Tag Archives: academia

2010

First, a Sincere Declaration of Thanks

I’ve spent most of my life running in circles looking for something authentic, then waiting for permission to explore it, and harshly criticizing myself when I didn’t get that permission.  Maybe other people have different experiences, but this has been mine, my personal through-line from childhood to the present.  So I try to be as sincere as possible when I write about my frustrations and failures.  Because what else can I do?  While it’s true that sincerity doesn’t make you friends, at least it makes you the right sort of enemies.  I imagine this blog post will do more of that.

Still, I try to avoid self-pity and, because of this, I usually take a long time to form opinions about what I’ve done or failed to do and how others have reacted.  I ruminate.  I turn things over, trying to see past faulty assumptions, convenient rationalizations, and other self-serving anodynes.  Most people probably do this to some extent, but I think I do it more.  Sometimes, it works.  Other times, what I took for a true perception, for reality, eventually dissolves into just another subjective field, just another corridor of the maze that I have come to think of as my life.  In a maze, you never know what the next twist will bring.  Usually, it brings another twist.

With this in mind, I should begin by saying that in 2010 I came very close to ending my life.  This essay is about that time, but it’s not just about depression and not really about suicide.  It’s not a success narrative where I write about how I overcame great difficulties and am now nearing perfectibility.  It’s not about taking revenge on others through a misguided petty hit piece.  And it’s certainly not about castigating myself for the many imaginary errors I’ve regretted and then dismissed over the last eight years in order to keep getting up in the morning.  It’s a slice of life—a big, fat, ugly slice that tries to embrace the broadest range of experience in order to get closer to the truth.  In this, it’s a lot like an advanced non-fiction exercise.

“Advanced” because it is not easy and not something you would assign to a 17-year-old English major in an introductory writing workshop.  “Non-fiction” because it’s a mode of creative expression that pretends a certain degree of inviolable objectivity, even though we know that’s impossible.  Every memoir, no matter how fabulous, must begin implicitly or explicitly with an assertion of truth or at least with a sincere declaration of authorial good faith: “I did this.  I saw this.  This happened.  At least, I think it happened.”  Rousseau’s Confessions does it with style:

Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I.  With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy a void occasioned by defect of memory: I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood.

This is my favorite passage from the first part of the book because literary historians have proven that the Confessions contains many misstatements if not deliberate falsehoods.  Such graceful bald-faced prevarication is a rare and beautiful thing.  But I am not so talented.  And I have no plans to weigh my heart against a feather on the last day. 

Instead, I will put it this way: I suspect I am not a horrible person.  I have faith that I’m not even tactless.  I believe my greatest defect is that I lack the imagination necessary to see several moves ahead.  I lack interpersonal foresight, which has made me a poor manager of nervous egomaniacs and a terrible chess player.  But I love chess.  And that is a serious problem, even if I hate the high-strung pampered egomania of academic writing programs, because everything toward the end of my PhD program was just a version of that game.

Robert Greene, in the acknowledgements of The 48 Laws of Power—a book loved equally by goateed 25-year-olds with a Libertarian Bitcoin fetish and the morose IT professionals you see combing the self-help section for books on how to become an alpha male—has a similar protestation of sincerity:

I must also thank my dear friend Michiel Schwarz who was responsible for involving me in the art school Fabrika in Italy and introducing me there to Joost Elffers, my partner and producer of The 48 Laws of Power.  It was in the scheming world of Fabrika that Joost and I saw the timelessness of Machiavelli and from our discussions in Venice, Italy, this book was born. . . . Finally, to those people in my life who have so skillfully used the game of power to manipulate, torture, and cause me pain over the years, I bear you no grudges and I thank you for supplying me with inspiration for The 48 Laws of Power.

If we read this carefully, we have to smile.  Greene is doing what we might call an “inverted Rousseau,” making the same assertion in a backwards way: this is a book about real things; therefore, I thank all those who have manipulated and tortured me for providing good material and, in the process, I declare my sincerity. 

Greene puts us on notice that his book is based on subjective material that emanates from his and Elffers’ lived experience, creating a Rousseau-esque escape hatch.  As The 48 Laws of Power is all highly subjective (essentially a kind of implicit portrait of Greene stitched together in historical anecdotes), the value of whatever he writes defaults to his apparent sincerity (“I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood”).  It’s not about an objective truth process.  It’s about rhetorical ethos.

That is wonderful because ethos might be the only sincere rhetorical mode.  After logos topples from an unstable foundation of assumption, appeal to authority, and generalization; after pathos is unmasked as merely a screen of emotion recollected in tranquility; the persuasive credibility of the speaker is all that remains.  In a world where absolute truth does not exist, everything is ethos.  And so I construct my own ethical escape hatch. 

