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.