In “honor” of the impending first anniversary of “Thesis Hatement,” I’ve decided to “treat” my readership to a long-ass behind-the-scenes tale of how it came to be.

Zweiter Teil: Approach Barn; Place Tinder

Continued from Part I

For my sole campus visit of the 2013 season (and ever), I had been a finalist for a tenure-track job at another university in Ohio.

The visit—to which I drove myself using a borrowed car, nearly skidding to my demise on unplowed roads during a snowstorm—had been an unmitigated disaster, despite a kind group of colleagues. This was largely due to a teaching demonstration that in retrospect might have been a setup: not only did the students not know I was subbing in, but none of them seemed to understand any German (“Where’s our REAL FRAU?” they demanded, in sexist English, every time I implored them to do something). I had known my goose was cooked from fifteen minutes into that fateful class, during which we were supposed to be studying (per the Real Frau’s syllabus, which it seemed the students had never seen) the great Austrian poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. I felt a particular and highly ironic affinity to Hofmannsthal that day, as his most famous work is a short story called the Chandos Letter, in which its protagonist loses all ability to communicate effectively. The Letter was emblematic of the Austrian “Language Crisis” (Sprachkrise), which happens to be my area of research expertise—I just never thought I’d be having one of my own at the worst possible time.

On nearly every other day of a teaching career that now spans more than a decade, I have been a confident, sprightly, fun and compelling pedagogue, whose students I usually have so deftly in the palm of my hand I can make them do anything, from staged readings of The Physicists (Die Physiker), a highly allegorical cold war play about a bunch of Swiss mental patients, to German karaoke (80s music only, obviously—Falco’s “Der Kommissar,” Nena’s “99 Luftbaloons”). On the one day it counted, in front of the entire faculty and twenty of the surliest, German-hatingiest future Paul Ryans I had ever seen, I choked. It wasn’t just my worst German class of all time—I’m pretty sure it was the worst German class of all time. So I was expecting rejection. When it came—and not because I tanked my teaching demo, but because they hired their inside candidate anyway—I realized I had nothing to lose. I emailed Kois that it was a go. He offered me $250, which was $250 more than I had earned from the reams of meticulously researched academic articles I’d been churning out for the past three years.

Before I submitted for publication what at the time I called “Academic Barn-Burner 5000,” I sent it to three people whose opinion I value far more than my own: my former dissertation adviser, who to this day remains a fervent supporter and whom I love like a vampire loves his Maker on True Blood (or, as I liked to call it, The Eric Naked Show); my father, whose life motto is Don’t Burn Your Bridges; and, finally my most stick-up-his-ass colleague, whom I’ll call Karl-Heinz. My adviser wrote back that I should be given tenure just for having the balls to commit all those truths to paper. My dad said it was darkly funny, rather hyperbolic, but judicious and honest. Karl-Heinz spent an entire week lobbying for me to not to submit it—but not because it wasn’t true, simply because someday a search committee would Google it, and they would be mortally offended at my suggestion that academic employment was anything but a just and functioning meritocracy. “The Internet is forever!” he concern-trolled, Teutonically.

I replied that I had no intention of submitting myself to the ignoring of a search committee ever again, and he said: But what will a search committee say about that? I was reminded of the most darkly uproarious scene in Kafka’s The Trial, in which bumbling defendant-with-no-charge Josef K. finally gets the good sense to sack his useless attorney, Huld, and Huld basically tells him, Well that’s all fine and good, but how do we proceed on your case? Nobody I worked with, and none of the rest of my academic acquaintances, seemed to understand that even though it felt like a death to leave the only world I now knew, I was done. I needed to do something that would prove beyond any doubt that my academic “career” was dead before it began. In Rainer Maria Rilke’s The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the title character recounts the gruesome practice of puncturing the hearts of the recently deceased, which had been performed on his own father when Malte was a child. This was ostensibly to prove once and for all that deceased persons were deceased, so as to avoid burying anyone alive, apparently a common practice until the late nineteenth century. Of course, the practice also ensured that even if the “deceased” had been alive, he wouldn’t be anymore.

