Posts Tagged ‘academia’
I remember talking to a friend who had submitted hir phd a few months ahead of me and after all of the congratulations and buying of drinks, I asked how they felt.
“Eh, just the same as before,” my friend replied.
“WTF dawg?” I definitely did not say. “Don’t you feel relieved????”
“Not really. The whole thing is kind of anticlimactic,” said my friend.
I seriously could not understand this. But now that I’ve finally submitted my own thesis, my own catatonic state seems to reflect my friend’s experience.
I don’t really feel relief. I don’t really feel excited or proud. I do feel vaguely guilty that I’m not working on it anymore. Crazy, right? I think this lack of relief comes from the fact that I know I’ll have to defend the damn thing in several weeks time and then I may or may not have to make a few months worth of ridiculous changes. So this feels like more of a temporary reprieve than anything else.
I also feel guilty because the ‘finished’ version still had 87 holes that I know are there. A few things I couldn’t find for my bibliography, a few bits were I probably cited something wrong or didn’t elaborate when I should have. A friend who had been through this many years ago told me that everyone’s thesis has shit like this in it, and that nobody but me will be aware of ‘a few bricks missing from the cathedral.’ What a great mental image that is, no? I hope my friend is right. You get to a point where you can’t fucking work on the damn thing anymore, and it has to be over.
Hopefully the examiners agree.
It’s funny, because the disparity between the ‘oh the phd is a research exercise’ attitude schools officially espouse and the not on the university website attitude of ‘everything you’ve ever written sucks, gtfo of my office’ reality of advisement fuck with your head until you internalize your own shitty mediocrity.
Maybe that’s the real point of the phd?
Anyways hope all of you out there in blogland have a happy new year.
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.
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.
“Yeah, I’m finishing my PhD this summer,” I said, smiling brightly to signify that this is a fact, something that will actually happen due to gravity or inertia or some other scientific, inevitable thing that has nothing to do with me.
This is the conversation I have been having lately when people are bored enough to ask me that dreaded question, “how’s your schoolwork
going?” (“schoolwork” reminds me of Monty Burns as a schoolboy, with a satchel and plate-sized lollipop.) No more whining about how shitty it’s going, how scared I am, how I wish I became a painter or engineer or electrician. Lately I’ve been trying to project something a little more positive.
I’m learning a lot about myself and about the whole fucking process. Just when I think that my eyes have been opened and I’m finally aware of what a sham all this stuff is and what I need to do to get the hell out of here, I have another realization. So even though I am not claiming to be the Grand High Poobah of all Knowledge (although this would look great on a door plaque), here are some recent revelations that I hope get me through the summer:
1. There is no such thing as a perfect PhD. Only a finished PhD.
Now this sounds obvious, and I admit that I’d heard it many times before it actually sunk into my grotesquely thick cranium. But there was some cognitive dissonance going on, because in phd world, I certainly don’t think of myself as a perfectionist. I’m not the one living in the library, sustaining myself on chewed eraser bits and copy machine fumes as I live the life of the mind. I’m not the one who goes to every department party, arriving early to set up strategically placed bowls of budget supermarket snacks, or the one following around the dept chair like a deranged groupie, hoping for the shadow of genius to brush against me in a maybe creepy borderline sexual way. And since I am already disillusioned and just trying to do my work and get out, I didn’t think this advice applied to me. Because I didn’t think I was aiming for perfection.
But my realization stems from the fact that on some level, I have still been living under the jackboot of academic perfectionism. Exhibit A- I’m sitting on a chapter I should have sent to my adviser a few weeks ago, but I asked for an extension because it wasn’t ‘ready.’ Wake the hell up, University of Lies! In the Ivory Tower, “ready” is synonymous for perfect. If you keep waiting for readiness or perfection or Godot, you will be waiting for ever. Just send the damn thing. This brings me to point two.
2. You CANNOT avoid criticism.
No matter how thorough you are or how brilliant and original your research is, your adviser and examiners will find problems. Most of these problems will not actually be problems at all, but fall under the category of Things You Left Out (TM). You probably left them out because your thesis is a finite project, and you cannot mention everything that ever happened or will happen in the world. This is just a sad fact. But it makes your adviser/examiner’s job very easy, because all they have to do is point to any number of these infinite things and ask why you idiotically thought it would be ok to leave out a chapter on Madonna’s 1989 music video (where she burns crucifixes and makes out with black jesus) in your thesis about medieval representations of the virgin mary. And despite the fact that you politely answer, “my thesis focuses on medieval representations of the virgin mary,” they will sigh and push their glasses up on the bridge of their nose and insist that your thesis would benefit from a more “balanced approach” and then they make you write another fucking ludicrous chapter anyway.
So, to recap, this criticism cannot be avoided because, in most cases, it probably has way more to do with them not reading your work and needing to critique something in order to claim to be doing their job. You are not a mind reader. And even if you were, they would just lie about having chosen the jack of hearts, and still make you write something completely ridiculous.
