This was my overarching impression of my first year as a Ph.D. student: too much reading, too much coursework, too much busy work, for any real reflection outside of class sessions. Forget integration with preexisting or current research, or time spent with the subject of research. There was too much insistence on fast turnaround and constant production, the same old reliance on the inescapable “publish-or-perish” adage, with the added pressure to present at conferences, seek out internships and future funding opportunities, collaborate, research, endure.
This is what I found so startling, this emphasis on endurance over enjoyment, on gritting your teeth through coursework to reach the relief of quals and the dissertation process, what should ostensibly be the most depressing, isolating portion of the Ph.D. experience. But the most repeated (and dare I say soundest) piece of advice I received all semester was the vague encouragement that “it does get better.” I’m still not convinced.
I’m willing to qualify my opinions before I continue. I’ve been out of school for a few years. My master’s degree was in Creative Writing, so my last experience of school was drastically different from The Rest of the Academy. I was writing, presenting, and publishing in my time away from school. I entered the Ph.D. program to develop and refine my passion for the disparate strands of my research: cyberculture, comics and animation, video games, literature, rhetoric & composition, coding, activism, and human rights. Granted, I’ve also spent this year as a TA for a very large class. Life also interfered, in the form of health problems, financial problems, family problems. I feel closeted as a rhetorician and digital humanist what with all the bureaucratic bullshit between those areas of study and the Communication discipline. My own attitude towards education may also be at fault here, as I may have overlooked that my love for learning is linked to my interest in esoterica, so that my trajectory of information acquisition resembles this xkcd comic:
But I’ve spent most of this year drained, exhausted, and—as I thought—sick of learning, which is hardly a promising start to a career as a Ph.D. student. I kept reflecting on my experience in my M.F.A. program which, needless to say, came with its own particular brand of departmental bullshit and pretension. While The Academy tends to operate on the “same shit, different place and day” principle, I still expected something different from a Ph.D. program, despite coming from a family of academics who repeatedly reminded me that I was lucky to have entered a program like mine; The Academy is like this everywhere. It’s the curse of the Ivory Tower, and you’re on your own.
So I toughed it out. In the face of chronic pain and my doctor’s advice, I upped my caffeine intake, dropped my sleeping medication, cut back on exercise time, and on nights I needed to stay awake I skipped my pain medication altogether, knowing it would send me on a one-way trip to dreamland. My pain, of course, went up. So I gritted my teeth. I lost coverage for a significant portion of my health care regimen. My migraines came back. I went on like this all through mid-May, knowing that on the one hand, I was blessed to be back in school, to have at least partial funding, to have won a competitive summer fellowship, to receive travel reimbursement for conferences. On the other hand, my pain levels were slowly reverting to what they’d been the year I was first diagnosed, and I was feeling more and more desperately unhappy. Oddly enough, my commute became the best part of my day, when, formerly, there was little I despised more than getting on a train with countless other assholes all jostling to get to where they’re going. Isolated on the train, with my headphones drowning out the noise, it was easier to carve out a space in which to read, think, and write through the “fibro-fog.”
Of course all these factors combine to create a beast greater and uglier than might have been crafted alone. I do recognize that. I do recognize that I am lucky to have what I have, though that only feeds the guilt I have over being unhappy. And then I attended Computers & Writing 2012. For the first time all year, I felt my love for my research subject rekindled. The collaborative spirit was upon me once more, and I couldn’t place why I was only now feeling it again. Was it because the semester was over? My work load was still pretty high, and I was stressed and sick. Maybe it was that there was no real cliquishness there, or that many of the people I met hailed from teaching institutions as opposed to research institutions, or that the focus was equally on the subject of new media and on pedagogy. Or that we openly discussed The Academy as an industry much like the industries we criticize, capitalizing on and closing access to intellectual property (seriously, how available is SAGE or Wiley-Blackwell to the Everyman?) and demanding closed-access publications for tenure consideration. Maybe it was the prevailing sentiment that a Ph.D. course of study shouldn’t have to be about endurance. That is, it shouldn’t suck.