My academic barn-burner would be the needle through the heart of any future attempts to go on the job market. The academic hiring cycle transpires according to a strict timeline: listings appear in September, applications are due in November, interview requests trickle in (or don’t) all through December, conference interviews in January, campus callbacks (or not) in February through April, offers (or not) in late spring. The process eats up most of the year, leaving only the summer months to mend the self-esteem (and, usually, relationships) of the candidate before it all starts again, and at the end of every cycle I always wrote a note to myself, with the ostensible purpose of preserving exactly how miserable I was, so as to discourage myself from subjecting myself to the whole rigmarole again. But I never read them—instead I just listened to my former faculty, who insisted that this year it would be different, because I had PhD in hand; this year, it would be different because I had a highfalutin post-doc; this year, it would be different, because I had a book under contract. And every year, I believed them—they were my mentors! They had the blue flower clutched to their very bosoms!—and went out there again, only to get buried alive. This year, I would poke straight through the heart the job market (and my own meschuga expectations) had already killed, so as to prevent it from ever trying to beat again.

More Drang and yet even more Schum coming at you tomorrow.

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14 thoughts on “TAS of “Thesis Hatement,” Vol 2: Schum und Drang

  1. Long-time lurker. I love this behind-the-scenes, and wanted to let you know that I would absolutely amazon pre-order a book version of this- especially mixed in with more of your literary criticism (reminds me of everything that I loved about The Possessed (Elif Batuman))

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    1. Ha thanks! I’m working on a totally different book project right now but I will tell my agent! I do have about 50-60 pages of this memoir written, it just gets sooooo bitter in places.

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  2. Always a good reminder to stay away from the vortex of ignorant and/or misleading “mentors” who encourage one to apply with the “you have new publications in top journals!” or “you have so much to give!”. Yeah. What they politely ignore, or are so privileged and ensconced within the system that they don’t see, is that a dark woman, early 40s (…even is she can vainly say she does not look it), from a “foreign country,” with big breasts (hat tip to Amanda Kraus–boobs not allowed in academia) does NOT get a job regardless of quantifiable, measurable accomplishments and a degree from an R1 private U (full of racists in the dept…I’ve scattered my story throughout Rebecca’s blog).

    To anyone reading this post (including–especially– myself) who has made the decision to leave academia–stay away from the vortex of “encouraging words” because they will suck you right into the destructive maelstrom (especially if you’ve made the decision a while back and have healed a bit…those words can be like meeting the ex from a dysfunctional relationship after the healing has happened…you can easily be deceived).

    This blog entry was a reminder to stay away because I confess my mind skids from time to bc I know of an upcoming tt search that would be the ultimate prize or the ultimate humiliation.

    The truth? I don’t want academia (but continue to be a scholar on my own terms) but I’m struggling so much to find a job elsewhere that I wonder…. I’m deliberately avoiding submitting a book proposal because not having a book contract at this stage makes me completely ineligible in the fall (or rather, it would give them an “official pretext” to eliminate me (never mind I have three MAJOR research articles out that have NOTHING to do with my manuscript).

    Non sequitur: Rebecca, your forthcoming Northwestern UP book is waaaaayyyy over my head but I am so looking forward to the Other book on Germany you’ve mentioned here in there. Any other tantalizing tidbits you can throw our way???

    Anyhow, thanks for the blog entry. I’m a recovering academic, but I am faltering and the temptations are beckoning.

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    1. I did get sucked back into the maelstrom via encouraging words. It was bad because then I had to spend all this time trying to channel my former self. Difficult.

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  3. Dr. Rebecca Schuman,

    I originally wrote a note in praise of “Thesis Hatement” on the Slate web site a year ago, but it probably got buried in the hundreds of perplexing responses the piece generated at the time.

