It took me two tries to get into graduate school. Year One was a wash, ending in an offer with no money to an institution in a city I couldn’t afford to live in — and an admit to the MA program, not the PhD program to which I’d applied. Year Two involved an awkward face-to-face meeting with a potential advisor at a university where I was wait listed. That meeting began, memorably, when said potential advisor told me that surely I wouldn’t be attending in the fall. (Thank you, Rice, for taking a chance on the person who — probably unbeknownst to you — spent a not-insignificant amount of time during your extraordinarily warm and welcoming recruitment weekend hiding in a bathroom stall, wondering how in hell she made the cut.)
My first conference presentation was (enviably) at the University of Edinburgh, where five people attended my presentation. Two were friends from my graduate program. One was my mom. The room was truly cavernous. I turned red and silent in response to the one question the mediator lobbed my way. (No. I do not know why men don’t take female pseudonyms more often. But thanks for the sympathy question.) I hadn’t yet learned how to navigate moments like those. I still struggle with them. I think I’m getting better. Maybe.
Leaving grad school wasn’t graceful, either. I was on the job market for four years. Each job market cycle I’d get a little sweatier and a little more desperate, watching my bank account and emotional reserves and my dignity erode. Once I sent an application letter to University X telling them that I was a perfect fit for a position at University Y. I flubbed the opening question of my first-ever MLA interview, implying that I’d read a book that I hadn’t. (The minute it happened I knew it was a mistake, but there was no taking it back. That untruth became very clear. VERY quickly.) I tried to leave another MLA interview through the bathroom and stood there, flummoxed, until the kind committee chair opened the door to the hallway. Someone fell asleep during my job talk at two separate institutions. Both nappers were in the front row.
I would love to report that, upon earning my current position — an assistant professorship in the English department at the University of Connecticut that is, no joke, a freakin’ dream — I was transformed, caterpillar-to-butterfly style. That my awkwardness was stripped away and I emerged with leather elbow patches and a professional ease rivaled only by, I don’t know, Alec Baldwin. He’s suave, right?
But not really! Not alas. Because we are all awkward weirdos. We vary in our ability to hide how hard it is to work in our profession, but I really don’t think it’s easy for anyone. I mean, I really love what I do, but I also recognize that landing a spot in a graduate program or a job at a university is sort of like getting that pony for your birthday. It’s totally awesome, and most people don’t get birthday ponies. But in between your breathless gallops on the beach and heartfelt moments sharing apples and secrets and mane-braiding, that pony might bite you. Actually, it definitely will bite you, and when you least expect it. And it poops. A lot. What do you do with the poop?
Why aren’t more people talking about the pony poop?
I actually love talking about the pony poop. Or the academic equivalent of it, anyway. Comprehensive exams and seminar anxiety and dissertation ennui and bad teaching days and writer’s block and rejected articles and DROPPED BOOK CONTRACTS (dammit) and tenure confusion and conference snobbery and botched interviews and the inability to say no to committees and the unexpected emotional toll of teaching Little House on the Prairie to a room full of students who just don’t think Ma is racist.
I led our department’s Professional Development seminar last semester, and despite the fact that my students and I were frequently hashing out things that are just hard to think about — the neoliberal university, the devaluing of the humanities, the indignities of reader’s reports, the uncertainty of the academic job market that turns one’s heart into a cold peanut — I had an awesome time. This is due, in part, to my awesome students. I want to be them when I grow up.
But it’s also because it feels so good to admit to a room full of a current or future pony-owners that the pony poops.
I miss that seminar, and while I’m teaching it again in the spring, I thought I would begin this blog as a way to continue to indulge in one of my favorite things about my time in that weird, windowless seminar room: the freedom to talk about failure in academia. This will not be a forum for self-pity and whining. (Okay. There will be some whining.) It will not be hopeless. Instead, it will be a place where someone working in academia joins the (I think too small) chorus of people acknowledging that we all screw it up, and that’s okay.
I’m borrowing the title of my blog from an episode of This American Life. The details are a little irrelevant, aside from a director’s advice: “If you’re going to fail, please fail loudly.” Turns out a lot of people have given this advice, and I think more people should follow it.
So I’m here to fail loudly. And often. I hope listening makes your own rejections, your own exits through the bathroom, your own pony poop, a little less embarrassing.