Saturday, January 07, 2006

Behind Blue Eyes

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Reading La Lecturess about the Green-Eyed monster of job-market jealousy got me thinking about the colored eyes of other emotions. Red is anger, yellow is slyness or cowardice, black is fury, brown either sadness or sweetness. And of course, brown eyes turn blue, at least in songs, with melancholy.

Tonight I saw the caller ID of an old student on my phone, and I was stupid enough to pick it up. I like this one; she is together, foreign, and really, really smart. She also a little butch thing, 24 going on 40. She thought she wanted a graduate degree. Now she's completely freaked out. I can hear the cognitive dissonence pulling her two ears out from the middle of her head when she speaks the names of her professors. Her voice is full of respect, but the content of her words is bewildered, disillusioned.

It seems graduate school isn't what she thought it would be. She wanted a Master's, maybe more. Now she's horrified by teachers who call her racist when she does a presentation on an assigned politically questionable theoretical essay, an essay by a professor in her department who she looks up to. She can't figure out how to critique it but knows she wants to. Still, he's the most prestigious name she knows. What can she say?

The teacher who assigned the presentation is cross. Why can't the student critique this guy? The student is adrift. Who is she to have an opinion about anything? She thought she could follow. She thought wise ones would lead her, letting her take baby steps to knowledge.

I hear the despair in her voice. My heart sinks. I'm not there anymore. Why do I still have to be part of this? But I like her, so I breathe deep and try. "Look, there are only two kinds of jobs. You know that, right? There are research one jobs and high-teaching jobs. Research one jobs are the ones everyone in graduate school thinks they are going to get. High teaching-load jobs are the jobs most people REALLY get."

She is quiet on the other end. I paused. "What I am telling you, is that if you don't want to teach, and teach a lot, don't bother going to graduate school. Things may work out differently for you, but almost everyone I know who is happy and valued in their jobs is teaching at least three courses a semester or quarter. You will be LUCKY if you get a job like this. Imagine it. Now see how you feel." I knew how I felt. Suddenly I wanted to tell her more. I wanted to tell her how fun teaching could be. I wanted to explain the joy of writing so intensely you forgot your body, your room, your hunger. I wanted to reassure her that the time could come when she would be rewarded for her diligence, but that diligence really was its own reward, no matter what the world thinks of you. I wanted to warn her and encourage her, protect her and scold her, guarantee that heaven awaited her and show her the fiery pits of hell. I wanted, in short, to download my life into her hard drive, and hope that she learned something useful from it all.

There was noise on the phone and I asked what was going on. She was taking the stairs down to the lobby to let in a friend who had dropped by. "I have to go," she said "but we should talk later." I was quiet.

"Look, all I'm saying is that you have to think about what you want to do, what you really, really want," I told her crossly, a shrill note entering my voice. "Don't take your unhappiness, use it to commit yourself to even more grad school, and then justify the whole process because you are sure that among all the hundreds of public university graduate students out there, you will be the one to land the perfect job that will make your life perfect and your choices all seem perfect and your poverty perfect and your sexuality perfect. Don't marry your best friend for a green card, then follow him to New York for graduate school because he wants to an NYU film degree. Think. What do you want? What do you want? What?"

"I have to go," she said, "but this has been a really good conversation. We should talk soon. I'll think about what you've said."

She hung up and I felt sick and sad. I wanted to tell her to go to grad school for the Ph. D. I wanted to tell her that the last thing she should do is go to more grad school. I wanted not to care. I wanted out of this moment.

But there is no outside. There will never be one. I think about the composite Tiresius, and wonder if there were things he'd found out that he'd rather forget. I can add on to who I am, but I cannot subtract who I have been, and every now and then, no matter what disguise I am wearing, someone who sees the professor I always was and always will be in my heart will call me back into the life I can only pretend to have left behind me forever, and my eyes will flash all the colors of the rainbow as I struggle to tell them something that is about them, and not about me, not about loss, and despair, and utter futility, but about the joy of a thing done for itself, for its challenge and discipline, its optimism, and all of its aching hope.

5 comments:

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

You're right about there only being two kinds of academic jobs (my woes are because I'm working at an R1), but there are also several kinds of grad students who get the "dream" jobs:
1. the productive genius (rare, but this is that really smart person who is either persistent or lucky and gets a bunch of their interesting work published early and often)
2. the productive schmuck (common, this is the person driven only by numbers, publishing any and every piece of crap they can muster; they are prolific but careless, and always perfunctory--they get the job because they have a huge vita and they won't challenge the dogmas of any of the senior faculty)
3. the not productive enough genius (these are the people you looked up to in grad school; they are sharp and amazing, but too cautious or unlucky in publishing; half teeter on in isolation; half meet an unkind fate at tenure time; yet a a quarter of them end up blossoming when they are good and ready on their own damn timetable)
4. the lucky schmuck (this person isn't really productive or insightful, but they have a good heart and they got got sucked into the system; oddly, some of them land in good jobs because they are in the right place at the right time; they end up as compromise hires in volatile departments or in departments in transition; more unbelievably, they almost always get tenure; they are the unproductive and relatively clueless people you often see sitting around the conference room table in seminars or faculty meetings).

Yidg had a professor who once told her that the need for a PhD was like a sickness. You had to feel like you would die if you didn't get a PhD--if you didn't feel that way, then it wasn't for you. I partly believe that, but I also think that the perception of the professor's life is so enchanting that most of us block out the odds and the reality and hope that we will be #1 instead of the #3 that we know is our destiny. Just look at everyone's new year resolutions for confirmation. Only a #3 vows to write more because on a #3 knows that they aren't doing enough even though they also know they have the skills to succeed.
---
Oh, this post seems like a good companion piece to Scrivener's story about college.

Sfrajett said...

The only thing I would add to your fabulous list is to emphasize even more than you do that #1 and #3 are fantasies of the self, and the one we pick to "really" know who we are is going to determine whether in fact we end up as a #1 or a #3. Which is kind of what you intimate. The problem is that we are most of us #3s, because couldn't we all publish just a bit more than we do? If we think of ourselves as #3s, then we can blame ourselves for our fate, which is what They want us to do. That way it's not the fault of bad departments, unstable publishing industries, personal bias, politics. It's always just us and our insufficient ways.

#3s, unite! you have nothing to lose but your castrating self-designations.

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

Right you are. The castration principle looms large and relieves the system of responsibility (and guilt). Plus, like the vargaries of any situation embedded in contemporary capitalism, there's a lot of being in the right place, knowing the right person, or being lucky enough to get the right reviewers or interviewers on the right days. I guess we're really all schmucks of one sort or another in the end (if we disengage the fantasies). On the other hand, there's a lot of role playing and a constitutive iteration of fictional identities #1 and #3 that sediment them into the realm of feeling and perception and hierarchy we like to call "the natural."

Sfrajett said...

Awesome! Can we write a book called Genius Trouble??? We totally should.

dr. m(mmm) aka The Notorious P.H.D. said...

And if we don't write a book, we should start an ironic indie rock band called Genius Trouble.

You're such a beautiful writer; I hope you wouldn't mind correcting all my dry prose.

(Congrats on the law school. I think I got my doctorate about 3 or 4 hours south of there.)