Friday, July 4, 2014

Cobbling Together a Living: No Caviar...but I do Have Shelter!

I am an assistant professor in interior architecture at a state university and I am coming up on my sixth year. I got my first job as a tenure-track faculty member at West Virginia University 10 years ago. I have dedicated a decade of my life to teaching, collecting information, creating course materials, publishing articles, presenting at conferences, and educating students.

But this part of my life is coming to a close. This past spring, I decided not to apply for tenure. This means that I have two more years on my contract that I can work and then I have to leave. I made this decision because despite the fact that being a professor is what I have always known I should be doing, what it is to be a professor has changed. Less of my time is spent on striving to make education better and more on just trying to stop things from becoming damaging. A better day is when things can be prevented from slipping away rather than actually becoming harmful.

This has been a gut-wrenching decision for me. I hate that I had to make it, but I don't think I made the wrong decision. To a lot of people it looks like a pretty foolish thing to have done. After all, one of the ultimate goals of a faculty member is to get tenure, it feels like recognition for a job well done. It signals your success to other faculty and I have spent a decade preparing myself for the review. I made it to within sight of the finish line and then decided not to go for it. I could have had it, but I was actually afraid I would get it.

It also looks foolish because I have a steady salary, health insurance, and retirement benefits. I make $60,000 a year before taxes and health premiums, I bring home about $3,500 a month afterwards. I have classes for 30 weeks a year - that's 22 weeks when I'm not teaching. I don't have to come in on weekends and in fact, some semesters I have only had classes on two or three days of the week.

Obviously there is a lot more to my job than teaching. In fact, my job has been all consuming for the last decade. I have pushed myself and worked countless hours to do what I thought was important - push the frontiers of thought. I could keep my job, do the minimum, and still get paid what I earn now. So, why not do that?

It's devastating, that's why. Tenure is a hollow victory only indicating that I played well with others. I care too much about thinking and about education to do them poorly. When you are a professor, it isn't a job, it's an identity. It's not enough to win - I want to succeed. I'm thinking about the World Cup a lot recently and it gave me a way to think about my career. When Arjen Robbens threw himself to the ground to fake a penalty that won their qualification match or when Louis Suarez bit Chiellini to take Uruguay through, the games were won for those who cheated. They won, but they failed and it leaves a bitter taste underneath the sweetness of victory. Maybe not now and maybe they will never realize it, but it is corrosive.

I don't want to win something that isn't worth having and that was based not on merit but on compliance.

On the other hand, I want to eat. I don't do well with authority, I am easily bored, I don't have a lot of actual skills, and I'm too snotty to work for minimum wage. I come from a reasonably well off background, so I have no memories of hunger to make me fear letting go of my steady income. This doesn't mean that it's brilliant - it means I am impetuous and angry.

Photography, especially fine art photography (I'll deal with the term 'fine art' later...) isn't the road to riches. It isn't the road to the middle-class. It might not be the road to dignified poverty. It's something I love though and that I can't stop doing. Sometimes, I try to - I remind myself that it's not earning me money (just like this blog isn't...) and that I should do something useful. I can't.

Instead, I have been doing freelance writing and it is beginning to look like I might be able to make a way for myself. I don't know that I will replace the salary I was earning at the university. I do know that I don't hate myself while I'm doing it. I've only been doing it for a couple of months, so who knows what it will be like long term, but I've managed to get a couple of clients who like what I do and I am thoroughly enjoying the hyperactive nature of it.

I write an article, 500 - 800 words about one topic and then, generally, I don't really have to think about it again. I become an expert in something and then I can move on to becoming an expert in the next thing. This is what I wanted from academia; the ability to explore across connections, to know a bit about everything and see how the world is woven together. In academia they want you to go deep, to know everything there is about one thing. That's fine, but not for me - I love connections, the spaces between, the sticky threads that pull wildly different things together. It's like magic. It's as close to the feeling of religious ecstasy that I will ever get.

I'm not writing about big ideas right now. Sometimes I'm writing about liposuction and sometimes about photography and sometimes about 3D printing. The connections are mine to enjoy.

I get paid to do this. Sometimes it's $15 an article, sometimes $20, sometimes $50 but I can put these things together so that my day is varied and I can be flexible. If I want, I can push myself and on another day, I can take a nap on the hammock. So, while I won't be sharing beluga caviar on my yacht any time soon, I'll be home when my husband has a day off and I'll know things about the world and I won't have to betray my principles.

I think it will be a worthwhile tradeoff.