Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A Belated Call To Arms

(I'd actually forgotten I'd written this until someone said something to me yesterday regarding my problems with grad school. This was an essay I wrote in September of 2008, which shows how far back my resentment and dissatisfaction go. I was originally going to print out a hundred copies and tape them all over the Virginia Tech campus, but I ended up not having the guts. So much for my career as an iconoclast.)

Imagine a system where it was impossible to get fired. Nothing that a person did could ever lead to the termination of their employment; the worst they could expect would be “lateral promotion,” or a transfer between two posts of similar rank. There are two systems in the United States where this misguided principle is applied: the Federal Government, and Academia. Both bodies are plagued by the same problems: a lack of accountability at fundamental levels of operation, acceptance (some would argue encouragement) of incompetence and ineptitude, and a predilection for excoriating and ostracizing any of its members who dare to shy from what is deemed “acceptable speech”—i.e., party line.

Unfortunately for us as American citizens, our will has become so far removed from the machinations of our governmental morass that it is nearly impossible for anything barring a coup to influence policy. However, the situation is not the same in Academia. We’ve been led to believe that the situation is analogous, and a lot of professorial smoke-and-mirrors and baiting-and-switching has done the trick on most students, undergraduate and graduate alike. Yet we as students have more power than we imagine. We as students have more power than our professors imagine. Without students, they would have no function. They would be reduced to earning their keep on the lecture circuit, and no doubt many of the ones who had nothing original to say—and we can safely assume that there are a few within the academic circles of America who fit that bill—would find themselves in need of a reality check, as well as a real job.

Why, then, do we persist in our acceptance of the status quo aeterne? Part of it no doubt lies in the stereotypical abusive parent-child dynamic. “As long as we can get our licks in when we get our Ph.D.’s, all of this will be worth it,” students say to themselves. Or maybe it’s just become one of those things that is seen as just another hurdle. Classes, thesis, professorial abuse—it’s all part of the wonderful package that is a collegiate education.

Undergraduates, to some extent, have more rights than graduate students. They are paying to be here. Their money pays the professors’ wages. It pays for new stadia, new buildings, new programs, anything that a university administrator can dream up. Therefore, a few angry parents can command at least some attention, especially in today’s increasingly litigious society.

What of the grad students, though? They are paid employees of…well, whom? Of the university? Of their respective departments? The details are often hazy, and it is easy to see why they are kept that way. Without knowing who writes their checks and to whom they are ultimately responsible, grad students have no recourse to anyone in a position of objective authority. As employees, their loyalty is expected. Contracts are drawn up, specifications laid out, and who among the newly arrived masters’ and doctoral students would dare raise an issue with the entrenched laws of a pre-existing and overarching academic behemoth?

No one’s that brave. The person who is writing this isn’t brave enough to sign his name to this declaration. The person who is writing this declaration isn’t yet free from the fear that academia instills: the fear that voicing opinions that don’t fall into line with the (supposedly) objective but actually repressive professorial dogma might revoke that precious piece of paper, one of the few remaining things of value that our institutions of higher learning have to offer. These words are being written in the hope that one day students won’t have to face that fear.

To those who are reading this: it is time we got rid of tenure. It is time we gave pink slips to the dead weight that, by the grace of an archaic and outmoded policy, has dragged our colleges and universities into an educational sinkhole. It is time we dismantled the tenure track and demanded from our professoriate the same things our professoriate demands from us: creativity, drive, intellectual and academic excellence, and a fervent rejection of the stagnation of any of these rational ideals. If you are a student who feels they have no recourse in the face of professorial abuse of power, then this is for you. It’s time we gave ourselves a voice.

Monday, September 28, 2009

One Mountain Outpost
Why Would I Want To Leave Serenity?

"You old sorcerer!" the boy shouted up at the sky. "You knew the whole story. You even left a bit of gold at the monastery so I could get back to this church. The monk laughed when he saw me in tatters. Couldn't you have saved me from that?"

"No," he heard a voice on the wind say. "If I had told you, you wouldn't have seen the Pyramids. They're beautiful, aren't they?"

(from The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho)

Well, I did it. I quit grad school. I suppose some people will consider it amazing and scary that I quit grad school, but honestly, I don't understand why I didn't quit sooner. Why? Well, for starters, the economy has made things so utterly terrible that a lot of departments can't afford to pay their grad students. I ended up having to take out a lot of student loans, even though I was TA'ing last semester.

Yes, wrap your mind around that. I paid to be a TA, one of the most unrewarding jobs ever invented.

I also quit working for my advisor and began working under another professor. This second professor ended up leaving Virginia Tech, giving a month's notice, and leaving me and two other grad students effectively without any way to finish their degrees. This meant that I would have to start over for a third time. As Yahtzee would say, "Bother that nonsense," except he didn't say "bother." Or "nonsense."

As sudden as it might seem, this happened over the course of...well, over the course of most of the time I was in grad school, anyway. I used to say, only half-jokingly (and now, not jokingly at all) that the best parts of grad school had nothing to do with grad school itself. There were really three main reasons why I stayed in this town after quitting. In no particular order, they are my choir, my swing dance group (and between those two, most of my friends here), and my girlfriend.

It's rather a belated and sophomoric realization, but I think I finally understand why someone ends up settling in one place. It's because the idea of staying in that one place NOW, when they find it (or notice it), seems much better than wandering more and possibly losing this one precious moment in time when things seem to click. This isn't the same way I loved Williamsburg; I loved Williamsburg because I went to college there, and I have no such filial relation here. No, I love Blacksburg in spite of everything that has happened, because there are times I've felt so alive it's almost frightening. And so, in a sense, Blacksburg itself was the fourth reason I stayed.

It hit me, one evening back in August, when I was exploring some of the side streets in Blacksburg. I drove up a hill to a golf course so I could turn around, and it just so happened that pretty much every direction looked out over the mountains and valleys in the summer twilight. I remember thinking, "I don't see how anyone could get jaded in this town," and drove down the hill to my church for choir practice. About thirty minutes after choir practice started, I had one of those 16-ton-weight moments where I realized I had been jaded, so incredibly jaded and depressed, squeezed dry. And now I wasn't. It had taken a cataclysmic event to do it, but it had woken me out of my stupor. Woodsmoke came drifting through the open window of the choir practice room and I realized that there was no other place I wanted to be, right now. In spite of the fear, the anxiety, the anger, and the uncertainty leading up to everything that is my life right now, I had come to love a place that I had only chosen after I started to live here.

I call it Serenity Syndrome:

Inara: I wasn't gonna stay [on Persephone], you know.
Mal: Yeah? Why's that?
Inara: Someone needs to keep Kaylee out of trouble. And all my things are here. Besides, why would I want to leave Serenity?
Mal: Can't think of a reason.

Me either.

"One prairie outpost, you are how I feel
Alone in a flatland between the dream and the real
The irony? Ask me, 'Where have you been?'
I don't know, I don't know
Because I don't know where to begin."

(I'm still flying.)

(P.S. There's some stuff from the end of last semester that I've been wanting to backpost. However, because it might get lost in the shuffle, I'm just going to post it, either this month or in early October. It's not gone, just late.)