I’m baaaack

So, I just came back to this blog after more than a year of not writing in it. (Post-quitting, my life got really hectic, and things happened faster than I could really process them, or anyway faster than I could process them on the internet with everyone a small group of people watching.)

I’m planning a series of “catch-up” posts covering what happened between now and then. Stay tuned! And !no pasaran! 

It’s official! I quit!!

I quit a couple of days ago, and I feel better than I have in a long time! I’m still processing it and will probably have more to say as time goes on. Right now what I’ve noticed: I feel less anxious and tense in my body. My voice is no longer coming out as a tiny, strangled, foreign thing. A friend told a funny story, and I heard this open, relaxed laughter — and realized that it was mine. Haven’t heard that sound around here in a while! 

Which reminds me. As a shiny, ambitious, clueless undergrad, I knew a fair number of people who quit grad school. These were people I only knew from a distance, from our mixed-level classes. They seemed terribly unhappy. Some were bitter. Some showed, from the slump of their shoulders to the dull, flat tones with which they denigrated their achievements, that they didn’t think much of themselves. Many were jumpy and furtive. I never wanted to be one of them because they were so miserable. I didn’t understand that they were miserable because they were toughing it out through a process that wasn’t serving their needs, and that quitting was so stigmatized or scary or incomprehensible that they may have felt they had no way out. I thought their poor self-image and bad attitude were incidental, personal issues that ultimately caused them to quit.

Oh, to go back in time and tell my younger, less experienced self to stop judging, and instead listen and watch carefully! Fast forward several years: having seen many of my grad school friends become miserable, then quit, then start liking things and people again and become wonderfully successful and happy, I now realize that it’s the situation of hating where you are and thinking you can’t leave that turns capable, smart, vivacious people into dried-out husks of themselves. If only they’d been able to quit sooner, those people probably wouldn’t have gotten to such a state. If I had been able to quit sooner, I wouldn’t have witnessed the gradual hollowing out and waning of my own voice. But it’s not always possible to quit sooner. It is what it is. But I feel so much better now I’m on the other side. 


Haters Gonna Hate

I have (99%) decided I’m not going to finish my dissertation. So how awkward was it when the next scheduled meeting of my dissertation support group popped up on my calendar?!

I went, if for no other reason than to explain to these people with whom I’ve been meeting, with whom I’ve shared mutual support, why I would not be with them anymore. It seemed wrong to sever the connection without a last meeting. So I went, and I told them…and then they got really judgy.

Not one single person said that leaving can be a legitimate choice, that one’s well-being is more important than a dissertation, that one shouldn’t write a dissertation to please others, or that leaving isn’t failure and there are multiple paths to success for those who embark on a PhD program.

It was strongly suggested that my dislike of writing my dissertation and my desire to leave must be due to a flaw in my character. Seriously. I won’t go into details here, but the specific flaw was named and a remedy was suggested … and a lot of assumptions were made along the way. None of these people know me well, or know how I spend my time, or know anything about my actual character flaws.

It was a disappointing and hurtful experience. Luckily, I didn’t take it personally — I don’t feel bad about my decision, but I do feel disappointed in those people. To be fair, I suspect that it’s extremely hard for someone who’s trying to write their dissertation, and not liking it, to entertain the notion that leaving is OK — the siren song of quitting is something to avoid when you keep your eyes on the prize. So probably it’s not their fault that they responded the way they did. Still, it hurt.

Also, grad school is a cult: if you try to leave, the other members will try to shame you into staying. I know leaving isn’t the right choice for everyone, and staying is the right choice for many, and I expected them to try to talk me out of it — but I didn’t expect it to be done so disrespectfully. I expected people to believe that I was expressing a legitimate feeling, and to go from there in trying to talk me into staying.

So, hey, grad school quittas, I’m glad you’re out there and I believe in you. Big hugs to the whole Quittanet.

Free-Range Philosophers #1: Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

Free-Range Philosophers #1: Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) Free-Range Philosophers #1: Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951)

This is the first in a series. “Free-Range Philosophers” is a light-hearted look at some philosophers whose work is/was not confined solely to the academy.

Philosophical Education: Cambridge, 1911-1913, under Bertrand Russell.

Attitude to Professional Philosophy: Became infuriated whenever his students wanted to be professional philosophers. Encouraged them instead to become psychologists, doctors, bricklayers…

Dissertation: Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), which he wrote in the trenches and POW camp during WWI and published seven years before his “defense.”

Academic Career: Spotty. Left philosophy in 1920, having solved all (!) philosophical problems in the TractatusWorked as a gardener, a teacher, and an architect. Returned to Cambridge in 1929 for his “defense,” was granted PhD. Left again, this time for Norway, 1936-1937. Professor of Philosophy, University of Cambridge, 1939-1947. Resigned professorship in 1947 to focus on writing.

Publishing Record: Published only one book (Tractatus) during his lifetime. Also published an article, a book review, and a dictionary for children. Other works, including the Philosophical Investigations, were published posthumously.

