I’m a little amused that a five-year-old meme has caught on again, at least in a small way, thanks to my propensity for re-visiting my past, and thanks to bloggers like Clarissa and Z.

Because I was feeling so rotten last week, spending much of several days asleep, when I was awake I spent awhile re-reading Squadratomagico’s archives, which I greatly enjoyed.  Hers is a blogging voice I miss; but given the range of her interests, I’m sure she’s having a fantastic time doing whatever took the place of blogging in her life.

Since she’s not around to speak for herself (so far as I know—do speak up in the comments if you’re out there, Squadro!), I feel a certain responsibility to speak for her, since I’m the one who returned to the old topic.  The original post, http://squadratomagico.net/2008/02/15/how-much/, responded to changes in the lives of several members of the academic blogging community, some of whom are still with us, others of whom either stopped blogging or may have re-named themselves in moves I have lost track of: New Kid, before law school; Medieval Woman, while still in a long-distance relationship and before the twins; Heu Mihi, before her translation to the cornfields, the advent of the Minister, and Bonaventure; the bloggers who are now Maude and Moria; Hilaire, who I hope is now enjoying a happier life than the one I used to follow.   These potential (at that time—now actual) changes provoked a lot of soul-searching, and those of us who were already enjoying stable positions both empathized and took the opportunity to think about our own lives.

In particular, I want to let Squadro respond to the first line of Jonathan’s post on this topic.  In teaching meme, she explicitly values the contrafactual:  “I love teaching history because I believe it implicitly raises the possibility of counterfactual narratives. I don’t explore counterfactuality in the classroom, but I know some students are thinking about these issues on their own. The ability to imagine alternate social, political, economic, religious, etc. directions within history can, I think, lead to the ability to imagine alternate configurations for current social, political, economic, religious, etc. conditions. The study of history can train the individual to question reality; to question the authority of received cultural (and parental) expectations, hopefully in productive ways. I believe this can be empowering.”

The political is the personal.  Exploring counterfactuality in our own lives can be empowering.  It need not be a sign one should leave academia.  And one’s own contentment does not invalidate others’ struggle.  At the very least, people contemplating entering academia need to know the opportunity costs, the likely starting salaries, and the problems of salary compression.  My own students think professors make “good money” and are astonished that they could earn more teaching high school, but that is the situation in these parts.  YMMV, of course.  Personally, I think academic life has given me more than it took away; my losses have more to do with health and family situations that would almost certainly have arisen in any case.  I still think it’s worth evaluating the gains and the losses.

28 thoughts on “On giving up

  1. I’m afraid to engage in this calculus. The question I ask myself most often these days is: “At what cost?” The gains aren’t in question; their price is very much so. My hope is that the question will change, one day, if (if if if if). That the balance of the ledger will begin to shift out of the red. Y’all keep me hoping.

    1. Toward the end of my time in grad school, I would have said that I was gambling everything on getting an academic job, and that I certainly had lost/given up a lot of other options, especially the relationship that I had had my heart set on for some years. I wouldn’t say that I lost my family—I didn’t want them—but I was very much aware that I didn’t have that form of support when others in my cohort did. Place was completely at the mercy of the market. Health was still with me, and at least I wasn’t in debt, but I didn’t have any savings, either. It’s all in where you stop telling the story. You are still at the end (or in the middle, maybe) of the cliffhanger chapter: what will happen to our heroine?

  2. I’m glad I found the wider community of academic bloggers (like yourself, Squadro, Jonathan Jarrett and so many others) before I started the PhD. Yes, I am doing that crazy thing of doing a PhD in history, but at least I’m going into it with my eyes open (and fully funded! I doubt very much I would borrow to do this). I can’t let go of the tiny glimmer of hope, but I know the chances are that I will never work as a university professor. This has a paradoxical upside, I think, in that it is allowing me me to focus much more on enjoying the process itself and its intrinsic rewards. Or perhaps that’s just my Pollyanna talking…

    1. Full funding means that you can think of the Ph.D. as a very interesting, engaging, and sadly underpaid job. Do enjoy it as much as you can, figure out how many years you can afford to attack the academic job market when you’re done (and how far, literally, you’re willing to go for a job), and have an appealing Plan B and Plan C that can go into effect if you can’t get the next job you really want. Everyone I knew in grad school had a plan B. Some were more realistic than others, but we ALL had them. Sometimes they were just what got us through the dark nights/exams. A few people put them into effect. I definitely think you will do better research if you enjoy the process than if you are too focused on where-will-it-get-me.

