Category Archives: Academia

Soft-Spoken in Academia

HallIs there a place for soft-spoken introverts in the competitive fast-paced aggressively limited-time-offer college-industrial complex? The short answer is no. The long answer is no, thank goodness.

I don’t speak often, and when I do, people usually tell me to speak up, and when I do, I try to hand the conversation to someone else. I don’t dislike contributing. What I dislike is overtly dominating conversations, steering them in one direction or another, or making an effort to gain control of the dialogue if I’ve somehow lost it. More than introversion, I prefer to be independently passive, rather than participate actively. I am neither competitive nor aggressive.

What I noticed in teaching an introductory rhetoric class last semester is that students primarily want to know how to win an argument. They want to know how to prove they are right, regardless of whether or not they are in the first place. My pedagogy class last semester reinforced the notion that rhetoric is a competition, and that arguing is an ideal way to participate in society. Academics I have interacted with in higher ed reflect this way of thinking, and it is reflected in the academic system as a whole. A recent conversation I had with scholars (in which I listened exclusively) about recent trends in academia emphasized the need for scholars to publish early and often, to make themselves known through websites and social media, and to compete aggressively for funding and jobs in an already over-saturated market and in fields (the sciences and humanities) that the President and Congress intend to attack in purely symbolic anti-intellectual gestures.

This institutional turn coincided with tuition hikes that have mostly funded increased college administration rather than faculty. The college-industrial complex imposes competition onto both students and faculty, but industrialization might be an overused metaphor, one that is accurate from an outsider’s perspective but does not reflect experiences on the ground level. Instead, it feels like an ecosystem, some stretch of the Great Plains where insects, birds, prairie dogs, and vegetation compete for survival. Academia feels Darwinian because those who do well are those who are aggressive, loud, eager, quick, and uncritical. The push to publish early and often requires faculty to sacrifice either quality or spare time, and students are pushed through an assembly line toward a diploma to simply qualify for numerous jobs, with no time for learning outside their designated specialty. Describing undergraduate requirements as paths and timelines also reinforces the need for students to specialize rather than explore. It’s no wonder so many of my students last semester said they enrolled in an English class to add to their ability to compete, by winning arguments.

And here I am, a shy listener who wants to learn from others more than I believe I can teach them. I won’t thrive in the ecosystem because I value quality over quantity, patience over immediate feedback, and listening over contributing. I consume more ideas than I produce, and as such, I’m not making anything universities can exploit for advertisement or prestige.

I do not contribute to the system, because the system does not run on patience and scruples. It is fueled by the production of ideas, the teeming blue schools of links clicked on a given day, the riptides of steady marketable publications. There is not an overpopulation of ideas, and I do not mean to dismiss self-expression. But there is not a place in the current scheme of things for the soft-spoken, for people who are here to learn regardless of what degrees I may or may not get out of it. I don’t fit in. Maybe that’s a good thing.


Exciting Spring Break Plans for Grad Students

Spring BreakLet’s face it: Spring Break is an undergrad’s game. Most of them flock to some sunny island whose painful history of colonization you learned about last week in a story form PRI’s The World. Grad students just don’t have the time or money or energy for a ritzy vacation, but that doesn’t mean they can’t have a glamorous Spring Break from the comfort of their university. There are many fun activities grad students can enjoy.

