Date: February 13th, 2018 10:15 AM
Author: .... -^^,--,~....
The Sublimated Grief of the Left Behind
FEBRUARY 11, 2018 / ERIN BARTRAM
It happened during AHA.
I was sitting at home, revising my manuscript introduction and feeling jealous of all of my historian friends at the conference, when I got an email telling me my last (and best) hope for a tenure-track job this year had evaporated.
Iíd promised myself that this would be my last year on the market. Now, Iíd promised myself that last year, and Iíd decided to try again, but this time, I knew it was over.
I closed my laptop and walked out of my office. In that moment, I couldnít bear to be surrounded by the trappings of a life that had just crumbled around me. The perfect reading lamp, the drawer of fountain pen ink, the dozens of pieces of scratch paper taped the walls, full of ideas to pursue. The hundreds of books surrounding me, collected over nearly a dozen years, seemed like nothing more than kindling in that moment.
I cried, but pretty quickly I picked myself up and started thinking about the future. The circumstances of the job I didnít get were particularly distressing, so I discussed it with non-academic friends, explaining over and over again that yes, this is the way my field works, and no, it wasnít surprising or shocking to me, and no, I wonít be able to ďcome backĒ later, at least in the way that Iíd want to, and yes, this was probably what was always going to happen. And then I started looking forward.
Only now do I realize how messed up my initial reaction was.
I was sad and upset, but I didnít even start to grieve for several weeks, not because I hadnít processed it, but because I didnít feel I had the right to grieve. After all, I knew the odds of getting a tenure-track job were low, and I knew that they were lower still because I didnít go to an elite program. And after all, wasnít this ultimately my failure? If Iíd been smarter, or published more, or worked harder, or had a better elevator pitch Ė if my brain had just been better, maybe this wouldnít have happened. But it had happened, and if I were ultimately to blame for it, what right did I have to grieve?
Despite the abundance of quit-lit out there, weíre still not, as a community of scholars, doing a great job dealing with this thing that happens to us all the time. The genre is almost universally written by those leaving, not those left behind, a reflection of the way we insulate ourselves from grappling with what it means for dozens, hundreds, thousands of our colleagues to leave the field.
Quit-lit exists to soothe the person leaving, or provide them with an outlet for their sorrow or rage, or to allow them to make an argument about what needs to change. Those left behind, or, as we usually think of them, those who ďsucceededĒ, donít often write about what it means to lose friends and colleagues. To do so would be to acknowledge not only the magnitude of the loss but also that it was a loss at all. If we donít see the loss of all of these scholars as an actual loss to the field, let alone as the loss of so many years of peopleís lives, is it any wonder I felt I had no right to grieve? Why should I be sad about what has happened when the field itself wonít be?
Even in our supportive responses to those leaving, we donít want to face whatís being lost, so we try to find ways to tell people it hasnít all been in vain. One response is to tell the person that this doesnít mean theyíre not a historian, that they can still publish, and that they should. ďYou can still be part of the conversation!Ē Some of you may be thinking that right now.
To that I say: ďWhy should I?Ē
Being a scholar isnít my vocation, nor am I curing cancer with my research on 19th century Catholic women. But more importantly, no one is owed my work. People say ďBut you should still write your book Ė you just have to.Ē I know they mean well, but actually, no, I donít. I donít owe anyone this book, or any other books, or anything else thatís in my head.
ďBut your work is so valuable,Ē people say. ďIt would be a shame not to find a way to publish it.Ē
Valuable to whom? To whom would the value of my labor accrue? And not to be too petty, but if it were so valuable, then why wouldnít anyone pay me a stable living wage to do it?
I donít say this to knock any of my many colleagues who write and publish off the tenure-track in a variety of ways that they find fulfilling. I just want us to be honest with ourselves about who exactly weíre trying to comfort when we offer people this advice and what weíre actually asking of those people when we offer it.
We donít want these people to go and we donít want to lose all the ideas floating around in their heads, so we say ďPlease give us those ideas, at least. Please stay with us just a little bit.Ē But weíre also asking people to stay tethered to a community of scholars that has, in many ways, rejected them, and furthermore, asking them to continue contributing the fruits of their labor which we will only consider rigorous enough to cite if theyíre published in the most inaccessible and least financially-rewarding ways.
We also try to avoid grappling with the loss of so many colleagues by doing just what we do with our students: reminding the departing scholar about all the amazing skills they have!
Iím not saying I donít have skills, or that my professional training hasnít refined them. But when we talk to our students about the thinking skills they learn as history majors, weíre talking about how they can use those skills to be things other than historians. You can use those skills in finance! Insurance! Non-profits! All sorts of regular jobs that your concerned parents will recognize!
Hereís the thing, though. I got a PhD in history because I wanted to be a historian. Thatís what I am trained to be. I didnít write a dissertation on 19th century Catholic women to learn the critical thinking skills of history and then go work in insurance. I didnít spend my twenties earning so little I ended up helping unionize my coworkers because I wanted to be in non-profit work.
Obviously, when weíre confronted with a colleague in the situation Iím in Ė someone who didnít want to leave and who doesnít know how sheís going to pay the rent after May Ė we emphasize those skills because we want to reassure this person (and ourselves) that they can find gainful employment, if not necessarily fulfilling work.
