My latest on Slate–on JFranz’s weirdpants new hybrid text The Kraus Project, Franzen’s collaborators, including a deserved shout-out to my former colleague the fabulous Paul Reitter, and Kraus’s friends and associates, some of whom were grade-A batshit nutballs–and thus could not be more amazing to read.
Some real talk today, talkin’ ‘bout my feelings ‘n shit.
[Rockin’ the Catskills today. You jelly?]
I am coming to terms with the fact that I am never going to be a “real” professor—although try telling that to the students whose lives I will enter in a few weeks’ time: their homework and grades will seem “pretty real” to them. But no, I’ll be a mere adjunct at a tiny Honors College inside a regional university in the Middle West (Gatsby style!), an “academic nobody,” as Lee Skallerup Besette has characterized the uncharitable views of some of her blog’s worst trolls.
Most days I am happier than I have been in many years about this. My long-term partner, whom I met my first year of graduate school (and whom I attracted precisely because I “didn’t seem like a grad student”) has remarked that since my postdoc ended and I moved back to St. Louis, that I’ve aged in reverse.
It’s true—there are some “Ohio wrinkles” I don’t see anymore, accompanied by a life in my eyes and a general dearth of the abject terror that lurked below each day in Columbus, like so many pollution-filled mussels on the bed of the Olentangy River. I dye my hair again, a glorious bottle-red, unleashed in all its pigment after years of Professorial Gravitas Brown—or, even worse, my natural color, which is now aggressively peppered with grey.
[Who’s that sweet redhead who appears to be in her MID-thirties instead of her LATE thirties?!?]
If I was a disciplined and productive academic writer, cranking out journal articles and then finally my monograph—finished and submitted to the press this past May—then now I am a motherfucking locomotive. I have so much to write that I simply can’t get it all down. It’s like eight years of pent-up creativity that had been stuffed back by my own dismissals of anything other than Serious Scholarship as wasted energy have come geysering out, for better or worse.
A few weeks after “Thesis Hatement” came out and all I saw on the Internet was hate, hate, hate, hate and more hate, I lay curled on the couch in St. Louis crying, wishing aloud that I would just die in an accident already, something that wouldn’t be my fault, quick and painless, gone. I had lain extremely bare my own failure after seven years of sacrificing my health and my happiness, I had perilous few new prospects, and I had an Internet peanut gallery making sure I knew I had no future in anything. I wanted to die. One night, I made a list of my positive attributes: I started with “Usually Remember to Drink Enough Water” and was stumped thereafter. Although in my defense, hydration is IMPORTANT. (I know now, of course, that it was far from all hate, but like so many of you, I get eighteen adulatory evaluations and one critical one, and I commit the latter’s complaints to memory forever.)
Three months later, I feel like a different person, though I am drawn sometimes into spats about the vicissitudes of the job market and academe’s cult-mentality in general. Still, now I’m emboldened by my new identity as a curse-spewing postacademic hellraiser, straight-up high on the inimitable sobriety of being able to speak aloud the truths that so many people are still afraid to whisper. I’m emboldened by the simple fact that I live another life now, one for which I am infinitely better suited.
So it’s true—I was not “suited” to academia. But I don’t want to hear that from anyone but me, and here’s why. First of all, I still adjunct, and because it is not my primary source of income and it’s two sections of the same course I’ve taught before, it truly is part-time and I like it. So when nonacademic friends said, in attempt to make me feel better during the “die in an accident” stage, that academia cramped my style—well, I’m still a professor, so watch it. I think like a literature professor about everything; I bring my ability to scrutinize texts and take apart issues to everything I do. I may not act like Avital Ronell (shudder), but, to paraphrase the great scholar Young MC:
I had to go to college because I’m an intellectual
I only sleep with men because I am heterosexual
I’ve called myself the “intellectual’s anti-intellectual” as a joke, largely in reference to my equal proclivity to enjoy Bertolt Brecht and The Bachelorette, but I am a goddamned intellectual, so don’t tell me that such things don’t “suit” me, because they “suit me” just fine—my way.
I sew most of my own clothes to fit my body just-so. Because if this, I don’t know what size I am. I’m 36-28-40: me-sized. I’m exactly the right size to fill out the clothes I make to suit me:
[Bridesmaid dress for my partner’s sister’s wedding, the Sultry Sheath from Gertie‘s New Book for Better Sewing. This wedding was on the day “Thesis Hatement” came out. Can you see the shellshock? And no, I didn’t walk the aisle in the Mickey Mouse flip-flops.]
