Category Archives: academia

a fallow PhD

So, I am writing my new book.  Please send help!  It’s in the house and I’m pretty sure it’s trying to kill me.

Actually, it’s not too bad.  The progress is slow but steady.  My protagonist is a pretty interesting double.  It’s been a while since I’ve been inhabited like this; it’s taking some getting used to.  It’s a little bit like being in love, except the person you’re in love with doesn’t happen to exist.

Here is a giggle-worthy tidbit on academia from a book my husband is reading:

Keynes had long been suspect among his colleagues for the clarity of his writing and thought, the two often going together.  In The General Theory he redeemed his academic reputation.  It is a work of profound obscurity, badly written and prematurely published.  All economists claim to have read it.  Only a few have.  The rest feel a secret guilt that they never will.  Some of its influence derived from its being extensively incomprehensible.  Other scholars were needed to construe its meaning, restate its propositions in intelligible form.  Those who initially performed this task–Joan Robinson in England, Alvin Hansen and Seymore Harris at Harvard–then became highly effective evangelists for the ideas.  (217; Money: Whence It Came, Where It Went; John Kenneth Gabraith)

Yes, my husband reads economics for fun.  Also obscure military histories.  The last book he read before this one was called The Collapse of Complex Societies.  I think this title captures something essential about my husband’s soul.

As for me, I have entirely stopped reading any books that have an even remotely academic flavor.  It’s been tremendous.  I have managed to read a few venerable old primary sources for my exams, which are coming up the first week of May but which make hardly a dent in my consciousness.  It’s like my brain has reallocated all its resources to my novel and doesn’t want to be bothered with this crap.  Hey, want to hear something truly scandalous?  Lately I’ve read stories by authors currently alive.  Gasp!  The decadence of it: reading a novel without trying to mentally shoehorn it into my dissertation topic.  I feel naughty, I tell you.

Speaking of breaking with academia, I had a chat this week with a novelist who has a fallow PhD.  She was a Romanticist like me; it was a little eerie as it always is when you’re speaking with somebody who embodies some part of your past and/or future self.  I have a tendency to try to read such people like oracles.  But of course, oracles always spoke in gibberish that could only be untangled once it already was too late.

Last class for now…

So, I taught my last class at UC Davis yesterday.  The students gave me an ovation and I got all misty-eyed.  I will miss this job very much.  Honestly, it was easy to shed the identity of an academic.  I thought it would be trickier, but basically it entailed no longer performing textual analysis for my superiors and no longer writing articles in a language that is completely unnatural to me.  It turns out I can manage that quite well!  So well that I can only understand in the dimmest way that I’m still supposed to take an examination next quarter; it no longer quite seems real.

No longer teaching literature is going to be a lot harder though.  That really worked its way into my heart.  I am a total crackhead for that look of dawning understanding on my students’ faces.  Best thing ever.  Sometimes I wonder if and how they will remember me.  I wrote the following about teaching in a short story once:

The Egyptians had no hell.  The punishment for the wicked was oblivion; there was nothing worse than not existing.

The students absorb this piece of information quietly.  Probably some of them even write it down.  They are very sweet, in many ways still children.  In many ways they do not understand yet what I tell them.  Certainly they will forget everything I say before they are old enough for it to really sink in, but sometimes I wonder if I leave a trace.  Any trace at all.  I wonder if they will recognize something that is happening to them slightly sooner because I told them to expect it.

You cannot really tell someone something they don’t already know.  Teaching is not about filling blank minds.  It is about inducing a flicker of recognition.

The protagonist of that story was an adjunct who couldn’t stomach finishing the PhD (I wrote it over a year ago–prescient, no?).  I will try to get some kind of contract teaching work after I get my MA, maybe with the UC extension.  After the book comes out, maybe I will get a job in a Creative Writing department?  Quizás.  It still seems far away.  For now I have to access the totally feral, slightly unhinged head space I get into while writing a novel.  But I’ll be back in the classroom eventually–if only to have a reason to get dressed in the morning!  Writerly isolation can do unfortunate things to your psyche after too long.

This week, I also had to clear my desk in my office in Sproul Hall (they didn’t waste any time reclaiming my space!).  It was a melancholy endeavor, despite the fact that Sproul is an utter dump no sane person should miss.  My desk was a bleak-looking gray plastic-and-pressboard affair no bigger than a coffee table, lodged in a completely naked train-car-shaped room that gets broiling hot the instant the sun so much as kisses the roof.  One time I tried to open the window in there and the whole pane fell off.  Fell right the fuck off the side of the building, only kept from tumbling nine floors and ending the life of a passerby by the rusty latch, which did not open.  There also has been a weird and unpleasant smell emanating from the wall in the corner of my office where the lone eldtrich computer resides (I swear that machine dates from the Clinton administration) that has not been resolved in all the three years I’ve been there.  And that expiring groan the elevator makes when it grinds to a stop at the ninth floor freaks me the hell out; I always wonder if this is the time the whole contraption is going to let go and and plummet down into the basement, where my mashed flesh will mingle with the poorly-written student papers in my satchel.  Plus Sproul Hall is never, ever cleaned.  I think some of the dust bunnies in my office have evolved sentience, plus there is a green Skittle® on the floor in the staircase that has been there for so long I believe it has tenure by now.  It began its life between the fifth and sixth floors, and when I didn’t see it for a while I surmised that perhaps whatever is making the weird smell in my office wall might have eaten it–but then I was relieved to find it crushed into the second floor landing.  I will miss you, green Skittle®; don’t ever change.

“So are you saying that we’re all just, like, really excellent sheep?”

This fantastic article truly has its finger on the pulse of the American University.  I feel like I can do little more than froth in ecstatic agreement!  Nevertheless I will try to formulate some kind of response.  I’ll start here:

Throughout much of the 20th century, with the growth of the humanistic ideal in American colleges, students might have encountered the big questions in the classrooms of professors possessed of a strong sense of pedagogic mission. Teachers like that still exist in this country, but the increasingly dire exigencies of academic professionalization have made them all but extinct at elite universities. Professors at top research institutions are valued exclusively for the quality of their scholarly work; time spent on teaching is time lost.

Yes, it’s true.  Time spent on teaching is viewed as time lost, and that’s a shame.  The emphasis is on producing criticism by the ream, which pushes passionate teachers straight out of the academic rat race.  This pains me, because I believe that teaching is the main social function of a humanities professor. I wanted to be a professor to teach college kids to grow up not to be suckers for the advertising industry, but having to spout bullshit to put myself in a position where I could tell kids how not to listen to bullshit ultimately imploded the endeavor.  I always doubted by ability to see myself through the end of a PhD; there was always part of me waiting for academia to shit me back out.  I hung on because I felt I had to; ultimately I let go for the luckiest reason imaginable: I no longer had to.  I’ve been handed the opportunity to write what I always wanted.

I will miss teaching literature at the university.  I might still get a lectureship or an adjunct position one day, perhaps–but in a market saturated with PhDs who can’t get tenure-track positions, I’m not sure that I can.  It is a little giggle-worthy that I am not qualified to teach literature just because I write the stuff.  I’d have to be writing about the stuff.  In my chats with people about my decision to drop out, I’ve heard the opinion that it’s a shame academia doesn’t make room for artists.  It shouldn’t have to: it hardly has room for itself.  It is hemorrhaging qualified PhDs who cannot find a cell within its shrinking honeycomb.

Besides, there already is a place for artists in the academy; most English departments hire a few novelists and poets to teach creative writing classes.  Once my novel comes out, I could conceivably wiggle my way into one of these positions.  Yet the prospect of teaching people to write stories does not fill me with the same sense of urgency as teaching people to read them.  These stakes feel lower, plus making art feels less teachable to me than interpretive and critical thinking skills.

Another aspect of Deresiewicz’s article that resonated with me was his analysis of conformity at top-flight institutions, that to get into one of these places you have to be exceedingly compliant with The Machine and that once you come out the other side you have been equipped to be a fine little machinist indeed.  Having been at both a big-name private school and a mid-list state university, I am sometimes asked if the kids at Stanford are really that much smarter than the kids at UC Davis.  No, they are not; they are not gifted with some ineffable wisdom that cannot be accessed by the Great Unwashed Masses.  They are earnest strivers, usually from privileged backgrounds, who are especially good at doing exactly what they are told, that is all.  That has both its advantages and its drawbacks.  The main advantage being that they are well-tuned devices who know exactly how to channel their considerable gifts into getting the most positive feedback from society at large.  The main drawback being that they are well-tuned devices who know exactly how to channel their considerable gifts into getting the most positive feedback from society at large.  But Deresiewicz says it much better.

One at a time.

I’ve done something highly uncharacteristic this week: I quit!  I gave notice that this is my last year in Comp Lit at UC Davis, and instead of taking a PhD qualifying exam this Spring, I am taking an exam that will grant me a Master’s.  A Master’s and then…  Terrifying, dizzying, absolute freedom!

