Yesterday I rediscovered an old mix
tape cd from my undergraduate days. These songs were the background noise for a really exciting time in my life. I was getting ready to graduate, giving my passport a good workout every few months, and crizazy in love. I felt so fucking happy and hopeful about the future.
Hearing those songs again after such a long time really jolted me. I had forgotten what it felt like to be 21 and uncrushed by the world. That electric feeling, like you’re going to go out and grab the universe by the balls and do all of this cool shit, just gradually faded away until I forgot it ever existed. Then you wake up and it’s 10 years later and you feel trapped by the mundane nature of your daily routine and all the shitty things you don’t really want to do but you’ve convinced yourself that you have to. It’s easy to forget that you have a choice.
And this is fucking tragic. I know that I whine and complain a lot on this blog, and I’m grateful to have it as an outlet, but just because academia is stupid and my adviser is stupid and my job is stupid, so what?
SO FUCKING WHAT?
I have a place to sleep at night, food to eat, and someone to love. I am fucking rich yo! And as long as I’m alive, anything can happen! I can do the things I was excited to do before I willingly let academia fit me for cement shoes. I can change my job. I can change who I associate with and try to think more positively. Once I submit my thesis and finish teaching this semester, I can walk away from those things and try to find meaningful work that doesn’t give me restless leg syndrome. Or maybe I won’t find meaningful work. Then I can find something that I don’t mind and seek fulfillment elsewhere.
I AM ALIVE! And if you’re reading this, you probably are too! This just gets better and better!
I’ll leave you with two of the songs that, 10 years later, still make me feel very fucking lucky that we are here and capable of making such beautiful things.
It has been a rough few weeks.
Midterms have come and gone; despite a still absentee-landlord adviser, my phd will be submitted SOON; and my students are shocking me daily as to the astoundingly tragic levels of collegiate apathy it is possible to attain.
Based on my recent experiences, here are the 3 most fucking annoying kinds of students I’ve had the displeasure of dealing with. In reverse order, cause that’s how those shitty late night tv dudes do it and I am basically copying them minus fame, a studio audience, and lucrative endorsement deals.
3- The Student Who Ignores Everything You Say.
Probably 2/3rds of my students fall under the mildewed 1970s paisley print umbrella of this category.
For example: after I’ve spent 10 minutes explaining the assignment, and indeed, it’s written on the fucking board next to me, they call out, “What’s the question?”
2- The Genuinely Fucking Clueless
I handed back a multiple choice test and told the students that if I had made any errors in tallying their scores to see me after class. So this kid came up to me and said, ‘you marked all of these answers wrong and they’re right.’ So I looked at the test and was really fucking confused. The student’s name and incorrect answers were in black ink. Where ze had a wrong answer (yeah it was most of them), I had made an X next to the question and circled the correct answer in red ink. After a few minutes of ridiculous ‘who’s on first’ banter, it emerged that the student thought that ZE HAD CIRCLED THE RIGHT ANSWERS IN RED PEN. I was like, ‘then who circled all the wrong answers in black? Those are my markings– see, your score at the top is in red ink too.’ And ze was like, ‘oh.’ and walked out. The hilarious thing is that I really don’t believe the kid was trying to fucking con me. Ze legit thought ze had all the right answers, even though ze clearly did not study and couldn’t explain why any of those answers would have been right in the first place.
1- The Fucking Leader of the Pack
The other two types of annoying students are, well, annoying, but otherwise harmless. Pesky mosquitoes of the non malaria spreading variety. I’ve only been unfortunate enough to deal with The Fucking Leader of the Pack (TM) 3-4 times over my long and illustrious teaching career, but they are exhausting and infuriating, and they make it really hard to leave disturbing school shit at the door. Identifying characteristics include: attempts to monopolize class conversations, tries to ‘school’ other students in why they are wrong, and basically is a douche and tries to undermine the instructor’s authority. I’ve had a student in one of my classes who I long suspected was a FLotP and, recently, shit got a bit cray.
This gem of a student disagreed with me, and while I am normally cool with that, ze was really rude and belligerent about it. So I said something to the effect of, I see where you’re coming from, but I stand by my answer in this case. So ze starts telling me that I’m wrong, and launches into a monologue about why they are right. I tried to cut hir off but the little fucker kept talking over me, using the kind of tone you might reserve for a toddler who is insisting he be given ice cream right this minute despite the fact that it is 9am.
