teach standing up

When I began my current doctoral program, I was told that a good-looking CV has four conference papers, three articles, a wide range of teaching experience, and a couple of research grants. If that seems a little outlandish to you, that’s because it is. Who has the time? Because of my teaching load, not only do I not have time to complete the reading for my courses, I certainly do not have time to do the research above and beyond, in order to keep up to date with my field and all of the brilliant scholarship that is coming out. Let alone write articles and go about getting them published. And I make time. I don’t sleep very much. I haven’t had a weekend in two years. I read during the breaks. I cut back on the oh so necessary decompression time affectionately known as “happy hour.” And still… Never quite enough, is it?

In case you haven’t picked up on this, let me clarify that I currently have the pleasure of being a graduate student in the humanities. Which means that I am a very sad person, most of the time. And even more so recently, with all the many signs of an intellectual End Time, galloping toward me. From what I understand, graduate school has always been a simultaneously exciting and debilitating state of life, and one that is difficult to discuss with normal humans, assuming that, as a graduate student in the humanities, you encounter any of these. But recently, this particular career path has become, in addition to stressful and somewhat unrewarding, actually frightening. We’re flocking to the university in droves, and the universities are, for the most part, letting us. They need the cheap labor that we provide as instructors (and many of us actually teach the classes – gone are the days when you were expected to grade exams and shadow a tenured professor – now we’re actually being tasked with writing our own syllabi and constructing curriculum) and, to be fair, we are compensated, though inadequately. But while it’s nice of universities to admit us and sometimes even give us funding, they’re not making room for any of us once we’re ready to become professors. The most striking difference between our experience and those of the older generation by whom we are taught is that now, there is no promise of a job waiting at the end of a long (averaging around ten+ years) commitment to a discipline. I firmly believe that you can suffer through anything if you know it’s temporary. We don’t have that knowledge anymore. The hopelessness of the future infiltrates the present, every minute of every day. And this is pretty bad for morale

But aside from the frustrating impossibility of having a perfect CV, or of the corresponding job to such a CV even existing when you need it, there are reasons that we chose to do this. And it’s not because we weren’t able to do anything else, or that we were naïve about how the poverty and the psychological state of extended adolescence would effect us. Or that we wanted to piss off our parents who wanted us to become doctors, or that we needed to get some fresh air by moving across the country (okay…not totally those things…) We did not, thank you very freaking much, Marge Simpson and all of our relatives, make “a terrible life choice.” In the midst of such cynicism, and so many first hand glimpses of our colleagues’ and dear friends’ sufferings as they go on the job market, and so much fear about our own chances for a successful future, and so much debt and insomnia and coffee and dumb excuses for why our students haven’t learned the past conditional, I think there are reasons we haven’t quit. They may not make up for all of the hardship. They may not even come close. But they exist.

  1. Breaks – yeah, we spend them doing work (or feeling guilty about not doing work) but we get them.

  2. Not working 9-5. I know we all fantasize about going to work and then leaving it behind at the end of the day. But that’s what it is – fantasy. Everyone who has a job takes work home with them, particularly in this economic climate with everyone trying desperately to get ahead. And luckily for us, when we take our work home, it’s not because we had to sit in a cubicle all day trying to look productive.

  3. Colleagues. You got into this because, at some point, you sat staring at one line of Shakespeare (or Rousseau or Joyce or Soyinka or whoever…) for an entire week, because you couldn’t sleep until you knew how it connected to the line that you spent the previous week staring at. No one understands this better than your colleagues, because they did it too. Be nice to them, work with them, don’t compete (or not too harshly) with them. No one else in the entire world will understand the insane compulsion to devour line after line of some obscure Russian poet for days on end, no one else will want to discuss it with you, and no one else will give a damn that you published an article on it in a peer reviewed journal. Colleagues are the family that you (kind of) get to choose. And they’re the ones who you can count on when you need to prove to the rest of the world why it should give a damn as well.

  4. Books. The way they smell when they get old. The pain they give you in your neck and eyes. The satisfying feeling that you get when you’ve creased one of them so much that it’s falling apart. The way you will always feel at home with a familiar one. Unpacking your library.

  5. That one student who gets it. Most of your students do not care about you. If you think that they do, you are wrong. (Or you are very popular and please tell me what the heck you’re doing to keep them awake.) They want their A, and they never want to see you again. But every once in a while, you’ll meet one who didn’t go to college just because they had to, who works their ass off, and who comes to office hours and asks you intelligent questions. That’s the student you teach to.

  6. This time is our time. I have lately been employing the rallying cry “Occupy Grad School!” People have been laughing at me, and that’s fair; it’s kind of funny, and I slur it a little after a couple glasses of wine. But I’m not joking. It’s true, many factors, including but not limited to the horrendous corporate model that is usurping the place we refer to affectionately, painfully, as “The University,” have significantly decreased the prospect of getting a halfway decent form of academic employment. But there are more fiercely intelligent and concerned people coming out of graduate programs than there are administrative bodies to take away our voices and our passion. I truly believe this (though, if someone wanted to run the actual numbers for me, I’d be very much obliged.) From where I sit, it seems that our fear of the future has turned into cynicism, and our cynicism has turned into apathy. Not the kind of apathy where you just don’t care – how could we not care, this is all we talk about! The kind of apathy where all of the hours we used to spend pouring into our work have become a chore and a source of stress (“If I can just understand this passage of Derrida I will be fantastically brilliant and I will cheat the system and win…”) instead of a time of discovery and excitement. This is the worst possible response to a gigantic, horrible moment such as this. However, if we can’t take strength in the knowledge of a secure future, we should take strength in the fact that the time that we spend as graduate students is not owned by the presidents of our universities, or by our professors, or by our students’ parents. It’s not owned by anyone. It’s not up for grabs. Because it’s ours.

I was late to class today. A class that I teach. It was the first day, I had no idea where my classroom was, let alone the building, and I ran up and down steps like a rat in a science experiment (which the universities do still seem to be funding…) When I showed up five minutes after the class had technically started, flinging granola out of my bookbag along with the wipe-off board markers and made a joke about being in the “triangle de Bermude!” my students laughed, and then one of them said, to continue the joke, that he didn’t think they spoke French in the Bermuda Triangle. (There’s always that one kid, isn’t there? I was that kid…we were probably all that kid in some way…) I pulled up a map online, and some of them were fascinated to learn that French is, actually, spoken in a lot of freaking places. Now you could think of that as ignorance (I mean, come on, who doesn’t know that Burkina Faso is a country and that its official language is French?) but they were fascinated, watching the world become simultaneously smaller and larger by just mapping out a language with its entire history of creation and destruction. And if I had to hazard a response to the real reason I’m still trudging through this mire of grad school, it’s because I actually believe that ignorance – real ignorance, the kind that is so ubiquitous and yet so unseen – cannot coincide with fascination. That’s what we do here in this place that is being taken apart piece by piece and that no one seems to understand the importance of – not even us (and I insist on this last part because it seems that, more and more, we don’t even take ourselves seriously.) We create the conditions of possibility for fascination. So no. No I don’t think I made “a terrible life decision.” I refuse that. There’s not a single high horse left upon which to sit and contemplate the nobility of teaching and the endless possibility of an enlightened society. That’s probably why it is we, the graduate students, who teach standing up.

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