In another Response to Erin Bartram

On 8 April 2018, the online Chronicle of Higher Education published Erin Bartram’s “Why Your Advice for Ph.D.s Leaving Academe Might Be Making Things Worse.” In the piece, Bartram summarizes responses to her earlier piece regarding leaving academia (about which more here) before moving into explications of two points she recommends to those who will give advice to they who depart academia: know that the advice is of limited use, and know that the advisee is not fully known to the adviser. Although Bartram goes to some length to explain her assertions, they still come off as a rather sharp rebuke to perhaps well-meaning but generally inept academics whose own circumstances are as assured as their advisees’ are not.

I’ve noted several times that I have more or less done as Bartram is doing; I have long since given up on landing a full-time, tenure-line–or even continuing non-tenure-track–academic job (although, as I’ve also noted, I still pick up contingent work as a useful supplement to my income–but I am under no illusion that it will be a permanent thing). I am perhaps a bit ahead of her in finding steady work outside academe, though it was not an easy thing to do; I put in nearly 200 job applications before landing my current position, which is one of those nonprofit jobs that “look like a dream” to Bartram, and I was very much in the position to take any job that would have me. (Not many would, else I’d not have had to put in nearly 200 applications to find one.) And I would not presume to say that the challenges I have faced are the same as those she has faced and is facing. Even so, I find much of interest in her article–although my experience with getting advice when exiting academia has generally been from the other side of things. That is, what I’ve gotten has been from embedded support structures and those outside academia.

That I have support structures in place is a boon, I know, and I am not unmindful of how lucky I am to have it in place. But that does not mean I was not immensely frustrated with it at many points while I tried to make my pivot to the world outside the ivory tower. And that frustration derived in large part from those outside academia, in stable jobs that they have had for years, giving advice that rang of limited knowledge of current circumstances and of particulars of my situation. It is difficult, after all, not to find it vexatious to be told to send out more job applications when, in the space of a month, I’d send out more applications than some of the people who gave me advice, well-meaning and acting from love though they were, have in lives decades longer than my own. It is not an easy thing to be told by another to be open to taking all kinds of jobs and to be told by that same person the next day–or even later in the same conversation–not to look at lesser work (as though the cost-benefit analysis hadn’t been done and done and done, and as though better jobs called back–not that lesser jobs did any better). And it is a challenge, indeed, to face with equanimity being told not to give up when many years and a mid- to high-three-digit job-application count are already on record, bespeaking a dogged determination in the face of no after no after no.

A common definition of insanity comes to mind. So does the idea of knocking at doors until knuckles bleed and the bones begin to fragment.

I suppose the point I’m making about Bartram’s essay–which, again, I enjoyed reading and found useful–is that what she discusses is far from confined to the academy. It’s a useful thing to note for more than one reason. Aside from being a reminder–as if one is needed–that the job market sucks from most angles, among others, it serves as a reminder that the ivory tower stands embodied in the world. Perhaps if it is able to resolve its problems, it might help make a start on those the rest of the planet faces.

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On One of My Concerns as a Father

That I have a child, a daughter born in 2014, is not something of which I’ve made a secret–although I do not discuss her much online, to be sure. (When I do, I usually refer to her as “Ms. 8” for reasons those who know her and her parents will understand–and which were her mother’s idea, although I approve of it entirely.) And, as I am a parent and I try, with less success than I might like, to be engaged in my daughter’s deeds and doings, there are no few things that give me pause, that concern me greatly. One such is that she will end up having some of the same regrets that I do–not of things left undone, but of things done.

To explain, ungrateful as I know it will make me sound: I regret doing many of the things I have done, things that other people look back on as having been fun and worthwhile experiences. High school prom (on my mind because of the season as I write this and the things that come across my news feeds as a result of that season) is one example; I went to several, spent hundreds of dollars on each, and regret most every moment and every penny put to those ends, since they’ve done me not a bit of good, and I’d’ve been better off putting the time and effort represented to work or reading. Many of the parties I’ve attended–and, believe it or not, there’ve been more than a few–have been similar; while I did have some few that were good experiences, more of them resulted in nothing more than me waking up too late the next morning, head pounding from a hangover and withdrawal from my drug of choice (caffeine, of course). One, a New Year’s party, sticks out in my mind as being a particularly bad experience. Hell, even some of the book-buying I’ve done pains me to think back upon–and I read.

