01 March 2006
Wedding Bell Blues (Part One): Jackie O.’s Aphorism
As I have been attempting to negotiate the shoals of my new job at Cold City U., I have increasingly been thinking of the academic job as a metaphorical marriage, in particular connected to something I have read mostly in relation to the nuclear-powered life of one Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy Onassis: the infamously fabulous Jackie O. When observers analyze Jackie’s passion play of a life, they often read her marriages along the lines of a particular aphorism: The first marriage is for love (Jack), the second for money (Onassis, baby, you know it!), and the third for companionship (Maurice Tempelsman, not a marriage really, but still). Lately, I have thought: Can we read academic jobs the same way?
This thinking is related both to my earlier post on vocation, with which it shares a ripeness of allegorical meaning, as well as a recent email from Cristina H., which posed a series of questions that I had to consider seriously, the most salient to me personally being: “Why have you chosen to remain in the academy?”
This is a good question, as I replied privately to Cristina H. A quick answer would be that I remain in the profession because it is what I have been trained for, I am fairly good at what I do (teaching and service in particular), and the perquisites of the academic life agree with my temperament. But a more honest answer would likely be that once you start on a track, you tend to stick with it come hell or high water. This is relevant to my situation, although I will say while I have been afraid of unemployment and not having the wherewithal to make a living, I have never been afraid, in an existential sense, of leaving the academy (or at least afraid enough to not consider leaving a terrible situation).
Thanks to The Fierceness, La Connaire, and others I have known who have or are now forging careers off the tenure-track, I have realized that life doesn’t end if you’re not blathering about some minutiae to a bunch of uninterested and spoiled undergraduates, or dealing with some institutional filing formality, or attending your fair share of mind-numbing meetings that begin and end nowhere, the very definition of the void.
But primarily I am still in our little hothouse of frustrated desires because I am married to the Mob. As much as I may feel myself to be an outsider, I am now a member of the family. I may not be a Superstar, and I’m decidedly not a Fine Young Cannibal, but I have my place in the pecking order of “The Shop.” I am a professional professor. I know the ropes, I've passed the tests, I've born the burdens, I've done all that has been expected of me and been rewarded: Yakking at early morning conference sessions with two people in attendance, kowtowed and bowed before advisors and references, competed on the seminar and conference room floor (Banjee Girl Realness, thankyouverymuch), done my time in the committee room, worked up a sweat at innumerable job talks wearing a monkey suit, grinned through endless and turgid interviews like there was no tomorrow, and suffered obnoxious and sometimes patently insane students in and out of the classroom. I've paid my dues. And once you’re in, it’s hard to leave at the drop of a hatpin. Married. To. The. Mob.
Think about it. Doctoral Education as a rather long and dreary finishing school, making sure you feel, at the end of it, that you’re good for nothing but marriage (i.e. an academic job) and having babies (books and articles). A long, arduous courtship full of ritual and testing: the job market and its attendant displeasures. Then, the ceremony (the hire): a socially sanctioned commitment of time, money, and emotion, that starts out happy and blissful and in front of a lot of witnesses (if you’re not a starlet getting hitched to your backup dancer in Vegas, that is, where the only witnesses are your agent and maybe your stylist). The institution as the groom, somber and respectful in a tuxedo (provosts, deans, and administrators lined up next to him as the best “men,” smiling with creepy rictus grins like upright corpses: a foreshadowing), and the new hire as the bride, brilliant and virginal in white, joined by a contract to live up to each other’s hopes and expectations. I suppose if we were to extend the metaphor to its ridiculous extremes, one’s advisor would be the “Father” giving away the bride, your bridesmaids: various colleagues, letter writers, and friends, elated and maybe a little jealous at your success as you glide down the aisle, regal and resplendent with a pound of makeup on your face and really needing to scratch an itch just below your left eye. Your moment of success! You’re glowing, girl, you’ve made it! You’ve scored a job in one of the most tendentious and unforgiving professions there is.
However, as the cautionary tale of Elizabeth Taylor reminds us, the fairy tale wedding can quickly lead down the primrose path of disillusion, recrimination, and land you in divorce court. We don’t even need La Liz anymore to realize the mess modern marriage has fallen into, as statistically marriages in the USA are more bound for the cutting room floor than the joys of Diamond anniversaries celebrated in matching velour tracksuits and Rascal scooters. As marriage as a social institution has undergone crises, so has the academic job market. Whereas once there was plenty (seemingly) to go around, there has been for the last thirty years or so an overabundance of doctorates and a dearth of tenure-line positions. And like marriage, we still believe in the tenure-line position, even as they recede farther away for most post-doctorate candidates, even as the ideal comes less and less to represent our present reality.
Unlike La Liz, most of us aren’t meant for eight marriages (and counting. Miss Thing is still alive, after all. There’s always tomorrow!). Of course, La Liz’s crime was that she was in love with love, and her scandal was the unabashed pursuit of her desires. The average academician isn’t necessarily engaged in such a delusional hunt. We just want, like most “wives,” a modicum of security, some love and attention on occasion, and personal satisfaction. And like the statistics on marriage, academics are increasingly multiply married. Some lucky few find their Mr. Rights the first time around, and move into tenure and then death with a regularity that has the makers of Metamucil knocking on their doors to discover their secret. These are the professional numbnuts you meet at conferences or perhaps department meetings, who never know what all the fuss is about in the profession. “Crisis? What crisis?” After all, they have their teat. But for the vast majority of us, when we finally grab the ring, we find after one year or some years, that we are unfulfilled, or the bastard is cheating on us, or he is beating us, or he sucks in the sack, or he has left the building emotionally, or worse, he dumps us for his secretary! The nerve!
If Jackie O.'s aphorism is true, then our first job is for love: love of the profession, love of ourselves finally living up to our ideals, love of adulthood after the long chrysalis of infantilism that is graduate school. However, as the Countess DeLave reminds the soon-to-be Ex Mrs. Stephen Haines in the brilliant The Women, “I bet you married for love? And look where it got you? On the train to Reno!” So if and when things go awry, we get on the train to Reno, and we "Reno"-vate ourselves. Hope spring eternal! Welcome to the First Wives Club! Love, University Style. We brush off and pad the curriculum vitae. We start talking at conferences again. We return manically to producing "work" with quick publishing timelines. We call our advisor. We go back out into the cesspool that is the academic job market, hoping for the best, expecting the worst. Eyes wide shut.
I am a recent divorcée, currently on my second marriage. My first husband is the recently respectable Mr. Sadistic College. Formerly untoward but with ambition towards seriousness, he offered a chance at happiness. We both started out with high hopes, and I worked hard at it, making sure dinner was on the table when he came home, the house was spotless, and the laundry done just so. Girls, I worked my fingers to the BONE! But alas, I was jilted. “He” didn’t hold up his side of the deal. Turns out Mr. Sadistic College just needed a token wife for a while, and when the token was no longer needed, she was shown the door.
However, lucky and clever and desperate vixen that I am, I was able to find a new “husband” relatively quickly, Mr. Cold City U., and here I am, in a new house, with similar but slightly different expectations, wondering how I should handle it this time. What are the secrets of success to make the second marriage work where the first one failed?
(to be continued)