What I Didn’t Give Up

Jonathan Mayhew has responded to the “What did I give up to be in academia” meme with one of his own. Jonathan’s response is titled “What I Would Have Given Up By Not Being An Academic.” I agree with Jonathan in that the original meme sounds quite skewed without this second part, so here is my contribution to this new meme.

Here are the things I would have lost if I weren’t an academic:

1. Health and sanity. I’m not being coy when I say that no other job would have allowed me to preserve my sanity. I can only function when I can spend a couple of days a week around people and the rest of time on my own. That is how my brain works. Anything else damages me too much. I could have only achieved this schedule outside of academia by working a part-time job, but that would have made me very poor. In my professorial position, I feel both very good financially and stable psychologically.

2. Joy. The happiness I experience when I teach a class or sit down to work on my research is so intense that I don’t have words to describe it. I never used drugs but I think this is what people mean when they refer to “having a high.”

3. Being with people I get. I love my fellow academics because nothing is better than spending your time with people who are obsessed with scholarship, who love reading, who can get extremely passionate about glottal stops or Medieval manuscripts, who are intelligent enough always to have a measure of tactfulness about them, and who get me because they are the same way as I am.

4. Reading. Normally, adults stop reading new books after the age of 31. Only a job like mine gives me the leisure and the excuse to read about 100 new books per year.

5. Prestige. I’m an immigrant with a very Russian-sounding last name. This means that people always look down upon me from the second they meet me. But that only lasts until I mention that I’m a professor of literature with a PhD from Yale with an active research agenda. Even people who don’t understand what a research agenda is begin to treat me as royalty. As an immigrant, I value status a lot.

6. Husband. After my husband lost his job, he ran the risk of being deported within two weeks. However, as an academic, I am entitled to a visa and green-card sponsorship for me and my immediate family. This is something that no other place of employment would have offered me.

7. Security. I don’t have tenure yet, so I can potentially be fired. However, I always get informed of whether my contract will be renewed at a specific time during the academic year. This is a completely different situation psychologically than that of any other employee who can be fired at absolutely any moment and without warning. I have seen what the fear of being fired unexpectedly does to people, and I don’t like it in the least.

8. Vacation time. I have no idea how people manage to survive on 11 vacation days per year. This is a mystery I never want to solve. My academic job gives me a chance to rest, enjoy life, travel. Only this calendar year, I will have traveled to Germany, UK, the Dominican Republic, and Canada. If I can’t travel for fun, then what is the point of such a life?

9. Money. I would not have made the same impressive salary doing anything else in the world. It’s good to know your limitations, so I don’t hold any illusions as to making hundreds of thousands in some mysterious industry. All I know how to do is to read books, talk about books, and write about books. Of course, if no academic job were available, I would have found another way to make money. But  nobody makes a lot when forcing themselves to do things they don’t enjoy.

10. Self-worth. Every day, I receive confirmation that I’m good at what I do, smart, talented, valuable, and necessary. Psychologically, it is very useful. Just imagine the difference between this feeling and dragging yourself to work where you don’t feel like anything special just to make some money.


15 thoughts on “What I Didn’t Give Up”

  1. What I Did Not Give up:

    1. Freedom. I would be miserable working for someone else. While I am still working for an university and there are certain things I have to do, I love being my own boss. Noone tells me what to do, and that’s really amazing!

    2. Happiness. I love learning new things and playing with them. Some of this might have happened if I were doing applied industrial research in my field, but in academia, I get to do research on things that I like, whether or not they affect the company bottomline.

    3. Flexibility. I love the flexibility that an academic job affords — the vacation time, and the flexible schedule. No other job I know will allow this.


  2. This is so funny. I almost suggested that we also talk about what’s wonderful about our jobs! I love the following

    1) Flexibility and Freedom
    Like Luna mentioned, academic jobs offer a tremendous amount of freedom. Though I obviously have a dean and chair, I love that I am not “watched over.” I come in when I think I should and I leave when I think I should. If I’m sick and have to cancel class (which rarely happens), I don’t have to “clear” it with anybody. During summer and winter breaks, my time is completely my own. I couldn’t imagine being at a job that allows two weeks vacation a year and then requires all employees to be “on site” for the rest of the year. I need freedom and flexibility in order to feel fulfilled and happy. I feel trapped easily and I never feel trapped by my academic job.

    2) Dynamic
    Academic jobs are dynamic–they change all the time. Every semester my schedule and classes are different; the students are different and I have new challenges to face. In fact, I have a slightly different schedule every day of the week. I never feel stifled by monotony.

    3) I get to think, read, and write on a daily basis.
    I have nothing to add to this but it’s true and it makes me happy! 🙂 Actually I do have something to add! Along the same lines, I think teaching literature and literary study is beautiful. Sometimes when I read and discuss a text with my students, I’m overwhelmed by how wonderful it is that we are memorializing the written word. Years after the writer has passed, his/her words remain with us (even if we are subjecting those words to critique.) Every day we participate in the act of cultural memory and I think that’s profoundly satisfying.

