Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Ghost Buster: Ruminations on academics, the recession and other scary things

Why am I blogging at 1:00 am? Let me tell you why.

Just came back from a late night coffee with Chanbong and K aka Kultur-Vulture (a very appropriate name, I think). Given that we are three grad students who were drinking nothing stronger than black tea (on St. Patricks day no less)- I think it is highly commendable that we a) managed to stay out significantly late b) got drunk undergrad boys to spontaneously and only half-ironically dance/gyrate for us on the street (attesting to the the power of blasting Britney Spears' Circus) and c) combined the above activities with a meandering chat about literature, East Asian pop culture and Milan Kundera.

As we were heading back and I was innocently seat-dancing to Rihanna (yes it was an unabashedly pop kind of night) K happened to bring up the fact that he has seen two ghosts in his life- one while driving with his brother and the second in his apartment complex. Actually, be brought this up because we saw a white plastic bag drifting along the street in the darkness (in a decidedly non-American Beautyish way) and I remarked how freaky it looked. This prompted K to tell the story, backed up by some impressively visible goose bumps. Anyone that knows me knows that I do not react well to ghost stories while simultaneously being fascinated by them - particularly in the night. As usual, I was terrified and curious and now here I am unable to sleep, starting at every passing noise with all the lights in the house blazing.

So what turns out to be my distinct loss (sleep), turns into the blog's gain (posting at long last)...

In the spirit (no pun intended) of the night, I shall reflect on some truly scary things - like the recession, academia and how the link between the two is really, truly frightening.

Is it just me or was this spring break not like other spring breaks? Granted that in Syracuse the term 'Spring Break' always seems cruelly inappropriate when you're wading through inches of snow and fighting arctic winds. But this time a combination of factors made this the least spring breaky-spring break yet.

It was not meant to be this way. At the start of the week I had visions of multiple long and rambling posts on the blog, slow cooked meals which I could savor and put away for later, catching up on a few good films and reading at least a few great books. Hanging out with friends and sleeping in also ranked high on the agenda. As my previous post said it was all wonderful to start with but now that it's all over, I'm confronted with the realization that I cooked one dish only, hung out with friends only on the first day of the break, watched one bad movie and read one good book. I spent 4 days in school in my usual bay, staring at the computer screen.

But there was a particular sense of blah that pervaded this break. And I'm pretty sure a lot of it had to do with the recession.

Yes it has been around for a while (and the signs are all around us) but it's only in the last few weeks that I've realized how utterly and completely screwed we are. From conversations with faculty who grimace at the words 'job market' and shrug apologetically as they admit they will NEVER retire, to the nyt article that had us all reaching for a stiff drink/xanax - it's clear that not only are things going to be miserable generally, they're going to be particularly bad for those in the early stages of academic careers and fabulously horrible for those in the final years of our PhDs. Guess where I am?

My friends, it is time to worry when the advice of faculty that previously told you to 'get out of grad school fast' becomes 'stall as long as you can' and when they won't even cheer you up with such platitudes as 'you'll be fine'. Another sign of the times is the particular new inflections and tropes in the perennial 'why did I choose this' conversation that most grad students have had (with each other or with themselves). Previously the conversation went something like this:

Grad Student 1: " I'm stressed and poor and mildly sick... and I'm never going to finish this dissertation and my friends all have jobs and houses and kids. Why did I choose this again?"

Grad Student 2: "I know! It's so hard to get a good academic job- I don't want to be stuck teaching at some crappy college. I should have just stayed in (insert much better paying, private sector job that was deemed unsatisfying and soul killing). If only I had (insert road not taken)"

Grad Student 3: "Yeah, I totally understand. What was I thinking? But now it's too late to do anything else. I'm not even sure I can do anything else. But god, I'm poor and stressed and I'll never finish this dissertation...."

(and so it goes....until)

Grad Student 4: "Yes, it's really hard and maybe we're crazy but think about it- would you really be happy doing something else? Isn't this what you wanted to do?"

Grad Student 1: "Sigh...yes, you're right. I would go crazy sitting in meetings all day."

