From Goal-Oriented, to EFF IT, to Goal-Oriented: The World’s Least Interesting Journey

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Don’t worry, I’m leaving California in a few days, and returning to Polar Vortex Thunderdome. Don’t begrudge me my one month’s happiness. 

The other night, as my husband and I wound through the streets of San Clemente on the way to my brother-in-law’s place, he asked if I was “goal-oriented.” I thought about it for a second, and then I said: No. I am not goal-oriented in the least. From about 2006 until, oh, late March 2013, however, I was as goal-oriented as a person can be. My entire life was in the service of one prize and one prize only: being a professor of German. Anything less than that would be tantamount to death—or, rather, worse than death, because literature professors rhapsodize someone who died in the service of The Profession, but speak about someone who “left the field” in hushed tones usually reserved for “ran over a litter of seal pups with a Harley-Davidson.”

I dutifully spent every moment I wasn’t teaching either consumed in research, or consumed in guilt that I was not performing research. I danced the special dance in the Research-1 environment where you pretend you’re pretending to like teaching, so that nobody mistakes you for a mere teaching professor, but also nobody mistakes you for someone who isn’t willing to take all the pain-in-the-ass bridge courses the senior faculty don’t want to do. Oh, I “love” teaching, but really I think it’s a waste of my precious research time, except really I like teaching, but don’t tell anyone! It’s exhausting.

I moved to Ohio alone for two years, even though doing so did near-irreparable damage to my personal relationships. I allowed the judgments of an imaginary search committee to dictate every move I made in public, as well as my entire head-to-toe presentation: haircut that made my natural wildness easy to straighten; no nail color EVER; ready-made excuse anytime I wore clothes that did not look like I just painted my garage in them.

I swallowed as much as possible of my real personality—which, in case you haven’t noticed, lacks professorial gravitas—and when tiny flashes of it bubbled up in the wrong environment, I’d spend hours agonizing over those moments, and wondering what I could do to make my colleagues forget them. From 2006 to 2013, there was nothing, and I mean nothing I did, that was not in service of my single goal. Marriage? Kids? What do I look like, a fucking Mormon? No time! “You’re a merciless career woman,” my now-husband would joke, “without the career.” That’s almost every academic now: a merciless career-person without the career.

So when yet another job market season came and went, and the sole campus visit through which I’d just suffered turned out to be an inside hire, I had a sudden and overwhelming realization, of the sort that makes people write things like The Myth of Sisyphus. Because my entire previous eight years had been lived in service of a goal that quite obviously was not going to pan out, they had, in effect, been…not a colossal waste of time per se, but hopelessly misguided, simply because I’d been under the truly idiotic impression that all that sacrifice would result in something.

If I’d known, I would have gone about some things much differently. For example, I would have spent graduate school fucking around and partying, like a bunch of people I know who are now on the tenure track. I would have spent my Fulbright in Austria like all the other Fulbrighters did: drunk on cheap wine and gallivanting about the Alps, instead of holed up in my one-room, unheated flat pounding on a keyboard. I would have treated my dissertation fellowship year as everyone else I know treated theirs: as the perfect time to squeeze out a kid. I would have spent my first year as an adjunct, in which I made $19,000, writing things I wanted to write on my own time, instead of revising this article four fucking times because one asshole reader skipped over all of the Wittgenstein parts and then insisted the paper did nothing “new.”

I would have turned down the post-doc at Ohio State (they had nudge-nudge wink-winked me about a tenure line that both would not appear, and would not be for me even if it did) in favor of the one at Columbia, with the sole purpose of fucking around with my friends in New York, the last place I actually had any friends. I would have spent the Christmas breaks of 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 paying un-distracted, un-angstified, un-miserable and un-preoccupied attention to my loved ones, instead of manically preparing for a smattering of interviews at places I would never have been able to convince my husband to move. I would, in short, have enjoyed my life.

Nowadays, that is my only goal. I was talking about this to Sarah Kendzior the other day (who I am proud to call my friend; we’re a perfect match—nobody can pronounce her name, and nobody can spell mine!). I asked her whether she thought any of my writing had “prescriptive” content career-wise. “The only prescription,” she said, “is do whatever the fuck you want, because it doesn’t matter anyway.”

In the context of a country where record corporate profits mean there is zero incentive whatsoever to remedy a shitty employment market, she’s absolutely right. Unless you were born a winner, able to spend $300,000 on college and then work an unpaid internship for five years, you’re pretty fucked. So in whatever free time you can cobble together between whatever you do to pay the rent? Do and say whatever you can get away with.

All this brings me to my real point, which is: I am attempting with varying degrees of success to soak up all of California into my soul during the last three days we’re here, because I cannot stand to leave.

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Today, Karen Kelsky Tweeted me from MLA, “Wish you were here!” Here’s where I was when I got it.

There are several reasons I don’t entirely regret getting my doctorate: I met my husband eight years ago this week (in Kant seminar! He liked my transcendental aesthetic!); I wouldn’t be education columnist at Slate now otherwise; and, of course, I got to live here in California, under this big sparkling sky, where pretty much every single day is the most beautiful day you have ever seen.

