The Chasm

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I’ve tried very hard in working on this project to focus outward, to talk about what’s happening around me, to find facts and make connections. But I woke up from a nightmare this morning. The details of the dream aren’t relevant. What is relevant, if perhaps only to me, is the deep, aching fears that this project revives.

The grief of not finding a home in higher ed—of having done everything as well as I was capable of doing, and having it not pan out… of being told over and over how well I was doing and how much my contributions mattered, even as the prize was withheld—consumed the better part of a decade. It affected my physical health. It affected my mental health. It ended my first marriage. It re-opened all of my fears from childhood about abandonment and rejection. It was a chasm that opened during the job search of 1996-97, and from which I didn’t really fully emerge until I left higher ed altogether in 2013.

Or perhaps, as my dreams tell me, I haven’t emerged yet at all.

Over the past year, I’ve helped a college with its accreditation efforts. I’ve put on a few faculty development events. And now I’m writing about the contingent academic workforce. And I realize how much I resent it all. I realize how much I resent being a caretaker of an industry that could not care for me. I resent being the one who tries to be fair, who tries to take a balanced, holistic view of the misfortunes of hundreds of thousands of my contingent colleagues, and the safe and often unremarkable permanent careers of hundreds of thousands of others.

Every contact I have with higher education brings me right back into the chasm. Into envious comparisons with others. Into the commonsense conclusion that of COURSE I wasn’t good enough, of COURSE I did something wrong along the way. Into trying to be rational and analytical and strategic about something as fundamental as my own identity as a scholar and teacher and colleague.

I went with my wife on a research trip yesterday in support of her current project. We were in Hennicker, New Hampshire, home of New England College. As we drove through the compact campus and its white clapboard buildings, I was immediately beguiled once again with the life I wanted, to have been the kind wise man who led generations of students into a richer adulthood on a protected, monastic grounds. The music of a good college campus always makes me sing, and having that song inside me again even momentarily makes me realize how much the silence has ached.

The problems with the adjunct structure of higher education are not merely quantitative. It’s not just about how badly adjuncts are paid, not just about the inadequate opportunities for our students to build enduring relationships with the faculty who guide them. It’s also about fear, grief, despair… the messy, hidden human elements that finance and policy always miss. This emerging project is not a memoir, not an autobiography. But the reason I’m doing it is because it matters so much to me, and the reason it matters so much to me is because it still hurts so badly. Researching and writing this book has brought me back into the chasm in ways that I hadn’t anticipated.