Two decades ago I got my first job as an adjunct, teaching one class at DeAnza College in Cupertino, CA. Within a year, I had amassed a sufficient number of classes on enough different campuses that I was able to quit the temp jobs and desk jockey gigs I was doing in order to be what they called a "full-time, part-time" instructor.
I loved my life. Living in San Francisco and thinking of myself as a scholar and a molder of young minds, I didn't really care that I had no health insurance, savings, or job security. But I did notice a disturbing trend. On campus after campus, I would meet men and women in their forties and fifties who had the same job that I did. Still subject to having their courses (and salaries) cancelled at the last minute, still teaching on nights and weekends, still hoping that they wouldn't have to give up a class because different campuses wanted them to teach during the same period. Most important, still lacking the trappings of a "real" job: employment security, some provision for retirement, perhaps a little savings in the bank.
As happy as I was, I didn't want to be lulled into letting one year pass by after another until I had unwittingly become one of those people. I decided that I wanted to keep my lifestyle but increase its stability. So I thought I was making a wise, mature, professionally-oriented decision when I enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin to pursue a Ph.D. in American studies.
I could not have been more mistaken. When I graduated eight-and-a-half years later, I had to return to adjuncting. Within a year, I had scratched and clawed my way into a series of lecturer jobs: one year in New York, one more in Erie, Pennsylvania, then a poorly-paying but slightly more stable (three-year) job in Atlanta. The financial crisis hit in 2008 and funding for universities began to tighten. I fell in with a group of "emerging scholars" interested in the intellectual history of the United States. We started a pretty popular blog and then a bona fide academic society. I applied for hundreds and hundreds of assistant professor jobs. All the while, I worked on my book. I thought that it was ambitious and magnificent, different from a run-of-the-mill history book. So different, I imagined, that people would simply have to read it in order to appreciate it. When that happened, I believed with all my soul, I would finally acquire an academic reputation and be able to get a permanent job as a college professor.
Three years went by pretty fast; before I knew it I needed another job. My luck had run out and I was unable to score another lecturer position anywhere. There are those who would say that the research and writing skills that a person acquires with a Humanities Ph.D. make one a great candidate for work in any number of fields. Do not believe them. Even with some other non-academic experience, the only thing I could get was a miserable, low-paying job in university administration. My book came out. It was every bit as good as I had hoped it would be (to be clear, people other than me said this as well), but it didn't make the dent for which I had hoped. I was so unhappy in my day job that when I was offered the opportunity to serve as an adjunct at my old school, I took it. After a year I was able to add a couple of more classes at a local liberal arts college.
I was now in my forties, teaching five classes on two campuses, working nights and weekends and earning less money than I had made in California twenty years before. It dawned on me that I had become exactly those people who, decades before, had served as a cautionary tale about the dangers of academe. I had feared that what would trap me was inertia, the desire to stay in a relatively pleasant situation. To avoid that trap, I took proactive action. But that action created the exact situation that I had been trying to avoid in the first place. It was like some horrible Greek tragedy.
There were two reasons that I continued to teach. One was that I liked it, but the other was more compelling to me: I liked being part of the academic community and still believed that I was paying dues before landing a tenure-track job. Two years after publishing my book, nine years after earning a doctorate, eighteen years after starting a Ph.D., and twenty years after I began teaching, I finally had to admit to myself that there was absolutely no future for me as a member of a university faculty. The tenure-track offer was never coming. And adjuncts are pedagogical cannon fodder to be discarded when they are no longer useful; they are the dates that schools will fuck but not marry. Much as I love teaching U.S. history, I don't want to play that role anymore.
So I am leaving the profession of teaching and the discipline of history. In the fall I will again matriculate at the University of Texas at Austin, this time in the Master of Public Affairs program at the LBJ School of Public Affairs. What I liked about academia was that it combined several aspects that don't automatically go together: writing and reading, subject-matter expertise, the human aspects of mentoring and communicating information. I didn't like having to choose between these things. But I realized something important when I noticed that I bristled when people asked me (as they always did) if I had considered teaching at a prep school. Though I have no doubt that smart rich kids would be rewarding to teach, this sort of position did not present me with the opportunity to retain the most important part of the job I would be leaving behind. When forced to prioritize, I came to understand that the part of academic life that I liked the best was researching and writing about politics and governance.
So that's what I hope to be able to do in public policy. I admit to some sadness about giving up the professional dream that has inspired all of my adult life. But I am very excited about things that public policy offers that academia does not: an increased ability to affect change in the world, a new perspective on government and politics and, most importantly, the potential for a meaningful and stable future.