The back-up / Magical thinking

When we applied for college, we were told to apply for “back-up schools.” These were the schools you’d go to if you didn’t get into an Ivy League or a prestigious $30k East Coast liberal arts school. Despite the shame, you still had to go to college, so you’d better apply to a school you could stomach going to. Of course, it might not actually be your fault if you didn’t get into a top-tier school. Maybe you didn’t play enough sports, or win enough debate tournaments, or score 1600 on your SATs, or make over 4.0 in your classes. Maybe you came from a school that already filled its quota for Ivy League entrants that year (yes, there are quotas… my h.s. has a “slot” at Harvard, 9 “slots” at Princeton, etc., but only gets into Brown about every 10 years, has probably never sent anyone to Barnard, etc.). There are many factors! So you need a back-up.

I applied to a number of schools, mostly in Mass: Amherst, Tufts, Boston U; then, for back-ups, Iowa and Buffalo. Of course I got into the University of Alabama with a full ride and free laptop just for being a National Merit Finalist– UA really tries to keep smart students in-state, and they have quite a package deal to offer them (a deal orchestrated by none other than poet Hank Lazer! If only I’d known how cool he was then? But I didn’t want to stay in AL). Even with a partial scholarship Boston U was out of my price range, and I didn’t get into Tufts or Amherst. So it was Iowa or Buffalo. I knew I wanted to do poetry. Iowa or Buffalo? I chose Buffalo for a lot of reasons: in the contemporary poetry anthology I had in 11th grade, Charles Susan and Bob were all in there. My boyfriend was going to Buffalo. And it was very, very cheap; it became even cheaper once I got into the Honors Program there. Anyway, Iowa was initially my back-up school, and I didn’t decide that I would rather go to Buffalo than Iowa until pretty late in the spring, but Buffalo had rolling admissions. My high school college counselor basically called up UB while I stood there, talked to them for a few minutes, faxed my transcript and I was in. Thank god for UB.

So I went to UB, and got a decent education. I started taking graduate Poetics classes my sophomore year and graduate Comparative Literature courses the following year. I was over my head in Gasché’s class when I was a junior, but he opened up my brain, stretched it out, made some new folds in it, and I got a lot smarter. I received myriad academic awards and little grants/fellowships, gave a paper at a national conference (Louisville), was inducted into Phi Beta Kappa, maintained a hair’s breadth distance from a 4.0 GPA, served as a teaching assistant, founded and edited the literary magazine, worked at the Poetry library, and ended up taking about a year’s worth of graduate coursework. I overachieved even more than I’d overachieved in high school. So when I applied for PhD programs during my senior year, I fully expected to get into them. I was sure I’d get into one of my top choices– after all, I was one of the top performers at my school.

Slowly, the decisions trickled in. The only school I got into was my back-up school, York University, but I didn’t really want to go there. I was in the “final round” at a couple of schools (Berkeley and Johns Hopkins if I remember correctly) but of course, that’s ultimately meaningless. I talked to my professors at UB about it and was admitted to Comparative Literature’s PhD program. Thank god, again, for UB.

Since I’d already been taking graduate courses at UB for 2.5 years, though, UB wasn’t a huge challenge for me anymore. I really wanted something new. I applied for PhD programs again as I approached the completion of my en-route MA and this time I got into my back-up school again, which this time was UVA (I hadn’t applied there before because I didn’t want to go back down South). Since the last time I’d gotten into my back-up school (York) I’d chosen not to go, and ended up being kind of miserable in what were then the transitional ravages of the Poetics Program, I decided to go this time. It also helped that they offered me a lot of money.

Almost immediately upon setting foot on the UVA campus, I knew I’d made the wrong decision. The wrongness of the decision was almost constantly reinforced, although I had a few faculty supporters (Holsinger, Arata, Tucker, Booth, Fraiman) and a few friends who made it almost bearable to be there. Maybe what I realized was that back-up schools are ok when you’re going to college, but going to a back-up school when you’re planning to write your dissertation, that Great Work which will take up years of your life and perhaps determine the path of your academic career, a back-up school takes on a completely different meaning. You can’t devote your life to a back-up idea. It is always useful to have a back-up plan, but when it’s The Work– a major piece of art, poetry, scholarship, whatever– it’s exhausting, oppressive, undermining, soul-crushing to do something you don’t really care about instead of the thing that made you get excited about the discipline/conversation/medium in the first place.

Henry Sussman used to say that academia was like art, and I thought he was full of it. As a poet and a scholar (that classic Buffalo hybrid, the poet-scholar) I felt that scholarship wasn’t creative in the same way poetry is. But the more I practiced it– or perhaps the more I was not allowed to practice it as I would’ve liked– the more I understood the similarities, the kind of energy each takes is much the same. The kind of writer’s block one gets is the same. The pain of feeling misunderstood by a reader is the same. The creative juices that flow when you get really excited by an idea are the same.

