Sunday, January 31, 2016

Welcome to the RV show

Yesterday we went to our first RV show. RV and boat show, actually... In other words, one enormous room stuffed with speed boats, pontoon boats, bus-like RVs the size of jetliners, more trailers than I could count, and slide-outs as far as the eye could see.

And people. So many people. Until yesterday, I didn't know going to RV and boat shows was a thing. I figured we'd be three of maybe a few dozen people, but as it turns out, a lot of people are interested in boating and RVing. The sea of humanity combined with the fluorescent lighting was a recipe for a panic attack, but I was on a mission - a mission to figure out what kind of unit we wanted - and so I kept the panic at bay long enough to make the admission fee worthwhile.

The goal was definitely NOT to find and purchase an RV. Even the smallest units here were tens of thousands of dollars. (Excuse me while I stop to laugh.)

Oh you know... Pocket change.

No, the goal was just to see what kind of features and layouts we like so that when we're ready to buy our USED RV, we'll know how to narrow the search.

What we learned:

1. Many RVs are larger than our current house. Also much cleaner and better decorated. Fewer Legos on the floor, too.

I will never live in anything that looks this nice.

2. Many RVs are fancier and have more square footage than a New York City apartment (actually, this was not my observation; it was what one of my NYC friends said when she saw my photos on Facebook).

3. Before the show, we'd determined that our ideal RV will be a class C. Class C RVs have bunks over the cabs, and they don't look like buses. The show confirmed that this will be the best choice for us, at least for our initial foray into nomadic life. The class C's we looked at and liked the best had several features that are musts for us:
  • A bunk for me and my husband, and a bunk area for my son, with doors or curtains for privacy. 
  • A bathroom accessible from the main part of the RV so that my son doesn't need to wake us up in the middle of the night to get to the facilities.
  • A spacious table area. I'm planning to homeschool my son, so we're going to need a spot where we can spread out if we're working inside.
  • Storage, storage, storage.
  • Total length of less than 30 feet.
One of our favorite RVs from the show

4. Our region has more RV dealers than we'd realized. Although we're open to purchasing the right used RV from anywhere in the region, it would be nice to purchase one from within the immediate area. I don't want to travel 200 miles away to check out an RV only to discover that it looks nothing like the pictures on eBay.

5. RV dealers are way less pushy than I'd expected. I get anxious when salespeople follow me around and ask if I have any questions. That didn't happen here. We were able to look around at our leisure. Or maybe what was really going on was that the dealers were taking one look at us and thinking, "Nope. They are definitely not buying anything today."

All in all, it was a good learning experience, one that will inform our research over the next few months as we save, save, save.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

It takes time to turn a ship around

I don't regret quitting my job. If anything, I'm more convinced than ever that it was the right decision.

At the same time, however, I also feel kind of... stunned. A little depressed, even. For so long, this was my would-be identity: assistant professor, PhD. In the last seven years, this is pretty much all I've thought about.

So now to say that I am done with it - not just this particular position in this place, but with traditional academia altogether - it's a bit of a shock. I think I just need some time to get used to the reality of this chapter ending and another one beginning.

Submitting my resignation left me feeling almost euphoric; that's often how I feel when I make a hard decision. But now that the euphoria has worn off, I find myself feeling sensitive to the understandable aftermath of my decision:
  • Things at work with my colleagues are awkward. I don't know if they're mad or disappointed or what, but... they don't talk to me like they used to. They don't include me in their conversations. They're treating me like what I suppose my role has become: temporary.
  • I'm sad at the thought of leaving people here who I really like, including the other faculty at my institution.
  • My students, including my advisees, will soon find out about me leaving, and I worry about their reaction. Of course, they have bigger and better things to worry about than the departure of a teacher, but I'm close with many of them and I don't want them to think less of me for not sticking around.
  • I glance around my office and think, "I'm going to need to clean this thing out soon. Ugh." And then I look at the little coffee maker I bought when I was so excited about having my first office and think, "What happened? What's the difference between me then and me now?"
I'm sure this is a totally normal set of feelings and emotions. It'll get better; it's just a low day.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Credit check

Holy cow!

I just checked my credit scores on Credit Karma (I love Credit Karma. It's reliable. It's got nice graphics. It's FREE!) Since paying off my credit cards, my scores have increased by about 40 points!

Granted, the whole point here is to avoid taking out additional loans, but this is gratifying nonetheless. What if our current (also only and issue-ridden) car suddenly craps out? Or what if we need to get a loan for whatever reason? A high credit score will be useful in the long run by helping ensure a low interest rate loan so that we don't have to rely on our high interest rate credit cards.

