Recovering Academics: You’re In Terrible Peril!

by Rebecca Schuman

The Recovering Academic’s journey is sort of like the hero’s journey, if the hero’s journey were a big fat boring downer: the “call to action” is when the job market doesn’t work out for the squillionth year in a row; the Abyss is the months (sometimes years) of purposeless wandering in the darkness, which is metaphorical, unless you live in St. Louis today, in which case it’s literal because today looks like Noah is going to come true (good thing this apartment has enough square cubits, and we don’t really talk to anyone else anyway–if the End of Days happened on a weekend, it would be at least Tuesday before I noticed).

Anyway. All’s I’m saying is that if you decide (or it’s decided for you) to leave academia, you unwittingly become the hero of the world’s least interesting epic, and as such there are Scyllas and Charybdises you will probably encounter along the way. Now that I have had about a year to heal and get my shit together, I thought I would share three of these dangers with those who are just tumbling out of the system now, and whose wounds may be fresh and gaping.

(AND ALSO I just spelled both Scylla and Charybdis right on the first try! Still got it.)

  1. Speaking of “still got it:” BEWARE of the constant need to prove to everyone how smart you still are even though you are not a professor (anymore)! Double-beware this if you are female or a person of color and it is automatically assumed that you are not smart. Triple-beware this if you make your failure in the academy public in any way and/or are honest about it. There will be some people who don’t think you are smart. BUT. There will be far fewer of these people than you think. I spent way too long obsessing over the accusations of FULLPROFs and other nasty Internetters, poring through message boards just to see written out the actualization of my worst fear: I am not smart. As my youth has left me and I have little to recommend me for the vast majority of the patriarchy, I’ve clung instead to acceptance with smart people and/or “superiority” over dummies (a problematic concept in and of itself!). I’ve been a rather persistent barnacle on the S.S. Intellect–but what I didn’t realize the whole time is that I am actually captain of the S.S. My Own Intellect, and we all are. Trust me, my friends. Even if you get triple-tenured all the way to Endowed Full Chair of Pedantry and Never Being In Your Office, there are going to be people who think you’re a dumbshit. Even if you drop out of school in the eighth grade, there will be people who do realize you’re smart. My ex-boyfriend-and now regular-friend Jacob (who plays Tim on Justified–check the season finale if you haven’t yet!) never went to college, and he’s hands-down smarter than 3/4 of the tenure-track PhDs I know.  And so I’ll leave this warning with advice I recently got from him before I did that debate last week (which was my first video-media appearance; good thing I can’t lose that goddamned pregnancy weight no matter what I do). He said: Don’t obsess over being funny and smart because your words will come out tortured and awkward. Just be direct and clear, and your wit and intelligence will manifest themselves naturally. Some of the most useful advice I’ve ever gotten–and from a high-school graduate!
  2. Speaking of friends: BEWARE that some of your “friends” will disappear, and try your level best not to take it personally. When you are finally able to leave academia, you might quickly realize that it can be quite cult-like in its structure and behavior. Have you ever told a Scientologist, or a devotee of the Upright Citizens Brigade, or a Landmark/WINGs member, or someone in AA, that he’s in a cult? How’d that go? Listen: People in cults do not view themselves as cultified. They do not view themselves as brainwashed or that their identities have been subsumed. They simply see themselves as valuing something that you do not happen to value (anymore). And, I hate to tell you this (and I’ve learned it the hard way)–it’s their choice to devote their lives to a structural identity that may or may not hurt them more than it helps them. It’s highly self-centered of you (by which I mean “me”) to think that their single friendship with you, an outsider who no longer appreciates or understands what they do, is more important than the structural relationship to which they have devoted their lives. Also–and here’s something it took a long time to learn, and I wouldn’t know without (irony!) the principles of AA (I have some close friends who are Friends of Bill W): Sometimes cults help people more than they hurt. Some of the dearest people in my life are (wait for it): UCB, Landmark, WINGs, AA…and, yes, academics. Those structures have saved as many lives as they’ve ruined. For some people, the Life of the Mind is simply going to be more worthwhile than keeping a friendship with you and your “negativity” or whatever cult-speak they’ll use to describe you. Wish those people well, and stay in kind but detached touch.
  3. And finally, speaking of staying in touch BEWARE the triggers that can jettison your recovery, especially on social media. If you’ve got Facebook friends posting humblebrags about their new TT jobs or life on the TT, just unfollow those motherfuckers for awhile. The second it’s not in your face anymore, you will be able to stop thinking about it so much, and eventually you will realize that the relative “success” of your homies has literally fuck-all to do with your relative “failure.” (And also: like I joked to Karen Kelsky yesterday on Twittarz, if a TT job in the middle of fuck-all nowhere, teaching 4/4, being the entire Your Discipline Department, dealing with colleagues that are somehow both toxic and smarmy, living far, far away from everyone who still wants to talk to you, and maybe not even getting tenure at all in the end is “success,” well then other people can have it!) If there is a particular disciplinary conference that you will be not attending for the first time since grad school, go through your social media and meticulously hide or unfollow everyone who will be there, if you think it will be psychically difficult to see all of their sycophantic posts about it. Same goes for all of the bitching about school starting in the fall, and finals anytime there are finals, if you are not going to be teaching anymore but wish you were. Just insulate yourself from it. Re-follow all of your Republican relatives, and entertain yourself with the knowledge that the old ones rely more on Barack Obama’s Muslim Socialist God-Hating than anyone else you know (for seerz: I have a relative whose only source of income is Social Security, who lives in Section-8 housing and whose numerous health issues are covered by Medicare, and s/he “hates” President Obama “because he’s a Socialist.” Although in fairness, I’m pretty sure that at his/her church, “Socialist” means “Black.”) You may, alas, only learn about your triggers the hard way, but as soon as you know them, take it upon yourself to insulate yourself.

All right, that’s my initial list, but now I’d like to open it up for discussion (and I’ve relaxed the commenting rules again so that I don’t moderate all comments anymore, FOR NOW). If you’re a seasoned recovering academic, what were some of your biggest pitfalls in your first year, and how did you deal with them? If you’re just coming off now, what are you most upset/worried/distraught about?