My career has broken up with me, or at least it feels that way.
For five years I have managed to line up limited term contract after limited term contract. The workload has at times been enormous, but I kept telling myself that I was doing the work I’d been trained to do. In the process of doing the work I’d been trained to do I learned that I love teaching. Indeed, I learned that I love teaching enough to talk about it in public over and over again. I’ve learned to worry about the conditions that structure the profession I fell in love with in 1997 when I took my first undergraduate poetry class at the University of North Carolina. I’ve learned though experience to fret publicly about the ways in which the shift to a corporate model affects students, teachers, the academic mission, and, yes, the future. And now, for the first time in five years I am unemployed.
I have been struggling with how to write this post for a few weeks. Indeed, I haven’t been able to figure out how to write it. Part of the struggle comes from not knowing what I want to say, exactly. Part of it comes from not knowing how to articulate the struggle itself. And the biggest struggle has come from fear. Fear of reprisal, fear of making myself and my own experience too public, fear of becoming an object of pity rather than an active agent in the process of positive change. After all, there are things one can say in a public forum, there are things one should say in a public forum, and then there are those things that fall under the category of the unspeakable. Guess which category this post falls under?
Each time I struggle with writing a blog post I find myself remembering a piece of advice I received a few years ago from my colleague Rohan Maitzen, who is herself an incredibly accomplished blogger. I had posted a kind of passive-aggressive “why do I even do this” message on Facebook–like y’do when you want to have reassurance but don’t have the guts to just ask for it straight up–and Rohan wrote “sounds like its time for a meta-post on why blogging matters.” She was right.
So, I’m going to try and take Rohan’s advice and think a bit in public about how to manage disappointment in the academic sphere, even though it feels both risky and self-indulgent.
Disappointment is something I have been learning to metabolize for years now. Yes, I get that this sounds petulant, and in a way it is. Bear with me. Academia is a combination of incredible affirmations and small and big disappointments. Indeed, I think that recognizing the affirmations and privilege are as important as learning how to deal with disappointment. Some of that disappointment metabolizing is good and necessary work. Didn’t get that grant? Didn’t get the job? Didn’t get the paper accepted to the journal? Didn’t get into the conference? All of these things happen, and to an extent they are simply part of the system built on peer review and other gatekeeping that is intended to ensure excellent work. But what happens when disappointment becomes the status quo? When you do everything right, when you are the recommended candidate, or the Dean who speaks up, and the structures that are supposedly in place to protect you fail? Do you take it as a sign that your work–or you–aren’t right for the job/journal/granting system? Do you move on? Do you get stuck?
The questions I’m really interested in talking about right now are less about the broken system of academia and more about how others manage public disappointment. Let me be brutally direct: one of the things I have tried to do on this blog over the last several years is write frankly about my own experience as a contract worker on the job market. The results of this experience have been mixed. On the one hand, I have had the great privilege of building community. I have heard from people who share similar experiences, and that shared experience is comforting. There is a kind of strength in numbers.
On the other hand I find that I am myself most guilty of talking not about the work I’m doing but of the work of trying to secure work. While frank conversation about the job market is necessary it is also costly in ways I couldn’t have predicted. It is a funny thing to be known for your work on getting work rather than the “real” work you do (wait, what do I do again?)
It is an equally funny thing finding yourself in the empathy trap. Now that I am facing unemployment and the necessity to shift to a plan B be it DIY Academia or an alt-ac position or who knows what I also have to consider how to manage my emotions when people offer empathy. I have publicly written myself into a place where my search for stable work is part of my public praxis, and I have done that deliberately (perhaps, as it turns out, to my detriment. Silly me). I think it is important to demonstrate the challenges (to put it mildly) of doing the work while applying to do the work. But I wonder now about the efficacy of my decisions. Writing my struggles–emotional, physical, psychological–has been my decision, but I’m starting to wonder if I haven’t actually added to the problem. I mean really, what responses are left when faced with someone you ostensibly respect who hasn’t found a place in the system? You tell them they matter. The work they do matters. You tell them that it stinks that they don’t have stable work and that it is unfair. And probably it is unfair, but there you are, face-to-face, at a stalemate. If you’re jobbed and you care then you’re inevitably in a position of empathy. You are in a position of relative privilege. If you’re not jobbed and you care, then you’re in the position of needing to tell the caring person you’re ok. You’ll manage. Because honestly, it is the system, it isn’t them. This, friends, is the empathy trap. It is a real thing and we are all, one way or another bound up in it, be we jobbed, not jobbed, or somewhere in between.
Now that I am not jobbed at all, now that I have experienced what others before me have since this long recession began, now that I have been let down by the system so dramatically that I am having a hard time getting out of bed sometimes I wonder: what does empathy really do? Is empathy a means of avoiding anger? Shouldn’t we all be angry?
Last week I was working on my conference paper for ACCUTE, and while it felt ridiculous and futile to be putting a paper together when I have no work lined up writing this paper, giving it, and thinking in public is what I have been trained to do. This careful thinking is what Canadian taxpayers have paid me to do, moreover. So I’ll do some of that here as a means of getting to what I mean by the empathy trap. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion Sara Ahmed writes about the necessity of anger for the feminist movement. Further, anger is a necessity for a future-oriented hope:
If anger is a form of ‘against-ness,’ then it is precisely about the impossibility of moving beyond the history of injuries to a pure or innocent position. Anger does not necessarily require an investment in revenge, which is one form of reaction to what one is against. Being against something is dependent on how one reads what one is against….The question becomes: What form of action is possible given that reading? (175)
Ahmed draws on Black feminist writing and Audre Lorde specifically to think through the ways in which anger is crucial for the necessary energy to react against injustice. Lorde writes
My fear of anger taught me nothing…. Anger expressed and translated into action in the service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification….Anger is loaded with information and energy. (Sister/Outsider 124, 127)
Anger, as Ahmed puts it, is framed here as a “response to injustice; as a vision and version of the future; as a translation of pain into knowledge; and as being loaded with information and energy” (175). Anger, she writes, is not simply a response to the past, it is an opening up into the future. It is a means of moving forward out of what is without forgetting what was. “If anger energizes feminist subjects, it also requires those subject to ‘read’ and ‘move’ from anger into a different bodily world” (175).
My question, then, is this: how do we move beyond the empathy trap in small and big ways? How do we acknowledge what is and get angry about it in ways that will move us into a future that is more generative and generous? (and by ‘us’ I mean people working in academia, because working on the margins and the outside always already makes you more vulnerable). I think that the ACCUTE CAF Best Practices sheet, which offers suggestions for how departments can support contingent faculty members, may be one way, and I hope that conversations here are another way. Certainly, the work that my blogging colleagues are doing each week is helping me nuance my thinking. But these alone are not enough. Once you read a blog post and get angry or empathetic, what do you do? What other ways are you cultivating for managing the disappointments that stem from a broken system?