2010 was the worst year of my life, the year after my mother died of lung cancer; the year after my first book was published; the year I got my PhD in English; the year I attended my last AWP Conference; the year I traveled to the deep South for an excruciating week-long job interview and realized the English department clichés also obtain south of the Mason-Dixon Line; the year I got very ill; the year I was admonished by my mentor for questioning the value of my degree and told to be grateful for indefinite unemployment; the year my father began another surly adolescence; the year I began to think that there was no place for me in this world.  There are many years I’d relive if I could.  2010 is not one of them.  But I have been told to be thankful for these experiences because they have supplied me with a lot of inspiration.  As such, this writing is my sincere declaration of thanks.

Prelude

You never know what the next twist in the maze will bring but, in 2009, I think I was doing as well as could be expected when I stood in front of the department graduate adviser’s desk and said I needed a leave of absence to visit my mother in hospice.  For some reason, that moment stands out as a prelude for the upcoming year.

The adviser, the department’s resident medievalist, seemed to exist in an acid vapor of contempt for all creative writing students and their keepers.  She disliked me in particular because I’d dropped her Old English seminar the previous semester and she’d taken it personally.  Since I was doing a PhD with a creative dissertation (the final product would become Gravity, my first story collection), I didn’t need to be in her class.  But she needed me there.  Or, at least, she needed to feel loved by as many students as possible.

This was the woman who would thereafter try to prevent me from graduating so that my funding would run out.  This was the woman—whether due to old workplace feuds or out of resentment that there were more creative writing events on campus than dramatizations of Piers Plowman and undergraduate maypole dances—perpetually tried to block funding to the creative writing program and force out the graduate students depending on tuition waivers.  Her style of chess was to kill the pawns first.  Attack the supply lines, starve the more dangerous units in their fortifications, and wait for winter.  Classic medieval siege tactics.

However, standing before her desk, I was barely aware of the billowing acid cloud.  I was half-blind with grief.  All I thought about was my mom and how I had to get back to California to see her.  Looking back, I’m surprised I even had the wherewithal to stand up straight, much less ask for a leave of absence.  But I was very responsible.  I took everything seriously.  I thought a lot about my future in academia, especially in creative writing instruction.  And I felt my future depended on me contentiously following up on every detail.  I was, essentially, as sincere as I have ever been in my life.  I shouldn’t have been that sincere.

Given my emotional state, what the adviser said to me didn’t register until I’d left the building.  The conversation went something like this:

“I need a leave of absence to go to California because my mother is dying of cancer.”

She rolled her eyes, looked out the window as if she were considering it, sighed, then shook her head.  “No can do.  You only have so much funding.  Your funding will not cover you for another semester.”

“My mother is dying.  She doesn’t have long.  I’ve completed my course work.  My dissertation only needs to be approved.  I don’t even need any more credits.”

Another sigh.  More contemplating the clouds.  “Well, that’s really too bad.  You have to be in residence or your funding will run out while you’re gone.  Good luck.”

I stood there, trying unsuccessfully to process this. Then she rolled her eyes and asked me if there was anything else.

The grief robot turned and left her office, got on the elevator, rode it down to the bottom floor, walked out to the fountain in the center of the courtyard, and stared at the water for a long time.  Only then, did he think of the graduate adviser rolling her eyes.  Over the ensuing 9 years, the moment of her eye roll would be impressed in his memory as a perfect metaphor, a perfect image foreshadowing all the inspiration and gratitude to come.

The Tragedy of Not Dying

A hospice is a horrible place.  It’s like being given a lollipop for a bullet wound.  You’re bleeding out and everyone tells you to enjoy your lolly.  It’s cherry.  It’s got a smiley face.  Why aren’t you happy? Visiting my mother with my father there added another layer to the experience.  In spite of the pain and horror of the place, in spite of watching my mother waste away in her bed, hallucinating and suffering and being afraid, I came to understand that my father’s grief was different from mine.  I was feeling bad for my mother.  He was feeling bad for himself.

This was still 2009.  My only course, aside from empty dissertation credits, was a German reading and literature seminar.  The professor, a kind old man about to retire in his late 60s, loved his students the way he loved his trees—which is to say, far more than he loved the university.  I asked him for advice because he was the only person I could ask.  And he made it possible for me to exist in two places at once.  I gave my own writing students two weeks of work and held online course meetings via Skype and I emailed my German professor my work, which made it seem like I was present.  This is what allowed me to fly to California and see my mom for the last time.

In those first awful trips to the hospice, I’d naïvely hoped that my father and I could come together in our grief and support each other.  Of course, this was pure fantasy since he’d always enjoyed being a father but had rarely done any fatherly things.  I could count the number of times we’d gone to movies, the one thing we could do together because it involved no conversation.  And there were a few other misadventures over the years where my mother badgered him into going to some school play (he stood by the door to be the first person out) or taking me fishing (we did a U-turn at the access road to the lake and went home) or camping (it rained and so we packed up in the middle of the night and left).  He never beat me and he brought home a paycheck.  To the best of my knowledge, he never stepped out on my mother.  But he was never involved more than that; though, he lived with us in the same house—somewhat more than a housemate, somewhat less than a relative.

