This post is a follow-up to the guest post earlier this week, “The Real Life of a Tenure Track Faculty Person.” That post generated an enormous amount of reaction and comment that is still going on. One of the commenters asked to know a bit more about the chronic illness that the writer had referred to in her original post. The writer saw the request and responded with this follow-up. I put it in the comment stream of the earlier post, but I’m also putting it here as a new post in its own right, because I think that it raises extremely important but rarely addressed issues of disability and ablism, as well as heteronormativity (and the ways that these get intertwined through the train wreck that is American health insurance) in the academic community.
KK 4/2015 update: please read this excellent recent blog post on chronic illness and the academic career.
I have a chronic illness that can causes debilitating pain (and by debilitating, I mean a flare up can land me in the ER). In my experience, working in the corporate sector (for-profit and non-profit alike) came with much lower hours and deliverable demands than academia, but I really did not do well with a 9-5 schedule. I would rapidly exceed the standard 2 weeks of sick leave in such a job, because I would be unable to work around the times I was in pain. In my academic job, I work more hours and have more stress (more deadlines, more deliverables, more challenges) but I also only have to be on campus for my classes, meetings, and office hours. This means that many of my hours can be moved around according to my health. I rarely miss anything, because even if I am in a good deal of pain, I can usually suffer through a 3-hour class or meeting and then go home and rest. The biggest advantage, for me, was that I was less stressed simply by having more flexibility to respond to my pain level, and this caused my condition to flare up less frequently (since flare-ups happen more frequently under chronic stress).
In terms of scheduling, I don’t know how most departments work, but in my department we have an excellent team-oriented approach. We are required to be on campus three days a week, but not necessarily all day long. Each of us have a top priority when we negotiate for our schedule each semester. This might be having certain days off, times off, etc. We all must work an occasional class in the times/days no one wants, but you can opt for all early mornings or all late nights, if you want (since these are both undesirable times). Even our senior faculty take their turns. It is a very equitable and friendly situation, which I am aware is not always the case in all departments.
One of the problems I have with how we often approach graduate school and academia is the ableism that runs rampant, and the assumptions about what others’ living costs “ought to be.” This is, in fact, a problem in many working environments, but perhaps I expect more out of academics in terms of humaneness and mindfulness of diversity. In my case, I not only live in an expensive city, but I also have my own chronic illness and a partner who has a (for now) chronic disabling injury. I don’t have the perfect scenario of a partner who brings in an equal income to mine and because I am in a gay relationship, we are penalized by both not receiving a marriage tax benefit (i.e., I am taxed at a single rate) and a very high tax on my partner’s health benefits (yes, we’re still grateful to have them, but it means I pay a bonus rate tax of around 30% on her benefits). This equates to about $6,000 of lost net income per year from my salary. In addition, we must pay for alternative medical treatments that keep each of our health conditions and pain manageable. I suppose that if we were both completely healthy and not gay, and therefore I made $500 more per month and we had a dual income household, that we could do all the wonderful things that everyone is talking about — owning a home (which comes with additional tax benefits we can’t get due to our situation), having a child, and being in a better situation all around.
It is easy to say that my situation is unique and others would be better off. Except it isn’t unique. I’d say about half my colleagues and friends have health needs not covered by insurance. Other colleagues have failing parents who they struggle to care for as they fly back and forth; they can’t just relocate as you can in other sectors and taking time off during the push for tenure can be deadly to your career. And all of my gay colleagues face the same problems because of DOMA, which means they basically pay a higher federal tax to be in a gay relationship. Many colleagues are in departments with few resources, who increasingly use their homes (for events and meetings), computers and phones, and personal funds to keep their department’s services and their own research afloat.
I think perhaps it did not come across clear enough in the original post. I love my life. I love my job. I love my students. I love my colleagues. I chose this over the corporate life I used to lead. Saying there are some serious work-life balance and salary:cost-of-living issues (at least in large metro areas), as well as rampant ableism, ageism, and in some disciplines sexism (which reduce your capacity to be picky about where you end up), is pointing out trade-offs and concerns about the humaneness of academia. As I said, I won the job lottery. I’m grateful. But I was trained as a social scientist to be critical of institutions and their cultures, and we do have problems in academia — problems that aren’t fixed just by procuring the TT job.