Category Archives: academia

sleep, my darling, sleep

I have arrived!  I am referring, of course, to the existence of my book’s Amazon page.  Pretty neat.  It is a little odd that a book that won’t exist for another nine months is already on sale.  Yet here it is–already discounted!  More internet excitement: there is now a little blurb about me up on my publisher’s website, complete with author photo.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my Master’s exam and managed to pass it–though by how much depends on which professor you ask.  The response ranged from “good job!” to “perfunctory and pro-forma.”  Yes, the latter is a direct quote.  I kind of like it, actually; it’s so rhythmic and alliterative.  Perhaps I should write a poem titled “Perfunctory and Pro-forma.”  Anyway, as the undergrads say, D is for Diploma.  So, I am a Master–but not a Doctor–of Literature.  I think that means I get to order Literature around and tell it to make me a sandwich, but I can’t write it a prescription for antibiotics if it starts to cough up blood.

Two days after taking the exam, I received the copyedits for 13 rue Thérèse, and have been eyeball-deep in them ever since.  I was asked by a friend what the difference is between edits and copyedits, so I figure I should explain it here.  Edits have to do with aesthetic or characterization concerns.  An edit will say something like, “that peanut butter metaphor in Chapter 12 needs more work,” or “can you set a scene in flashback to explain why the protagonist is so traumatized by cucumbers?”  Compared to copyedits, they are big-picture stuff.  Copyedits operate on a level of excruciating detail.  They say stuff like, “are you sure you want to use that adjective?  You just used it five pages ago,” or “insert comma here.”  And there are like eight million of them on every page; the manuscript is absolutely covered in little green hieroglyphs questioning the smallest of your decisions.  They are the most existential-crisis-inducing thing ever.

Copyedits make you say things like, “YOU CAN PRY THAT M-DASH OUT OF MY COLD, DEAD HAND.”

(It’s all right, my precious m-dash, no one will harm you–sleep, my darling, sleep).

PhD Student

This is a writing exercise modeled on Jamaica Kincaid’s piece “Girl.”  It was so much fun to write that I cannot resist posting it…

Cite the right sources on Monday with the appropriate degree of subdued awe; fret over your work on Tuesday to make sure it isn’t too derivative.  This is how to string together garlands of words around your tiny quivering ideas to hide how flimsy they are.  Always state yourself with confidence even when you don’t have any; it is not necessary to be frightened: the rest of them are too worried over artfully arranging their own smoke screens to try to catch a glimpse through yours.  Remember that clarity is impolite; it disturbs the order of things.  This is what hegemony means; this is what transformative means; this is what deconstruction does; this is how to capitalize the word Other without giggling like a crazy person; this is how to use the word Other as a verb.  This is how to dress yourself like someone who moves in high realms of the mind that do not concern themselves with fashion.  This is how to sit at a conference talk, with your chin gently resting on your cupped hand like so; don’t look bored; cultivate an expression of mild concern, like one who perceives a crack in a line of reasoning.  Don’t worry too much about following lines of reasoning; as a matter of fact avoid it because you must never, ever burst into bewildered laughter when you see meaning evaporate from language when it gets boiled in our stew—oh yes this is how to make the stew: start with a base of hermeneutics, add two scoops of epistemology and a dash of dialectic; don’t forget to objectivize the paradigm shift and hybridize the transformative ontology of liminality.  Do not laugh; do not laugh like the unpolished rube you insist on being.  Do not believe that anything actually means anything.  This is how to avoid committee work; this is how to sign up for the committees that will look impressive on your CV.   This is how to grimly forecast the death of your discipline; this is how to passionately argue for the needfulness of your discipline in producing well-rounded, educated young citizens; remember to bemoan the piss-poor work of your degenerate students; remember you were never like them; remember you always cared deeply about your work unlike the dissipated corporate drone you are afraid of becoming.  This is how to deliver a paper in a perfect monotone to make sure everyone knows you aren’t trying to pander to an audience with cheap affectations like inflection or liveliness.  This is how to snicker at a joke that pivots on the judicious application of the word differance; this is how to utter the word jouissance to a colleague you are dying to sleep with; this is how to maintain deniability.  When you explain the difference between sign and signifier to a dewey-eyed undergraduate who is only listening to the words coming out of your mouth because he likes the curve of your lip, you must not explode into hysterical laughter.  Why do you insist on laughing as if this were all hilarious?  This is all very serious.  But what if I cannot believe that this is all very serious? You mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of academic that the department won’t let near tenure?

a palimpsest

Here is, courtesy of Thomas de Quincey, the awesomest analogy ever.  I’ve been reading his collected works all afternoon and had to post this essay (which states, human brain = palimpsest) because it was so good I felt I needed a cigarette after.  Note that this piece was written a full 11 years before Freud entered our roiling world through his agonized mother’s tattered loins.  Also note that I have been immersed in Quincey’s prose for hours, thus you must forgive me if mine is currently ever so slightly empurpled.

Anyway, this kind of awesomeness was why I tried to be an academic in the first place, and a Romanticist specifically.  The reason why I could not stay an academic is that, when confronted with a text such as this, my natural response is not to apply or relate it to other texts, or to place it in a historical context, or to take little pieces of it to inscribe in my own essay.  My natural response is to write a story in which the mental landscape of the protagonist is rendered in a series of overlaid images.  No, wait–my natural response is to squeal in delighted recognition because I am already writing a story in which the mental landscape of the protagonist is rendered in a series of overlaid images (there often turns out to be unexpected resonance between what I am writing and what I happen to come across in my reading adventures).

(And yes, of course, written last week: “Oh how happy they are!  The man has finally made the girl a woman.  Reach out to the image to warm your hand with its soft glow.  But when your finger skims it there is a sound like dry leaves and the music stops.  You notice it is ever so slightly frayed in the corner, you see?  Pull a little and it comes up, it is overlaid on top of something else, another image.  Pull some more, it makes a sound like tape being torn up, and expose what is beneath, still dewy and crinkled and unsure of the light like a butterfly unfurling from its chrysalis.  Blurry at first, snow.  Covering the ground as far as the eye can see, it sometimes stirs itself in rising whorls when the wind breathes on it, and there, in the distance, galloping in from the horizon—a Cossack.”)

Anyway, random advice to aspiring writers out there: yes, support the careers of current authors.  Buy their hardcover editions at independent book stores and go to their readings (especially, ahem, the ones whose first books are coming out next February, wink wink nudge nudge).  But don’t forget to read dead dudes.   Don’t forget that when you’re writing a framed narrative that acknowledges its own “storyness,” you are not being clever in a never-before-seen, post-modern way.  Don’t forget that what you’re doing has been done centuries ago, then erased, then done again.  Don’t forget that you too will be erased.  Yearn for it.  Dream that one day you will be a mere particle breathed in by a text that does not yet exist.

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?