When I decided to enter graduate school, I was attracted by the prospect of studying topics deeply and having the time and the space in which to do so. I wanted to read Kant, Hegel, Joyce's Ulysses, and develop a mature and independent understanding of literary and philosophical subjects, an understanding that is so different from the superficial comprehension college students are usually asked to demonstrate at the end of the term.
I have gone through two immigrations and my school and college years were marked by financial insecurity. I studied hard, but found it difficult to focus on humanistic projects that, for me, require sustained attention and some confidence in the future. Though I was reluctant to leave the city where I'd gone to college, a graduate education was the only way to remain on the path that I'd chosen, and to become a mature, independent thinker. Having very little financial support to fall back on, the alternative was a taxing full-time job in the city that would have left me very little time for intellectual pursuits.
During my first few years in graduate school, I was indeed able to read extensively in literature and philosophy, and to develop a deeper understanding of a few of these subjects. Even then, though, I felt that I was somehow going against the grain. Students and some faculty regarded me as too serious, too studious. While I was trying to understand the difference between Benjamin's and Derrida's concepts of temporality, more worldly students were already developing their brands of academic criticism and networking with faculty. It took me a while to catch on.
I held on to the idea of developing a serious research project, even as I was learning to play the academic game: to vie for senior faculty's attention; write conference abstracts that sounded “sexy.” I was never great at it, but I plodded along, keeping pace with most of my peers. The problem was that with all these activities, in addition to the responsibilities of teaching, time was becoming scarce. I was left with only a few hours a week that I could dedicate to research, and those hours were also often consumed by e-mail correspondence or anxiety about an upcoming presentation or application for funding.
In my fourth year, I decided to take my dissertation fellowship and move to Oregon, where my sister lived. I wrote almost all of my dissertation during that year, and remained in Oregon for my protracted job search. I have been teaching at a local community college for the past two years, with working conditions that resemble those of my graduate instruction and of many adjunct instructors. I have been lucky to have health insurance and to maintain a relatively light teaching schedule, leaving some time for research.
I realize that different people enter the academy for different reasons: some love to teach; others might prefer collaborative projects to individual essays; another group welcomes the use of technology in the humanities. I respect all these modes of intellectual work and have enjoyed taking part in them. Yet as I explore alternatives to the mythical tenure-track job—where, so I'd been told, some of the time is dedicated to research and thinking—I find no true alternatives. Apart from (some) graduate programs, there is no institutional framework that supports sustained, independent thinking, thinking that is tied neither to economic nor political considerations.
I would like to emphasize this point in light of a 2010 post by Mary Churchill, suggesting that this type of thinking is the legacy of male privilege. While the association with masculinity unfortunately still exists, there is nothing essentially gendered about sustained, deep thinking. Some of our foremost feminist theorists were and are such thinkers. We would not have the work of Simone de Beauvoir, Luce Irigaray or Julia Kristeva had women summarily rejected deep thinking as a masculine activity.
While I support the struggle for better working conditions for non-tenure track faculty--recognizing also that the current conditions are often more onerous for women than men--I have begun to question my personal investment in an academic career. Despite some doubts, I often believed that one only had to work hard enough to be admitted into that privileged, hallowed space of academic research. Faculty still give me that sort of advice from time to time: publish more; apply for another post-doc; attend another conference. Yet I doubt now that after all the concessions and compromises, after all the competitive grasping, I will find support for anything that resembles the free and ethical academic research that I had hoped to undertake.
Polina Kroik received a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UC Irvine in 2011. Her interests include gender and work in American literature, transnational literature, cultural studies, and critical theory. Kroik has guest-edited a special issue of WorkingUSA: The Journal of Labor and Society on the topic of "Contemporary Labor and Cultural Exchange." She also teaches writing part-time at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon.