I wrote this — or a version of it, anyway — the last time I was this unclear about what my next steps were. I’m in a much stronger position now and far more at peace about working adjacent to or outside the academy. But this still resonates for me far more than I’d like to admit. Stashing it here in case it’s helpful to anyone else.
CW for self-harm (not mine)
(except actually in retrospect I did myself quite a bit of harm throughout this process, so maybe CW for self-harm by way of buying into neoliberal university capitalist bullshit as well)
My very first on-campus interview was for a position the department had assumed would be going to their visiting assistant professor.
But they couldn’t hire her, because she had killed herself that fall.
I don’t say this to make her struggle in any way about me. Her story is — was — her own, and however broken academia is, it is never the sole perpetrator in any person’s tragedy. But learning that a queer woman with an Ivy League education, a top-tier press first book deal, and a presumptive tenure-track spot at an elite liberal arts college could feel that kind of despair wrecked me. She had done everything right. I had not (2021 addendum: I still haven’t, and it’s not looking good for the foreseeable future) but I felt a kind of aspirational kinship with her achievement. For the first time since beginning my doctoral program, I worried that achievement might not be enough.
I called my work-wife in hysterics, trying to imagine a future in a profession that had left someone so accomplished feeling so hopeless. She talked me down, as your best judies do. I prepped for the interview, drove to campus (past eight plantations but who’s counting), and got through my first marathon: teaching demonstration; multiple one-on-ones with faculty and administrators; lunch with students; campus tour; research presentation before dinner with faculty (at which I’d been advised to drink to show I’m collegial but not so much as to let my guard down, which is confusing to someone who drinks sparingly and honestly could stand to keep her guard up quite a bit more than she does).
If it hadn’t been my first on-campus interview, I would have known that there was no way I was actually being considered for this job. Because religious studies is a small world, I knew the other two candidates. Both were significantly senior to me; I had barely started my dissertation. But naïve as I was, I knew something was wrong the minute I started the jobtalk. Only about half of the department’s faculty were in attendance, and I’ve spent enough time performing to know when an audience is tuning me out. In the Q&A, the department chair challenged my reading of a case study, demanding textual evidence for my assertion. I pointed to the quote on the slide glowing behind my head: I had been discussing the textual evidence with another faculty member for about three minutes.
The fact that the department chair had been half-listening was less jarring than being told to take a walk during my own Q&A, though.
Admittedly, I was fumbling. I wasn’t used to answering questions about my research, and the project, as my advisor would have said, wasn’t done baking yet. Nevertheless: during my very first interview research presentation, a senior (white, straight, male, cis, you know the litany) faculty member started answering questions that had been posed to me. When I tried to interject, he hushed me, flapped a hand in my direction, and told me to “go take a walk or something.”
I think it was supposed to be a joke?
Anyway, that was my first campus interview. I clearly did not get that job, but I did land a one-year Visiting Assistant Professor gig at a small liberal arts college closer to home. It was a crash course in full-time teaching, department administration (as they were kind enough to include me in faculty meetings and encourage my participation in university-wide pedagogy initiatives), and collegiality.
I could not have asked for a nicer first job or more generous colleagues, and I will always be grateful to this department for that. (2021 interjection: my CV’s online, so I’m not sure why I was being vague about this. My first full-time teaching gig was at Elon and I loved it. I’ll always be especially grateful to Lynn Huber for her kindness and her mentorship during my brief time with those wonderful folks.)
After I graduated, I went on to a prestigious fellowship designed to foster pedagogical innovation and excellence in the humanities. If you’re a teaching nerd, and I am, this was an unbelievable opportunity: good money, 1/1 course load, and the opportunity to think deeply about effective pedagogy at a small liberal arts college outspoken in its commitment to social justice. Fantastic job, prestigious institution, fancy nationally competitive postdoc. I went back on the market with my book nearly finished, in talks with a university press, solid recommendations, and — with all humilité — an untouchable teaching portfolio.
Despite having three interviews at the AAR (which, look, I know is small beans for some fields, but for AmRel, that’s a decent showing), I was invited to visit precisely zero campuses that year.
So it goes.
