Alienation and anomie about a job

It tolls for thee!

Associate Professor Angela writes:

Do you ever wake up in the morning 100% ready to quit your job?  Not to look for another job, but just to walk the hell away?

That was me, at 7 a.m. today.  Do you have any advice on navigating mid-career?

If you post this on your blog, I’m quite sure that some responses will be along the lines of “Hey, I’m a grad student/adjunct/non-academic, and I’d be *happy* to have your problems.  Boo-f^(king-hoo.”  There’s some justification there, to be sure.  But, as I said to recently to a former mentor, I try to be grateful that I have a job.  I’d hate to be on the market in these times.  But “I’m not unemployed” seems like I’m setting the bar too low.  It’s like evaluating someone you’re dating by saying “Well, he’s never been in prison.”

Heh.  I’ve never felt like resigning, but I can relate, Angela.  I was close to where this correspondent is about a year ago, but the advice I got from you readers was really helpful.  In short, in the comments on my post about my mid-career slump, many of you told me to 1) take intellectual risks, and 2) to find collaborators.  I took your advice, and it really seems to be working for me!  I’m co-teaching a new course in the fall, and I’m really enjoying my research project now in part because I gave a provocative paper on my subject that seemed to go over well (and much to my surprise, most people even enjoyed the provocation and urged me to go further with the project.).

I think my efforts to learn how to ski over the past two seasons have played a role in this mid-career crisis, too.  I’m not sure if it was originally a symptom of my frustration or a means of relieving it with new experiences, but I feel pretty good up on boards.  In fact, on my last ski day (April 2, Winter Park) I was frustrated by how slo-o-o-o-wwww I was skiing due to the sloppy spring conditions.  And if you had told me 12 or 15 months ago that I’d be complaining about skiing too slowly, I would have thought you were out of your ever-lovin’ minds!

While Associate Professor Angela’s anomie may be a predictable, cyclical stage in an academic career, I have to think that she may be finding it difficult to soldier on bravely in the face of budget cuts, pay freezes (amidst increases in parking and insurance costs), and the overall War on TeachersExcellence without Money only comes at a price–and I firmly believe that the faculty should not be the only ones paying it, friends.

If any of you have any thoughts or advice to offer Angela, please leave your contributions in the comments below!

0 thoughts on “Alienation and anomie about a job

  1. Just to clarify: the slump is due primarily to rapidly deteriorating working conditions (never top-shelf to begin with): resource cuts + increased workload + drop-off in student preparation + cultural backlash against higher ed + more cuts on the horizon. Work demands mean that my job has progressively taken up all of my time, leaving me little to no time for anything else that might provide life satisfaction when the job isn’t giving it. And with work going up in the near future, I don’t see the pattern changing. The idea of walking the hell away just seems kind of awesome and liberating right now.


  2. I hit this point halfway through graduate school (graduate school lasted a long time for me). I rhetorically announced I was bolting, then walked to the corner and realized I still couldn’t cross any streets that didn’t have lights (symbolically speaking). So I returned, played a lot of racketball, sold a few shares of penny ante stocks that were grandparental gifts as gateways-to-capitalism, moped around all winter, then told my advisor that my “trial divorce” from History “wasn’t working out.” Ze welcomed me back, I changed topics about forty-five more times, and things actually took a pretty much permanent turn for the better–although probably for coincidental reasons at best. I still mope, sulk, howl, pout, rage, over every nixed conference app. or fellowship opportunity, to say nothing of jobs. But now I imagine inheriting or falling into millions of dollars and not sharing them with whatever worthy thing has most recently incurred my displeasure. (I guess you can’t sell off your “gateway-to-capitalism” after all). It’s at least as irrational a strategy as racketball, and even less becoming with age, but it seems to soak up most of the negative energy fairly quickly. I’d not recommend any of these things to anyone else, but that’s what sort of works for me. Collaborate? Hmmm….


  3. Angela, have you had a sabbatical? Are sabbaticals still available at your place? My first piece of advice would be to apply for one at the earliest opportunity, if they are still available. It sounds to me like you’re burnt out – and, actually, beyond the point of burn-out that I was at prior to my sabbatical.

