At dinner tonight with my best friend, who was passing through town on the way back from an academic conference, we got into a little tiff. It’s one we’ve had before. It goes like this:

My friend feels like her academic field of study is so full of wonderful and brilliant people that no wonder it’s so hard to get a job.

I say (just having received yet another rejection letter) that’s bullshit; we actually are special and brilliant and that the system is rigged.

She says, no no, we can’t expect things to be handed to us; to live is to work retail sometimes if we need to in order to get by.

I say fuck that. I’d be a credit to any department. I am really special and smart and good at what I do, and I have not spent 10 years working my ass off in graduate programs to end up cleaning toilets in a Starbucks to make a living wage.

She says, well, we all have, and we’re all special, and even if someone was special, we’re applying for jobs with 600 applicants, and “special” would be impossible for committees to see. Eventually maybe it will work out or it won’t, but it’s a gamble we all took when we entered graduate school.

I fume, and am indignant. She pleads, and is resigned to our fate.

On the way home, I started thinking about how indignant fuming has pretty much been my modus operandi since I was born, while coping through generosity and acceptance has been hers. Pictures of me since the age of about six months onward are portraits of Outrage! Injustice! My friend’s childhood photos depict a young girl with a sassy smile, even in difficult or humiliating circumstances. I’m not sure this is something either of us can change in ourselves.

As far as I can tell, each attitude has served us equally well professionally and throughout our education. I do not tend to be outraged by things that are not actually outrageous; the true connoisseur of righteous indignation does not go in for petty “wah I got a B” or “saying ‘you guys’ is sexist” shit. There is actual injustice, and the fact that we’re all in the same sad boat sometimes doesn’t comfort me.

My friend is a lot more graceful and loving than I am, and can look on an unfair system and say that well, this is how it is for now and hopefully in the future things will be better. Maybe we will eventually be the lucky one in 600 who gets the chance to make a living wage doing what we love. She’s been rejected for more jobs than I have, and I know worrying about money has cost her many sleepless nights, too.

What emerged from our tiff is that she fears I will become so pissed off that I will give up. I feel like if I resigned myself to being just another cog in a ruthless wheel, that’s when I would give up. Of course it hurts my feelings to be rejected for a job I really want. It will always hurt. If it didn’t, it would be because I didn’t want it anymore. I’d rather get my heart broken than feel nothing.

When we first met, seven years ago, my friend told me that I reminded her of Jane Eyre, someone whose sense of personal dignity was somehow never crushed by the circumstances of life, and so she always felt every slight, every heartbreak, every injustice as if it were the first. She couldn’t imagine how awful it must feel not to be able to make peace with the world as it is.

6 responses to “Outrage!”

  1. Dave says:

    I tend to be outraged on behalf of worthy friends who fare badly in the job market, but I’m fairly resigned about my own fate. Not necessarily happy about it, just unable to believe that I deserve anything better.

  2. swells says:

    This generated a big convo between Jeremy and me in the office today–guess we should have had it online so you would have known! We both felt more like your friend–that the field itself (we’re in the same as yours) attracts such cool, smart, interesting people that the competition is impossible. Everyone I know who has a job is supremely grateful and slightly disbelieving at what feels like the sheer luck of it.

    Extra props must be given for the image of an outraged baby.

  3. A White Bear says:

    I’m definitely outraged on behalf of all of the talented, wonderful people I know who are struggling to make ends meet, but it’s definitely outrage rather than peace with the system. More and more reports come out talking about revenue generated by humanities instruction, especially by the kinds of courses taught by entry-level faculty members getting paid anywhere from $1500-$4500 per course, and still, these positions are the first, in hard times, to be cut back, to lose benefits, to get reduced pay, increased class sizes, and more unpaid “training.” It’s really hard for me to see how highly skilled work like college teaching is treated like an internship–you can put it on your CV, even if you can’t live on it!

    My friend can’t deal with this situation without just sighing and feeling grateful for the opportunity to do what she loves, at any price. I attribute her peace to the fact that she’s married to someone with a stable income, but maybe it’s also just her nature. I really can’t let it go.

    I definitely don’t have anything against the people who actually get these 1/600 jobs. Of course, I’d rather they go to my friends, but I don’t assume the recipients are less qualified than us. I am aware of some people who go onto job websites and bitch about how they should have been the ones hired, etc. That’s sore losing, and very different from outrage at a systemic de-professionalization of the academy.

  4. A White Bear says:

    Also, I am fully aware that my confidence is outsized and even inappropriate. As a naturally shy and self-critical person, talking myself up to myself is pretty much the only thing that gets me, or my applications, or my writing, out the door every day. It’s hard for me to imagine how someone who doesn’t feel they have something special to contribute can have the courage to face a world that makes it very clear that it is just waiting for them to screw up.

  5. Stella says:

    Such a great inquiry…is being ourselves helpful or harmful except that we have no choice anyway. But being at peace with being ourselves would be pretty great.

    And I love seeing how strongly our personalities shine through as kids…perhaps a future TGW collective post – baby photos with commentary on personality. I look stressed or oblivious in mine.

  6. A White Bear says:

    I have this picture of me at four that I love because it looks exactly like me on my better days now. My mom was cleaning houses for a living then and would leave and my brother in the basement to hang out while she worked. When he started school, it was me by myself. So she bought me all these workbooks–exactly what I wanted, no sarcasm. In the picture, my mom has interrupted me during my little studies, and I’m looking up at her with my pencil still in hand, clearly in mid-thought. Mom says before she cropped the photo to relinquish it into my care, the homeowner’s prescription pill bottles were all in full view. “I knew you wouldn’t touch them; you weren’t that kind of kid. But I don’t want other people to think I left you in a basement with access to drugs!” Love you mommy!