I’m soon to join the ranks of the pandemic unemployed. Mostly I’m alternating between devastated and numb, but maybe I’ll have time for more writing and blogging this way?
My university, like many others, instituted a hiring freeze when things started looking bad. My one-year contract ends in May when the spring semester ends, and there is no new contract for me, and that’s all there really is to say about it.
But as far as how I’m doing, and what I’m planning? I’m definitely going to talk about that, though with a caveat about how I’m writing to process, not writing to ask for advice.
First, the fact that I feel able to blog again is pretty revealing. I spent the last year terrified that I wouldn’t be able to get on another contract, because I finally found some stability in life, and I was afraid of losing it. And now that I have, it’s like a giant weight has lifted, and I’m… almost relieved?… as a result of not having to still live in fear that one wrong word, one misstep, one bad student evaluation, could cost me my career.
This is what being a contingent academic is like, folks. And further, the pressure to not talk about it is overwhelming, especially if you’re on the job market. Most academic job applications open in the fall, so you can have a job the following fall, and hence most scholars on the market spend many months a year being unable to discuss their job prospects openly, while doing inhuman amounts of work for each individual application. That it’s seen as “unprofessional” to talk about this stuff is ethically wrong, and one of the many things that we should change about how the academic job market works. Incidentally, since I missed the job market season due to being super focused on staying at my university, I doubt I’d be able to score any academic work for the fall, not that I’m sure I’d even want to, as discussed below.
Being seen to worry about these issues also might call into question one’s professionalism. Like, gosh, how dare you sully the ivory tower by bringing in your foolish concerns about paying rent and eating and affording your phone and internet bills, of all the mundane embodied trivialities to bother us fancy thinky people with?! Yes, that was hyperbolic, but I still get a sense of disdain when I express these concerns sometimes.
These immense pressures to stay silent for months at a time about one’s prospect of staying employed and fed are hypocritical and inhumane. We have bodies that need to be nurtured. We have emotions that need reassurance, to not feel like we are disposable workers. And I know that it’s even more dire in other industries, and even more dangerous for frontline workers in this pandemic, but I think demanding a bit of dignity in this or any career as well is warranted.
So, part of me is relieved to leave academia for now (again) because I’m sick of being precarious. I’ll miss my colleagues and my students, and I’ll miss doing what I love on a daily basis, but I’ll manage.
What now? Well, first, please note that I’m not asking for unsolicited advice. This is for reasons that are complicated and would probably need a trigger warning about domestic abuse. I’ve written about some of this stuff elsewhere hence won’t be getting into it here. The lingering effect of my past is that I bristle when someone tries to give well-meaning advice, because it makes that trauma resurface (i.e. it feels controlling and is all too reminiscent of gaslighting I’ve experienced). And it feels silly to admit that something so trivial could be triggering for me, but I’d rather put it out there and hopefully not have to deal with as much of it. So please, no unsolicited advice.
The one silver lining is that I’d been preparing to have no paycheck over the summer until the fall semester started back up (yet one more reason that the way we do contingent academic labor is fucked) so I will have a financial cushion while I figure out what’s next. Getting health insurance may well be a nightmare, and I doubt I’ll be eligible for COBRA coverage or to apply for unemployment benefits, because I was technically only on a 9-month contract and it’s not like I was fired… but oh well, I’ll figure that out in a month.
I’ve spent the last almost-decade getting acclimated to the sex education world as my main alt-ac endeavor as described here (and hm, it looks like my earlier blog post series published at Conditionally Accepted in 2014 has vanished once that blog was absorbed into Inside Higher Ed, so maybe I’ll re-run those blog posts here). I learned a lot and made a lot of great connections in sex ed and sexuality studies, which I intend to maintain. But I’m looking at the world right now and I’m not sure what my voice has to offer, so unless I decide to go work for Planned Parenthood or something like that, I’m uncertain how to stay involved with the sex ed world beyond the low-key blogging, informal education, and bit of community organizing I already do (although I left one of my fave local communities I helped organize due to a co-moderator bullying me and gaslighting me, so it’s no wonder I don’t have much tolerance for anything that feels like gaslighting these days).
I’m pretty sure that my feminism and my knowledge of gender/sexuality will inform most things I do, which is part of why I’m not stressing about whether I should explicitly try to stay in the sex ed world right now. But as far as how to pay my bills and live my life, I’m torn between wanting some stability/security/comfort (I’m in my late 30s, after all) and wanting to make the world a better place, which usually doesn’t come with a great paycheck.
See, I’m aware that I have mad amounts of privilege: I’m white, cisgender, middle-class, and able-bodied. I’m pretty sure I’d only have more privilege if I were a straight dude who was 100% neurotypical. And in my mind, if you’re mature enough to acknowledge that you have privilege without falling into those nasty defensive arguments that so often crop up, then you should probably: a) use your privilege to help others, and b) use your privilege to dismantle the system that distributes it disproportionately in the first place. I’m game. I’m just trying to figure out how best to do that while still meeting my own needs for a good life and a good job.
