My Fraught Relationship with Academia: Down But Not Out – WOC Guest Post

I am delighted to offer another guest post in my series of contributed posts by black women and other women of color.

If you’d like to submit a post or an idea for a post for consideration, email me at gettenure@gmail.com. I pay $150 for accepted posts. The posts can be anonymous or not, as you prefer and can be about your experiences of racism/microaggressions in grad school or the career, your post-academic musings, hard-won advice for other students/faculty of color coming up, intersectional practices in teaching or research that you have found valuable, and also of course, makeup and clothes, or even tech gear you’ve found that helps in your work. More information can be found here.

Today’s post is by Dr. Rita M. Palacios. Dr. Palacios is a professor of Liberal Studies at Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. She was born in Guatemala and came to Canada with her family as a refugee. Her research examines contemporary Maya artistic expression (literature, performance, and conceptual art) and she recently co-authored a book on the subject. In her spare time, she enjoys cooking, walking the dog, and boxing. @ProfRPalacios

(This post also happens to fit directly into another short series we are running: “Good” NTT Vs. “Bad” TT: A Conversation. Please check out those posts as well if you are interested.)

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My tale begins in 2008, as the economic crisis hit and I went out in the job market as a newly minted PhD. My advisor thought I should turn down some of the job interviews I had booked and wait for top schools to start calling me, but I couldn’t afford to not have any interviews because this was it for me (and, as the child of immigrant parents, for my family). I managed to land a TT in California and I began a job in the fall of 2009. Everyone, including me, thought that having a Canadian citizenship meant that a move to the US would be straight forward but what ended up happening was that my wife couldn’t join me and I spent three years back and forth, feeling awful and hoping for a change. That change never came, so I took a 1-year leave and then another in the hope that something would give.

Those two years were excruciating—I couldn’t concentrate, I couldn’t write, and I couldn’t quit the tenure-track job that everyone kept saying I was so immensely lucky to have. I was miserable. At a conference I began to say goodbye to the colleagues who had cheered me on. And they kept on cheering me on. Two amazing WOC pulled me aside to tell me I shouldn’t quit, that my work was needed. Another colleague proposed we write a book, which is no short-term commitment. And still, no jobs came up, and I had to decide on whether to return to California or quit. So I went to see a career advisor to figure out ways to move forward, but what I thought would be a series of sessions to devise a plan to quit my precious TT job became full-on counselling sessions.

In the first session I began crying right off the bat and kept on for 45 minutes—I never cry. My wonderful career advisor told me I was mourning an important part of my life. That part of my life was the career that I felt didn’t even get a chance to get off the ground. And yet, somehow, things lined up and I ended up working in Montreal on a 2-year contract. It still meant being apart from my wife, but it was doable. The job was far from perfect, but it kept me plugged in. Fast forward to the end of my Montreal stint, and I came close to landing that oh-so-rare TT gig, which is a story for another day, full of ramen, mournful tears, a dash of betrayal, and a fair bit of head-scratching. As luck would have it, I did land a non-TT job, almost immediately after I finished drying this second set of tears.

Now, I work at a community college in the city where my family migrated 26 years ago. And though I have a heavy teaching load (officially 5-5), I have a supportive chair and I don’t have to deal with internal politics (i.e., service). I don’t teach so-called content courses, and though I miss that, I’m okay with it. There is no financial support for research at the college so I have to be disciplined and fairly creative with how I allocate my time and resources.

The hardest part has been learning to accept the cards I laid out for myself alongside the micro-aggressions that people hurl my way. This has meant learning to appreciate myself and my work, which has not been easy. For me, self-doubt has been so paralyzing that, at times, writing a few lines is almost physically painful.

However, I am very fortunate to have colleagues who refused to say goodbye and who devised ways of keeping me engaged. They made me understand that my work is good and, more importantly, that it is worth continuing. If it weren’t for them, the self-doubt and micro-aggressions would’ve done me in.

Now I realize that being on the margins of academia is kind of great. Since I’m not chasing a promotion, I read, write, and attend conferences because I want to. I do the work that I like, how I like. It has been surprisingly liberating. But all of this has been possible because my wife has a full-time job, is very supportive, and we have no children. I am very aware of how privileged I am to be able to go to conferences on my own dime. Or to have time after an 8-hour teaching stint to work on an article or to review a manuscript.

Being on the margins by choice (and due to circumstance), I’ve faced some misunderstanding. I have been berated for leaving my TT job. I have been told that my research is “a nice hobby” and I have been asked flat-out “why bother doing it?” Folx who do applied research have suggested that I write case studies for them since I must be “a good writer or something.” I could go on and on.

The system to which I don’t belong isn’t built to entertain people like me once in a while either. I’ve had to painfully explain that I cannot review the promotion file of a wonderful scholar because I have no standing. I’ve had to tell a graduate student that though I would love to be on their dissertation committee, they should check with their supervisor, department chair, and possibly the dean because, once again, my scholarly identity may not compute (it did and it was a wonderful defense!). I know I’ll toughen up and the painful reminders of what I thought I would be but am not will eventually not mean that much.

In the past two years I have met some wonderful people who are working on their PhDs and are seriously considering not continuing on to the TT fast lane but want to keep a foot in the field. It can be done, I’ve told them, but it’s not easy and it goes against everything we have been taught.

I have always been well aware that the decision to leave my TT job was mine and mine alone. When I complain about not being “in” academia (specifically in terms of not having access to funding or to an immediate community of scholars), some are quick to remind me that it was my decision, as if I don’t know. I am well aware of what I gave up and I don’t regret it, but it hasn’t been easy.

I have no idea where things will take me. But for the first time in a long time, when someone derisively asked me, “So, are you happy in that job of yours?” I was quick to say “Yes. Yes, I really am,” and meant every word.


Comments

My Fraught Relationship with Academia: Down But Not Out – WOC Guest Post — 3 Comments

  1. It’s amazing how much hostility the author receives when she notes her lack of support for research and lack of scholarly community in a non-TT job. Based on the number of people I know who have left TT jobs, it seems that the lack of support for those in TT jobs is also significant (though definitely significantly more than for those in contingent roles). I feel that this hostility is a way of telling her to shut up and blaming her rather than identifying and critiquing the structural faults with the academy. I think that it’s incredibly brave for an immigrant woman to leave the so-called security of a TT role to be closer to one’s partner. As a child of immigrants, I am highly risk averse in my career decisions and to leave a TT job in the midst of such job scarcity in academia is to be celebrated as brave rather than a tool to punish and silence. Well done!

    • Thank you for your kind words, Frida. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned a great deal along the way. And though the hostility has been real, there also have been amazing people and they have made all the difference. Than you, again, for your thoughtful comment!

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