Saturday, March 14, 2009
My career in academia has bankrupted me.
After 4 years of graduate school, I had some serious student loan debt, but the future still looked bright. I found a great job working as an instructor in a collegial, supportive department at a university whose students I adore, in a part of the country I love, and was regularly handed upper-division courses to teach as part of my 4/4.
Sure, I earned so little that my student loans were in economic hardship deferral from day one, but this was an inventment in my future!
Sure, I lived in such an expensive part of the country that I was forced to live in cramped apartments with ancient appliances and keep drumming life out of my now-14-year-old everything’s-wrong-with-it-and-it-don’t-look-nice-neither car, but investment, friend, investment!
Sure, even given the deferral and the cheap living I still couldn’t quite live on what I earned, and I went a few thousand dollars deeper into credit card debt with each year that passed, but as soon as that t-t job (hopefully in a cheaper part of the country!) came through, I’d pay it all off and start building equity somewhere!
Investment, I say!
So I spent three years getting experience teaching and publishing before picking just the most perfect year to go out and look for a job in academia: 08-09, the year of hell. Barely any jobs in my field were on offer; of those I applied to, half were canceled before the interview stage. But then, at the last minute, I received a call: come to the MLA! Is it worth going to MLA for just one interview? I decided in the end it must be, and in a way it was: I booked my last-minute travel plans, bought interview clothes, went, did great, got called for a flyback, and, after dancing the dance of Snoopy happiness, checked my finances. I’m used to being broke, but I’d never been maxed out before. Maxed out. All my credit cards (4 of them) maxed out at about what I earn in a year. Actually a little more than what I earn in a year.
Suddenly I realize I’ve bet the house: if I get the job, I’ll be fine. But if I don’t get the job, I’m bankrupt. I can’t afford to pay my bills. And if I’m back on the job market next year, I have no more credit for plane tickets and hotels – I’ll have to start saving for that now. Suddenly all this “investing” I’ve been doing looks like nothing more than an increasingly deep hole I’ve been digging for myself. Again, I’m doing great work: I’m publishing admirably and teaching great classes, well – I even got invited to sit on a MFA student’s thesis committee, which is unprecedented for a mere instructor! But none of that seems to matter right now, as I find my eyes lingering on the roadside billboards of local bankruptcy attorneys.
I finally got the call: I didn’t get the job. From a professional standpoint I fully understand, and I’m honored to have even been in the running, especially given how competitive things were this year. But now that the dust has settled, one thing has become incredibly clear: my career has bankrupted me. And that's affected me.
Lately I’m having trouble connecting with my students. I feel like my classes are a joke. I haven’t been able to write. I’m demoralized. I’m degraded. I do good work in the classroom and valuable work in my field, but I feel like that doesn’t matter. I’m a broke-ass about-to-go-bankrupt nobody who’s just punching in and collecting a meager paycheck, grateful for my health benefits but scared of losing them. I need to break out of this funk if I’m going to make it, and I will, dammit. I think. But the economy still stinks and next year doesn’t look any better.
Anyone thinking about teaching in the humanities, beware.