hook, line, and.

When I started graduate school, I was lost.

That’s why I say (and not hyperbolically) that it saved my life. I had become so disillusioned with the military – enough that I knew I no longer belonged in that space – but I had no idea where to go from there. I sort of accidentally stumbled into my first graduate department. I had no idea what I was doing there. I got lucky.

I tell this story about falling in love that very first semester. It’s still a shining-star moment in my mind. Standing on the porch of an old Charleston row house talking with two of my favorite professors. About something. Toni Morrison. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter. I was seduced by the Greatness of the Feeling. The expansiveness. Another favorite professor walked by on his way to his office after class and offered an offhand comment. Stack of papers in hand. Something about saving the world. Something. It was bright out. The air was light. The old porch was dirty and the paint was chipped and they didn’t care that I wasn’t of this world. No one even seemed to notice. I never once felt that not enoughness. The diversity that was not celebrated in the military – the ways in which I was different by which I mean wrong, off, queer – those things were assets here. They made me interesting by which I mean valuable. And everything these people were was interesting to me. I was interested. My whole body. My whole brain. That first year was electric. Really, the whole degree. Whitmanesque, reading on that porch and feeling a part of it. Of Something. Talking with those people who said things. Who listened. Who were colleagues to one another, and mostly happily so. Who had husbands and wives and seemingly good marriages (a thing I’d rarely seen). Who had children who knew words like “dsytopic” in elementary school. And who saw something in me.

I fell hard. I fell the way you only fall for a savior.

Academia celebrates diversity. This is what that sweet gem of a department taught me, and it never occurred to me to wonder if that might make them special. If maybe that was them and not the institution. That, I thought. I want to be that when I grow up.

So I fell for the story. For the truth, but I made it bigger than it was. And that faith carried me through two graduate degrees with what felt, to me, like far less trauma than I saw my classmates experiencing. Unlike some of them, I’d seen other places. Places outside of the classroom. I never stopped knowing what luxury it was to be there. What a privilege. I attended a talk at the end of my MA where a professor warned students against PhD school. She said it took a piece of her soul. I thought I know what it is to lose a piece of your soul to the work you’re doing. I thought this space could never do anything but make me more whole. 

And that stayed pretty true through my PhD. There were struggles, but I was devout. Sure of this shimmering institution that was more religion than job. Even walking in my regalia five years later, a newly-minted doctor – a DOCTOR. me. with my parents’ working class origins. with all of our differences. a doctor. – it never crossed my mind that this could hurt me. This shimmering institution. Academia celebrates diversity. I can be me here, and that can be great. This saved me. I can save other people.

Now I’m not so sure. I’ve been glancing into the bitter world of postacademic life (through blogs. through articles.) and the look back is dark. Between last season and this one, I am some 60 applications in. I have an honest gift for teaching. My materials have been vetted by at least fifteen professors and editors. They are finely tuned. I have two 4.0 graduate degrees, a university-wide teaching award, a nationwide dissertation fellowship, many publications, and a broad range of teaching experience. I did what I was supposed to do. I checked the boxes. But the story I’m telling in my materials? It’s the story of me. The me academia saved. Because the truth is welcome in this shimmering space. Because diversity is celebrated. Difference is not scary. Difference will be an asset in such a crowded field.

But I’m beginning to wonder. The next couple of weeks will be illuminating, but I’m starting to suspect that the narrative that universities are looking for diversity – the narrative I fell for on that porch and haven’t questioned since, the one that led me to be more ME in my letters than was probably wise – might be a lie. I know universities want racial diversity. A diversity of ethnicities. Those things make us look good. But I’m starting to think there’s little room for class diversity. Philosophical diversity. The things that make me most proud: the sheer impossibility of me ending up here. My GED turned PhD. This journey. I’m starting to suspect that doesn’t shimmer for everyone.

So in the next month or so, who I am as a candidate might lead to the absolutely perfect job. To a department that sees what I have to offer their students, them, this. To a department with a porch I can stand on to save someone’s life. But it might end in my having to make a choice: to try harder to be the person they want next year, to come to center, to perform, to make myself into a person who’s more clearly built for this frankly elitist world, or to walk away and find a space that’s more Marxist and less Marxist Theory. If it comes down to it, I’ll probably do the latter. I’m not sure I can love this space if it doesn’t shimmer at least a little. I’m not sure it’s worth it.


10 thoughts on “hook, line, and.

  1. “I fell hard. I fell the way you only fall for a savior.” I know that feeling well. Reminds me of how I came to poetry, and why I am obsessive about keeping myself true to what matters to me in poetry. Love and empathy.

  2. Hang in there, Renee, and be kind to yourself. The job search produces a vortex of emotions, most of them hard and self-critical. Half, hell, most of the time, searches end up being about fit and not necessarily in the ways you imagine. That is to say, after you sort through the applicants who check the boxes, there’s not always a clear analytical logic to the final results. This is both horrifying and freeing. Whatever happens, do not blame yourself and do not lose the shimmer. Shine bright. Wherever you end up, you’ll save lives in ways big, small, and unknowable by just being yourself.

  3. I understand this disillusionment with the academy very well. But I think it’s just more proof that no institution is shiny and perfect, and so the best we can do is to be our authentic selves, and strive to do work that is fulfilling to us and helpful to others (wherever we find it). I think you are 100% doing the right thing by being genuine in your application materials. And I am hoping that the right school will find your story compelling. But, if not, there are certainly other places/institutions in this world that will value your authentic self and let you do life-affirming work. We can always start that commune… ;) Love to you and yours and can’t wait to see you all in just over a week! -MJB

  4. It seems to me that it’s so hard because so many people fall in love with the shimmer and get through the degrees and then there are only so many jobs and the fighting to stay in that glow gets so fierce. I’ve been talking to other people doing job searches (though mostly not academic ones) and they all feel lonely and as though no one sees their talents. Part of it is really just the nature of job searching, unfortunately. I think you’ll find your place, and hopefully it’ll be this year and not next. But you’ve got too much going on for no one to notice it, Renee.

  5. *Sigh* I hope that you find a position in a school that values you for everything you are and have to offer. I understand the feelings of discouragement though. And the questioning of how open is too open, even though we know those things that make us different make us able to reach students who might be overlooked otherwise. I can say with confidence, that any school would be lucky to have you. I hope you find a good fit. (Or perhaps that a good fit finds you?)

  6. Well said! This is a common topic at our dinner table, W loves the teaching but struggles with the institution, some days she is pretty sure she will give it up and head back to teaching middle school, you know where you stand with those kids and you know the power of a good educator!

  7. The world of education. I swear the world of elementary education and higher education seem not to be that different at all. It does shimmer from far away and somehow the closer you get, the less bright the shimmer is. But luckily, what happens to shimmer brighter than anything else is always always the students. They are the ones that make it so magical. So I hate that you have to deal with all this now, but it warms my heart to think what you will be able to do for your students one day. They will be lucky rooms full of kids.

  8. Hugs to you, my friend. I hope that you will find some joy in the season, if not our profession, right now. I *know* that some department is going to admire the quality of your character and just want you for their students. But the right.now. aspect of it is so hard to get through. So I’ll send an extra dose of thoughts and prayers your way. <3

  9. Gahhh! I wish wish wish you could come work at the University where I work… I would LOVE to have you as a colleague. That said…I am a firm believer that on some level all interviews are truths covered in lies. We present the best parts of ourselves, and bury the rest or at least shine it right up. The institution does the same. If we are lucky we still see the match under the subtle lies.

    No institution is perfect and we each find our own ways to cope. The answer for me is to hang out in the honeymoon as long as possible, and then to avoid all the nay-sayers. But, I’m also clear that this University’s flaws (overwork and overachievement) suit my style. My colleagues who see those flaws most clearly call the rest of us to rest. We need each other to make this place the best it can be for our students.

    Consider this: The academy needs you. Those students who could be the next GED to PHD story need you. You need to find your way in so that you can be that presence for them. If you can get tenure you become that person who can speak truth to power when your students cannot. In a way you are at a mid-point on this journey to giving that gift back to others. To get there you have to continue the dance. You must take the incredible strength you’ve gained as the Mama of five beautiful children and use it to keep going because you have so much to offer your future students. Do what you must to find hope, to keep sane and balanced, and to be all that Bram and Jax need now, but please don’t give up!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s