10 March 2009

Voices from Academe-Labor of Love

Recently, there's been a slew of articles about the dire prospects for graduate students, especially in the humanities, on the job market. The New York Times last weekend ran an article about the job prospects (or lack thereof) in the humanities. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, a columnist that goes by the pen-name Thomas H. Benton has been warning prospective grad students of the danger of attending graduate school in English. "Just don't go," he says, unless you're independently wealthy, are supported by a spouse, or are independently wealthy.

Today, the most recent Chronicle has a part two to his original essay about avoiding graduate school. Apparently, he received quite a bit of mail that accused him of undermining the importance of the academy, the importance of intellectual life. And, in response, he brought up what I think is a truly important point-- that the rhetoric of doing this (i.e., academia) because we love it is at best naive, and worst, dangerous.

And he's right. For what other profession do people use the rhetoric of "love" to excuse the fact that there are no jobs out there. He makes an important point, that the discipline has lost its ability to take care of its own.

I see this happening in my own department. Surely enough, this spring will bring a wealth of new graduate students to visit campus. Next fall 20-30 new bodies will fill the seats in orientation. And, I can almost guarantee that no one will mention the fact that, in all likelihood, most of them will never become tenure-track professors. They may be told that we have "very good job placement" (I was). They may be told that we're an extremely strong program with a strong faculty (we are). But no one--I'd be willing to bet money on this--will tell them that they should be open to other options besides being a professor. (Other than adjuncting indefinitely, that is.) That would be tantamount to blasphemy in the hallowed halls of the ivory tower.

Trust me- I know this from experience. When I told my otherwise helpful and supportive dissertation director that I would go do something else if I didn't get a tenure track job, she gave me a look that indicated that I might, possibly, have lost it.

The problem, really, is that this isn't about my own piddly job market performance. It's really about a system that perpetuates cycles of exploitation--and not even on purpose. Our professors really do care about how we do--that much I know. But even they don't know how to help us do anything else but become research-oriented professors. And so, this rhetoric of the love of the profession becomes our reason for being, our entire identity.

I was struck by one specific thing in Benton's latest article-- that some of the letters he received from graduate students talked about depression, some about thinking of suicide. And that floored me.

But it also made me realize how very lucky I am to see this as both a vocation and a job. If I thought of studying literature as only a vocation--something so intrinsic to my identity that I could not do without it--my utter job market failure might well have been devastating.

It wasn't, surprisingly enough. I had a fine time in California at Disneyland while I should have been interviewing with people. And I think that is partially because I see this as a job.

I've never been one to think that work comes before family, friends, or other obligations. Especially not family. And I have an amazing family--both extended and nuclear. Every time my little guy comes up with some new idea or game, every time I tuck his small, freshly-washed body into bed at night, my career problems recede. Every time my husband holds my hand as we watch him play, or we laugh ourselves silly about something stupid, those problems recede.

I'm sure it's a bit Pollyanna-ish of me, and I by no means think that kids or partners are the answer to everyone's life problems. But for me they work, I guess. It makes me glad that I didn't make grad school or research my life, because they certainly haven't done a lot for me. It makes me glad that I didn't put anything on hold for the big dream of tenure, because that may never happen for me.

And having them makes that little problem, somehow, ok.

06 March 2009

I Want This

When Words are Personal

Sometimes I forget that what I do can impact people in a very real way. I teach literature, after all. And, while I know that there have been books that changed my life, made me more of who I am today, I don't necessarily believe that it works that way for everyone. I don't believe in any inherent quality in books or stories that has that kind of power.

But then today, one of my students came up to me after class. We're reading The English Patient, this beautifully lush novel about identity and love and words and war, and my student is worried. Because in just over a month, her boyfriend will ship off to Iraq. In just over a month, the horrors that the novel depicts in poetically horrific language might become her horrors.

But she doesn't want to be rude, so she asks if it would be ok if she needs to step outside of class sometimes to get her bearings.

Just two days ago, we read a story from The Things They Carried. It's a story about the awful weight of war, the pointlessness of death, the end of moralizing stories. It's a story about a boy (because they were almost all boys over in 'Nam) who got his head blown off taking a piss. "Zapped while zipping," the story tells us. It's a story I've always loved for its ability to strip any of the romantic trappings away from war and heroism, combat and death. It has always seemed to me strangely innocent in its rawness. But it's a story that my student had to read knowing that her own reality would be intersecting with that fiction in very real ways very soon.

I forget sometimes that words matter. It's funny, really, considering that what I do is deal in words because I do think they matter.

I forget sometimes that I cannot control context, and so I selected a couple of war stories, because I happened to "like" them, for my class to read while we are in the midst of two wars. I'm conscious of the wars. I've had students who were about to leave, who had just come back from the hell that was Fallujah (where his base camp had a banner that said "will today be the day"). And yet, I so easily forgot to include that in my thinking, in my planning.

I know that The English Patient is about more than WWII, just as The Things They Carried is about more than Vietnam, but that isn't really going to help the young woman who sits in the front left side of my classroom. For her, those stories are going to be about her war, her boyfriend's war.

And every time she steps out of the classroom, I'll know it was just a little too much.

04 March 2009

Decorating for the New Addition

It's happened much faster than I expected--my clothes officially do not fit.

At first, I was kind of excited. Since I was pregnant with X, we've gotten a Motherhood store in the mall. Last time, I had to take a trip to the closest major city to do maternity shopping, because we had zip here in the middle of the corn fields. But for some reason, the designers have decided that maternity clothes needed a little something.

Like ruffles:I think the little flower detail really adds something, don't you?

Or- if ruffles aren't enough for you, you can also have a bow:
Because nothing says you're pregnant like wearing a shirt that looks like your kid's birthday present.

And the thing that's really irritating me about maternity clothes is that almost all of the pants have this ridiculous belly thing going on. Pea in the Pod and Mimi and Motherhood--the major maternity brands online all have something called the secret fit belly. It's basically like a big ole' piece of Lycra that comes up over your stomach. I can understand that some people might find this a good thing. I am not one of those people.

I'm going to be really big in the summer. The hot, sweaty, icky summer. So imagine my delight at learning that shorts mostly come looking like this:
Because a pregnant woman really needs that extra layer of polyester over her stomach when the temperature's hitting 90.

All in all, I'm wondering what these designers are possibly thinking. I don't want to look like I'm getting ready to go to the club or walk down the runway when I'm pregnant. I just want nice, simple clothes that don't accentuate the fact that I'm expanding by the minute.