I have done this with academia as well: I have taken the parts that “suit me”—teaching, reading critically, thinking philosophically, participating in critiques about the present and future of higher ed—and tailored them to fit my personality. And I have done away, for now at least, with the parts that don’t “suit me”:
Research, for example, doesn’t suit me right now. But not because I wasn’t good at it. I mean, I guess, like the hundreds of commenters on my op-eds who either didn’t read my CV or don’t know how to read a CV, you could say I wasn’t good at it, but that would be news to the editors at Modern Austrian Literature, The German Quarterly, and Northwestern University Press; to the Internationales Forschungszentrum Kulturwissenschaften and the Austrian Fulbright Commission; to the DAAD and the American Council for Learned Societies; and to every department where I’ve ever been interviewed—and even some where I didn’t make the cut, but scrawled in handwriting below the form rejection was a missive insisting my writing sample was “nothing short of amazing” (I love positive academic hyperbole on the rare occasions I get it!).
I’m taking a hiatus from academic writing for one reason only: I am sick of spending years of my life squeezing out meticulously researched and difficult academic prose—which I then have to manipulate, sometimes four times over, to placate the needs of meanie-pants anonymous peer reviewers—that maybe, maybe, seventeen people on Earth will ever read, for the grand sum of $0. I’m not saying I don’t Believe In My Ideas, your Royal Highness FULLPROF Mayhew, I’m saying I want to write things that appeal to a wider audience.
You know what else doesn’t suit me? Going on the job market. Spending months crafting individual 70-page dossiers for each school because every search committee demands something different: a three-page teaching philosophy! A one-page teaching philosophy that pertains specifically to the courses taught by that department (but not THOSE courses you like, those are the purview of Mean Senior Prof Everyone Hates, and even displaying the slightest interest in them is enough to make the committee go nuclear on you)! A five-page research statement! A twenty-page writing sample (even though all of your articles are twenty-five)! A six-page abstract of the dissertation you finished four years ago! Your three most recent evaluations and your three least recent! Your ten most negative evaluations! And then pretending not to check that goddamned baby-killing Wiki, but then checking it anyway and watching as the interviews start piling in for everyone, it seems, but you. x4! x12! xEveryoneButSchuman! And do not get me started on conference interviews, because I have such exquisite bile for them that I think someone will pay me to share it. And the waiting. And the searing, wrenching rejection that “isn’t personal, so move on.” After four years, you know what? Don’t mind if I do.
And you know what else doesn’t suit me? Politicking, preening, ass-kissing; servility, sycophantism, cowardice. I’m not saying that every department ever is filled with, or requires, these things, nor that other industries don’t run on them. I’m saying that there is enough of this bullshit in academia that I’ve had my fill, and I would rather hang out with people who don’t treat a coffee date like a comprehensive exam.
And you know what else? Getting sneered at every time I let slip that I have any hobbies besides alcoholism. “How do you have the time to sew or watch TV?” I get, over and over, from people who spend three nights a week belligerently drunk. I have time, in part, because I write very fast, and in part because I don’t drink. I spend all day, every day, 100% sober, so I lose no time to either drunkenness or hangovers. But the thing is, for a lot of academics (not ALL OF THEM, Vim, so lay off), drinking somehow counts as scholarship, as long as you’re yelling about Kant and Kleist when you do it.
I am fully, painfully aware of the ways in which academia doesn’t suit me—but that doesn’t mean that I like it when FULLPROFS and others say this, because it smacks of that heartbreaking dismissal so many disillusioned PhDs get when they fail to become adequate replicants of their mentors: “Well, not everyone is suited for academia.”
What they mean is this, and this only: you weren’t good enough. You weren’t cut out for it because you aren’t smart enough. You failed. Academia’s only for winners like me, and you’re a loser. Academia is only for the best—like me. This is an unbelievably cruel thing to say to someone who already feels like a failure. It is inexcusably, searingly cruel, and I really wish that people would stop.
If I had been willing to squelch my natural “pluck” and remain servile, to lose my wonderful relationship while I moved, alone, from one Midwestern town where I didn’t know a single goddamned person to the next, to withstand (or even enjoy) departmental politics and conferencing, then academia would have “suited” me fine. I am coming to terms with the fact that those sacrifices weren’t worth it—but that is my journey to take, and my conclusion to reach.
I cannot imagine there are any blog readers who are not also my beloved Twerple, and so this is probably redundant, but I had an auspicious return to Slate this week with an article that has nothing to do with academia (hence the lack of 1800 vitriolic comments!), and everything to do with Before Sunrise and an ill-fated Eurotrip tryst I had in 1995. WARNING: there are sex parts! And that’s the obtuse version–if you want the really dirty version, I can write it here (though I probably won’t).