In the spring I was invited to be a Visiting Assistant Professor at an R-1 department, and I accepted with blessed relief. I share all of this because a) honestly, for all that I am in my fourth year (2021 update: now entering my eighth year; math is fun) of contingent labor, I’ve been fairly privileged in my positions, and b) this was supposed to be my year. I was finally going to see the goddamn sailboat.
In 2016–2017, I’ve had more interviews, both preliminary and on campus, than any previous year, including one for a tenure-track position at the institution that currently employs me. I am still, come next month, unem-fucking-ployed.
(2021 interjection: I spent the summer writing jokes about dogs on the internet for money. In the fall, I met Liz Bucar at Northeastern. Liz, like the goddamn miracle she is, manifested a fantastic job for me basically out of sheer willpower and grant-writing witchery. She’s still working overtime to keep me employed by any means necessary. There are, quite simply, no words for this kind of generosity, consideration, and compassion.)
I knew how bad the market was, is, shall be. I knew that I was never intended — by the academy, if not by my program, which I dearly loved despite its flaws — to be more than cheap labor and eventual waste.
(The American Association of American Professors estimates that since 2011, 70% of academic labor positions are contingent. This is, it turns out, the most normal I have ever been.)
I have delivered countless soliloquies about alt-ac not being failure, about being more than our training, about the necessity of nourishing our whole selves, about refusing to be a brain on a stick. And yet somehow, apparently, I remained convinced that none of this applied to me.
I am, for a few more precious weeks, teaching a class on race, religion, and resistance. (2021 reflection: this really was a fantastic class; the students were some of the smartest and most engaged I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with. Also if you haven’t already read Sylvester Johnson’s African American Religions 1500–2000 — why. Look at your life. Look at your choices.) This course centers on embodiment. We have been talking about the ways that crossing borders reduces us to our bodies. Citizenship, allegiance, training, commitment, self-identification, intelligence, achievement slip away: we are who border patrol perceives us to be, for as long as they want to detain us at the border. Strange that this reduction to our bodies can be so dehumanizing. Soul-rending that our bodies mark some of us as threats to safety and security, no matter who we are or what we have done.
Academia has made me obsessed with and suspicious of bodies, none so much as my own.
I have been trying to learn to listen to and care for my body as part of my writing process. Much of my adult life has been measured out in keyboard strokes, trying to pour the contents of my brain onto an imaginary digital page, resenting the necessity of the meaty intermediary that is my fingers, my arms, myself. I exalted in Judith Butler’s insistence upon the materiality of writing in her introduction to Bodies That Matter while longing to shrug off the unbearable weight of my own body to do my “real work”: making words that make meaning (or at least employment, and what’s the difference?). (2021 observation: ouch, capitalism.)
There are several ironies in this. The first is that my work is bodies: race, gender, sexuality; difference, violence — these are made on and through bodies, and I argue in every piece I write for the material realities of words. But here, as in the market, I forget I am part of this system.
The second is that there is no writing without my body — a point that seems so obvious, but one I forget again and again, usually until an injury (like the time I got so distracted by a deadline that I tripped over a pair of shoes and somehow managed to close a door on two of my own fingers) or an illness (like the full-body tension and partial paralysis that set in a week after my dissertation defense, which I discovered in short order was an MS flareup, my first) asserts itself.
Third, women in the academy are so often reduced to their bodies by colleagues and supervisors. I think of friends who teach while pregnant, being told by senior faculty that they’re making bad choices while students treat them like moms, not highly trained experts. I recall graduate students’ labor — specifically baby-sitting, and specifically the women graduate students’ labor — being offered to visiting alums. I remember contributing additional labor by explaining to a senior (white straight cis male) professor with professed Marxist leanings that the academy’s power dynamic meant no, we were not just free to refuse this departmental service that could never be added to a professional cv. Because that, as he had every reason to know and not to know, is not how power works.
At the same time, the academy encourages women to erase our bodies. I am never so conscious of this as when I recall that I have told very few colleagues about my neurologic disorder for fear that my brain will be perceived by potential hiring committees as in some way unprofessional. As though, if I were truly committed to the field, I and my immune system would have had better sense. But the violences of this profession are seldom so pronounced, even while they pervade our daily lives. Erasing bodies renders abuses invisible. If you are not your body, did an abuse of your body really happen?