Meanwhile, we took some action and made some decisions today:

1) We started selling some of our belongings on eBay. A few years ago I sold a bunch of our stuff on eBay with good success. I'll be interested to see whether we can do so this time around. No time like the present to start living a lighter life!

2) After a lot of research and discussion, we've decided that our first RV for this grand adventure will be a Class C RV. We really like fifth wheel trailers, but we don't have a truck and we don't want to go in for a truck loan. So the goal is to save enough to purchase a used, livable class C within the next several months, take it on a few shakeout trips, get it ready to go, and live in it for about a year. If we're still gung-ho about the RV life after that time, we'll upgrade to a nicer, roomier unit.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Why I'm leaving my tenure-track position

A few weeks ago I emailed my dean, and then my colleagues, to let them know that I will resign from my tenure-track assistant professorship at the end of the 2015-2016 academic year.

The decision was nothing short of excruciating. I spent weeks, if not months, staring up at the ceiling in the middle of the night wondering whether something was wrong with me. First of all, I questioned whether I had the right to give up a position that so many others want and never get despite being more than qualified for the position. Second, how could I give up the health benefits? For the first time since becoming an adult, I could go to the doctor or dentist without worrying that I'd be leaving with a drained bank account. And third... I'd worked so hard for this very job. Was I now willing to give it up after all that effort, all those sacrifices?

As Kerry Ann Roquemore has stated, "We feel so grateful and thankful we got from one stage to the next stage that we don’t ever pause to ask ourselves do I actually want to be here?  Again, it is a competitive market, such a competitive space that we don’t even feel we can have the luxury to ask if [we] want to do this."

The hemming, hawing, worrying, and hand-wringing went on for so long that my husband finally told me to just make a decision - he didn't care what it was as long as we could just make a real plan.

And so I did. I called it. I sent my letter of resignation. I started telling colleagues.

In the last five years, multiple writers have described their reasons for leaving the ivory tower. Those reasons - all legit, in my opinion - include the following:

1) Location. Tenure track job opportunities are few and far between, and those that do exist are often located in tiny towns in the middle of nowhere. The position I'm vacating is the perfect example. I'd never heard of the college or the town before I happened to see the job ad in the Chronicle of Higher Education. The town is located within 60-90 minutes of three major cities, but trust me, there is almost nothing within that radius. I had visions of exploring the region with my family every weekend, but then the realities of teaching prep hit. By Friday night I don't want to get into the car and drive. I just want to sit on my couch, watch Netflix, and drink a glass of wine.

2) Student engagement, or lack thereof: If I want to be diplomatic, I'll say something along the lines of, "Every student is different. We need to meet individual student needs. We're here to serve our students and provide them the best education possible. We need to teach to the students who are here." If I'm not being diplomatic I might instead say, "It is 10 AM and I need a drink because why is it that you are covertly checking Facebook in class after I've spent three hours preparing the activities for today? Who don't you do your assignments? Why don't you put as much effort into your learning as you do into your sorority/fraternity obligations? Also, who is paying thousands of dollars a year for you to come here and miss class? DO YOU THINK THIS IS AN EXTENDED SUMMER CAMP?!?"

And then I might throw my lawn chair and scream "GET OFF MY LAWN" for good measure.

Do I realize that I am turning into an old grump? Yes. I do. Do I realize that I also have many, many students who work hard and think critically? Yes. Absolutely. I also realize I don't totally understand the student perspective. But I think there's something to many teachers' observations that a rather high percentage of students entering college are unprepared, uninterested, and unmotivated. At the same time, professors (especially on the tenure track) are expected to "cater to the customer" and meet every individual's needs even if said individual is only here to appease their parents.

And woe to any TT professor who gets sub-par student evaluations. At my small school, evaluations are everything. Honestly, if students learn but do not like you, you're screwed. And they know it.

3) A negative campus atmosphere: I've been lucky. Although my college does seem to have some factions, and although institutional financial stress my first year on the job threatened to tear apart faculty camaraderie at the seams, I have to say that the atmosphere at my school is pretty positive. I love my fellow faculty members. I love seeing the creative, smart ideas they have. I love the autonomy, and I generally feel respected. That's not always the case.

4) High teaching loads and near-impossible grant expectations: Again, I've been fortunate in these respects. My college is a small liberal arts college; the expectation when you're hired is that you will mostly be teaching. You're welcome to conduct research. You're welcome to seek outside funding. But as long as you're engaging in some way with your scholarly community, nobody's going to knock you down a peg for not roping in a $1 million NSF grant.

5) They just want to check out other, non-academic optionsAnne Helen Petersen and Matt Welsh both left academia to pursue other endeavors - in writing and software engineering, respectively. I can see why. If you can do what you love while earning a higher salary, and you don't have to deal with the quick-as-molasses academic publishing system, a non-academic job is understandably tempting.