It was mortifying. I got flustered. I hate that. I really really fucking hate that. I could feel my face getting red and I’m sure they could smell the reek of terrified woodland creature that my fucking pheromones were suddenly emitting. I am all for dissenting opinions, you know? I am not Saddam fucking Hussein. But this person had the floor, they explained themselves, and that wasn’t enough- they had to be disrespectful and talk to me like I was an asshole in my own classroom.
I didn’t yell or throw fucking chairs. But after a certain point, I cut hir off and said that they had already expressed their opinion and now they had to let someone else speak. It was awkward as fuck and even now I am clearly still bothered by it.
That’s probably the worst bit. I know that most people face interactions like this in a variety of other jobs, but in teaching it feels extra weird because if you let someone tear away that flimsy facade of authority you have over an overcrowded room of 18-20 year olds, there will be anarchy. Whereas if you’re behind the counter at the DMV and someone is a cock, you can, I dunno, call security or move them to the back of the line? You can step away from the counter and get a supervisor?
I don’t know. It just feels terrible when you spend all this time prepping material (ugh and lets not even consider the 87 years of grad school hell you endure to get to this point) just to have an 18 year old metaphorically piss all over you. Nice rant, bro. I guess you don’t want to hear all about my phd and why I am a little fucking more qualified than you on this particular topic.
Someone remind me, why do I need a phd for this job again?
I’m trying to write my conclusion right now. I’m looking over my notes from my last meeting with my adviser, which occurred sometime during the paleolithic era.
It’s funny, but going into that meeting, i felt so confident about my thoughts. I kind of finally felt like I knew what I was talking about and was happy with my ideas. But I wasn’t that surprised when adviser went, ‘yeah but……..’ and then did a 5 minute rant that appeared to say the opposite of everything I just said, but using way fancier language (which is probably obvious from my own use of phrases like ‘way fancier’). So I wrote down everything ze said and yes sir’ed it up.
But something felt different this time. Instead of feeling disparaged and slightly humiliated, sweaty and sick with the knowledge that I
could never produce this kind of genius on my own, I felt like I just saw Toto part the emerald curtain. And now I truly know that my adviser isn’t the Great and Powerful Oz, a big floating face full of flames and a voice that should bring me to my knees in a sadistic combination of fear and reverence. Ze is a person who is phoning. It. In. And using the aforementioned props to keep me submissive and off hir back. This time, I knew my ideas were good. It was just clear that my adviser had to contradict what I said because I came up with it.
The really interesting part (to me, anyways) was that I could finally employ that internal critic to deconstruct everything my adviser said. Instead of simply cursing how stupid I am and wishing I came up with this stuff on my own, I heard my Adviser’s own fucking voice in my mind pointing out all of the obvious flaws that ze would have said if these were my ideas. And lo, the Great and Powerful Oz was just a short fat guy with a handlebar mustache in an ill-fitting suit.
Also, as I sit here now, having cooled off a bit from the meeting, I’m realizing that most of the “yeah but” rant is not that different from what I originally said. So why frame the conversation in a way that makes me appear like I am still just a dumb apprentice who can only be trusted to make tea, and even then I’m probably Doing it Wrong?
This brings me to the point I’d like to discuss today: the paradox of scholarship. We are constantly told that academia is a apprenticeship scheme, like the middle ages or renaissance fairs, where you’re attached to a cobbler or blacksmith or roaster of ye olde turkey drumsticks, and you shadow, study, and observe your chosen craft until one day you too learn the secret handshake and can set out as a master yeoman or whatever. And while the Master Executioners say they want you to develop your skills until you are comfortable to operate a guillotine on your lonesome, in some cases, this is just disingenuous lip service. They don’t want you to make it. They don’t want you to be out on the road fixing shoes and training horses. These meaningless platitudes escape one side of their face, and on the other side, they tear down everything you say in a disparaging manner. And, ok at the beginning of your studies, i kind of get it. Like I’ve said previously, I think there’s a more civil way to engage in this kind of criticism than outright hazing, but I do understand that learning how to think differently is part of the process. But when submission is just around the corner and you are trying to get this shit over with? What’s the purpose of it then?