  1. Grade! Spring Break is a great time to catch up on the forty papers your students turned in three weeks ago. Knowing that two thirds of your students will probably go to the obscure Caribbean island you mentioned in your lecture about neo-colonialism will make it easier to point out their spelling mistakes.
  2. Enjoy the library! There’s a fifty percent chance your university library will be torn down to make room for another Business Administration building, so enjoy it while it lasts! Remember, the triple-major out-of-state undergrad running both checkout desks at the library during Spring Break is probably as miserable as you are.
  3. Find places to publish your articles! It’s an exciting time be writing in academia, almost as exciting as a train wreck, but finding the right journal takes time. Whether it’s a case study proving that spiders have more successful dating lives than you do or a new argument about something Shakespeare once wrote, academic journals are eager to publish high quality caffeine/wine-fueled work.
  4. Enjoy public broadcasting! There’s a seventy-six percent chance that NPR and PBS will lose all their funding soon, so enjoy them while you can! Remember, the new administration probably won’t imprison you for supporting them, but if you stream PBS on your laptop or listen to NPR while microwaving your last hot dog, the government will know.
  5. Taxes! You still have time to file your taxes, and between grading forty papers and apologizing to your committee for the typos in your 400-page dissertation about John Carpenter’s The Thing and applying for the same teaching position that 250 more qualified graduates are also applying for, this is your chance! What could be better?
  6. Binge watching while binge drinking! Catch up on your favorite obscure foreign-language Caribbean documentaries you heard about on PRI’s The World or rewatch your favorite sitcom for the seventh time! Remember, one bottle of vodka per season.
  7. Find conferences you can’t afford! You have an idea for a paper to present at the Fall Interdisciplinary Shakespeare in the Caribbean Conference held in the ever-lovely Fargo, North Dakota, and even if you can’t afford to attend, you can still submit your proposal and fantasize about the bus ride to Fargo.

This is your time. You’re a grad student; you’re socially awkward and prefer the company of cynics and hipsters, and you prefer dedicating your time to research and analysis, because without it, you’d go crazy. What is there to do on a sunny beach with hours of boring free time, anyway?


My Heroes Have Always Been Teachers

archivesAs a child, I wanted to be a scientist. Astronomy called to me, but so did biology, zoology, ecology, geology, and entomology. The world was colossal, and to a youngshysmallguy, science was a way to make it less scary. Diseases, meteors, and volcanoes didn’t have to be terrifying as long as someone could show me how to figure out how and why they worked.

Scientists were my heroes because their superpowers (analysis, facts, cool lab coats) were all things I could acquire without being bitten by radioactive nerds or being born on another planet. They used logic and knowledge to solve problems, and I wanted to do the same. The world was colossally scary, and knowledge made it more comfortable to live in.

When I realized that my existential angst about politics and terrorism could be alleviated the same way, I started to study history, religion, geopolitics, literature, and somehow wandered into writing. I left behind old heroes for new ones, but my heroes were still teachers helping me make sense of the world.

This country is brutal to those who teach literature and art, but it is just as brutal to science teachers, who face an ugly twofold set of challenges: First, American traditional values that scrutinize and punish teachers for discussing science that disrupts the status quo, from evolution (contrary to religious conservatism) to climate change (a threat to capitalism). Secondly, there is the marketplace that teachers must prepare science students for, and competition for jobs and grants can be limiting. Humanities teachers face the same set of challenges, but they have enough irony and bitterness to make themselves feel better about it.

Obviously, education systems are far from perfect. Many public schools are underfunded, and university faculty face scrutiny from students, voters, and states. Even under ideal circumstances, teaching requires long, draining hours, and my own experiences with teaching so far attest to that workload. Individual teachers must work against these forces and use what intellectual energy they have left to assure students that the world, as horrifying as it is, can make sense. Teaching requires profound courage in the face of limited resources coupled with deliberate opposition. The best teachers  I had possessed a superpower, and only now do I realize that their superpower was the strength to keep teaching through the cacophony of discouraging voices.

It’s a power I may not possess myself. The new administration is making education even harder with its intentions to cut funding for the humanities and restrict scientists from making scientific facts public. Trump’s pick for Secretary of Education is a tangible threat to public school teachers, given the likelihood that she will push for cutting funds to public education while supporting education’s privatization, which potentially allows leaders in the private sector to control the education of their workforce.

And yet dedicated teachers push forward to understand the increasingly ugly world. I gave up science for writing, but they cannot be separated. Science meets politics and history, and we meet them back with art and social science and language. Teachers now face the full power of the state and its worst citizens, and it now requires even greater moral courage than before to teach science and literature. We need social studies teachers unafraid to tell students what their rights are, biology teachers who are not attacked for discussing climate change,  and history teachers who are not punished for pointing out this country’s hideous past and present of slavery and internment and anti-immigration policies. This country is a furnace of anti-intellectual interests, and it takes strength to teach despite those interests.

