It’s happening again. My Twitter and Facebook timelines are lighting up with reminders about all of the happy professional news that was announced in the Spring over those same airwaves (I know, it’s anachronistic, but it’s all I’ve got at the moment). All of the new positions that are being taken up. All of the awesome classes that are about to be taught. All of the cool research being funded by grants and taking place within fantastic Institutes and research groups.
And I am filled with Envy.
I am genuinely happy for my friends and colleagues; I know that they worked hard and are smart people doing smart work, and they deserve to be recognized and rewarded. But I am still filled with Envy, turning into a surely monster, filled with resentment and more than a little bit of despair. I work hard, I do good work, where is my reward?
I came across a fantastic piece late last week on Envy, in this case between authors. When one author admitted that she was envious of a more successful author, she was taken to task for it (as I expect to be here, as well). While the woman in the piece identified specific accolades, awards, or mentions (Oprah’s book club, bestseller status, Pulitzer), I don’t envy the specific situation that each of my colleagues is in; I don’t particularly want to teach a class in 18th century print culture or be a part of a team preserving local Native languages or be on the tenure-track teaching Medieval literature. These projects are well and good and interesting, but not in my wheelhouse, interest-wise (and expertise-wise). No, what I envy is what these milestones, classes, or positions stand for.
I envy the freedom that these opportunities represent; freedom to play, to explore, to innovate and be innovative in their research and/or teaching. The freedom to build and shape something meaningful. The opportunity to take the time to learn and discover, often in collaboration with their students.
I envy the feeling of forward motion these opportunities represent, that their careers are going somewhere, mean something. That there is progress being made, and that progress is being recognized and rewarded.
I envy the idea that they are successful academics or alt-academics. Some have managed to re-define what it is to be successful. But they have all found a place and space to play with that definition and come up with one that works for them and grow in the institution (or in a different institution).
One final thing that I envy is the financial flexibility they seem to have, as well as the professional and personal support to do these things. And, again, I am not so naïve as to think that it hasn’t been a battle for some, nor that these new positions and opportunities don’t come with tedious and onerous responsibilities. But the gulf between the “Have’s” and the “Have-Not’s” has never seemed so great to me as it does right now, in this stage of my career.
I have a ton a debt. I make a little more than $32k a year. I teach a 5/4 course load. I don’t know when I will have the time, energy, or monetary resources to apply for grants, network, travel, and do what I have to do to move onward and upward in my academic career. I keep hitting brick walls here at my own institution when I try to make a little space for myself to be able to grow as an academic. I envy my peers not because they are more successful academics, but that they have somehow won the small and the large battles to get where they are, and their triumph stands as a testament to all that I have not yet been able to accomplish.
The author of the piece on Envy ends with the following:
The bigger question is: can we accept our occasional envy and use it to see more about ourselves and our desires? Is it possible to admit we wish we were a whole lot more successful without being embarrassed? I believe we do what we do because it is our way of searching for the truth. I believe truth is what writing is really about. I believe we — as writers — need to be more honest than other people. My friend told the truth. Her truth. And sometimes the truth is ugly and complicated. Sometimes it gets a surprising response.
I hope the Successful Author continues to be successful. I hope my friend finishes her new book and finds a publisher and does well. As long as they put in the hours, do the work, run through the routine one more time, they have a chance. And I will sometimes be envious of their hair, their shoes, and especially their work. At the same time, with all my heart, I wish for them both what I wish for myself: the joy of writing a perfect sentence and the wisdom to appreciate it.
I wonder now, do I have a chance? Hope is a dangerous thing (as Bane points out in this summer’s The Dark Knight Rises as well as The Hunger Games); perhaps I am envious but also resentful because their successes give me hope. Maybe if I work just a little harder, it will happen for me, too. But the reality doesn’t look so good. That I am comparing higher education to recent dystopian visions of the world we live in doesn’t bode well for any of us going forward.
Higher education works the way it does right now because we are taught not to be ambitious, but that hard work will be rewarded. In academia, it is still believed that “the perfect sentence” should be enough, especially for those of us struggling to make ends meet, let alone set aside the time to try and try again. You are leading the life of the mind, they say. No, I will counter, most of us are living the life of the barely getting by.
And maybe, finally, that’s what I envy the most. They are thriving where I am just trying to figure out (still) how to survive.