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Suffering in the Arts and Academia

I’ve been terribly remiss in updating this blog, and I should have a new post shortly because I’ll get to devote the next few days to my thesis (coughblogcough).

For now, I’ll just provide a link to this Guardian article against suffering for one’s art. The supposedly suffering-induced sensitivity of the artist isn’t exactly the same as the sort of suffering we come to expect from academics, exactly, but it seems to me that the argument isn’t that different. “Academic” could probably be substituted for “artist” in many places throughout this piece. For example:

Assuming that making a sculpture would be assisted by despair or hunger in a way that, say, plumbing wouldn’t be is absurd and insulting. There’s no reason to believe a plumber might be less sensitive than a pianist, or that someone who you’re assuming is more than averagely sensitive couldn’t be broken into sand and teeth by grief. It’s simply cruel to assume that any human being will somehow benefit from punishment. And the cultural white noise that links having a job in the arts to the threat of punishment cuts the arts off from people who could enjoy them, or produce them.

I suppose the myth of the suffering artist is elevated in different ways than the figure of the suffering academic. As the author of this article, AL Kennedy, points out, one might find young artists who cultivate suffering in the belief that that will make them successful writers. For academics, suffering is simply the penance you pay to do noble work (eyeroll), although I suppose you do sometimes find people who compete to work the hardest and sleep the least. I don’t know that that makes it any better or more excusable, though. I ran into a fellow grad student today who said to me, “I was just thinking of you last night, how happy you must be that you aren’t going to do this anymore!” I wonder what ze will ultimately decide to do. As Kennedy writes, “Apart from anything else, I hate to see people being unhappy, and people being self-inflictedly unhappy is doubly sad.”

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I just looked up gender-neutral pronouns on Wikipedia

When I sat down with Advisor this week, ze seemed glad that after telling zir about wanting to leave a few weeks ago, I’ve felt only more resolve about making that choice. One of the first things ze asked me was what skills I’d need to learn in preparation for getting a job. Then, how my family, partner, and friends had responded to my decision to leave. No judgment! Not even the slightest interest in changing my mind!

To be fair, ze has known for a long (long) time now that I’ve been on the fence, at best. Pretty early on in grad school, I floated the idea to zir that I would be happy to teach at a community college, then a while later that I wasn’t sure about teaching and was interested in publishing. Ze knows I’ve had a lot of (personal) low periods in grad school (last summer was rough, there was a bad break-up several years back, blah blah blah), and I haven’t been particularly communicative this year. So, my decision to leave wasn’t, or shouldn’t have been, a big surprise at all.

Advisor wasn’t sure exactly what needs to be done for me to get the MA, but ze is ready to help make it happen this spring. (It looks like I’ll turn the partial chapter I’ve got into a thesis. Totally doable, and I just got some really great feedback on what’s already written.) I’ve got to talk to Departmental Grad Advisor about the nitty-gritty details of getting out, which I’m not really looking forward to for various reasons, but that will be accomplished within a week.

Anyway, it feels good to have some more certainty about leaving. And while it’s not unexpected, it feels really good that my decision was accepted practically and humanely by my advisor. Instead of second-guessing me or shaming me, ze affirmed that I’m right in trying to take things one step at a time—I’m worrying less about getting a Dream Job or a Perfect New Career Job, but instead I just want A Job, even if I have to temp. While obviously Advisor is a career academic, ze was completely understanding about my reservations about the profession, even when I wasn’t being particularly polite about it. And when I said I absolutely don’t want to be an adjunct, ze immediately replied, “No, absolutely not!”

I’m almost afraid this post comes off as bragging a bit. I really hope anyone else reading this who has left or is leaving or might leave finds supportive individuals in their academic department too.

Well, this is where I’m at now. (But where is that, exactly?)

Hello to those of you who have recently discovered this blog, especially to those of you who left such lovely comments. (I will, belatedly, try to respond to some of them.) Thanks also to JC for linking to me!

I feel remiss for sort of abandoning this blog recently—I felt a few weeks of shaky exhilaration about the idea of leaving, and then as February got underway I had to deal with the fact that I haven’t left yet and have a pretty busy term with papers to grade and papers to write. Even today, I really should have been working on an article draft, but instead I wasted the day in bed, crying intermittently about my life, and stuffing my face. While this did require leaving my house to get food, I mostly brought it back home and ate it, yes, in bed. Sometimes I even almost cried en route to procuring food. There is nothing that makes me feel like less of a failure than being an adult woman who nearly bursts into tears while walking down the street on a cold, but otherwise lovely, Tuesday morning. It doesn’t help that this is the first day I’ve been able to just be at home in about nine days, since I also started working my second (third, really?) job again, which dominates my weekends and is utterly exhausting. But I feel like I have to hang on to it, because what if I just really need some part-time hours after I leave school? Or if I decide to stay but still need to pay the bills this summer? But if only I had those weekends to write that article draft. Or, you know, to have a weekend.

(With that in mind, it’s also kind of hilarious that my university-provided therapist seemed to think I was doing so! much! better! just because I happened to be having a better-than-usual day when I last saw her a few weeks ago. On the one hand, I’m very grateful to have pretty good health insurance and am anxious about losing it if/when I leave school. [I hate the dentist, but blergh, I really need to get my teeth cleaned and examined while I still can!] On the other hand, the mental health services at my school still leave a lot to be desired. Grad students tend to have issues that can’t just be resolved in six to eight sessions, you know?)

At least, as I’ve been doing the professionalization activities that I’ve had to do, I haven’t felt any renewed desire for the academic life. Mostly, I’ve felt bitter and irritated with myself for agreeing to do these things. Deep-down, I don’t really think academia as a whole is stupid and pointless, but I feel like a lot of stupid and pointless bullshit is happening around me these days. Yes, there are a lot of brilliant academics and I respect and admire their work, but a lot of this just feels like such a waste of time and energy. At this point, I frequently want to just say “Fuck it!” (loudly, in public) and flounce off.

So, I’m in this sort of weird limbo right now. It’s essentially the same situation I’ve been in for the last month or more, but my advisor knows now that I want to leave, and (s)he is thankfully a very practical and understanding person. But I won’t get to have an extended talk with Advisor for another week, and I’m not sure exactly what’s going to be worked out then. Hopefully a plan for what (if anything) I need to do to leave with a Master’s. In the meantime, I need to get a draft of this #*@&! article ready, even though I don’t care about getting it published ever (that probably sounds like a weird situation, but I’m trying to remain vague-ish). I’m also worrying a lot about what will come after I leave, what kind of job I might get and how long that might take, but I think I’ll leave that as a post for another day.

I guess next week may be a big week: meeting with Advisor (which I’m looking forward to), therapy appointment in which I will have to advocate for myself to get what I actually need (ugh, ugh).

An update

To follow up on my previous post, I started a new Twitter account under my own name. Of course, I only have about one follower and two tweets, so this isn’t exactly helping me seem web-savvy yet. But, baby steps. I started a new blog, but I keep changing the URL from my full name to something that only refers to my real name. I can’t decide if the URL must be serious and matter-of-fact, or if I don’t want it to be that easy to track down. Right now, I’m going with the latter. I still don’t know what to write on this blog, of course. This situation reminds me of being a child, surrounded by all the very nice art supplies given to me by my artist aunt, wanting to draw something but having no idea what to make. I do remember once copying the San Francisco 49ers logo with some of those very nice watercolors. Usually, though, I just drew anthropomorphic animal figures, and I recall my mother looking at them and wondering aloud why the lady rabbits had such big bosoms.

ANYWAY.

What I meant to write about here is that I met with someone from my university’s career counseling center today. The meeting turned out better than I expected, although I’m not sure I found out anything absolutely brand-new. I was offered a lot of information about career exploration groups. I also found out that I should be using more of the online resources that are available to me; I wasn’t sure if LinkedIn was really a thing I had to use, but apparently it is “Facebook for grown-ups.” So, I feel better about wasting time this week fiddling with my profile there. I was also assured that some of the professional connections I have aren’t too tenuous to ask them for informational interviews. I had a hunch that I could or should get in touch with these people, so it was nice to know that doing so wouldn’t be too weird or inappropriate. (As someone who drew pictures of buxom rabbit-women as a child, I often worry about being weird.) Actually taking this step still feels daunting, even though (or maybe because) it sounds like it’s pretty crucial for getting a job.

Maybe I need too much validation, but the most valuable part of the interview came when I asked the counselor what she thought about Finishing vs Not Finishing. Her response was that whether I finish my dissertation is less important than whether I decide to finish, because she’s seen too many unfortunate situations where people leave there degree programs without being able to admit that that’s what they’re doing. Myself, when I think about leaving, when I think about how much my heart isn’t in this, I feel so light! Like a weight has lifted off my shoulders. And then I remember all the ‘professionalization’ I’m in the midst of doing right now—how much I don’t want to do it, how much I don’t care, and how much work it is that I don’t want to do and don’t care about, ugh.

But toward the end of the meeting, the counselor said she wasn’t very worried about me, and that I was making healthy choices. I am still kind of worried about me, and maybe she was just trying to be encouraging, but this was definitely good to hear.

Establishing a non-anonymous web presence

I have been thinking about the wisdom of establishing some kind of professional (or professionally appropriate) web presence to provide evidence that I can actually use the Internet. Because I started using the Internet as a teenager in the ’90s, well before Facebook and even blogs, I have issues with putting my full name on anything I post online. Back then, the Internet was for whiny, anonymous journals published on hand-coded websites. My very first web site was published on Geocities and had a Winnie the Pooh theme, but within a year or two my secret online diaries were mostly decorated with photographs by Cindy Sherman or album cover art manipulated in Paint Shop Pro. But I digress.

At any rate, while my HTML/CSS/etc. skills are no longer cutting edge, I am pretty familiar with just about every blogging platform. I have a Twitter account, although it’s private, and I mostly use it to complain about my neighbors or record funny things my boyfriend says. Of course, I have Facebook and Google Plus profiles under my real name, but there is very little that anyone can see there unless they’re friends with me, and I keep telling myself I might just delete my Facebook profile (again) once I’m forced to adopt the new Timeline. But there isn’t really any proof of my Internet prowess that I’d want to show someone who might hire me; it’s not that I’m not or can’t be professional, I’m just not yet used to using the Internet as a professional platform.

I do have a Linkedin profile. Today, I edited my profile so that my headline (or whatever it’s called) reflects the work I want to be doing, rather than the college teaching I actually am doing now. So, I guess that’s a start. I only have a few connections there, so perhaps I’ll figure out how I can better use that site.

I might start a Twitter account under my full name and use it to, I don’t know, comment on stuff and retweet things that aren’t totally silly.

While I’m already really skilled at coming up with ideas for blogs and then never starting them or abandoning them after three entries, I may start (another) new blog. My question here is, how much does content matter? I’d like this blog to provide writing samples, to show that I Have a Web Presence and am not a weird Generation X/Y/wherever-I-fit luddite. Maybe I could attach my résumé to this site? I don’t want to write a particularly serious or academic blog with posts roughly related to my research because, ugh, who even cares? I was already thinking about starting a blog about being a late twenty-something who is finally trying to get her shit together and figure out makeup, since this has really been my primary hobby for the past three or four months. Or I could blog about the books I occasionally manage to read for fun, or movies I watch, or about my other hobbies (knitting, genealogy). Obviously, this blog would have to avoid being too personal or too much like a diary (always something I kind of struggle with, because I always want to fall back into journal-mode when I’m blogging). But should I avoid writing about something too inconsequential? I assume employers would be more interested in the quality of writing, the voice, the ability to speak to a particular audience, even if said employer isn’t part of a field that matches my particular subject matter. But maybe I’m wrong.

