The topic of privilege is one of the hardest one out there, not least because most academics that I’ve met don’t want to appear “privileged.” (I’ll never forget when my undergraduate advisor told me about visiting Princeton and being turned off by how upper-class the campus and town seemed, in contrast to Harvard, which is where he chose to go. After a brief teaching stint at one of the “Little Ivies”, he left academia to — presumably — return to working for the do-gooder NGO (I’m leaving the details purposefully vague) for which he’d worked and/or done research while in school.
The recent post on “The Post-Academic Privilege Divide” at How to Leave Academia referenced a recent post on this blog (yay!) but left me kind of confused. The post set up a divide between more privileged post-acs who can take the time to intern, go back to school, figure life out, while searching for that perfect, challenging, wonderful post-ac job, and those who, for one reason or another, simply needed a job, any job, in order to pay the bills. My blog came up in the following context:
In turn, post-acs who have to take any job they can find out of financial necessity have been are telling the three of us (via emails and blog comments and posts of their own) that they feel somewhat ashamed or even marginalized by the larger postac movement for not having landed the “perfect” postacademic job, or for not working a job that is considered prestigious enough for their education level. (Source)
This section of the post implies that I’m not among the privileged, because I’m not working as prestigious a job. While it may be true that my job isn’t that prestigious (it’s part-time, in the evenings, doesn’t require an advanced degree, etc), the truth is more complicated than this post implies. I actually like my job. At a very basic level, it gets me out of the house, away from the kids, for a few hours a week. I’m with people at a proverbial water cooler, working on a common project, and I like that. It expands my skills as a manager, which has to be the most useful thing I can do, really. I get to talk to interesting people: many of the student workers at the circulation desk are international students, and have interesting stories to tell. I like being around the books, and I like that students aren’t afraid to talk to me, as they may have been were I a professor. I certainly hear things about their lives that I probably never would as their professor, and that’s… refreshing. I like using my supervisor powers to override things or allow a student to check out materials, and I like being helpful.
Do I sometimes feel ashamed that it’s hourly work, in the evenings? Yes, sometimes – but most of this is self-directed. As my mother-in-law said on a recent visit, in response to my own comment that I have high expectations of myself, she agreed that yes, I have very high expectations. Her implication: that I have unrealistic ones, sometimes.
Unrealistic ones that come from having yes, a privileged background, a background that involved top-ranked, ivy-clad schools, schools whose admissions departments used the allure of the rankings to woo students to them. “Come here, and our alumni network and prestige will ensure you get a job!!” they said, often in almost those words. And while rationally, I knew that getting a job would be a lot more complicated than this, I did expect that on the whole, the academic job search would go a lot more smoothly than it has. Admittedly, while I don’t want to say “I deserve a job,” I am at some level bitter that I could work on something for so many years, with so little to show for it.
Privilege has left me ill-equipped to face the less-fortunate side of academe, where students attend four-year colleges but can barely write a sentence, and the idea of analyzing a text and discussing it in class is as foreign to them as, say, ancient Greek. My two-year attempt to adjunct-teach at one of these institutions left me demoralized and much more likely to throw in the proverbial towel when it comes to teaching: I didn’t sign up to be a remedial instructor, nor am I equipped to be so. Doing something else is as much about logic as about anything else.
I’m also pretty privileged in that I have a spouse who has a job, a job which provides health insurance, a biggie that makes it less scary if I don’t myself have full-time employment. At the same time, though, I have two kids. My time is not my own, not when a poopy diaper might erupt at any moment, or an over-eager preschooler might stumble as she tries to get something off a high shelf… and I’m just in the middle of a sentence, of a thought, of an email. Writing a blog post, much less a cover letter or revision of an article, becomes a major accomplishment (and explains why, in the fast-moving world of the internet, this post comes a few days after the conversation started…)
How can I sum this up: I know that overall, I’m lucky, and the inconveniences of child-rearing are a separate issue (mostly) from paying the bills. Even people who are lucky enough to have certain privileges, though, might have to face less-than-idea employment situations, for one reason or another. Post-ac and alt-ac job searches are messy (to borrow a much-used word from almost every graduate seminar I every took). I think we’d all love the playing field to be equal, for everyone to have the time and the resources to look for that perfect job, whatever it may be. We’ve worked hard for our degrees, and we want some tangible, recognizable reward for this effort. That the path to a reward is messy, especially in this economy, just feels like salt on the wound.