ambivalent imbroglio home

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August 10, 2002

Beautiful Balloon

It began as… well, actually, I wish I knew how it began, but that would be too simple, too clean. There is no beginning to these things: they start as little, often imperceptible pinpricks in your hot-air balloon of happiness, satisfaction, and contentment. A tiny hole here, a teeny tear there—most of them are so small you hardly notice when they occur. Once in a while you'll feel the pinch as the needle goes in—perhaps because it's unusually large, or because it delivers an exceptionally stinging venom—but even when the sting lasts for days, your balloon is big and strong and high enough that it barely sinks, and eventually you regain your altitude almost as if nothing had ever happened.

I believe that this is how life ought to be. No matter who you are or what you're doing, minor setbacks and challenges are inevitable; in fact, sometimes it's those little pricks of challenge and adversity that keeps us going. Challenge can make life interesting and worth living. Sometimes.

But there are times, for some people, when life doesn't seem to work out that way. Nine months ago (or thereabouts), I was sailing my hot-air balloon of happiness through the often stormy skies of academia. I was a graduate student (technically, I still am), a grad student in English "literature," to be exact. (The fact that I feel compelled to put "literature" in quotes might tell you something; exploring what that something might be might be the tangent of another day.) I was in my third year of a seven-year program (yes, that's right seven years—and it's not uncommon to extend it to eight or nine), and I was making good progress. I enjoyed reading large amounts of interesting fiction and history and criticism and critical theory, and I enjoyed attending class and discussing all that reading with my peers and professors . I even (mostly) enjoyed writing 20-30 page seminar papers, although trying to do more than two of those in a semester was enough to almost kill me. And I was also learning to make peace with teaching, which is much harder than it looks—especially if you have no real training in it, and when you're teaching two different classes per semester (which means two preps every day).* For the most part, making peace with teaching meant accepting that I would never be satisfied with my work because I would never have enough time to adequately prepare for each class and to adequately comment upon all the writing that my students did, etc. It takes a very special person to carry a full time load as a graduate student while simultaneously performing well as a teacher.

In other words, teaching was one of the pinpricks in my balloon. In fact, it was probably a whole constellation of pinpricks, which over time developed into something of a gaping hole.

But teaching wasn't alone in puncturing my flight to academic success. There was also the profession itself, which is, I dare say, the most dysfunctional profession you could possibly imagine. The short story is that the profession is producing way too many people with Ph.Ds, while the market demand for those people is rapidly shrinking.** This makes it very hard to justify the accumulation of further student loan debt in order to pay for earning a degree that will eventually be worth approximately nothing. The bad job market for English grads also makes it harder to tolerate the interpersonal politics of English departments like mine, which is poorly managed and riven with internal divisions. (The poor management and factious politics also mean that it's next to impossible for the department to meaningfully address its problems (like budget cuts, loss of prominent faculty, etc). This, in turn, means that life in the department has steadily worsened in the three years I've been here, and there's no turnaround in sight.)

Did I say there was a constellation of holes in my balloon of happiness in academia? Perhaps it was more like an entire galaxy. And obviously, it doesn't matter who you are, no one's balloon of happiness can stay aloft once its fabric has been riddled by a galaxy of holes.

Now, before my extended metaphor collapses of its own weight, the situation now is this: My balloon has lost serious altitude, and it doesn't look like it's going to rise again any time soon—at least not in the stormy skies of academia.

Which leaves me in a bit of an imbroglio, as you can see:

im·bro·glio: 1. a complicated misunderstanding or disagreement. 2. an intricate and perplexing state of affairs.

And at first I thought the imbroglio was ambiguous, but when I started seriously considering my options, and then I began flipping through each one, back and forth and back again, I realized that the imbroglio I'm in is more one of ambivalence than ambiguity:

am·biv·a·lent: adj 1: characterized by a mixture of opposite feelings or attitudes; "she felt ambivalent about his proposal"; "an ambivalent position on rent control" 2: uncertain or unable to decide about what course to follow; "was ambivalent about having children"

So what to do now? Where to go from here? I'm something of an academic fugitive, on the run toward... what? Over the course of the next few days (and weeks?), I'll be trying to figure that out, although the process has already reached something of an advanced state. Right now, the options include law, library school, becoming a journalist/freelance writer, or heading off into the wild and wooly world of work with some non-profit like Vote Smart or Public Citizen. And the point here is that if you have any thoughts on any of this (academia, English as a profession, law, law school, libraries, becoming a librarian, library school, working for non-profits, these non-profits in particular, job searching and career changing more generally, etc.).... If you have any thoughts as this process continues, please do share by clicking the comment button below.

If you've been out of college for a while, or if you attended a private school with an adequate budget, you may not realize that the majority of undergraduate courses at major public universities in the U.S. are taught by graduate students and part-time or "adjunct" faculty. Many of the adjuncts have M.A.s or Ph.D.s in their fields, but it's not uncommon (in fact, it's standard practice at my university) for a graduate student in his/her first year to teach entry-level courses in literature and composition, and possibly languages as well. Many of these new graduate students head to grad school straight out of college at the tender age of 21 or 22—I've known college teachers who are younger than the majority of their students. Age should not be an issue, but experience is. These teachers are forced to choose texts and design syllabi with no more than 3-5 days of "orientation" before they're thrown in front of their own classroom of bright-eyed (at best) undergraduates. It may be a good way to keep tuition low, but it's a poor way to educate people. The experience can also make the first year or more of graduate school a living and perpetual hell.

** The slightly longer story here is that the profession of English (or Englit) has, for all intents and purposes, lost its social mandate. That mandate was weak and highly contested to begin with, but for the past 100-150 years it has been enough to establish English departments as a cornerstone of any liberal university. The foundation of that mandate has traditionally been that teaching literature (defined as the "great books" or the "classics") to young people was a way to transfer and preserve "the best" of Western civilization, and to give each new generation the foundation on which they could build Western culture. This was all well and good in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries when a relatively small and elite critical establishment determined, almost as if by fiat, exactly what the "great" books were, or what was included in the English canon. But in the last 50 years, that critical establishment (which was almost exclusively white and male) has crumbled in the face of challenges from previously silenced voices (basically anyone neither white and male, but also anyone who is not wealthy) who have demanded that the canon be expanded to include writing by and about people who are neither white, nor male, nor wealthy. The paradox here is that while the expansion of the canon has threatened to completely undermine the profession of English, it is also the best thing to ever happen to that profession. Most people within Englit recognize this, but they've had trouble convincing the rest of the world and unfortunately the rest of the world (specifically, American taxpayers) doesn't like to fund things it doesn't understand. So Englit is a financially poor profession, which makes it an increasingly cutthroat profession. And that means it's become one of the biggest abusers of adjunct and temporary labor in all of higher education. Which means that in order to work in Englit, you more or less have to accept that you'll either be exploited (as an adjunct), or you will exploit (as a faculty member). It's not a pretty choice. I've basically reached a point where every time I see a faculty member I want to ask him/her how he/she sleeps at night knowing his/her paycheck comes on the backs of the overworked, underpaid, and disrespected adjuncts who are increasingly numerous in the halls of our department. Needless to say, this kind of disrespect for your colleagues/superiors is not conducive to a positive work environment or future in a field of work.

Posted August 10, 2002 08:15 PM | law school

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