But we also emphasize it, I think, for the same reasons we encourage the departing colleague to keep publishing. We donít want to face how much knowledge that colleague has in their head thatís just going to be lost to those who remain, and even worse, we donít want to face how much knowledge that colleague has in their head thatís going to be utterly useless in the rest of their lives.
I teach my undergrads skills through content, and I keep the amount of content low, but as both a teacher and a scholar, I personally know so much stuff. I have forgotten more about Martin Van Buren than most people around me will ever know. I might find a job that uses that content, but in all likelihood, I wonít. I knew what job would pay me to know a lot about stuff that happened in the past. I just couldnít get that job, and now I have to do something else.
Now, there are people who get PhDs and donít want to be professors, and thatís great for them and Iím glad they find the PhD a useful part of their personal and professional lives. But letís be honest: most graduate programs in history are preparing students to be history professors. We can talk all we want about alt-ac careers, but when it comes down to it, few of them actually require a PhD, and almost none of them need you to have learned as much as Iíve learned about the day-to-day operations of rural 19th century parishes. I learned all that because I wanted to be a history professor, and because thatís what my program trained me to be. I certainly didnít learn all that because I wanted to find a new career at 35.
I started as a VAP where I currently teach in the fall of 2015 and defended my dissertation that December. I remember feeling really sad at the end of that first month, coming out of the first A&S faculty meeting. I wasnít sad because I didnít think I could do the job, I was sad because I realized that I could do it really well. Of course I could do it really well! This was what I had been trained to do. This was what I wanted to do. I was sad because I knew that I might already be on borrowed time Ė that I probably wouldnít get to do it for my whole life.
And now I know that I wonít get to do it for my whole life. I probably wonít publish my book, at least not in its current iteration. I wonít teach anymore. I wonít sit on all those committees that I actually wanted to sit on. If that article thatís been under review for seven months ever comes back, I probably wonít do the work to publish it in a prestigious, pay-walled journal. After about half a dozen tries, I finally got accepted to SHEAR, but couldnít even be happy about it. All the stuff in my head Ė Emersonís ideas of vocation, how to interpret what a dean actually means, the collections at MHS I still need to go through, the entire life story of a woman Iíve spent the last eight years researching and writing about Ė doesnít matter in the way that I hoped it would matter: as part of a life spent researching, writing, thinking, and teaching as a member of an institution of higher ed and a broader scholarly community.
Iíve been writing this in my head for over a month, and after siphoning off about five other significant arguments that will appear later in this same space, Iím finally making myself put it out there. Itís become too painful to keep up the facade in public (letís be honest, on Twitter), and I also need to put it out there so I can extinguish the last ember of hope that somehow this has all been a big mistake and Iím actually the recipient of a newly-created named chair in 19th Century American Lady Studies at Literally Any University-Anywhere.
I donít know what Iím going to do. I donít know what Iím good for. I donít know how to come to terms with the fact that I have so much in my head, and so much in my Google Drive, that is basically useless right now. I donít know how to come to terms with the fact that the life I imagined is not going to happen. Iíve already stopped doing my scholarship, other than editorial work for forthcoming pieces. In a few months, Iíll be done teaching. I donít know how to come to terms with never doing those things again.
Most of all, though, I donít know how to come to terms with the fact that Iíll probably never see most of my colleagues again. I wonít get to work with so many of you that Iíd hoped to work with. I wonít even ever get to meet some of you. My friends.
Iíve lost a huge part of my identity, and all of my book learning on identity construction canít help me now. What hurts the most, in a way, is that my loss has been replicated a thousand times over, and will be replicated a thousand times more, barring some mass rejection of capitalism, and rather than face what that means, we have, as a profession and as people, found ways of dealing with it that largely erase the people we lose, erase their pain and grief, and erase our own.
Iím not asking you to feel sorry for me. Iím not sure what Iím asking you to do. All I know is that it was easier for those few weeks when I didnít grieve, but it wasnít honest and it wasnít ever going to get me to a better place emotionally. I suppose I just wonder what would happen if we, as a community, stopped saying ďheís gone to a better place,Ē bringing a casserole, and moving on. What would happen if we acknowledged the losses our discipline suffers every year? What would happen if we actually grieved for those losses?
A few final points:
No, I donít want to teach high school, either private or public.
No, I donít want to adjunct or VAP anymore.
Yeah, this is a highly emotional piece of writing and paints with a broad brush and you might disagree with a lot of the ways Iíve characterized academia.
No, I donít care that you disagree. My feelings, thank heavens, are not subject to peer-review.
Preview of coming attractions:
A list of things I might do with my life, with pros and cons. Hopefully itíll turn out better than Rossí list did.
How can we have productive conversations about pedagogy when our institutional resources and the economic and cultural resources of our students vary so widely?
Why is the response of so many senior scholars to the cult of hyper-productivity just a big shrug emoji? Possible title: ďSlow Scholarship For Me, But Not For Thee.Ē
How long have I been, in the words of a friend, shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic? An examination of structure, agency, and luck.
And finally, the part of this post that makes me most uncomfortable. If this or anything else Iíve ever written or tweeted has been interesting or helpful to you, you can buy me a cup of tea: https://ko-fi.com/erinbartram.