3. You are NOT an idiot. You are probably very smart to have gotten this far, but are being held back in some way if you believe their hazing ritual is a binding judgement on your intelligence.
This is a big one. And its closely related to items 1 and 2. You cannot be perfect, they will criticize you no matter what (because it’s their job), and often these things are delivered in a big ol package of ‘fuck you’. Perhaps they make comments like, “I’m really worried about where this is going.. I just have no idea what to say,” making you think this is YOUR fault and not a result of them being too lazy to read your stuff. Or conversely, maybe they rip your shit to shreds and you haven’t heard a positive comment in years besides the one time you got a check mark next to a paragraph. But a check mark doesn’t count as praise, right? I should be smart enough to know the answer to this.
I have experienced this kind of repetitive assault on my humanity before. I was 16 and a trainee lifeguard at the local pool ( I realize it wasn’t exactly Gitmo, but it was three months of nonstop institutional hazing and it sucked). The older lifeguards had a number of methods they used to initiate/terrorize us rookies: they dumped buckets of slop water over our heads while we were stuck up on the stand, took our belongings and sunk them to the bottom of the pool, had a special notebook where they wrote humiliating comments about our looks, pushed us in the water after our shifts were over and we had changed to go home, etc.
The worst perpetrator of these small crimes against my angsty teenage soul was our supervisor, a middle aged woman who ironically was also a psychologist. As far as I knew, she only used her advanced degrees to play mindgames and fuck with people. An example: Once I was up on the stand around dinnertime, which was always pretty slow. She called over to me that there were too many lifeguards up, and I could come down and take a break since the pool was almost empty. I was confused because this went against the normal protocol of the place, but she insisted and waved me over. So I climbed down off my plastic perch and walked over to her. She took off her aviator glasses, got real close to my face, and stared at me like I was the biggest asshole she ever saw (or like a basic training scene from any army movie). She screamed “what the fuck do you think you are doing? You NEVER leave your stand. Are you a fucking moron?” At this point my face contorted in some awful adolescent picture of confusion, and and I said/asked, ‘but you just told me to get down?” and then after several excruciating seconds she bent over in hysterical laughter at how stupid I was, and ha ha how hilarious that she could use her position, age, and authority to get a teenager to follow her orders or believe her or something. I distinctly remember how horrible it was to discover that a middle aged psychologist could act worse than the frat boys.
But what many academics do is just a slightly veiled, ivory tower version of the same treatment.
At 16, when I cried every fucking day after I left the pool, (I was a sensitive child, ok?) my parents told me to suck it up. They told me that the world has a lot of unpleasant people in it. And even though this woman was wrong and a dick (I may be paraphrasing slightly), I was not allowed to quit. I made a commitment and had to see it through.
So what point am I trying to make with this self indulgent and unnecessary trip in the wayback machine? This kind of hazing is wrong and completely fucked up, but these people see it as an initiation rite. The reasoning is usually something awful like, ‘I went through it so you do too. But don’t worry cause soon you’ll be on the other side of the slop bucket!’ You know what? I never went back to that pool after that summer, despite ‘earning’ the ‘right’ to terrorize some fresh new batch of kids who weren’t old enough to shave yet, because it was cruel. And now I feel the same way about academia. Their bad behavior is a reflection on THEM, not you. And you owe it to yourself (I have no idea who I am speaking to right now) to FINISH. Don’t take the mindgames from a sad middle-aged psychologist/professor to heart, when you are so close to the goal.
So, in closing:
1. Hand shit in.
2. They will tear it apart no matter what. Smile and say thanks.
3. Make their idiotic suggestions.
4. Get phd and never enter a formal program of education again.
Sorry for the radio silence, earthlings.
Things have been crazy at casa di university of lies lately. I still suffer from an all too common strain of thesis blues, phd neglect, and ennui. Symptoms include: apathy; unhealthy rage; desire to consume nothing but pizza and saccharine sick cups of builder’s tea; and netflixia.
So I let my side job take over my life. Because even a teeny micropeen of a paycheck is better than focusing on the other thing, which just costs me shit like money, sanity, and precious life units daily.
(also: don’t google micropeen.)
As the semester approaches its final death rattle, my classes are thinning out at an alarming rate. My bigger class, which started with 40 students, usually has around 18 seat warmers now. I don’t know if I should really care about this or not. There’s not even really a proper ‘selfish’ perspective here.. because this new low low number probably doesn’t mean less papers for me to grade. It means more random ‘did we do anything important today’ emails and students finding me in the hallway, feeding me a sob story about how their car broke down/they were abducted by aliens and can I please just wait in my office for another hour while they go to the computer lab and whip up something fresh for me to read?
But the show must go on and it does. As I’ve said before, alien abductees aside, I really like the majority of my students as people. They are funny and quite nice when you engage them on some other topic besides the one I’m supposed to teach. But I can’t help but get frustrated at their lack of work ethic when it comes to things that are hard or don’t interest them. I want to bash my head against the wall when they go on about their impending stardom, or ask them if they have a backup plan in case Simon or Xtina hit the ‘X’ (or don’t hit it. however those shows work).
