The Big Lebowski of Academia
I received a very interesting comment on my blog today from Chris Llano. He wrote:
I’m kinda intrigued as to what made u go towards the PhD road after everything that happened to u… If I knew that doing a PhD was gonna be the end of my economy and self-esteem, I wouldn’t done it, but you seem different, like you knew and still decided for it -interesting!-and… Do you plan to finish it?
Thanks for the question, Chris! It’s a good one, and when I look at my situation in that way, it does seem like I must be some kind of weirdo masochist with a closet full of ball gags.
The short answer is, I didn’t know the extent of what the phd had in store for me, and it was NOT the end of my self-esteem. It certainly damaged it, but, not unlike one of those weighted boppy toys, I am resilient when punched repeatedly. Also, you’re damn sure I’m going to finish.
But I did have a lot of negative feelings about academia before I went back for the phd, you are correct. So I’m going to attempt to explain my thought process right here.
I wanted to be the Big Lebowski of academia.
I wanted to do my own thing, in my bathrobe, sipping on a delicious white russian. All the while thinking, whateever maan.
Still with me?
Also, I kind of forgot just how bad things could get in the Cult of Academia. You know how women are flooded with oxytocin hormones after childbirth so they forget the excruciating pain and want to have more babies? I’m going to say that I had some less intense, non perineum tearing academic version of that.
After I got the hell out of the MA and started teaching, Life seemed a lot better. I was getting a paycheck, for one thing. And instead of my mostly pretentious cohort, my new peers were really interesting, intelligent, cool people. I wrote a bit about the challenges of teaching there in a previous post (and it’s something I’ll write more about in the future), but there were some wonderful moments. I liked planning lessons that included material I thought my students would be interested in.. and in cases where boredom was almost certain, like where grammar was concerned, I took real pleasure in devising ‘gimmicks’ to make my students laugh and get them interested in what we had to do. Did it always work? Of course not. But I know I made a legitimate difference with a few kids, and that felt really good. I also liked teaching itself- the performance aspect of it, being made to think quickly, and the learned skill of guiding a discussion effectively. We had some good fucking times. So there was that. There were some specific issues I had with my college (food for another post), and the idea of teaching at a better school was really appealing. But I’d need a phd to have a chance.
see where I’m going with this?
The other main driving force behind my potato sack race back to academia was the work I did as an independent scholar. (I hope that doesn’t sound too pretentious, btw. ‘Shit I wrote and presented for no real reason other than personal interest’ is a bit too wordy though.)
It was actually fun to look at CFP lists and think, ‘which of these sounds interesting? ‘ And ‘which conference is in a warm climate?’
The papers I wrote and presented during this time were some of my favorite experiences in academia. I chose topics out of pure interest, without any kind of boring strategic thought as to how marketable it would make me look. And I wrote them how I wanted, without any thought to ‘sounding’ like an academic, and without the usual panic of ‘have I fucking cited everything in the world ever?’
And those conferences were fun.
Channeling the Dude, my papers went down well! I handled the questions fine and diffused the obnoxious ones ok without getting a bruised ego. I even got some compliments after all was said and done. I went to the lunches and felt no pressure to network with 8 zillion people and impress them with my sparkling wit or ability to not act like a drunk dickhead. And when I inevitably heard papers given by people in evening gowns at 9am and didn’t understand one fucking word, instead of panicking about how stupid I must be, I just poured myself an imaginary white russian and thought, ‘whatever man.’
And when I got bored of the whole thing, I left.
It was really freeing to be the Big Lebowski of academia.
My problem was, that in order to get that better teaching job I wanted, I’d need a phd. And the error of my thought process was that I could keep on being the BL of A while I did it.
This makes no sense, of course.
You can’t Dude your way through a phd program. It’s impossible to be laid back and zen when your adviser ignores you for X years and the school blames you for the dysfunctional relationship.
I knew the culture of academia was fucked but even I had no idea of the specific obstacles I was going to face. Who would sign up for that?
But from my limited experiences, 1. taking everything really seriously at MA level, 2.Duding it up on my own, and 3. Surviving phd life, I have learned a few things.
I really like teaching, research, and (sometimes) writing. And none of these things individually prevented me from being laid back, happy, and doing shit on my own terms. In fact, despite my mostly negative blogs (sorry folks), my phd is going pretty well now. I am going to finish. It’s the cult of academia that I don’t like: the abuses of advisers and lack of University accountability, use of students as slave teaching robots, cycle of accepting thousands of new students each year as the job market dries up and universities cut tenure track jobs.
The Cult(ure) is fucked and I hate that and it make me feel very unDude like.
drops mike, walks off stage.