Jeez, am I DONE WITH THIS YET ALREADY? Almost, I swear. Now, onto the “good” part(?), which is the latest in my weeklong series of “Behind the Whatever” about “Thesis Hatement.”
Also, an acknowledgement: About 500 words of this, give or take, also appear in my essay in Moving On. Thank you for allowing me to excerpt it and reprint it here.
Fourth (and Final) Part: Schumenschenhaß
I tried to insulate myself from the worst of the sudden and voluminous outpouring of personal vitriol—but honestly, I did not try hard enough. I read most of it, until too many crying fits brought about a “no reading comments or Googling yourself” rule in my house. I like to think that if Karl Kraus had written Die Fackel as a blog (he was, in many ways, the Marxist Matt Drudge of his age), he’d also be obsessed with Googling himself, and Frau Kraus would make the act strictly verboten. I mean, can you blame me for being curious? Until this, I’d had zero experience with anyone talking about me on the Internet, ever, because a) I am not an important or famous person, and b) the last time I was a “professional” writer was before the ubiquity of internet comments (I wrote an unpaid print-only column for the bi-weekly New York alt-mag The L for three years in the mid-aughts), and so all I got was the occasional fanboy trying to get a date (this was when I was much younger). As a result, delving into the article’s 2000 comments, and the weeks-long carnage they spawned (a rambling counter-article in the New Yorker; an infuriating rebuttal by Katie Roiphe positively dripping with privilege), was the emotional equivalent of ripping off a very large scab. It was hideous, it was shamefully enticing, it was completely my own fault, and it hurt like hell.
The worst were the smug insistences from high-ranking entrenched academics that everything worked out just great for them, and my big failing failure was simply a result of the life of the mind and its distinct not-for-everyone-ness. Those made me shake with a combination of self-loathing and righteous indignation—we’ll call it Nietzsche-Faktor–Fünf. Slightly less annoying were the vitriolic speculative attacks on my academic and scholarly record, which was ironically fairly accomplished. At the time I decided to give up, I had two articles in print in my discipline’s “major” journals, and had just had my dissertation on Kafka and Wittgenstein commissioned into a book by a major university press, solely on the basis of one of those articles. I was finishing the second year of a postdoctoral teaching position at a top flagship research university, where I was appointed as part of a very competitive fellowship for which I had beat out about 600 people. I had spent a year in Austria as a Fulbright scholar. My teaching evaluations had never been less than stellar, despite the fact that I regularly made my students do yoga and Burpees when they seemed lethargic, and often cursed them out for not studying hard enough (albeit always in more advanced German than they knew).
But that did not stop hundreds of strangers from stating decisively that my “off-brand” PhD and otherwise terrible credentials were the reason for my failure to secure one of my discipline’s twenty-nine total posts that year (each of which had 150-400 applicants). It reminded me of when The Trial’s Josef K. attends his first interrogation, and the magistrate begins by saying: “So, you’re a house painter?” K. works at a bank, and finds this laughable—but it turns out the joke’s on him, because the novel’s mysterious and all-pervasive Court gets to create new realities and eventualities with its records and its reach (the “eventuality” it causes with K. is, alas, his death).
Once people managed to unearth my publicly-available CV, some acknowledged that my credentials were solid, but then moved on to my elitism—my damning reference to obscure universities in what coastal types call “the flyover” was certainly the cause of my failure (never mind that I currently lived in Ohio, and had spent the vast majority of the four previous years in St. Louis). Whatever I had done in my life up until “Thesis Hatement,” it contained a multitude of missteps and personal failings that coalesced to make me preternaturally unhireable—not unlike in The Trial, when a Priest tells K. a fable about a man from the country who wants to get access to “The Law” and instead gets foiled by a dastardly doorkeeper, who reveals at the end: “This door was created for you alone; now I am going to shut it.” Unbeknownst to me, but knownst to the Internet, the valiant Ivory Tower of Academe existed for the sole reason of shutting out riff-raff such as myself. Above all else, there was the umbrage at my attitude—obviously with an attitude like that, no academic department in their right mind would hire someone like me.
I would soon learn that there is a single correct way that we academic losers are allowed to express our loserdom. Multiple enraged defenders of the WASPy, disaffected voice of the proper academic treatise castigated me for being too passionate and pained in writing about my personal experience. Why was I not instead extolling, with measured but awestruck prose, the wondrousness of the academic journey that just happened not to lead to a career of exactly the type my detractors all possessed? This is a verbatim excerpt from a comment on a Chronicle of Higher Education forum devoted, in its entirety, to my numerous faults (and, truth be told, they barely scratched the surface):
What a missed opportunity, to find the joy and beauty in her voyage despite her disappointment, and to elevate her readers with a reflection on what she gained from it. She will never again have that audience and forum to deliver this tale. Imagine if she had used that space to thank the marvelous mentors she had acquired on her journey, or tell us about the serendipitous friendships she had made. […] I imagine a story like this, and I think of how satisfying it might have been to read, like drinking deeply from a fountain on a very hot day.
I failed to extol the beauty of my academic experience in print for several reasons. First, my favorite literature is along the lines of Gottfried Benn’s “Schöne Kindheit” (“A Fine Childhood”), which is a poem about a family of rats nesting inside the corpse of a teenaged prostitute, so “beauty” isn’t the word I’d use. Also, maybe I’m not interested in extolling the Life of the Mind because demanding that I laud a profession that excludes over 90 percent of the people it has created, at a moment when I truly do not know how I am going to keep from starving to death, is fucking absurd.
Oh, but those curse words! Would you just look at my attitude? Why must I have such a terrible attitude? So the Life of the Mind didn’t work out for me—it’s not for everyone, you know. But how dare I be so unprofessional about it? After all, academia is a profession that demands only the highest and most dignified standards of behavior from its august ranks. No tenured professor ever, for example, ditches his wife and kids to schtupp a student. No junior professor ever gets bullied for having the audacity to get pregnant, or shunned for having the temerity to report sexual harassment. No academic ever is a questionable-social-skills-having, unshowered, borderline-psychopathic misanthrope who shows up to meetings late on purpose and then holds up every single discussion with manufactured outrage that’s actually covering up some inane perceived slight from five years ago.
We failed academics are to clothe ourselves head to toe in emerald, like the hero of Gottfried Keller’s insufferable Green Henry (Der grüne Heinrich), and tiptoe up to our masters, whispering, as he did about nature, “Oh Gott! Wie schön!” (“Oh God! How Beautiful!”). We are then to sigh a tragic sigh that expresses, wordlessly, a wistful longing to have been worthy of joining the Great Conversation, and then we are to abscond forthwith! By refusing to do this, I was indeed being highly unprofessional—but given that I’d chosen to leave the profession, I didn’t think I needed to abide by its fucked-up rules anymore.
…and that’s where the origin story leaves off, and my new incarnation as both career and person began.
That’s entertainment (TM)!