(Though, according to the recent comments on that slate article about how the phd ruined some other persons life, this is probably a manifestation of the self-hate i feel, since apparently becoming a professor at a decent school with job security is just as ridiculous a career goal as wanting to be lady gaga.)
But the bright star in the firmament is that I have one student who gets it. This student is pretty affable, will say hi to me on campus etc. And while ze rarely hands in any work, ze always shows up to class and has an interesting contribution to make to the discussion. Which is often a discussion I am having with myself, or one other person. I don’t know why the hell ze bothers coming to class and paying attention when the hopes of someone passing the class without doing any fucking work are nil.
We are doing a Shakespearean play at the minute. It has made me parts maniacal and homicidal at the level of fucking apathy that gets bounced back in my face on a weekly basis, despite all my jazz hands and attempts to make what is already very fucking interesting even more fucking interesting. But yes, this one student gets it. And to hear hir laugh at the funny bits and make very 21st century comments in response to what is actually happening in the play is awesome. It’s like one of these internet memes where puppies and ducks and rabbits are best friends. I feel some kind of electric ZING that signifies the transportation of knowledge and all the centuries are squished into nil and isn’t literature and time travel brilliant, fellow adventurers?
Then I look around the rest of the room and see 17 slack jawed walking dead extras.
I’ve been ‘mentored’ by some very awesome people who tell me this is the best I can hope for. But as good as I feel in that moment, with my student who does no work but can appreciate timeless art, I don’t know how good I feel about ‘getting’ 1 in 40.
My well-meaning parent likes to forward me job vacancy announcements for various academic positions.
I used to fill them out.
I wasted countless hours last year going nuts with those things, each one requiring you to invent some stupid login name and info for their campuswide internet system, writing letters of intent for each one, being careful to incorporate their exact bullshit phrases like “multi-ethnic,” because I was informed by some ‘insider’ who scores the applications that writing “diverse” just ain’t the same thing.
(and obvi, that highly classified info was not enough to help me.)
And due to the sheer number of applications I filled out, I did allow myself to indulge in a few daydreams about what life might be like with one of these cushy government jobs. 3/4 teaching load, good health insurance, funding to go to conferences, and a starting salary that doubled the highest wage I’ve ever earned, for what appears to be a lot less work. Less stress. Union membership and some kind of job protection. More time to bike and kayak and do other outdoorsy shit that people in herpes commercials get to do.
Maybe it was some kind of optimism bias. Or maybe since I filled out so many of the damn applications, I felt a little like Charlie Bucket when he took the shilling he found in the gutter to buy one last Wonka Bar. Not realizing, of course, that Veruca Salt’s dad employed a whole fucking factory of people to shuck candy bars in the hopes of finding that magical piece of paper.
I do realize that my analogy is seriously flawed because of this:
But I digress.
The odds are not stacked in my (or most people’s) favor. So would it really be the best use of my time today to churn off another application and raise my hopes for a life of probs decent civil servitude, when I could be working on my thesis? So I can get the fuck out of academia and just eat chocolate and read books for fun, without having to rely on those things to supply my livelihood?
There’s also this to consider. While I think it’d be great to have one of these jobs, is it really what I want out of my brief time on this mortal coil? I imagine that I’d be better equipped to laugh apathetic students off and not take it so personally if I was making a fair wage. But maybe it wouldn’t be enough for me. What do I really want out of life? Damn you, academia, and your awful penchant for making me re-evaluate shit and think.
If I had to answer that question right now, what do I want to do with my life, well the real ugly worm under the rock that is my heart answer is, I want to be david sedaris. (not in a creepy skin wearing way. I will continue to respect and admire you from a very healthy physical distance, mr sedaris!)
So maybe I should work on that today instead.
So what exactly is “fair” in the realm of phd advisement?
Besides the obvious things, like answering your advisees emails, meeting with them every once in awhile, and not jumping into a dumpster, neverending story style if you should happen to pass your advisee on the street. (They probably can’t beat you up anyway.)
There’s such a wide range across the spectrum of phd advisers–you have individuals like my former adviser, who never read any of my material, period. And then you have the other extreme– really industrious, kind souls who return your work a week or two after you write it and invite you over for dinner with their family on a routine basis. I recognize that both of these examples are outliers, but it still leaves me feeling ill-equipped to determine if I am being ‘fucked with’ right now, or if I have allowed myself to become so broken by the system that whatever sense of judgement I had is warped beyond belief.
Interweb friends, please help a muggle out here: what is a reasonable amount of time for a supervisor to respond to one of your emails? days? weeks?
how many times do you need to contact your adviser before you get a response? my magical number is more than one and less than 6. and how long of a turnaround on a chapter is ‘ok’ in a ‘you are not being taken for a chump’ kind of way?
The next question is, is there anything in the fucking world I can do to speed this process up?