I’m also thinking about submitting pieces to various websites, just short essays, so that I have something published that I can use for clips when I’m job-hunting.

“You used to be a genius.”

When I was in college, my best friend and I went to see The Royal Tenenbaums two or three times while it was in the discount theater. We sat in the back rows, giddy over Eli Cash’s overwrought prose. There was something else about it that resonated deeply: that sense of nostalgia, of premature decline. A few months later, I left my university and spent the next year doing temp work, volunteering, taking a community college class, and wallowing in sweatpants on my parents’ couch before transferring to another college the next summer. I had been a “gifted” student in elementary school and a very good one through high school; I had done the requisite extracurriculars, but I was a better student than I was an athlete or actor. College, however, felt draining rather than invigorating, and I felt tired already when I began as a freshman. By my sophomore year, I was very depressed, and I didn’t know how to handle the difficult classes in my major—the one where, shock! horror! I got a B. In retrospect, this is an absurd and even embarrassing history to tell, the very height of #firstworldproblems.

I have been thinking, though, of this article, even though it was published a few months ago, and I realize that nobody likes to link to anything more than thirty-six hours old on the Internet. The author, Heidi Grant Halvorson, outlines a study that indicates children who are praised as “smart” are more likely than children who are called hard workers to blame themselves or give up when presented with a difficult task. That is, the former group considers their abilities innate and internalizes their failures, whereas the latter will simply work harder when presented with a challenge. Halvorson asks, “Are there things you decided long ago that you could never be good at? Skills you believed you would never possess? If the list is a long one, you were probably one of the bright kids — and your belief that you are ‘stuck’ being exactly as you are has done more to determine the course of your life than you probably ever imagined.” Depending on whether I am feeling self-loathing or self-pity, sometimes I suspect this claim provides me with something to blame and sometimes it is a consolation.

I began this post with my early college experience because I have been experiencing a sort of déjà vu. The Royal Tenenbaums feels relevant again and, again, I feel burnt out and incapable of focusing. Again, or rather still, I feel alienated from my identity as a student. Since the second grade, I have been Very Smart and Very Good at School, but in some ways it has always felt like going through the motions, doing the things I was supposed to do because I was obedient and they were relatively easy.

In seventh grade, I won my school’s spelling bee, and I remember flipping through the study materials for the county bee. I didn’t want to prepare, though, and merely felt full of dread that I would have to do this thing. In the end, I hardly studied, if at all, and I placed second at the county bee. I do remember the outfit I wore there, which included a salmon pink knitted vest from The Gap (I don’t know, it was 1995). And I remember feeling frustrated that the local paper made it appear that I had lost on a very easy word (“bombastic”), when in fact the one I had gone out on, which I have conveniently forgotten, was much more difficult. The article in the paper asked me how I felt about the outcome, and I told them the truth: that the boy who won wanted it much more than I had. I knew this was not his first time at the spelling bee, and that he had studied exhaustively. I simply hadn’t embarrassed myself doing something I didn’t particularly relish.

And so I always did what I was supposed to do, until I left college for a year (and it is very hard, it turns out, to have your parents tell you they are disappointed in you). But then I went back and continued doing the things that people said I was good at, which was writing essays. I am fine at writing essays, but this is not enough, it turns out, when writing a dissertation. And while most of the time being a good student means eliciting praise, being a grad student means a near-constant feeling of dread about feedback, about performance. I have always had an intense fear of punishment and disapproval, so this is problematic for me. And the funny thing about graduate school is that you can be a very good student at every level until you enter a PhD program, and then it may suddenly turn out that you are not a very good student anymore at all. (This is not to say I am actually a terrible grad student, just a self-deprecating one and not a star.) And it wouldn’t matter if you were still good, because there really are no jobs in this field, but even if there were jobs, that wouldn’t change this slide into misery.

Why didn’t I read the signs better? The spelling bee, or the fact that I sabotaged my personal essay for the most prestigious college I applied to but did not wish to attend. It’s like when everyone realizes that Margot Tenenbaum was a smoker all along.

