"Dear Comrade Femme," is an advice column meets queer theory daydream meets insurrectionary love letter. With her toolkit (working-class roots, queer femme modality, a PhD, and a little magic), Comrade Femme responds to your questions about politics, sex, identity, feelings, family, friendship, astrology, and the intersections of them all. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org and put "Dear Comrade Femme" in the title. xo
Dear Comrade Femme,
I'm one of many non-tenure track faculty and will be moving on at the end of this academic year. I think moving will ultimately be a good thing: this place is okay, but it's never felt like home. Among other things, I've struggled to find queer community and it's been way too long since I've experienced the catharsis of an excellent dance party. BUT I don't know what I'll be moving on to and the uncertainty gnaws at me. I don't know if I'll be staying in academia or leaving; I'm actually okay with either prospect... but it will likely be months before anything firms up and, in the interim, the thing that feels most certain is that I'll no longer be receiving a paycheck after a certain point.
I'm grateful that my partner is with me in this uncertainty, but he's also like WITH ME in this uncertainty in the sense that he, too, is asking the "academia or not? and if not, then what?" series of questions. In this context, I worry about how we can meaningfully support each other. I worry about how typical things, like venting about the frustrations of a job search, become differently weighty when you’re venting to a partner experiencing a lot of the same anxieties. I was on the receiving end of this this morning and I felt myself first growing irritable and then dispirited as my partner quite reasonably expressed worries and uncertainties about an application he was working on. Suffice it to say, that's not a position of strength from which to do the work I now need to do!
Any advice on how we can support each other and on how I can keep myself centered, focused, and something like hopeful?
Dear Uncertain Academic,
Oof. I feel for you, dear one. I have been on the academic job market since 2012--that’s five autumns (and usually into winters, and sometimes springs) of not knowing where I will be living the following school year. It is nothing short of excruciating to exist in a state where the only thing certain is your precarity. As academics, we are trained to be martyrs for a life of the mind. We are trained to believe that it is worth it to put our job before everything else. (This is, admittedly, perhaps an honest articulation of working under late capitalism, but in academia we are, ironically, supposed to embrace this rather than resist it).
And when, on top of all of these egregious falsities, we try to add loving and sharing and building a life with another, we are bound to experience tension. And sometimes implosion.
First, sweet professor, go easy on yourself. It’s okay that you felt less than capable of being your best-self in that moment you described with your partner. You are both under a huge amount of stress; that you were rendered frustrated is completely understandable. Be gentle with your missteps and your less-than-perfect responses. It is in loving yourself through the hard parts that enables you to to do better next time and ultimately to show up kindly and compassionately for others.
With self-forgiveness in mind, I would urge you to turn toward rather than away from the difficult conversations with your partner. There may be sticky and uncomfortable moments, but don’t let this lead you to withholding from each other in an effort to protect each other. In addition to being codependent, this bottling up of fears and thoughts will only increase the sense of distance or frustration between you. And take it from someone who has indulged in this behavior in my own relationships--that’s no way to try to get through a tough time.
Although it is, of course, important for you and your partner to navigate your own baggage (ideally in your respective therapists’ offices!), the question I hear you asking is, How can we survive this uncertainty as a loving unit? And so, again, I would say more sharing than less is important, not because you will be perfect sounding boards or provide errorless feedback, but because you will be building trust that you can endure the moments when the conversations aren’t easy. Because if you don’t do the work to build that trust with one another, not only will you feel a lack of security in regards to work, but you may also begin to feel the foundation shake in your own partnership.
Pragmatically, this may take shape a variety of ways. It may mean agreeing to only talk about work with one another after a therapy session, or after writing out your thoughts before verbalizing them. A friend just told me that he and his husband only have difficult conversations in the nude; the vulnerability softens them and also, he said, “makes it harder to leave the apartment in anger.” (I haven’t tried it yet, but it seems like it couldn’t hurt!) Or perhaps you can design a ritual for immediately after the hard talks, or the job application edits, or the job market spreadsheet update; perhaps you pick a new dessert recipe to try, or treat yourselves to a movie date. The point in all of this to remind you that you have each other right now, even when so much of the future is unclear.
And I say “right now,” first because I am too cynical to suggest that any couple is 100% guaranteed forever, but more importantly because I believe this present-minded disposition is the actual secret for navigating the academic job market (as a couple or as an individual). I feel lucky that I became a certified yoga teacher the same year I was first on the market, because I began to learn a number of tools that reminded me that focusing on the present can relieve an immense amount of discomfort. In yogic texts, this is related to the concept of Dhyana, or meditation, which encourages concentration (or for advanced practitioners, lack of concentration) as a means of creating peaceful clarity. And to acknowledge and better navigate “the space between external events and our reaction to them.”
Buddhism is also helpful in this lesson; one of my favorite writers and practitioners Pema Chödrön writes a lot about sitting in the sticky in-between part. About staying present in whatever feels good and whatever feels bad, because that’s all there is. She goes on to talk specifically about practicing acceptance around the unknown: “Letting there be room for not knowing is the most important thing of all. When there's a big disappointment, we don't know if that's the end of the story. It may just be the beginning of a great adventure. Life is like that. We don't know anything. We call something bad; we call it good. But really we just don't know.”
I wonder if those yogic or Buddhist lessons might resonate with you right now, sweet friend? Can you find a way to sit and notice what’s happening now, and not immediately rush to the suffering of the not-knowing about tomorrow? It is much, much easier said than done, but perhaps it is something you can repeat to yourself without judgement or anxiety: “We just don’t know.” You just don’t know, and for now, that just is.
Now, of course, if after the struggle of acceptance around that, you and your partner decide academia is not worth this work, you have my utmost support. The thing about using our therapeutic and spiritual tools is that it’s hard. And even when I practice using them or give advice for others to use them, I would never try to pretend that it’s particularly pleasant. So, by all means, if you’ve had enough of this shit, I look forward to seeing you on the other side of the ivory tower, making more money and having more stability.
Until then, Dr., as you navigate at least another few months in the uncertain waters of the academic market, I invite you to speak openly to and hold closely your boo. I invite you to meditate or yoga or light a candle to remind yourself that all there is is now. And I remind you to hold onto the inevitable discomfort that arises as data to decide if this is the life you want or not.
Sometimes the dread and the uncertainty is so awful because you want to know that you will be ok, that things will work out, that you will find those dance parties again and not live paycheck to paycheck and get to build a home and plant some roots. And until there’s a job in the picture, you don’t know that those things will happen. But friend, those things will happen. Remember that no matter what job, or whether you stay/leave academia, you. will. be. okay. The academic job market, as fucked as it is, is not bigger than you, and your persistent heart.
Academia is not a friend to spirits or relationships, and you are holding onto both with an admirable amount of tenderness and care. Keep that softness, love, and I believe the hope will follow.