It’s Summer Break: Do You Know Where Your Professor Is?

by Rebecca Schuman

Hey, it’s summer vacation for academics, so it’s the perfect time for a road trip! Let’s all go visit the eminences of our fields, in the vibrant towns, cities and hamlets where many of them hang their mortarboards–you know, that soulless, unwalkable exurb; that cold-as-bejeezus mid-sized “city” whose greatest selling point is that it’s only two hours away from Detroit; that college town with fifty dive bars, where Qdoba counts as “Mexican food” and when the university got rid of its racist mascot or serial rapist football coach, the students rioted; that post-industrial Rust Belt city that battles it out every year with my home, St. Louis, for most murders.

These places, of course, are not all bad–and all of them, simply by being affordable and devoid of both hedge-fund types and tech-startup types, are in many ways “better” than New York and San Francisco–and if you move there with an open heart and mind (and your family in tow!), lay down roots, embrace the local culture and get embraced back (if you don’t live in St. Louis, which is full of provincial folk who shun anyone who doesn’t go four generations back), you may very well have a long and wonderful life there.

That is true, yes–and it’s also what our advisers and mentors and “betters” tell us when we’re on the job market: Don’t be an elitist about where you live. If you weren’t such an elitist, they say, you’d love it wherever  you managed to get yourself hired, even before you moved there–and you would have “projected” that love during your campus visit. Instead, your wide-eyed terror at having your every move scrutinized by a bunch of strangers who used your appetizer order to assess the “quality of your mind” (true story) was misunderstood as sneering rejection of the college’s unpretentious locale.

And, alas, if you don’t “project” enough love for a place that is 1000 miles from your closest family member or friend immediately, then that means you never deserved an academic job in the first place, you elitist. Embrace your inner North Dakotan, the FULLPROF intones fullprofily–

–as he puts the finishing touches on his two-month sublet in San Francisco, New York, Paris, London or Madrid. Because here’s the thing–all those people who tell you not to be such an elitist, that their towns, wherever they are, are “not that bad”? (And make no mistake, if you have any support system there at all, no town is bad; if you have nobody, even New York and San Francisco are bad.)

Anyway, like I said, here’s the thing: For every single second these academics are not required to be in those towns, they are nowhere to be found. Crickets. Their massive, often-subsidized houses are empty altogether. Go to any college town in Real America right now–Columbus, Little Rock, Tuscaloosa, Lawrence KS, Baton Rouge, Bloomington, Madison, College Station, State College–and the professors, provided that they have not been stupid enough to marry a local with a real job, are packing their bags.

And they are leaving–for every sabbatical, for every break–for exactly the same reasons that I got out of Columbus every second I didn’t have to be there: To visit their loved ones, to be near support systems, to escape, at times, truly atrocious weather (ahem St. Louis)*.

The vast majority of academics have sacrificed a great deal to pursue their chosen careers, and that almost always includes moving somewhere they would never have otherwise considered living in their wildest nightmares. And yet, often they manage to eke out happiness and thrive–but a lot of this is precisely because they only have to stay there eight months out of the year. So my question is: Why can’t academics just be honest about this? Why can they not, on your campus visit, say Oh, yeah, this town is–well it’s a place, just like all other places, and it has its good and its bad, but the best thing about being an academic is that you have a lot of time to live wherever you want, and a nine-over-twelve pay scheme, weehoo! Aren’t we lucky!

Because they are lucky. And the ability to get out of dodge and go to Tokyo or Singapore or Sydney for three months a year is probably the best perk of being on the tenure-track . And if people were just open about that, the rest of us wouldn’t feel so utterly, terribly guilty for being elitist when our betters are allegedly so ready for domestic adventure; we wouldn’t feel like such lonely, utter failures to assimilate if we know that it was totally OK to miss your loved ones and wish you were nearer to them–and leave to be nearer to them whenever possible. I am legitimately curious as to why more successful academics aren’t forthcoming and forgiving to struggling academics who dare to admit that moving all around Creation and being heart-wrenchingly lonely all the time isn’t the greatest way to live. And I’d love to show up at all of their houses and ask them–except, of course, it’s summer, and so nobody’s around.

*The original draft of this post had a minor rant about the lackluster scenery of the St. Louis region. My fellow St. Louisan Sarah Kendzior took legitimate issue with this, and pointed out a bunch of places I am too curmudgeonly to go. Lest this devolve into some sort of giant fight with St. Louisans, I deleted it, because as far as places to get stuck as an academic is concerned (which is why we live here; my husband’s job), St. Louis is definitely in the top of the field, simply because it has a Korean/Nepalese restaurant.