So my hope that he would be able, somehow, if in a manly way, to share this painful experience with me, was not based on reality.  After a certain amount of talk about how sad he was, it became noticeable that he never talked about my mom.  He sat by her bed, lost in his own self-pity, as the cancer ate its way through her brain and wasted her body.  As she died by inches, he proceeded as usual, focusing on his own needs above all else.

I witnessed this.  My wife witnessed this.  But I was so aggrieved I could barely speak.  Sometimes, my wife had to help me walk from the car to my mother’s room.  Have you ever been so upset that you can barely walk?  Until you have, you won’t know the feeling.  When you have, you’ll never forget it.  It transcends description.

I focused completely on my mom.  I waited for her moments of clarity.  I told her I loved her.  I told her the good things about my PhD program.  I made jokes and she tried to laugh.  One day, my great aunt—a stately old Italian woman who sounded like my late grandmother and seemed covered in the old-world charm that vanished with her generation—showed up with a peach and a kitchen knife.  She cut slices and fed them to my mom with a smile on her face.  Even now, as I write this, I cry a little because it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.  That kind of goodness doesn’t exist much in this world.

It was a very difficult time.  Two weeks later, I returned to finish my program.  In one of her last moments of clarity, my mom had ordered me to go back.  She didn’t want me to see her die and me being in the PhD program meant a lot to her.  I think she felt ashamed that she wasn’t going to be around to take care of my father and me the way she always had.  And knowing that I was going to get a doctorate was a relief, as if it would be the next best thing.  She also had a lot of pride in her appearance and the cancer had been unkind.  So when I offered to stay, she insisted that I not.  About two weeks after that, my father called and said to say good-bye to her.  I told her I loved her.  And I think she died shortly thereafter.

I miss her every day.  But this isn’t about that, either.  It’s about the aftermath, how everything changed as a result of her death.  Some people are the linchpins of their families.  When they go, everything goes.  That was what happened.  I flew back again for her funeral.  She was buried holding a photo of my father and me.  It was a closed casket and I don’t remember much else, just bits and pieces.  I was out of my mind. 

As we moved toward the Fall semester of 2010, I felt melted down and recast as a different person.  I’d lost my happy thoughts.  I didn’t go out or talk to many people other than my wife and my program mentor.  I stopped writing fiction.  Most of what I did was perfunctory.  But I knew I had to get my degree.  Even if I collapsed afterward, I would complete the PhD.

The Reading Series

The year before, I’d allowed myself to be persuaded that working as the assistant coordinator for the university literary reading series would “look good on my resume.”  And I did my best as the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, flier maker, venue securer, introducer-to-the-introducer, complaint taker, fielder-of-calls from mentally unstable bookstore proprietors, irradiated scapegoat, and general handler of said low-rung celebrity infants terribles

Sometime before I left town for good, one of the faculty members admitted to me that the assistant coordinator position was really only supposed to entail flier making and that the professor who was getting paid to be to be doing the other things had dumped the rest on me.  But by then I was so depressed that I couldn’t summon the necessary outrage.

One writer wanted a per diem that wasn’t in his agreement.  Another wanted intel on, in his exact words, “the most fuckable students who might be around.”  The butch lesbian poet would only communicate with me through an intermediary because I was straight and male.  The playwright was supernaturally high throughout his entire visit and had to be physically guided to the stage.  The “local writer,” penciled in because there was a vacancy in the schedule that month, struggled to contain her spiritual darkness through the entire event such that when I handed her the honorarium (significantly less than what the other, slightly more famous writers had received), she snatched it out of my hand, hissed a “Go fuck yourself,” and then smiled broadly at an approaching faculty member.  These were some of the more endearing ones.

Needless to say, it was not the greatest collection of individuals.  They generally came across as worn out, mediocre, vain, full of fear, full of resentment, and perpetually on the hustle for any crumb of recognition.  Calling them fools wouldn’t be accurate because they were all reasonably intelligent.  They simply knew the score too well, knew they should have received more for their dedication and efforts.  You could see that loathsome awareness stamped on their faces.  Now they were privileged to read their work to the smirking tenured faculty who hadn’t hired them, a menagerie of twitchy English students, and whichever townies may have wandered in looking for free wine.  It wouldn’t get much better than that.

I disliked the visiting readers even though I saw myself and my fellow grad students reflected in them.  Most of the people featured in the series that year hadn’t been picked for life’s cheer squad.  They were the leftovers, the understudies, the adjuncts with slim books from presses you’ve never heard of.  Many, it seemed, faced depression so considerable that they were pharmaceutically enhanced 100% of the time.  I wondered more than once how they could continue to produce writing.  The greatest irony was that most of them had already gone further in their careers than anyone currently in my PhD program stood to go.

