Most Americans would consider my job a plum job. I am a tenured professor of history at a public university in the Midwest. I get summers off to read and write. I have health care. My employer matches my retirement-plan contributions. My salary is above the median annual household income.
And I'm miserable much of the time.
My main problem, which becomes less tolerable with every passing year, is the students. My best are mediocre. The worst are semiliterate. Grading a stack of exams or papers is a painful experience.
Every year it gets harder to persuade myself that my comments may lead to student progress, even when I notice marginal improvements here and there. One of my better students — the sort who ordinarily provides a slender ray of hope — e-mailed me recently, fretting over a "marked decline in student attitudes" on our campus, as students "demand more of the professors and less of themselves." The local school district, the area's pipeline, is in crisis, so future prospects aren't good.
Add to all that a major dollop of alienation and anomie.
My closest friends on the faculty, with whom I forged tight bonds in my first few years here, have left or are leaving. I'm in a locality far from family or roots, out of sync with my cultural and political instincts.
I know: Accentuate the positive. And there are many good things about my job. Everything in my first paragraph and several more — research support, conference travel, consulting opportunities — are posted at my computer so I don't forget them in my darker hours. I haven't always agreed with the administration, but my dean is fair in evaluating my performance. With new buildings and plans, the physical look of the campus is improving, and that makes more of a difference than one would think.
But I'm so miserable because of the quality of my students that I'm giving very serious consideration to throwing in the towel on academe, which would have been inconceivable even a few years ago. The only thing that's stopped me is my children, who need my income and benefits.
An outside offer has proven elusive. In my field, moving to another institution at a level beyond assistant professor is difficult to achieve. I am publishing at a rate and a level of quality that may warrant it, but every year only a handful of jobs are advertised that I fit. When I leaf through the faculty-job ads, I find myself regretting my early tenure. It feels as if I will never be able to move, given that senior-level positions are scarce and the competition impressive.
I could invite Jim Beam, Jack Daniel's, and my old pal Bud over for a little party or take a more legitimate route and score some Xanax or Prozac. But I've found myself turning to a different form of self-medication: the rock 'n' roll of defiance and departure.
I'm not sure "sublimation" is the right word if one is merely the consumer rather than the producer, but there's no doubt that a departure song can take away the feeling of being trapped, even if the departure is a matter of pure fantasy.
Here is a rock 'n' roll top five for my fellow claustrophobic academics who might need a heavy-rotation soundtrack to take them through the summer:
1. "Already Gone," the Eagles. I was never much of an Eagles fan, and I don't care that they're back on the cover of Rolling Stone, but few tunes better capture the moment of triumph in departure than this one, and it's hard to beat its stripped-down sound:
Me, I'm already gone
And I'm feelin' strong I will sing this vict'ry song
'Cause I'm already gone
Play that as you tool around the campus looking for a parking spot. Instant rejuvenation.
2. "Fly Away," Lenny Kravitz. The best song of escapist longing ever written, particularly since it is not about love but about leaving behind a whole life and place:
I wish that I could fly
Into the sky
So very high
Just like a dragonfly
I'd fly above the trees
Over the seas
in all degrees
To anywhere I please
... I want to get away
I want to fly away
3. "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," Eric Burdon and the Animals. A shopworn classic, admittedly, but the definitive song of place-bound love and the potentiality of alternative horizons. Feeling trapped can be a shared experience. There's no reason to contain it all within yourself.
Croon to your amour:
We gotta get out of this place
If it's the last thing we ever do
We gotta get out of this place
'Cause girl there's a better life for me and you
4. "Time for Me to Fly," REO Speedwagon. Admit it, you don't always turn the dial when this one comes on, so spare me the class condescension. This song works: Just substitute your university for the song's object of soured desire:
You said we'd work it out
You said that you had no doubt
That deep down we were really in love
Oh, but I'm tired of holding on
To a feeling I know is gone
I do believe that I've had enough
... I believe it's time for me to fly
Time for me to fly.
5. "Someday," Steve Earle. Southern-fried, Earle has written some of our time's rockingest working-class jeremiads, not to mention the best songs generated by the Iraq War. Back in 1985, he nailed the fantasy lives of those stuck in small towns with this jangly number:
There ain't a lot that you can do in this town
You drive down to the lake and then you turn back around …
Someday I'm finally gonna let go
'Cause I know there's a better way
And I wanna know what's over that rainbow
I'm gonna get out of here someday
6. Bonus track, dude! "Should I Stay or Should I Go?," The Clash. With its posture of contumacy grafted onto near-total emotional confusion, this is the perfect artistic representation of existential dilemma:
It's always tease, tease, tease.
You're happy when I'm on my knees
One day is fine, next is black
So if you want me off your back
Well come on and let me know
Should I stay or should I go?
In the blare of The Clash, I can begin to imagine transcending it all. Maybe a punk attitude — inner contempt, the sneering lip, the imagined possibility of exit at any time — will give me the fortitude to stick it out for just one more year, and then another, never really thinking of this place as permanent. Perhaps departure songs can supply me with a will to endure. … Or should I go?