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.
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.