The academy allows and perpetuates abuse by turning deaf ears and blind eyes to reports of abuse (made by faculty and grad students alike) while protecting perpetrators. These abuses include sexual harassment and assault, and racism, and ablism, and a thousand microaggressions. These abuses also include shunting institutional service onto women and people of color, rendering their labor invisible while impeding their professional advancement. Responses to the afore-linked study were telling: so many women of my acquaintance asked why we needed the study at all. I responded: before the study, all we had was women’s word for it, and what kind of evidence is that? No kind, apparently.
I am exceptionally bad at erasing my body. I am loud, and I am large, and I take up a lot of space. My doctoral program prepared me for many things, but it did not curb my involuntary outbursts in the face of injustice. (2021 update: the only one surprised about my eventual ADHD diagnosis was me.) This is a professional liability in academia, where polite white Protestant rules of engagement encourage us to treat all matters as somehow divorced from their material stakes. For weeks after learning I would not be offered a permanent position at my current institution, I involuntarily chastised myself for having spoken in public while contingent. If I could have been less myself, I kept thinking, I might have had a chance at this tenure track spot.
The thing that churns my stomach is that I am not wrong about this.
If I could have been less myself, I might have been more welcome here. I might have “fit.”
(2021 hindsight: I would have been more welcome if I had kept my mouth shut, 100%. I was wrong for that job, though, and Dr. Biko Gray was and is precisely the right person for it. If you don’t know his work, you really should.)
“Fit” is a monstrously ambiguous category — it is the one employment qualification for which no job candidate can adequately prepare. At the same time, some of us “fit” better than others. I think of Sara Ahmed here:
“Institutions are straightening devices: when things are in line they recede. Think of tracing paper: when everything is lined up, you can only see one set of lines. By virtue of her appointment, a diversity worker begins to witness the mechanisms that generate one set of lines, or an institutional line. No wonder things then appear wonky. She appears wonky.” (Living a Feminist Life, 107)
I cannot, I think, de-wonk myself at this stage in my career. (More 2021 hindsight: I cannot, nor will I.) I started my doctoral program more than a decade ago, and fought with everything I had to retain my commitments while making my project and my scholarly-self marketable. But in this time, in this nation, I cannot and will not remain silent about injustice. I genuinely cannot comprehend how an institution would want to employ someone who was neutral about capitalism, about sexism, about white supremacy, even though I know this is, in fact, the dearest desire of most institutions. This failure of imagination on my part is directly connected to my inability to keep my mouth shut on these topics. (A dear friend once dubbed this SJW Tourette’s. [2021 update: it turns out it’s just plain old ADHD lack of impulse control and justice sensitivity. The more you know, &c. &c.])
I, it would seem, am I.
And for all of that, I’ve not convinced myself to walk away entirely (preferably in slow motion with my past ablaze behind me, John Woo-style). I’m still applying for contingent academic posts, though I’ve also translated my CV into a resume and am looking seriously at administrative and nonprofit positions. Academia, I wish I knew how to quit you.
But I don’t, apparently. So here’s the best advice I have to give myself and others on the matter of employment in the academy while still, perversely, having a body.
Advice for People with Bodies Seeking to Garner or Maintain Academic Employment
First and easiest: be a straight white able-bodied cis dude.
This is really the fastest track to employment and career advancement. If you weren’t lucky(?) enough to be born into a straight white cisman’s able body — if you’re a not white not able-bodied not cisman, or you do the weird stuff, or goddess forbid some combination of the above, things are going to be more complicated. Do the best you can, and remember you’re British.
Bodies should dress themselves in a professional manner.
This is going to be harder for you if you don’t have the option to have been born a straight white able-bodied cis dude. Concern for professional dress can include refusal to remove blazers even in sweltering rooms for fear that senior faculty might see our untenured arms and inner monologues about whether our butts are professional. Not whether our hemlines are long enough, whatever that means, but whether our butts are ignorable enough for us to be accepted AS professionals in the workplace.
Bodies should not have attachments to place, preference for geographic region, resistance to climates (weather or political).