I’m not saying that my adviser feels threatened by me– in fact, I’m sure ze doesn’t. To misquote Lena Dunham, I know I’m not the voice of my generation. But ze certainly doesn’t give enough of a flying fuck to ‘train’ me properly in the art of preparing Offal Stew for 300 people. I’m a nuisance, an unwanted interruption from hir important fucking schedule of reading and writing books on other more important shit. And since we already know that phd programs are Ponzi schemes designed to allow departments to run 20,303 sections of undergraduate classes, I guess that’s my answer. I never was part of an apprenticeship scheme. There are no jobs and my adviser has no interest in my future or what the fuck happens to me after the school stops profiting from my existence. So why take the responsibility of turning me into a ‘scholar’ seriously?
When your adviser is phoning it in and they can’t be bothered to actually read your shit and make helpful suggestions so that you’re ready for submission, it’s easier to use their crizazy vocabulary, confidence, and position of power to tear you down and dismiss you. Send you scurrying away to your garret to Write and Think and burn your previous diplomas to keep warm. And maybe by the time you come back, either your thesis will be so improved that they really won’t have to comment on it anyways, or else maybe they’ll have more time/feel like reading it then (but not.)
Crooked advisers say they want you to function on your own, and they really do because then you wouldn’t be bothering them anymore, but if you need some actual concrete help to get to that point (like I do because I am not Galileo or Steve Jobs or Russel Brand), they continue to tear you down in a non constructive manner until you quit, die, or just submit the damn thing without telling them.
I have been meaning to write something down here for ages, but then I sit down and watch 23 episodes of New Girl instead. It’s a really specific type of ennui that I suffer from.
This is what has been going on in my life lately:
1. My thesis is still not done. The ridiculous part is that it IS done. Paradoxical, no? A few minor tweaks is all that’s needed, but for some reason NOW is the time I feel most paralyzed by fear and self-loathing. I was supposed to send something to my adviser a while ago and I have never missed a deadline before, but now I am afraid to open my school email account in case ze has randomly decided to be all quick on the uptake and berate me for being late. I am so so afraid to do 2 more hours of work and hit send. Because this is supposed to be the end and I fear/know that ze will write back with 800 more stupid corrections that I cannot possibly do, or else I will do them because I’m a chump, rinse lather repeat, and it will never be cleared for eventual submission.
2. Teaching has started back up again, and my students are pushing my fucking limits daily. The good part of this is that if I am ever invited to a cocktail party, I will have loads of hilarious and witty anecdotes with which to dazzle city council members and local parliamentary representatives. But in the meantime it just makes me feel depressed. Per esempio, today I received an emailed assignment (which isn’t permitted btw). The email had no subject line or actual text when I opened it, nothing like “Hey Prof UofL, I know emailed submissions aren’t normally accepted but my grandma’s chia pet died suddenly this morning and since she is currently on a tour of paleolithic era gravesites in Burma, I have to make all of the arrangements myself. I hope you understand and I apologize profusely for the inconvenience.” No, it was just a blank email with an attached document titled “Fuck.”
I’ll share some of the more ludicrous stories here whenever I run out of New Girl episodes to watch.
I find myself in a precarious position, dear reader.
I’m not sure if I will be teaching once school starts in a few days.
At the end of last semester, when Monty Burns had the new contracts sent out, mine contained an ‘offer’ (read: hideous insult to my humanity) which amounted to LESS money than before I went back for my phd. I informed the proper departments about this oversight, and my repeated inquiries were ignored all summer long.
So now school is starting soon, I still have not been issued a new contract, and any secretary I speak on the phone whispers to me in a hushed voice that Mr Burns is insane, many people are upset about their contracts, and everyone (including them) is overworked and underpaid. I told one secretary that I could go out and become a waiter or bartender and make more money for less hassle, and she laughed the hollow ironic sound of a jaded homicide detective who has seen too many girls from the wrong side of the tracks bludgeoned to death, but knows he can do nothing about it and is just waiting for his 20 years to be up and collect a state pension. Yeah.
I know everyone there is being exploited. Does that mean I can’t ask to be fairly compensated? I know I won’t get it. But then what do I do? I also know that if I tell them to take their piece of shit meaningless contract and shove it, there are 100 people lined up outside who will gratefully take my place on the chain gang. Thanks a lot academia. Way to ruin the whole fucking supply and demand thing. So my refusal won’t change anything in the system, it will only mean someone else will be an indentured servant besides me. And that I’ll have to make good on my empty threat to work at a fucking Applebees and wear 17 pieces of flair or risk being written up by my new supervisor, a 20 year old college student with an unconvincing patchy goatee and greasy hair.
