The end of the road for a career?

By | February 28, 2016

A few days ago, Trish Tatman published a piece in Medium entitled “Be kind; say no”. Her argument was that it’s a lot better to be rejected outright than to be strung along. I found this quite relevant to the issue of career choices and persisting in pursuing obviously failing strategies – specifically, the question of how long one can go on thinking of oneself as “an academic” despite being obviously out of The Academy. I offered a comment to this piece describing my experience wrestling with this issue. I thought it might be useful to revisit this question here.

Over the past few years, I’ve relayed various parts of my recent history; it’s not been a pretty picture. It’s pretty clear that I’m no longer anything like a typical academic – the identity that has shaped my last 25 years at least. What I now am remains to be seen. It’s also clear that I’ve been principally responsible for stringing myself along – although the dynamics of not saying no that Trish describes have also played a part. Figuring out where the road ends is hard enough without its being shrouded in fog.

As you probably know if you’re reading this, I’ve been working through my unemployment for some four years now, with little success. If people had actually been honest with me by saying “No!” a lot earlier in the process, I might have been able to formulate some coping strategies when they actually might have been helpful. Here, I’ve put this in the form of a brief Moral Tale, for what it’s worth.

Back in 2012, I was rather unceremoniously laid off from the professorship at an all-online university that I’d held quite successfully for 12 years. They claimed “financial exigencies” as the reason for terminating me and eleven other professors; what this amounted to was their desire to reclaim our salaries in order to hire a few more administrators. I’d naively assumed that this was the position that I would ride out on into a dignified and stable retirement. Instead, at the age of 69 I found myself staring at a Social Security income that didn’t stretch to cover living expenses and some retirement savings that I couldn’t touch for tax reasons – in short, in need of a job.

Naturally, I turned to what I knew and had committed the last 25 years to – university teaching. But something had happened to the profession. All the open jobs were now adjunct positions – low pay, no benefits or stability in employment, and tight controls but little supervisory support. Ironically, at my university we’d been among the first to rely extensively on these “new model” adjuncts, so I’d helped set up the conditions I now faced. Not only that – all hiring was now mediated online, without anyone real to connect with.

“Hey” I said to myself, “I can do this!” So I dutifully filled out online form after online form, and sent my pretty extensive professional CV off into the electronic void. Over the next few months, almost 40 of these, in pursuit of opportunities announced on several online academic position recruitment sites. I did my homework; I applied only for positions that fit my qualifications and experience, sometimes eerily closely. Somewhere, I thought, things would click.

Not only did the click never come; the silence was deafening. Of the 40 positions, I heard back from precisely three. One of these was a “Sorry, you don’t fit our needs.” The other two, after some back-and-forth, turned out to be real available positions. Of course, both required that I commit fairly extensive unreimbursed time to “training” in their arrangements, but I could live with that – it wasn’t as though I had a lot else to do with my free time. So I figured that at least I’d managed to rejoin my profession, even if it was a rather different kind of teaching than what I’d been doing. My credentials weren’t going to waste after all.

Wrong again. This was the new world of blue-collar academia. I’ve held my share of minimum-wage jobs in the past, but I never figured that professing would be one of them. Now I found myself making a whopping $13.84 per hour (I tracked my time and income carefully) as essentially a grading clerk, with little ability to guide the teaching or contribute anything despite my extensive experience teaching these courses elsewhere – there were neither mechanisms for participating and academic decision making nor much of any interest expressed when I offered timely suggestions. But at least I could still see myself as a professor, and call myself one. And I had some access to academic facilities like the library – incredibly important if you want to do any research, which is critical to maintaining any academic credibility.
But it wasn’t until I’d been doing this work – pretty successfully by all accounts – for more than six months that the full extent of the new academia made itself felt. I had some medical problems that occasionally kept me offline for a couple of days at a time. It didn’t take much of this for both of my employers to kick me out for “non-responsiveness” – in the middle of the term, leaving my students high and dry (and forbidden to contact me) and me flopping around trying to figure out what had just happened and what I could do about it.

In retrospect, I would have been much better off if at least some of those 47 positions that didn’t respond had followed Trish’s advice and actively rejected me rather than allowing me to just dangle there, probably screened out by automatic processing systems that never really put my credentials in front of anyone who might have been impressed by them. I might have learned then that I wasn’t suited for the new academia, rather than having it knocked into me by uncomfortable experience, rather than cherishing the forlorn hope that the next day’s email might bring the magical position that would restore my predictable and sustainable life.

I have finally had to face the reality that whatever professional and economic life I have left will be entirely different from what I have known and been prepared for. I am no longer a professor, and without access to an academic library I am no longer a researcher either. Considering how long I’ve been unemployed at this point, I am now basically unemployable in any capacity – one’s chances of further employment decline exponentially with the length of time unemployed. And because I never needed them before, I lack the basic skills at self-branding and self-marketing that might enable me to be part of the New Economy of freelancing. Not to mention being a sad and aging Boomer barely afloat on the Millennial Sea.

At the beginning, I asserted that this was a Moral Tale – a story from which Life Lessons might be learned. Unfortunately, it lacks the conclusive resolution that a good Moral Tale ought to have. I’m still floundering, having lost one identity but failing to find the others that might sustain a vision of the future. It’s more akin to the concluding panel of a Hogarth vision of the rake’s progress, sprawled gin-soaked across a barrel somewhere. But where there is life, there is hope – the last contents of Pandora’s box. Perhaps I will finally figure out what I want to be when I grow up. The last chapter of this Moral Tale remains yet unwritten.