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More on the Economic Myth of “Choice”
July 18, 2012 - 8:50pm

Life is a series of choices. But the choices we make are dictated by factors that are largely outside of our control; our choices are dictated by others’ choices and other circumstances that surround us. In both the debates about exploitation in academia and even within the feminist movement, the common refrain used to refute any complaints is that, “you have a choice” or “you made the choice, now live with it.” 

(Or, you know, shut up and just look at the bright side. My colleague took care of that one, and look! It comes down to the circumstances of choice as well!)

Let’s look at some of my choices, shall we?

Choice 1: Graduate School

This is the fateful choice, is it not? The one that gets everything started. I made this choice in the mid-nineties, when we were still lead to believe that the Boomers would retire and there would be a demand for young PhDs given the growing demand (both demographically and economically) for higher education. This was before the internet was overrun with blogs and essays and statistics painting a bleak picture of the academic job market. I was also told that I was smart and capable and hard working and a good writer/researcher/teacher so I would have no problem getting a job. You know, the myth of the meritocracy and all.

Choice 2: Debt

Funny story about my debt: I didn’t plan on incurring any extra debt during my PhD. I had no choice but to go into debt during my undergraduate education because there was no way my family could help out. But there was also absolutely no way I was not going to college. But, (keep in mind I am Canadian), the provincial student loan group decided that it had over-paid me one previous semester and demanded all of the money back yesterday during the first year of my PhD. I had to apply to the same group to get a loan in order to pay them back. A vicious cycle began anew. But I wasn’t too worried about it, because Canada has some of the highest (relative) academic salaries in the world (if you’re on the tenure-track) and…See Choice 1.

Choice 3: Marriage

Now, see, this is where I start getting a little defensive. People “permanently” couple off (get married, have life-partners, swear fealty) all the time. In academia (unlike just about every other profession), this becomes a career-defining choice. I did, indeed, choose to marry a fellow aspiring academic. That was part of the attraction, part of the point. I was the one who insisted (mind you, he didn’t put up much of a fight) that we do whatever we could to stay together (read: in the same place) despite our academic careers. We love each other, and he is my best friend (I know, gag). Why would I want to be apart from him?

Choice 4: Moving to the United States

This was both a choice and not a choice at all. Because of a series of events outside of my control (and my reactions to it, which I did), I became ostracized within my PhD program. The environment had become so toxic, my dissertation advisor basically told me to get out and go with my husband to California where he was starting his dissertation. Being a Canadian and a post-secondary educator, I was able to take advantage of a very generous NAFTA provision for working in higher education as a teacher. There are more post-secondary institutions in Southern California than all of Canada combined, so my pool was greatly expanded in terms of potential employers. I was lucky and got a position within the Cal State system (remember, this was over five years ago), and between my husband’s funding and my job, we were comfortable newlyweds. We had a great community of friends, professionally I had the opportunity to teach new classes and create a new professional network. And, see Choice 3.

Choice 5: Having Kids

I’m in my late 20s. I have two choices: wait until I get a tenure-track job, tenure, and then have kids, or have them now when both my husband and I have the community support and professional flexibility to take care of a baby. I have always wanted kids, so the no-kid option wasn’t really one for me. The reality of the job market for literature/English PhDs was becoming increasingly clear, and I didn’t want to be having kids in my late 30s, ten years later than that moment, or at all if I was waiting for tenure, which may never have happened. So we had my daughter. Then I got pregnant with my son.

Choice 6: Giving up the Tenure-Track job

We got pregnant with my son when we reasonably thought that I wasn’t going to get a tenure-track job during that particular hiring cycle. I announced to my family that I was expecting and the day after I got the offer for a tenure-track job starting in the fall. What reasonable person turns down a tenure-track job? Then again, what reasonable person leaves after just one year? A number of factors came into play, details which I won’t go into here, but my husband was offered his dream job while my position was far, far from ideal. The dream and promise of a tenure-track job versus the reality at a state institution facing shrinking enrollments, budgets, and state support (as well as external pressures from accrediting bodies) was eye-opening to say the least. So, with the weight of Choices 3 and 5 behind us, we moved and I left a tenure-track position.

Choice 7: Becoming an Instructor

We’ve moved twice in two years, between three different states, all the way across the country. We still have our debts from our educations. Bills needed to be paid. And because we a) moved to a small, rural, economically depressed area and b) are Canadian (see Choice 4), my options for employment were limited. So I jumped at the chance to work full-time and pull a reliable (if low) salary. I had spent a year virtually unemployed and I was miserable. I didn’t know anyone. I missed being in front of the classroom. I wanted a network of colleagues again. So, I jumped, in hindsight, a little too fast. Now, I am in the situation where I am severely underpaid (even compared to the other instructors) and increasingly feeling powerless within my position.

Where have I been unreasonable, readers? Where have I asked too much?  I recognize my privilege and know that “I should be glad I even have a job at all” (shudder). But at what point, then, can we look at the systematic failings of higher education (or our entire economy) and say, ENOUGH? And what are my choices now, with limited job prospects where I currently live, and bills that need to get paid? Why is it a crime to demand to be paid what I am worth, a choice that is a victim of my other “choices” which to me seem reasonable and as well-informed as they could have been at the time. Why does choosing marriage and a family seem to automatically mean that I forgo 60-80% of my potential earnings (and keep in mind that I had virtually no time lost for maternity leave)?

So I choose to work to change this. I have to; what other choice do I have so I can look myself in the mirror and no shudder at what I have become? So I can face my children, my husband? Face you, my readers?

 

 

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