The Dude is Not Impressed
I’ve been doing a cull of my bookshelf recently and came a cross a purchase
from my early phd days: Graduate Study for the 21st Century by Gregory Colón Semenza. It’s a pretty helpful book in that Semenza tries to explain things about grad school and the job search that one would otherwise have to learn through a lot of trial and error, or from some kindly Dumbledore type. And there’s a pretty good appendix with sample resumes, syllabi and stuff.
But there was one passage of the book that jumped out at me. Scared the shit out of me, really.
The following appears under the subheading “Family Demands on Your Time:”
Educate them. At the very least, your parents should know what you do on a regular basis, how long it will take you to complete long-term goals, and where you hope your work will take you in the future. If the people who love you understand even vaguely the nature of your profession and can empathize at all with the pressure you’re under, you have a chance of keeping things civil when you decline their various invitations or head out to the library for a few hours during a weekend visit (54).
Okay. Deeeep breath. I feel like this kind of attitude is quite pretentious and reinforces the whole ivory tower idea that work done outside the gated walls somehow doesn’t involve long term goals or hard work. Presumably, your family (aka the plebs) will have some notion of what you’re talking about. But this bit is the kicker:
The next time your mom asks you all bleary-eyed whether you’re coming home for the weekend, you might consider saying, “yes,” but then split the weekend in half: “I’m coming home Friday night but, unfortunately, I will have to leave Saturday afternoon so I can work on Sunday”…[or you can] create a workspace in your hometown…try setting aside a few hours each day you’re home for leaving the house and getting some work done. Tell dad you need to read for three or four hours but that you’ll be back in time for lunch (54).
So, you love these people and are making a compromise by going to visit them at their insistent begging for your company. Cool beans. And this plan to see your loved ones involves arriving on a Friday night, leaving on a Saturday afternoon, and possibly spending Saturday morning doing work at Starbucks? Way to throw Mommy dearest a bone! Maybe the potential for incivility, as alluded to in the first quotation, comes from the premise that your friends/family don’t get why this work has become your entire life. And that probably isn’t a result of them not understanding the lofty world of academia, but just not getting why ANYTHING should take over all other areas of your life.
(disclaimer: if you really would rather be holed up in a bunker writing about commas in the original manuscript of Charlotte’s Web or whatever, I guess this doesn’t apply to you.)
I have a distinct memory of reading this passage in the park, lounging on a blanket in the company of some good friends and dogs and food. I felt a sense of horror akin to what Bruce Jenner might feel if a ban on plastic surgery went into effect. Was this the lifestyle that I signed up for? Is a mere weekend too fucking precious to take away from my studies on an obscure subject that nobody else besides me gives half a liquidy shit about? If I don’t have one of those novelty clocks where, instead of numbers, each part of the circle says THESIS TIME, does that mean I am a fraud or a failure or not deserving of a tenure track position?
These are the kinds of questions and insecurities raised by such a narrative. And this is one of the 45678 million things wrong with academia. The lack of tenure track jobs just fans the fire. “oh, you didn’t get the position that 800 other people applied for? You probably took a weekend off in 2006. Slacker.”
Life is short. We will all die. And at the end, will you regret you didn’t publish one more journal article in Socioeconomic Patterns of Victorian Shoplifters Digest?