Today’s FoPKK contribution comes from Melvin Peña, aka @kittenry on Twitter, who first captured my cold, post-academic heart when he expressed his appreciation for “Thesis Hatement” with a be-Tweeted reference to the greatest movie of all time (“I didn’t have to read it, Dottie. I lived it.”)
If you want to know what academia is really like, there are two groups of people whose stories you should listen to–who also just happen to be the exact groups of people whose stories the academic establishment want to disappear. The two Untouchables of Academia are as follows: Untouchable Group 1: Adjuncts. Untouchable Group 2: People who do not complete the doctorate.
The single most dishearterning thing about academic socialization is that in many programs (although I hear whispers that this is beginning to change?) PhD students are prepared solely for the career of a tenure-track professor, one they have between a 0.5-25% chance of getting, depending on which asshole’s statistics you feel like paying attention to on any particular day. The ugly truth about graduate school is that a bright-eyed PhD student is far more likely to end up as either an adjunct or a dropout (or sometimes both!) than she is to end up on the tenure track. And yet, during graduate school, unless you go out of your way to do things most graduate students don’t do (for example, search out information that will make you feel very defensive and freaked out, which grad students already are 24/7), the stories of real academia often stay silent, largely due to the superstitions that the Untouchable-ness of us Untouchables might be contagious. You can imagine that being dehumanized by the very institutions to which we gave (often) a decade of our lives makes for some amazing self-esteem (at least it does with me; Melvin’s story is his own).
Melvin is extremely brave and generous for sharing his experience with us, and although every individual case is different, the sense of loss, isolation, and a total lack of support and even recognition that you still exist from from the institution that was your entire reality for your entire adult life is unfortunately all too common with the many PhD students who do not complete the doctorate.
NOTE: although PKK comments are overall respectful and kind, as with all FoPKK posts, any and all negative comments will be moderated out. Haters gonna hate, but with my Friends you can hate somewhere else.
This essay is my contribution to the ongoing, and recently more ferocious, discussion of the perils of academia. It is not a blanket denunciation of the profession, nor is it an advice column on whether prospective doctoral students should or should not go to graduate school. Neither is it, in Graham Greene’s beautifully-succinct phrasing from “The End of the Affair” (1951), “a record of hate.” If this essay is anything, it’s an obituary for my quixotic quest to become a tenured English professor at a top-ten university, to have a publication record with breadth, scope, and influence, and most importantly, to make a difference in the lives of university students. I started filling out applications to Masters programs in the fall of 1998 and officially withdrew from my doctoral program without finishing my dissertation in the summer of 2011. One doesn’t dedicate the first fifteen years of one’s adult life (counting the aftermath) to such a pursuit unless one has, or develops, dedication verging on the religious vocation of medieval anchorites. That was my experience of academic life, fit for an epitaph: “Asceticism with almost no hope of salvation.”
From the start of my harrowing, solitary sojourn through the wilderness of academia, I knew that educating students was not the point of obtaining a doctorate in English literature. At best, it was a distraction from research. At worst, it was…well, it was a distraction from research. I dutifully wrote in my Ph.D. cover letters that my aim was to become “a productive scholar-teacher,” a phrase suggested to me by an advisor; one that paid lip-service to instruction while tacitly genuflecting at the major precept of academia, “publish or perish.” All the same, I found, even as a TA during my two-year Masters program, that I had a vocation for teaching undergraduates. In fact, it was my most cherished and secret goal since before I could drink legally. Whether I was TAing for 25 at a time or 75 over a week, acting as primary instructor for 15, or giving a guest lecture, I never felt more at home or more alive than when I had the opportunity to teach university students. It is the only part of academia that I miss, and I do miss it, every day. Part of the lasting pain is the knowledge that I’ll never again do something I loved so much.
One reason that academia was such a trial, and one I’ve rarely seen discussed, is that I had no real external anchor. This allowed the cult mentality of academia to overwhelm my entire life. Doctoral programs in the humanities are extremely isolating – if not entirely masturbatory and solipsistic – endeavors. The monastic imagery I invoked earlier is appropriate. Having romantic relationships, developing non-academic friendships, making money, establishing good credit, and starting a family – all these things and others which drive and motivate people – were tossed aside as irrelevant without hesitation. My devotion to the “productive scholar-teacher” ideal, which I subscribed to from the first drafts of my first graduate school applications, meant that no sacrifice was too great as I chased, with the complete madness of Tennyson’s Ulysses, after “that untraveled world whose margin fades / Forever and forever when I move.” The longer I pursued the ever-receding horizon, the less able I was to relinquish the quest.
