Is academia right for me?

After fighting so long to finish my Ph.D., can I survive as a teacher?

By Cary Tennis
Published October 5, 2010 4:49AM (UTC)
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Dear Cary,

I'm so glad to hear of your continuing recovery. I appreciate your columns, and am so grateful that they are back.

My question for you is sort of about a job, and sort of about something else. I'm about to earn my Ph.D. I've worked toward this goal for the last seven years, and I did it because I wanted to teach college. That was, maybe, a funny goal -- but learning the kinds of things I did when I was in college, learning to think in ways I'd never thought before ... well, it changed everything for me. The world was new and complex in ways I'd never imagined, and I was intoxicated by it. I decided, before I even graduated with my B.A., that I would devote my life to the kind of study that had opened things up for me in school -- and, more important, to sharing that experience with others.

It wasn't quite as easy as that, obviously. Getting into graduate school was difficult. I did my B.A. at a school that was, to put it politely, not very well known, and after being rejected from every school I applied to, I worked for a year in a terrible data-entry job while I studied and got my test scores up. I managed to get into an M.A. program (which, I only realized after it was too late, would result in crippling student loans) and then, finally, had my Ph.D. work funded by a very respectable institution. Now I am on the academic job market, which is -- in a word -- awful. It is entirely possible that I'll end this year with a Ph.D. and no job, despite my formerly optimistic belief that at the end of this overcoming-of-obstacles narrative, hard work would pay off.

But the thing is, I'm now not even sure what the supposedly ideal world of having an academic job would really mean. Throughout my graduate work, I've been doing the teaching thing -- the thing that I wanted so desperately to do seven years ago. Sometimes it's wonderful. Some days, there are classes when I leave feeling energized and alive with the feeling that what we are doing in class is important work, that my students are getting it, that I am part of someone else's learning process -- and it's really and truly incredible. And when I think about it, I realize that even when it's just kind of mediocre, I get paid (pittance though it is) to research and talk about things that I really care about, which is a hell of a lot better than data entry. But sometimes it's just god-awful, and it's god-awful in a way that nothing else ever was for me. I have, for example, learned for the first time what it feels like to be on the other side of 18-year-old eye rolls, sleeping or texting. I have learned how difficult it is to do a job in which students who are pissed about their grades can easily go on the Internet and post terrible things about you on a website explicitly devoted to the purpose, and which people will almost certainly find when they Google you. I have learned -- and for some reason, this one bothers me more than most -- how difficult it is for me to be an authority figure.

This has become apparent to me, weirdly, through the medium of punishing plagiarism. It's something that I have to do pretty regularly (depressingly enough). Because I've read my fair share of undergraduate papers, it's pretty apparent to me when something is plagiarized -- and thanks to the Internet, it's pretty easy for me to prove it. I take academics seriously, so I have a policy (that my students know about) that punishes plagiarism pretty severely. This doesn't, however, stop it from happening. And it also doesn't stop me from feeling nauseous every time I have to do it. The anxiety lasts for days. Students almost always dispute it, of course, so I spend hours of my days worrying about our meetings, or neurotically checking and rechecking my e-mail, convinced that they will, at any moment, send me something terrible, and that I will be put over the edge ... from what? I want to say shame. I can't make sense of that. I'm the teacher, they're the student -- the student who cheated. And yet, I feel myself falling into a place that says "oh please don't hate me I just really don't want you to do this ..." This is not a good place to be, obviously, from a pedagogical perspective.

But also, it just sucks. I get headaches. I can feel my blood pressure rising. I cry (at home, not in front of students). And I haven't even addressed the other parts of academic life -- trying to get published, presenting papers in front of experts at conferences, dealing with the whims of university administration. I don't know what I'm doing. Sometimes I feel like I don't know why I'm doing this anymore. But I've spent so much time and energy and money working toward it -- and I'm afraid that if I quit academia, I'll be miserable, as I was when I worked in data entry. I suppose I'm just wondering if you can tell me how I can either be at peace with the crap parts of my field, or with the prospect of giving up the great parts of it too. I want to be happy. And I feel like I don't know how to get there.

Anxious Academic

Dear Anxious Academic,

Well, I think you're in the right field, and you just have to learn "self-care." You have to learn to take care of yourself. That means identifying sources of emotional support, and ways to revive your spirits. It means changing your work process, too, so that the problem of plagiarism does not consume you.

In this matter of plagiarism, it sounds like you really need to find some help and support in your academic community for these difficulties. Shouldn't there be an honor court, or panel, to deal with these things? It sounds like you are taking on too much of the burden personally. That may be the standard process at your institution, but it sounds wrong to me. Shouldn't plagiarism be dealt with by the institution itself, not by individual instructors? After all, if a student is plagiarizing in your class, doesn't that mean the student is plagiarizing in other classes as well? Shouldn't it be a system-wide matter rather than a one-on-one thing?

I suggest you clarify your role in this, and see if you can't get some support.

The psychic toll of such interactions with students must indeed be enormous.

Because of that, my guess is that institutions will adjust. Academics will find a way to handle this problem. It may take some time but if I were you I would think long-term.

My overall sense is that you are in the right place. That is paramount. That is the most important thing. Your difficulties are manageable. You are in the right line of work. You have discovered that many headaches come with the job, and that is normal. Most people when they begin work quickly find the headaches and difficulties. Now is the time to work to minimize the drawbacks and maximize the benefits. That will happen naturally as you progress in your career. If you concentrate on looking for solutions, find the support you need during the grueling times, things will get better.

How do you make peace with the worst aspects of your job?

Look at how businesspeople and working people do it. They make peace with the crap parts of their jobs. They accept it. I admire the way practical people can shrug off such things. I personally find it hard to do, but I recognize it's the healthy way to approach it. Perhaps one reason businesspeople find it easier to shrug off the nasty parts of their jobs is that they do not idealize their work the way artists and academics do. A businessperson rarely feels like she has found the perfect, ideal vocation. She's more likely to view her activities as necessary and interesting but not as some reflection of her ideal self.

It is psychically dangerous to find the ideal job. It makes the stakes so much higher. So every now and then, just shrug and go to the beach. Because you're in this for the long haul. You have to take care of yourself and not burn out.

Over time, find ways to minimize the parts that are most objectionable. Have faith that the role will change over time. We cannot know exactly how, but things will change. The way cheating is dealt with will change. Your own responsibilities will change as you progress in your career. You won't have to do so much crap work. You'll gain status. You'll learn to work the system. You'll find a way to be at peace with the way the institution works. You'll gain perspective. You'll worry less about each individual student who cheats. You will feel less acutely the pangs of self-doubt that their Internet posts now cause.

Things will get better is what I'm saying. Things will get better.

You'll have some bad days. But bad days pass. And you have choices. You don't have to eat all the shit you are served. Take a day off now and then. Go to the beach. Have a spa day. Don't let them get you down.

Write Your Truth.

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Cary Tennis

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