Leaving academe as a breakup song – I remember it well. Last weekend, @kelly_j_baker started a Twitter hashtag on this premise. I tossed in one or two, but felt out of place. Or out of time: my academic soundtrack, including breakups, spans nearly two decades. I’m also tenured now, and thus perhaps an unwanted interloper in conversations among academics who have not found a place in academe and must leave. I never expected to have the place I now hold – the time I spent unemployed, on part-time contracts, and on full-time annual contracts still exceeds my time on tenure track and tenured.
I stopped for a few minutes there, running through the unpacking those last two sentences need. But I get choked up thinking about it. Literally, literally. My throat constricts. Maybe the #academicmixtape concept will let me string together the key moments and moods, if not the full narrative. Every track is a song that I listened to at its moment, repetitively, craving the meaning it might yield if I squeezed hard enough. Yeah, I know many of these are sappy sentimental. Tough shit.
Track 1: John Lennon, “Watching the Wheels” – 1997
With no job for the coming year, I move back to New Orleans to live with the parental units. I’m burnt out on academe and eager to focus on the literary writing I had neglected while finishing my dissertation. Academe’s a game. Real writing comes from watching shadows on the wall.
Wheels within wheels. Whiff of Ezekiel, whacked by God into either muteness or a speech that no one could hear properly.
Track 2: Elaine Page, “Memory” – 1998
Still unemployed, a year after leaving Chicago. I have a little musical Renaissance – start piano lessons, take a music theory course at UNO, and try a little community ed singing class. The singing teacher assigned “Memory.” I had never heard it before. Actually, we could debate whether I hear it now, since I was quite deaf at the time. Still, it sticks in my Chicago-besotted head. There I am, walking through the parking lot by UNO’s Performing Arts Center, looking up at the stars and missing another lifetime.
Note: The song’s blend of standard Broadway sentiment with the language of T. S. Eliot gives me whiplash. Then again, my brain is filled with such strange bedfellows.
Also, I can’t sing.
Track 3: Neil Diamond, “Love on the Rocks” – 1999-2000
In 1999, I start a half-time, semester-contract job, and keep looking for tenure-track jobs. Or at least full-time academic jobs. But in my first week of teaching, I cannot hear well enough to respond to students. This changes everything. The question is no longer, can I find a real gig, but can I teach at all? Not really. So what else could I do – bearing in mind that I would be doing whatever it was as my deaf self, which preceded my barely socialized academic self, and would follow it too? Of course, I’m not listening to the song so much as to my auditory memory of it. Memory can be louder and clearer than reality.
(I have an I’m-quitting letter that I wrote to both of my Doktorväter around this time. A recent Twitter discussion stirred that memory, but I couldn’t bear to look at it. The Twitter discussion assumed this would be a conversation, an assumption that puzzled me. Were all those people still in the same cities as their grad schools, that they could drop in on their advisors? Or – what, phone calls? I couldn’t use phones. Seriously, people, you had these conversations face-to-face or at least voice-to-voice? Does no one write letters anymore?)
Anyway, I didn’t quote “Love on the Rocks” in the letter, but I listened to it often as an academic break up song. No apologies here for the sappy side of my taste: listen to that chorus. There’s real wisdom for leaving academe. When you know there’s nothing you can say, you stop trying to say anything, and just go.
Track 4: Frank Sinatra, “Send in the Clowns” – 2002
May 2001: cochlear implant surgery. I did not do this to save my academic career. I did it so that I could move on, leave the limbo of half-time contracts and the fruitless annual cycle of academic job searches. In the months that follow, I glut on music – old music I can now hear again and far better than before, new music that I could never have parsed on my powerful hearing aids. This is the Year of Sinatra for me, and also a year of love songs. Sheer infatuation with sound.
Of all the new songs that year, this is the only one I connect with academe: the out-of-sync partners, will-they-or-won’t-they, can anyone tell where this is going if anyone even wants to? And is it just too late? I try to get back in the game, but no one was there. I’m now on a full-time contract, after two and a half years half-time, but this is still limbo. I dig into publication, teaching, and applications for tenure-track jobs. It was several more years before it really sunk in: at the point when I could hear again, I was stale, past the expiration date. There was no way, was never any way, that I could go on the job market as a fresh PhD who could also hear.
Certain consonant sounds occur in the higher frequencies. In a progressive hearing loss, they’re the first to go. For me, they were the longest gone, the sounds I had not heard in 20 years: v, f, s. On my recording, Sinatra really drags out the lines.
Don’t you llllovvve ffffarccce? Enter clowns.
Track 5: Bob Dylan, “Things Have Changed” – 2006
The department tried repeatedly to get my position converted to tenure-track. I tried continuously to land other jobs. Pointless all. After the destruction of New Orleans in August 2005, academe was chaff to me. Even my own bitterness at it was chaff.
In that year that started with a grief so large that it’s off the scale of the standard Life-Stress Inventory, I am told in February that the provost’s previous Nos to the conversion of my position didn’t just mean Not Now, they meant Not Ever. Word comes down in the clearest possible terms not to ask again. My job search was then in its eleventh year.
I used to care.
Track 6: James Darren, “Here’s to the Losers” – 2010
In 2006, I began looking for support positions in universities – what’s now called alt-ac, but we didn’t have a name for it then. Applied for over two years, had many phone or video-chat interviews, even one campus visit. No offers.
Summer ’07. I’m at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, with a manuscript of poems about New Orleans, my troubled relationship to it and its imago, pre-K and post-K stuff. Day 2 or something, and I’m checking email at the library. From my chair: admin converted me to tenure-track. I think he’s joking. That was my reply: “Are you joking?”
I know a few of the details leading up to the decision, but these don’t amount to an explanation. If anyone does know why, she or he has not told me. I was sure of one thing: my merit, whatever that means, was not the reason. Yes, I believe I deserved it; I just don’t think that my deserving it is the reason why it happened. Nor was my lack of merit the reason why it didn’t happen for so long. This should not be true, but it is.
I first heard “Here’s to the Losers” on Deep Space Nine – one of my grad school shows, my favorite Trek – sung by James Darren. During my post-CI music glut, I found a CD Darren had made in ’99, with all of his Vic Fontaine songs. This was my favorite, and I revisited it often over these years. In most of those listenings, I imagined it as an anthem for those academe spat out, who lurked on the margins, who were never in the right place at the right time. Who did the work but were never wanted. In other words, me.
I don’t consciously associate the song with tenure. However, when I compiled this list a few days ago, I looked on my iPod for my seasonal playlist the year I was tenured. There it was.
Just to be clear: I do not hear this as an affirmation that academic things will work out academically. Often they don’t. Or if they do in a superficial sense, the reality that lies beneath may be quite strange and incommensurable with standard scripts. Since I left Chicago in ’97, the greatest joys and the greatest griefs of my life have had nothing to do with academe, or with any reaction against it.
Bless them all.