There were a few exceptions, a few graceful and brilliant souls who’d agreed to come as personal favors to various faculty members.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them as well as the moments of hilarity you find in every English department.  2010 wasn’t all doom and gloom, just most of it.

The second time I was told to go fuck myself was around 3 AM on a Sunday morning toward the end of Fall semester.  My insomnia had become pretty dependable at that point and I was already awake when the phone rang.  I got out of bed, told my wife I had no idea who it was, and shuffled into our tiny living room, where I sat on the couch and listened to the breather on the line.  He was panting hard.  I thought it was quaint that in this day and age people still gave breather-masturbator calls.  The caller ID came up with nothing.

When he realized I’d said hello and was listening, he rumbled out a “Go fuck yourself” and hung up.  I sat in the dark for a while, thinking about the human condition.  Then he called back.  It was F, one of the few grad students who’d been asked to read in the series.  He mumbled some things and then shouted that he thought I had a problem and should get help.  He was drunk off his ass.

I asked him why he felt that way and he broke it down for me.  F had read with his wife, you see, and I’d made the mistake of introducing him before her.  Neither of them were ever going to get over it.  Plus, she was a Navajo princess and I’d introduced them as husband and wife.  You don’t do that to a Navajo princess.  Didn’t I fucking know that?  What was wrong with my head?

“Princess?  Really?  I thought you guys were from Pittsburgh.”

He hung up again and didn’t speak to me until I ran into him at the AWP Conference a few months later—where he was keyed up and sweaty, slapping me on the back, telling me how he’d been featured in a very cool spontaneous reading held on one of the convention center’s escalators that drew an enormous crowd.  Now he had a pocket of phone numbers to network.  Amazing.  He didn’t remember a thing about calling me in the dark and telling me what I could go do with myself. 

Or maybe he’d repressed that memory along with his courtship of the Navajo princess, that hard winter living as tribe’s writer, the majestic swish of his khakis as he hunted buffalo, armed only with an unpublished manuscript.  I haven’t seen him or heard a thing about him since the conference, but I suspect he’s either got tenure by now or he’s back in Pennsylvania selling pre-loved automobiles like it’s a poetry slam.

The End, My Friend

Depression is a very idiosyncratic and personalized illness.  But those who have it tend to have a few things in common, one of which is that depression can be cumulative in its gravity and magnitude.  Today, you’re not feeling good.  Tomorrow, you can’t get out of bed.  The day after that, you’re standing on a chair with a vacuum cleaner cord around your neck and you think you’re the only one in the history of the world who’s endured such a linear degeneration.  Feeling alone is a big part of it.

I felt alone until I discovered  Darkness Visible by William Styron and recognized a lot of what I’d been going through.  I don’t know how I found the book, whether it was in the fiction section of the library where I sometimes studied or whether I encountered it in a used bookstore or somewhere else.  While it wouldn’t be true to claim that the book “saved” me, I can say it helped enough to get me down off the chair, multiple chairs, actually.

Reading it was an emergency measure, but it was something I could depend on.  I didn’t talk about my feelings.  I’ve never been very good at that, not even with my loved ones.  But I could read someone else talking about his.  And since I loved Styron’s fiction, I felt like I could trust him.  If he said it, I could accept it enough to be able to think about it.  And that was usually all it took for me to keep going.

By Spring break, I was prepared to submit my dissertation.  I missed my mom horribly and my wife and I returned to California to take care of the empty house where all my mother’s things sat gathering dust.  My father wouldn’t go near the place.  When he wasn’t drunk, he was hard at work rediscovering his hormones in erratic, awkward, and desperate ways.  Our relationship, never substantial to begin with, began to splinter irreparably when, out of guilt, he started to regularly criticize my mom. 

He was a self-righteous Catholic for most of my life, who often amused himself by telling me to get my ass to church and that since I’d been baptized I could never not be a Catholic.  But after a year of drinking, trash talking, and a pissed-drunk rape attempt on my cousin in front of me, he was ready to start up a relationship with an equally neurotic married woman who’d run after him at an event.

He confessed this to me one afternoon because I guess he couldn’t confess it to his priest.  Then he added that it was like a DH Lawrence love story.  Then he said she was going to get a divorce from her despicable husband and they’d marry each other.  Lovely.  I didn’t want to hear about it.  I especially didn’t want to hear him ask me to be his best man.  I could hardly speak.  It shows how detached and self-involved he was that he thought it was something he could ask me. 

“What about all that Catholicism?” I remember asking.  I don’t remember if he answered.

Around that time, because he wouldn’t help me clean out my mother’s things, I’d been over at the house, crying, putting her clothes in Goodwill boxes, packing up old photo albums, doing all the things we could have done as a family.  Instead, my wife helped and we did the best we could in a few days.  Much was overlooked, things from my childhood, things in the garage that I really do wish I could have kept.  But we only had so much time.  Now I imagine my father and his new wife paid at some point to have it all carted to the dump.  But I have no way of knowing, since I haven’t been back in years.

