Friday, December 17, 2004


Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places

I know, you're all thinking that I have some dramatic boy-related thing that I'm going to talk about in this post, but once again I've resorted to using the metaphor of romantic relationships to talk about the profession. I know it's an imperfect metaphor, but for me it's one that resonates because, at the end of the day, I think that it allows me to put some of my professional anxieties and fears into perspective. Seeking a t-t job is not unlike putting a profile up on and hoping somebody digs it; one's first years in a t-t job are not unlike being in a serious relationship where no lifetime commitments have been made; when one gets tenure, one is committed to the institution and the institution is committed, too - it's the marriage.

Now, if we think about this in these terms, then academe basically works according to a totally heteronormative model. What we are socialized to want in graduate school is a tenured position at a fancy university. This is not unlike the way that girls are socialized to want to marry some wildly successful rich guy - a "real catch," as it were. But, as in the dating pool, there aren't enough "real catches" in terms of fancy universities to go around, and so, as with dating, some will have to settle for something other than that. Now, this isn't necessarily bad. One might not end up with a "real catch," but that doesn't mean that one can't be happy. Maybe in lieu of employment at a fancy university I end up with the university equivalent of a really nice guy who has good values and works really hard. And that's not necessarily a bad life, right?

But, of course, it's not that simple. First, because of how we are socialized, we fear that others will look down on us for being with the nice guy who doesn't have it all. (And maybe all of my readers are better people than I am, but I know I've felt that way about some of the guys I've dated - felt that others would think I was settling - and it bothered me.) Second, we fear independently of what others think that we are settling for less than we deserve, that we've not ended up with a nice guy with whom we can make a life but that we've ended up with a loser. This second fear isn't about us being snobs - at least not entirely. Partly, we believe this because so often that nice-guy-of-a-university that we're with at has really low self-esteem and so we hear about all of his inadequacies all of the time straight from the horse's mouth. And so we think we might want to break up with our nice-guy-of-a-university, but we want to hedge our bets, so we try to find somebody else before we break up with him. Better to have somebody than to be alone, ALONE - right?

But this isn't all. Sometimes the girl who does land the "real catch" isn't happy either. She's gone after what she's supposed to want, but it doesn't feel how it's supposed to feel. So this isn't just about the ones who don't manage to end up at fancy universities; it's also about the ones who do but only later realize that the fancy-university-of-a-guy isn't Mr. Right.

(Oh, the mixing of the metaphors! No wonder nobody wants to give me an interview!)

Ok, I think I've outlined this as well as I can for the moment, so I'm going to stop for the moment with the horrible metaphors. Looking at it from this angle, I feel much more at ease about what's going on with me professionally. Basically, I'm afraid to commit to RCU - not because it's horrible but because I'm not sure whether RCU is a loser. How many times have I been through this with guys? Too many to count.

I've been thinking about it a lot and I kind of think that RCU is not a loser but that I'm afraid to stop trying to end up at a fancy university because that's what I was trained to want. Nevertheless, this job was the job I envisioned when I began graduate school. I'm doing good work here for students who really need somebody like me teaching them. I know this because they tell me, and I know this because more than one of them has asked me if I plan to leave RCU - because they, too, think that RCU sucks. But if everybody like me leaves, this place will always suck, you know? I'm thinking there has got to be a way for me to reconcile my vision for my career with this place because I'm not sure that I'd like it if I left. (By the way, I feel totally comfortable retracting all of this if I get a late call for an interview.)

There's been a great discussion on the comment thread to this post that I think relates a lot to these things I've been thinking about - especially about the distinctions that are made between research universities and teaching universities. (See also Dr. Medusa's post where she's thinking about this stuff, too - serendipity in the blogosphere!) I, too, got the "this seems like a great first job" comment from my dissertation adviser, and a number of my mentors made a point of asking me if I was "sure" I wanted to take this job. (Ok, to that I wanted to ask what kind of crack they were smoking because - seriously - given the job market I NEVER would have turned a job down unless I found out that the university wanting to hire me murders puppies or something.)

And so, yes, I think there is a kind of elitism at work about what constitutes a "real" t-t faculty job, just like there is elitism about what constitutes a "real" graduate school. And I think there's a lot of anxiety on both sides of the teaching/research divide because on the one hand, I know many of my colleagues (though certainly not all) who don't really care about research but then seem to feel really inadequate when others talk about theirs, but on the other, my colleagues at more research-oriented places seem to feel a lot more pressure about research and a lot more competitiveness about things like number of publications and that doesn't seem like a great trade-off necessarily.... But then, perhaps, I could be doing that thing that a girl dating a loser does when she finds out an acquaintance is dating a neurosurgeon-rockstar-actor-who-looks-like-a-Greek-god and she says to herself, "oh, he's not so great." I could just be telling myself that I don't want the "real catch" because I've got to delude myself into being happy with the loser that I ended up with.

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