Grad Student 2: "Yes, that's true. And I do love teaching sometimes"

Grad Student 3: "No, I really do hate this. I'm leaving/ I want out. Bye"

You get the picture. We've all had this conversation at one time or the other- and if you're lucky, you're student no. 4 and you really love teaching or you love your work and despite all the uncertainty and stresses of academia- you really never feel as alive and happy as when you're in it.

But now the conversation has changed- sure, there's no longer too many friends to compare ourselves to. Everyone is vulnerable or constrained in this atmosphere. But now there is little room for debate and ambiguity,now the conversation goes:

Grad Student 1: "God this is so BAD. We're soo screwed - no one is going to retire, no one is hiring, no one has money, there are no postdocs, no jobs....just no no no"

Grad Student 2" " Of all the rotten luck in the world! I'll do anything - heck i'd be happy to teach 4 courses in some crappy college in the middle of no where. What's going to happen to us? "

Grad Student 3: "No idea. We've got to stall"

Grad Student 2: "For how long? And on what? And for what, in the end?"

Grad Student 4: "Yes, it's really hard and maybe we're crazy but think about it- would you really be happy doing something else? Isn't this what you wanted to do?" (Voice weakly peters out...)

Deafening silence and sighs...

But it's not all bad. Let me say how much I enjoyed chatting with Chanbong and K (up until the ghost stories). There was a moment when we were sitting in the little bubble tea place and K was talking animatedly about why the Chinese are so enamored with Foucault that I thought... 'This is why I love my friends.' I'm heartened by such chats and such friends in a world and a mileu where reading and being literate in the broad sense of the term is seen as a waste of time.

So it got me thinking yet again- can one be truly literate without a vast canvas and array of interests? Or am I being naive and unfocused, to my detriment? So many successful people in academia are remarkably disciplined about how they use not just their time but also their brain space- they hardly extend themselves outside their area of research and their work. And this is the model prescribed to grad students too. On the other hand, so many of the people I admire in public life are conversant and engaged with things beyond what they do. They're interested in the human condition as it is manifested in different things- art, music, books, people, activism. I wonder often if this is a luxury you have to 'earn'- maybe after tenure or when you've done the hard slog. If so, are people like me just fundamentally misfits in the structure and rewards system of (American) academia? It's a question I've thought about often and one that I am beginning to hear more and more in the way my friends question the norms of graduate school and academic life. In the past few weeks I've heard more and more the following types of questions : Is it worth it to constantly feel stressed and competitive? Why is that the normative reasons that drive many of us to come to graduate school get taken over so quickly with the drive to succeed, compete and 'produce'? Why are those things defined the way they are? Is it worth it to not do the things you love- whether it is yoga or spending time with family or writing- in order to achieve some abstract and increasingly more uncertain reward in the future? How can we meaningfully live within these dominant norms and still be fulfilled in some deeper sense? Is asking these questions itself pointless?

I'm not sure I know how I feel about these questions. I think the balance between who you are with who you want to be is a tough one to reconcile and manage but I'm trying to internalize the value in trying not to be someone I can't be. Confused? So am I.


Heather said...

You're right Light light I am SOOO confused!!! Thank you for putting into words much of my current malaise... but is this supposed to make me feel better or worse about feeling so unmotivated?

*SIGH* to the nth degree...

chanbong said...

I LOVE this post (not just because you mention me, haha!)
It's a bummer that you stood up all night, though... Next time (although I hope that time never comes) call me. I have so many boring stories you'll fall asleep in a heartbeat.

lightlight said...

Aww Thank you Chanbong though you would never bore me :)

prpriya said...

I think the grass is always greener - you just have to try to appreciate what you have, without getting so complacent that you stop striving to improve yourself/ your circumstances.

Also, I think almost every job in the world involves stress and competition. The biggest irony was working at Talwar gallery - if art isn't about kicking back and reflecting any more, then what has the world come to?

Perhaps all of this is a symptom of the mass 'corporatization' that's affecting everyone, even in the unlikeliest of situations. And that's probably connected to the loss of imagination or 'dumbing down' of society at large.

Hail to the misfits!