Thanksgiving is here and it’s time to talk about turkeys. By turkeys, I mean professors.
Before I do, I’d like to share a tale of gratitude.
Once upon a time in a kingdom far far away there lived a person who could be described as me. However, I had come from the kingdom commonly known as Here. In the far away kingdom, college students normally went to Home every weekend, which never proved difficult because few attended school too far from Home. Having remembered all the fun I’d had on weekends away from (lowercase) home at the University of Here, I couldn’t possibly imagine what could be so enjoyable. At some level, I still can’t, at least for people that age, but I can appreciate what was going on.
And then I went to graduate school and some of my turkeys, er, I mean professors, had been born and raised in the kingdom of Home. In spite of that, they migrated Here for graduate school and never went back. I know of one turkey who reportedly yearned to fly the coop and go back Home (though he never did), while another seemed genuinely depressed to have been working obsessively as her parents sickened and passed from life not too far from Here. A few others had originated from far flung pastures in lands commonly known as Here, although the cultures in their part of “Here” were a lot different. I suspect that few of those turkeys would have chosen the Graduate University of Here’s location if they’d had any choice. (Most turkeys, unlike regular people, can expect to remain trapped in their coop until they die. Spiritual death doesn’t count.)
And these were the fat and happy turkeys, in theory at least. Many turkeys end up on food stamps even if they manage to gobble up a college teaching position. (Here’s a second article.) Whether they’re fat or malnourished, they spend an exorbitant amount of time on their work separated from friends and family. And then the women, well, many of them can forget about having children if they’re interested in protecting their often precarious professional existence; at schools in rural Here, these are almost the only women who the tom turkeys get to choose from… so it’s a losing situation for everyone who wants kids and it’s especially unfair to the women.
Of course, those are the lucky couples. If two prospective turkeys are married before applying for jobs, they can expect to spend years apart until they realize that the desired miracle (the ability to live in the same city and have both partners remain in the profession) will not happen. I’ve also seen divorces filed because the turkey in the relationship was married to the job and not to the non-turkey spouse. I doubt it’s all too uncommon.
Needless to say, a lot of these turkeys may not be roasting a turkey on Thanksgiving. While some can’t afford it and others will find the cannibalism too distasteful, many will be working through the holiday. As usual. These turkeys work hours a day at home after business hours and don’t stop when vacation comes. You’re not done working until you’ve finished reading the whole library and publishing your opinions on each shelf and volume and, by the way, you’re on duty 24/7/365. It’s like being the president but without the fame, chauffeured car, fancy house, power, money, sense of importance, sense of accomplishment, and horny admirers. Unless you’re working on a cure for cancer or something useful like that…
But then there’s the payoff. In some fields (like mine), the turkey’s long hours accomplish little more than producing books and articles to be read only by a few specialists and then buried in a tomb, er, I mean library, hopefully to be discovered by a student writing a research paper for class. The occasional book or article might be taught as a required course reading. Perhaps. But then, some researchers are lucky if their publications still resemble their ideas once they’ve passed through their editors. Conformity is key, which is why so many people want to become turkeys. If you value maintaining some creative freedom, join the military instead.
I’m not joking.
There’s another thing I almost forgot. As you can surely imagine, many turkeys would take great joy in spending their entire waking hours with solitary reading and writing. Unfortunately for them, that’s not how their lives work. You see, Farmer Bob (the guy in the sky who invented the turkey coops) had a revelation: we’ll take these cloistered souls and put them in charge of teaching the young adults. Outstanding! These professionals can stand or sit in front of the classroom or hide in the corner and rubber stamp a pile of educational credentials. Their teaching performance won’t influence whether they get to keep their jobs in many cases, so it doesn’t matter what kind of people become “educators.”
One day, I’ll write a post explaining why I put “educators” in scare quotes. I understand that it’s unfair to the turkeys who really teach and who properly train their graduate students to teach. I was lucky to find myself under the wing of turkeys like that.
These turkeys are our intellectual leaders and they are living their dream, and they remain convinced of that no matter how miserable they become. As you can probably tell, I didn’t stick around after completing the Ph.D. and, every Thanksgiving since then, I’ve been incredibly thankful for that decision. The turkeys can’t understand it but then again domesticated turkeys aren’t that bright.
Of course, finding a different job hasn’t worked out yet. I nevertheless have food, a roof over my head, opportunities to improve my resume, and the chance to avoid Siberia or other impossible living environments. My writing has improved now that I’m not burdened with bottomless research requirements and my eyes no longer glaze over at the thought of reading for pleasure. And, perhaps not so surprisingly, unemployment is less stressful than graduate school, which isn’t to say I’m not eager for work or money. I’m ready to move forward but I can’t complain about where I’m at; there’s hope for the future and that’s already more than what so many turkeys have (even though they have jobs).
And so this Thanksgiving I think of the people I know who are divorcing, or are sick or dying, or are trapped in a Siberian turkey coop, or are unemployed with children to feed, and so on. My life is comparatively easy and that’s something to be thankful for.
And although Thanksgiving isn’t here yet, I’d like to mention Christmas for a moment; if the malls can get away with it, so can I. I have two wishes for Christmas that are less realistic than asking Santa for world peace. First, I wish certain relatives could understand that being a professor is no way to live your life (again, unless you’re working on a cure for cancer or something useful like that) and that, no, I don’t want to reconsider my decision to leave academe in light of being unemployed for so long. Being a professor isn’t a job; it’s a lifestyle. Starving to death on the street would be more life-affirming. Besides which, there are ways to contribute to a household besides earning a paycheck. For starters, ask any stay-at-home parent or caretaker of elderly relatives. Second, I wish employers understood that refugees from academe had legitimate reasons to leave and that there is no lure of a (ha!) high-paying academic sinecure when we “inevitably” get “bored” with a prospective job.
In closing, I would like to wish my U.S. readers a happy Thanksgiving. To my non-U.S. readers, I would suggest that turkey is very tasty slathered with gravy and accompanied by a side of pie. Since this isn’t a porn blog, I mean the birds, not the professors. Most professors are a little too bitter or stale, at least in my experience.