November 1, 2011
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Rarely does one consult the Chronicle and find that the perfect job has been posted at a university two blocks away from one’s home. Instead, therefore, academic life requires that one be able to move on command. Ben Aslinger’s recent post on the life of the single academic underlines some of the stresses and loneliness that accompany such a life, or I think of a good friend who survived a starter job in a godforsaken town by turning to wine, cheese, and Frasier reruns.

So I thought I’d write about moving. See, I’ve done it a lot. I moved countries when I was 5. And 8. And 10. And 12, 15, 21, 22, 24, and 28, before moving within the US two further times since then. None of the moves, moreover, was ever truly a choice; rather, first it was my father’s job and career opportunities that decided where we’d go, then my own. It’s not just moving that I know, therefore – it’s moving by assignment, and with the anticipation of moving later.

One of the hardest things about moving around is feeling like one can’t put down roots since one’s bound to be moving on later. I’ve had moments in my life when I felt it wasn’t worth the hassle to meet new people, get involved in my community, and truly belong, lest I simply needed to uproot and do it all again a year later. This damages the personal life, of course, and can freeze up the love life if one lives in fear of a long distance relationship. I think of the theme song from the great Canadian show, The Littlest Hobo (“maybe tomorrow I’ll wanna settle down, / until tomorrow I’ll just keep moving on”).

Certainly, the anticipation is the killer. There’s a horrible J. J. Abrams multiple realities thing that happens, as you start to think of all the places you might go (where will hire you, where you may have to settle) and create alternate versions of your future, some of which are then plucked rudely from the vine by a job search that doesn’t pan out. And once you arrive, you may find yourself feeling somewhat ethereal, living in a dream existence, rather than in the world you’d prefer. Add a partner and/or kids, and a great deal of guilt may accompany the process, as you feel as though you’re consigning them to hardship, but the hardship may be no less acute when single.

My thoughts on surviving the process:

Most importantly, the key to adapting to this life is to shift one’s way of thinking about moving. In particular, I wish we’d all just get over the silly notion that humans are “meant” to live in one place in perpetuity. It’s no more “traditional” or “natural” a way of existing than is staying in the same home for ten generations. Nomads are hardly a creation of the last few years! Indeed, while some bemoan “having to” move, for every person I’ve met who has pitied me for my moves, I’ve met someone else who is intensely jealous, focusing instead on how I get to move. With each new place come new experiences and friends and possibilities to grow and/or reassert who one wants to be; we all fall into ruts and routines, and a new location is a wonderful invitation to crawl out of the worst of them. Before one bemoans one’s moving existence, one should think about how many people in the world would love to leave where they live (cf. Friday Night Lights), but can’t.

If you’re carrying guilt about what this means for your partner, bear in mind that moving can bring a couple closer together. I’m always hearing couples say they struggle to find time for each other, but moving together requires you to be a better support system for each other.

If you’re carrying guilt about what this means for your kids, don’t. I hate when people look down their noses at my parents for moving me as a child, since I learned so very much from the process. The first day of school anywhere new was always horrible, yes, but inevitably it took a small amount of time to acclimate. Wisdom and maturity are gained through life experiences, so your children will likely mature faster; after acclimating they’ll likely feel more confident in their abilities to tackle new things; and from the days before they acclimate, they’ll know what it feels like to be an outsider, something that everyone should know (especially every American), as it calls for one to be kinder to other outsiders. As an added bonus, they may also get new accents that will amuse you and relatives (my extended family still talk wistfully of the days when my brother and I lived in Australia).

In general, though, I’d recommend that you avoid as much as possible the urge to cocoon yourself. You might wonder what’s the point of volunteering, joining a sports team, or even making friends, since you might see yourself as moving again soon. But that’s where the worst damage of moving would be done – through self-pity. If you don’t allow yourself to like a place and its people, of course you won’t, so find ways to invest in the community. In particular, find time in your first week (don’t wait much longer) to visit local museums (the quirkier the focus, the better) and do local activities. Get tickets to a local sports event. And go see a band play, or something like that. Submerge yourself in locality so that it doesn’t seem all that foreign, and so that you may actually know things other locals don’t (one trip to the Wisconsin Historical Museum and I knew lots of ‘Sconnie tidbits that lifetime residents don’t) and thus you won’t feel so foreign.

Don’t let mediated rhetoric about place convince you, either, that you absolutely need to be in New York, or Boston, or Seattle, and not somewhere small and relatively unknown. Get on Craigslist or a real estate website and see how much house or apartment you can get for your money in different places, and you’ll realize that NYC might give you great city life, but your extra 3000 square feet and beauty of home in the place you just made lots of jokes about living in might end up meaning a lot more on a daily basis.

And my big but simple tip: don’t move at the end of the summer. Moving before school starts can be a little lonelier, so you’ll need to let new colleagues know you’re around, and you’ll need to be prepared to make the first move in suggesting you get together. But moving when you’re not teaching or doing mad-prep allows you (and your family, if you have one) time to settle in and enjoy your new home, so that you don’t resent the place for all its newness as much as you will when you’re trying to navigate that newness while doing all the things that a new job entails.