6) The lack of jobs and the treatment of adjuncts: Of all the issues in academia, this one sickens me the most. Academics spend years in grad school - often racking up major-league debt - only to discover that landing the plum job they've always wanted (the elusive tenure track position) is basically as likely as riding a magical unicorn or capturing a video of Bigfoot. And so they take on visiting assistant professorships, post-docs, or adjunct positions. Many academics hit the job market year after year and yet end up with no prospects. It's not because they're not good enough. It's because the jobs are just too scarce to accommodate the number of Ph.D.s trying to find a spot in the ivory tower.

And I won't even get into the crap that adjuncts deal with at their institutions: poor wages, lack of mentorship, little respect.

A little bit of all of these reasons contribute to my decision to leave, but in the end I realized that my reason for going doesn't fit into any of those categories. My main reason for leaving is this:

I started to feel trapped. And I don't do well with feeling trapped.

One day I was giving a lecture - I should add that it was going well; my students were energetic that day and we were having a thoughtful discussion - when all of a sudden I looked out at them and thought, "In a year, I will be doing exactly this. And the year after that, I will be doing exactly this. This is it. This is my life for the next 30 years."

I then proceeded to have a panic attack and ended class ten minutes early.

The panic attack underlined months of unease and anxiety wherein I'd been questioning the job but couldn't figure out why I was questioning it. Suddenly the reason was clear.

Why I thought I was ready to "settle down," I have no idea. We haven't lived anywhere for more than six years since getting married. I get bored easily; I like to see new places and do new things. And although I have often wondered if perhaps this means I have some sort of problem, maybe the truth is that I just like adventure. Maybe I'm at my best when I am not rooted to one spot.

To be honest, I do feel somewhat guilty for not being more self-aware when I was considering this position. Shouldn't I have been able to figure out that it wasn't the best choice? If I'd just thought through it more, would I have decided differently?

 I don't think so. This was the job I'd wanted and prepared for. In graduate school, I'd taught and earned teaching awards. I had every reason to believe that a liberal arts teaching position was the ideal choice. And here at my current institution, I seem to be doing a pretty good job: my first year review was laudatory, and overall my students seem happy with my teaching style. So it's not that I can't do the job. I can, and I can do it well.

But until you're actually in the position, you don't really know what it's going to be like or how you're going to feel about it. You don't know if the ivory tower is going to start feeling like a very pretty prison. Sometimes you just have to try. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes it doesn't, and you have to give yourself kudos for making the attempt and learning something about yourself.

As we tell our students (and I always mean it sincerely when I say it to them), being wrong does not mean you're a failure. Being wrong means you're learning and growing, and it means you're one step closer to the truth.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Two more credit cards bite the dust

This morning, we paid off two more of our credit cards. Gone. Done. Good riddance. May we never see that debt ever again.

By cashing in our retirement funds and paying off much of the cc debt, we're going to save more than $1000 a month in expenses. That's exciting. That's a relief.

Do I feel concerned about our diminished retirement fund? A little, but I also feel like the economic situation has changed so much in the past ten years that putting one's money into the stock market is a real gamble anyway. I know many would disagree with our approach. This is simply what we need to do to live a better life now, and since nobody's guaranteed the future... I'd rather bet on the present.

We still have a ways to go. While I was in graduate school, I was paid a (rather small) salary for teaching and research assistantships. I was also lucky enough to receive health benefits. However, my alma mater does not allow grad students to work a second job (a rule that I think is irresponsible), so I couldn't bring in extra income. My husband, meanwhile, was busy working from home AND being the stay-at-home parent. We ended up putting a lot of expenses - including clothing, travel fares, furniture, etc. - on our credit cards, and the balances ballooned quickly. Even with what we've paid off, we still have about $7K to pay off.

And then there are the school loans, but that's another story. One debt at a time.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Planning, questioning, taking a leap

It's the middle of January, and we're saving and planning. Here's the current rundown of what we've nailed down (in short, not much), what we're still trying to decide, and what our hopes are:

*We'd like to purchase a used RV by the end of the summer and head south for the winter. Ideally we'll find an RV that is clean and comfortable, one that has separate bunk space for an independent boy who probably won't want to be around his parents all the time. I don't need or want an RV that is brand new; they depreciate in value too quickly and we don't have the money for that anyway.

Plus, these months of living in our tiny, old, clean, basic rental has shown me that I feel more relaxed when my surroundings have a little wear to them.

*We're going to homeschool our son. I need to look into homeschooling more - and some of the specifics will depend on the state in which we establish residency - but I'm confident we can make it work. He loves to read, loves to explore, and loves to have adventures. Road learning will be good for him.

