31 flavors of guilt

New Kid has a nice piece about making the transition from grad student to professor. Her comments resonate with me on a number of levels, and could easily spawn several separate posts: what grad school looks like at this distance; the transition from grad student to Assistant; and the transition from Assistant to Associate. Maybe I'll come back to some of those topics eventually.

But her post also raises a topic for me that's been floating in my mind for a while recently. (I have a whole corner of my brain for Potential blog posts, Half-Written posts, Never to Be Written but Only Imagined ones, and so forth.) And that's Graduate School Survivor's Guilt. Or maybe, to put a finer point on it, Academic Success Guilt.

Guilt was one of the biggest features of my transition from ABD to Assistant Prof. I was not a shining star in my department -- not one of the best-published or fastest to complete the diss. My advisor wasn't one of the hot shots whose students all got publisher's contracts for dissertations. My field wasn't even one of the things that the dept was really known for. And I was ABD when I went on the market. All of which meant that some people (including me) were pretty surprised when I got a t-t job during my first year on the market.

Quite frankly, the whole thing felt like a lottery draw. I had five convention interviews, but only one campus flyout. And that turned into a job offer. All it takes is one. And this job has been a really good fit for me -- a diverse student population, freedom to teach new things, located in a city I like. I totally won the lottery.

And so, I felt incredibly lucky and incredibly guilty at the same time. My two best friends from grad school didn't get t-t jobs that year. They both have t-t jobs now -- in some ways better ones than mine. But it took a while. Lots of other people I knew didn't get jobs that year. Lots of people I know are stuck in crappy jobs, or without jobs at all, in a system that claims to be about merit but is really a mixture of all kinds of random factors that are totally beyond anyone's control. The mysterious question of "fit' is a huge factor that has nothing whatsoever to do with intellectual ability or professional success.

Every time someone said "congratulations" or, even worse "you deserve this" I felt compelled to explain how it there was really an awful lot of luck involved. How it didn't really have anything to do with "deserving" -- after all, I can list 50 people who "deserve" jobs -- whatever the f** that means -- but they don't have them. There just aren't enough jobs available.

My friendships with those two friends suffered for a few years. We were suddenly no longer peers, no longer in this thing together. The sweat and tears we'd spilt over our dissertations no longer counted. Academe's hierarchies were splitting us up. It's really hard for people who've been adjuncting for a couple of years to feel friendly towards someone who has what they wanted to have. And it was hard for me to feel like I won but I had also lost.

All of this was a long time ago now -- seven years. I'm mostly over my guilt about getting this job. But that sense of discomfort with the unfairness of academe is still very much with me. Recently, some good stuff happened to me -- I got accepted to a conference, and someone put me into a footnote. I told a friend about the first thing, and really regretted it -- b/c she then tried to cut it down. Now, she is a Negative Nelly, but it reminded me that mostly, other people don't really want to hear your good news. It's easier to bond if you're both complaining.

I did blog about both of those good things. But during those same weeks, I was reading other people's blogs about disappointments on the job market, about crappy treatment as an adjunct, about misery of all sorts. And I really wondered if it was right or fair of me to post something that was so "rah rah yay me." Because I want to create an environment that's fair for all workers. I'd like to imagine a world where smart talented people do get rewarded. How can I celebrate something good that randomly happens to me when all these other people don't get what they should have? Actually, it's not the celebrating privately that's an issue. But telling it to the world? isn't that just arrogance of the worst kind?

There's some kind of ethical issue here -- it's not just about guilt, or not wanting people to think I'm stuck up. It's also about trying to make my peace with a system that allows me to think and write and talk for a living, but which is also smothering the vitality out of so many of its members. How to succeed and survive and even thrive but not lose sight of the dark side. How not to become bitter and negative about everything or bloated with overconfidence. Finding some kind of middle ground.