A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Shanghai, Part Eight: The Reset Button

"We have reviewed your application for the Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and we would like to schedule a 25-minute Skype video interview on one of the dates listed below."

I got the email on May 13, four days after I had arrived in Shanghai. I had submitted my application for the Brittain Postdoc on February 1. I had long ago assumed that I would be due to receive a form rejection letter at some point, the same way I had for so many jobs and postdocs before this one. But with funding and enrollments often remaining uncertain, I get the sense that these decisions get made later and later every year.

As postdocs go, the Brittain is a good deal. It provides three years of support at a decent salary that increases each year and that includes full health benefits. Postdocs teach three courses a semester. They are writing courses, but their emphasis is on multimodal argumentation--instead of simply writing four papers, students might be assigned to write one paper, give one presentation, create a video essay, and design a website. The school isn’t known for the humanities, but it is a prestigious university with strong science and engineering programs, located in the beautiful city of Atlanta. I knew two UM grads who went on to be Brittain Fellows, one of whom went on to a tenure-track position at SUNY Stony Brook a year later.

All of this appealed greatly to me. The money was good, the three years of security meant I could take a year or even two off before going through the wringer that was the job market. It was exactly the kind of teaching opportunity that appealed to my interests in science studies and digital pedagogies. There was only one problem: I was in fucking China. And I would be here for another seven weeks, after which I already had plans--to move in to a new apartment with my fiancée Paula, to teach for UM for the Fall semester, and to get married in the Spring.

I tried to put those thoughts in the back of my head. I scheduled the interview for Monday, May 20, at 11pm, which would be 11am Atlanta time. Because the fates decided that my nerves were not amped up enough already, we got one question in to the interview before my spotty internet connection cut out. I’ve since come to realize that my apartment’s DSL connection works superbly during the day, but during the peak hours of 7pm to midnight, the connection slows to a trickle making Skype and streaming video impossible. Via email, we rescheduled the interview for midnight the following day (noon Atlanta time). I stayed in my office on campus that night with my laptop connected via ethernet to the University’s much more reliable internet.

The interview went tremendously smoothly. My friend the Stony Brook professor who had been a Brittain Fellow had coached me a few days earlier, and conversing with the roomful of interviewers (there were five, and each only had time for one question), it was clear that the program would be a good fit. I got the offer via email less than 24 hours later.

I immediately responded asking about the possibility of a deferral. I thought my chances were good--I was sure they would be able to fill their positions for this year and I would constitute one less position for them to fill next year. But they emailed me back the following Tuesday, May 28, saying that because the number of fellows was determined by courses that were already enrolled, they did not offer deferrals.

The entire previous week I had been Skyping with Paula and my parents, gaming out this very scenario and deciding what I would do. The offer letter stated that I would be required to attend orientation beginning on August 11. I was scheduled to return to the United States on July 5. Logistically, it was possible. I would be teaching a literature-based writing course and a non-literature based course (similar to English 124 and 125 at UM, only with the multimodal approach). I would need to write syllabi for two sections of one course and one section of another--not very different from what I needed to do as a lecturer at UM. I would need to get out of my existing lectureship commitment--a bit uncouth, but also not difficult; there are always people looking to take those jobs. And I would need to find an apartment in Atlanta--somewhat more difficult given that it was the last minute and I was in China, but if my only criteria were that it was close to work, not too expensive, and not a complete shithole, then I could certainly find something.

The real question was, did I want it? If I defined my life solely by my career ambitions, then of course I did. But that’s not how I defined my life. Paula has at least two more years in her program, at least one of which needs to be in Ann Arbor. I pictured myself cooking bachelor dinners alone in some studio apartment, teaching three courses a semester while flying back to Ann Arbor every other weekend. I thought about having to rush back into town during finals week in order to attend my own wedding in the spring. The prospect was miserable. (I couldn't face living like this for a year)

I declined the offer. After an incredibly draining year and all of the effort that went into my job applications, after rejection after rejection, it was an extremely difficult email to write. But it was also empowering to be the rejecter for once. They encouraged me to apply again next year, and I fully intend to--it is a great program. But ultimately, it is just a job, one that I would hold for a maximum of three years, and that isn’t worth delaying my life for one year.

Academia has a remarkable way of keeping people in a state of perpetual adolescence. The expectation that one can move across the country--or across the world--at the drop of a hat only appeals to a certain type of person: ascetic, individualistic, unrooted. It’s certainly possible to maintain relationships, have a family, and do all those traditionally “adult” things as an academic, but the academic hiring cycle punishes making those things a priority. Academia asks you to devote your entire self to it, and that has never been something I've been willing to do. A fulfilling career is part of how I define a good life; it is not the entirety of a good life. In fact, if money were no object, the career would be the easiest thing for me to sacrifice.

In some respect it might be unfair to personify academia as if it were a single, unified entity, but that is often how it feels. In my bitterest moments it seemed like academia was telling me, “You can advance in your career, but only if you spend two months alone and uprooted in Shanghai, followed by one month at home, followed by another eight months alone and uprooted in Atlanta. That is the sacrifice I demand.”

In my head, academia looks like a Balrog.
If I were not in China right now, or if I had gotten this offer before coming to China, I would have accepted it, and knowing that has soured this experience somewhat. Ideally, I would have gotten this offer six weeks earlier, would never have come to China, and would have spent the summer making arrangements so that I could live more comfortably in Atlanta and Paula and I could see each other more often (and perhaps she even could have joined me in the Spring term).

But that’s not the world we live in, and this experience has forced me to put my money where my mouth is and put reasonable limits on what makes an opportunity a “good” opportunity. Working in a profession that will pay for you to fly to the other end of the world to teach for two months--that’s a tremendous privilege, and I feel honored to work in that profession. But as immense an opportunity as this has been--as wonderful an opportunity as Georgia Tech would have been--they were not worth the sacrifices to my family life and my emotional well-being.


Like many people in my position, I've enjoyed the growing body of “Why I Left Academia” essays (or "Quit Lit," as they call it). But I also feel that most examples of the genre are a bit disingenuous, as the narrative form of the essay makes an ongoing process feel more linear and unified than it tends to be. I’m not leaving academia--I’ll be a lecturer in the Fall and I’ll be on the job market again. Hell, there’s a good chance that a year from now I will have accepted a Brittain Postdoc. But you can call this a “Why I put Academia in its Place” essay. Options that have long been abstract possibilities--stay-at-home parenthood, alt-ac, non-ac--now feel real. Knowing that they are real, knowing that they are parts of Plan A and not Plans B, C, and D, allows me to approach my job search from a much less anxious, much more empowered place. I think I found that reset button.

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