Tag Archives: academia

“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.