    4) The University as institution
    I think the University is one of mankind’s most beautiful and wonderful institutions. Though I realize that universities have problems, in general, universities have been at the forefront of for promoting knowledge, for inspiring and facilitating scientific advancement, for creating and preserving beauty, and for advancing civil rights. I am proud that I work for a university.

    So overall, the good certainly outweighs the bad! 🙂


  3. That is a good list, and even though it is impressive, it does not convince me I would be suited to academia.

    The point that resonated with me the most was being free not to be sociable. That is also my requirement, otherwise energy pours out of me, and I am left an empty shell.

    At the same time, academia itself does not spur my thinking processes. I tend to sleep through conferences, although lectures used to sometimes give me something to chew on. I don’t find a well-constructed thought all that interesting. I was reading Simon de Beauvoir’s memoir, Force of Circumstance, recently. She said she would often enter the library to find writing that was already formulated, as a diversion from the strain of writing her own words. She became a very prolific writer, and obviously loved words, but I have no special love for them.

    I love ideas, but I can’t seem to feel them within academia — at least, not so well. I recently lost the capacity to feel them at all, but then I did a round of sparring with Mike, and suddenly my capacity for awareness returned to me once more.

    In a full time job in academia, I doubt I would be able to feel very much, as I constantly need to peel off a skin that has grown too thick around me. I am doubtlessly a yabby, a freshwater crustacean, that needs to shed its shell once in a while. It’s very important that I don’t lose touch with my ability to inwardly feel something, since that is always a tendency, when life just trickles on and I don’t make an extreme effort by risking something of myself.

    In short, academia is too placid to wake me up. I do kickboxing because it gives me what academia cannot. It doesn’t pay me anything of course.

    Also, I don’t have very much need for social approval or self-esteem building. I may be anomalous, because my self-esteem is strongest when I am alone. I sometimes can’t hear what I am thinking when I’m in a crowd, but when I retreat I’m able to hear it better. What hurts me is when people don’t respect ideas enough. It’s very difficult to entertain a sharp, little idea, as this requires a lot of effort.


        1. It’s always best to choose the route that will suit you and make you happy. So many people are intensely miserable because they somehow slid into academia without being in the least suited to it. They suffer but don’t feel like leaving it because of having invested so much time and energy already.

          I think that being in a profession that makes you miserable is as self-destructive as being in a relationship that makes you miserable. The sooner you get out, the more time and energy you will have to enjoy life and make something better happen.

          People buy into the idea that life has to be miserable. I think these are remnants of religious brainwashing.


          1. Yes. Life doesn’t have to be miserable. I look back over the past twenty years and I have learned something about what I do or don’t like. From an outsider’s perspective, this looks like many false starts, but that’s because outsiders may be unable to credit that I’m capable of learning from my experiences.

            The rugged determination not to learn from one’s experiences, but to keep plowing ahead, regardless, seems to me insane. We really do only have one life to live. You can’t spend that trying to prove something to yourself or to other people. They’re not really watching and you’re not really paying attention if you think you can produce palpable evidence that proves anything.


            1. To me, these “false starts” are evidence that a person is growing, exploring, trying to figure things out. I started and dropped several career and universities before I found what suited me best. People didn’t understand what I was doing because it looked like I had everything a person might want. But it wasn’t what I wanted, that was the problem.


              1. “To me, these “false starts” are evidence that a person is growing, exploring, trying to figure things out.”

                Yes, but people penalize those, in their little heads.

                Basically, I did a lot of things because I thought I ought to. The remnants of religious guilt were certainly there, but I continued to pluck them out, like so many splinters of glass that had become embedded in my body. Each time I did so, I freed myself a bit more. But each time I did so, people said, “She’s failed at what she really tried to do!”

                Actually, the opposite was true: I explored the possibility, encountered my error and released myself from it.

                I’ve learned that people don’t like to see things in this light, but are habituated to seeing everything in opposite terms, as if one only ever escapes a noose when one has engaged in falseness and succumbed to one’s own weaknesses. The fact that one needs to have courage not to submit is denied. The ability to see that there was a weakness, but that the weakness was in attempting to submit to mores not of one’s own making, is rare.


              2. “Yes, but people penalize those, in their little heads.”

                – Don’t I know that? Life would have been much easier if I didn’t have to struggle to drown all of those critical and negative voices telling me to settle for what I have and not risk everything for a fantasy. Of course, it is only just a fantasy for those who are too scared or too lazy to make an effort and discover what they really need in life.


  4. I had this realization, sitting in a New Orleans café in the rain on 15 September 2012, precisely, that no matter what I had done, things would probably be essentially the same. Unless my ship had really come in, of course, or true disaster had struck, or I had done something *really* wild. Realistic and probable outcomes, though, were:

    1. Go to law school as I constantly threaten to do. The only affordable way would have been to do it in Louisiana. So I would be here.
    2. Stay where I was.
    3. What really happened: come here, which is not far away.

    One can split hairs about which would be best or whether one could have caused stars to align slightly differently but most likely it would have been one of those three. All of these would have led to my giving the same talk in the same conference September 14, and sitting in the same café September 15 reading the same book. So — why worry — ?


  5. Is it true that people look down on you for having a Russian-sounding last name? Maybe this is the inner Russophile in me, but I’ve always thought Slavic names sound awesome. o:


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