Friday, February 26, 2010

The past week has been full of academic highs and lows, fluctuating so rapidly that I hardly have time to find equilibrium enough to just get my work done.

The biggest high was presenting at the conference last weekend. It's so rewarding to return to my college and see the new and interesting things my old professors are doing with the department. They're always innovative and trying to rethink the way the English major will work and how those changes will benefit their students. It's inspiring. And the students! An addition to the schedule this year (from the first conference, two years ago) was a writing workshop of sorts where another presenter and I worked with four students who will be presenting papers at a local undergraduate conference next month. Their papers were interesting and insightful, critically engaged, and well-written. We got to talk about some ways to strengthen their paper in the oral format, and tightening up thesis, but for the most part I felt like I was basking in the glow of really creative and intelligent undergraduate work.

And then, at the Saturday morning brunch where we talked about graduate school, I found myself saying something like this: You'll no doubt hear a lot of gloom and doom reports about the future of academic jobs, and I can't deny that these reports are at least partially on the mark. But I think there's absolutely no substitute for choosing to do what you feel called to do. In this economic climate, jobs in most sectors are threatened. Don't do something you don't love or feel passionate about--but the converse is also true. Don't go to graduate school unless you're truly passionate about what you're studying and about what you could be teaching.

And when I read my paper on Willa Cather and was able to talk articulately (I felt, anyway) about the topic and some of the cultural issues surrounding it, I felt that passion that reminded me that I'm not just slogging through this...I love it, and I feel like I have things I can contribute to the profession.

But that high was countered by some low lows this week. More and more articles about the abyssmal future of the academic job market, plus potential threats to my current job (very remote threats, but the fact that the possibility is even out there is frightening enough), led to my posting of these two tweets yesterday: "Feeling depressed about the future of the academic job market (and thus my future) today." "Like I've piled my whole family into a leaky boat and said, 'Hey! Come with me! It'll be a bumpy ride with potentially no landing, ever!'"

Part of what keeps us going through the impoverished years of graduate school is the mythical promise of a hopeful future. Don't get me wrong--I'm not so delusional that I ever thought a tenured position was a guarantee. I know, of course, and I have always known, that it's more likely that I will have to work in other short-term positions before I get a job I want to stick with...that seems to be the way it works. But now even that scenario seems less attainable. I mean, perhaps it's a little too blindly optimistic of me, but I always sort of thought that if I worked my butt off, took advantage of the resources available to me, and was a generally friendly and kind person, I'd eventually find success. The possibility that all my hard work and sacrifice could lead me exactly nowhere is a little bit frustrating and sad. And since my children, husband and I have piled all our eggs in this crumbling basket, I think I have reason to be a little down.

Of course, that's the lowest low point. Most of the time, I'm somewhere in-between, feeling little daily excitements (when a student's eyes light up as the material really clicks; when I feel like my comprehensive exam list is sort of...maybe...coming together; when I have an "ah-ha" moment as I write or read) interspersed with daily mundanities and frustrations. And I can handle living in the in-between. It's when the lows outnumber the highs that I start to wonder if we should abandon ship/egg-basket (oh, my mixed metaphors). But I guess what I told the students at the conference is still true: this is the only basket I want to be in, and I'm going to work really hard to stay here.


Kurt said...

Honestly, I'm a big fan of the "Well, what else would I be doing" perspective. And I don't mean that in an overly snarky way, either. There's a reason that you chose this out of all of the other career possibilities, most of which are much more common and much more obvious. Like, I usually hate doing homework, but then I tell myself that I'd rather be reading this book during these hours than doing just about any other job I can think of.

Kristen said...

Hear, hear! I'm staying in the ship/basket, too, and I'm okay with that. I even like it in here sometimes! I just try to keep reminding myself of that (and your point that things are hard everywhere else helps keep things in perspective).

n/a said...

As someone who abandoned the ship/basket in the hope of greener pastures (decent health insurance, a salary) and then realized not only were the pastures spray painted green with non-waterproof paint, but that the ship/basket was actually the place best suited for me to begin with, I admire you (and all my Ph.D. bound friends) for staying in the ship/basket no matter what obstacles you've encountered or may encounter.

Every day I feel like I'm farther away from returning to the ship/basket, and also equally screwed having left it. It's a truly horrible feeling to know you might have made a terrible decision that can never be changed. I'd much rather be in school, scared about the lack of job prospects and studying what I love, than be stuck where I am.