills that I practice in order to make my teaching better. This places me at odds with the general atmosphere in Canadian universities at the moment, where many faculty members are learning to say that “it’s not in our interest to spend time doing x for students.”  This is because very real pressures are backing them into a corner, but I can’t join them in exclaiming that I no longer have time for my students. This creates a problem for me since professors who refuse to siphon off energy usually used for teaching and to pour it into research or bureaucratic duties often work themselves to death. In today’s competitive market, you need to work all the time. And even then, you need to cut some corners. Cutting research time isn’t an option; not if you want either to get a job or to maintain one. It also seems that no matter how hard you try to cut committee meetings or to dig yourself out from under that pile of paperwork, it never works. This leaves teaching – but what do you do if you refuse to cut into teaching time? I’ve pushed myself over the edge before, and I have no desire to give myself a second nervous breakdown before I hit 40. Thus, I’m ready to look for something new.

As several of my peers have secured tenure-track jobs, or moved to take up temporary contracts at new institutions, I’m happy for them, but I’m never jealous. My values just aren’t in line with the current climate in the universities, and I’m tired of trying to put the square peg in the round hole. I also remain happy with my life in Montreal, and even happier with the prospect of being able to live in the city of my choosing. I have developed incredibly meaningful friendships here, especially with the weird and wonderful group of women I’ve met while kickboxing. And yes, I have become romantically involved too, which has made me even more attached to this city. I want to emphasize that my relationship in no way influenced my recent career decisions, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find it liberating to have the freedom to explore long-term relationships again (let’s be honest, the early-career instability of an academic is not particularly welcoming to such things). I’ll never cease to be an intellectual, and I have vowed to publish my book, sick of writing it though I may be. I believe, however, that I can do this – and conduct new research – from outside the university almost as effectively as I could have by remaining within it.

Some of my colleagues have expressed dismay at my departure (though I’m sure others are not-so-secretly glad to get rid of me). These people have stated their concern about the flight of another woman from academia, as well as the loss of a dedicated teacher. And this brings me to my final point. If you’re one of those people who are sad to see me go, here’s my challenge to you: fight harder and fight smarter for universities which strike a better balance, and people like me will stay and fight at your side. I’m not unique, and there are plenty more driven, young, female intellectuals who are interested in both research and teaching, and who are waiting in the wings. They want nothing more than to take up a place at your side, to continue their research, and to guide the next generation of minds towards maturity and an active engagement with their community. My journey is taking me elsewhere, and I’m grateful for all that my education has given me, but it’s time for me to go. That’s all for now. I’ll report back again if and when I find work.

If you haven’t seen my original op-ed, and you’re curious, it’s available here: http://themeliorist.ca/2012/09/im-out-some-thoughts-about-leaving-the-academy/

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2 thoughts on “The Space Between

  1. A very thoughtful and honest look at the current state of academia. I too have been in a bit of a square peg-round hole situation, and it took a number of years for me to fully accept this. I applaud your courage, and wish you every success in your job search!

  2. Thanks for the kind words. I know many people in Academia who feel this way from time to time, but since we’re not supposed to talk about it, it can be hard to get a sense for exactly how common the feeling is. 😉

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