A Room of My Own

‘…a woman must have money and a room of her own…’

-from A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf, slightly decontextualised.

 

It’s a very strange sensation to be crawling up the hill of academic respectability. My first job after getting my doctorate was a postdoctoral fellowship at Georgia Tech, which went…okay. I think part of me, for some reason, felt like the state of being postdoctoral was an extension of graduate school (or as I think they call in commonwealth countries, postgraduate school). Somehow I hadn’t fully arrived. I was halfway there, but not there. Wherever ‘there’ may be. Looking back, it may be possible that my sense of halfness was perhaps justified: we got paid roughly half a starting academic’s salary (though at a time when Georgia state budget cuts were snipping faculty salaries all around, we did feel awfully lucky). We got half-offices, which combined, made a whole office! This wasn’t so bad either: it was sort of nice having company around. Someone to joke with over your shoulder. Someone to share YouTube clips with. Someone to ask what they were laughing or groaning at. Really, I should have had no complaints.

When one leaves a postdoctoral fellowship, one likes to think that one will be moving up in the academic hierarchy. An ‘assistant professorship’, if you’re American or Canadian, a ‘lecturer’ in some other parts of the world. I packed up my half of the office, including several Norton anthologies that had been abandoned by my half-office predecessor, and moved into the esteemed position of ‘visiting scholar’. This was a fancy way of saying that I was jobless, but still had an affiliation with the institution that allowed me not only library borrowing privileges, but permission to fill in an otherwise embarrassingly blank field under my name whenever I signed up for academic conferences or wrote professional emails or letters. The title ‘independent scholar’ is only cool if you are actually independent. Which I was not. I was dependent, for my livelihood, on my (literally) supportive husband. I had become, for the meantime at least, a kept woman. I didn’t like it. I would burst into tears occasionally over my worthlessness. I tried to keep perspective. I tried to use good Christian doctrine to provide my self with some perspective. My identity is as a child of God, it lies in Christ, not in an academic job. In eternity, will I care at all? No. That’s what I said. To be honest, I wasn’t very good at consistently believing it.

Of course, giving up two perfectly good years of half-life as a ‘postdoctoral fellow’ was my own decision. I’d been unhappy and my husband and I applied around to see what would turn up. My husband had been offered a full-time academic position in Australia. When asked by his department to provide me with a tenure-track job (spousal hires are more common in the American academic world), my department had politely said no, but offered me a year-long contract as a ‘visiting professor’ instead. After much deliberation about what to do, we ungratefully refused and decided to take Australia. The various ‘deans’ and ‘heads’ at the university there had told us that some teaching could be found for me. The Australian economy was relatively more intact than the American one, and universities were still hiring. There were several universities in and around Sydney. We decided to do what neither of us were ever really good at doing: taking a chance. However, we had to hang around for half a year: the academic year in Australia begins with the calendar year, which is in the middle of the American academic year. In the meantime, the postdoctoral programme powers-that-be decided that I couldn’t be a ‘postdoctoral fellow’ just for a semester, though exceptions could be made and had been made before. (Sometimes I wish they hadn’t told me about these exceptions…it would have made it less painful when I was told that I didn’t warrant one.) So they graciously allowed me to be a ‘visiting scholar’, which wasn’t bad. They did take away my half-office, but someone in my husband’s department let me use his while he was on leave. The library borrowing privileges, it turned out, excluded access to interlibrary loan. After begging with a kind librarian and explaining the situation, she had mercy on me and allowed me access to it after all.

In any case, inhabiting visiting scholardom was seriously getting me down. So it was a relief to move onto being an ‘honorary associate’ and ‘casual lecturer’ at the University of Sydney Indonesian Studies Department. And indeed it was  relief. They took a chance on me–me, formally trained in English literature, but with research interests in Indonesian literature. Instead of insisting that I re-do my doctorate, or passing me back to the English Department, who didn’t really have any jobs to offer me, they took me in and called me one of them. An Indonesianist. It was exciting. They didn’t just give me paid work. They were kind. But they weren’t condescending. They invited me over for dinners and out for coffees. I liked them. Nonetheless, I still felt somewhat demoralised, and to my shame, I think it still did have to do with, well, having money and a room of my own. Wages for casual lecturers in Australia are paid at very generous hourly rates. But I still felt acutely conscious that my husband and I were still subsisting on his salary almost entirely. I shared an office with two ‘postgraduate students’ (or in America, just ‘graduate students’) who are also now my very close friends. They consoled me when I would, as I did as a ‘visiting scholar’, burst into tears over the hopelessness of any future job prospects. I was also acutely aware that, in such a small department, teaching for my self wouldn’t always be readily available due to limited funds. Then an application for a 1-year ‘lecturer’ position in English at the University of Newcastle got me an interview. And the interview yielded a job offer. 