I draw my own courage from the quiet heroism of educators I’ve been lucky enough to know, the ones who brought me to this point, uncertain and bitter but not confused. Afraid, but not afraid to know more, to pull back the curtain and look for how and why and what now.


Reflections on a First Semester of Teaching

pedagogy-2To the astonishment of many, I finished my first semester as a graduate instructor, and I now have a break from graduately instructing people. I have ambitious writing goals for the break (two new stories, four revisions, eight submissions), and I intend to stick to those goals (not just because my nonfiction instructor challenged me to email her if I succeeded), and now that I’ve submitted final grades, I have time to think about my first time being fully responsible teaching forty-six people to write arguments.

I still mostly don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m learning and have learned plenty, and I now know what not to do (mostly). Even with a syllabus, plans change, and even when I realize a lesson plan is about to fail (much like hope or democracy) ten minutes into class, I still have to go through with it. Teaching is a kind of theater, and I can hide my uncertainties about a lesson plan well enough.

I should be honest with my students, but not too honest. Teaching is still theater, but actors bring pieces of themselves on stage when they perform, even in subtle ways. I don’t want to be a mysterious professorfiguredude, because I’m not. I’m a graduate instructor trying to figure out the mechanics of a syllabus and how to factor in participation. I should be honest with my students if I make a mistake, and I expect the same from my students (and despite this semester’s rough patches, I still have high expectations).

A good cohort makes teaching easier, and not just because it’s lovely to have a group of friends with whom I can praise and complain about students, plan lessons, work on assignments, and stay motivated. It also helps to have people who need to stress-drink as much as I do.

A bad lesson plan does not make a bad semester, and I often have a hard time remembering that. Mistakes might feel worse and worse as the semester goes on, but it helps to remember that over Winter Break, students will forget most of them, and in a few years I probably will too.

Hypocrisy is inevitable, and that’s also okay. I’m a quiet student, and when confronted with a class of people who, like me, are very quiet, I’m forced to be speak more, because avant-garde pedagogy in which students and teachers sit in a room silently meditating on a reading is very uncomfortable. It’s hard to fill fifty minutes three times a week with discussions and lectures, and it makes me want to apologize to all my professors for having been such an aggressively quiet student.

A new semester means a new syllabus, which means countless more ways to make mistakes and learn, but now I know what to expect.


The Novel That Wasn’t (But Will Be)

library-books-2The last time I wrote anything for NaNoWriMo this year was November 8. After November 9, I mysteriously lost interest in a genre-bending crime-western about four elderly women who witness a murder and can only recall the gritty details of a bad acid trip they had together in their college days in the late 1960s.

I still have that overwhelming disinterest now, as I apply for more graduate schools in the humanities, an area continually asked to justify its existence to university administrators who want higher salaries for themselves at the expense of faculty and student budgets. We’re constructed as the enemy, put on watchlists by paranoid Internet users, and made to be reminded that our pursuit of art is a waste of time in a fastpacedgrabitall economy. What good is an MFA to a post-apocalyptic society struggling to save the last bee colony? What good is a genre-bending novel to a pipeline oil leak? In a few years, will we even be publishing novels?

So I put it aside. I was also busy studying and teaching. I want to enjoy the rest of my education; I don’t know if I’ll have an opportunity to enjoy it again. It’s a lot of work for little, if any, profit. I’m lucky I have no student debts, but every time I look at the news, I can’t help but feel that I’ve squandered my education for a pursuit that now only exists to sustain itself. The power of the written word has betrayed us. The written, texted, tweeted word can be undeniably a lie, and people still believe it. Meanwhile, if a poem goes viral, it only reaches the people who already love it.

I still have the urge to write, though. I enjoy it, when I manage to find the time and peace. Even this meager blog is satisfying. It’s work, pleasurable work, but it can’t exist only for me. The most successful writer, as I’ve heard, is the one who can write a story and put it in a drawer forever. Until I reach that level of inner peace, I need an audience. Maybe this post will reach someone who needs it, or at least enjoys it. Probably not. I want to be realistic about my prospects, but the pleasure I derive from writing propels me forward through this muddy, hopeless, disgusting month.

