Academia, Academic Culture, Academic Jobs, Barbara Lazarus, Bruce Anthony Jones, Burnout, CMU, Contingent Faculty, Faculty, False Gods, Family Issues, job search, Joe William Trotter Jr., Meritocracy, Pitt, Politics of Academia, Publish-or-Perish, Teachers College, Tenure-Stream Positions
Twenty years ago on this date, I took the call that would help define my last two decades professionally. It was a call from Teachers College, Columbia University. I had made a final cut of interviewees “out of more than 300 applicants,” for a tenure-track assistant professorship in the history of education, the administrative assistant to the ed foundations department chair’s office had told me. It was my first post-PhD job call, one at the time that I hoped would be the only one I’d need.
It wasn’t my first interview for an academic position, though. That distinction went to Illinois State University, in April ’94. Two of their history professors were at the American Educational Research Association annual meeting in New Orleans, screening applicants for a lecturer and a non-tenured assistant professor position. I dared not tell my advisor Joe Trotter or anyone else about the screening invite. I went, I met the two youngish professors, both of whom told me to finish my PhD before applying for another job, because they thought my work “too promising” for non-tenure-stream positions. I had also interviewed for two education nonprofit positions, both in Pittsburgh, and both only offering me only a few thousand more than the US Postal Service offered me in ’92, when my name for a job finally came up.
Now I had gotten a call from one of the most prestigious education schools in the world. A school within the same university that wanted to hire a private investigator ten years earlier because they didn’t want to give a poor Black kid a four-year free-ride. Despite the irony, I was happy, nervous, and apprehensive. I was happy for the opportunity, nervous about my prospects, and apprehensive about the possibility of moving back to New York. But, most important, I was also burned out emotionally and psychologically from the dissertation process, though not as burned out as I would become in the six weeks that followed.
The interview itself three weeks later was one of the best I’ve ever done for anything. I gave my job talk on multiculturalism and Black education, and for once, professors and graduate students in the audience didn’t look at me like I was speaking Vulcan. I actually had fun on that eight-hour interview day. As much fun as eight hours of scrutiny and answering the same questions over and over again could bring.
But, I remained apprehensive. Because I knew that I had a lot of big decisions ahead if I didn’t get this position, and just as many or more if I did.
Could I pay rent or eat through the summer if I didn’t get the job? Should I go groveling back to Carnegie Mellon, so that I could teach the required World History course for the 1997-98 school year? Could I pick up an adjunct gig at Pitt, Duquesne, or one of the other universities for next year, or what if it’s already too late to reach out? Could I get help from Bruce Anthony Jones, or beyond my dissertation committee, people like Barbara Lazarus, in securing my future? These were the normal questions that an army of PhDs in fields like history faced every single year.
For me, though, the idea of being an assistant professor twelve miles from where I grew up and thirty blocks from one of the buildings I helped my alcoholic father clean made my brain twist in knots. Heck, Teachers College had put me up at the Hotel Beacon on Broadway, between 74th and 75th Street, just three blocks from a high-rise me, my older brother Darren, and my father had cleaned the carpets and floors of regularly between 1984 and 1986. Did I really want to go back to a place with so many bad and embarrassing memories?
Plus, it wasn’t just my past I worried about. Living in subsidized faculty housing wasn’t ideal for me and my soon-to-be-wife. My younger siblings could reach me by catching the 1 or 2 train, and with the recent fire at 616 and the trauma that had caused, their visits were likely to be a regular part of my routine. I had given Mom something like $5,000 in the three years before the possibility of this job, as a graduate student. As a professor, she would likely expect me to do so much more.
Looking back, if Teachers College had offered me the job and I’d of course taken it, I likely wouldn’t have earned tenure. Oh, I would’ve been a fine classroom professor, and most of my students would’ve liked, loved, or learned from me. But between me having not dealt with my Mount Vernon/NY past, my Mom and siblings and family issues, and trying to turn my dissertation into a book and churn out academic pieces, I would’ve needed psychotherapy after three or six years. But Teachers College rejected me two months later. It supposedly came down to me and one other person.
This is what academia does to its own. With too few tenure-stream jobs and way too many qualified candidates, each job interview or job earned becomes magnified, to the point where taking a position can close as many doors as receiving a rejection for a job. Combine that with the false gods of meritocracy and academic freedom, and you have a recipe for a world of competitive disappointment. Academia is a world full highly educated people working for working-class wages but with elitist expectations of themselves and of those lucky few with tenure-stream positions. Add race, class, gender, family, and intersectionality to this brew, and it’s a wonder more of us don’t experience depression or some other mental illness.
I wouldn’t have been able to write this twenty years ago, even if I subconsciously suspected or consciously knew this to be true. I was tempted by the brass ring, only to find it was really a rusty old nail bent to look like something valuable.