Bodies should not mind if the small town surrounding the place where the body works might want them dead. Bodies should go where the market tells them to. Bodies should be grateful the market wants them, if it does. If the market doesn’t, it’s probably the body’s own fault.
Bodies granted campus interviews should expect to start moving at 7am and stay on their toes (metaphorically if not physically) until well into the evening. Possibly for multiple consecutive days. Bodies on campus interviews should not require time to prepare in between meetings and presentations, eat, or use the bathroom. #NotAllCampusInterviews, but enough of them, and shoutout to the admins and faculty who work time for bodies into the schedules of campus visits.
DO ignore your own body and the lived realities of others’ embodiment.
Don’t talk about disability. Don’t mention mental illness. Don’t take sick days. Teachers don’t get sick days — particularly contingent faculty, graduate students, and faculty members who need their leave to care for their families. (Family members are presumably allowed to have bodies, though it’s still not encouraged.) Your body is entitled to health insurance while you’re employed, but if you change jobs, your body might be on its own for a few months during the summer. Incoming and contingent faculty are frequently left without health insurance in between jobs, because bodily precarity isn’t the academy’s problem unless (paradoxically) your body is physically on campus. Likewise if you’re a graduate student and the department forgets to renew your insurance from one year to the next. Presumably bodies are only bodies during the school year?
Don’t, for the love of god and all that is holy, use your body to make more bodies.
Having children is often read as unprofessional, a mistake — a senior faculty member said of the first woman graduate student in my program to get pregnant that she had “ruined her career.” Senior women colleagues have confessed to being advised by their senior (often women) colleagues to get abortions if they wanted to stay in the academy.
Bodies should not raise a ruckus when they remain (unfathomably, inscrutably, infuriatingly, except wait, white supremacist capitalist heteropatriarchy, never mind, I see it) unrepresented and thus invisible in professional spaces.
Number of times people whose bodies are not represented in any given space have been told by people whose bodies are and have been throughout time and space well represented in all western contexts ever that such exclusions are not systemic and that diversity of ideas is equally valuable to diversity of embodied experience: the limit does not exist. Remember that no good can come of telling white people the truth.
You know what, bodies should probably just not mention whiteness at all.
Bodies, no matter their color, should definitely not talk about white supremacy. More true stories: I was once chastised by a Black male colleague for arguing against hiring a white man for a position intended to increase faculty diversity. I had, he said, made our white male colleagues uncomfortable.
Confession: I intend to spend the rest of my days making white men uncomfortable. This is my quest and my one true calling.
Confession the second: when departments say I don’t “fit,” confession the first is the sort of thing they’re probably talking about. Admittedly, I hardly ever say “don’t hire white men” out loud at faculty meetings, but I do say “white supremacy” a lot, and I suspect the rest just sort of leaks out my pores even when I do manage to keep my mouth shut.
Confession the third: #NotAllWhiteMen, but do we really have to do this? Fine. I married a white man. Some of my best friends are white men. But the ones I love the best are trying not to be White Men, in a spirit I imagine akin to my attempt not to be a White Feminist while being see-through pale and viscerally dedicated to equality of people of all genders.
If you use your not-straight/not-white/not-male body to say something in public, expect bodily attacks.
There will, at the very least, be emails, but not-straight/not-white/not-male bodies who take up intellectual space often encounter physical threats. I myself was once invited to “eat a bag of dicks” for writing a blog post addressing women and abuse in marginal religious communities.
In my experience, there is no piece of writing so invisible, no address to the faculty so brief and commonsense, as to escape the questioning of the body’s authority to address the subject or to evade visceral suggestions, even threats, of how one’s body should be punished should one dare assert oneself.
If you do, against all odds, manage to attain or retain employment in the academy, remember that survivorship bias is real and powerful.
Remember there is no work so smart, no observation no insightful, no cause so important as to absent you from your body — that academia rewards, not merit, but fit, and the ability to appear as though you are making substantive contributions while not changing anything enough to make anyone uncomfortable. And that ultimately, while always already denying your body, the academy will always oblige your requests for more weight.
2021 afterword: apologies if you were expecting, like, answers or a resolution here. But thanks for reading to the end of this meditation. If you’d like to learn more about Giles Corey or witches in general, you can check out my Witches class page right here on Medium.