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4 Responses to “ Moving ”

  1. Ben Aslinger on November 1, 2011 at 1:36 PM


    I think you point out both the joys and the melancholia that are associated with moving eloquently. I agree with you that moving before the semester starts is ideal. It gives you a chance to get used to the space, assemble furniture, and create a rhythm of sorts before you dive headlong into your first semester. I think you’re right to point out the privilege of mobility, even if it is a part of being an academic that you must accept. But moving around is what you sign up for, even if you don’t realize it, the minute that you decide to pursue the PhD. As you point out, accepting moving as a part of the package is something that you can think about in both positive and negative ways.

    As a kid who grew up in Memphis and who never dreamed he’d leave, I think of it as a privilege that I’ve been able to see the complexity that is American life by living in different parts of the country (Chicago, southwestern Ohio, Madison, and now Boston). And it saddens me that so many people (not just academics) hold stereotypes about regions and localities that prevent them from even envisioning living in parts of the country. As you point out, being anti-moving not only limits opportunity, but it forecloses a range of experiences that just might be good for the soul.

  2. Kristina Busse on November 3, 2011 at 12:00 PM

    Great post, Jonathan. One more comment (as someone who lives in one of those less than desirable places and has seen dozens of TT faculty move in–and out): Don’t spend all your energy focusing on the negative and dissing the place. Not only is it quite counterproductive but it’s also incredibly offensive to those who choose to live someplace or who came grudgingly but have since made it their home.

    –brought to you by one too many parties where the main topic was how your chosen home sucks!

  3. Adrienne Shaw on November 4, 2011 at 7:32 AM

    I really appreciate this post Jonathan, particularly as I prepare for my third move in the past year (with the potential of moving again next summer/fall). Having grown up as a military brat myself, I have to say that I think the mobility of it all has made academic life feel more “normal” to me than the prospect of staying in one place indefinitely. In particular, the lack of having much choice in said moves is something I grew up taking for granted. Although in the practical and personal senses moving is certainly hard, there is something to be said for being able to experience not only different parts of the country (or world), but also different sorts of departments and universities, particularly in the early stages of one’s academic career. Despite the fact that I have had my “i hate it here” moments on several of the 15 or so moves I’ve made in my life, the actual moving itself, the option to try some place new, is one of the things I have come to appreciate in the uncertainty of the academic job market.

  4. Maria Rosa on November 24, 2011 at 7:01 PM

    A great post, and a great companion piece to Ben Aslinger’s earlier post.

    I was very open-minded about moving to Randomsville for my first real job. More than that. I was excited to move. Perhaps that was a strategic error on my part, and dispassionate open-mindedness would have been more sensible. That said, I remain hopeful and curious when I imagine where I might move (if I’m lucky enough to get the opportunity to do so again) for my next job.

    Shortly after arriving here though, I was asked by a colleague, who had also moved here from afar (not nearly as far as me) about five years previously, “So, how are you doing?” I told him I was doing fine. He was incredulous: “Really? You’re fine? You’re not traumatised? You’re not asking yourself ‘Oh-my-god-what-was-I thinking?!’” Nope – I told him – I’m basically fine. Then he nodded sagely, and told me that this was because I was still in “denial” about what I just done to myself, and proceeded to explain his theory that a major move of this ilk requires us to go through all the five Kubler-Ross stages, as we “grieve” for the life that we just walked out on. Then it was my turn to be incredulous. He was right though. I’ve been through them all:

    DENIAL: “I’m fine. Moving to the other side of the world on your own is EASY.”

    ANGER: “What is WRONG with this place?!!! Why does everyone drive like a LUNATIC?!!! Why can’t you buy milk in PINTS?!!!”

    BARGAINING: “Maybe I’ll just stay here for a year and then go back home and try my luck? Maybe I could offer to work for free at my local university back home? That wouldn’t be so bad, right? I could earn money by moonlighting at the local pub, couldn’t I?”

    DEPRESSION: “I hate this place. I will never get home. My life is over. This is the worst decision I have ever made.”

    ACCEPTANCE: “This wouldn’t be my first choice scenario, but I’m lucky I have a job, I am achieving a lot professionally, and I am doing well at work. This is actually going pretty well…”

    So, after the depressing period during which I had unconsciously “cocooned” myself in a fit of “I-hate-this-place-and-everyone-in-it” pique, I did what I would previously have considered to be the unthinkable – I joined a mixed football (in the UK sense) team, not having played since I was about fifteen. People at work and friends back home laughed at me. I didn’t care. I did it in the reasonable hope that people might want to hang out and go for a drink after the game, and I would thereby begin to get to know more people. They didn’t. They don’t. And I didn’t get to know anyone. Actually they are quite unfriendly and get very grumpy when we lose. It didn’t work out the way I hoped. Oh well. At least now I get more exercise…

    Nonetheless, Jonathan is right. It is better to give these things a try, even if they don’t work out the way you hope they will, than to give in to what might feel like inevitable solitude. So are Kristina and Adrienne. Even when the negative feelings seem like they’re going to overwhelm you, do what you can to avoid and resist them. Or take steps towards doing something that might bring you out of it. Friends in other parts of the country? Make contact, and make plans to see them. Holidays on the horizon? Book a trip. Don’t stay home alone while everyone else gets to be with their friends and families. Be with someone else. Or be somewhere else. Or both.

    And if you’re bringing electronic goods from your previous home to your new home, definitely definitely retune the radio. Absolutely do not leave it tuned on the frequency of your favourite station from back home so that you hear the grim emptiness of white noise every time you turn it on. Because that’s no way to help yourself re-adjust. You can always listen to that station online if you miss it!