I need to move back here with the second-deepest need I have ever felt (although one, to be fair, that is both healthier than wanting to be a tenure-track professor, and many times more achievable). So, look what a hypocrite I am. I’ve spent the past eight months with only one goal: turn my post-academic breakdown into a public performance, to demystify and destigmatize the process, with no consideration for my future, since my future is fucked anyway. But now I had to take the most sublime trip ever out here, and so here I am with a goddamned goal again.

Shit.

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23 thoughts on “From Goal-Oriented, to EFF IT, to Goal-Oriented: The World’s Least Interesting Journey

  1. Love you. Love you. Love you. This was amazing!! Project Happiness. Subscribe me. The price I’ve paid for moving across and within three continents is very high–my scars run deep. I have depleted my ability to withstand another dislocation and the searing loneliness of being an outsider. I also wish I would have done things differently, but we’re all generals after the war, huh?

    The good news? Like you, I believe in living in CA. The good news is that I am IN California already, the Bay Area no less, an arrangement that made giving up the academic market much easier. A position in my field recently came up in Michigan… I shuddered when I saw the add and, briefly, oh so briefly, contemplated applying. But oh no, ladies and gentlemen, I’ve paid my dues already and I got something better than a TT anywhere: I got a life track in California!! Also, I’ve been thinking about you because I have decided to wear whatever I want when I teach my adjunct courses: two tone bright oxfords, gold sparkly flats…nail polish is next (might make it blood red, to boot).

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  2. So glad to hear you have decided to have a life! I did the opposite of what you did. Twenty years ago I chose my life over my career–against everyone’s advice. While ABD, I had a baby and followed Spouse #1 from academic job to academic job (4 moves) and adjuncted (1 course a semester) and enjoyed raising a child. Then Spouse #1 dumped me (when he got tenure), so I finished my diss assuming I would never get a TT but wanting to finish that unfinished business. I had spent ten years being an ABD/adjunct so I had genuinely believed I had no chance at a proper academic career. Everyone’s warnings seem to have come true. But through a bit of luck I landed a TT at a low-ranked local teaching college (my one and only job interview) and am now a tenured associate professor. I am still surprised and grateful I have a “real” job after having done everything *wrong.* Because I have lived life the way I wanted I have absolutely no regrets. I probably enjoy my career more now than if I had tried to follow the proper path (the sacrifices for which would have embittered me). The point is that all those “rules” about how to have a career are nonsense because some of us break them and do fine and some of us follow them and are immiserated. The only rule to follow is to live your life. I look forward to hearing about your increasing happiness. Cheers!

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  3. What a beautiful, heartwarming post. Yes, please move back to Cali because it seems like your Twitter feed/updates have been so cheery and sunshine-y all through your break! I relocated to a bigger city post-PhD (after grad school in a small-ish college town and no employment after PhD) and it’s made a 100% difference to my happiness. This advice we keep getting — “You need to be prepared to move wherever the jobs are” — is flawed and dangerous to our collective mental health.

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    1. It really is. And one doesn’t get enough time to breathe and figure out what one wants, how far one is willing to go, and doesn’t have enough information. I was totally willing to move to a good R1 regardless of weather and so on, but had no idea what it would be to live in towns without bookstores or about how awful (for me) it is below the R2 level … I do not like small schools or small towns, I have no patience for freshmen, and while I am happy to teach the underprivileged it is really rough not to ever have really good graduate students and to have to function as much as a generalist as I have had to do. So what it comes down to is, most academic jobs are so different from anything I had thought of, they are a different world; I’d have been much better off staying home and working for some research firm or something, and in fact when I was in graduate school and kept being told I would never get a job and there were no jobs, my thought was to work for something like UNESCO.

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  4. Unlike Karen, I love Illinois and UIUC, but if I can’t have a job like that kind of job, all I really care about is living in SoCal, as in, on an OC beach. Well, not really all, but you see what I mean.

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  5. P.S. I am told you can commute by light rail to CSU-SM from Solana Beach, and that Solana Beach real estate is still comparatively “cheap” compared to further south in SD county and into OC.

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      1. We used VRBO but I would actually recommend going local. There’s a local co in San Clemente called Beachcomber that has great properties. This property has a great location, but leaves some things to be desired (no full kitchen, not the MOST privacy).

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  6. Also: on how to do graduate school and so on — yes, you totally were too serious and self-flagellating. I never understood why people feel guilty about not working outside working hours, it only leads to burnout. I don’t know about totally screwing around, but the way to prepare for MLA interviews is not to wreck your Christmas, you arrive stressed out. And a friend of mine from graduate school who was so freaked out about having the right persona that she policed all earrings, insisted on dowdy clothes, etc., has now had a nervous breakdown.

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  7. Did you mean for this post to be prescriptive? Because your description of all the things you didn’t do during grad school sound pretty nice. Moving halfway across the country and popping out a baby is kind of what I most want to do while “finishing my dissertation.” But I really do need the reminders that it won’t screw me over any more than the system already does.

    Good luck with the getting to California goal! It seems like writing and coaching type businesses might be fairly portable, so I hope you are able to develop the most flexible pursuits enough to go where you want.

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    1. I post like every fifth blog or so…because between the Slate articles (2/week now), the Chronicle (2/month on average) and the blog, I am shamelessly self-promoting on social media EVERY DAY and it has got to be exhausting to people.

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