Talking with Jill yesterday about disappointment and the post-ac hustle, I was reminded of Kate Ragon’s chapter for The Precariat & The Professor, “Pleasure & Paradoxes of Organizing in the Corporate University.” We come to academia for a variety of reasons, but so many of us arrived here because we are idealists, we are dreamers– we believed the university was the contemporary City on a Hill, the last remaining one, in fact. Swallowing the bitter pill of the university’s reality is only the beginning of disappointment, which compounds, whether you get on the tenure track, work contingently, or leave for other, better things: Kate Ragon, like Erik Strobl, writes of the frustration of attempting to organize academics who think union labor is somehow below them. Jill, on the other hand, writes of being disappointed that she’s disappointed in herself for willfully walking away from a university who exploited her knowledge, labor, and considerable teaching abilities with nary a care. “I am allowed to be disappointed,” she tells herself, a beautiful and heartbreaking window into what happens when we get hustled by academia: we know the City on the Hill is a mirage, but we can’t seem to disenchant ourselves from it, despite the fact that we got there in the first place by gaining more and more and more knowledge. – Emily
I’m allowed to feel disappointed
“How can we as intellectuals and activists, acknowledge our own disappointments and failures in a way that can be enabling?” – Ann Cvetkovich
I like to literally walk through a concept. On campus, I’d grab Brutus and go. He’d spend his time sniffing and exploring green spaces and discarded campus snacks while I picked through thorny ideas. It might have looked like this small white dog was lost or ownerless, but I was always close behind. I could see, though, how some might think we weren’t a pair; my head was always buried in a stack of papers creased down the middle, and he canters through life with a bold streak of abandon. Yet, I always had one eye on him, even as I scribbled notes in the margins and muttered to myself. Movement just works for me: by synchronizing the beat of my brain to the turns of my feet I can find focus.
This is how one of my most passionate and thoughtful students found me on one of my last days as a faculty member at Brandeis University. I met her earlier that year in Women in American Popular Culture, and we had spent many hours outside the classroom talking about relationships, empowerment, social justice, and engaged practices. She was aware of my process, and was curious—why was I working when there were no classes left to teach or academic appointments in my future?
I needed to process, I told her. I felt compelled to write, I explained. This shift in careers and identities left me feeling unmoored and lost. After three years at Brandeis, and over five years teaching, it’s hard to extract yourself from a comfortable routine, especially one that provides career and personal satisfaction. I had to reflect and research—reflect on who I was, where I was going, and understand how my experience fit into a larger picture. My discipline, like my desire for movement, hopefully, would give me much needed clarity and strength.
“Think of this as your graduation, too,” she said. I was moved by her statement, and kept it in my mind as I packed up my office and scheduled an out of state move. Maybe I too was going through a rite of passage—moving from something comfortably familiar to an expanded world of new opportunity. But it didn’t truly capture the reality of my experience. I wasn’t a newly credentialed adult looking for that first bite of career success. I was a well-formed scholar, sociologist, and educator worried and anxious over my future. I wrote in my journal:
I’m walking away from a known entity and I’m terrified, but I’m walking away with the knowledge that I’m good at something. I walk away not broken, but fulfilled. I thrive when I’m acknowledged and challenged, but I can’t do it here because the other parts hurt too much. I can’t pay my bills and live the life I want and I’m not going to apologize for wanting things and needing things. I was just about to write I’m sorry, but I’m done with that gendered bullshit too.
What power and force I can bring to thinking when I need to sell myself on myself! But, it’s hard; I can’t always show up when I need to show up for me. On rainy days, especially now, on the cusp of summer, I feel melancholy and nostalgic. I miss walking around campus lost in thought and bumping into students. I miss office hours, free printing, hallway gab sessions, and seeing the joy that Brutus brought to the faces of homesick undergrads. I am not part of the day-to-day routines of academia anymore. The rhythms of the semester do not hold power over my life. As summer approaches, I am not scheduled to attend any conferences, I’m not looking forward to extended writing time, and I haven’t received any thank you notes or emails demanding higher grades. I’m not prepping any new courses or revising syllabi.
