I was on the Metro riding away from the annual meeting of American Academy of Religion, and for once, I felt hopeful. I had a few conference interviews, but one particular interview went remarkably well. I was finally on the path to getting that tenure track job that I wanted so desperately. Everyone keep telling me that this was my year, and I started to believe them. My phone buzzed to let me know I received an email from the search chair of my remarkable interview. I wavered on whether to click on it or not. My fate to be determined by a one paragraph email. The chair informed me that I would not be receiving a campus visit and wished me luck of the rest of my job search.
I was stunned. Another rejection to add to my mounting pile of job rejections. I was once again an academic failure. I wasn't sure that I would recover. As the train inched closer to the airport, my hurt and bafflement turned to anger. I was angry at the search committee, the search chair, my advisor, and everyone who assured me I would succeed. I hadn't succeeded, had I?
Then, I did a quick tally of my successes: a book contract that turned into a published book, journal articles, book chapters, panels that I organized, and papers I had given. Basically, I realized that I had done everything academia asked of me and still I felt like a failure. Maybe, the academia version of success was screwed up. Maybe, I couldn't succeed if success was narrowly tied to the kind of employment I had. Maybe, rejection wasn't failure, but something else entirely.
When my anger dissipated, I realized that academia wasn't for me, and more importantly, that I could survive that realization and likely thrive. I wouldn't let rejection define me any longer than I already had. What I know now, over four years later, is that I learned more about myself and higher education from those rejected job applications than I ever did from my successes. Rejection forced me to find another career and another way to live in this world. Rejection opened me up to possibilities I never would have imagined and allowed me space to recognize that academia was only a part of my world, not the defining feature. Rejection made me a more determined scholar and allowed me to become a writer. It changed my path in ways that I appreciate more and more every passing day. Rejection was ever actually a failure, but a new possibility.