Christ, is it hard once you turn forty to begin anything new. It’s hard in your thirties, too — it’s a thing that sneaks up on you. You’re like Bugs, thinking you’re taking a nice hot bath, when all of a sudden there’s carrots, onions, and celery in there with you.
But I digress, which is a feat, since I haven’t even started. We fogeys are wont to do that.
I spent about the last fifteen years in graduate school and in the thrall of academia. Because of the adjunct crisis, I am now beginning to extricate myself from that thrall, and to reconfigure my relationship with work, literature, education, capitalism, feminism, family, writing, passion, and my self.
My poor self. It thought it was the career path. There’s a larger cultural message I internalized.
I had a realization tonight, while I was nursing my daughter back down to sleep: I internalize a lot of things. The realization started when I was viewing XOJane‘s 116 “bikini bodies” — defined as any body that puts one on — and realizing, from the sheer onslaught, and from a comment about focusing on parts of the body, that we are each one whole, and dressing that whole, for whatever reason — to flatter it, to feel the air, to run comfortably, to impress — is what it’s about. It’s not about fat. Or skinny. Or deflated baby bellies. It’s about people, who all look rather distinct, which is what we like about them, when we’re honest, though we so rarely are.
Even with ourselves. If I were honest with myself when I was very young, around ten or twelve, I would have shrugged off what my neighbor said. She’d asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. Or perhaps she’d ask what I wanted to do. Six of one, half dozen of the other, in America anyway. I told her I liked math, and I wanted to do something with that. She assumed I meant be an accountant, and told me I was too pretty to hide behind numbers.
I believed her. I have a credulous streak, but let’s be honest: kids absorb this stuff. We say it because we want them to believe it. What I believed, though it boggled my mind exactly how one hid behind numbers, was that one could be too pretty to do so. Message: you are female, you are your looks, what you do does not matter, what you do is only a reflection on how you look. I didn’t understand, at the time, that I believed that. I just thought: Right, so math is not the right thing to do.
Had I really wanted to do math, I’m sure in my teen years, I would have told that idea and that neighbor to fuck off, since I was telling pretty much the world to do that anyway. For all that she could be dramatic, my teen self knew a thing or too that I have since forgotten, or perhaps only mentally mislaid.
When I went into graduate school, I thought it was a career move. It was; it’s just that it was a bad one. At the time, I was also casting about for an internal compass. I was having a crisis of values. As the result of a rather difficult split from my family, I discovered that I had NO IDEA what was important to me or how I thought the world worked. All I knew was that I didn’t want to do it the way they did it, and I didn’t want to do it the opposite way in reaction, either: I wanted a genuine, solid foundation.
This is a crisis of faith. It’s taken me the better part of twenty years, almost half my life, to put that together. It’s a wonder I graduated high school with that intellect.
Since I didn’t realize it was a crisis of faith, I didn’t start casting about for a religious practice until several years in, and I didn’t really commit to that until it became the linchpin in my psychotherapy. It’s sort of the opposite of the Bugs thing: I was dipping my toes in very slowly to get used to the idea.
But this is not a blog about religion. Or maybe it is. I don’t know. If this blog is outside academia, then what is it inside? What is at its core? That’s where I want to start — not with the answer, but with the question.
As I was saying.
Crisis of faith. Starting graduate school. Two great tastes that taste great together! You got your peanut butter in my chocolate! Iced cold milk and an Oreo cookie!
Boy, do they not go well together. Because academia encourages you to identify yourself with it. Sure, some people warn you not to. They are the exception that proves the rule. The whole force of the thing is to remake you. It culminates in a ritual challenge, and if you make it through, they give you a new name. They tell you you’ve got to have the fire in the belly to do it. Then they tell you you should work as an adjunct for the love of the work, and not for money.
HA HA HA HA HA!
said Sallie Mae, and my landlord, and the rising cost of groceries, and my car that keeps breaking down. And, and, and. And the power of love is strong, but damned if it can’t actually get you to work on time. By the time you’re through graduate school, if you are not independently wealthy, you are broke, and so identified with academia that you can’t really imagine what else to do for work.
And that’s just to look at the thing from a personal perspective. What does it say about our culture that we train people to learn and research and teach, and then tell them we don’t want them to do that? Because that’s what we’re doing when we won’t pay them something they can live on. What is says about our culture is that we are stupid, and we love stupidity. We don’t want our teachers to teach; we don’t want our researchers to find things out, and we don’t want our students to learn. Second perhaps only to the opposable thumb, the human brain is what enables us to adapt and thrive. Apparently we don’t give a shit about doing that any longer. Because capitalism.
Ironically, what might be my saving grace here is making the degree actually about myself. By that I mean, understanding graduate school not as a career move, but as something that I did, something that I learned from, something that changed me and I internalized — and something I moved on from. In one way or another, I’m back to the project of establishing a base for my self, and I’m moving on. I have two criteria, I think: that I need to find a livelihood, and that I would like to actually “use” my PhD in a way that makes an actual contribution to human society. Because I didn’t do this for nothing.
My immediate goal is the livelihood thing.
I want to use this blog, for now, as a place to meditate further on what it means to be trained as a PhD, with skills and knowledge useful for the betterment of humankind, and then be locked out of making that your livelihood. Once I have employment, what resources will I have left over to make a contribution? How far outside of academia do I want to go? Will I actually throw my hat in the ring one more time, or will I give it up entirely as a bad boyfriend?
This blog is my way of writing not about things ending, but things starting. May it be so.