I met up the other day with a new friend for coffee who explained she was a little late because she'd been stuck on the phone being lectured by her big sister about getting a "real" job this summer and what it's like for "everyone else" in "the real world." Exasperated, my friend explained that not only was her planned summer position good—albeit short term—professional experience, but that she didn't buy into the idea that our working lives, should we be so lucky to have them, should be constant drudgery. The mark of responsibility should not be feeling bored out of your mind. So what if you don't make as much money, she said, as long as you get to travel, have adventures, take on different roles at different times? This "real world" versus school talk is setting up a false binary! I couldn't agree more. The frequent implications I hear that my job is in some imaginary land separate from the "real working world" can start to dig at the ol' self esteem. To be constantly devalued as "still a student" can shake a person's belief in themselves and their work.
Okay, you can see where I'm going with youth and education, but what does this have to do with sexuality? Well, for one, university campuses have long been bastions of critical thought around gender and sexual justice. To be sure, I can think of innumerable microagressions I've witnessed, including at least one official human rights case at my own university that proves the path ahead still has no end in sight. But we can also look back on a history of second-wave feminism powerfully catching hold on university campuses and we can observe the way campuses have often made a home for the many PIRGs (Public Interest Research Groups) across Canada and the U.S. By virtue of the fact that universities host humanities and social sciences programs, they foment ideas about gender, sex, and sexuality that become some of the driving forces of larger public discourse. Seems real to me!
Not only is it insulting to imply that our lives at school—whether we're educators or students in elementary, secondary, undergrad, or grad schools—are only a prelude to real life, but it's disheartening for those of us who have found crucial networks of support in Gay-Straight Alliances or in campus organizing like pride projects, safe(r) space projects, queer student and faculty associations, and others. Some of these, like the gender advocacy centre and the education on queer issues project that I've found at my university operate often in spite of the austerity measures of administrators who would prefer to run the university on the capitalist model of lucrative business in the relentlessly competitive "real world." (Forgive me here, I'm about to get sarcastic.) So what does "real life" hold for those of us who like to inhabit those school-related contexts where it's taken as normal for people to be queer-positive? How should we reconcile the fact that a lot of us who are among the very engaged when it comes to political struggles are expected to eventually leave this preparatory phase and get out into the harsh light of reality where those political battles are going on, but where we can expect the people we meet to be…what? Jaded and apathetic about it?
Apparently, we have to get an education in some land of make-believe shot through a vaseline-covered lens in order to get a "real" job, and then endure the "real world" where we won't have it so easy, and then, at some undisclosed point in the future, "it gets better"? If we don't expect the level of community and political engagement that is growing all the time at all educational levels to translate into "real life," then how are things going to get better? Are people suddenly going to start taking seriously the labor laws that compel companies to give perfunctory seminars on how not to sexually harass your coworkers? Probably not. I think it's going to involve breaking down some of the boundaries between "school" and "work" that treat theorizing and activism and even a little naïve enthusiasm as immaterial to the way the rest of the world works. Many of the academics, artists, and activists with whom I have the pleasure of working every day are frequently brainstorming ways to make more community connections and be accountable to non-campus communities. But for these links to take hold, it may be necessary for perceptions to shift in some parts of the community side of things, too. For a lot of us, making these connections aren't just motions we have to go through in order to get a degree—which is not to minimize the way that such relationships can involve significant power imbalances owing to "expert" status, among other things. I also don't want to minimize the other privileges that many of us have who are lucky enough to live in the ivory tower, so to speak. But it's important to recognize that these privileges (of such factors as class and cultural capital, which therefore create spaces that are still dominated in the upper echelons by non-racialized bodes—read: white men) exist in ironic tension with infantilizing stereotypes about school work not being "real" work.
I know that when people use this "real life" terminology they're probably seldom thinking about the absence of GSAs and positive space committees in their workplace. They're probably mis-remembering student life as freedom from responsibility or as one big party punctuated by sleeping in till afternoon classes. But that's not giving much credit to the awful lot of us who commit to the hard work of thinking and caring, even if we do it on an irregular schedule. (This job has some serious perks but there are many weeks when I long for a 9-5 job that I could walk away from at the end of the day. But there I am, writing draft after draft of a paper on the first warm weekend of the season and trading pillow talk for hashing out dissertation ideas with my partner as we fall asleep—lucky for me, she's an academic, too). Anyway, my point is that the school vs. "real life" discourse does perpetuate a sense that what we do as students—whether it's organizing a pro-choice protest or creating a course schedule that avoids having to wake up at the crack of dawn—is a luxury we won't be able to afford once we find a "real" job.