Transitions, Transitions

I’ll be completing my third year and beginning my fourth in higher education later this week; as a matter of fact, Facebook reminded me just yesterday that I was offered my current job exactly three years ago, and I started later that same week (this is my “day job” I’m talking about – teaching is connected-but-separate). The past three years have been…interesting. As in, “May you live in interesting times,” as a curse interesting. There’s been a lot more drama than I would have liked, and a LOT more heartbreak, but I just keep using my heart and my intellect to inform my decisions (heart first, but tempered by intellect), and I do the best I know how to.

The idea of transitions has been on my mind because I’ve had a pretty big shakeup in my staff; several people have resigned, and several others have taken semesters off. I’m struggling to remind myself that this is completely normal; I have tried on purpose to hire mainly students, and students are not supposed to stay on campus indefinitely. Something I say all the time is, “This is not intended to be anyone’s full-time permanent job – not even mine.” Staff turnover is the name of the game; students come and work for a while, and then they graduate and move on to the next phase of their lives. Some of them try to stay on – there are enough universities within an easy commuting distance to my campus that some people do manage to be students at other colleges while still working with me – but most of them go on to find good jobs on their current campuses (and I highly encourage that; trying to manage schedules on one campus is hard enough). And that’s as it should be: one of the defining factors of the college experience is that it’s meant to be transitional. Theoretically, students come to college to learn to think critically and become self-reflective (regardless of major area of study, I truly feel that these two activities are at the core of any college experience, although the increasing focus on vocational programs seems designed at least in part to shove those activities out of the spotlight), and once they become comfortable with that, they are ready to move on to the next phase of using those skills for their own purposes. That’s what’s supposed to happen; they’re not supposed to remain students forever.

I hope that’s reflected in the way I’ve treated outgoing staff members. Although I do miss them, of course, I’ve been a lot more proud than disappointed when my staff members have moved on to bigger and better things, and I always tell them so. “I can’t even be mad that you’re leaving,” I say, “Because this is an amazing opportunity for you, and I’m so proud of you.” And I mean every word.

At the same time, I think another part of the reason this is on my mind is also because I’m feeling very trapped, in a way. As I said, my job has been very, very interesting, and not always in a good way. I didn’t intend for it to be a permanent job when I took it; it was supposed to be a stepping-stone to bigger and better things for me as well. My passion is teaching, and I want a spot on the tenure track so badly I can taste it – the main reason I took the “day job” is because part-time teaching offers no benefits or job security, and I’ve got to have health insurance at a bare minimum; my health is not such that I can afford to be without insurance. Three years isn’t a long time, but I still feel stuck in this transitional phase. When I first started in higher education, I didn’t think it would be very long before I’d be able to make the jump from “wage slave” to “full-time professor,” but I now know the “dirty secret” in higher education is that full-time opportunities are few and far between. I applied for a couple of full-time faculty positions this past spring, and I didn’t even warrant an interview for either. I’ve also applied for a better-paying staff gig; no word there either. I think that’s why I’m frustrated; I feel very stuck in this transition place. I think I’m ready to move on, but the opportunities just aren’t there to move into.

This feeling has been surprisingly familiar. I remember being a student in college and being very frustrated with the pace of my completion. I had a couple of semesters where dragging my sorry self to class was quite difficult, because things weren’t going the way I wanted them to. I used to frustrate very easily, especially with repetition: “I already know how to do this,” I’d say, “Why do I have to do it again?!?” Now that I’m “on the other side of the desk,” I do see the value in repetition, and if I could make the kind of money in my “day job” that I’d be making teaching, I’d probably be far more content to stay.

Maybe that’s the larger problem. I’ve often said that I’d happily be a student forever, but I just can’t afford to. I have also said that I’d happily teach for free if I didn’t need the money. So maybe my frustration is more for a system in which I am not financially allowed to do the work I love. I’m so tired of shoving my teaching into nooks and crannies of time left over from my “day job” that is ostensibly 40 hours a week, but in reality, I’m on call continuously. I need the “day job” to survive, but I need teaching to thrive, and it’s becoming harder and harder to do both without burning out (I often say I’m burning the candle at both ends and in the middle, and I truly feel that way). I could rant and rail at “the system” all day, and it still wouldn’t change anything; I didn’t make the rules, and they’re not going to change just because I want them to.

I usually like these essays to have some sort of resolution – in other words, in the examination of something, I’ve actually managed to work through it and come to terms with it. And in a way, I suppose I have with this issue too; I have plans on the books to petition for a salary increase for myself (based on the fact that I’ve been working above and beyond my job description since Day 1), and if that doesn’t pan out, I’ll be on the job market seriously in the spring of 2019. It’s sad because I don’t want to leave where I am, but I don’t feel like I can afford to stay very much longer either. And maybe that’s the point: maybe I am ready for the next phase.

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