*We're looking for freelancing work. My husband contracts with a publishing company, and I recently snagged an editing gig. Plus, I have a Beachbody business that is starting to gain some traction. Online teaching is also an option, though right now those jobs seem a bit hard to come by. We're also discussing the possibility of seasonal work; for instance, I think I'd love to work as a park guide in a national park during the summer months.

That's one thing that may be difficult to acclimate to: living without a fixed salary. But I'd rather freelance than be stuck in one spot.

*We need to embrace minimalism and sell our stuff! Our house is rather diminutive and by many standards we don't own all that much, but the thought of moving into an even smaller space makes us realize that we need to offload a whole bunch of home goods: our couch and armchair, a couple of beds, a kitchen table, a water cooler, a desk, a television stand... Ideally we'll be able to sell some of it and make a little extra cash.

*I need to start cleaning out my office. Ugh.

*We're in the process of paying off several credit cards and other debts. More about this in the future, but in order to pay them off, we cashed out a few retirement accounts (and took the tax hit). We need to reduce our monthly expenses as much as possible before we hit the road. Lack of credit card debt will make a huge difference both financially and emotionally.

That said, we're not going to be debt free. We'll have a car loan and our (somewhat crushing) school loans. I suppose most financial advisors would recommend that we pay those off before making our move, but... no. We'll keep paying our monthly bills on time, and eventually they'll be gone, but in the meanwhile I'm not going to let these stupid student loans get in the way of living.

*We've canceled cable as well as several monthly services and subscriptions. That's another ~$100 a month that we've freed up.

*We need to figure out what to do about our phones. My husband and I both have smartphones that we use all the time, but they're expensive. We've toyed with the idea of getting cheap flip phones, but I'm not sure either of us is willing to actually make that change. It really depends on our freelancing jobs: for gigs requiring quick turnaround, I think having at least one smartphone is worth it.

*Luckily, we currently rent our house and can move out with one month's notice. After the stress of selling our home in Nashville, the ability to pick up and leave so quickly and easily feels like a real luxury.

I'm sure I'm forgetting a million little things and of course all of these plans are evolving, but I needed to take a few minutes to move these random thoughts from my brain to paper.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Aaaaaaaand we're back!

...5.5 years later!

Five years ago I chronicled our journey to pay down debt and live our dreams - and at that time, the dream was to purchase a boat and sail.

So what happened?

We did not purchase a boat and sail. Se la vie. Instead:

*I went back to grad school and obtained a Ph.D. in a STEM discipline. I had a blast. Conferences, fieldwork in the western U.S. and Brazil, lab work, collaborating with advisors and fellow students... even writing the dissertation. I do not regret the decision in any way. Well, okay, I do regret that we re-acquired some of the credit card debt we'd previously paid off, but I still wouldn't go back and erase that experience.

*My husband continued to work online, but shifted from teaching to science publishing. It's a contract job so it isn't guaranteed, but it's a good gig as long as he has a contract.

*We sold our house in Nashville. We waited long enough that we sold it for almost exactly the same price at which we purchased it.

*I somehow landed a tenure-track teaching job at a small college in the rural Midwest. We moved there and crammed ourselves into a tiny house on a dead-end road where my son bikes whenever he wants and I don't worry about him getting hit by a car. I'm currently in my second year of working here. I love low-key, frugal living in a small space. As for work...

*Last week, I quit said job. Why? Because I discovered I do not enjoy rural living... I do not enjoy the politics of academia... and I just can't see myself staying here, in this place and in this job, for my entire career. More to come about the interesting world of academia and the "I just can't quit you!" nature of walking away from it.

And now?

Now... We're kind of but not really back to where we were six years ago:

*We're still seeking financial freedom. We're still in debt. BUT...

*We cashed out some of our 401Ks and paid off most of our credit card debt. I know not everyone will agree with this strategy, but for us, the debt took an emotional toll and we needed to be unburdened of it.

*We still have school loans we're paying off. Damn school loans. If there's one regret I carry, it's the decision to take on school loans when we didn't actually need to.

*We're still looking for freedom... But this time, the plan is to purchase an RV and live as freelancing nomads starting this summer. We're saving up for a used fifth-wheel trailer. The plan is to homeschool our son, move every few months, work remotely, and spend more time with family.

Do I think this is a decision Suzie Ormon would agree with? Haaaaaaaa. No. Many people wouldn't agree with it. But you know what? Life is short. I want to spend my time having adventures with my family, not sitting at a desk. I want to see the country, meet new people, have memorable experiences, and give my son an education beyond the classroom.

So that's the focus of our new blog: Preparing for, and embarking on, this new and exciting journey.