Blazer of Glory: On Leaving Academia -The Toast

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Lisa's_SubstituteTen months ago, I bought myself a brown corduroy blazer. With elbow patches. As it settled around my shoulders, I felt a surge of confidence fill me—a knowledge that, while I may look like an utter dweeb, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I took a picture wearing it—a professorial selfie—and shared it with my friends.

Who does that?

It would be so much easier to say goodbye to teaching if I were a jaded curmudgeon, full of bitterness and spite that had curdled my soul into a spiritual Limburger cheese. I could flip the double deuce at the conniving university bureaucrats who had a hand in my exit as I rode off into the sunset. I could cackle at my former coworkers’ misfortune at being stuck in the quagmire of academia, telling myself I’m so much better off now. After two years of throwing myself at over a hundred academic positions and getting the door slammed in my face each time, it would be easier if I hated the university, the students, the professors; the committee-sitting, researching, grading, and especially the weary grind of teaching.

It would be easier if I could blame someone, anyone else for why I’m leaving.

My failure began seven years ago, when, faced with the prospect of an imminent graduation from my college, I decided I wanted to go to grad school. It wasn’t a particularly difficult decision: I had a very high GPA, undergraduate research experience, great recommendations, and a combined GRE of over 1400. I was also majoring in a degree (communication studies) that doesn’t exactly translate into, well, virtually anything outside of the university.

After a brief consultation with my professors and soon-to-be-spouse, I threw myself into the application process with all the enthusiasm and confidence of a man who’d spent 20 years playing life on Easy Mode. The results were what you’d expect: acceptance from each of the four universities to which I’d applied, offers of fellowships and funding.

I chose a five-year MA-PhD program that offered me a stipend, paid health insurance, and free tuition at one of the best universities in the country. I was one of only two graduate students accepted for the fall of 2008.

My first year, I wasn’t allowed to teach. Yes, you read that correctly. I was on a research fellowship at a top-tier research university. Our program was designed so we could get a head start on our Master’s Thesis this way.

This was fine by me. I’d taught some at summer camps during college, and I knew I’d have to lead classes here eventually, but I chose this university because I wanted to do Very Serious Social Scientific Research.

I began my classes, started my research and buckled down to work. I was confident that, when I left, I would be able to find a tenure-track position at any university of my choice. Just like grad school all over again.

That was about the time the economy crashed.

Admissions plummeted. Universities across the country froze tenure lines and cut back on grad student funding as the endowments shrunk.

Good thing I was safe and sound, locked into my five-year contract. Surely the economy would recover just in time for my triumphant return.

*          *          *

The first class I TA’d for was Argumentation, a course designed to teach students how to create and dissect arguments. I approached it with some degree of reservation and a healthy dose of skepticism. Undergraduates, after all, were lazy, surly pseudo-adults more interested in TV, drinking, and video games than critical thinking. I should know—I had been one less than a year hence.

As I walked into my first hour-long discussion section, I expected apathy. What I got was an epiphany.

I loved teaching.

My students were fantastic. They were engaged, intelligent, sarcastic, humorous, kind, honest, bitter and alone, together and full of hope.

And I? I was really good at teaching. I got them to laugh, forced them to think, encouraged them to find their own answers.

I walked away from a crap half-hour pedagogical addendum to a so-so class feeling like I had actually done something valuable. Like I had made a difference. Like I mattered, what I did mattered.

Because these students? They mattered.

*          *          *

I took every opportunity I could over the next three years to get into the classroom. In the winter quarter of my third year, I taught my first class solo. After that, I was well and truly hooked. I was a teaching assistant when I wasn’t teaching. I completed a teaching certificate program, and was selected to be a teaching fellow—a competitive, paid position. I knew in my heart that I wanted to do this. I wanted to teach at a university for the rest of my life.

When my fifth year rolled around, the time had come to put together my applications for teaching jobs. And while I was perfectly happy to work at a small liberal arts college, I needed to take stock of my research regardless. It couldn’t hurt to see if I could get a few articles accepted for publication, even in small journals. By this point I’d racked up almost ten individual research projects, including six that I’d presented at conferences.

As I looked back through my collected works, searching for something publishable, I hit upon a stunning realization:

I was not very good at doing research.

My writing was stilted and formulaic, my theoretical grounding was sparse, my hypotheses were naïve guesses, and my methodology was rudimentary at best. The odds of turning more than two of the papers into publishable articles were . . . poor. That I had gotten some of these accepted at conferences was a testament to the steep decline in competition resulting from dwindling university travel budgets.

It was really fortunate that I’d decided I wanted to teach.

*          *          *

Every fall, universities decided which positions they will hire for the next academic year and post them online. Most of these cluster in a span of a few months, from September to November.

I spent hours searching, hunting down postings at universities that fit my specialty. Then another several days of work for each position as I tailored my cover letter (two pages, single-spaced), teaching portfolio, and curriculum vitae to fit as best as possible. A batch of applications sent out the door, or Internet portal, I suppose. And then, waiting. Damn, was there a lot of waiting.

