Monday, February 13, 2012

A Moment of Reflection on Where I'm At

Please note: the following is a personal musing. It implies no judgment on anyone's aspirations or choices but my own. Really and truly. If you quote any of this, please don't leave that part out.

Like many academics, I have dreamed of the Dream Job.

The Dream Job is different for everyone. Maybe it's at a big research university. Maybe it's a small liberal arts college. Maybe it's in a part of the country or the world that you want to live in, for whatever reason is important to you. Maybe it's just a case of Anywhere But Here.

These things can all be compelling. For people with family considerations, or who are in toxic departments, it can take on a real urgency that I will in no way deny. I will just say that, for me, the Dream Job had little to do with the actual job I have -- a very typical mid-tier public four-year school -- and more to do with where I thought I would be happier, because... well, I was just pretty sure, let's put it that way.

I struggled with this a while. I knew how fortunate I was to have landed a good job in my field, in a place I liked well enough, and with good colleagues. Yet still, there was always the shiny promise of Dream Job, where I would be truly happy and fulfilled.

But over the past few weeks, a switch has flipped, and in a big way. It's not even a matter of "acceptance"; I think I've actively embraced where I'm at, and I think that's ultimately going to be a very good thing.

Here's the deal: My school is ridiculously under-resourced, and it's not getting any better any time soon. My students are often less prepared than the mythical students that I have imagined teaching at Dream Job. They keep working to the best of their ability; I keep pushing them to dig for just a bit more. But over the past few weeks, I've focused more intently on the content of our conversations outside the classroom: the things they're learning about in class and in the readings that are exciting them, their struggles to pay for tuition, their frantic balancing act between work and school, their efforts to translate what they are doing here to family members who never went to college -- their struggle, in other words, to live in two worlds and try to figure out how those two identities are going to work together, or if they're going to have to make a painful choice.

And then I think about my own experience: One parent with a Bachelor's degree, the other with two years of college. Underfunded public high schools, and the academic hole I dug myself into there while I struggled to reinvent myself as a rebel who disdained all manifestations of authority, including things like "homework" and "attending class." A reasonably fancy undergraduate degree that was in no small part financed by outside jobs and lots of loans,[1] and that included a necessary year and a half at community college rehabilitating my GPA. The experience of seeing one of my undergraduate professors visibly wince when I mentioned the part of town I was from. But also an upbringing that featured a strong focus on learning and self-improvement, as well as regular visits to the public library, and my parents' unwavering belief in my potential (once I stopped screwing around) and unconditional support for what I was doing. Parents who wanted to know about my research.[2] A little brother (okay, he's 30 now) who asked for a copy of my book for Christmas.

And I realized that, even though I'll probably always still dream of research funds, or small classes of motivated students who write beautifully, or even unlimited printer paper, the fact is that right here, right now, I'm doing good work that I'm actually quite suited to, for a group of students who I understand fairly well,[3] maybe better than some others might. And maybe people at Dream Job, wherever that may be, are better suited to the kind of work they're doing than I would ever be.

In other words, I've started to believe that, for the moment at least, I'm right where I need to be. And that's a very nice feeling.

[1] For what it's worth: my family was able to cover my rent, plus a supplement every term to cover estimated costs of groceries and books; I worked out tuition and whatever else I felt I needed to make it through my days.

[2] And because I was going through my own prolonged identity crisis, I'm ashamed to say that my answers were occasionally high-handed. But that's a post for another day -- or, most likely, never. Let's just say that I probably owe some humble apologies.

[3] I will admit that many of my students have additional burdens that I can never hope to understand. But I do what I can.


Belle said...

Well put. I too am reaching a new point - not quite as advanced as your own - but it has a new perspective that also brings some peace, some pain and some re-evaluation.

Thanks for reminding me.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Well, I've been meditating on dharma a bit. So that probably explains all the job-related introspection.

nicoleandmaggie said...

What a fantastic post! One nice thing about my job is also that I can actively see the good I'm doing. I show people they're not bad at math even though they thought they were. When they go out and make a real impact on the world, it's less likely to be an unintentionally bad impact because of things I've taught them.

Still, my dream job is to be paid lots to eat bon bons and read novels (but only what I want to eat and read) in the SF bay area. Those jobs seem pretty scarce for some reason.

Amstr said...

Three cheers for contentedness!

btw--if you have people looking for a place to writing group (and they've missed Dame Eleanor's application deadline as I have), feel free to send them my way:

All the best for a bountiful (but not overwhelming) semester.

Dr. S said...

ROCK OUT, you. Reading this is a really good Valentine.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Awesome post! It sounds like you are implementing "mindfulness", meaning to actually be in the place and time that you are in, and not in some contingent "if only" alternative reality.

Scholasticamama said...

Wait? Are you in my department and I haven't noticed??

This was a great post and something that many of the faculty in my department talk about often. In our last hires, we really probed to see how well the candidates thought about us not being "the dream job." We share offices - even the tenured folk. We all teach a 4/4 with consistently high student load (I've 165 this semester) without any graders. We all teach intro courses with a couple upper division thrown in. We are consistently derided by our colleagues at the other colleges as not teaching at a "real" school (whatever that means). In the last 5 hires, one left because he hated it and one is always looking. The other three are so new that they are still just happy to have jobs.

I think I'll print your post for our next faculty colloquia. "Loving the one you're with" comes to mind here...

Susan said...

This is a lovely post. As someone whose path to her present post was not at all smooth, I know what you mean about knowing that you are where you belong.

While we frequently moan about some aspects of our jobs, my colleagues and I routinely talk about how much we like our students. Even when they are not as well prepared as our dream students, they are *nice*.

Dr. Dad, PhD said...

Great post, and one that I'll try and take to heart. After all, our surroundings aren't nearly as important as how we allow them to affect us.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing. I'm going into a postgraduate degree now and am one of those students you mentioned who straddle two worlds. Knowing people get that means the world.