Advice from a Recovering Academic

It was Valentine’s Day, 2013. I had waited all day in fear, as fellow tenure-bound colleagues celebrated with online posts conveying relief and joy. When I finally got the evening call from the dean of liberal arts, “I’m sorry, there just wasn’t enough,” he said. That was it, a quick and sudden death of my academic career. And, then came the tsunami of self-judgment that ripped through my soul. “I was not enough,” it viciously screamed.

During the previous fall semester, the school of visual and performing arts and the college of liberal arts had approved my petition for tenure. I had lulled myself into false confidence. And, so the university committee’s decision was a shocking end to my academic aspirations. Throughout the difficult year of 2014, I had applied for jobs, interviewed and been rejected. Multiple times. I was still not enough.

The following year, I was in a fog debating my commitment to academia. If only I published a book, I would be enough. But it didn’t feel right. I would present at conferences as an independent scholar. I felt like a player without a team, without a home-base. These foggy days were also full of possibility. I started a blog to help me find my non-academic voice. I volunteered widely. I explored whether I’d like to go to culinary school or high school teaching, all the while wondering whether I could ever find my way back to an academic post. Thanks to my husband, I wasn’t starving during this period of anxious self-exploration, a luxury I’m lucky to enjoy.

At one point, my goal was to become a food writer. So I blogged more regularly, wrote short pieces for a magazine and as an afterthought to soothe my wrung out academic heart I worked through a yoga teacher certification program.

I stopped asking what could I have done more. Instead, I relaxed into the thought that I had done the best I could. I had done enough. But there was still anger and hurt.

It was a month into teaching yoga that my heart’s grip on that lead-heavy pebble of hurt began to loosen. I was thinking and reading about the power of narrative, of being able to notice without attachment or judgment, of being able to cultivate a witness consciousness. I wasn’t trying to apply these thoughts to my tenure hurt that in my mind I had already addressed and contained. But somehow, as I slept, these perspectives traveled through my mind and heart to find and envelope that hard pebble of hurt. I woke up with a new thought. A thought I can’t believe I hadn’t seen before.

There were clues all along. I had been hired to the new position of Design Historian. I was not trained in design history. I came to the post with a Ph.D. in philosophy and an undergraduate in architecture. I taught and developed my curriculum from the perspective of material philosophy. I was an outsider in every way.

Clue #1: The US government, in my application for a work visa, asked for clarification regarding my academic background as it related to design history. To this request, my Ph.D. advisors replied with a defense of philosophical analysis in creative pursuits and my new supervisors reassured them of my ability to teach the classes. Here was my first missed clue from the universe. I was to first defend philosophy, not expand the critical parameters of design history. I had dismissed my commitment to philosophy all too quickly to find a home in design history and in the U.S.

Clue #2: Quite a few years into the position, my department head warned, that I was investing too much time in curriculum development. Focus on research and publishing he encouraged. How was I to split my energy in two different directions? Here was my second missed clue: my teaching and research agendas were already fueling each other if only I had noticed my internal narrative instead of trying to adjust to a misperceived outside agenda.

Clue#3: An editor was interested in my book project comparing the philosophies of two early twentieth-century immigrant designers. It was about difference at the heart of American design. Because much had already been written about one of the two, the editor asked that I focus the book on the one, less discussed designer. Again, instead of listening to my inner narrative, I complied. Ironically, once I had done so, the book was categorized under a different editor, who no longer found the book publishable. My third clue offered by the publishing world exposed the commercial limits of my philosophical pursuits.

There were many other moments, besides political citizenship, academic bureaucracy and commercial demands, when the universe was nudging me to notice my internal narrative. Finally, the unexpected shove, that spun me out of my orbit. As I floated unanchored, searching for a spot to land, I began to notice my own emotional, intellectual and physical landscape. I had told an imaginary other’s story, instead of my own. This change in perspective was the beginning of healing. I was beginning to recover my own narrative beyond the dreaded tenure document.

Here is my advice as a recovering academic, find ways to ruthlessly and courageously defend your inner narrative. Yoga, prayer, meditation, walking, whatever helps you hear the inner voice that leads you to question everything. Do it. Listen to the clues, sit with the anxieties, be slow to react, watch your own responses, notice, notice and notice. Academic, research thyself.

I am still stung by the question, “What do you do?”

“I’m a recovering academic,” I mumble under my breath, as I say, “aspiring social worker with a side of yoga.”

It is enough.

I am Dr. Enuf 🙂 and so are you.


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