I had no constant, professionally or personally. My committee evaporated while I was still on campus: The most senior professor retired. The second left for a different university just as I finished coursework. The third told me that she would not chair my committee. Teaching, interacting with students, and making a difference in their lives were the only reasons I had left for persisting. In spring 2009, my funding was stopped, I taught my last university class, and moved home to live with my parents, where I was to complete my dissertation. If I wasn’t working, I was feeling guilty about not working, or planning what the next session of working would entail. My life was a perpetual morass of anxiety, insomnia, terror, and despair. The only reason I rose in the morning was the knowledge that, eventually, it would all pay off, and I would be able to teach again. It was all I had; it was all that mattered. The returns were more than diminishing. The dissertation prose I produced amounted to increasingly disjointed phrases and sentences. In early December 2010, I was staring at my computer, feeling empty and hopeless. I blinked, and when my eyes refocused, it was like looking at the “mad papers” in Samuel Richardson’s “Clarissa” (1748).
paper x, from letter 261 of samuel richardson’s clarissa.
I was terrified. I erupted into tears, right there at my table in the coffee-house. I could not understand what I was doing, but, because it was all I’d ever done, I held on for another seven months. The morning after I formally withdrew from my doctoral program in July 2011, I felt that my life was over. I was not a loser. I had lost. I had failed utterly, apocalyptically. I stopped getting out of bed entirely. To this day, when I’m talking to people, I’ll hear myself ask, “Does that make sense?” I was so alone and thought in such malformed, dissertation-oriented academese for so long, that there are moments when I honestly don’t know whether the words coming out of my mouth are comprehensible.
Exhale. Nearly two years have passed since I formally withdrew from academia. I’ve mostly deprogrammed. Mostly. I’m still actively seeking out what new paths my life might take. It’s been through the interventions of two people with doctorates (one in psychology, one in “everything”) that I’ve started finding my way out of the howling void. For years now, I’ve shared my story with whoever was willing to listen. It became a compulsion; the only way I knew to answer the inevitable question, “So, what do you do?” Like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner, “till my ghastly tale is told, / This heart within me burns.” I found a therapist who has patiently heard my story, countless times, in countless iterations. Her patience, guidance, and capacity to listen, talk, and engage with me has had a greater impact on me than the academically-sanctioned wisdom of all my graduate school advisors combined. It is only because of her constant support that I am able now – three years after our first meeting – to tell my story in so public a forum.
As I said, I’ve “mostly” deprogrammed. With a gap in my overdeveloped need for minutiae, I started watching “Doctor Who,” a show with nearly fifty years of episodes, spin-off media, and its own body of contentious critical commentary. As my academic life drew to a close, I found a sympathetic figure in the Doctor. Like me, he was often preoccupied by the loss of a world he loved, though he never quite belonged there. After fighting and losing my own version of the Time War – complete with distant and forbidding combatants who occasionally donned robes and funny hats – I too was without a home and without a community. What I find most impressive and salutary about the Doctor is his resilience, resourcefulness, and boundless optimism. No matter how frequently he is met with scorn or hostility, he never stops trying to help. Between my doctor (therapist) and the Doctor (Time Lord), I’m moving beyond the “Life-in-Death” of the Ancient Mariner and toward the idea that I might regenerate. I may not totally escape the traumas of my past, but I can, and must, start a new life.
“the doctor, doctor, fun,” from “The Waters of Mars” (2009).
I want to make a difference and live a meaningful life, to form friendships and be part of communities, to write compellingly and make good art. In the last six months, those things have started to happen, largely because the academic shrouds of guilt, shame, and failure are falling away. I love my new home, North Carolina, and by going to lots of local concerts, I’ve started recognizing people and being welcomed by them. I wrote a review of a local musician’s new record and it was excerpted in a press review by the record label. In February, my art – which I started making in 2007 as a form of escape from my dissertation – was published for the first time in a local literary arts magazine. My third coffee-house exhibit in three years commenced at the start of May.
A couple of Sundays ago, I got an email from the editor of an academic journal. An article I’d written, submitted, and last heard anything about two and a half years ago is apparently going to be in print this fall. Nearly two years after I officially withdrew from my doctoral program, I’m to become a legitimate, published scholar. The most gratifying thing is that my sole entry in the MLA bibliography is going to be an article about the importance of friendship. It’s a much more generous epitaph for my life in academia.
Melvin Peña lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and is here to help.