Monday, February 9, 2015

A little backpedaling

[I edited this when I realized I had missed an entire person!]

I was at dim sum on Sunday with a bunch of Wellesley alums, most of whom were fairly recently graduated. And I start going into my bitter spiel about "don't go to graduate school, it just drains your twenties away and leaves you no better off, etc etc..."

Which, in many ways, was true for me.  But was that graduate school, or me?


I look at my other friends from Wellesley who have gone into English doctoral programs (four [edit: five] other women from my class did, whom I know personally): all four of them are working in academia, either as tenure track professors at liberal arts colleges, visiting professors, or tenure track at community colleges. The only one who isn't is me! Two of us, the one who went ot the most top notch program, and me, are no longer in academia. Here's her story of what her last couple years in academia we re like and why she left.  So -- clearly my lack of success at hitting the benchmarks in grad school was not a lack of preparedness. All of my fellow grads did attend more highly ranked graduate school programs than I did, and every little bit helps. But if I'm the aberration, what does that mean? And despite the other alum also leaving academia, I think my lack of a foothold post-grad school does kind of make me an aberration -- or just someone who didn't "want it" enough to submit to all the instability that goes with being a journey(wo)man academic.

Perhaps what I should be telling people, especially young happy Wellesley alums immersed in their first year of research, instead of "Don't go to grad school," is, "Listen to your gut. If you despise the formulae of academic writing as it's practiced in English graduate school, and feel like a fish out of water in all your graduate school courses, reconsider your choices. If teaching requires all your energy and you hate having no money for almost a decade, don't be stubborn for the sake of it. If you fail your first quals once and have to revise your prospectus twice, think about what the professors in your department are trying to tell you. Find what you love and don't try to make yourself love something you can't quite do."

Starting out, I wanted to talk about poetry, not poetics. I wanted the option of being a cheerleader for writers, I started down the aborted path of researching the economics of publishing and the acts of gate-keeping around designating certain pieces of writing "literature." I even thought, early on, of writing my dissertation on love poetry, before I realized that was so passe as to be impossible within the expectations that a 200 page dissertation will somehow "change the field as we know it."

None of that really has a place in academia, and while I love the personal freedom of designating your own schedule, not having a boss in a conventional sense, and the wonderful hard thinking required of truly delving deeply into how a work of art comes to mean, I should have realized when I was so full of doubt about my place in grad school and academia, that yes, part of it is institutional, but part of it was just me.

I like writing fun pieces just because they interest me, not because they are going to "change the field." I like to think about how I react to poetry, not necessarily about the philosophical underpinnings of it. And I am so very far from writing at the level of prolificacy needed to succeed in academia -- the churn, churn, churn -- that I think for me, it was not the right fit.

I do still plan to speak long and loudly (whenever do I do elsewise?) to young people who want to go to grad school without knowing that only 25% of those entering the program will get TT jobs of any kind. That adjuncting is on the rise. That they need to experience teaching and writing before they dive into a profession based on that. That it's as much of a gamble as anything else. That undergrad experience bears the same resemblance to grad school as a potato to a shoe. That women, in particular, have a hard time in a profession that doesn't value balancing the demands of having a family and the achievements needed for tenure. That they have to be willing to move to the South. And then the midwest, and then Texas. And whatever coastal city they studied in will not be where they land in the end (unless maybe it was Boston).

But really, Wellesley women, you'll probably be just fine. Based on the tiny set of statistics of the class of '04, you have a 80% 66% chance of achieving your dreams! Woohoo!

And maybe my fellow flee-er from academia and I will have a new kind of story to tell in a few years....

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