    If sabbatical is not an option, I will say that something that has made me infinitely happier since my *return* from sabbatical is that I have “walked the hell away” from everything that a) I don’t care about, b) that I don’t find interesting in some fashion, and c) that offers no compensation (either in money terms or in less tangible terms). While I’m still working my ass off, I’m a hell of a lot less resentful, and I feel like people are actually valuing the work that I do *more* than when I was trying to do everything.

    Barring that? Do not work in the evenings and do not work on the weekends. Seriously. You may have to wake up at 5 AM to grade and prep (as I did this morning), but I felt relaxed and rested, as opposed to trying to get through the same stack of crap after a long day. and taking time away from work on the weekends, well, it makes me much happier heading in to every week, and I do believe that it makes me more productive when I actually am working. Sometimes, less is more.


  4. AP Angela, I could have written what you wrote, word for word. I don’t have any suggestions for how to talk/work yourself out of this slump, I just want to commiserate. (Perhaps you shouldn’t read on if you need to be cheered up!) Others tell me – and I try to tell myself – that I should love my job right now: I got tenure last year, am enjoying thinking about possible new research directions without the crushing pressure of The First Book, I live in a great part of the country. But my institution’s budgetary decisions have meant that I, like you, do more for less, water down my classes while expanding class size from 25 to 50 or 100 at the demand of the dean, earn less in real terms than I did 3 years ago and less than all of my untenured colleagues (freezes + compression), have to refuse many conference invitations ‘cos I can’t afford to go, have seen valued colleagues leave who will never be replaced (one of the dean’s actual stated goals is to reduce faculty size by 10%!), and there’s more to come. I love this part of the country but I can hardly afford to live here. And then there’s the political War Against Teachers and general anti-intellectualism that makes me feel almost clinically depressed if I dwell on it. Every day I feel tempted to walk away. For family reasons I’m not prepared to leave the region, which makes finding another academic job tough. So maybe I really will go and work for Trader Joe’s. They have great benefits, and a store manager makes triple what I make… I would miss the summers though.


  5. Angela,
    I have to recommend Historiann’s response of learning something new (either via collaboration or something completely new to you). It helps you remember what it was like to be a student facing something new and scary, improves your teaching, and it’s fun. Work takes up as much time as you let it take up. Say no to some work things and watch what happens – they don’t fire you. Saying no, and “I’m not on that committee” (a phrase I learned from my mom) are incredibly useful. The world will not end if you don’t do everything. Negotiate on your own behalf. Say no a lot. Read the 7 habits of highly effective people and implement some of them. (Seriously, I know we are supposed to be all snobby about self-help books but it will take you an hour and some of it is damn good advice about how to organize your life/work etc.). Say no a lot. Avoid people who are time sucks; this doesn’t make you a bad person. Say no a lot. (You might be sensing a theme here.).

    Recently Rachel Simmons spoke at my school to students at parents. Her recent book “The Good Girl” was, in part, about how girls (and later women) worry too much about how others perceive them and in their desire to please all constituencies, lose themselves. Sound familiar? For pre-teen and teenage girls learning to say no to peer pressure means avoiding bad decisions around sex, drugs, friendship, etc.. In adult good girls, learning to say no to extra job tasks, unhealthy mentoring relationships, overly demanding students etc. is equally important for keeping your sense of self. Simmons’ scripts for teenage girls can also be adapted to adults. Practice phrases like, “That sounds like really valuable committee work, maybe after I finish my work on the curriculum committee next year I can help you with that.” “If you take the time to put it in writing, I can help you with that.” “I’m happy to discuss your paper, but I don’t proof rough drafts, have you tried the writing center?” etc. etc. etc. These are phrases designed to cut the truly needy from those merely seeking to grade grub or get you to do the work for them.


  6. Though deteriorating work conditions seem to be a major impetus for Angela’s anomie, I think another aspect of this situation has to do with publishing the book and getting tenure. It’s an odd period of transition: you spend years working towards those goals, and then when it’s over, you get a pat on the head and are told, “Good — now do it again.” Write another book, teach some more classes.

