This past week the Chronicle of Higher Education posted a column by Alexandra Lord, titled “Location, Location, Location.” Lord is the person behind the site on nonacademic careers, Beyond Academe, and she also runs an online Web journal, the Ultimate History Project. She also, apparently, works full time in a nonacademic position as a preservationist.
This article, in a nutshell, involves her regret at taking a tenure track position in a part of the country that she did not like. She uses her own story to open a wider meditation on how much weight academics in general should give to location in their job searches. Her advice: don’t consider taking a job in a place that won’t be congenial to you, for any number of reasons, including the location of your extended family, or your sexual orientation or religion. She took issue in a mild sort of way with a previous column by David Perlmutter (one of my favorite Chronicle columnists, btw), that was called “Embrace Your Inner North Dakotan.” In that column Perlmutter told job seekers in essence that they must beware the kind of elitism and disdain with which academics tend to view the non-coastal, non-urban, non-hip parts of the country and be open to the possibility they might be happy in small, rural places.
I liked Perlmutter’s column. I also like Lord’s column. As far as I’m concerned, they are both exactly right.
But apparently I am in the minority in believing so. The comment stream following Lord’s column is filled with a mystifying degree of dismissiveness and even hostility. Perlmutter himself contributed a weirdly hysterical reaction involving Jews and Muslims. The issue seemed to revolve around Lord’s own credibility as a person who left academia, and outrage that she would in turn imply that leaving academia was a good choice if academic jobs were not available in good locations. “How DARE anyone,” comments seem to imply, “put anything before the demands of the scholarly career?!” As the always reliable “graddirector” says:
“It should be noted that no one is forced to go to graduate school. By doing so, you are already agreeing to enter the world as it exists that honestly is not going to change. These realities are the same that have been there for over 100 years and come from being highly trained for geographically dispersed opportunities. This is really no different than the coal miner or auto assembler whose mine or local plant closes. They have the choice of moving to another part of the country where their skills are in demand but with the cost of leaving their family and friends, or staying in their current community and entering a cycle of poverty. ”
The meta-message is clear: The true academic is the one who sacrifices.
As Bill Pannapacker remarked on my Facebook page, about the comment stream to the piece: “Summary of comments: If you want to be an academic, you must accept misery. It’s your duty not to be happy.”
Rarely do we see the cult-like nature of academia revealed so starkly. The cult demands sacrifice and the cult will have it. And the cult will punish harshly anyone who questions the value of the sacrifice, and dares to ask, “is it worth it?”
In terms of numbers I think the majority of commenters actually support Lord’s position. But they seem to be the ones not permanently employed in academia. The ones who appear to be writing from the position of tenure seem to say: “suck it up.”
I actually believe that people can be happy in a variety of places. I was a finalist for a position at Stanford, and ended up getting a job in Oregon. I had no desire whatsoever to live in Oregon, and spent a good number of years pining for the Palo Alto that might have been. And then after a while, I realized I loved Oregon. Then I, perversely, moved away to take a fancier job in the Midwest. I could not live there. I tried with all my might. But I could not. It was embarrassing to admit defeat, but eventually, I did and left. And back in Oregon, I know I’m in the right place.
My own story splits the difference. My story suggests that a person’s got to be open minded about many unexpected locations to which their job search might take them. And at the same time, when the chips fall, and the parent takes ill or the partner needs a job or the heart wants what the heart wants…. then you’ve got to listen and make a choice, and that choice may be to leave the location, or, as in my case, to leave the profession in order to leave the location.
I don’t think this is blasphemy! But I’ve come to understand that to many it is. Be careful about telling your advisor, and don’t expect them to throw you a going away party.