True Academia Story of “Thesis Hatement,” Vol. 1: Rock Bottom

This coming Saturday, April 5, marks one very important anniversary, and one very unimportant one. As is custom in my universe, I’ll make a brief passing reference to the important one (the marriage of my sister-in-law, Monica, to her tremendous husband, Sean; there it went!), and spend mythical reams of superfluous verbiage on the trivial one: the publication of the article that turned my quiet, pained, #failedintellectual life upside-motherflipping-down. The excellent Chris Humphrey said this to me today:

To which I replied:

So, in honor of Chris, and possibly his toilet, and everyone else who read, liked, hated, blogged, tweeted, and freaked out about “Thesis Hatement,” this week, I’d like to publish the Mostly-True Opposite-of-Hollywood Story of how that shit happened. I actually wrote a “thoughtful” longer essay about it several months ago, and couldn’t think of what to do with it–and, of course, if you can’t think of what to do with something, the answer is usually to put in on your blog…right?

Part the First: On the Flailings of Schuman Endeavor

Kein Sieger glaubt an den Zufall.
No victor believes in chance.
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Die fröhliche Wissenschaft

The moment I became an academic “celebrity” (a woeful contradiction in terms), I was in a hotel room in San Diego, getting ready to iron the overcast-grey bridesmaid dress I’d sewn myself the week before. This wedding capped an undeserved and probably illegal week “off” from my job as a college German professor in Ohio, for the purpose of attending the nuptials of two different sets of dear friends, four days apart, in equally enticing (and warm) locations. I’d covered up my blatant absence in the thick of the semester by holding two lessons online as a reward for some old-school German-style oral exams in my office before my departure. This added up to a lot more instructional time than a week of class, and revealed that three quarters of my students retained alarmingly little about Rainer Maria Rilke—but most importantly, it kept my conscience clean.

Normally, I would never attempt a move so brazen, but these were exigent circumstances: I was in the final semester as a “Visiting Assistant Professor” (visiting from nowhere) at an institution that had absolutely no intention of hiring me permanently, in spite of the strong overtures my betters had made in that direction when they asked me to come work for them two years prior. It wasn’t anything I did—reactions to my employ ranged from highly enthusiastic to benign neglect (I am pretty sure a few of the highest-ranking professors could not have picked me out of a lineup, although our department had only 17 faculty). It was simply that of the “four retirements!” enticingly promised with a wink and a nudge, only two had transpired, and they were to be replaced with a search for a new department chair, which cost approximately three times what an Assistant Professor might.

My willingness to be anything other than a loyal and devoted employee was also compounded by my recent decision, painful but necessary, not to apply for academic jobs anymore, even though at the time I still desperately wanted to be a German professor. For despite my blatant ditching of them amidst cries of Während eurer Prüfung bin ich auf Splash Mountain! (the first wedding had been at Disney World), I adored my students, and all students, and the very act of college professing itself.[1] More troublingly, I had absolutely no other self-conception besides German professor, the career for which I had been single-mindedly and rather insanely preparing myself for the past decade, at the expense of nearly all of my personal relationships and any chance at remembering what a properly-fitting pair of jeans look like.

At this point in my professional Angstfest, I was such a dedicated Germanist that I had apparently internalized the novel Heinrich von Ofterdingen, which is by a Romantic writer so obsessed with the epic poets of yore that he renamed himself Novalis (although to be fair, that’s got a better ring than Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg). The titular character spends the book on a highly symbolic, obsessive and often preclusive search for a “blue flower” (blaue Blume), which is supposed to represent the ultimate fulfillment of the Romantic ideal of man joining with nature. My desire to become a German professor on the tenure track—to fulfill what I believed, possibly over-romantically, to be the ultimate merger of my destiny and my life’s work—had quite obviously morphed into the blaue Blume of my own feeble existence. And just like poor Heinrich, anything less than the blue flower was akin to full spiritual demise, which would be even worse than dying of tuberculosis, as Novalis did when he was eight years younger than I (who, I don’t know if I’ve mentioned, did have pneumonia once).

