Most people I’ve met and known over the past 30 years have no clue as to what it is to teach high school, college, master’s and doctoral students. None. They think we who are serious educators just wing it and lecture to death, with no preparation at all. They have no inkling of what it takes to research topics, write articles for different audiences, to work on a book-length manuscript, or to publish one. Nor do they understand the job market — any job market, not just in higher education — or the psychological and emotional burden of holding students’ trust, or the constancy of systemic elitism, racism, sexism, in these elite white and elite Black spaces.
I know my mom and dad never have. “You might as well have another high school diploma,” my mom said of my 10-year pursuit of my bachelor’s, master’s, and PhD, on the week of my doctoral graduation at Carnegie Mellon University. It was the day after she had finished her associate’s, a ten-year trek on her part.
My dad during one drunken stupor accused me of lying about having earned my master’s in barely two semesters. “Anybody coulda gone somewhere and made up a fake one,” he said in 1992 during my summer visit to New York, when I showed him my actual degree from the University of Pittsburgh. A few weeks later, after talking with his two white bosses, the Levi brothers, my now hungover dad admitted, “they say you can get a master’s in a year.” I said in response, “Really? I had no idea!”
But that’s only the beginning of the sacrifices people like me with advanced degrees and training make in earning these degrees and pursuing careers related to them. I know people whose first jobs were in weird and not-quite-ideal places. University of Maine at Machias. Austin College in North Texas. North Dakota State University. Washington State University. University of Maryland Eastern Shore. Sam Houston State University. University of Mary Washington. Northern Illinois. Illinois State.
Now, before anyone says, “Why, these seem like good places to work,” my response is, “Sure, if you are white!” Yes, I said it. If you are Black, Brown, Indigenous, man, woman, or transgender, most of these are between weird and horrible places to work. The communities around many of these campuses could be or would have once been sundown towns. Or, one could be a place where they tried to lynch someone like me 10 or 20 years earlier. The only people on many of these campuses who know your needs for culture and community play Division I sports or are the other three or four colleagues who aren’t white. To go through two, even three jobs to land at a place that provides one a tenure-line or tenured position — this is a massive sacrifice.
It means living a sort-of half-life, of only focusing on your professional development, or of partners putting their lives on hold so that you can build your career. And all while dealing with an everyday deluge of direct racism, isolation, marginalization, and erasure on the job. If one is lucky, you find community off campus in some of these places. In more white-bred (or more accurately, white-corn-fed) communities, that deluge can turn into a tsunami, and might force you to stay at home and away from these racist and misogynistic and homophobic Children-of-the-Corn-types as much as humanly possible.
There are those like me who never fully believed in making these kinds of sacrifices in order to publish a scholarly article or book, just so that we could get the plum job at a major university. But that choice means sacrifices, too. Like leaving your research and writing behind for a steadier and better-paying gig. But, at least in my case, I couldn’t ask my partner to drop her own aspirations while I took a job in the middle of Nowheresville (Colgate University, Slippery Rock, and Northern Illinois all come to mind here).
So my first post-PhD job search between 1997 and December 2000 was an urban, mostly East Coast one. I turned down as many job interviews as I took on. I ended up in the nonprofit world in the DC area, though, and the abject racism I faced there was still not as bad as the elitism I dealt with during a job interview I had at Howard University. I said no to the only tenure-track job I was ever offered, with few regrets. But it still meant that I would lack the job stability necessary to build my writing career and to keep a steady paycheck. Not all sacrifices turn out the way any of us expect.
My parents and other people born before 1955 have had the tendency to say to me in one version or another, “See, that’s why all that book learnin’ aint all that good for you. Better to do work with your hands. That’s how you become a man.” It wouldn’t have mattered if I’d become an award-winning author and full professor, or a senior program officer at the Ford Foundation. As far as they have always been concerned, I was sacrificing my mind to “useless facts.” If I had become divorced or homeless because of my path, on the other hand, they would’ve said, “I told you so.”
For the rest of folks in my life, mine is a “lazy” life, where my liberal butt “gets paid a lot of money to sit around and indoctrinate students.” All built on the fact that I and other faculty only teach for a few hours a week, instead of working from 8:30 to 5 like real Americans. They have no idea that I’ve given up ten years worth of weekends and holidays to prepare for my classes, review papers, grade assignments, to write a piece, to work on a manuscript or a new project, just in the past 13 years alone. Or, to meet with students struggling in the classroom or in life in general. The emotional toll of learning about some student or colleague’s trauma or abuse is incalculable. But, yeah, I’m “lazy” when I take a nap in the middle of the day, because it’s the only way I can get to seven hours of sleep in a 24-hour period five days out of seven.
They have never experienced what it is like to have the same qualifications and make some of the same sacrifices as my more successful colleagues, and not get a specific job or a particular grant. Just recently, I learned that I will not get interviewed for a term faculty position in my department at American University. The job is the same job as the one I have worked at AU for the past three years, but as contingent faculty. Patting me on my head to tell me that I’ve made “valuable contributions to the university,” to students, and to the department does not make up for my sacrifices as a writer, as an educator, and as a historian.
And I still have it much easier than my less lucky colleagues, who may be working at three or even five universities to generate a full-time-equivalent income. Or those who have had nervous breakdowns from the brutal conditions of working for abusive institutions within the nested doll of this matrix of elitism, racism, misogynoir, and other -isms and -phobias that is the United States. Or those who are burned out husks of the educators and writers they used to be. Or still, others who’ve died because of their sacrifice.
Not all sacrifices are worth it. Then again, assuming my mind and spirit remain intact, I might be able to drill NBA-range 3s and run faster than most of my students until my 75th birthday.