    As a result, this big milestone, the brass ring of publication and tenure, in some psychological ways makes you feel as if you’ve gone backwards. Instead of feeling like you’ve scaled a mountain and are looking around, and back at how far you’ve ascended, — suddenly you’re beginning over at the bottom again, climbing up through a new mountain of work for another research project. It’s weird because at the moment when you want reward, suddenly you feel infantilized again.

    If that happens to coincide with a moment such as the current one, when the rewards of the profession seem increasingly elusive…. well quite frankly, it makes sense to me to have doubts.


  7. Hi everyone —

    These are all great bits of advice/commiseration. Nicoleandmaggie, your book recommendation sounds excellent. “Your money or your life” is just the decision I’m facing now. It’s only just now that I realized that I have a choice. It’s a scary choice, but it is a choice. That, in itself, is liberating.

    And Squadratomagico also has a good point: being at the beginning again can be exciting (new things to learn! yay!) but also difficult (didn’t I just do this? do i have the energy to do it again?).


  8. My condition resemble Angela’s. Namely, work was never easy, resources are static, course load lightly uncomfortable, most student aren’t great, the movement against education (not just higher) is more reason to be eager to fight back. I believe this has been the trajectory for at least two decades.

    I have many outside interests, from cooking to art collecting and some in between. Once I deal with the rest of the world, school disappears. I raised three boy; I never talked shop with them. Furthermore, two of them are academics and we still don’t talk shop.

    If ski does it, then ski. The general solution, in my opinion is to have a separate world for yourself where you are the queen. No bosses, no pay freeze, it’s an almost an ideal world.


  9. Solidarity Angela!

    I just earned tenure last summer and the new dean asked me this fall when I planned to go up for promotion to full professor! (shoot… can’t I just sit on my laurels for a couple of years? its like I’ve been pushing this stone up hill since grad school and now its rolled back down again…)

    The budget cuts are demoralizing, same with the prevailing winds of anti-intellectualism. But try to think like Annalistes… its all about the longue durée. The politics, the budget, the crummy details of department politics are all going to change several times before we wrap up our careers. “All under heaven is in chaos, the situation is excellent.”

    Remember, being a professor is just a job. Some days working for a living is just a pain, no matter what your job or career is. At least once a week, and more often than not this semester I’ll wake up and say “I don’t want to go to work.” And then I get up and go, because I probably would feel the same way about any job.

    If all else fails, listen to the practical advice from Historiann and the other commentators. Doing stuff can get you through the doldrums.


  10. Thanks all–great comments.

    I think Squadrato’s point is really important. Getting through grad school, landing a TT job, then earning tenure & promotion is made out to be such a big deal that when we finally get there we get the tremendous award of. . . getting to do the same job for the rest of our lives. This is indeed a privilege, but oddly presents another challenge without objective steps or clear strategies. When people are “promoted” in other industries, they get new challenges and have to learn new skills in order to succeed, whereas we have to find new ways to make doing the same job continually interesting. (Or at least reasonably interesting.)

    I know I thought that T&P and then book publication would feel like a bigger deal than they did when I finally got there. But by the time I got there, I was all, “This is it? This is what I’ve made my God for the past 7 years? Srsly?” It’s kind of like that Anne Taintor image, “You mean I get to give birth AND change diapers?” only it’s “You mean I get to teach the same classes AND chair standing committees?”

    A friend of mine called this “post-Tenure rage.” (She had good reason to be resentful of her department, though.) I might call it, “post-tenure whatevs.”


  11. I’d like to second Matt L’s comment that “being a professor is just a job”. It is not who you are, although we often think it is. I’m not feeling as bummed as you are, but I have recent had a number of professional and life transitions. I’m finding it’s very important to me to take time for myself, to affirm old friends and make new ones, to stay in touch with family, etc.

    I don’t ski. But before I moved to my current place, I took pottery classes and sang. I don’t think I’ll take up pottery again in the near future, but singing I might. Both require a focus and attention that takes me out of myself. They provide balance. So whatever it is — from cooking, to skiing, to Squadrato’s engagement with the circus — something very different is really helpful.