Teaching Evaluations: Range from the horrible (he was known for shouting at and beating his primary school students in Norway) to the creepy (he inspired a cult following at Cambridge).

5 Reasons I’m Glad I Went

Since I’ve been talking to people about leaving the academy, I’ve noticed that many people — both academics and non-academics* — seem to equate

1. wanting to leave with being sorry you cameand

2. gaining worthwhile skills and knowledge with finishing the dissertation and receiving the PhD.

Some people probably do experience these things as equivalent, so I don’t want to deny that reality. But I think it’s a mistake to see the two equivalences I listed above as necessary, or occurring in all cases. And I want to suggest that it’s helpful to untie the cognitive-emotional knots that join, for example, wanting to get out of the academy now with thinking that the last three or six or fifteen years of your life have been a mistake.

It might sound counterintuitive, but recognizing what I got out of academia actually made the decision to leave the academy less painful. Plus, I realized that I have skills that could find their way onto a non-academic resume (more about that in a later post). Best of all, I was able to lay claim to the last seven years of my life as a productive and empowering period and a good basis for the future. I want to devote this post to personal reasons I’m glad I went to grad school, with the hope that other humanities folks out there will see what they have gained too — whether that list includes the PhD or not.

Disclaimer: There are sooooooo many reasons not to go to grad school, especially in the humanities. The fact that I am glad I came doesn’t change the facts. Maybe I would have gained the same things, or something else of equal value, by staying away from grad school. And this post is about value as much, or more, than about facts: I’m pretty invested in seeing my life’s narrative as a unified whole, so I tend to incorporate even negative experiences into that narrative in a positive way. 

Without further ado, 5 reasons I’m glad I went:

5. The People. I met some people I couldn’t stand, including real-life versions of this person. I experienced epic academic mansplaining and felt the isolation of being a woman (of color!) in philosophy every day. I also met some of the coolest, kindest, smartest, most amazing people, some of whom are my closest friends (one of whom is my spouse!), some of whom are just acquaintances, all of whom I am really happy exist in the world and with whom I can have genuinely awesome conversations about a wide variety of things, philosophical and otherwise. All of the people I’ve met, whether I liked them or not, have taught me things I really needed to learn. In fact, the really bad experiences (say, of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia) have made me stronger and steelier than I ever was before. In a better world, they wouldn’t happen, but in this world they are dead useful.

4. The Disillusionment. No, really! Like a lot of people, I believed Myth #4 and came to the academy thinking it was purer than the business world. After TAing for six years and seeing several contract negotiations between my grad employees’ union and the administration, I know that the university is just as exploitative as any other business, and that the myth of purity helps keep TAs, adjuncts, and even tenured professors cowed. Imagine if I didn’t go to grad school and never found that out! I’d be kicking myself forever for “selling out,” not realizing that the value judgement that casts engagement with things other than academia as selling out is based on false beliefs about the academy. Like a lot of philosophers, I am inordinately interested in finding out The Truth, so this is valuable in itself. Also, having experienced life as a contingent worker, I have a sense of direction for the future: if and when I start my own business, I know that making it a fair place to work is a top priority. I know at least some things not to do, and I have some idea how to start thinking about what to do. Since my desire to work in an environment where labour is treated fairly and workers can flourish hasn’t changed, whatever knowledge I’ve gained about this set of issues puts me closer to my goal.

3. The Reasoning Skills. Holy crap, can I cut through a bad argument. Not that I was dumb before grad school, but spending years doing nothing but critiquing and creating arguments has really sharpened my conceptual and analytical skills. Now I can see very quickly, sometimes immediately, that something isn’t going to work, so I’m free to move on sooner. On the other hand, I’m better at untangling difficult problems, so I can tenaciously get to grips with things that do seem worthwhile. If you don’t believe that this is true of you, and you are done with coursework, try this. Sit in on a seminar. Observe your thoughts and feelings. Compare to the past. Aren’t you way better at this than you were back in your own coursework days? Now try it in a non-academic setting (it works there, too).

2. The Confidence. I know I’m not the only one who felt really, really nervous and insecure at the beginning of grad school, who mistook others’ bravado for superiority, who constantly questioned her own competence and her very right to be a part of the conversation. I’m also not the only one who, through a combination of lots of teaching and lots of research and maybe a professional conference or two and a ton of introspection, overcame the impostor syndrome and grew into a confident person. Sure, I’m still fallible, and I still know when to defer to others’ expertise. But I know my strengths, and while I respect others, I’m not afraid of anyone. I can’t tell you what a difference this has made in my professional and personal life.

1. Wu Wei**, or It Made Sense, Even Though I Wasn’t in a Position to Conceptualize Why at the Time. When I decided to go to grad school, I did so as the person I was then, with the needs I had at that time. I knew something about the abysmal job market and something about the possible awfulness of writing a dissertation, but at the time it didn’t matter because it felt right to go. For non-instrumental reasons. I just wanted to do philosophy in a serious way, in a structured environment where I would get lots of criticism and feedback from experts. So I went. And now, seven years later, I can truly say that (1) it was the right decision for the person I was at that time, and (2) it has helped me grow into the person I am now, for whom leaving the academy is the right decision. I guess I got what I needed.

Do I know what comes next? No. Hell, I don’t even know if I should finish my dissertation before leaving. But I do know that no matter what I decide about the dissertation, I have gained things that I need for the life ahead. I am not sorry I came, and what I’ve gained does not depend on actually having the PhD. And I’m ready to move on.

Thank you, Academy, and so long!

*Actually, the most recent two people to express these equations to me were my dad and my department chair. Hilarious, in a way: both the Name of the Father and the actual father, saying things that made me feel tiny and powerless and like a failure, in the context of my trying to leave the most hierarchical, patriarchical institution, maybe not EVAR, but in my experience. It’s like something that would happen in a bad play, but it was reality.

**I’m not a scholar or even a good reader of Chinese philosophy at all, but I do know that wu wei is a complex concept, so big apologies to any readers who actually have substantive knowledge in this area. I’m totally just appropriating some shard of this idea so I can use the term for my own purposes here. Nobody should ever take anything I say seriously as reflecting anything true about Daoism, OK?

Should I Stay or Should I Go (yet)?

I’m sure* that I don’t want an academic career. But I’m halfway done with my dissertation, so in one sense finishing it seems manageable. In another sense, there’s an infinite chasm between the PhD and me. You see, I hate writing the dissertation, so even the six or fewer months that I’d need to finish it sound like an eternity.

I’ve written 2.5 dissertation chapters out of a projected 5. And I know, roughly, how the rest of the story goes: I’ve seen my advisor’s comments on the half-chapter draft I handed in last month, and I know how to respond. I’ve got outlines of the arguments for my final two chapters. In one sense, I’m so close to finishing, it almost seems silly not to. Because the PhD would bring closure, in a public kind of way. An accomplishment to celebrate. A seal of approval. A fuck-you. A big, juicy chunk of cultural capital that I can crouch over and feed my ego upon in the lean and dark times ahead, when my identity and sense of self-worth shall be like defenceless larvae, pale and exposed, hideous to the eye, as I attempt to build a meaningful and satisfying life (and pay the bills) in the neoliberal capitalist nightmare outside the university. Or something similarly melodramatic.

But the thing is that the neoliberal capitalist nightmare isn’t outside the university; the university is a well-functioning part of the well-oiled machine anyway, so as I work for my less-than-living wage teaching courses that should be taught by professors, I’m not exactly escaping exploitation and drudgery. And I am assured by smart people whom I trust that the non-academic world is not the soulless and denigrating place that some academics imagine it to be (in fact, that caricature is just one of the myths that keep people in grad school out of fear). And however nice it would be to have that sense of closure, however much the knowledge that I finished might protect my ego, the cost is high.

The longer I stay in the academy, the worse a person I feel I’m becoming. I don’t mean that I’ve started doing terrible deeds; instead, I mean that I’m not humanly flourishing. I’m not a good version of myself. I mean: look at that paragraph above where I imagine my post-academic ego as some kind of maggot in a post-apocalyptic landscape. It’s morbid at best. I’m unhappy right now, and that affects everything I do. I’m a poorer friend because I have less of myself to offer, and often avoid interaction when I know I’ll just be a bummer — the dreaded Bitter Humanities Person whose misery infects her every social interaction. I’m stagnating, because I’m mentally and emotionally exhausted most of the time, too spiritually tired to learn a new skill or take up a new hobby. Because of this, I’m losing opportunity right and left. I am not excelling at the things I do do, and I’m painfully conscious of my mediocre performance. (For a perfectionist, this is agonizing.) I’m angry at the process of writing a dissertation, I’ve grown to detest the world of professional philosophy, and I’ve lost my sense of humour. This is not good. This is not who I want to be. Because the thing is, however flawed the academic world or the professional practice of philosophy might be, I really don’t need to be this mad about it. This isn’t how I want to be responding to things. This isn’t who I am. Normally, I am a relaxed, cheerful, forgiving person who enjoys things and likes people — but to see me now, you would never know it. I think this is a shame, because the world offers so much, and it’s up to me to change my experience.

This is why I think I should quit now, before it gets any worse.

Here’s the philosophical paradigm of rationality: You want A (say, a job in philosophy). You know that the only way to get A is to do B (say, finish your dissertation). Given your desires and your beliefs about how to achieve them, if you are rational, you will do B to get A. In this situation, even if you really dislike B, it would make sense to push through, since A awaits you on the other side of your ordeal.

Here’s my situation. I was doing B to get A, but I stopped wanting A. There doesn’t seem to be any other compelling reason to do B, and B is making me miserable. Isn’t it a bit irrational to continue doing B?

….yet here I am, still.

Figuring out why, and what to do, will be the focus of this blog. I hope to connect to the many wonderful post-academic and pre-post-academic bloggers out there, who are busy making sense of messy situations. I hope that others who are working through the same decision might find my blog helpful, too, if only because it helps to know you’re not alone.

*Certainty is a complicated thing for me right now. I’ll come back to this in a later post.