I do recall taking to the gardener, who revealed that he’d had my mother making food for him right up to the point where she went into the hospital for the last time.  She couldn’t lie down straight in bed.  So she was sleeping sitting up in a chair in order to breathe, then walking around on crutches, cooking and cleaning.  According to the gardener, he screamed at her frequently.  She was fucking dying and this is how he treated her.  That’s abuse.  It’s horrible fucking abuse.  And my mother, who was just about a saint in every way, did her best.

My mother was a talented painter and sculptor, but he’d left her art in a shed that had a broken roof.  It rained a lot that year and most of her work was ruined.  I’d been standing in the backyard, looking at the shed, unable to get in because he neglected to give me the key to the deadbolt (probably because he didn’t want me to see what had happened) when he called with a task for me.  It was something small, something to do with getting a TV boxed up for him and cancelling the  TV service that my mom had in her hospice room.  I’d already taken care of it, but he spoke to me with contempt, as if I were very lazy.  He said, “After all I’ve done for you, couldn’t you take care of this one thing?”

I thought of my mother on crutches, making him breakfast.  I thought of her art destroyed through neglect.  I thought of my father drinking a case of my cousin’s high-end champagne and then trying to fuck her in front of me.  I thought of all the nasty things he said about my mother when she was gone, after he’d cried his eyes out for himself, after he blamed me for not being there when she died, after the sizeable amount of heirloom gold from old Italy that my mom wanted to come to me but that disappeared right around the time my father and his new cadaverous lady friend got a second condo in San Antonio.  I thought about all these things and saw that no matter what his paycheck had been worth, no matter how much I may have cost as a child, no matter what my mom and he may have given me as a teen or a confused 20-year-old, I owed him nothing. 

I felt something snap and a certain coldness overtook me.  My depression had come to be replaced with something more useful: calm, thoughtful anger.  We had it out.  He told my wife and I we had to be out of the house.  Within 48 hours, we were.  I’ve never looked back.

Gone for Good

I got my PhD without fanfare.  My wife and I went out to dinner and it was nice, just the two of us.  I knew I’d miss my mentor in the program and her brilliant husband.  I’d miss certain things about the university town and my own writing students, several of whom had become more like friends.  But I was glad to be done—done with the degree, done with my father, done with trying to hump the dream of being an academic creative writer.

In the eight years since the day we drove south, blasting M. Ward’s “Helicopter” with the windows rolled down, I’ve thought about 2010 quite a lot.  I still get depressed.  But I can cope.  I’ve learned that it is possible and, for me, even preferable to have a life outside academia.  And I’ve come to accept that family isn’t really who raises you when you don’t have a say in the matter.  It’s who you choose when you do.

I miss my mom every day and I write fiction every day.  As of this writing, I’m working on my third collection of stories with a novel draft mostly written.  I’ve published over 30 items in magazines, worked as a freelance writer and journalist, and lived in 9 countries.  I’m healthy.  I really don’t have anything to complain about right now.  And sometimes I even give myself permission to think I’m happy.  Somewhere, there’s a Navajo princess riding through the clouds over Pittsburgh, but I doubt our paths will cross again.

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Surviving Graduate School in the Humanities: Should You Go and What if You Do?

 

“Nothing in the world is permanent, and we’re foolish when we ask anything to last, but surely we’re still more foolish not to take delight in it while we have it.” – W. Somerset Maugham

Yesterday, I got an email from a former student asking for advice on whether he should apply to a PhD program in English. This is not the first time someone has asked me this, though I have mostly stopped answering because (1) people must learn for themselves and no one thinks his or her experience will be typical; (2) graduate programs generally present an unconscionably glossy face to prospective students; (3) in order to persevere in an academic career, it is necessary to develop a personal philosophy that allows you to put the work first; and (4) my own experience in academia has been highly atypical.

Still, I consider May 1 to be my 6th anniversary as a PhD in English. This remains, in spite of all my criticisms, one of the greatest (and surprisingly joyful) achievements of my life. So every year around this time, I take a day to reflect on the good as well as the bad—how far I’ve come and what I’ve had to overcome as a result of my long years in graduate school.

As part of that, I write this blog post from a place of deep sincerity, responding to the question: should I apply to PhD programs in English?

Graduate school, especially in the arts and humanities, is an existential riddle very few people solve to any degree of satisfaction. Its dimensions are so far-reaching and complex that many years can go by before those who have lived through it get any kind of clarity about what they experienced.

I might have understood a bit more, a little bit sooner, about my situation than most graduate students. As someone who spent a significant amount of time acquiring various academic degrees and certifications, I have always been studying something. I grew up in an academic household, have been incredibly lucky with finding good teaching positions, and have learned to handle “administrative prevarication” in ways that have allowed me to survive. Not everyone has this experience. In fact, my story is an exception to a very unpleasant rule.