Teaching has been my way to contribute to the good fight, but that’s off the table for now (but, I mean, looking at the rampant racist responses to the coronavirus makes me think that we definitely need more people like me in education, at all levels of the educational system). I think that my blogging/writing, my community organizing, and my dancing/art have also been factors in bettering the world, though I’m uncertain how to tell if those things have the same impact as, say, going into politics or directly volunteering my time for one of the causes important to me.
Ironically, I might be better equipped than ever to face these questions due to the university I’m leaving. I spent the last 2 years doing tons of professional development, including winning a fellowship this academic year to participate in a Social Justice and Diversity Vocational working group. I spent a lot of time reading about vocation and thinking about how to bring vocational issues – less of religion/spirituality and more of purpose, meaning, responsibility, and fulfillment – into the classroom. And now I get to use those tools to help myself navigate a new way forward. Though, I am also mired in some bad feels about how this went down, because part of how I reassured myself about the likelihood of keeping my job was to think, “They won’t pour all this money into my professional development and then just discard me, that’d be bad planning on their part.” And yet here we are.
Part of me is itching to find a new vocation, since I like staying active and busy. But part of me knows that I am ridiculously burned out right now, and I’d be dragging a whole host of mental health issues into any new job I came into too soon. Part of me wants a job as fulfilling and meaningful as teaching…but part of me knows that might not be a good idea anytime soon, because I am the kind of person who brings my whole self and my whole heart into teaching, which means that I spent the last year unable to not care about the looming possibility of being discarded from a job I love. If I turned off the caring about one aspect of the job, I’d turn off the caring about all of it, and then I’d be a crappy teacher since I’d be constantly checked out. I wish I wasn’t necessarily so all-or-nothing but hopefully I can use this self-knowledge to good ends. And I’m curious about the novelty of having a job I am not completely personally invested in, and could just do, then leave at the door when I come home. I’ve never had that. I wonder what it’s like.
The cognitive dissonance of knowing that I’m a good teacher, and knowing that I do amazing scholarship, yet knowing that these two things are not enough to guarantee me a job… it’s been crushing. Rationally I know that the notion of academic meritocracy is bullshit, but it just keeps gnawing at me. And maybe one of my failings as an adult is the inability to separate my self-worth from my career; I live to work since I love my work. I don’t know how to leave my job at the office. I don’t know how to take time off or to take vacations. Hell, I don’t think I’ve had a real vacation in my entire adult life, since I’ve been in higher ed my whole adult life, and that means even when it’s winter or summer break I always have books to read and conference proposals or articles to write. When I travel, it’s either to visit family, to present at a conference, or to take (or teach!) a dance workshop, which is its own kind of work, just not the primary bill-paying kind.
I guess I’ll end this by saying that while I wouldn’t have chosen this for myself, I’m trying to make the best of it. I’m still processing, and I know I’m going to cry when I have to tell my seminar students that I’m leaving and not coming back. But I’m also aiming for a positive reframe once I’ve let my feelings do their thing. After all, I have my PhD and I have my health. Additionally, I don’t have any pressing debt; I paid off my student loans years ago (ironically, with the help of the ex-spouse who resented me for not having a 9-5 even though I worked my ass off to acquire paying freelance work and to cook/entertain on a strict budget the whole time, which ugh don’t get me started on how often women’s emotional and domestic labor is discounted).
While I’m heartbroken now, I’m also thinking: who else gets an opportunity to reinvent themselves in mid life, knowing that they have the tools and skills to do some good in the world? And yes, I’m aware that a lot of it is my educational and class privilege, and I intend to wield it wisely. My relationship with academia is still complicated; I’m still waiting for some publications to appear (and I have a few things to write, kinda prestigious ones too!), so I can feel both proud and conflicted, because what do they “count” for when I’m precariously employed, or not employed at all? What do words on a page that few will ever read actually contribute to the world? I think scholarship is important. I love research. But I continue to grapple with the relative importance of words and theories when people are dying of utterly preventable things (not just COVID-19 but also the impacts of systemic racism, poverty, and so on).
But I haven’t sat down and written this much in one go in… months, maybe years. I feel like now that I’m able to talk about my place in the university – or lack thereof – I’ve had a drain in me plugged. I’ve been nonstop leaking emotions and bandwidth and fear, for all the good it did me. For the last two years, I’d teach college full-time, then teach and perform dance also pretty much full-time, and on top of that, I’d have to do the emotional labor to grapple with the cognitive dissonance of my precarious position even while knowing I was doing good work, and being so full of fear because my position was so precarious. That fear is gone; that drain is plugged. And while I’ve got a whole new set of fears – about getting healthcare, round 2, about finding my feet in a rapidly changing world – I can live with those. They’re not pinning me by the heart in the same way that my fears about leaving academia had been.
I can finally stop wondering if I’m good enough to keep my job. I know now that I’ve always been good enough, but arbitrary conditions win out unfairly and I have to let go of caring so much that it eats me up inside; in other words, it chose to let me go, so I’m choosing to let it go. Now I get to reclaim my bandwidth, battle burnout, and slowly unfurl myself to new possibilities.