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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Academia is rather more a living hell than an ivory tower, but some academics are cool.

OK, I'm glad the new president has kept his campaign promise to pronounce nuclear 'nuclear' and fight for the little guy, or at least try, but I was sort of groaning during his state of the union speech when he announced that part of what 'fighting for the little guy' means is making sure all little U.S.-lings that anyone decides to poop out have the opportunity to go to college, because you can't get by in today's world without higher education.

That's nice. I sure as hell wish that when I decided to get a degree as an adult, somebody had already fixed the system so I won't be an indentured servant when I go back out into the cold, cold world. But did it occur to him that, even with tuition taken care of, allowing/forcing kids with less-than-brilliant minds to go into what used to be higher education is not the best thing for everyone concerned?

For starters, it isn't necessary. Think about how much brain power the average person's job takes. Washing dishes, for example. I used to do that. I could use ninety percent of my mind for thinking about elves and sex and listening to music and still get the job done just fine. It was great, actually, except for the low pay and no insurance. You wouldn't even need to read to be a dishwasher, much less write a college essay! Granted, not a lot of people want to be dishwashers. But the dishes need to get done, and if you're the guy who's going to wind up washing dishes anyway, isn't it a bit cruel to ask you to spend four years sitting in a desk feeling stupid first?

But that's an extreme example. Take a 'higher' function: newspaper work. I was hired by a newspaper with a sensible hiring policy when my only degree was from a high school in a hick town, and I did the job just fine (well, I didn't get fired, anyway). I had learned proper English from reading science-fiction novels; there was no reason for me to sit in a classroom and learn biology and math and all of the other crap classes they need to force students though in order to test their level of obedience and ability to swallow shit. Haven't kids learned enough shit-swallowing by the time they get out of high school? If they haven't, they'll be adept after about ten minutes on the job. Like my dad used to say, "That's why they call it work." Most desk jobs are just as mind-numbing and repetitive as the jobs they threaten you'll be stuck in if you don't piss away four years of your fleeting youth -- the only thing, as Wilde said, worth having -- paying to do something you don't want to do instead of getting paid.

The only reason I went to get my degree was because I sprouted a crazy-stoopid love for the ancient Greek and Roman world; when I realized Greek and Latin were difficult enough that I wouldn't be able to learn them myself, I took a deep breath and looked into student loans.

Well, that love has died. Thanks, grad school! See, when I got me bachelor's last spring and began peering back into the work world, my professors asked me if I wanted to stay on for a year and work for them as a teacher's assistant. My school is too shitty to have a graduate program in classics, but they said they would help me apply to real schools, and I wouldn't have to go back to waiting tables or monkeying copy. Ever.

I hate this college town with a passion, but stupidly I said yes. My professors here are funny, clever, kind people who are fun to be around. And despite having busted my ass to get the undergraduate degree (even with a teacher, Greek is really, really fucking hard, not to mention Sanskrit), I still had the idea, common in our anti-intellectual culture, that academics live a charmed life of sitting on their asses, occasionally lifting a finger to turn a page.


Yeah, I've sat on my ass a lot, but the top half of me has been hunched over a desk, and my arms have been milling frantically as I try to get this last hundred tests graded before I can't stand it anymore and my brain forces me to drink myself to sleep.

This semester hasn't been so bad, because I've given up, so I don't do my own homework, which frees up enough time, as Bukowski said, to scratch my ass (and get it out of the chair often enough for the bedsores to recede). Also, my position is only half-time, which means I only get paid half of peanuts, but I only have one group of 300 students to pile on me instead of two, so I can go back to a bit of freelance writing, which gets much closer to paying me the legal minimum wage.

But last semester was pure 19th-century shit, except the air quality in the library was (slightly) better than what Upton Sinclair reported. Seven days a week, and I am not exaggerating (I know I exaggerate, but this is the horrible truth) I would get out of bed full of dread, knowing that I would have to start working the minute I got up, and would have to keep working till late in the evening, and I would still fall into bed way, way behind, negating the possibility that I could ever take, say, a Saturday to catch my breath.

Week after week after week after week after week after week after week after week.

Naturally I wound up having a nervous breakdown. I'm too old for this, for starters. And maybe there are some grad students who do have cushy positions. Film students, maybe. I should have gone into film. But if you have to spend any real time on your own homework, the 30 hours you're already spending on grading and shit-work on average (not to mention going to all your classes AND attending the ones you're teaching AND hanging out after those classes so the students can come up in a long line and ask you questions that are already clearly answered on the syllabus) are going to kill you dead.

One could perhaps tolerate this way of life if the shit-work taught one anything (besides the insight into how stupid most adolescents are), or at least if it didn't take so long. But you try picking up the pace when you're grading essays written by kids who can't conjugate English verbs. Or who think Zeus is real, and conflate him with Jesus. (Yes, one of the little darlings actually did this. I wonder which of the scary windowless churches in Carbondale he goes to.) Maybe one out of every 50 essays has a clear thesis supported by non-made-up evidence; one out of 200 has a scrap of entertainment value that's intentional. You try to find places where you can legitimately grant people points, if only so you have fewer complaints to deal with when the grades are released, but trying to be fair and consistent about this is satanically time-consuming.