Deep-seated career frustration, depression, and even suicide seem to be on the rise for graduate students. This would appear true even if we assumed that 50 years of back-page articles on dysfunctional academia and the perpetual ranting in the higher-ed blogosphere was inherently anecdotal. By 2016, however, we no longer have to wonder. Over the last seven or eight years, we have been getting a clearer sense of how broken graduate education is in the west. William Pannapacker (aka “Thomas H. Benton”) writes in “Just Don’t Go, Part 2” (2009) that graduate schools

play obfuscatory games with their placement records and rarely give students a realistic sense of what it is like being in graduate school — how it’s not all about the “life of the mind” as two years gradually turns into a decade of contracting horizons and growing desperation.

Of course, the lack of accurate information available to students about graduate school is not accidental; it’s an essential component of the academic labor system. Even assistant professors, who should know what’s going on, encourage their students to go to graduate school because it is professionally risky to do otherwise. One might be seen as “doing a grave disservice to the profession,” as one writer said to me in a tone of bureaucratic menace.

But of the many letters I received last month, the majority included some version of “Why did no one tell me?” and “What am I going to do now?”

More than a few confessed the depression they experienced in graduate school. Several mentioned thoughts of killing themselves, and — after a decade of reading letters by the thousands on similar themes — I was not surprised at all. It’s more than accumulated anecdotes. As Piper Fogg recently presented it in The Chronicle (February 20): “67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide, a 2004 survey found. By comparison, an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive disorders in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.”

These are actual numbers. And the reason Pannapacker remains one of my personal heroes is that his was one of the earliest and most honest voices to talk about the obfuscation that I and my fellow graduate students experienced firsthand. What once sounded like a conspiracy theory, fancifully attempting to explain why an English department could be staffed with 8 tenured faculty members and 38 adjuncts, now looks like reality.

There has (at least since the late 1960s) been a dearth of reliable data for most academic fields correlating graduate student health, subsequent career performance, and program funding. I suspect this is because acquiring such information was as difficult as asking someone to incriminate themselves in court. There is a reason the Fifth Amendment exists. The academic analogue might be labeled, “The Conspiracy of Silence in the Interests of Self-Preservation.”

It’s not hard to understand that, particularly in academic culture, speaking up at any point may ruin one’s already slim job prospects. Moreover, it is unwise to use language like exploitation, depression, long-term poverty, unnavigable bureaucracy, Machiavellian feuding, and misrepresentation when talking about what you experienced for close to a decade as you tried to get a PhD. People will tell you to keep your mouth shut and that’s largely good advice, at least from the standpoint of the strategic job search. Unfortunately, it’s not so great from the standpoint of mental health.

Maybe your experience was like mine: after two masters degrees, I completed a PhD in just over 3 years. And though I suffered some serious personal tragedies toward the end of my program, I was able to complete my work with a minimum of trouble. Compare that to Zoe Stavri who writes in her blog, Another angry woman, that her PhD program was “so indistinguishable from depression, that I am left wondering whether in fact depression is a feature rather than a bug.” Or Audry Watters, now a freelance writer and tech journalist, who received no support or leeway when her husband died in the middle of her PhD in comparative lit. On her website, hackeducation.com, Watters explains why she quit:

I quit because I’d lost the stomach for being part of the institution of higher education — one that wasn’t sustaining me intellectually, financially or spiritually; one that wanted me to teach classes for very low wages — as a grad student and then likely as an adjunct faculty member. I quit because I was exhausted and couldn’t handle the obstacle course that grad school and the academic job market still required my running through. I quit because I needed to heal from the trauma of watching Anthony die. I quit because far from that so-called Ivory Tower being a place of solace and contemplation, it had become a nightmare of bureaucracy and politics.  (“The Real Reason I Dropped Out of a PhD Program”)

Historically, what could usually be found (aside from the highly suspect Bowen and Sosa Report in 1989) came from confessions made online by the disappointed and the overlooked—those who no longer had anything to lose, felt they had gotten a raw deal from the academy, and were unwilling to be complicit any longer. Sadly, more of these non-entities exist now than ever before. The upside—if such a word could even be used in this context—is that people like William Pannapacker are telling the truth—at least a version of the truth that teaches survival.

The saddest, most tragic part is that only those who are tough survive. For example, I have survived because I love teaching so much, I’d do it for free and I’m ruthless about avoiding that eventuality. Others, whether through intensive networking or existing connections, survive through a kind of perpetual low-stakes patronage that can be like nepotism or hustling or just an exotic form of luck. But everyone agrees that academia shouldn’t be about these things. And, with the exception of Penelope Trunk, everyone agrees that a graduate humanities degree should not require the prospective student to have a trust fund as a prerequisite. As Alex Pang wrote back in 2004:

No one has born the weight of the decade’s terrible academic job market more than young Ph.D.s. Caught between a culture that insists they cannot leave academia, a system that doesn’t have enough room to allow them to stay, and a sense that Ph.D.s are not suited to nonacademic jobs and nonacademic jobs are unsuitable to Ph.D.s, they have too often found themselves deprived of opportunities and alternatives.

In a highly cited Chronicle of Higher Education column, “Deprogramming from the Academic Cult,” Margaret Newhouse mentions a number of unhealthy attitudes typical in this kind of academic culture, ranging from extreme perfectionism to overwhelming peer pressure to unrealistic career expectations. It’s useful to read her piece alongside a similar Chronicle post by Pannapacker in which the author summarizes Newhouse’s ideas relative to his own career:

Although I am currently a tenure-track professor of English, I realize that nothing but luck distinguishes me from thousands of other highly-qualified Ph.D.’s in the humanities who will never have full-time academic jobs and, as a result, are symbolically dead to the academy. Even after several years, many former graduate students grapple with feelings of shame and failure that, to outsiders, seem completely irrational.

For all its claims to the contrary, graduate education does not seem to enhance the mental freedom of many students, some of whom are psychologically damaged by the experience. As Newhouse suggested—perhaps more rhetorically than seriously—graduate school these days seems to have a lot in common with mind-control cults.

Science writer, Gwen Pearson, also thinks of academia as a cult and writes that the “Alternative Careers in Science” workshop she is regularly asked to give at her university is called “alternative” because “They don’t mean becoming a music composer or a patent examiner; they mean getting a job that isn’t a professor in academia. Because, to them, anything else IS alternative, and, ergo, inferior.”

For many grad students, it seems that there is eventually a “looking glass moment” in which they wonder if they truly are inferior life forms and realize that their sense of self has been inexorably altered as a result of living inside academia. Sometimes this is what you’d want: you have acquired a range of implicit and explicit methodologies for leading an intellectually curious life. But just as often, it can be shattering: you feel unfit to be or do anything other than function as a scholar in a university setting. Most people stop at that stage and grieve for the life they could have had if they hadn’t gone into graduate study, for the deep sacrifices they were compelled to make by a broken system, and for the profound opportunity cost involved.

There is an immense amount of unfairness and dishonesty integral to higher education, at least right now in the west. And it goes without saying that reform is needed. But I think Zoe Stavri is correct when she notes that even though it’s obvious reform is necessary “none of this will happen, because the problems in our universities are the same as the problems outside of our universities”—which is to say that the entire concept of an “ivory tower” as a refuge from economic and political realities is nothing but a myth:

The thing about PhDs is they are a scam. On paper, they are studying a topic that you love, and becoming an expert in it, and generally contributing to human knowledge. In practice, what actually happens is the university gets a research assistant for three years, to work on a project that they want studied that is in some way related to a thing that interests you (but is actually whatever they could get funding for). The university doesn’t have to pay a penny for this research assistant: in fact, they get paid to have you there! I imagine it would be a whole lot easier if everyone just admitted that this is what is happening, but nobody does. And instead, the whole structure gaslights and emotionally blackmails PhD students. It shifts all of the problems we encounter as employees into personal failings: clearly we’re not interested enough in this topic that we supposedly chose, and if we cared enough, we’d want to do the work.

If you want to attend graduate school do not dismiss voices like these. Remember, these people—the ones passionately describing what were perhaps life-shattering experiences—are just like you. They love(d) something and want(ed) to be part of it. They are smart, driven, accomplished. And they were cast out of a system as soon as they ceased being functional parts of its hierarchy. By rights, they should be teaching someone like you at some college somewhere. But this is not how things worked out.

Consider further that Pannapacker’s hypothetical of what could happen to any (academically successful) PhD after graduation is a point-by-point accurate description of what befell at least two people with whom I went to grad school:

Everyone has told her that “there are always places for good people in academe.” She begins to obsess about the possibility of some kind of fatal personal shortcoming. She goes through multiple mock interviews, and takes business classes, learning to present herself for nonacademic positions. But again and again, she is passed over in favor of undergraduates who are no different from people she has taught for years. Maybe, she wonders, there’s something about me that makes me unfit for any kind of job.

This goes on for years: sleepless nights, anxiety, escalating and increasingly paralyzing self-doubt, and a host of stress-induced ailments. She has even removed the Ph.D. from her résumé, with some pain, but she lives in dread that interviewers will ask what she has been doing for the last 12 years. (All her old friends are well established by now, some with families, some with what seem to be high-powered careers. She lives in a tiny apartment and struggles to pay off her student loans.) What’s left now but entry-level clerical work with her immediate supervisor just three years out of high school?

I write this not to scare you but to open your eyes. Graduate school is wonderful. It is also hard. It can also damage you greatly. You have to be strong, steady, emotionally resilient, and willing to look at your years of study as valuable in themselves. No matter what people say, a PhD in an arts or humanities subject is not likely to be a strategic career move. You do it because you love it and you are too stubborn not to do it. Regrets are inevitable. However, if you love the work more than you love leading any particular lifestyle, you will be able to put the work first. This means before kids, before money, before love, and before the comfortable middle-class life someone else might be enjoying with your same degree.

Am I saying you have to be a poor monk in order to do this? Not necessarily; though, I’m not ruling it out. What I am saying is that the work must come before all other things. If you can have those other things, wonderful. But they are “in addition” not “along with” or “because of.” If you think it’s impossible to work outside a university setting, read Alex Pang’s excellent blog post about this exact possibility. But, above all else, do not assume that you will be paid or even regarded as anything but cheap labor after all your work and sacrifice.

Make the work your refuge. Develop alternate forms of income if necessary after graduating. And always take extraordinary steps to ensure physical health and mental stability. Contrary to popular opinion, academia is not for the weak. And those who “can’t do” certainly can’t survive in its highly competitive and unforgiving environment.

 

* NoteIf you are just graduating from university with a BA in an arts or humanities field and are wondering about what to do next, this is solid advice: http://chronicle.com/article/What-to-Advise-Unemployed/44491


Looking Forward

burundiI started this website years ago, when I was living in East Africa and had no idea when I’d be leaving. The idea was to experiment with travel non-fiction essays I might eventually submit to magazines. But, over time, The Writing Expedition became more than that. I’ve begun to notice a theme emerging—the same theme that characterized most of the stories in my first collection, Gravity:

[T]he assumption that everything in life depends on being solvent, employed, and generally needed. These things constitute the gravity, or the seriousness, of one’s situation—that which holds a person’s life together and makes it mean something.

I guess I’m still thinking about what it means to survive in our often unforgiving, inhuman post-industrial economy. It seems that writing and thinking about this is emerging as an aspect of my life’s work—my overall artistic project. I think I should probably be reading more Studs Terkel, Orwell, Huxley, Ignacio Silone, Walter Benjamin, Viktor Frankl. I should be doing a lot of things.

indexSince my book came out in late 2009, I’ve published in more magazines. I’ve taught more students at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I’ve received praise for my work from those who get my project and the inevitable pushback from those who don’t. It’s all part of the writing life. Nevertheless, times change and we change with them. Recently, I’ve had occasion to look back the at the road behind me and also wonder about the future.

Abre Camino

After a number of reversals, sickness, and a new appreciation for my mortality, I left Burundi sooner than I thought I would. I wrote a story loosely based on my experiences there, sweated profusely in Belgium, led a charmed existence in Tallinn (a city fairly close to how I imagine paradise), and then had to leave the Schengen due to an unresolvable issue with my visa. I spent a few discombobulated days in Oxford before it was back to central California again for hard times, family betrayals, and a veritable buffet of disappointments and bad luck. 

As soon as I got back, I knew I had to leave again. So I did. Since I work primarily online, I was able to go places where I could also enjoy myself—San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Washington D.C. Then I left for England again, living in Oxford for a good while. I had a short interlude, staying with friends in a village outside Vienna. And then London. Soon, I will return to Oxford before heading out to Asia. It’s a good life if you can stay flexible and you don’t want to own a lot of things.

The Hounds of the Grass

Another theme has been that of trading financial stability for time and interesting experiences. In the beginning, this was not altogether intentional. I got my PhD at Western Michigan University and hit the job market, which, I discovered, hits back. I have three advanced degrees, 17 years teaching experience, an expert ESL certification, numerous magazine publications, a book with an academic press, and a winning personality.

Still, the tenure track job interviews right out of my program were not forthcoming. I had a few in which I was competing tooth-and-nail with a large number of equally qualified candidates for, say, one position. I talk about this experience often on this blog. I think it’s important that some people tell the truth about the process. In the end, Thomas Benton’s notorious “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” has proven out. What he describes hasn’t quite been my experience. I’ve been lucky that way. But I think Benton has been nearly prophetic for a number of my friends who I’ve seen lied to, exploited, blamed, and disregarded by a broken system packed with terrified neurotics. I say go get the degree you want to get. But do it with open eyes and be willing to do what you have to do to survive.

Kephera - Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

Kephera – Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

So this morning, I got up and looked at the calendar. In 24 days, I will turn 41. And, thinking about that over my coffee, I realized that I’ve had many, many interesting experiences over the years. I’ve done some amazing things—at first from necessity, then in order to court eustress and test myself. Now I really do think I’ve changed. I love teaching, without a doubt, it’s part of who I am. But I no longer have that sense of desperation that characterized those of us who made it through the PhD relatively sane. I’m no longer that brittle academic refugee. I’ve evolved.

No one knows what’s around the next corner. Though, after 4 decades of life, it seems preferable to hold Will to Meaning as my highest good instead of Will to Productivity or Consumption. In my ongoing search for a meaningful life, I’ve come to experiences over approval, freedom and time over money and obligations. Or, as the Uncle Aleister used to say, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”