Every time I think I’m out…

It’s hardly an understatement to say that my path to a new career has been long.  Nearly two years have passed since I first considered non-academic work, and I’m only just now feeling ready to rip the Band-Aid once and for all.  Despite the obvious fact that this didn’t happen overnight, my wife recently pointed out that the tone of my earlier posts has been uniformly cheery and optimistic.  While I definitely don’t want this to become a platform to whine or kvetch, I do think she has a point that there’s value in acknowledging the less pleasant parts of this transition.  So my post for today will focus on a few things that kept pulling me back into academic life even after I began plotting my exit–events that made the move slower and more painful than it maybe needed to be.

Hope was the thing that kept me tethered to scholarship in the summer and fall of 2015.  Everybody said the job market was going to get better that year, I had an article published in a peer-reviewed journal, and I was convinced I was a stronger candidate with another two semesters under my belt.  So I spent my time doing the things you always do when you’re applying for tenure-track jobs.  First, I threw myself into research.  I was eager to show I had plans to move beyond my dissertation and tried to devise arguments that would push the conversation in my field in new and interesting directions.  Second, I networked inside academia.  Some years earlier I’d met a Canadian scholar with similar interests, so I reached out to ask if he would comment on a chapter of my dissertation.  His feedback was positive and let me start thinking about the work I’d have to do to publish a book–a key step in getting tenure.  Third, I spent my time on applications: cover letters, teaching dossiers, and diversity statements.  For someone who still wanted a shot at a tenure-track job, this was essential, and it meant that I was committed to academic life at least through that winter.

I also maintained a side-project that was Classics-adjacent.  Right after I came to Tulane, a colleague got me involved with a team of scholars in Italy that’s publishing digital copies of late antique Latin texts together with entry cards on each author and work.  Since their audience is international they needed someone to translate the entries from Italian into English, and I happened to be the guy that some guy knew.  This looked like a great opportunity at the time.  It let me connect with scholars in Europe, allowed me to work on my Italian, and gave me a break from my other research.  But for all that it’s been fun, the project has gone on longer than I was led to believe.  I’m now three years and over two-hundred pages of formal translation in, and new entry cards continue to arrive every few weeks.  This has put me in a tough position.   I’m committed to seeing the project through because I gave my word that I would, but it obviously isn’t doing anything to advance my current career goals.  To make matters worse, I’ve come to realize it never did much to further my cause on the academic front, either.

The one it really hurts to bring up is teaching.  The best part of my day is getting to stand up in front of a class, engage them in a topic, and see their faces change as they start to understand a concept or event in a new and meaningful way.  Over the last three years, I’ve had students ask me to write letters of recommendation, interview me for honors seminars, and even pull me aside at a Port-a-Potty line during Mardi Gras to thank me for being a good teacher.  All of this makes me feel like a million bucks, and it gives me second thoughts about leaving academia every time it happens.  And it never gets easier.  In fact, the melancholy has only grown worse as I get closer to teaching my last class.

Existing commitments have also kept me tethered to the field.  Within a month of deciding to enroll in my first night course, I got an email from a senior scholar in Australia inviting me to write a chapter for a book he was editing on Lucan.  My contact in Canada had given him my name, and he’d been impressed by the work he’d seen in print.  Some luck!  At the very moment I’d begun stepping away from Classics, my research was getting noticed.  I was a bit apprehensive, but in the end agreed to contribute.  I figured it might increase my chances on the tenure-track market that year, and–even if it didn’t–it would let me end my academic career on a high note.  All sound logic, right?  Well the thing I forgot was that I had to write the thing while looking for other jobs.  I soon found it’s hard to keep one foot in academia while you’re trying to plant the other in new sectors: the project has advanced much more slowly than I would have liked, and it’s taken me the better part of six months to figure out how to live two lives simultaneously (on the plus side I’m now writing again and it looks like I’ll finish by the March deadline).

Sometimes it also just comes down to money.  About this time last year Tulane offered me a one-year contract extension.  This was a good thing to have in the hand, but University policy insists they sever ties with Visiting professors like me at the end of three years.  My performance and their need become irrelevant at that point–the real aim is to reset the base salary to keep costs under control.  So I found myself in a tough position.  I knew the offer was only going to delay the inevitable, but I didn’t have anything else lined up and didn’t like my odds of success enough to take a risk.  In the end, I had to put food on the table, so I took the easy thing that was right in front of me.

Pride and doubt also played a role.  A few months back I was contacted by a scholar at a respected department to see if I would be willing to give a paper at a conference they’re putting on later this year.  I got the call when I was ramping up my search for a new career and beginning to feel more confident about my decision to leave.  But here was the field once again, giving me a reason to stick around.  And not just any reason!  The trip would be paid for by the school in question, and I was slated to speak with a number of scholars whose work I admire.  I was honored, if a bit surprised, to be included in this company, and couldn’t help myself from giving a tentative yes.  I was upfront about the fact that I might need to back out, but I really wanted to make a public display to prove I could have made it in Classics if I had decided to see it through. At the same time, saying yes let me feel like I was keeping a lifeline to the field in case I end up being plagued by regret.

Let’s start wrapping up by stating the obvious: I’ve been extremely lucky.  The things that have kept me tied to Classics have in large part been good opportunities any academic would be thrilled to seize–and some might even take as a sign I shouldn’t be walking away.   Even so, my odds of finding a meaningful future in the field are pretty long, and even if I got lucky the arc of that career wouldn’t take me where I want to go.  This fact alone is a good enough reason to fight against what amounts to a sunk-cost fallacy: it was fine to give Classics my 20s, but it would be foolish to give it my 30s without clear evidence it’s likely to provide a sustained and sustaining career.

There were also costs to embracing these opportunities.  Trying to be both a Classicist and a not-Classicist simultaneously led me–at least at certain points–to develop a split or schizophrenic sense of identity that often had a negative impact on my private life (bouts of depression, emotional outbursts, etc.).  This no doubt affected my professional life, too: I’ve often felt I’m not fully dedicated to my day job as a teacher, and sometimes get the sense employers view me as an academic at heart because of my remaining commitments to the field.  It would be naïve not to admit that this has hurt my chances of securing a job and slowed down the transition.

So while I have been and still am proud of my academic achievements, it hasn’t all been rosy.  I know deep down it’s never a good idea to take a half-measure: either you want to be a professor or you want to do something else. Confronting that something else is often a frightening ordeal, and fear has a way of pushing us back towards the things that make us comfortable.  My various opportunities to stay engaged with academia have effectively served as a sort of security blanket: they make me feel good, but they don’t keep me warm.  Standing where I do now, it’s clear that my attempts to keep options open have really just delayed the inevitable.  At a certain point, you just have to take the plunge into something new.  I know I’m ready to do that now, but I may always wonder whether I could have been ready any sooner.


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