Voluntarily Redundant in Academia
I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life when I started college. My talents and desires converged in a single spot, with a murky path to success. I wanted to be an actress, because as far as I knew, that's what women who told lies in public were called.
Then I saw what aspiring actresses looked like at my small liberal arts college. Even during an aggressively homely era in the midwest, a glimpse of my peers told me that I would never be small enough or pretty enough to pursue acting.
I stuck with school, but mostly I stuck with living places that were new and being with people that delighted me. I was and am very privileged to have been in a position to make these choices.
When I couldn't figure out how to get out of a long-term relationship, I applied to graduate school.
When I heard that Dr. Laura had Ph.D. in Anatomy, I pursued a Ph.D. in English, because it seemed like a much more legitimate credential for giving terrible advice to strangers on the radio. I picked my school based on its proximity to cool shit and opportunities abroad. I graduated from a top-20 program and managed to stay fully employed (though never tenure-track) in the academy for seven years.
Then I quit. I quit because I no longer want to compete with a fresh batch of Ph.D.s every year for an ever-decreasing pool of jobs. I quit because I couldn't convince myself that the world needed my theories connecting Daniel Defoe's sequels to the American version of Super Mario II, or the Pamela Phenomenon to the global mania for Dallas in the 1980s. I quit because as much as I loved my students, I knew that I couldn't be the professor that they deserved without the job security my tenured and tenure-track colleagues enjoyed, so why not step aside for someone that my institution would invest in, and that the students could contact twenty years later at the same email address?
I quit because I loved working with students. I encouraged them to recognize their talents. I wanted them to be brave. I told them that the world needed them to cultivate their gifts and put them to use. I told them that they didn't have to be from the same places or look exactly like the people who were ahead of them on the path they had chosen to succeed. I quit because it was hard for me to keep giving students the encouragement that I had needed to hear when I was in their position. I quit because I finally started listening to myself.
I quit because if I had known how much I could invest in a career that was not my dream, that was me making the best of opportunities that, yes, I worked for, but also, came far more to easily to me as the child of upper-middle class college-educated white people, I would have been a little bit braver in my choices. I'm not quitting academia to be a star. I'm not even really quitting academia. (Yes, you can still hire me to explain my batshit theories about eighteenth century novels and late twentieth century media!) I've just decided that maybe it's not to late for me to be brave, too.