Here's where I finally get to my point: even before Obama's well-meaning program takes effect, there are already far too many kids who are far too stupid to be going to college who have been pushed into it.

Maybe it's because the kids at the school where I teach aren't from particularly privileged backgrounds, but I dunno. If you are a child who has the I.Q. and the intellectual curiosity to belong in HIGHER EDUCATION, then you are going to find a way to develop a reasonable level of literacy just about anywhere in the industrialized world. I learned to read in central Wisconsin; George W. couldn't even learn to talk at Yale... in a system of compulsory basic education, you don't suppose it might have something to do with hardware? I somehow doubt the TAs at Harvard are having a blast reading three hundred freshman essays either.

And if you don't possess intelligence and curiosity, what the fuck are you doing in a Roman Civ class? I guess you're hoping to get to see Gladiator while you jump through the hoop.

I feel kind of sorry for the kids sometimes. They like to drink on top of being stupid; they're going to wake up with a terrible hangover, flunked-out and pursued by large loan payments. But most of the time I just want to scream at them to quit wasting everybody else's mental energy. The other week a girl decided to waste my time by demanding a conference with me outside my regular office hours to discuss why she wasn't doing better on the exams.

I asked her, "Do you take notes when you read the texts?"


"Uh... I'm sorry, are you too broke to buy the books?" (This is a legit problem sometimes, though the kids who really give a damn can use the campus computers to get Cicero or Caesar in translation on Gutenberg.)

"Oh, no, no, I have them." I'm thinking, Er, what are you using them for exactly? when she hits me with the punch line: "Reading just isn't my thing."

I'm not quite sure how I managed not to stomp on her foot.

And my job, shit-dealing-wise, is relatively easy compared to what the professors go through. I get most of the boring grading work, but Real Teacher is head of the complaints department. They seem OK with it most of the time, but once in a while you can smell the strain. Complaints, threats to take it to the department head, attempts to cut deals, four or five dead grandmothers... the stream of whining kids who just want to be left alone to drink beer instead of going to class that flows in and out of their offices while they're trying to parse the ancient mysteries is astounding. Last semester somebody claimed he was going to have to donate multiple internal organs to his cousin.

I want to work two jobs plus trying to write for six years so I can achieve that? Uh, I'll just wait tables and scribble, thanks. If all the subnormals who would rather be having unprotected sex are helped/forced to either go to school or shovel radioactive slime for a living, it's only going to get worse.

Even if you are smart and curious, you can only take so much of the extraneous bullshit that institutional learning fosters. Not to mention the fact that intellectual curiosity is usually a general compulsion, an urge that wants to poke its nose into everything, not just its favorite topic. Believe you me, if you spend too much time being forced to research your favorite topic exclusively (in grad school there's no time or energy for outside pursuits any more demanding than Monty Python and beer) you're going to start to hate it. This hurts. You feel hollowed out. And the day you arrive on the job for which you are now overtrained, it's already a familiar prison.

Instead of making sure everybody goes to college, and making lots of cranky would-be academics like me go insane and drop out -- and have the government pay us to do it, not to mention paying for all the extra classroom space, lost productivity from potential workers who are spending four years pretending they can read, and student sports facilities -- why doesn't somebody set up a government Office of Job-Requirement Non-Lunacy? It wouldn't cost nearly as much as putting all these kids whose thing isn't reading through four years of hell for them and hell for their instructors. You just send a couple of agents per city to go through the want ads and ticket the employers who are pushing the diploma inflation.

Agent Tom: Hm... OK, the hospital wants a surgeon with a PhD.

Agent Bill: Pass.

Tom: The high school wants a French teacher with a PhD.

Bill: Bzzzzt! Tell 'em to take anyone with at least a bachelor's into consideration, and then test them to see who can actually speak French. I suppose they can ask for a master's, but then they have to pay extra.

Tom: Next is Tony's Fine Dining. They want a server with experience.

Bill: How the hell is anyone supposed to get experience if everyone needs it? Tell 'em they need to change their ad if they don't want all their employees to be compulsive liars.

Tom: The newspaper wants a reporter with a degree in journalism.

Bill: Which one? That one? Hm... well, I hate those guys, so let 'em demand that and they'll get exactly the assholes they deserve. But the other paper... I like them, so tell 'em no. They should just ask the applicants to sit down and write something.

Tom: Here's Joe's Radioactive Slime-Shoveling Service. They want their applicants to have PhDs in Human Resources.

Bill: Heh heh heh. Good on 'em.


  1. It seems to me you're dodging one bullet, at least, by going to and/or teaching at a state school, given the obvious, um, issues.
    But the girl with the bad grades and the reading not being her thing?
    I hope you were able to at least get out of her whether it's a CAN'T read problem or a DOESN'T WANT to read problem.

  2. Yes, she was capable of reading, as well as having the books. She just doesn't like it, and it didn't occur to her that being a student would necessitate reading. I guess. I don't know what the hell was going through her head, really.

  3. I guess books don't have enough explosions and stuff.
    Most of them, elsehow.


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