It was, looking back, certifiably insane: I had held upwards of ten non-German-professing jobs in my adulthood—which varied from “upscale” mall janitor during college to a short-lived stint at Esquire—and never felt more than a momentary pang when I left them (in the case of Esquire, I could not beat a hasty enough retreat from the self-satisfied metrosexual dudebros and the overqualified women who answered their phones). I had unclogged toilets and undertaken the demeaning task of filing a boss’s lunch-expense account that far exceeded my entire salary. I had been sexually harassed and then retaliated against for speaking up about it; I had worked for a publication actually called Dance Teacher Magazine. I knew what a job was, and that failing to get one, even in this economy, had no actual bearing on my worth as a person. And yet, in April of 2013, there was academia and then there was a gaping abyss, the terrifying chasm of Leaving The Field, which my academic colleagues say in a similar tone to “contracting triple-Herpes,” and into whose stigma I had bought wholeheartedly. Giving up on being a German professor, after seven years of graduate school and four years of manic application for every university vacancy in North America, would mean abandoning the search for the blue flower that had become my entire identity. It was a cataclysmic, totalizing existential failure—what in the insanely long novel Anton Reiser is called Zerissenheit, the act of being split in two, with my spiritually and intellectually acceptable self being ripped away from me and floating off into the dirty Ohio sky. As such, I was a bit bummed out.

Although I kept an admirably stiff upper lip at work (easy to do when most of your colleagues still couldn’t pick you out of a lineup after two years), I frequently lashed out on Facebook, eschewing any semblance of an emotional filter and insisting that every target of my wrath deserved it—like another of my favorite writers, the Austrian professional curmudgeon Karl Kraus, dubbed “The Great Hater” by his fellow Viennese. I had no other outlet for my single-minded misery—the idea of writing indecorously about the Academy, even anonymously, in a truly public forum was not even a possibility; I had, in fact, password-protected the blog I’d had since 2003 and then promptly forgotten my own password. Thus, my Facebook feed was a pithy, half-assedly curated stream of myopic woe, not unlike Kraus’s magazine Die Fackel (The Torch), except, of course, for the marked difference in quality and cultural importance.

One particularly dismal day, on which I was rejected for both of my “backup” plans at once—a snooty recruiting agency that places PhDs as prep school teachers; the small honors college where I had once spent a year as an adjunct, and whose application cutoff I had just missed—I realized I was indeed both personally and professionally worse off than I had been when I entered my doctoral program. So I posted something akin to:

I regret getting a PhD with every part of me. It has ruined my life. If you are thinking of getting one, you are very stupid.

Unfortunately, my mother had recently figured out how to respond to other people’s status updates—she had spent the previous year “responding” by posting new updates for herself, resulting in some of the most priceless non sequiturs I have ever seen, such as “I GOT A USED ONE SO THAT HE’D STOP GETTING FREAKED OUT EVERY TIME ONE CAME BY THE HOUSE, BUT I’M TOO CHICKEN TO RIDE IT YET.”[2] So what followed was a pained exchange, in which she insisted that I’d gained valuable experience studying something I “loved” (at that point, I wanted very much for the discipline of German Studies to go fuck itself), and I seethed back at her and probably hurt her feelings, in full view of my former gymnastics teammates, and my college newspaper co-editors, and my elementary-school principal. I deleted the status, and promptly decided to attempt to cease feeling sorry for myself.

But not before a Facebook friend from the old days in New York, the incomparable and life-changing Dan Kois (UPDATE: his real name!)—a Senior Editor at Slate—saw it, and had the bright idea of commissioning it into 1500 words. I asked him if I could use a pseudonym, the general M.O. of academics who criticize the field in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which employs more obnoxiously referential nommes des plume than any non-pornographic publication on Earth. Negatory. I told him to give me two weeks—I was still waiting for what was sure to be a hearty rejection from my sole campus visit of the hiring cycle, in truth my first (and only) campus interview in four years.

Tune in tomorrow for the HIGHLY ANTICIPATED continuation of this gripping tale.

[1] During your exam, I’ll be on Splash Mountain!

[2] This pertains to her Cairn Terrier, Billy Budd, who has an ear-splitting bark which he uses to exercise his many grievances with skateboards in use.

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