I had a ticket to a matinee of Before Midnight for today, but I ended up going to spin class instead (which was Operation Hell on Earth, but I guess worth it…), so I still haven’t seen it yet, but I’m planning on rocking this everything-proof mascara there (I bought Sephora’s “Lash Stash” last year and have like 900 teeny tubes of high-end mascara now–when I cut my hair short last year, I decided I couldn’t leave the house without doin’ mah lashes, because I AM VAIN, ALL RIGHT?), and some huge sunglasses, in case I get the Linklater Weepies.
Ambition, Or Something
Speaking of Linklater (and Slacker), this latest foray into amorphous memoir territory represents my current career strategy, which basically involves dabbling in as many things as I feel like, for exactly as long as I feel like.
I have never been a particularly ambitious person–I came of age in the mid-90s, in the Pacific Northwest, where there was a generational ironic detachment to sincerity (which is a prerequisite for ambition). In college I was far more concerned with being clever and cynical with my friends than I was in actually finishing Michael Kohhaas (which I now have, many times, some for fun)–and I loved it. I don’t know what happened to me in graduate school–I’ve tried to discuss it before with varying degrees of success–but sometime around 2003 I became really ambitious, and by the time I started my PhD I was ruthless. I just cared so much about being an academic, being a great one, and I ditched pretty much all non-academic pursuits.
In the three years I spent on the job market as a postdoc (the first one was when I was ABD), I told myself that it was completely acceptable to put my life on hold, and put all sorts of pressure on my personal relationships, if it served my career ambitions.
And then my “career,” nascent though it was, tanked. At this point I’ve really gotten all of my angst about the job market out (I just submitted an essay to an e-book that the editors of How to Leave Academia are doing, and I’m in the process of being interviewed by the Graduate Caucus Chronicle, just for good measure), and now I’m just trying to put the pieces of my life back together, gently and gingerly.
The one thing I know for certain is that I do not want to be overcome with ambition again anytime soon. It’s not like on the Simpsons when Homer goes, “Well, Son, you tried and you failed. So the moral is: never try.” It’s just that I’m fucking exhausted! There is no way I can know what I want to do with myself right now. I have a lot of ideas–and enough backpay from my old job, and freelance work–to carry me through until at least 2014, so I am trying my best to enjoy my life in St. Louis–which is kind of perfect, because it’s a very easy city to live in, and one where you really don’t encounter much ruthless ambition, nor are you usually encouraged to have any yourself.
So right now I am just being reeeeallly Eugene about my life (despite being in St. Louis, so without all the beautiful scenery, amazing food, and my family). I’ve got a bunch of aromatherapy sprays and oils (FOR SERIOUS) and my only career ambition right now is to, and I am not shitting you, keep myself open to all possibilities and trust that the right path for me will become manifest. I mean it.
So for now, I really hope you enjoy the 90s godawful Europan sex memoir. I’m just drinking an iced soy chai latte (FOR SERIOUS) and waiting to see what happens next.
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?
Back when I still had a borrowed version of Photoshop in graduate school, and needed to enforce a break between passing my quals and beginning my diss, I designed some T-shirts (what my loathed erstwhile employer would call TEE-SHIRTS, RTV shoutout! Yessss!), purely with the intent of purchasing them for myself and friends. “Robot If And Only If Robot” came from a 2007 conversation (I linked to it, but then I read over it and was very ashamed of the sizeist and ableist language I used in my 20s; I keep it as a record of how people can become less evil when they get older), wherein my partner and I marveled at the invention of paper-grading software. If we can get robots to replace us, he suggested, then we should definitely get robots to replace the students. ROBOT IF AND ONLY IF ROBOT!!!!! Given the advent of MOOCs and the further mechanization of the professoriate in the intervening years, I would hope ROBOT IF AND ONLY IF ROBOT might become a rallying cry of the adjunct class. (HA! Not really. Also, not even I can afford these shirts, and I’ll still have a job for another few months).
“Friedrich Nietzsche’s of Hollywood” was just the result of being a big weirdo, although if you are at all familiar with Nietzche’s attitudes toward women and sexuality, this portmanteau is especially apt. I know I am looking forward to wearing mine around LA if I do indeed gather up the courage to move there, and getting the usual weird looks at the gym. Anyway, being Cafepress shirts (and a mug! A Robot IFF Robot mug!) everything is way overpriced, and I get between .50-$1 for everything, but I thought–what better way to reintegrate myself into capitalist society (HAHAHA “reintegrate”) than with some good old-fashioned moichendizing?