      1. I like the advice to have Plans B and C, and to have a limit to number of years on the job market.

        I too was fully funded, but the opportunity costs of lost wages and wage increases (from a different job) during my 9 years have definitely added up.

        I’ve been thinking a lot about all these issues as I look forward to post-defense life. I’m in what feels like unusual circumstances (though there are probably loads of people in my situation), and as my thoughts start to form more fully, I’ll post more.

  3. Personally, I’m doing well right now and where I am, even if I didn’t land up at a super-prestigious institution. However, my partner has sacrificed greatly, both because we’re location-bound now and because we have to consider Autistic Youngest. It doesn’t get easier as she moves along through her teen years. I’m dreading the next decade as she transitions out of high school and we struggle with what’s beyond.

    I try not to play the “What if?” game when it come to my past. That kind of counter-factual tends to lead me to the regrets of old. It took me years to shed the anger that I held towards my job’s stupid extra-curricular expectations causing me to miss my mother’s last phone call before her death. I dealt with that, in part, by sluffing off those extra-curricular events that no longer seem so important and only attending genuinely important or relevant occasions. In the other part, I handled the anger by recognizing that no one has control over their lives, in the end. We just do the best we can and keep on keeping on, eh?

    Which reminds me: back to work. . . .

  4. I am more interested in what formerly non negotiable things one progressively gave up due to the siren song of that good situation if you get just one more piece out, than absolute counterfactuals, since there are so very many things that could have happened and since I started out with nothing to lose and so in that sense only gained.

    I lost my home landscape, thinking it would be worth it but I did not get the things I had traded it for. At the same time, by this point I would not be me if I were not a member of Louisiana. That sort of thing makes it hard to say who lost what, really. But so far my irony is that I consciously chose Work over Life and ended up with some sort of a fascinating Life but not really a Work, although yes a Job.

    I don’t think people who actually got what they wanted have the authority to judge the attitudes of those who did not quite or who have difficult situations. I also don’t think people who have always worked at ranked universities have the experience or knowledge required to be able to speak of or for academic workers at large.

      1. I am speaking of the idea that “this is the best life in the world and if you question that, you should just leave.”

      2. Or in other words: there are good reasons to advise against going around saying it is awful (my father did this and he had a good situation, it was all some sort of affectation), but I think going around and saying it is the best thing that can be done is equally illogical and … fatuous. I particularly object to the idea I have often heard expressed, that outside academia there are no jobs with interesting content, so that anyone who leaves is only leaving for the vapid fantasy of making lots of money.

      3. And finally: I mean that I think people in very good situations who rant and rave against people who complain, are really talking about people *in their same situation* who complain just to show they are delicate souls. I can remember feeling impatient with all the complaining about essentially nothing that went on in the good places where I was a VAP. So I understand, but I also think living a whole life in such situations means one may not ever figure out that some people, in other situations, do have real losses to mourn.

  5. I find it amusing that this post, which I wrote so long ago and, as you note, in response to some specific situations in the lives of my blogfriends, has now been revived as a meme. I feel rather detached from squadratomagico these days, and experience the posts there as much as a reader as an author.

    What I was trying to explore, in that rather mournful piece, was not just the issues related to place and the two-body problem, but a more subtle set of concerns related to the single-mindedness of academia. Academic culture rewards the virtuoso practitioner, and the best way to develop that virtuosity is to allow all other interests, outside the academic world, to wither away. And yet, the brilliancy of being human lies, I believe, in passion and multifaceted-ness, in the unique conjunctions of taste and habit that make individuals compelling to one another (or maybe just to me?). I was trying to point out that this is a cost: not necessarily one that is not worth paying, but certainly one that should be recognized for what it is.

