“Outside are the dogs.” Revelation 22:15
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“Outside are the dogs.” Revelation 22:15
I am a full-time assistant professor and part-time dog carer. I take dogs out in the mornings and afternoons, and even host them overnight when needed. I teach, attend meetings, and conduct research at all hours in between. The reason for this is twofold: (1) I love dogs; they help me stay present and grounded. But more so: (2) I cannot afford to live near my campus, which lies just east of the Pacific, without the extra income.
Still, I know I’ve been lucky. In the spring of 2020, I had two tenure-track job offers — the jackpot, I know — from opposite coasts. One offer was from Colby College, in Maine; the other from Loyola Marymount University, in Los Angeles. The former came with more benefits and a higher paycheck. The latter came with a city. And the sun.
Don’t get me wrong; the financial package from Loyola wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t great — not, at least, when considering the cost of living in Los Angeles. Everything is expensive: Car registration, car insurance, even groceries outrank the national average. Housing, especially, is a nightmare. A quick look at available spaces on Zillow will give you an idea of the options, which are either grim or prohibitively expensive. The median home price in Los Angeles County is roughly $800,000. On the west side, that might get you a small condo. But probably not.
According to Chronicle data, the average assistant professor at Loyola Marymount makes around $82,000 per year, but that varies by field; theology is among the lowest-compensated disciplines in academe. My yearly salary is $78,000. California state taxes are among the highest in the nation. While I knew what my salary would be, I wasn’t prepared for the amount taken out each month, so much so that I have emailed HR twice to make sure I was taking home the right amount.
The move to Los Angeles alone was hellaciously expensive — even without a professional moving company. Rent was the main shock, though, even to someone who had lived on a New Jersey train line into Manhattan. Luckily, I moved with a partner, so the rent has not been entirely on my shoulders. Still, she’s an aspiring comedian — feel free to do the math — so we have been relying primarily upon my wages.
Of course, I could live on the east side and commute an hour to work (as some of my colleagues do). And yes, I could move into a smaller space. But I don’t want to. I get research done because I have a home office. I take part in life on campus because I live close by. I spent eight years as a graduate student and three years as a contingent faculty member (one year in Ohio, two years in Maine, and that’s not counting the three years of adjunct work I did while completing my doctorate — teaching at three different universities, in two different states, often for less than $2,500 a course). I went through all that to one day experience the benefits of finally — and miraculously — getting on the tenure track.
The way to make it work, though, is by walking dogs.
If you’re earning just a few thousand dollars per course, it’s easy to see the tenure track as the promised land.
When I taught as a visiting assistant professor at Oberlin College, in 2017-18, I made $50,500. At Colby, where I also was a visiting assistant professor, I made a little less than I do now, but it went further. Everything was more affordable, from rent to restaurants to Gus’s health insurance. I was even able to travel every few weeks to Chicago to visit my partner. Because I wasn’t hustling to make ends meet — and because I was working in a healthy department, with research support, a lower teaching load, and minimal service obligations — my portfolio blossomed.
Now I am tenure track at Loyola Marymount, where I have retirement benefits (hallelujah) and job security. Although students aren’t exactly lining up to major in theological studies, the Jesuit school will probably not be tossing our department to the curb, at least not any time soon, and certainly not tossing out texts like the New Testament. The key for me, of course, is not to be fired; writing this essay without tenure, some might say, is already a taking a risk.
But for me, teaching the New Testament is also a risk. I’m Jewish. And lesbian. That’s a combination I have yet to find elsewhere in my field (if this is also you, please send me an email; let’s be friends).
I suppose I hold a similar place — always just slightly on the outside — at LMU. In addition to being a lesbian Jew who teaches Christ-centered sources at a Jesuit university, I walk a path with the dogs that happens to be just outside the main campus entrance: Bluffs Creek Trail.
At first, I thought this was advantageous — cute, even. I’d show up in the morning with my pups and in the afternoon with my books. Maybe I’d even turn into that cool professor with all the dogs — the one that students can chat with about biblical literature in an unconventional outdoor dog-friendly office hour. That didn’t happen. Instead, the security guards at the university’s entrance continually ask to see my ID. At least it functioned as a punch card to get me free parking (yes, I have to pay for campus parking).
Regardless, salaries in the humanities are often unable to match the cost of living in expensive cities — unless one is independently wealthy or partners with someone who is. Housing costs are rising across the country; academic salaries, by contrast, aren’t even keeping pace with inflation. Paired with booming inflation and, in my case at least, high state taxes, there are few dollars left for anything beyond rent.
So I walk dogs. And the truth of the matter is, I make more money walking them than I do being a professor, at least at the hourly rate. On average, I put in 10 hours a week walking, hiking, and running with dogs. I also house overnight, on average, one dog per day. This work nets me roughly $2,500 a month. Whenever I’m exhausted — or whenever I look up at my college campus from the trail and wish I were there reading or writing or teaching a class — I tell myself that I am affording my life here by doing this walk.
Again: I am one of the lucky ones. My income as well as my benefits will most likely always be greater than what the many adjuncts, non-tenure-track instructors, and graduate students around me receive. The median salary in LA is roughly $68,000. LMU offers me more than that, and will continue to raise my salary. The university also offers summer teaching options, rental assistance during the first three years of teaching (which I receive), and even home-buying loans, if needed.
And the other truth is: I love the dogs. And they love me. At least, I like to think so. They certainly remember who I am at every pickup. Not once have they asked me to show my ID; the way they run to my car at pickup tells me that they wouldn’t ask even if they had the verbal capacity to do so. And while they may not have much of a response to any of my biblical literary musings, they still wag their tails whenever I talk to them.
In a roundabout way, this all brings me back to what I teach. Readers of the New Testament so quickly assume that Revelation’s promised land — named the “New Jerusalem” in the text — must be wonderful. But if you read Chapter 22 closely, you’ll notice that dogs are left out. This can be a hard realization for those who love their canine companions. The tenure track, of course, is not a New Jerusalem. It is not a promised land. But at least I know I’m OK spending the time outside — outside with the dogs.
* Besides Gus, all dog names have been changed to preserve their anonymity.