I look at my Facebook feed in envy as colleagues and friends publish their first books, accept new positions, and celebrate the end of the school year. I regret what I’ve lost—a sense of belonging, a community, and a purpose. As a sociologist working within the academy, I believed that my pedagogical acts were in service to social justice and that my disciplinary expertise could serve as foundations for new social projects and more equitable futures—I still believe this. But I couldn’t continue to labor within an environment that was so exploitative. Principled ideals, however, make a shitty shield—and self-doubt and disappointment still linger.
Since I knew I wasn’t going to accept the options presented to me, I had time to process the end of my academic career while living it, and I worked through this disappointment publicly. I was hurt, and I refused to accept that I deserved this. How could this be the consequence of my own doing when I was on my way to becoming a successful scholar, educator, and public speaker? I found joy in the academy, but the academy, while taking joy in me, offered me no support. I needed an environment that would allow me to thrive; instead, I was treading water and close to drowning. I hated how laboring within the university was making me feel—my accomplishments were never enough to grant me a seat at the table and the bursts of pleasure came at too high a cost.
I shared my experience with students, colleagues, and friends—anyone who asked me how I was doing got a real answer to that question. I made things very uncomfortable for a lot of people, especially my institution or anyone who couldn’t handle my public airing of feelings or the reality of academic labor practices.
Looking back, one year later, I still carry the baggage of this experience. In my attempts to protect myself from uncertainty and the unknown, I held on too tightly. I brought the baggage of the university—its expectations, benchmarks, and pretense—with me as I moved. To make the transition and the move outside academia easier, I tried to live in both worlds—keep up my scholarship and service while forging a new career in a new industry—but I failed. I couldn’t keep up with both. Since l left, my scholarship and place within my discipline has withered on the vine. I haven’t had the time to finish the manuscript; I let my association memberships lapse, and I don’t have the bandwidth to write book or peer reviews. A strategy that I thought would ease my separation instead brought guilt. I’ve been avoiding messages and hard conversations with colleagues and mentors because I feel ashamed—I feel like I’ve let people down.
I’m trying to work through this, and I’ve found support and comfort in a variety of spaces, places, and voices. “Disappointment doesn’t mean you have failed or that you operate at a deficit, it doesn’t mean you are a problem. It means you have hope and that events and occurrences and happenings have not thwarted your desire to wish, to hope, to live with reckless abandon,” shared fellow Duke alumn (and current superstar-Assistant Professor) Ashon Crawley, on Facebook. His words touched me. Academia was where, up until then, I had lived with reckless abandon. It’s where I spread past my reach. Within the confines of the academy, I dreamt of clever ideas, powerful words, and built compassionate critical thinkers. But, the university, this incredible gathering of resources, does not have the patent on intellectualism anymore. I don’t know if it ever really did. For me, intellectual work—the labor of ideas, innovation, and discovery—requires a certain ideal field. If that’s not the university, then I’m committed to finding it or building it elsewhere.
I guess I have graduated; I still believe in my voice and the knowledge and arguments I put forth in my forever-forthcoming manuscript, but I am no longer beholden to the institution. I am free to explore and discover new ways to communicate, share knowledge, and use deep human and cultural insights to drive positive social change. Do I have everything figured out yet? No, absolutely not. Even as I read this back to myself, I laugh at the absurdity. But I know I’m in good company. As Patricia Hill-Collins writes, “…believing in the possibility of intellectual activism is one thing—figuring out how to do it within contemporary politics of knowledge production is another.” Without a roadmap, I’m terrified. There are no guarantees that this move outside of academia will lead to financial security or a career of intellectual exploration. None of these things are guaranteed. But if PHC hasn’t figured it all out yet, them I’m ok, too. I keep moving, I just keep doing the thing—working with others for a shared and common purpose, muttering to myself as I walk the dog and try to build the world anew.