    At the time I was blogging, I was deeply engaged in working through these sorts of issues in my own life. I had become a successful academic precisely through that sort of paring-down of self, and I was entering a period when I wanted to re-grow some of my lost appendages, so to speak. I still haven’t fully resolved all of these issues, I suppose, but the blog reached the end of its natural arc. Thanks for thinking of me, though! I do still lurk around the blogosphere.

    1. This “Academic culture rewards the virtuoso practitioner, and the best way to develop that virtuosity is to allow all other interests, outside the academic world, to wither away. And yet, the brilliancy of being human lies, I believe, in passion and multifaceted-ness, in the unique conjunctions of taste and habit that make individuals compelling to one another (or maybe just to me?). ”
      puts words to what I experienced. Time and again I was told to narrow, to only focus on one thing, and how dare I think of anything outside that. It just never worked. Unfortuantely I hit s string of institutions where that was the focus, from grad school on, though I hear of people having a very different experience. I feel so much more like myself now that I’m not trying to hide the “multifaceted-ness” of myself. I’m not better off career wise, but it’s worth the cost.

  6. I don’t mean the PhD that, for instance, trailing spouses do for fun and aren’t held to the same standards. I mean the PhD that doesn’t go into academia, but who did just did that because it’s a research degree and you get a research *job* to do while you are working toward it.

  7. What’s hard about this conversation is that I don’t know anyone my age (mid-50s) who wouldn’t be able to talk about the things they gave up to do whatever they chose to do. So that we can have it about the academic world, but it’s true about (at least) any professional life. The thing about life is that there are a series of choices, many small, that add up to our lives; in addition, as Janice notes, life happens, and throws all sorts of curve balls your way. Any number of my friends, not just academics, have this sense. And even when you’re more or less happy with where you are, you also mourn the choices you didn’t/couldn’t make.

    I also know that every academic context has its own dysfunctional qualities, to a greater or lesser extent. And there are times when you put up with them, and times when you don’t. People I know at the elite places where they have — in many ways — cushy lives that we all envy tell me about these issues all the time. When I lived in the same town with one such institution, I was frustrated by the assistant profs there who complained — about a great teaching load, well prepared students, an awesome library, and tons of resources; but I also knew that they were mostly told that they were there as assistant professors, and would leave after 10 years, so that was hard. And wealthy students paying a lot of money expect a lot of attention.

    For me, the pleasure of teaching and research has always carried me through a very mixed career ( i.e. tenure denial, work for 18 years at a place where I taught 11 months a year, and now at a poorly resourced public R1.) But that’s me. And by now, it’s my friends, and my network. But I also think Squadrato is right about the losses created by the singlemindedness of the academic life: there’s an ascetic quality to it.

    People who protest too much about those who leave or complain are often, I suspect, people who regret that they didn’t have the courage to leave.

    (sorry for being so longwinded!)

    1. Agree….

      But on virtuoso-ness, does anyone think it isn’t a sacrifice? There are things I don’t want to give up because I didn’t get to be a true virtuoso, and there are other things I wouldn’t give up and am sure I would not have to, but I *wanted* to be a virtuoso, I knew you could be a research professional and make discoveries before I even started school, as in before I could read and that was what I wanted: the expertise, the depth, the focus. Is it that weird to be born that way???

      1. No. I wanted that and I still want that, and I want it a lot more than I want hobbies or “a full life.” It’s not a sacrifice if you’re really not interested in the other things, and one thing I find interesting about this discussion (including the original one) is how many other people want other things alongside or more than the scholarly life (though in some cases, like T.E., whom I forgot to put into this post, location has a lot to do with that; she was happier at a SLAC in an urban area than at a remote, high-prestige research school). Take Squadratomagico’s circus work: it was interesting to read about, and I got that it was important to her, but I’ve never had anything remotely like that in my own life. I’ve had other activities I’ve enjoyed, like singing and folkdancing, but they’re not that important to me; I gave them up for reasons of health and/or personality clashes with people in local groups, not for work, so I wouldn’t count those as “lost” items. I can’t work constantly, but when I’m not working I don’t want more activity, but quiet relaxation.