I’m a rhetorician at heart, with a penchant for media studies and cyberculture, and ultimately I prefer teaching to research. Don’t get me wrong, I like sociology and anthropology too, and these subjects always end up in the research I do. But somehow I’ve wound up pursuing a degree where the emphasis is on research, not pedagogy, when I have always striven to combine the two. My interest in computers and composition is what pushed me to apply for a Ph.D. I’m deeply interested in the whys and wherefores of spaces like 4chan, but the more I focus on coursework, the less time I have for exploring such spaces. This has been a constant battle for me. Whereas I could peacefully immerse myself and maintain a consistent presence while adjuncting, it’s now difficult to actually find the time and energy to keep up with the space I came here to study. It’s even harder to want to study when assignments often feel like busy work, and there’s no time to plan out and work on the freest parts of the courses—the final projects—until the final weeks of the semester. This hardly models the research and writing processes as they should transpire.
In terms of research, digital objects change rapidly. Discourse communities, within which 4chan can arguably be situated, constantly evolve. I was so caught up in coursework I missed the moment that ID tags were institutionalized on /b/; I was so entangled in present-publish-or-perish that I would have missed the brilliantly lulzy (if not archived) offshoots concerning a random shooting in Modesto. I was apprised of the latter by fellow conference-goer Timfastic while at the Popular Culture Association conference. While I hunched over my laptop in my hotel room, waiting for the police to shoot Jimmy and end it so I could stop saving threads and go to sleep, I realized that I hadn’t really been on /b/ in this manner for months. Victory for some, failure for me. And this brings me back to wondering both what I expected from a Ph.D. program, and why The Academy is so bent on beating us down on the path to intellectual discovery.
I hail from a family of academics, writers, scientists, teachers of many varieties, many of whom have strongly felt for years that I should pursue a Ph.D. I’d stopped after my M.F.A., joined the ranks of the adjuncts, tried—like any artist—to sell my novel and support myself through teaching. While teaching, it was somehow easy, despite the 30+ six-page drafts a week, to find time to reflect, to write. I entered the conference circuit while adjuncting, after all, began publishing academically, found time to maintain this blog. As I’ve been consolidating my various posts here, I’ve noticed that my writing was more thorough and insightful when I was teaching than it is now. Less rushed. More lived-in.
At C&W, my roommate pointed me to Karen Kelsky’s blog The Professor is In, which engages readers in a very realistic and practical dialogue about graduate school, the job market, and tenure. She is pragmatic and affirmative and does not sugar-coat her descriptions of The Academy.
Achieving financial, emotional AND intellectual well being in academia is somewhat akin to climbing Everest blind. It is damned hard to the point of being, frankly, impossible for many. You’re not going to get there without massive, simply massive logistical advance planning and preparation, and ongoing strategizing, and realistic goals, and a strong ethic of self-care and self-protection. And even with those, you might “fail” to complete the Ph.D., get the tenure track job, get tenure, or sustain a career that is joyful and life-affirming.
And this is not your fault. There aren’t enough jobs, and there are fewer every year. There isn’t enough funding, and there’s less every year. Graduate Student debt is astronomical. The payscale for assistant professors is shameful. And the culture of higher ed is increasingly soulless.Karen Kelsky, ‘The Professor Is In”
I was horribly sick at C&W but spent at least one night reading her blog. A lot of it resonated. Some of it didn’t, such as my motivations (learning for learning’s sake), my semi-impulsive decision-making process in the first place, and my academic background and previous experience with professors. I suppose I was lucky. As an undergraduate and in my master’s program I rarely felt that I wasn’t receiving the attention and guidance I needed to complete my course of study. It was very easy to befriend my professors and establish professional relationships with them and their professional networks. In fact, those early relationships informed a lot of what I’m doing now: my interests in cyberculture, my postmodernist leanings, my instinctive view of code as a means of thinking, an art form, and a (programmer’s) means to an end. Those were the professors who wrote in support of my Ph.D. application, and who were thrilled to hear I’d been accepted, with funding, and had decided to attend.
Is it my own fault I feel differently about this program? Is it the fault of The Academy and its looming Ivory Tower? Is it my failing health? I’ve been here before. I’ve experienced pain worse than this, tried to shake the feeling that death is waiting around the next corner. I’ve put on smiles or bewildered expressions far faker than the ones I wear lately, to evade the awkward commiseration and sympathy—“I’m so sorry you’re in so much pain, hope you feel better soon”—not that it isn’t sincere, but there’s nowhere to go from there. I’ve been in classes I’ve hated before, I hated the final year of my M.F.A. due to class makeup, dynamic, and instructor moderation. Same shit, different day. Is it my fault for expecting anything different?
