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Working in Academia: A Double-Edged Sword

Updated on September 25, 2014

This morning I was reading Glassdoor’s “20 Best Jobs to Have a Life” and not surprisingly, teaching was absent from the list. Teaching, whether at the grade level or in higher education, is not a job that one can leave at the door. The responsibilities, the obligations, the feelings—they grab hold and ride piggyback all the way home.

One of the reasons I became an English major in college was because I found myself in awe of my college professor, Mr. McCoy. He seemed to have such an easy life from my naïve perspective. He sauntered in the classroom wearing jeans, talked about the intricacies of writing and literature for a couple of hours, then hopped on his motorcycle and left for who knows where—a place cooler than community college for sure. It looked like Heaven to me. This was the real world? This was a career to be had? Hell yeah. I’ll take a slice of that.

Later, having transferred to a university and learning that money could be made in scientific and technical communication, I strayed a bit. I focused on research, writing abstracts, and conducting usability testing. I learned HTML. I made valiant attempts at web design. Not quite the path I’d envisioned some years before, but I still had my eye on the prize. I would have that golden egg upon graduation. There was still easy money and something magical on the horizon.

I soon learned as a tech writer a few valuable things that would affect my destiny: 1) 9 hour days are for the birds 2) windowless buildings and tiny cubicles are not conducive to creativity and 3) $12.50 an hour barely pays the bills. I was making only slightly more than I did as an intern, and by then I had earned a Master’s degree. Overworked and underpaid summarized my job description. Let’s add to this the term “micromanaged,” and you’ll understand why after two years I segued into academia. My former dreams of wealth and leisure were dead to me.

Roughly 13 years have passed since I began teaching full-time at the collegiate level. The perks? I still think I’m underpaid considering my expertise and experience, but I’m doing alright. I have the opportunity to pick up extra classes for extra pay, and I even have some say in what courses I teach and how I go about it. My schedule is generally flexible, and I’m sitting on the couch as I write this—on a Thursday at 11 a.m., flanked by my dogs—having taught class first thing this morning. I’m free the rest of the day until my night class begins at 6 p.m. It’s nice. I even take naps most days. Some of you are probably open-mouthed right about now, unable to perceive this bit of decadence. But let me share with you this: I now know that Mr. McCoy did not leave his workplace in search of a coffee shop where he would discuss great American authors and the complexity of 20th century socioeconomics with his peers. No, he was probably juggling committee work, group grading, benchmarking, and required professional development. He may have been looking for a dark place in which to close his eyes…just for a few…luxurious…minutes.

I’m happy to have steady employment. I’m happy I’m making a difference to some. I don’t dread going to work, and I enjoy the subject matter I teach. But I often wonder how I will find the time to do just that…teach. I’m looking at the to-do list on my desk and mentally calculating how or IF I can get it all done. And then, out of the corner of my eye, I see the stacks of papers: essays and memos waiting to be graded. And it feels overwhelming…and somehow futile in the grand scheme of things.

And then an email “ding” breaks the silence. I wonder what awaits me in the inbox this time. A policy change? A reminder that my observation is coming up? Another student who doesn’t take notes but has a slew of questions I’ve already addressed?

Teaching is not a job. It is a lifestyle. There are days when it takes on a life all its own…a living, breathing, soul sucking thing. Do you have what it takes?

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