So, then, what are the things I haven’t thought I could do? Should I be doing them now? When I left college, that failure was in a way delicious. I had never done it before, and I felt that I needed to leave to know that it would be okay to fail or to do something that wasn’t just exactly right. I am not going to leave graduate school willy-nilly, without a plan or if I determine that leaving ABD would be a terrible mistake, but I can’t say the pull isn’t there to just say, fuck it all.

So, how do you discover who you are when the mantle you’ve shouldered all this time has been a sham?

Endless possibility

Academia felt like the only possible path for me for only a short time, after I graduated from college but didn’t know what else to do with myself. These days, I’m not sure yet what my post-academic field will be, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about other options. Last weekend, the manager of a department-store fragrance counter asked me if I’d “worked in fragrance” because of a particular turn-of-phrase I’d used, and I’d had to explain that no, I only spend too much time on the Internet. My other response, though was, “I wish,” and I was almost tempted to ask her how to get a job. At a department-store fragrance counter. Then I realized that those sales people probably work on commission, which is a situation I probably wouldn’t love.

Anyway, these are some of my career ideas:

Publishing
If I had to choose one field I’d really like to work in, I think this would be it. I do have experience in this area, and I think I would enjoy editorial, publicity, or marketing work. I don’t know if my current experience would be enough to get me an entry-level position, or if I’d need an internship or even a certificate from a publishing program to be a better candidate. An issue: I don’t think I want to live in New York.

Women’s Lingerie
I wore the wrong bra size for years when I was younger, and it drives me nuts that although I do not have an exceptionally large or small bust, I can maybe find one style of bra in my size at Victoria’s Secret (seriously, they are the worst). There’s nothing in my size at, say, Target or other places that are generally within a grad student’s budget. Thank goodness for Nordstrom Rack. Maybe this is silly, but the idea of helping women find properly fitting bras seems like something that could give me a lot of satisfaction. An issue: No retail experience. Would I want to work retail, even in a little specialty shop?

Women’s Health
I don’t want to go to medical school, and I don’t think I want to become a nurse, but I can imagine being some kind of healthcare para-professional. And when I say “women’s health” I mean “abortion providers.” Like bra fitting, the right to choose is really important to me, and is a cause I’d enjoy supporting. (Okay, yeah, the first half of that sentence is maybe kind of crazy.) One of my issues with academic work, though, is that it doesn’t feel meaningful anymore. In this field, I would certainly feel like my work mattered. An issue: No idea what actual position I’m imagining here, or what kind of additional education it would require.

Aesthetics
Seriously, wouldn’t ripping hair out of a strange woman’s crotch be kind of a great stress reliever? Issues: Strange women’s crotches. Also, I have no experience with professional waxing.

I’m not surprised that many of the paths I’ve considered (more or less seriously) involve lady stuff, although it is with some humor that I acknowledge that they tend to involve, well, ladies’ stuff. Honestly, I don’t know what that’s about.

Practically speaking, I also don’t know how many jobs fit my interests and aptitudes and aren’t dying professions. When I floated the idea of publishing to my mother, her response was, “Does that even still exist? Isn’t it like journalism?” Similarly, I can see myself enjoying library work, but I don’t want to go to library school only to have to find yet another field with a better outlook.

Also, I think “publishing” has become a sort of stand-in for any sort of work involving writing, editing, research, or informal teaching skills. For some reason, I have a shakier sense of what kinds of professional work I might enjoy. In some ways, because I’ve been a student for so long, I still have a very limited, child-like notion of what kinds of careers people can have—If I don’t want to be a doctor or lawyer or firefighter or ballerina or astronaut, then what? I’m exaggerating, but to an extent I do have some of the same issues I had six years ago of imagining something else. I do think I would be happy as, say, a technical writer or editor, or a copywriter/editor. Actually, one of my dream jobs would be writing catalog copy. Anthropologie, call me.

In the meantime, I hope my appointment at my university’s career center next week will answer some of my questions and give me some new ideas.