I had thought about writing this up as a real piece of opinion-journalism and submitting it to a one of the legitimate outlets for which I now sometimes contribute—but then I realized that I want to use a loooooooot of curse words.
One of the most annoying—and expected—results of the unbelievably still-going kerfuffle over what I thought was a humorous and judicious essay in Slate (shit’s been quoted in the New Yorker and multiple times on Inside Higher Ed in just the last few days alone) is the sentiment, shared in the often-hilarious hate mail I get, and even by my own friends and parents, that I should not regret getting my PhD because “at least you got to spend 10 years doing what you love.”
To everyone: friends, detractors, and even Mom and Dad, this is a fallacious statement on several levels at once, and in its fallaciousness it perpetuates one of the most pernicious and ugly truths of today’s reality of Hypercapitalism, in which we all attempt, with varying degrees of success, to claw our way to solvency.
Fallacy 1: Doing Something as a Vocation Is Just as Fun as the Hobby Version
Don’t get me wrong—I am so relieved that there are people in this fucked-up world who still like to read. I am. There is nothing bad that can come of a voracious reading habit. However: please do not confuse what you do for fun—reading about 25 pages of a book and then putting it down at your leisure, and repeating this at whatever frequency you desire—with what literature professors and graduate students do for work. Let’s see if I can think of examples that bring this fallacy to life.
Example 1: fishing. Let’s say you loooooove fishing: you could do it all day long! And this is perhaps true—but what you do, which involves beer, and shooting the shit, and not really caring if you catch fish at all, is almost unrecognizable to a professional fisherperson, whose job is grueling, insecure, and tremendously dangerous.
Reading is similar to this—albeit with slightly less of a drowning risk. As a literature graduate student, if your program is any good, you will sometimes read upwards of 1000 pages a week. This means that just to keep up in your coursework, you will often read for thirteen hours at a time, with breaks only to use the bathroom and, if you remember, to eat. When I was in coursework, I sometimes got so overwhelmed I wept—and I just read right the fuck through it, because there was literally no time for crying.
And, further, you don’t just get to read it and think, “Oh, well, that book is interesting.” You have to put whatever you are reading within the larger context of everything else that author wrote, and everything else written in that genre, and everything else canonical written at that time period, and every single critical or theoretical approach that could even remotely be considered relevant to it. Every single sentence of a book you read has the potential to spiral off into a hundred conversations—and you are responsible for each and every last fucking one of them. This shit might be convoluted and ridiculous, but is extremely difficult.
Advanced study of literature is like this because through it, we get the background, training, breadth and rigor to act as authorities on these texts when we are charged with imparting them to impressionable young people. We do it like this precisely and only because it trains us to be one particular thing: a literature professor. If we didn’t want to become literature professors—and our mentors, who are all literature professors, didn’t want us to—we could dial it seriously the fuck down, and maybe we could have some “fun” reading again.
Example 2: obstetrics and gynecology. Let’s say you are an OB/GYN who also happens to be either a heterosexual man or a gay woman. That is—you work with vaginas all day for a living, and you also happen to enjoy vaginas recreationally. Do you work with pussy all day long because you looooove pussy? Do you loooove all the pussies you speculize apart, and into whose depths you peer in search of abnormal polyps and discharge, in the same way you love the pussy of your wife or girlfriend? Oh, you don’t? Because one of those things involves a professional approach and one involves a personal approach?
The same is true of reading. The way I had to attack the abjectly unpleasant Bildungsroman by Gottfried Keller, Der grüne Heinrich (Green Henry)—prying it open and peering inside its deepest crevices, on the lookout for just what about it is Bildungsroman-y—this is not the same way I would pick it up to read for fun, if for some ungodly reason that was possible. Because I can guaran-fucking-tee you no Germanist reads Der grüne Heinrich for any reason other than to prepare for and pass the comprehensive exams—the accomplishment of which signifies the mastery of the breadth of the German canon sufficient as such to be qualified to teach any part of it at the undergraduate level.
This is not to say that the professional version of reading isn’t intellectually rewarding—it is massively so. It is just very, very difficult, and requires an immense amount of self-discipline and gluttony for punishment.
As the ten readers of this blog who’ve been with me since 2003 know, I worked in the private sector for eight years before I decided to do the PhD (which, by the way, I don’t regret, but not because I got to spend several years “doing what I love,” but because it was rigorous and made me smarter, and I like being smart). What I mean is: I worked a lot of private-sector jobs, and they were all challenging in their own ways, but none of them made me work even a tenth as hard as I worked in my first year of graduate school alone.
Quasi-Fallacy 2: Doing an “Artsy” Thing as a Profession is Worthless to Society, So You Should Basically “Love” It Enough to Do It For Free Or You’re Unworthy Of Doing It.
This one doesn’t require as much unpacking (plus, my shit’s exhausted from all the ranting; plus, this isn’t real journalism so I can be as uneven as I want), because it’s pretty obvious: as Sarah Kendzior has already written far better than I ever could, most professions in academe (and, she didn’t deal with this, but it applies as well in the arts) are completely devalued in our Capitalist system, and so the resultant mentality is this: if we have the chutzpah to do something worthless instead of something that matters even a little bit, we should be completely prepared to live that worthlessness every day, by being paid what our work is worth: jack fucking squat. We’re told, more times than we can count: Well, if you want to do something so stupid, you’d better as hell love it, because there’s no other reason to do it.
How we have become a world in which a majority of people openly argue that music, art and literature are worthless is a matter for another time, but that’s the reality.
So I wouldn’t so much call this an argumentative fallacy as I would just a very hurtful truth. When you say, “Well, you should be grateful someone paid you $15,000 a year to do what you love in graduate school,” without even the above fallacious content of that “love,” you are advocating and perpetuating a system that believes that literacy and artistic expression have no valued place in the world.
This is especially rich coming from my beloved and admired mother, who is both an astonishingly gifted English scholar and an accomplished concert violinist, and has been compensated at extortionately low rates for both activities for her entire adult life. That she of all people is telling me not to regret my PhD tells you all you need to know about the insidious devaluation of our work that has wormed its way into every single one of us.
Semi-Conclusion Of Sorts—Give Me A Break, I Blog Because I “LOVE” It
Does this mean that I don’t, actually, love German literature? On the contrary, I love it so much I am writing a project right this second that aims to bring its amazingness outside the cloying walls of the Ivory Tower.
But do I love it enough to move across the country and back every damn year by myself (because why should my partner uproot himself from a permanent job for my temporary one?), to put my whole goddamned life on hold, to push my personal relationships to their breaking point and sometimes beyond, because I am falling apart under the pressure of feeling like a goddamned failure—and all the while, to say “thank you” to all the people who create and perpetuate the system that makes this total devaluation of my (admittedly limited) talents the status quo?
No, I do not, and I shouldn’t fucking have to, and neither should anyone else. Being a professor should be a job with no more or less respect than any other professional job, with its pros and its cons, and with compensation commensurate with what its specialized knowledge and dedicated labor is worth. Forgive me—or don’t—for believing that this worth is more than $2700 per course. For who needs rent, food or health insurance when there is love?