  12. Just last week I finished reading Anne Lamot’s “Bird by Bird”. She directly addresses the lack of earth-shattering changes and elation that are expected when something gets published. It’s apparently not just academics who run into this wall. Though the book is geared to fiction writers, I found a lot in there that was useful… especially the recognition that it’s not just me.


  13. I also how much of this is caused by us buying into the idea that jobs are supposed to be supremely fulfilling, as opposed to something you do some of the time. One of the things that drives me crazy is all the technofuturists who keep talking about a future of fulfilling work if we can just teach our kids how to be creative, critical thinkers and all that. My response is, a) people have been telling us this for 50 plus years, I’m guessing it’s not coming soon so b) for the vast majority of us a job is just going to be a job and if you find it mildly interesting and somewhat fulfilling that’s great because being a garbage man sucks (although in Philadelphia the pay and benefits are comparable to an assistant Professor’s but it’s also long hours and outdoors and all-weather but with overtime you can make more!).


  14. Western Dave: if it were easy for even the privileged classes to find fulfilling work, what would John Cheever have ever had to write about? Imagine what a dull (and of course unsuccessful) writer Cheever would have been–and we never would have heard of him. Just imagine: stories like “The Worm in the Apple: How Adventures in Organic Gardening Saved My Marriage,” or “Cash Bentley’s Guide for Sprinters After 40.”

    Tenured Radical might be on to something! Blogs will at least assuage the anomie.


  15. I’m late to the conversation, but just wanted to add that I often feel the same way as Angela. I’m in the unfortunate situation of just finishing my book while still being a couple of years from a) tenure and b) sabbatical (unless I can win an NEH – hahahaha!) even though I’ve been teaching for 6 years. I also live several hundred miles from my partner, and feel so stretched to the limit that dealing with internal academic (sexist, political) bull$hit is almost unbearable, in addition to all the other factors others mentioned (salary freezes! I haven’t had a cost of living in 3 years, like most of you. Compression! Spiraling insurance costs! The astronomical expenses of maintaining two households + FT child care! Hearing the media every day out overpaid & lazy I am!) Added to the fact that neither of us lives in the part(s) of the country where we really want to live. On the other hand, I actually sort of love my job, despite my frustrations. But the constant push-pull agony of “is it *worth* it?” is wearing. I’m often wondering how one constructs an alternate career at fortysomething after a decade in academia (seems to me a slightly different problem from leaving a PHD program, or leaving academia immediately post-PhD).


  16. I’d point out that the book above is the one by Dominguez and Robin. There are about 17 books with that title, including one by Neil Cavuto- you don’t want the wrong one.


  17. Pingback: On Burn-Out « Reassigned Time 2.0

  18. Also a late contribution. Also Associate trash – too old to start over, too young to retire. Although my personal desire is to bag it and start a non-profit foundation focused on health and education programs for young-uns [“Zero to Six”], my practical side tells me to just push through the writer’s block, finish the second book. Several in my Dept. have created a “Mid-Career Crisis Management Committee” – to share and provide feedback for academic work (we’re even a bit inter-disciplinary with some refugees from Foreign Languages). It’s inspiring, supportive, collegial, even fun – just knowing that we’re all in the same recession boat.


  19. Jane–“Associate trash–too old to start over, too young to retire!”

    Wow, that’s pretty harsh. If you’ve already started a book, I think it makes sense to finish it and then re-evaluate. (At least, that’s what I keep telling myself!)


  20. I just want to tell everyone how helpful this has been. It seems that I should be working on some serious boundary-setting and reinvesting chunks of my time in other things, even if I don’t know what those things are yet, and yes, even if this means pulling back from the super-professor I’ve been trying to be. It’s not going to be easy, but maybe a new, scaled-back approach will let me keep going and stay out of a bitterness spiral.

    Thanks. And thanks, Historiann, for posting this!


  21. Good post and good points Angela. This is a very helpful thread and makes me feel much less crazy. I think I hit bottom on mid career slump this week – I had better have, because I cannot take it.


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