I’ll get back to my novel soon. I don’t think a genre-bending novel will make a difference, but if I ever stop writing, the anti-intellectuals win. If they want me to justify my existence as a writer, reader, and academic, I’ll have to give them one hell of a novel full of well-written dynamic characters and compassionate portrayals of inner conflicts and meticulous attention to the beauty of environmental and historical landscapes. I’d rather write hopelessly than not at all.


Filling Office Hours

officeYou sit down at your desk awaiting students with questions. Some have already sent you emails with one concern or another; they have questions and it’s your job to answer them in office hours. So you wait.

You check your email; nothing. In looking at your schedule, you see you have readings, papers, and writing to do. You begin one project casually, expecting students to pop in. You’ve done that countless times to other professors, after all.

You finish your first project and check your email; nothing. Good. More time to write. You write. You write some more. You look up, and there’s a student, but she’s looking for another professor and is lost. You feel smugly accomplished as an educator for helping a lost student find the answer to her question (room 345, third floor, past the weird-smelling book case).

You revise an essay, check your email, and find yourself interested in the political spam in your inbox. You sign some petitions, feeling less accomplished than when you saved that student’s career that one time half an hour ago. No, ten minutes. Has it really only been ten minutes since?

You begin a new writing project and look up, just in case. Yes, you are happy you have this time to get things done, but what if your students have questions? What if they didn’t understand the assignments? What if their email just isn’t working? You want to be a good instructor; you want to be accessible. It’s the first part of your teaching statement, and you want to be like those other professors you had who were so available, so accessible, to save your life with their marvelous answers.

This time you simultaneously check your email and your syllabus to see if you listed the correct office hours and room number. Yes. Students can access it. You keep writing.

No students come by. Soon your office hours are done and you have completed all your work for the next week, plus submitted an essay to a literary magazine. Before heading out for lunch, you check your email one more time to find you have a new email from a student inquiring about the first paper’s requirements. Finally, you think, relaxing back in your seat, the work can begin.


Running Into Foucault at the Supermarket

cash stash

So there you are at the supermarket deciding whether or not it’s a macaroni and cheese week or more of a spaghetti week, and you turn a corner and there he is, Michel Foucault, judging wine in the wine section. You stare for a moment; his basket is mostly bread and wine and a pair of binoculars, and then he sees you, and it’s too late. He’s going to ask you if you’ve read his books yet. There’s no escaping it. You smile, he smiles. You ask him about the wine. He’s polite enough when you tell him no, not yet, but it’s in your reading list, you promise. You apologize, so he’s probably not hurt. Right?

It doesn’t help that Jacques Derrida is backing up the cash register with all his cheese cakes. He asks you how it’s going, but reads more into your answer of “fine” than you thought he would. You smile and ask him how Bourdieu is, but Derrida just keeps going on and on about how Foucault ruined his dinner party, and he’s throwing another one this evening with a book signing and everything, and you’re welcome to come of course, and you say no, so he guesses correctly that the subtext of “no” is actually “I’m so sorry but I still haven’t gotten to your work, please forgive me for being the skunk-flavored latte that I am.” You buy your spaghetti in silence.

You drop by the bank on your way home. While waiting in line you get bored, so you get on Tinder, and then there he is, Foucault, looking all smug in his first picture. Casually, you read his bio, which is the most Foucault you’ve actually read. “French writer and critic up for whatever. Let’s be visible together.” Your only common interest is wine; you swipe left after a moment’s hesitation.

You make it home, put away the spaghetti, and start working on your laundry. At the laundromat, you see Foucault again, leaning over a table with a pile of dark clothes, some of them folded. He is on his phone, his thumbs padding on the screen furiously. He doesn’t see you, thank God. You dump your clothes into a machine fast, cram in the quarters, and realize you’re one short. You turn around; Foucault is gone, clothes and all.

You should have said hello; he might have spared you a quarter. You begin crawling on the floor to look for a quarter someone might have dropped. You try, perhaps desperately, to remember where you left Foucault’s book on your shelf, with your unread Freud or your unread Butler. Sometime you’ll get to it all, but you are still short by a quarter. You think, “You will always be short a quarter,” but can’t remember if that’s existentialism or postmodernism or something else altogether. Either way, you are now covered in dust and you still don’t have a quarter. Like always.