It’s obviously too late for me to get another teaching job for this year. And I still want to get my non academic business idea going, but I need money while I try to make that happen. I guess these are my options right now:
1. Tell them to go fuck themselves. Get horrible minimum wage job while finishing phd. Sing ‘pimps don’t cry’ to myself every night, as I curl up in my dog’s bed and weep for my stupidity.
2. Take the shitty job, knowing that it’s confirmation of the fact that my phd is worthless and I DON’T EVEN HAVE IT YET. Teach my classes with enough integrity to allow me to sleep at night but do absolute minimum ie: don’t give them the 10000 assignments the school says I should, but kick it old school college style, with the minimum amount of graded work and if the students fuck it up, it’s their fucking problem. Ya know, because it’s college.
(sorry for the terrible quality, but Will Ferrel makes me feel better.)
I’m just really conflicted, because even though I’m broke and stressed, I do have some shred of self-worth left, and it’s telling me to not take the job. And despite how insulting the ‘offer’ is, I’m sure there are loads of academinazis over at the chronicle who would say I’m so lucky to have a job offer and that the ‘life of the mind’ is one of sacrifice, and I should GTFO because I’m taking the spot from someone who really deserves it. This is ridiculous for a million reasons, especially since the shitty College Which Shall Not Be Named gives not one donkey scrote about academia, or publishing journal articles, research, conferences, students not plagiarizing, etc. The only thing it has in common with any legit institution of higher education is that it has ‘college’ in the name. It’s one step up from a diploma mill.
The real tragedy here is that this place could have been really special. Most of the faculty are wonderful and well-regarded in their respective fields (of course, because there are no fucking jobs anywhere else). If the college was willing to have some standards regarding admissions and academic integrity, it could have been a wonderful intimate place for students to learn and grow and get started in life. But that would involve turning away some tuition money, and it would also involve throwing some extra $$ to the people who actually make the place run. A few thousand here and there would be life changing for me and a lot of other people who work there, and it the affect it would have on morale would be so worth it. But Burns and Co can’t see past the bottom line and that’s the problem.
After a few months where I’ve felt like cashing out my chuck e cheese tokens and taking a shitty neon bracelet instead of a phd, things are finally getting better. And there is one specific reason:
Specifically, friends in academia who have finished their own degrees and, seeing my own adviser-less situation, have generously offered to read my stuff and help me out. I resisted for MONTHS, because if reading my old entries have taught me anything, it’s that I’m stubborn and don’t always have the best decision making skills. If I was a cartoon animal, I’d be the coyote who repeatedly runs into the side of the mountain, even though bashing my face the first time should have been a clue that the tunnel was painted on.
I was afraid to send stuff to these well-meaning friends because they are smarter than me and better writers. Sounds perfect, right? Who else would you want to critique your academic bullshit? And even though these people are truly good friends and have never been judgmental in any other respect, I was convinced that they would think I was a complete moron and wonder how the hell I got into grad school in the first place.
But yeah. My sense of despair eventually overcame my vanity. And I only wish I’d gotten over myself sooner, because the feedback I’ve gotten (even though they have no particular expertise in my specific odd corner of academia) has been more thoughtful and considered than anything I’ve seen from my adviser in years.
Now my thesis is in better shape than ever. And all my adviser had to do was sit at the base of some tropical volcano and sip an alcoholic beverage out of a coconut.
So if you are toiling alone in the salt mines and you’re lucky enough to have met some genuine people in grad school, let them help you. You can pay it forward once you’re out in the beautiful fresh clean air.
I’ve started a half dozen entries over the last few weeks but don’t have the enthusiasm to finish writing anything.
My days currently look like this: wake up, eat string cheese, stare at thesis for 9 hrs, eat more string cheese.
The ‘staring at thesis’ bit involves changing a few words here and there, cleaning the kitchen sink, cursing my lack of foresight as a youth, and deleting loads of shit I thought was brilliant but in reality is horrible. I’ve also had a few of those weird trances where you start writing and it feels like looking at one of those magic eye posters from the 90s because you are slightly cross eyed and focusing at something just past the computer screen. Then, after you snap out of the daze, your word count has miraculously increased by 999999 and it’s time to stream an ABBA playlist on youtube because THIS IS PROBS THE BEST THING YOU EVER WROTE!!!!!!! but not.
My ass hurts from sitting all day. I feel like the dead professor from “A Grammarian’s Funeral” but without the genius. Just the atrophied muscle and lack of life.
Anyways, if anyone out there in phd land is suffering through this with me, I am throwing some virtual gang signs in solidarity.
Check this out on your next cheese stick break: