by Jessica Langer
Here’s something most people who know me and who know my work at TPII wouldn’t guess:
This year, I went on the academic job market.
No, I didn’t do a full search. I didn’t even do a halfhearted search. I applied for one single solitary job, because the combination of sub-sub-subfield (exactly mine) and location (in Canada) seemed to match perfectly. And, I suppose, because I wanted to take one more swing at the fences to see what would happen. At this point, I’m five and a half years out from my PhD, but I’ve been publishing as if I’m in a TT position mostly because I enjoy it… and I also have a very well-received monograph from a very well-regarded publisher in my subfield. (Postcolonialism and Science Fiction, if you’re interested and don’t feel like Googling.)
Reader: I got an MLA interview. I actually went to MLA for the interview instead of doing it by Skype, in part because I love to travel and in part because I wanted to see my friends, and in large part because I know that meeting people in person gives one a leg up.
And then I was invited for a campus interview. And I went. And it went extraordinarily well.
And then they offered the job to someone else.
(Please don’t get me wrong, especially if you know which job I’m talking about, which isn’t hard to figure out; I was treated impeccably through the entire process, and nearly every person I encountered during the search was lovely, friendly, intelligent and welcoming. This is not a post in which I denigrate the university that invited me to interview; quite the opposite. They are wonderful, and I wish them well. This is a post about academia as a whole, and the unhealthy dynamics that happen in academia.)
This has been an interesting experience, because in my post-ac life, I am basically rocking it. I have a really successful little business that affords me and my family a lovely house in a beautiful neighbourhood in my favourite city, and plenty of time to spend together. I have a husband I love, two little kids, and a great community. I have work that I love doing and am excited to do every day, both in my business and here at TPII. I have essentially everything I want.
And yet? Going through the process of post-interview anxiety about this job brought me right back to feeling not good enough. To feeling stupid, worthless, pointless, and like an abject failure. Because somehow, none of that good stuff mattered to my psyche while I stared down the barrel of yet another academic job interview that turned into no offer. What’s wrong with me? I thought. Why I am I good enough for everyone else in my life, but not good enough for academia? Does this mean I’m just not smart enough, just not good enough, to be a real scholar, a real intellectual, a real person who’s doing good, important work?
Spoiler alert: it means none of those things. It means that academia is capricious. But as I wrote to Karen and Kellee – with whom I did some interview prep for my MLA interview that turned into a campus invite; they really do work wonders! – more than anything, it felt like I had escaped a dysfunctional relationship, turned around and given the person one more chance, and gotten burned again.
Having thought about it a little more, I’ve identified some of the ways in which academia really is like a dysfunctional, perhaps even abusive, interpersonal relationship:
- Academia has a Madonna/whore complex.
I am going to expand on this in a future post, I think. But the short version: academia greatly privileges both pedigree and lack of experience. That is: research universities in particular, but most universities and colleges in general, tend to choose candidates who are ABD or new PhDs and who have a lot of “potential” rather than a lot of experience. Candidates who are virginal, if you will.
This is why internal candidates and current adjuncts so often lose out on tenure-track positions to new, exciting outside candidates. This is why adjuncting in a department is usually a disadvantage, rather than an advantage, in getting a tenure-track job there. And this is why, the more teaching experience you get as an adjunct and the more varied that experience is – especially if you teach at the community college level, which far too many universities denigrate for reasons that have little to do with quality concerns and much to do with classism and implicit racism – the less likely you are to get a full-time job as a professor.
Once you’re an adjunct, it’s not just that you’ve failed to get a TT job immediately. You’ve now been around the block one too many times. You’ve had too many students. You’re sullied, in a way that echoes the Madonna/whore dichotomy to an extent that’s actually pretty disturbing.
- Academia isolates you from family and friends.
One of the hallmarks of a dysfunctional romantic relationship is a partner who seeks to isolate you from your support network: your family, friends and wider community. Sometimes they do this by claiming that they don’t like those people, or that those people don’t like them, for a good reason; sometimes they decide that it’s “us against the world”. Whatever the reason or motivation, the effect is to create a scenario in which you are cut off from the people who have your best interests in mind, and are more easily controlled.
The cultural bias in academia towards career at all costs and against life outside of work, which very often becomes material discrimination against people (generally, but not always, women) who choose to prioritize or even participate in family and social life, has this effect. In academia you are, on pain of failure, coerced into a culture in which the influences and requirements of outside life are not welcome. And, of course, this makes it much easier for academia’s constant drumbeat of anxiety and what Aimee Morrison calls “systematic infantilization” to inculcate itself deep into your own sense of yourself and your inherent worth.
- Academia forces you into financial dependence upon its own structure.
This was one of the important points of contention in the recent strikes at the University of Toronto (my undergraduate alma mater) and York University (where, full disclosure, I am a member of CUPE3903 Unit 2 when I am teaching there, though I am not currently a union member). Very often, contracts for graduate assistantships pay very little – at U of T, the minimum is $15,000 per year, literal poverty wages in the city, and this amount is what is normally given to humanities grad students.
However, that’s not the most insidious part: these U of T contracts bar students from taking any outside employment whatsoever, and from making any money outside the bounds of the contract. In short: graduate students at U of T, and at hundreds or thousands of other universities, are literally forced into poverty if they choose to be in their programs full-time, because they are made entirely dependent upon the university for their financial well-being. And in this way, the university is able to control them more easily.
We have a word for that when it happens in interpersonal relationships, and it’s not “graduate assistantship”.
So, in short: this experience has given me a lot of clarity about why I wanted to be an academic so badly, and why I have never been more glad to be happily post-ac.