Monday, July 15, 2013

The Quest for Freedom: Why I'm Leaving Academia. Temporarily. Maybe.

Today is a big day. Many of my friends and family know about it, but this is the first time I've posted here on the blog about a major transition in my life. In about three weeks, I will no longer be employed by the University of South Florida as a Postdoctoral Research Fellow. My two-year contract is expiring, so there's nothing terribly dramatic about that. What's more notable is that I'm not, as most academics at this juncture would be expected to, packing up and shipping off to another city to start either a tenure-track job or a visiting assistant professorship somewhere.  Instead, I've spent the last few months fine-tuning a resume (not a C.V.), thinking about what skills I've acquired in my time in academia, and, starting a few weeks ago, applying for jobs in copywriting.

In other words, I'm leaving academia.

I don't know if this is a permanent bail.  Probably not.  Right up until the end of my fellowship, I seem to find working on my academic book proposal (for my book on Japanese Underground hip hop) way more compelling and interesting than the task of finding a real-world job, so we're already experiencing some nostalgia.  But for a number of reasons, I feel I have to take some time to discover what the alternatives are, and whether I feel they might fit me.

The idea of doing this first emerged about nine months ago, and I blame love.  There was a woman, and I felt things that I hadn't felt about anyone in a decade.  She opened me up - and I thought to myself, how can I leave this? It's the expectation, the way the model works - from postdoc in place A to Assistant in Place B, with no choice, nothing but the luck of the draw.  And the profoundly dated presumption that as a primary breadwinner, a professor could pick up and carry his (presumptively, his) entire brood anywhere.  But now marriages dissolve because neither spouse can or wants to compromise on their job.  Which, for me, seems like mistaken priorities.

That love affair ended in blood and fire - itself a transformational lesson in how callous humans can really be - but in the meantime other thoughts had crept in.  Last November, I visited my friend, an assistant professor at a private liberal arts college in a very small town.  I went there, and I saw he and his wife putting on a triumphant performance of mutual tolerance, and I took the three-minute walk to the only coffee shop in the three-stoplight town, and I heard the stress in his voice as he lamented his three year review, and the amount of pressure put on his teaching evaluations.  He seemed worn, old.  Another academic friend of mine indirectly revealed that for her full-time professorship, she was being paid barely more than I was earning doing only research.  The professorship that I'd been dreaming of all these years began to seem like a less alluring reality.

I powered through graduate school in Iowa City and nearly had a breakdown from loneliness and life-threatening weather, maybe because I could not conceive of a better alternative.  In Florida, though, one is given a profound window onto the possibilities afforded by money and flexibility.  I began to think I might someday want to be able to be spontaneous.  I might want to have great experiences that didn't involve reading.  I would perhaps really someday like to have sex on a boat.

Maybe a catamaran.

This is not to say that I want to get rich, but it will at this rate be another seven years before I can pay off a small amount in student loans.  This is an oppressive thought for me.

There was another, perhaps even more profound, because more immediate, factor.  About a year ago - just before everything went so horribly with a woman I thought I was going to spend the rest of my life with - I connected with the principal organizers of The Venture Compound, an art gallery and performance space manned entirely by lunatics and flame-headed igniting angels.  I'm in its grip, fascinated and immersed, now committed to really make this place survive, committed to insane dreams of building something.  I maneuver city politics and I meet people from all walks of life, furniture makers and architects and witches, and because we are generous with our secret selves, our darkest thoughts, they feel that they can be, in turn, and so they stand there nothing but men with their skin on.

I am in the world, suddenly, I am of the world.  I have completely inverted my relationship to being.

And so now, I'm fantasizing about a new life, where I am part of a team that pursues a great goal together, instead of a series of piddling goals separately.  I want to think about the least predictable ways what I'm doing could impact, not just a few elites, but a true public.  I want to intervene in something other than debates.

I don't know if I have it in me.  Sometimes I look at myself and I just see some passive eunuch.  And I look at the world and it seems bleak, how do all those people do it out there without an institution behind them, without some superficially benign branch of the nanny state at their back, massed rifles just out of sight?

No, I don't really feel that way.  Education is a vital public good.  But still, how can I live if the government isn't forcing those Iowa farmers to support me?

But I think I'll figure it out.  I really do.  After all, people do it all the time, right?  Every day.  And it's not necessarily comfortable, or easy, there's that feeling of some small hook pulling your belly down hollow from the inside.  But in return you get the certainty that you have lived.  We as humans have been so diabolical to one another that, within a strictly bureaucratic framework, we have constructed a subjective experience that on a day to day level, for many people, is as terrifying as being stalked by a jaguar.  People kill themselves because they don't think they can handle the whole contraption, all of it put into place by nothing but humans working with and against fellow humans.

Wish me luck in the insanity.

I would like to thank Penelope Trunk and her utterly fearless integration of her personal struggles into her blogging about the professional world for inspiring me to pursue some new directions in my writing.  For the next few weeks or months, I'll be trying to combine my subjective experiences with some genuinely helpful and substantive reflections on the passage from academic to post-academic.

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