However it might be that I feel as I do–and I’ve heard quite a bit about it from many people across many years, thank you, so I need no more of it–I am worried that I will pass it on to my daughter despite any efforts I make against doing so. Young as Ms. 8 is as I write this, she is already able to see through at least some of the acting I do to be her father. (I tend to subscribe to the idea that we perform roles for one another, roles based on our understanding and experience and belief about who and what we ought to be to do the things that we are or should be doing.) She knows, for example, that I take delight in some of her “bad” behavior, even as I am obliged to rebuke her for it. (Wrong for all the right reasons Ms. 8 may be at times, but I still have to caution her against the wrong.) And so I find myself caught in the cleft fork of wanting to caution her away from doing things that I see are like to do her little good if any while at the same time knowing that she may well enjoy and remember fondly what I may not have and do not. Too, there is the fact that, owing to my overall orientation, I have little idea how to have the kind of fun many of the other people I know prize–but she seems poised to be the kind of person who delights in such things.

I know, of course, that my task is to support Ms. 8 in exploring who she is and to do what can be done to keep her safe while allowing her to take the risks and experience the consequences she needs to take and feel to grow into a person who will not need me to be with her. (I hope she will want me around, of course, but I also know the day will come when I cannot be with her as she might want, far off though I hope it is, and she needs to be ready for it.) I remain unsure how to do it, though, and I worry that I will fail.

Poems after the Styles of Others: An Obvious Entry

I dare not sing of love in little song,
For I know what I have to give is small;
I know it stretches little, lasts not long,
And for a tiny thing there’s not much call.
I’d sing of little else in such a form,
For I know that my love is of a piece
With all the rest of me; it does conform
To other parts of me, bears no release.
I’m not among the mighty, I well see,
For I know that my deeds earn little note,
And that, perhaps, is how it ought to be–
Unspoken words, at least, will stop no throat.
Yet still, I feel the call to sing in verse
On printed page, though I little rehearse.

In Response to Eric Schwitzgebel

On 4 June 2014, Eric Schwitzgebel’s “A Theory of Jerks” appeared on Aeon.com. In the piece, Schwitzgebel articulates a need for a theory of jerks before noting being in possession of one. He then advances a working definition and partial history of the term “jerk” before addressing the validity of his professorial approach to the topic. The article then situates jerkiness amid psychological constructions and in contrast to its antithesis–for Schwitzgebel, the “sweetheart”–before laying out overall justification for its treatment of jerkiness. Qualifications of the argument follow, and Schwitzgebel then notes the hierarchical direction of jerkiness before isolating a particular sub-set of jerks and concluding with a call to action for people to recognize and work against their own jerkiness. In all, the piece is an engaging read in the tradition of Frankfurt’s On Bullshit (which the article references, if briefly), one that displays, through its informed treatment of the mundane, some of the best features of public intellectualism.

I used the article with my class on 31 March 2018, having come across it earlier that week and deciding that the topic would make it of interest to my students. (That it references Frankfurt also attracted attention; I have done some taurascatological work from time to time, and the similarities delighted me.) After working through some of the vocabulary–Schwitzgebel writes as a professor, and my students are not yet so adept as that–they latched onto the piece tightly, wringing much from it and prompting a discussion that lasted for the better part of an hour. (Generally, the students will address topics for only fifteen to twenty minutes at a time, unless prodded.) They were able to identify a primary audience for the piece (to paraphrase, intellectual or pretentiously intellectual mainstream elite or elite-aspirant men), as well as its stated and tacit purposes, as well as to identify points of failure for the primary and other audiences. And their collective analysis of the piece helped to point out gendering of language (“jerk” and “sweetheart” both read as gendered to the students, as did some other terms in the piece), as well as to explore some of the parallels of academe to the broader working world. In all, it was a useful exercise, and it is one to which I think I will return with students in such classes in the future

Provided, of course, that I have them. Insofar as I remain in academe, I remain contingent.