Due to weakness and pain I’ve largely been confined to bed, and I’ve spent a lot of that time, for once, going through my own files rather than fucking around on the Internet. I ended up in a folder titled “WillIEverWriteAgainOhGod,” created towards the end of my Composition & Rhetoric teaching career. There were seven files, with names ranging from “VyWriting” to “Scraps” to “EpitaphLetter_03.” Each comprised sections and false starts pertaining to the novel I wrote for my M.F.A. thesis, which I’d intended as the beginning of a series. If you know me, you know that I’m modest to a fault. If you really know me, you know that my nickname used to be “Shockingly Self-Deprecatory” in college, disseminated by professors, friends, and my first editor. But I read this stuff, which I’d written maybe 1-2 years ago and apparently deemed “wtfshit,” and I was moved to tears. Why the hell had I given this up? It was grueling work, and quite literally maddening, but it never felt wrong. Even in the final year of my M.F.A. Even when I realized during my defense that my thesis readers hadn’t actually read my whole thesis. Even when agents rejected me time and again, recognizing my talent but unwilling to take a chance.
I look at this material, and I remember my primary motivations in pursuing a Ph.D.: 1) the possibility of tenure as a rhetorician/digital humanist; 2) the newfound pleasure of intellectualizing on the conference circuit; 3) the fact that, despite plenty of letters praising the quality, timeliness, and emotional effect of my writing, no one was willing to risk possible failure, the economy being what it is. A close friend had recommended Communication to me, given my interest in new media. I thought, Why not?, whereas most people, I think, approach this degree with a future career in mind, the pursuit of tenure, and so on and so forth, but as a writer I’d already embraced the fact that I might end up flipping burgers one day to survive. Not to summon the starving artist stereotype, but I don’t expect to land a job at some R1 institution, and after talking it out at C&W, I don’t think I really want one.
I’m a pessimist at heart. I don’t believe The System—The Academy or The Government or The Man in any of his myriad, myopic forms—will ever change. We can knock it down and craft a replacement that will eventually crystallize as a nomizing construct of a similar or worse order. That said, even at my most insecure, I have known, somewhere, that I can significantly influence people with my fiction. There was an infamous incident where a queer-friendly story (replete with explicit erotica) was circulated around a fairly homophobic classroom in high school, and I’m still hearing from people who asked for copies back then, went on to defend gay classmates, join LGBT alliances, and still—still—have those copies, well after I have no idea what happened to the original. I’ve made people cry with it, and turned at least one person on, to my knowledge. And when I felt discouraged by the rejections, I had my teaching to turn to. I knew my class was the last stop before these students went into the world without any other focused guidance regarding their writing. I knew they hated writing. I knew this was the mandatory class they had to take, and they hated that too. But I also knew that I was teaching them to think critically about pop culture, politics, the Internet, themselves. The highest point was having a student write on his evaluation: “I don’t think I thought about anything before I took this class. Now I think about everything.” And he went on to prove that he’d actually acquired a new mindset and skill-set from my course.
This was my way of undermining The System.
So it feels like a deep betrayal on my part to be at an R1 institution, where the tacit emphasis seems to be on getting an R1 job after graduating. I’ve overheard professors subtly denigrating teaching institutions, as tenure-track jobs at such places require a far less rigorous record of publication, presenting, and so on. Rather, the emphasis is on the quality of teaching. For reasons I hope are obvious, I don’t think this is something to look down on. To put it bluntly, these kinds of designations—R1, TT, SLAC, etc.—seem more like a prestige system than a categorization of potential jobs, as though professors at teaching institutions are lower than the R1s. The Chronicle readily acknowledges that stereotype, that professors at non-R1s are “failures” who couldn’t land a job elsewhere, when the truth is they probably wanted to be there, and that there is nothing less prestigious about genuinely enjoying the experience of teaching undergraduate enough to make it the central focus of a career. These are the students, after all, who will one day end up in your Ph.D. programs, pioneering The Systems we are critically analyzing.
To end on a note of hope, I’m disaffected, yes, but perhaps more with the culture of The Academy than with my specific program. I also don’t think I can characterize the whole experience based on one difficult year. I have the summer to look forward to as time to breathe, recuperate and repair, and begin working on the subjects I want to study. But perhaps it’s just as important to remember that, whatever ultimately happens, I did something and earned experiences that, positive or negative, will contribute to my teaching and inform my writing, which I’ve never really given up. Rereading my work reminded me that I’ve only temporarily stepped away from all the other pursuits that brought me here. All these doors are still open. They could still bridge all the worlds through which I choose to move.