I had drafted a different post for yesterday in my mind, with titles like “C is for Callous” and “C is for Cruel.” As I’ve seen my friends advance from the job market to assistant professorships to now tenure, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the origins of my decision to quit. It came rather fast.
I’m now a middle-school librarian, and in my quest to understand my students’ tastes, I’m reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent, about a world where people are divided into factions based on a central personality trait: Abnegation, Erudite, Candor, Dauntless, and Amity. (I liked it but haven’t rushed on to reading the second book, Insurgent.) Reading it has inspired me to be briefly essentialist about my personality. The process of trying to become an academic made me feel invisible, or worse, erased. I’m not Abnegation.
In 2008, my husband and I began a miserable trek through the job market. I hated that process with a passion. Jessica Langer did a wonderful job explaining what academia can do to a person in the article I link to here.
Without rehashing her entire narrative and argument, this is the portion that stuck out to me:
One of the most significant things I’ve noticed in my post-academic work with clients transitioning out of academia is the extent to which they have gotten into the habit of extraordinarily harsh and total self-criticism, to the extent that they are sometimes unable to recognize their own accomplishments as accomplishments.
Absolutely. Where does the criticism come from? I could write so much about that.
I could write a book about how no matter how old you are when you enter graduate school, there will be professors who treat you like you’re fifteen years old and foolish. I can tell you that no matter what you accomplished before you got there, none of that matters anymore. There will be very powerful professors who treat you like you’re nothing, and especially if you’re a woman, you will have to take it. For some, the hazing will only make you more determined to succeed in the field. For others, like me, it’ll make you wonder why on earth you’d want to join that party.
No matter what show I put on my last year in the field, I knew by then that I was bored, frustrated, and uninterested in what I was doing. At the same time, I thought maybe really those feelings were a mask. Maybe I just sucked at teaching, writing, researching, and being an intellectual and I couldn’t admit it. Maybe all my feelings were just an excuse, a projection to cover the reality that I was just a loser.
Never mind what else I had accomplished in my life. And obviously, experiences and my background mattered not at all.
Thus when I made the final cut this year and applied for the position I have now, I couldn’t believe the process. Getting my job wasn’t easy. The preparation beforehand and my interview experience were exhausting. The administrators and teachers weren’t about to give me a pass for simply having a PhD.
Yet it was exhilarating and affirming. By my last interview, I felt completely comfortable being myself, speaking the truth about my experiences in education and my vision for what learning should mean to an individual. I felt like I was heard. I relive this feeling every day now. We’re making material and measurable progress in the library, filling the shelves and working individually with students. Not only does that make my mood better, it actually means I can be my best self for my students and the school.