Among the many things that struck me during the conversation, though, was how students reacted to the focus of the article: the jerk. One voiced disbelief that an academic–a philosophy professor, no less–would not only write a piece about jerks, but would use the word 90 times (according to a search function run in class), including in variants such as “jerkitude” (which term itself occasioned comment) in 3,600 words (per the article’s online paratext). But I think the disjunction between Schwitzgebel’s article and the student’s expectation of academic writing is an informative one, one tying to my own earlier comment about the article doing good work at public intellectualism. There is a disconnection between what academic writing is and what it is supposed to be–and between both and what it is perceived as being by those outside academe. The disconnection is amply attested by far better scholars than I (Cohen’s piece in Hardcastle and Resich’s Bullshit and Philosophy comes to mind as one example, and Birkenstein’s 2010 College English piece on Judith Butler comes to mind as another), so I will nor rehearse it here. It will suffice to say that academic writing is generally perceived as being pretentious and removed from everyday concerns, while it is necessarily concerned with precision (and not seldom loses clarity in the attempt to find and isolate the precise nuances that need discussion), and it is supposed to be directed towards the dissemination of information so that others can use it to make yet more new knowledge.

Part of doing that last, part of making new knowledge, lies in interrogating what we think we already know. We cannot leave unexamined the assumptions we make, even when, on the surface of them, we think we know what they are and mean. I often work with four-letter words in my classes; I not seldom have my students consider the word “blue,” a simple monosyllable that invariably shows up disagreement about what the world is and what the words are that get applied to those words.  “Jerk” seems to have functioned similarly, with some overall agreement about its meaning but little considerations of the small distinctions that will identify people as jerks or as something else entirely. And it does take some work to untangle such things, to be sure, particularly because the things being untangled seem so commonplace and obvious. But that some effort is required does not mean the work is not worth doing; quite the opposite is true. There is more to gain from the expenditure of effort, from the time taken to consider what is meant by even the simplest words, and what it reveals about us that we use them the ways we do, than we commonly understand and recognize.

Thanks to Schwitzgebel, my students have a bit better idea about that now. Thanks to him, also, I have a bit clearer idea in my head of what I might be able to mean when I use a word that I use perhaps too often already–along with no few other four-letter words I know. And while the former is of far more worth than the latter, I am grateful for both–and more.

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Poems after the Styles of Others: Greatest of the Name

Now that April’s well and since begun,
And March is put away with all its fun,
And broken springs are mended on their way
While students of all ages look to play
In summer sun that has yet to appear
In diverse places, known both far and near
As sites for pilgrimages to undertake
Before the wallet grows thin as a rake
In pockets of shorts from closets pulled
And rated highly as from websites culled
Reports will come from users pleased and not,
The people look to see weather grow hot
In northern reaches of the globéd world,
Across whose skies the Milky Way’s unfurled
And where the mighty Dipper ladles stars
At times when all-aged folk look for their bars
And others stare up into inky night,
The darkness welcome respite for their sight.

Poems after the Styles of Others: An Old One

Have we not heard     how, in days of yore,
In that best of bard-craft,     boasting of deeds
Passing in power     the potent among us,
Even the ablest     in might of arms
Unlocked a word-hoard     to open a way
As often as ever     angry hands raised,
Gripped with grim walkers     in grime and in mire?
Much did the mighty     make of the riches,
The treasures of tongues     that told of their deeds,
Passed on their proverbs,     pieces of wisdom.
Words on the wind     whisper through ages.
Put them on paper,     and they pass down,
Read at remove,     and recall the past,
Nurture the now     and needs deep fulfill
When fate has gone as it must.

Poems after the Styles of Others: A Peculiar Favorite

O, witty master of the flea,
Twas in St. Paul’s years past I did you see
And gloried that I’d come to stand
And look on whom I’d read in foreign land.
Both pale and silent, you looked out
On many visitors who milled about,
But few to you respects did pay
As I made sure to do that years-gone day–
And to my shame, alas! I could not stay.

Other masters, I have read,
And their verses ring yet in my head,
Yet yours of twin bloods’ pamper’d swell
Remains in mind; I do yet know it well,
And teach it every chance I get.
It strikes the students near where they are set
And shows them more than most the glee
That comes in reading older things; they see
That structured words might their minds free.

So, though my studies take me back
Before your time, yet your words, I’d not lack,
So glad am I to’ve read your verse–
The words that, even now, I would rehearse.
I thank you, then, whose work is done
And turn to mine that’s scarce begun
That I might serve as I’ve been served
And in time come to find praise well deserved
And, like you, thought of me be well preserved.

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In Response to Joseph Conley

On 8 March 2018, the online Chronicle of Higher Education published Joseph Conley’s “Just Another Piece of Quit Lit.” In the piece, which seems to have been prompted by Erin Bartram’s own piece of quit lit–about which more here–Conley puts forth the idea that more people ought to leave academe than have–and earlier than tends to be discussed. After acknowledging the difficulty in making the decision to quit, he notes to readers that, at least in his case, nobody made much of his decision to leave–and few were willing to extend him any consideration for having studied as he did. Conley also acknowledges that he was wrong to begin his course of study, summarizing years of undergraduate and graduate experience as a slow decline into self-destructive, alienating behavior encouraged by academe. After repudiating that way of life, he pivots into noting that things get better–with time and effort before making an attempt at humor and concluding that sticking with a choice made in early adulthood, rather than exploring other options, is what quitting really is.

As someone who has largely left academe and who is in a “real world” position that acts with more care and respect for me than my teaching largely seemed to, I found myself nodding along with Conley’s piece at many points. Like him, I am better off for having (mostly) left the field, for taking a job that is just a job and that I can leave behind me at the end of the work day. (That I have been largely able to treat the teaching I still do as that kind of thing helps. And even these comments are done as relaxation and practice, something I enjoy doing rather than something I have to do.) Too, I am married to a wife who made a similar decision; we met in our MA program, and I moved to New York to be with her as she pursued her PhD, but when she moved to Stillwater because I landed a job and we found out that our daughter was on the way, she decided that a doctorate in support of a career she did not want and could not really expect to have was no longer worth pursuing.

She, and later I, found that the sense of shame inhering in giving up, which Conley describes, does not fade quickly. My wife seems at peace with things, but I clearly do not, else I’d not continue to follow quit-lit pieces or comment on them, or bring up my own status as an academic expatriate so often as I do. Other people do seem to be happy with us, our value not bound up in dwelling in the ivory tower, and both of us scrabbled to find jobs that now afford us a better standard of living than we had enjoyed for several years–certainly since leaving New York, if not ever. So the experience of my family is much like what Conley describes; his account rings true for me.

If only I’d been able to get my piece in the Chronicle

One thing that comes out for me in Conley’s piece, though, is a certain amount of bitterness. Comments he makes throughout the article–many of which amount to “nobody cares about you or your academic work”–may be accurate, but that they are made at all betrays dissatisfaction with the state of affairs. That would not be a problem, except that the purported point of the article, the sentiment on which it concludes, is exactly the opposite of it. If we are better off for quitting academe, why the jabs at those who remain in it, those who are already suffering (if Conley is correct)? At best, they come off as jokes that fall flat. More likely, they represent a bit of sour grape-ism, bitter swipes at those who were able to enact their long-held dreams.

I understand the allure, certainly; I am not without my own bitterness in the matter. Having seen people objectively less qualified than I get jobs for which I applied stung, and the sting has not yet faded; it is not to be wondered at that I would harbor some resentment while I still feel the pain. And I can easily imagine that Conley does, as well, despite the therapy he mentions and the good job he reports having, just as I do despite the many good things in my life and the greater freedom to be me that I have more or less outside academe than I had while trying to nestle deeper into it.

Perhaps there may be some balm for that hurt for Conley–and for me.

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On Reading Webcomic Archives

That I read webcomics should come as a surprise to nobody. I have made no secret of my nerdiness, and webcomics–a combination of online life and graphic narrative–represent a junction of two of the more traditionally “nerdy” arenas of human endeavor. Nor should it be a surprise that I read them voraciously; there are several I check regularly (depending on their update schedules), and others I poke in on occasionally to see what all is still going on in them, if anything.

Relatively recently, I read through the complete runs of both Something Positive and Questionable Content. I did so in part to refresh my memory of plot points that had been coming up in more recent comics–and, once I started, I figured I had to read through the rest of the archives. Completeness matters, after all, and I do tend just a little bit towards the obsessive/compulsive, nerd that I am.

As I read through the archives, I did note the shifts in graphic art style across the many years of each comic’s run. The quality of writing has remained largely consistent, however, which I am sure I could try to parse, somehow, to make some statement about the relative development of artistic techniques and media. (I will leave that for those who are not quite on the fringes of academe, as I still am, to handle.) And I was reminded of why I have continued to read those comics for as long as I have; I find the characters compelling and the plots intriguing, even if there are occasional fumbles of both.

More to the point, however, I found myself strangely hollow after completing the reading. I do not know if it was a matter of having finished the things and not yet having more of them to read–but I have not tended to react thus when I have re-read such writers as Tolkien, Asimov, or Hobb. Their works are reasonably complete, however, so that might be the reason–except that Chaucer’s, which are not complete in any copy of which I am aware, do not evoke the same hollow longing that I feel from reading once again the webcomics’ incomplete runs (for both are still in production, so far as I know).

Wherein the sense of dissatisfaction lies, then, I am not sure. There is more to explore, to be sure, so it is not the foreclosure of possibility. And I admit to having been greatly distracted by the re-reading, my attention taken from other matters with which it ought probably to have been more fully occupied, so that I should be relieved at being released from the task of plowing through several thousand strips (is that the right word?) in each webcomic. But I am not happy to have ended the re-reading; still do I not know why, and I think it will bother me that I do not–at least for a while.

Until, of course, I either do it again, or something else emerges to ring hollowly within me.

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In Response to Amy Olberding

I was introduced to Prof. Amy Olberding’s 6 March 2018 Aeon piece “The Outsider” through my Twitter feed (for which, my thanks, @JonathanHsy and @mckellogs). In it, Olberding relates her experiences as an academic who grew up in a relatively poor, rural environment, negotiating the tensions associated with that specific divergent background amid the prevailing cultural narratives of academic life. She cites the example of her grandmother as an instance of successful negotiation before moving to reject the dominant narratives of academia toward those people who share her background, using another of her forebears as an emblem of her resistance to assimilation to academic mannerism and life.

I read the piece as something…less than Olberding writes it. Where she occupies a coveted position, I am on the fringes of academe. Where she emerges directly from farming country, I do so only at a generational remove–and from socioeconomic circumstances both more and less constrained than hers, for while she and her immediate family were better off than many of her kin, I and mine were not, though my parents had and have skilled-labor and white-collar jobs, and I do so, even now. Too, my “y’all” occasioned less comment than hers seems to have, since I went to school in Texas and Louisiana, and I had trained myself more or less “out” of “the accent” long before the thought of academia entered my mind. And there are the obvious concerns of my being a white cis-hetero man and the myriad ways that being so eases my experience of the world in the United States.

Yet even for that removal, I could not help but read Olberding’s piece as a testimony of things like those I’ve known. And I am glad that she holds fast to the identity of her origin as she does; I have not been able to do so. For many years, I worked to set myself apart–in part because I was set apart in some ways, the object of a transitive verb, but only in part. I relished being “the smart one,” as I have discussed before (likely to people’s annoyance when they have noticed). I enjoyed the sense of distinction, the idea that I knew more things and was better because of it. And I very much enjoyed being able to learn yet more things, equating knowledge with personal value and thus treasuring the increase.

I am more or less past that, now. (I do still like to know things, and more things, but not so I can abuse others with them.) Trying to be an academic and failing at it, as others have tried and not succeeded, has taken from me the thoughts that I do stand apart and that I should stand apart. Moving back to the town where I grew up has reminded me that I worked not to be part of the place–and now that I have a daughter, and she is here, I recall how not having the kinds of roots that my classmates had hurt. (I would spare her that pain, although I do not know how to do so.) So, for what little it is worth, I commend Prof. Olberding for doing what she describes in the piece–and I hope more will do as she has done.

Notice me, senpai!