Friday, October 10, 2014

Fall: The Academic Job Season

I let my MLA membership lapse this year, stopped going to conferences a year ago, quit pursuing academic publications in favor of writing ones for places that paid. I gave the job market three tries, and never even got a request for an interview. Which, looking back, makes plenty of sense -- despite the importance of doing so, I never published a peer-reviewed article. What was I thinking? But in the end, that pushed me back out into a life that might turn out to be a better fit.

I got a new job that I love, as associate editor for the literary magazine and eponymous press Two Lines (look how pretty our covers are!). How lucky is that? What a dream opportunity to work with incredibly well-read colleagues who genuinely care about poetry and avant-garde literature. I'm working out this life that's part reading and writing, part editing, part adjuncting for the best program on the planet for adjuncts: the Fall Program for Freshmen, run by UC Berkeley Extension for spring admit Berkeley freshmen. Teaching smart kids, editing literature, writing for fun and money -- all good. I even teach and hold office hours in Wheeler Hall, which is also the home of the English dept at Berkeley.

Then I opened an email a month ago about local jobs in higher ed .
I usually glance at them, see if there's any good admin or adjunct spots opening up. This time, I saw, ahead of the JIL being open, ahead of when I should have had to actively avoid the job announcements so as not to cast loving, longing glances at the career that won't be mine, the job that would be the most perfect, perfect job for me: 20th/21st Century British, Assistant Professor, at UC Berkeley. The department that occupies the building I teach in. The best English department in the US. The one in my backyard. It's 1000 PhDs' dream job. But you know who doesn't hire adjuncts teaching their own freshmen into tenure track positions? Three guesses, and the first two don't count.

By turning so resolutely away from academia, though, I was in an even weaker position than I would have been at this point last year. I'm pretty sure my dissertation wouldn't stand up to their sharp eyes anyway, and I'd have to revise my diss during the same semester I am teaching and working at the publisher 20 hours a week. And believe me, with wild eyes, I contemplated that. I thought of back-pedaling and asking for letters of rec and just going in whole hog, without a care for the almost certain failure that would result even if I were fully prepared to actually enter the academic job market again.

And I got that idea into my head again when the OTHER perfect job showed up in my inbox, emailed by a kind and well-meaning friend who snagged a good postdoc this year, after a couple years of adjuncting. The job's at a pretty decent big public university in a more than decent location -- and they are looking for someone who does contemporary Irish lit with an interest in poetics and trans-atlantic focus.  Which is exactly how I would describe my focus, and last year I think there was maybe one Irish job, overall, so this is a fucking unicorn. I mean, maybe that means they want someone who studies both Heaney and Braithwaite, not five barely published avant garde poets inspired by the LANGUAGE poets in the US . But I could believe that at least it would just be me and 20 other folks, instead of 1000, but it would mean uprooting and making my cats and husband leave their home, saying goodbye to my parents and sister, and enduring snow. Lots of snow. LOTS of it. And you can't just drive away from it like you can when you're tired of skiing in Tahoe. In any case, my CV being stagnant doesn't show much gumption and get-go, and there was plenty I was happy to say goodbye to in academia (like... academic writing and the crushing feeling of being terrible at my chosen path and the two years of writers' block and the dissertation-sponsored-by-whiskey).

But my plan to resolutely avoid thinking of the opportunities I'd lost by leaving academia was ruined. I could been someone else entirely, with an actual office, and graduate students, and a full time salary with benefits, and the pride of knowing I'd accomplished my goals and fulfilled my potential by achieving the hard-won dream of being a professor. Running into a professor I'd worked with in grad school in the halls of Wheeler -- he was attending a gathering of professors concerned about the state of the American university, I was coming out of my writing-intensive English class for freshmen -- who asked after my job market plans and offered any help I'd need didn't exactly salve the wound.

But that's not who I am now. and I'm watching the days tick down to the deadlines of those two jobs -- I haven't looked at them since they first showed up in my inbox, but I memorized those due dates. Once that due date is past, that's another door shut on the alternative future.

Each decision we make closes down another future. When I took four classes a semester in college, that closed down hundreds of other opportunities and paths that taking a different set of classes would have led me down. When I chose to get married, that closed down alternative paths. When I committed to the Bay Area, that closed down other paths. I can imagine so intensely those other paths -- my childhood friend who loved writing as much as I did and has her first novel (starred review in Kirkus! YA novel set in Haiti!) out while she finishes her grad degree in anthropology (go buy it!) -- we wrote the first part of a novel together at 15, but I wandered off while she seems to have held tight to that path. The friend of my sister's, from our small town (our fathers are surfer buddies), who writes for the New Yorker now -- I can see, when I follow their paths, how they got to where they are. Boldness, certainty, trust in themselves, and maybe some luck.

This is probably where mumblings of "fate" help people out -- I can't have other lives, other jobs, because this one is the one I was destined for. But I am too much of a dedicated atheist and vehement materialist to see a large guiding hand in all of this -- it's all on me, my decisions, my abilities, my limitations -- that's what got me here and will bring me forward -- or sideways, who knows.

I just hope I can hear who those two departments hire without getting that wincing twinge of opportunities missed. Or maybe I won't hear at all -- maybe by the time they announce the hires next spring, I'll be so far away from this whole world, so wrapped up in writing and editing, that I won't even think to look. Maybe.

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