I’ve been post-academic now for just about exactly three years. Three years since I left my tenured position at University of Illinois to move back to Eugene, Oregon with no job and no idea what I’d do next.
This summer I finally started to journey out to places in Eugene where I know I’m likely to run into former UO faculty colleagues, instead of skulking around hoping to avoid them.
So far they seem pretty happy to see me, even when they hear that I’ve officially left the fold and am even, gasp!, running a business. (They remind me why I liked being at the UO in the first place.)
But, notably, there is one thing they keep saying. They keep saying: “Wow, Karen. You look so much….. happier.”
One remarked to my partner Kellee (also formerly of the UO), “It’s been fun getting to know Karen. I never talked to her when she was here before because she seemed so angry.”
I was reminded of this after reading Rebecca Schuman’s latest post, Please Stop Saying “Not Everyone is Suited for Academia”. She relates her experience after leaving academia (in a blaze of gory with the publication of her Slate piece Thesis Hatement) [btw, yes that is a typo but Rebecca tweeted to say she loves it and it's so apropos to what happened that I decided to leave it in]:
“Most days I am happier than I have been in many years about this. My long-term partner…has remarked that since my postdoc ended and I moved back to St. Louis, that I’ve aged in reverse. It’s true—there are some ‘Ohio wrinkles’ I don’t see anymore, accompanied by a life in my eyes and a general dearth of the abject terror that lurked below each day in Columbus, like so many pollution-filled mussels on the bed of the Olentangy River.”
Schuman also talks about the transformation in her writing:
“If I was a disciplined and productive academic writer, cranking out journal articles and then finally my monograph—finished and submitted to the press this past May—then now I am a motherfucking locomotive. I have so much to write that I simply can’t get it all down.”
It was just the same for me, after I finally (and this took a year) figured out what it was I needed to say, and created the Professor Is In blog, and started writing. It was like unleashing a torrent. I could not stop.
The funny thing is, I’m not actually angry. Or, not angry the way I used to be. I am, like my former colleagues say, actually pretty happy.
Why was I so miserable back then? Well, aside from the awful marriage, there was the fact that I was 100% in thrall to the academic cult. I was living entirely within a system based without exception on the principle of external validation. You are good only if others in authority authorize that you are good. Your comps, your diss, your job docs, your job talk, your book, your article, your grant proposal, your tenure case…. all live or die based on the judgment and approval of people “above” you. And the properly socialized academic makes that approval the core of their identity.
No wonder the young of the profession are so servile. And so angry.
Schuman’s piece brought to mind a particularly memorable response by one of my favorite writers, Cheryl Strayed, on her Dear Sugar advice column. She was answering a young woman, a frustrated writer, who wrote in asking for help overcoming her depression, her defeatism, her inability to get words on paper. The young woman wasn’t an academic, but most of us can probably identify:
“I want to jump out the window for what I’ve boiled down to is one reason: I can’t write a book. But it’s not that I want to die so much as have an entirely different life. I start to think that I should choose another profession—as Lorrie Moore suggests, “movie star/astronaut, a movie star missionary, a movie star/kindergarten teacher.” I want to throw off everything I’ve accumulated and begin as someone new, someone better.”
Strayed tells her many things, many wise and wonderful things in a long and deep response. But there was one thing that was the wisest of all. In response to the young would-be writer’s lament that “I write like a girl. I write about my lady life experiences, and that usually comes out as unfiltered emotion, unrequited love, and eventual discussion of my vagina as metaphor”, Strayed writes:
“Nobody is going to give you permission to write about your vagina, hon. Nobody is going to give you a thing. You have to give it yourself. You have to tell us what you have to say.”
Strayed ends her advice: “So write…Not like a girl. Not like a boy. Write like a motherfucker.”
Write like a motherfucker. Or, in other words, declare independence from dependence on external validation.
Stay in academia if you want. Or leave it. As you know, I have no axe to grind on that front. But say no to the less-than status, the linking of your identity to others’ judgment, the servile dependence on others’ stamp of approval.
Yes, it’s true, if you stay in academia you need to suffer all those reviews and evaluations to get the diss passed, get the grant, get the job. That’s for your work.
But for your life, in academia or out, remember that your self and your voice and your truth come from within.
I got an email from a reader yesterday that described her journey post-Ph.D. (Ivy League humanities):
“I was in a terrible state after the defense and deposit. People often talk about writing a dissertation in terms of birth metaphors–the genesis of an idea, the gestation process, the diss as baby, etc. Well, I truly felt as though I had given birth to a stillborn. I knew that I would never turn the diss into a book because I knew that I had no interest in an academic career, no desire to go on the job market, no interest in moving to a remote location, kissing more professor ass, continuing my serf-like status, etc etc. But knowing this with certainty didn’t help or make me feel good in any way, because a) I didn’t know what I would do instead and b) I felt like a total failure and loser.”
This is what the indoctrination process of the Ph.D. does to us all—it makes every last one of us addicts for external validation, convinced that success on the authorized tenure track trajectory is the sole and only legitimate marker of success, and indeed happiness.
But it’s the opposite. Accepting the rule of external validation and the incredibly rigid markers of academic success makes only for chronic anxiety, insecurity, dependency, and depression.
My reader goes on,
“As I moved into the summer and fall of my post-grad school life (unemployed and miserable), I read your blog fervently and felt it was the only form of true advice I had as I tried to figure out what to do next. But it wasn’t the advice on how to secure the TT job or succeed as an academic that I really gravitated to–it was the information on how to de-program myself and recover my own sense of value as a person and professional.”
And she did it. She declared independence, got clear on her goals, and found herself an amazing full-time position teaching outside the academy.
This is what I say: Write not like an academic. Not like a post-academic. Write like a motherfucker. And by write I mean live.