An Important Announcement

[Note: If you make it through this entire post, you’re a champ. It’s here, more or less, as one more document in the archive of my life.]

Long-time readers of Long Pauses will know that, after nearly five years and countless redesigns, two elements of this site have remained relatively unchanged: the Mirror-inspired Flash animation and the About page. Nearly three hundred visitors read “about” me last month. They read that I’m a “doctoral candidate in 20th century American literature” and that I’m at work on a dissertation about the American Left and literature of the Cold War. I’ve always taken a certain pride in that description, assuming — or hoping, at least — that my credentials would lend a measure of credibility to my opinions, whether on art or politics or whatever.

Today I’m pleased to announce, finally, a change to my About page, though, honestly, it’s not exactly the one I’d daydreamed about for so long. Earlier this week I officially notified my committee of my decision to abandon my dissertation. On May 1st, just a few days after Joanna and I return from our trip to London, I will begin a full-time job as a web designer at the university, and I’m damn eager to get started. I’m especially excited about my new title: Artist.

To tell the full story of this decision takes several hours and as many stiff drinks. At some point, it requires that I reveal the details of the deaths of my mother- and father-in-law and the capital murder trial that followed a year later. And then I have to talk about the shockwaves an experience like that sends through one’s life and the effects of grief on one’s attention span. But, for now, I mention all of that in passing only to suggest that my main reason for making this decision is because what I most crave right now is what a young academic career (at least in the humanities) is least able to provide: stability.

There are other reasons, of course. For starters, English has never been the perfect fit for me. The two chapters of my dissertation that I completed are, I think, well-researched and well-written, but my analysis floats too casually between literary criticism, political philosophy, cultural studies, and historiography, never slowing to apply the requisite rigor to any one particular area. As a result, I’m proud to say, it’s quite readable. But it’s too superficial for academia. It’s not a dissertation. I suspect that, had I to do it all over again, I might have gone into a Media Studies or New Media program instead, but I would have likely run into similar problems. I’m not an academic writer, it turns out. (One benefit of abandoning my dissertation, by the way, is that I can now focus my efforts on other, non-academic writing projects I’ve wanted to start for years.)

But stability is the big one. Of the seven people in my doctoral class, only three finished. One seems to have found a dream job, one is (last I heard) teaching at a community college, and one is working as the managing editor of our department’s literary journal while she pursues the job market. If I finished my degree and went searching for a tenure-track job, I would, as a 20th century Americanist, be entering a market in which my application would be thrown into stacks of hundreds for each of the fifteen or twenty available openings. Typically, job offers come to my colleagues only after a year or three of adjunct lecturing, years characterized by heavy teaching loads dominated by sections of freshman composition and too few benefits (salary, health care, marketable experience). Even if I were offered a job, it would mean moving to whatever town the college happened to be located in, followed by years of padding the c.v. while looking for a better job. And then there’s the battle for tenure to look forward to.

That last paragraph, I know, is not news to many of you. I’ve exchanged quite a few emails over the past few months with friends and mentors, including many Long Pauses readers. Some are former academics, some are happily tenured or soon-to-be, and some are in just the position I’ve described: overworked and anxious but eager to find that perfect position. I’ve written that paragraph mostly for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the state of the academy in the humanities — for people like my friend (a researcher and Ph.D. in physics) who, when I told him Saturday that I’d decided to shelve my dissertation, stood awkwardly silent for several seconds before finally cocking his head to one side and exclaiming, “I don’t understand. What do you mean you’ve quit?”

Joanna and I made this decision together three or four weeks ago — the evening I was offered my new job, actually — and we’ve both been breathing easier since. What gets too often overlooked in discussions of young academic careers is the burden of spending one’s twenties (and now often one’s thirties as well) with little assurance about the practical matters of one’s future. Few young academics get to choose when their “real life” will begin, or where it will take place, or in what kind of institution it will be spent — all factors (really, really important factors) that highly educated workers in other professions take for granted. Joanna and I have discovered, much to our surprise, that we like living in Knoxville, and also that the instability of my career ambitions has prevented us from planting our roots here as deeply as we would have liked. If we’re breathing easier it’s because, for the first time in our ten years of marriage, we know where we’ll be a year from now, maybe even five or ten years from now.

I have never, even for a second, regretted pursuing my Ph.D. Doing so allowed me the opportunity to spend six years (four years of graduate coursework, two years of studying for and passing comprehensive exams) reading, researching, writing about, and teaching the great literature of the English language, along with philosophy, history, and critical theory. I got to spend three years — intermittently, I’ll admit — chasing a line of inquiry through four decades of political, cultural, and aesthetic development. I even got to see something I’d written make its way onto my bookshelf. My ways of thinking have been changed radically by the experience, and I’m genuinely grateful for it.

Any disappointments and frustrations I might have with the current state of the academic profession will always be tempered by my great love for academia, generally. I could make more money, and would likely work on more interesting projects, if I pursued a web design job in the private sector. But much of my present excitement and anticipation stems from the fact that I now know I will likely spend the rest of my career driving each morning to a university I’ve grown to love. (Plus, as a staff member I get to check out books for a full year! It’s the small perks that matter the most, right?)

Thanks to everyone who has offered guidance and support over the last weeks, months, and years. I do appreciate it.