It is surprising that the words college and collegial share a common origin, yet they bear little resemblance to one another in my lived experience. I did not always feel this way about academia, because in the last six years as a graduate student and instructor, I have met some incredible colleagues. This support system was slightly anomalous, because over time, I was surprised to learn that as an academic, your colleagues can be far from collegial.
In a recent blog post on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website, historian, Alexandra Lord, described how her departure from academia after uprooting her life to take a job far from home and far from familiar territory. She was responding to another blog post asking job seekers to “embrace your Inner North Dakotan.” Lord cites many reasons for doubting her decision to follow a seemingly perfect job to an area of the country where she felt isolated from her family, friends, and hometown. The comments posted ranged from mildly critical to completely scathing, blaming Lord for being elitist, pretentious and at worst, not serious about her profession. I imagine many of the comments were lodged by other academics and under the veil of anonymity, people let their raw, vicious feelings out.
As a budding scholar, I have asked myself many of the questions that Lord broaches in her piece. Will I find that “perfect” job? Will I be able to balance work expectations and personal obligations? I had long ago realized that to be a truly exceptional scholar (and by exceptional, I mean high-profile, well-connected, and important to the larger discourse), I would have to make very serious personal sacrifices. I might have to move far away from my family. I might alienate my husband (the same man who has supported us financially while I have been in school). I would have to abandon the hobbies and leisure activities that give me great pride and pleasure. And, yes, I would have to address the question of family and whether having children would impede my ability to be that model scholar. I have already had to answer some of these questions for myself and make decisions about my professional life before it has truly begun. We decided to expand our family while still a graduate student and are happily raising two incredible daughters. And I struggle constantly with balancing teaching and research to keep my employment options open when I finish my dissertation project later this year.
The tone of the comments confirms some of my suspicions about the manner of colleagues in the academy. They also confirm my worry that fostering a personal life is incompatible with serving the academy. Let’s be real, here. In this new century of academic life, it takes a very dedicated person to enter into academia. And dedication is not all it takes to be a successful scholar. It takes the support of loved ones (emotionally and financially) to deal with the self-doubt, the growing debt, and the fear associated with living a “life of the mind.” Having those loved ones close at hand could make the burden of graduate study and early faculty life more palatable. Moving far away and isolating oneself in an already isolating line of work seems foolish. Lord captures the guilt she felt leaving this perfect position, at putting her own personal life before her professional life. Plenty of other professionals have to face these kinds of decisions. I think of those in medicine and dentistry, specifically, who must also relocate for their training. However, residencies are often temporary and these professionals may have agency in deciding where to practice. Academics are at the mercy of the job market. And instead of being supportive of one another for the decisions and choices we make in relation to that job market, we post scathing comments about whether our colleagues are “serious” or “pretentious” because they care about having their families close at hand. I envision a professional life where I am able to be proud of both my professional work and my personal life, where I do meaningful work, and where I have the support of my colleagues in my scholarly pursuits. Goodness knows, I care about my professional work because it makes the world better for my two little daughters. So who wouldn’t want to find the right marriage of work and family, of personal and professional?
At the end of the day, all of the griping about work/life balance and the backbiting comments are most disconcerting because as academics, I think we have it pretty good. There are simply not enough jobs available for the number of candidates flooding the market and that has more to do with the political economy of higher education than the availability of candidates to move across the country for a job. In the end, many scholars have more flexibility and freedom than other people in the labor market. And our work, as a friend recently reminded me, “isn’t life or death” so maybe we should start working like colleagues to improve the field rather than tear each other down.