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Sacrifices and Self-Fulfilling Prophecies in Academic Careers
April 23, 2013 - 9:17pm

By the time my third week of sitting on the floor came around, a simple realization had begun to torment me: It’s all come true.

Only a couple of months prior, I had, to my delight, been offered an academic job in London. However, because they wanted me to start as soon as possible and I needed to surrender my passport for a work visa application, I could not go home to the United States ahead of my start date. Instead, I sank two months’ worth of living expenses into moving south, and with me I brought the sum total of my worldly possessions in Cambridge, a modest three suitcases and three small boxes of books.

The North London apartment I’d found was lovely, blessedly quiet, full of natural light, and facing a river. It was only available for rent semi-furnished though, so until my furniture order was belatedly delivered, it was also looking pretty bare, and the only comfortable position I’d found to work was the floor. Whenever I took a break to stretch (which was often), I couldn’t help but brood. This place was to be my home, the very center of the life I’d built for myself thus far. Yet what did it make that life look like? From my vantage point on the proverbial inside, it looked awfully transient, isolated…and empty.

Slightly more than a decade ago, I had seen a place much like this one. That place was the on campus apartment of an advanced, but as of yet untenured, assistant professor at my undergraduate college. It was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and my family had hit a rough patch. This professor, meaning to comfort me, invited me back to her apartment. If she reads this she will be appalled; she’s surely never thought she was doing more than stuffing me full of delivery pizza.

What actually filled me that evening was absolute horror. Her apartment? She was its sole occupant, and it almost looked like she was a squatter in there. Cardboard boxes lined one wall; there were hardly any furnishings. What few pieces of furniture she had might have been picked up at a yard sale or perhaps by the side of the road. Her television was so old I couldn’t believe it still worked. There was nothing of obvious sentimental value anywhere on display. True, she was not from the United States. But even so, my younger self wondered, how could a professor’s life be so desolate?!

By the time I returned to my dorm room, I was panicking. I’d dreamed of becoming a college professor since childhood, but how is a naïve kid to know what that life truly entails? Now I had an inkling, and who would want to make the sacrifice she’d so clearly made to be where she was? My roommate had already gone home for the holidays; my parents, with whom I had argued ferociously over the past few days, did not pick up the phone when I tried to call them. There was no one to talk to, and after much tossing and turning in my bed, I fell asleep.

When I awoke the next morning, I was resolved. If that is indeed the sacrifice required to pursue a successful academic career, I resolved to be open to making it. The one night I could have been persuaded to change course had passed, and though it has been a long and circuitous journey, it is the course I have chosen. It is the course that has brought me here—to the place where I have become just like my college professor. In all the relevant particulars.

Still, even when we know there is a price to be paid, we sometimes like to believe that we will never actually have to pay it. Maybe we’ll be able to cheat the piper. Though the troubling memory of my college professor’s apartment receded, it was never far from the back of my mind. But now that I had finally paid my dues, my back against the wall of my sunny apartment an ocean away from where I’d grown up, I had doubts. Was this really the sacrifice that was required to have a successful academic career, or did I somehow bring this isolation, this emptiness, upon myself?

My furniture was eventually delivered, of course, and nowadays I work at my desk, not on the floor. Earlier this month, I even had my first guest, an American colleague who, like me, had been on the academic job market this year. It was nice to finally be able to commiserate with someone in a similar position with similar career aspirations, and over the course of the afternoon hanging out at my new place, I told her the story of the professor and the empty apartment. I told her about the doubt gnawing at me, that maybe what I had thought was my sacrifice was really just a self-fulfilling prophecy.

“No,” said my colleague, reflecting, “I think it’s what’s required, and it’s something I only learned recently. You’re really lucky to have learned it that young.”

That much was true, at least. In the end, it’s impossible to know how much of the precariousness, the economic hardship, and the social estrangement I brought upon myself through the choices I made, and how much is a function of the structural dehumanization and everyday cruelties of modern academic careers. What I do know for sure, though, is that I have been very lucky to have had such a generous teacher. If I have, in a way, become her, it’s well worth remembering: Often we reveal far more about ourselves than we realize, and occasionally we teach our students far more than we know.

Cambridge, England in the United Kingdom

Casey Brienza joined City University London as Lecturer in Publishing and Digital Media in March 2013. She holds a first degree from Mount Holyoke College, an MA in Media, Culture, and Communication from New York University, and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Cambridge, approved in 2013.

 

 

 

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