    So, “in praise” again for your spirited honesty. You have empowered us all–to turn down the next round of kool-aid (the glassy eyed zombie drunk effect of ‘there-is-nothing-of-value-outside-of-academic-hierarchies’ is very disconcerting I find). May you never stop speaking the truth!

    My husband and I both hold PhDs in English from good schools (one from Canada, one from USA) blah blah blah. Long story short: he is currently an online lecturer with a bad haircut (his words) plus full-time daddy, and I am a provincial writer. We read your Slate columns with gusto and amusement. We are very glad you’re out there.

    Keep ’em coming.

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  4. Reading you over the past year has sometimes been a little uncanny, like encountering a wittier, sharper and more courageous female version of myself. It’s a product, I guess, of certain experiences that cut across life trajectories, and cut so deeply. I’m so glad you’ve found a broader audience, and what’s looking like a viable career path – wonderful. I suspect those of us who have been exposed to the shattering experience of prolonged failure in humanities academic job markets will always read you with a special gratitude, though. It’s hard to sum up what your writing, and even more the public discussions that your writing has prompted, has meant for me. You have been a voice for a lot of terrified, desperate, isolated people who have been broken by the system. Thank you for helping keep us afloat.

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    1. YESSSS, yes yes yes. This.

      Every time I have an awful fucking interaction with my advisors, I come here to check for new posts. Rebecca is amazing, funny, and helps keep me from dissolving into a puddle of self-loathing goo. To wit: today, the director of my language program was asking me about my job prospects (nothing), commenting on her surprise that so many of my graduating cohort (6 of us) do not have any jobs as of now (4 of us). My advisor comes over and effectively BLAMES US for not applying “everywhere” and scoffed at me when I said I was looking at my transferrable skills in case the academic thing doesn’t work out. If I didn’t have blogs like this, I would probably hate myself and blame myself for my “failure” on this shitty, shitty market.

      Much love at you, Rebecca.

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  5. I’ve been thinking for the last few weeks about why a person’s regret over his or her Ph.D. is so threatening to the majority of the rest of Ph.D. holders. I think that regret is a complicated emotion (duh! like all of them), and it can coexist with positive feelings. For instance, I love my job teaching, and earning a Ph.D. led me there, but I simultaneously regret having earned the Ph.D. I know better than to express this combination of feelings to certain people because they get angry. And it’s hard for me to understand why. Regret and positive feelings don’t have to be mutually exclusive, and I don’t feel that it’s necessarily a contradiction to say that a Ph.D. led me here, and I like being here, but I still regret the Ph.D. I guess it’s my acknowledgement that a Ph.D. was definitely not the only way to achieve job happiness, and I don’t think the cost of the Ph.D. (in all senses of the word) for me could ever be justified by any job that I could have at the end of it. Of course, I didn’t realize that going into it, but that knowledge and understanding unfolded as I progressed through my program alongside the knowledge and understanding gained from my coursework. Some would say that all of this makes me naive or too unrealistic. Whatever.

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  6. I also have mixed feelings about the PhD. I’m in an OK-ish place job wise (full-time, non-TT, high teaching load, so-so pay, good benefits) and a very good place in my personal life. I’m pretty happy most days and I wouldn’t have wound up where I am without the PhD. OTOH, it’s hard not to regret more than a decade spent wallowing in anxiety, unhappiness, and anti-depressants. And I can’t help but wonder what I could have done with the countless hours I spent cranking out scholarship that no one (and I’m including myself in that) found particularly interesting or important.

    The teaching demo is frequently a fuck-over. I did five or six of them over the course of a couple of hiring seasons and even the non-disasters fell far short of an average day in one of my classes. This is another aspect of the hiring process that needs to be reconsidered. There are some alternatives that let a candidate demonstrate teaching skills without putting them at the total mercy of a group of undergrads. One friend was asked to give a short undergrad-appropriate presentation on a topic related to her research to a class, then the regular classroom instructor lead the students in a question/answer discussion with her as the visitor. Having the regular instructor “in charge” maintains the regular classroom dynamics and makes it much easier for the candidate.

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