Autonomy and Legacy


When I was young, my dad came home late most nights. I don’t know how much of that was about avoiding my mother, or how much was about the gambling. I do know that in the early years, he still worked with my grandfather, who had purchased the family business from his father just as mine would later buy it from him. By the time my teenage years had become visible on the horizon, things had changed. My parents separated. My dad began to visit another state every other week or so to spend time with a new partner. From the night my brothers and I went to live with him full time to the day, four years later, that I moved into my own apartment, I never saw him work a 40 hour week. I’m fairly certain it hasn’t happened since.

I wonder, frequently, how much of my values around work and what I’m willing to sacrifice for it come can be accounted for by having had this as a model. After my grandfather’s retirement and the eventual death of his business partner, my dad had no one to answer to but his clients. He could come and go as he pleased, staying only as long as was actually necessary to complete the day’s work. He took frequent vacations. In short, he had (has!) it made. I’m not sure it’s a coincidence that the career path I’ve chosen mirrors this setup as closely as is probably possible for someone who is not self-employed.

As a professor, I set my schedule, choosing classes according to the times and days that suited me. There were days–many of them–that I didn’t set foot on campus. I abided by certain administrative edicts, but in practice had a great deal of freedom in terms of how I ran my classes. Given the location of my workplace, I (along with everybody else) coasted through Decembers and an extended Holy Week. Given the sweet deal that I still can’t quite believe I lucked into, I collected paychecks throughout the summers and spent them on national and international travel. And the obvious extra perks of the job aside, this suited my personality extraordinarily well. I had the kind of responsibility under which I thrive, the latitude to make major decisions about my courses as I saw fit, and the opportunity to make my voice heard through work on the committees that represented the extent of my duty to be a “team player”.

As a grad student, my sense of autonomy this year has been under steady attack. My department is actually not one of those horror stories where doctoral students are reduced to glorified grading machines or swatted away like so many flies by those who would be their mentors. I think we have it pretty good, relatively speaking. Relative to other grad departments. Relative to my (admittedly privileged) adult life to this point, though, and to the kind of life I’m comfortable living long-term.. not so. Not only in terms of the infantilizing nature of the experience, but in terms of the kind of time commitment that is considered standard, at least at an R1 institution. And I don’t know that there’s a way to describe the things that have been difficult for me to stomach without it coming across as whining or simply not understanding how the system works, so I won’t attempt it. I had a pretty good idea of the kind of careerism that gets people in the door here, and this was something I considered in deciding whether or not to come here. Obviously I ultimately did come, but I will say that evaluating my experience this year, and thinking about the general academic career trajectory in the U.S. and what’s required to move from one stage to the next, it’s not difficult to see that I need to seriously investigate other options. I’m bad at politics. I’m bad at hoop-jumping. I’m bad at waiting for unreasonable amounts of time for decisions to be made or actions to be taken. Or rather, I can do these things, but dealing with them makes me miserable. Putting myself through another decade-plus of the same would be untenable. So the plan as it stands now is to complete the degree, and to do it in a way that sets me up for a number of possibilities post-dissertation. In the meanwhile, I strongly suspect that engaging with the Outside will benefit my dealings on the Inside in ways that will make my years in the program much more gratifying.

My dad, for his part, is still working his short weeks. He has some values and personality traits that I do not admire quite as much–some of which have nonetheless clearly been bestowed upon me–but the disregard for whatever mold one is supposed to fit into, the placing of life and the business of living it above all else..  that I can work with.


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