• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Career Coach: A Question No One's Asked

Okay, first up, people, ASK ME QUESTIONS. I'm kind of bad about remembering to write this column on Friday, which no doubt tries my editor's patience, but it doesn't help when I have NO QUESTIONS to answer.

September 15, 2008

Okay, first up, people, ASK ME QUESTIONS. I'm kind of bad about remembering to write this column on Friday, which no doubt tries my editor's patience, but it doesn't help when I have NO QUESTIONS to answer.

So. Since presumably everyone else is, like me, too busy scrambling around with the beginning of a new academic year to bother writing to IHE, I'm gonna answer a question that no one's asked but that I'm sure everyone's dying to know the answer to. And if you're not, too bad: it's the kind of thing that I think should be talked about, so I will.

Why in heaven's name did I quit a tenure-track job at a good university in order to end up teaching as a community college adjunct?

Short answer: I really, really love the community college students and I really, really, couldn't handle the northern winters.

Longer answer, with more detail: my first position -- which I was lucky enough to land my first year on the job market -- was at a Canadian university that was, I'd guess, the Canadian equivalent of a Research II institution. No med school, but one of the best veterinary science schools in North America; a new PhD program in English that had begun shortly before I was hired (hence the chance to help shape the program); growing enrollments in the arts division generally and our department specifically; a number of really cool new hires (like me!). Oh, plus it was in Canada, which, y'know, sort of freed one from some of the more objectionable aspects of American living.

So all good, right? Why not settle in, put down roots, and stay forever?

Well, for one thing, it turned out I suffered from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Rather badly. Actually, kind of devastatingly. By the end of my second winter I was miserable; by midway through my third, it was clear to me and my husband that I could not continue to live that far north. Which sucked, career-wise, and which is part of why I think that the academic party line about how you shouldn't worry about location is bullshit. It's your life, and if you're going to be the one living it, and location matters to you, then don't let people tell you it doesn't. In my case, I realized that location really was a life-or-death issue on the day that I found myself thinking in the shower that hmmmm, if I were going to kill myself, I really should kill my son, too, because leaving him to deal with the after-effects of a mother's suicide would be too cruel. Thankfully my depression wasn't *so* bleak that I didn't realize that this was insane. I was also able to realize that getting rid of (one of) the catalysts for that kind of depression was more important than the academic party line.

There's another reason, too, and it's the one that means that I'm actually very happy with my current employment (despite the structural hassles of adjuncting, which maybe I'll talk about another time), even though it's a "step down," party-line wise. I really, really missed non-traditional students. The University of Guelph, by and large, drew traditional post-college students -- bright middle-class kids, many of whom had their eyes on graduate school of some sort or another. They were great students, and I'm still in touch with some of them. But I have always had a real soft spot for the other kinds of students. The young people who, in the words of two of my students this semester, spent a few years "getting in trouble" after high school rather than going off to college, and who are now getting their acts together. The single moms and dads who occasionally miss class because their daycare's fallen through, and who I make a big fuss at, telling them to just bring the darn kid to class if they have to. The middle-aged women, and sometimes men, who are trying to get a degree, or a credential, that might raise their income. The first- and second-generation immigrants who are diligent and quiet and determined. The jokey, smart-assed young men whose assurance hides real struggles.

In short, the students for whom higher education is unknown territory, who are crossing the borders into a huge country where they don't really speak the language (and in many cases, don't realize that they don't speak the language). The ones exploring the lowlands in a society that focuses on the mountain climbers. To me, having gone through the internal struggle of "stepping down" the academic status ladder, their determination to get an education combined with the occasional flashes of defensive status-consciousness -- the student who wrote in her journal that she doesn't intend to "just stay at a lame community college" -- seems brave and admirable. For the most part, commuter students make a decision, every day, to get up and actually *go* to college. They do so while surrounded by multiple reasons to just blow it off: they're not living in dorms, they have to get the kids ready for daycare or school, their wives are suspiciously texting them for their whereabouts every twenty minutes, their friends either couldn't care less or have left them behind to attend more prestigious schools, their bosses need them to work this afternoon instead.

Teaching those students, for me, is a great reminder that education and status aren't the same thing. Which makes it remarkably easy, actually, to be very happy with this job.


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