The text conversation ended quickly. With the final bubble resting on my screen, taunting and ominous, I felt more of my hopes and security dripping away.
“Three classes maybe, but never four. Probably not three either. I’m not optimistic.”
It seems ridiculous that such small sentences could reduce me to a condition of self-reflection (nay self-doubt) about my value, but it happened. I felt commodified. De-coupled from the world that brings me such professional satisfaction. Reduced to a set of bubbles on a screen.
I am positive that the colleague and friend on the other side of that conversation had no intention of hurting me. In truth, I trust this person implicitly to be kind and generous. Yet, the life of contingent faculty is filled with such moments: pride one minute in one’s good fortune to be teaching in their field; despair the next upon realizing an administration can decide the limits of that joy. I am contingent faculty for a university I love. I love the departments I teach in. I love the students that honor me with their presence in my classroom. I even love the stressors of finals weeks. What I don’t love is the scrabbling I must engage in to have gainful employment each and every semester. The pin-pricks that turn into slashes; great sanguinous wounds only staunched by my stubborn refusal to leave behind the discipline that defines me.
I choose to live in this world of mist and hope. I could easily find another job to fill my existence with satisfactions. And this is where the tug-of-war plays out in my heart. I could leave behind the constant nagging fear of contingency and have stability. But what would I lose? I can answer that question easily enough. I would lose the parts of me that I won for myself.
The path to my Master’s degree wasn’t just bumpy, it was downright boulder-strewn. I almost finished my undergraduate degree when I had my first child. I took time off from school to raise him and the younger brother that came into our lives three years later. I was married at that time to a man who graciously allowed me to stay home, but then became attached to my entrenched position. I went back to school a class here, another there. But it would take a divorce, getting a full-time job, and a second marriage before I would be encouraged to finish what I started. My new husband clearly understood the driving need I had to complete my degree. With his encouragement, and two wonderful young sons cheering me on, I went back to school.
I finished by bachelor’s degree, and my master’s. I fulfilled a promise to myself, I never thought I could. My degrees stand for so much more than just the ability to get a job. They define my deep-seated goals, held since childhood, to contribute to the larger conversation of what it means, and has meant, to be human. Ten-year-old me fantasized about being a professor, and teaching a roomful of eager students in the hallowed halls of a university. When I got that chance, my head nearly imploded. I understood the tenuous position being offered: contract only, no benefits, this semester only. But I was going to teach in a university.
Each semester I know my position is not guaranteed. I hold no one responsible for this, and constantly use my time to refine my research, gain pedagogical knowledge, I write, and find uses for my skills. My husband’s full-time job affords me the small flexibility to sustain this lifestyle. We are hanging on, our needs are met, but we live modestly as a result. These are the choices we make. But…moments like the conversation above that started all this, make me catch my breath. I have to redefine myself after such exchanges. Remember I am still valuable. Disconnect myself from the bureaucracy of the academic world and reconnect to the reasons I chose to be an independent scholar. Remind myself of the folly of pursuing a Ph.D when there are no guarantees that such a path will provide anything different for me.
My post today is cathartic. Writing the demons away in a very public setting seemed the right choice, if only to feel as if I am not langouring in my despairing mood solo.
Contingency plans are always present for me. Writing this statement makes me laugh even when I’m feeling low: the unexpected perfection of phraseology inherent in it. I chooose this life, and for someone who is a planner by nature, I shake my head at this choice all the time.