And now, I’m here:

Image

 

My ‘official’ name plate for the door hasn’t come yet, but nonetheless, it’s a room of my own at the University of Newcastle, Australia. I moved many of my books into it. And my stuffed skunk. (Spot the skunk!) It could vanish after a year, when the contract expires, though a few people here have told me that it’s likely it’ll be renewed, and possibly turn into a continuing position (though I shan’t depend on it). I have to get used to earning a real salary too, but I can’t. Not quite yet. I still think ‘poor’ in lots of little, silly, penny-wise ways–perhaps a hold-over from being a ‘graduate student’/’postgraduate student’ as well: I need a haircut, but am thinking of just getting my husband to cut it again, even though it went semi-disastrously the last time. I think about how I bought coffee just yesterday and how I shouldn’t buy one today.

Still, at a time when having money and a room of my own should feel like an unequivocal victory, a triumph, I’m afraid of feeling anything grander than happy relief. I’m not sure why. It’s hard to put into words–ironic for someone who writes to fill her rice bowl.

I think it’s because of this: I worry what I’ll forget in a room on my own. I don’t want to dust myself off, look back in satisfaction below at the ash heap I just scrabbled up, and think, ‘Thank Heavens I don’t have to be that anymore’. (Fill in ‘that‘ with ‘a graduate student’, ‘a visiting scholar’, ‘a casual lecturer’.) Not just because it’s entirely possible that I will be one again in the near future, but because I don’t want to dishonour the still-fresh memory of me as I was when I was all of those things. Nor do I want to reduce the countless people, persons, consciousnesses, souls, who have scrabbled, are scrabbling, will scrabble to a ‘that‘.

Different shell, same me. Sounds awful trite once one boils it down. I hope I’ll remember this.

7 thoughts on “A Room of My Own

  1. tedunderwood says:

    I think you will remember. Twenty years from now, this may be the part of your career you’re proudest of. My partner and I had to drive back and forth across the US four times before we finally both found tenure-track jobs in the same place.

    But I’m less proud of the t-t job than I am of the endurance that preceded it — and not incidentally, of holding the relationship together through all that.

  2. D. Miller (@GeekGurlPhD) says:

    First of all… HI again!!! I was a Britt when you were there 🙂 Secondly, welcome to Australia! I spent 10 years there before moving back to the US (to take up my fellowship at GT). My hubby is actually from Newcastle, so we know the area well.

    It is a rough go making the international transition — we nearly went back to Australia when my GT contract was up as I had been offered what would have been a full professorship and turned it down (couldn’t stomach the thought of moving back to the heat).

    Do keep your chin up. While casual lecturing in Australia may seem a bit of a downer, the conditions are much better than in the US.

    Do make sure you and your husband make it up to my old stomping grounds for a visit sometime (Brisbane and the Gold Coast). It is lovely, the people are fantastic and the food…YUM!!!

    And when things do seem to be overwhelming, do try to remember what you said earlier – being an academic is not what will define you for eternity. You are far more than that. I think we all get a bit hung up at times on being identified as whatever we do for a living, if that is all we were, life would be very dull indeed.

    In some ways, I’m jealous as I miss Australia lots this time of year! HAVE FUN! It is a grand adventure….take advantage of it. 🙂

    Dani Miller (nee: Lawson)

    1. Tiffany Tsao says:

      This is SO belated, and I don’t know if you’ll read this, Dani, but: thanks for the well wishes! Wow…can’t believe you turned down a full professorship because of the heat. In any case, the weather’s been pretty good lately…the summer in New South Wales hasn’t be very hot. Actually, it’s been rainier than usual, people say, with some flooding problems too!

      Tiff

  3. desmith11 says:

    ‘I had become, for the meantime at least, a kept woman. I didn’t like it. I would burst into tears occasionally over my worthlessness. I tried to keep perspective. I tried to use good Christian doctrine to provide my self with some perspective.”

    How much I relate to this, although I often tell others in this situation that they are more than their job and their marriage is designed so that you both can lean on each other. Yet, when you are the one in new surroundings without a job and limited contact with people whom you know, it becomes apparent that entering the world through the work one does provides the context that tells us who we are. The way in which I respond to the challenges of the workplace politics, creativity, problem solving, establishing collegial friendships speaks to who I am in the world.

    So, child of Christ, the one who will sustain you through this and future periods when you are unsettled, let me say congratulations on the position and the income.

    I always enjoy your writing, Tiffany.

  4. Jo says:

    As someone in the “postgraduate” category right now, I am in awe of your room. And with the sense of wanting to be ok with something-particularly in the spiritual realm- but not being totally ok with it. I feel like God not only wants you to be happy in Him regardless, but I also think God wants us to actually feel like He’s giving us good things (who gives their child a snake, right? Well…).

  5. Marisa says:

    Just remember that your awesomeness is an inspiration to others, ahem, me!

    And to be an Official Kept Woman, I think you need to do a lot of lounging around a pool, drink in hand. Somehow I can’t picture this.

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