Rage & Love: Working-Class Academic Grief in Two Acts

My very sad and vulnerable reaction to some very bad news.

Act I:

As many of you know, since finishing my PhD in 2013, I have been a member of the precarious academic labor force. Each year, my position's gotten increasingly worse: I went from a contract Visiting Assistant Professor, to a Lecturer position that the school finagled only after an actual student petition to keep me (and lots of faculty solidarity), to now, an adjunct who hustles multiple other jobs (primarily freelancing and yoga teaching). All along the way, I was given winks and nudges that I would get the tenure-track positions that opened at the school I was at (I didn't). I've had a campus interviews each year, and did have one offer for a job at Kansas State, which I--after a great deal of agonizing--turned down because of location and lack of job opportunities for my partner (and also because I was given hope that my current school was going to get me a more solid line).

So far, not getting offers has felt disappointing, but the truth is, none of those schools felt like good fits (which is why, if you have any faith in the universe, I probably didn't land there). However, last month I had a campus visit at a place that felt like home. They were a social justice-oriented department, the faculty and I all clicked right away (each of them hugged me upon my departure), and it was in a location I loved. I got lots of signals (some so overt that they now feel cruel) that I would be getting the offer. And I allowed myself to fantasize about life with financial security and a job I loved. I allowed myself to dream of finally having time and fair compensation to work on my book, of planning new and exciting courses (and only have 2-3 a semester!), of using research money to begin a new healing program at their local jail, of being able to support myself and my mom, and even starting an Adjunct Solidarity Fund for those who were still struggling in precarious positions. The five years of low-pay and struggle were finally going to pay off....

I didn't get the offer.

After a period of shock, the image of Margot Robbie in I, Tonya flashed into my mind. The film, to me, was a beautifully accurate story about poverty and the ultimate impossibility of class-transition. Tonya Harding, white trash (like me!), makes it to the goddamn Olympics and a week later she is working at a diner and barely scraping by. I was hit, brutally, with what I have known to be true since I was a small child: hard work does not equal success. You can do everything you're supposed to do--(which I've done: stellar teaching evals, two journal pubs a year since 2013, service on committees that I wasn't even contractually obligated to do, and so on)-- and still wind up with nothing.

You can climb from food stamps to PhD and still wind up on food stamps. Because one set-back for a poor person (a year without a salary, as I've had since June), is substantially more difficult than a set-back for a person with a safety net.

I got angry at myself for believing I could be any different. My mom works just as hard as me (albeit in different ways) and has nothing for it, why did I think I deserved better?

I spent about five solid days crying and grieving, deeply. Five days, spiraling. Five days, calculating every penny in my bank account and all the things I couldn't have without this offer. Five days realizing that if I wasn't partnered with a very loving person who has the means to help support me, I would be in an even more dire state than I am now. Five days with the immense guilt of feeling sad for this loss when so many people I know and love have it so much worse.

This was my face most of these days. Trying to fucking pretend around all the middle and upper class people I'm now surrounded by. Trying to act like I can fucking handle another crushed dream when really, I'm just so goddamn tired.

My very woo reaction to another opportunity for growth.

Act II:

First, let me say that poor folks and other marginalized folks have every right to stew bitterly in anger and catastrophizing. There is medicine in spiraling. There is generative electricity in being fucking angry. That I am ready to move out of that stage in only five days (and of course, this isn’t linear, the bitter will ebb and flow), but that I am open to not being only sad and angry is a testament to my spiritual practices and the level of class-transition I have, indeed, experienced. I have the privilege of access to therapy, yoga classes, nourishing food, a warm home, and time. I would never suggest that anyone can “think positive” out of oppression, but if you have the means and energy to re-focus your thoughts, this shit is deeply powerful.

So here I am. Ready to move out of this and ready to remember that I am more than just an academic and I am more than my salary (or lack thereof). Ready to remember that any assault on my self-worth is a byproduct of capitalism’s ideological seed-planting (and ya’ll know I have absolutely zero respect or patience for capitalism’s seeds). Ready to remember that I can still be an educator, a writer, and an activist without a tenure-track job. In fact, I may be able to do those things better without the confines of the neoliberal institution.

Today, I am affirming my worth as a very smart femme. I am affirming my worth as a person who deserves abundance--not because I’m special or worked harder, but because we literally all deserve abundance, and it exists! Scarcity is a construct of capitalism--the resources are there, they simply aren’t justly distributed. And I am going to find ways to have a livable life so that I may continue to do the work to crush this shit out of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

Today I am excited about what life outside academia may look like (media producer?! social justice healer?! writing books and being paid to do it?! more podcasting?!), even while remaining open to finding a TT-job, should one come along that fits. Today I am excited that we are leaving Boston and going back to the Midwest where my lungs have more space to expand and where my heart has so many roots. Today I am excited for possibility. Today I am excited to be brave.

(art by Emma Darvick)

  • Twitter Social Icon
  • Instagram Social Icon
  • SoundCloud Social Icon

© by Raechel Anne Jolie. Proudly created with Wix.com