I have made something of a habit of following up on pieces I’ve written before–as witness “Another Office Piece” and “Still Another Office Piece.” Another such witness is “My Revised Plan B” in How to Succeed in College: It’s Never Too Late! Part Two for Adult Learners, which is itself an extension of a paper I wrote in my first year of graduate school. In the original paper, I note that pursuing the study of English languages and literatures was a fall-back from my initial plan of being a band director when I grew up; it was a thing I did because I had failed in my intent. In the published revision, I note the ways in which that failure worked to my benefit–and some of them are still true. For example, I am still happily married to the wonderful woman I met in grad school, and I am still bringing in additional money through the skills I developed through studying the liberal arts–although it never seems to be enough.
But there are other things about which I am somewhat less sanguine. As I’ve commented, my academic job search did not go well–at all. I am still teaching part-time at one school, and it looks like that will be about all; I abortively work on pieces for the Tales after Tolkien Society, but most of my scholarly effort is not. I cling to the teaching job out of a combination of stubborn unwillingness to completely abandon what I spent too long attempting–much as I still own instruments and pretend to have ideas about music–and the fact that the job offers me a way to bring in extra money for my family, but I harbor no illusion that it will be anything other than a side-line pursuit for me. (I do still torture myself by looking at academic job listings from time to time. I should not, I know, and I know that a PhD earned in 2012 and not supported by substantial publication since does not suit me for the declining number of jobs being offered.)
No, what I do now is far more mundane; I work as an administrative assistant for a local non-profit. The job is a good one. I have regular hours and ample time to pursue my side-line incomes. (My rates are reasonable, my performance excellent. You can give here.) I am helping people to help people, making their jobs easier so that they can do more for those in need of the agency’s services, and I have actual promotion potential–explicitly and overtly. The pay could be better, of course, and there are always things about a job that annoy, but I have a robust holiday schedule and a supportive set of coworkers, so things are pretty nice, overall. I know I am lucky to be in the situation, to have found a decent, steady job in the world outside academia after more than a year since moving back to Texas and 130 applications for full-time work in that time. I am in a reasonably good position at the moment (although I know it is precarious), and I know it.
At the same time, I am following up on earlier pieces, and I do have to note that there is some mismatch between what I was supposed to do and what I am doing. I was supposed to find an academic job, one that offered promotion potential and would allow me to live the life of the mind as a more-or-less full-time thing. (I know that the professoriate has committee and governance work to attend to, and that there are other concerns associated with the work, but still…) Indeed, several people I know in academe have expressed shock and dismay at the fact that I am not in the field–which is flattering, to be sure, but serves to highlight that I have “fallen.”
And it is hard not to think of the job I have now, one that I would have been able to do out of high school, as in some ways a fall, as in some ways another failure. Again, I know that the job is a good one, and I know I am lucky to have it, and I am grateful that I do have it–but I cannot help but feel that I have wasted parts of my life. I met my wife the first day I was in my master’s program, after all; the PhD did not make me love her any more, and I am not sure that it has done as much to help me maintain my family as it cost us for me to earn it. My student loan debt is smaller than that many hold, and I have paid on it long (with the accompanying benefit to my credit rating, if not to my bank accounts), but it is still nearly the equal of two years’ pay for me–with a job that I did not need to take on the debt load to qualify for. And I field the question, time and again, of why I am not teaching at some level as a full-time thing, why I have settled for the job I have or deigned to take it–not least from the people with whom I work and who have hired me, and who use such words or close enough as makes no difference.
Once again, I know that matters are reasonably good for me at the moment, and that they could be far worse, and I am not unmindful that I have what I have. But when I look at how matters stand with me, and I look at how they might have stood by looking at others next to whom I have stood, for months or years at a time, I have to think that, despite the great value of what I have, the price I paid for it was far higher and that I was a fool to let myself be led into making such a bargain when there was no need. And after spending more of my life than not in the pursuit of living a life of the mind, I have to regard being fooled as a failure–and since my plan B in English has failed, I have to hope that I can at least squeeze by on the C or D where I find myself now.