        I guess maybe people (including academics themselves) think of academics as devoted brains on sticks, and maybe feel that they aren’t “real” scholars if they want more in their lives than that, and so perhaps get defensive about those desires or about other people who seem able to have the things they aren’t permitting themselves . . . does that make sense? I don’t quite get it, because, as I say, I am pretty much a brain on a stick (plus cats), but I have a bit of that about teaching, where I know the ideal is that teachers should be devoted to the profession; but I’m not that devoted when it comes to teaching.

  8. I am not sure I get it, either. I have always had a bunch of other activities and they’ve never interfered with work. But I have run into many who believed one must appear to be working at all times.

    Maybe it’s just not wanting the pressure to excel to a high level, and/or having priority #1 be to stay around where home is. Working class people also have to remake themselves to fit in on Harvard Yard, it seems.

    But I am guessing a big thing is what people feel they have to give up, not what they do give up.

    I am flashing on once when I was a VAP, the department had segregated parties, some with professors and others with instructors. Nobody knew how to categorize me so I was invited to all. The instructor parties were infinitely more interesting because people had verve and were connected to the community and excited about many things in their lives. I claim it is possible to be like that and still be a virtuoso at something.

  9. I read this post and took the idea of counterfactual narratives in an entirely different light. Everyone around us (me and the husband) is having relationship problems. So like the academic meme it’s people talking about getting out of a situation, making changes etc. We seriously kept wondering if there’s something in the water (so we went and bought beer and wine! Easy fix!), because it’s his co-workers, my colleagues, our friends. What I’m trying to say is that I know this was being applied to the work self but it’s an idea that applies to other parts of us too.

    1. You mean, what would I be if not for Spouse? Personally I would be such a mess. As a feminist, I find it embarrassing to admit how vastly much better in every way my life is with Sir John in it. I am a far better person because of him. I am happier. I have more options. He firmly believes that relationships should be enabling, enlarging, whatever the right word is, not diminishing, which of course makes him very different from many people right there, and so unlike the horrible end-of-grad-school boyfriend who tried to diminish me (not that that worked well, or at all!), and even the one before, who didn’t get in my way but didn’t help, either. I hope you and your husband can use the situation to appreciate the value of your relationship—if the easy fix works, so much the better!

      1. Yes, or “if all these people who are currently unhappy are breaking up/getting divorced, is that what we should be doing? Is that the better narrative?” (because we’ve been having a hard time too, but seem to be the only ones trying to fix it and not just hop out and leave.) We both wish we had more real life examples of positive relationships to draw on, but of all my girlfriends, I’m the only one who hasn’t been divorced already.

  10. OK, I am still working on this and now I Get something, namely what it is like to give things up for academia. I don’t really feel I have but I have on several distinct occasions given up *research*, and it was gut wrenching every time, so I guess I do understand the feeling of giving up things. (I should post on this but writing the post would cut into scarce research time. I will put it on my list.)

  11. I am the last one still working on this topic and one of the last on mentoring, I think. What I would like and cannot seem to get is a visit to my home town. No family live there any more but I would like to just smell the earth there every once in a while. I did not realize I would be too broke to do even that every once in a while. Maybe later on I can. I just thought that wherever I moved, could feel like home, and that I would be able to travel a lot because of research grants and not having kids. Did not realize what exile would really be like and what the economic situation would really be.

    Other things I gave up: the ability to look before leaping. It seems to me that because of never being in a situation to save money I have always had to jump places that did not look like a good idea, because of being broke and because people were saying hurry up, take it, do not doubt. Then had to deal with having jumped. Therefore, always being in some uncomfortable situation, never feeling one had chosen anything, always getting further and further from having the means to achieve goals.

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