In some ways, I guess I’m like Sade, or at least, like her in the song by the same name as the title of this post. Certainly in the world of looking for quality work. I think that this has been the case for me for the past thirteen years. I’ve had two overlapping careers in that time. One as an ambivalent part-time academic historian and professor. The other as an unfulfilled nonprofit manager. At times I’ve enjoyed both, and plenty of times I’ve enjoyed neither. For most of that time, my expectations for myself and my jobs have been way too high.
Some of that, to be sure, came from finishing a master’s and a doctorate in history between August ’91 and November ’96. Even with me constantly reminding myself not to be too cocky about having become Dr. Collins before I turned twenty-seven, I could sometimes see signs that I might’ve had a bit too much pride in my accomplishments. So when I first started applying for jobs, I expected to get more than a few calls. And not just for academic positions either. After all, I had published in Black Issues in Higher Education, done work on the AHA’s Guide to Historical Literature and the Historical Dictionary of American Education, presented at numerous conferences, including the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting twice, and had been a Spencer Foundation Dissertation Fellow.
With next to no support from my advisor or dissertation committee, not to mention my own ambivalence about the world of academe, it took longer than expected to get telephone calls for interviews. Of course, I only applied for jobs in places I knew I’d be more than satisfied to reside. No job applications went out to the University of Maine at Machias, or to the University of Northern Iowa, or to the University of Mississippi at Tupelo. Nope. I thought only of places like New York, DC, Philly, Boston, or Chicago. I applied mostly to schools of education and African American studies departments. In the meantime, I dutifully converted my doctoral thesis research into academic articles I’d send out for publication all during ’97 and ’98, with no succeed.
I did get two calls for academic job interviews. One at Teachers College (Columbia) in New York, the other at Slippery Rock. Both were for history of education positions. I finished second for one, and the other position was eventually suspended. By the time of my interview at Slip Rock, I was already on financial fumes, and was wondering how the heck I ended up doing an interview for a job that might as well have been in the middle of Idaho.
So I took a part-time job working for Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh while negotiating what would become a two-year stint as an adjunct professor at Duquesne University in their College of Education. I took it, thinking that this was God’s way of teaching me to be patient and humble, to not become prideful, to not rest on my laurels. My assumption was, even in prayer, that God will somehow directly intervene and make a way for me, giving me the career I wanted.
What happened instead was a lost year. I spent most of ’98 teetering somewhere between embarrassment and frustration over my job situation. If I wasn’t upset about working with the unwashed masses at Carnegie Library, I found myself pissed that I had such low quality students at Duquesne. I applied for only nine academic positions between September ’97 and September ’98, and about an equal number of nonprofit or other kinds of jobs. I was too good for this, I thought.
What I figured out at the end of ’98 was that I was in my own way. Pride wasn’t the main issue here. Expecting God to do for me what I was now capable of doing for myself was. Shame for letting myself go so long in a struggle that shouldn’t have been was. Recurring anger over the last year of my graduate work was. I had to forgive, let the things that didn’t matter go, and relentlessly go after what I wanted. And within eight months, I found a job in DC, working for someone I’d later learn was a bigot.
But you know what else I’ve figured out over the years? There’s no such thing as an ideal job, even if it’s in your ideal field or directly on the career path you’ve carved out for yourself. It’s about pursuing the interests that you’re most passionate about, and finding the right fit, the right balance, along the way. Acting or theater work is not the same as working in the porn industry, though, no matter how much you convince yourself that acting is acting. Teaching, writing, and consulting have kept me in a state of employment for the past seventeen months, but it’s hardly enough, and I’m not just talking about money either.
What I do know is that I know enough to continue plugging away on all fronts, to continue networking, and to say “No!” to those things that would keep me from finding my career balance. And, at least I know that the problem here this time around isn’t pride or heavenly assumptions.