I say “uncharacteristic” because I am not a quitter.  I don’t necessarily say this with great pride; I simply don’t have the mental apparatus that allows me to let go of things.  In life so far, I’ve been tested in ways that have developed my blind tenacity–to the point where it can be an impediment.  So this quitting thing is new and alarming.  But holy mackerel is it ever the right decision!  The sudden evaporation of my dissertation feels like such a blessing, like a burst of air and light.  Like the gnawing on my brain has mercifully stopped.

I simply do not have what it takes to produce two totally different kinds of books on two parallel tracks for the rest of my life.  If I were to keep writing academic criticism it would severely limit my fiction output.  I was okay with this waning process when my investment in fiction was strictly personal.  Now that the layout of my life has changed so dramatically, I will not spend the energy I would have spent on novels writing scholarly works.  Hell no.

When I got the book deal last June, I tried to talk myself into staying on the academic track by telling myself that dissertating (and writing critically presumably for the rest of my life) would provide me with a needful framework of discipline.  After all, I had been investing myself in this career for a few years and it wasn’t going to simply explode out of existence.  Still, I’ve been haunted for months by this “needful discipline,” and its blood-draining effects…  “Discipline,” definitely–“needful?”  I no longer think so. These days I need vitality and passion more than I need structure.  The tamer may have a stage, a stool, a whip–yet he has nothing but a hollow pantomime if he doesn’t have the goddamn lion.

Besides, when the well runs dry and things are going badly, I don’t think I can handle the terrible weight of being utterly impotent at two kinds of writing.  I will fail at just the one, thank you.  I am not Giles Corey!  I do not want more weight.

So, I’ve been giving notice to the professors in my department.  Some are disappointed, some are fly free, little bird! I am now reading for my MA examination in the Spring instead of my PhD quals, and I like the sound of “MA.”  It sounds so wonderfully…  finite.  Still, only in academia can you tell everyone that you quit and still have 5 months of work to do.

So, I will have plenty time to practice and get used to this thrilling new quitting thing–for instance, on Monday I will go on an ecstatic orgy of returning no-longer-necessary dissertation-related books to the library.  (And it will be a fine orgy indeed; I have enough in my piles here to fill up a fairly sizable wheeled suitcase.)  Oh, those thick critical volumes written in ice-pick-to-the-soul prose will make such a sweet melodious sound on the way down the chute… It will feel so good I will have to make it last; I will feed the books to the library’s gaping metal maw





The chute from the other side: doesn't it look like Literature got liquored up and puked all over the floor?

Academic prose, or the glandular secretions of skunks

Sometimes I really love academia, and sometimes I wonder what on Earth I’m doing here.  The latter usually happens when I’m reading some chunk of academic prose that is crushing the life out of me.  After torturing my poor bruised brain attempting to pummel meaning out of long byzantine sentences, I wonder, is this really necessary?  It hurts.

Sometimes I marvel at the precision of academic language, how it can explicate something complex and specific, lay it out like a blueprint in words.  A lot of the time though, I groan and whimper and bristle with irritation: I could whittle down that entire bloody brick of a paragraph into a single sentence to say the same thing, a single sentence that would be a lot clearer and would not make little baby Jesus cry! I guess when it all comes down to it, I am merely a word economist.  I admire prose that gets from point A to point B efficiently.  If it takes detours, it better be damn pretty.  Academic prose generally isn’t.

I also find academic prose problematic because it’s such an unapologetic display of power.  When it’s good and unpacks some essential truth concisely and cleanly, it does earn my begrudging admiration.  When it’s bad and lays down layer after layer of gratuitous verbiage that one must peel back to reach some simple idea, it just pisses me off.  I will never get those precious minutes of my life back–and why?  So that the author could say: I am one of the educated elite, and for you to understand what the fuck I’m saying, you must be too. Sometimes I think it would save a lot of time if that statement were a disclaimer right under the title of the work in question (and remember it’s not really a title unless it’s two lines long and has a colon in it).

My problem is that I am an incorrigible aesthete.  I’ve been told by several professors that I approach writing as an artist rather than a scholar (which is not necessarily a compliment, for some academics it’s an unfortunate condition that one must work around).  It’s true, so much of writing for me is seduction.  It is an attempt to arouse the senses with sheer loveliness; the ideas are sort of incidental.  Or rather, the prettiness turns you on to the ideas.  A spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down and all that.  Academic prose refuses to give you that spoonful of sugar.  As a matter of fact, it likes to coat the medicine with the glandular secretions of skunks to make sure you really want to take it.  If you don’t make yourself choke down something repellent along with the medicine, how can it know you are worthy to swallow it?

It’s the exclusion that chafes me.  I am a plebian like that.