“We regret to inform you . . .”

“Unfortunately . . .”

“A more suitable candidate . . .”

Rejections. Dozens and dozens of rejections. When I didn’t get one of these terse dismissals, I heard nothing at all.

That stung. Each application took so much time and effort that I ended up investing a significant part of myself by the time I was done. With each application I sent out, hope sprang anew. With each rejection, pulling myself up to send out another letter got a little harder.

As I faced a crowded market, hemmed in on all sides by unyielding economic pressure, I belatedly realized just how much of my former success could be attributed to fortunate circumstance and privilege. Now that I was competing with others who had actually accomplished things—teaching experience covering a dozen classes, lists of publications that would only fit on medieval scrolls, years of service to the university, the discipline, and the community—the blank white spaces on my CV suddenly looked a lot more empty.

It had taken me most of my adult life to realize I wanted to be a teacher. It took me another two years before I realized that was never going to happen.

*          *          *

My first year on the market ended in a flurry of activity. Suddenly two universities wanted to interview me for adjunct positions, and another had me as a finalist for a tenure-track spot. Everything was finally coming together.

I wanted the tenure-track position, of course. Better pay, security, university support for research—the works. The adjunct positions, on the other hand? Well, I’d be teaching, sure. But when the contract for those jobs ended, there was no knowing whether they’d bring me back the next year.

The interviews turned into two offers: one from each of the universities considering me for an adjunct position. I waited, and waited, and waited, only to hear at the last minute that the other university had chosen a different applicant.

Disappointed, if not despairing, I chose the best remaining offer and promised myself I’d snag that tenure-track spot next year. I had been so close. I was sure to succeed the next time around. I just needed to be a bit better. Work a bit harder. I resolved to use my time wisely.

By the next time I hit the market again, I was a stronger candidate. I had more teaching experience. I’d published an article in a respectable journal, and co-authored entries in two collected works. I was ready.

*          *          *

The next year, I turned down not one, but two job offers at universities. They were only 9-month positions with no guarantee of renewal. Both times, I had no other offers. I said “no” when my alternative was literally nothing. After all, a tenure-track position was bound to come along eventually. I was a better candidate than last year, when I’d been a finalist. Wouldn’t I feel stupid if I took a crappy temp position, only to find later that I could have had my dream job?

Boy, did I feel stupid when every other school still under consideration sent me curt rejection notices. I wasn’t even interviewed for a single tenure-track position. I had gotten better as a candidate, and actually performed worse on the market.

The stress was killing me: I put on 15 pounds, my blood pressure soared, and my resting heart rate rose 13 bpm. I was exhausted all the time. I couldn’t sleep some nights, because I could feel my heart thudding in my chest and all the way down to my limbs. As much as I loved teaching, I couldn’t bear to put myself, or my spouse, through this perpetual uncertainty any longer.

Could I teach at community colleges? Certainly! Or so I thought, until I applied, and was rejected. Either they had other candidates, or figured there was no way I was serious about my application.

Could I teach in high school? Sure! Except I’d need to pass certification, and teaching jobs in my state even at the high school level turned out to be more competitive than I’d anticipated.

The end of my contract was coming up, and I needed a paying job. My wife and I had been living apart for seven months—she hadn’t been able to find a job in the rural town where my university was located, and had to move elsewhere. The measly salary I’d been making had left us with little in terms of savings. I had two options: risk everything on my dream, or give up. If my life were a movie, we all know what I would have chosen.

But it isn’t. I gave up.

I hung up the blazer, sold my textbooks, cleaned out my office, and said goodbye to all my students.

I wish I could be bitter. I wish I could blame the market, or the university, or politics. But the truth, the bare truth . . .

. . . is that I could have worked harder. I could have done more. I could have pushed myself. It was never a physical impossibility for me to get any of these jobs. I had a combination of talent, ability, connections, and privilege the likes of which few other people in the world do.

If I’d been willing to sacrifice more (my health, my relationship, my social life), I could have stuck it out in adjunct positions until I hit on the perfect tenure-track job.

I couldn’t. I can’t.

I’m done.

*          *          *

Three months later, I’ve landed a position at a large company. I’m an instructional designer now. I help my organization create more effective training programs for their workers. It’s a wonderful job. I love the people I work with, I’m paid well, and I have a kind of stability I’ve never experienced before.

Every day, the hole inside me heals a little more. Every day, it hurts a little less.

I’ve still got that damn blazer in my closet. Now and then, I pull it out and try it on—just to see how it fits. I could get rid of it, sure, but I won’t. I need to be reminded. I need to remember.

Plus, I look damn sexy in it.

Whitney Fletcher received a PhD in Communication from Northwestern University in 2013. When he isn't working as an instructional designer, he writes science fiction and fantasy and is represented by Lana Popovic of the Chalberg & Sussman Literary Agency.

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