Building the Life I Want to Live

For the entire time I was in graduate school I had one goal: to become a full-time, tenured professor in a supportive department at a great university. I had this dream that I would balance my time between teaching and supporting students with my own research and writing. And I would be so happy simply because I would be doing the two things that I love: teaching and researching-writing-publishing about art. I knew nothing else, so for almost 20 years I busted my ass, first to get my Masters and then to get my PhD. I spent countless hours reading, studying, writing … worrying, crying, and exhausted. Somehow I missed the reality of this dream — that the glut of newly-minted PhDs far outstripped the amount of tenure-track faculty jobs available and that the bulk of these jobs were going to Contemporary art historians or those with an already established publishing record, something I didn’t have. I also seemed to have missed the memo that what I study is neither canon, nor really considered marketable. I study it because I’m genuinely interested in it and because I like it. I’m coming to realize that these are not good enough reasons to pursue something, at least not if you want to get things published in “the best periodicals” because, you know, tenure. Most importantly, I didn’t really consider that I might just hate the job when I did finally get it. Maybe I thought academia was some sort of magical place where scholars shared deep thoughts and supported each other’s work? I knew teaching was challenging, but I liked the challenge.

I don’t come from professional stock. My father was a City carpenter and my Mom, while she did have some college, was an administrative assistant … a secretary is what she called herself. I come from people who had to work to keep food on the table and a roof over our heads. Careers were for people who had the time and leisure to pursue them. As for stay-at-home-Moms … my Mom worked and both of my Grandmas worked. The women in my family didn’t have a choice to stay home. The only two people in my immediate family who finished college are my brother and me. And out of the entire family on both sides, I am the first one to get a Doctorate. I’m one of two.

My only real exposure to academia was as a student in college and grad school, and then as an adjunct in CUNY, Parsons, HCCC, and Seton Hall. What the hell did I know about an academic profession? I asked all sorts of questions and did my own research, but professors never dissuaded me from academia and the grad programs I was in never really discussed non-academic jobs for art historians. We were presented with two choices: the pursuit of full-time, tenured positions and curatorial jobs. What if neither of those positions worked out or were a good fit?

Here I am. I’ve just started my third year as a full-time professor and my thirteenth year teaching. I am not that bright-eyed kid sitting in her very first graduate class at Hunter College. I’m not that person who read Linda Nochlin for the first time and exclaimed, “I WILL be the next Linda Nochlin!” I’m not that young woman who sat in the auditorium at the Grad Center during orientation and listened to the president yammer on about how lucky we are to wake up every morning and do what you love. No. I am a middle-aged woman who realized that I don’t want to work this hard for so little. I don’t want to pursue a tenure-track position with no guarantee that I’ll get tenure in six years. I don’t want to give my life, my soul, and my health to this job. I am not that starry eyed, excited kid anymore. Rather, I’m a very tired woman who sees the writing on the wall and hears the truth inside of her. And the wonderful thing is that I absolutely know what I don’t want and what I do want.

I know what kind of life I want to live … and I know what needs to be done to build that life.

5 Comments on “Building the Life I Want to Live

  1. It’s good to know what you want, and i sounds like you’ve certainly been contemplating it. Good luck with it. I hope your physical and other healing is coming along well too. Isn’t it weirdly surprising when we don’t rebound like we thought we would…?

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  2. It’s so grate to have you back. Love reading your articles/blog. You have always inspired me and after completing my BA in Clinical Psychology and Studio Art , I’m really considering continuing grad school. Besides the expense, I’m already doing something I love and when I consider how much less I’ll be making it’s hard to rationalize. Thanks again for your powerfu writing it always hits a cord!

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  3. Although it pains me to hear you talk so sadly about something that once was your dream job, I’m glad that I came to the same realization much earlier. While I love my job as a Postdoc, the amount of work required in the very parts I don’t like increases with every step of the ladder. I don’t want to spent time on writing grade, organizing networks and kids other peoples a**es, just to have sufficient funds for me and my staff. I don’t want to socialise with sexists and a**holes, just because they are higher up in hierarchy. And I like to have a life besides my job. All of these are not obtainable when being a professor unless you are insanely bright or have independent wealth – which I do not. It feels sad that being a professor is not so different on the other side of the pond…

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  4. I had naive expectations about my chosen profession too and was disillusioned quite early in my career. But then the challenge is assessing the reality of the situation and finding that special niche where you can make a decent living using your education and training and yet still be happy, with time to live the life you want. Necessary compromises will be made. But it certainly can be done and happiness achieved! Good luck!

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