Anyway, today I was talking to my boss about what I’m going to do with my life, besides working PT evenings at the BPO which I will be doing indefinitely or until I get fired (hi Dan!) I mentioned the options I wrote about here on the blog: Arts Management, teaching, library science, another half-hearted crack at the PhD with lowered expectations of what kind of jobs I could get afterwards. And Dan said, why don’t you follow what you want to do, instead of picking a back-up job? And I said, because there are no jobs in Academia, they’re all being farmed out to cheap labor (adjuncts, TAs, etc.), I can’t get a job doing what I really want to do, which is to sit around having great ideas about literature and writing about them and teaching. Even if I did get a job doing that, it might turn out like some of my friends’ jobs have turned out– making me completely miserable. He pointed out that what happens to other people might not happen to me. That I could visualize something and then achieve it. This idea no longer computes for me. It seems like one of those middle-class fairy tales I grew up with: if you work hard enough, you’ll be rewarded. It seems like it’s not actually true– there are circumstances, there are careers for which one could work infinitely without achieving anything (like, for instance, being a poet). I told him I was disillusioned. At this point I don’t know– maybe I am just disillusioned. Maybe there are actually tons of academic jobs out there and they all have my name on them, they’re just waiting for me to publish that magic book or article, or go to that magical conference. Right?

On the drive home from work I was thinking about how all the warnings about back-up plans and Academia– all the way from high school when we were warned of Academia’s unpredictability in the face of our Protestant work ethics and overpreparedness– should’ve taught me something long before I actually learned the lesson of how extremely talented, smart people don’t get tenure-track Academic jobs (at Harvard, Trocaire or anywhere else).  I always had a back-up career choice– teaching high school.  I am unsure of that as the real back-up career choice, though, now that I am faced with seeking a back-up career.

I am glad for the one thing I learned at UVA, there in the ethnobotany stacks of Alderman Library– that the work cannot be sacrificed for the unreliable, insatiable, capitalistic bureaucracy that is Academia. Maybe this is what I couldn’t visualize properly– the success of my ideas in the system that was available to me. I’m not sure what system is going to provide the fertility I need (a stable job, enough money to not always be thinking about money, etc.) to hatch my ideas. Maybe there is some underbelly, some gap in the dragon-like armor of what I now see as a united Academic front. Certainly there are examples– people I know, poet-scholars in Academia who make enough money to live, teach and write, and don’t seem outrageously miserable. Are they lucky? The last remnants of a dying system? Or is there hope?

And now, I redirect you to Chris’s blog.


About Jessica Smith
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5 Responses to The back-up / Magical thinking

  1. Amelia says:

    I would love nothing better than to have a job where I am paid to sit around and draw or paint. But on those days when I have worked sixteen hours straight at my food service jobs, and I’m wondering how I’m going to pay for my trip to the dentist, and I’m feeling most acutely how useless it was to be a 4.2 student, valedictorian, Presidential Scholar, Reedie, and Phi Beta Kappa kid, if all I’m going to do is spend the next several years working slave-wage jobs to dig myself out of my student loans….. I am forced to stop and think, when did I last paint anything? When did I last pick up my sketchbook? Do I really require the incentive of a paycheck to do these things? I want a passion above a profession, but I am not pursuing it. It is a peculiar guilt.

    What prevents you from “sit[ting] around having great ideas about literature and writing about them,” apart from the fact that no one has yet offered to pay you for it?

  2. Good lord, I don’t require the incentive of a paycheck to read and think about literature! Of course not. And as an academic, that’s certainly not all one does.

  3. Hmmm, I’ve probably mentioned this before to you, but what about a writing career – not poetry, perhaps, but journalism, marketing, or technical writing? It was a good career for me for a little while, anyway…you can even do it remotely! I think it might be nice for you for a little while to have something stable that paid a good living, just to try that out. I really liked earning a good paycheck in my early twenties – and to comment on the earlier “marrying for money” thing – well, it’s always better to rely on your own paycheck – I enjoyed being the big breadwinner early in the marriage too! Now the husband makes more than me, but for some years, that wasn’t the case, and it does make it seem more equal, now that I’m trying out the poetry-adjunct-teaching life thing.

  4. Pirooz says:

    Have you heard of the European Graduate School?

  5. Don Illich says:

    I am a former academic (I quit my Ph.D. program at Florida State before really starting it) and now am a writer-editor with the Fed. government in D.C. The Air Force has a really good civilian career program for people with outstanding grades (over 3.5 GPA). If you get that kind of job you would make a decent living and not be worked to death. You’d have free time to work on literary pursuits. It’s an option to consider.
    Web site links below:

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