Five years ago today, March 22 2017, I defended my dissertation and was just a couple more steps away from becoming Jean Alger, PhD.
It seems somewhat fitting to connect my reflections on that day with my reflections on my decision to exit higher education.
The quality of my work was lacking, and I knew that. Part of me expected to fail the defense. Part of me almost wanted to. Whatever happened, it would all be over that day.
Friends attended the defense, to support me. I wished they weren’t there once my committee members started to speak. I accepted their critiques and didn’t honestly disagree with them.
In the months that followed, I imagined moments where I spoke brilliantly in my own defense. At the time, though, anything I could have said felt like an excuse, and so I said nothing. I accepted their criticism. I was sure I wouldn’t pass. I wished my friends weren’t there. I just wanted it all to be over.
They passed me with revisions. I walked out of the room as a “doctor.” It was supposed to be a moment of pride, accomplishment, or at least relief. I just felt numb. It was done, and I couldn’t process it. I couldn’t even think about the revisions because my brain wasn’t functioning.
I could feel some panic in the back of my mind, some desire to say “no, I don’t have time to make the revisions. Just fail me.”
I was sure I had only passed for one of two reasons: professional courtesy for my dissertation chair, or not wanting my failure to damage their graduation rate for PhDs. I knew passing the defense couldn’t be based on the quality of my work.
I went to open mic at Red Dirty Poetry that night, and tried to do a comedy bit but was underprepared, a bit drunk on IPAs, and completely demoralized. I doubt I was funny. I received a pity laugh or two. My poetry family (the people who had gotten to know me over the past several months as I came out every week to read) were all so proud of me, praising me, calling me doctor.
And I felt numb. I laughed and smiled and tried to accept the praise. But I felt numb, and a deep sense of heaviness creeping in on the edges of numbness. A dark feeling, grayish black, like smog. I wanted to cry.
So I downed another IPA instead so I could keep smiling.
Many of my peers had much different experiences in the graduate program. Many of them even enjoyed it. I was miserable and wanted to drop out in my third year.
The longer I stayed, the more I felt I had to stay. And that felt true of academia, as well. Because I didn’t drop out, I did finish my degree, and I was offered a faculty position at a community college in southern Colorado.
Prior to my doctoral program, I was naively unaware of the many problems with higher education. My MA program was nurturing and supportive, and I only got a whiff of the hypocrisy in academia. By the time I finished the doctoral program, it was as if I’d walked by a group of teenagers who put on too much bad-smelling body spray.
The irony of studying the harms of oppressive systems only to have those very systems replicated and reinforced in the structure of the academy was not lost on me.
I stayed, because I convinced myself that I could make positive changes, be a positive influence on my students, perhaps do important research.
Five years after my dissertation defense, I am in my last year as a full-time faculty member because I have decided to leave. I’ve been teaching since 2008, when I first started my MA program. There have been moments when I was able to affect change, and I have no doubt that I influenced my students (I hope in positive ways more often than not).
The COVID-19 years have revealed in a public and undeniable way how many colleges and universities are a mess. BIPOC, disabled, and first-generation faculty and students have been telling us for years that higher education is a mess. Much like our political system in the United States, academia as an institution is more invested in maintaining the status quo than it is in addressing injustices within its structure.
My plan, originally, had been to stay in higher education until I found something else, but my emotional and mental energy are finite, so I’m taking a leap and hoping I land somewhere slightly softer than cement.
While I finish my last semester teaching five courses, all with different preparation, and look for different work, I realized that my dream isn’t to go from one problematic system (higher education) to another (the corporate world).
I love teaching. I love helping writers gain confidence. I love analyzing the written word to see what it can do. It’s a pleasure helping writers unlock the possibilities in their work, and helping them see their writing for its potential and shape that writing into the finished work they want it to be.
I also love writing, and want the time and energy to pursue my own creative endeavors.
My new venture will allow me to do what I love most: teach, consult, edit, research, and write. I’ll even have a chance to use my 200 hour yoga teacher training to develop writing retreats and workshops that incorporate mindfulness practices.
I sometimes wish I had left higher ed earlier, or never gone to graduate school at all, but those wishes are futile. The decisions have been made, and I’ve watched and read enough science fiction to know what happens when we mess with the established timeline.
I was a different person when I applied for and accepted my position in graduate school. I was newly divorced and still trying to sort out how family trauma was shaping my relationships, romantic and otherwise. I didn’t realize, then, that family trauma was also shaping all of the other choices I made in my life.
Seeing the patterns let me unravel them.
Now I have a chance to create something new.