So. I’m still alive. I’ve been away from social media to focus on finishing the dissertation. I’m now revising the chapters. I completed the first three chapters more than two years ago. Since then the project has changed. I’ve changed, too. So, like everything about this dissertation, the rewriting, er, I mean the revising is taking a lot longer than I thought it would. Here’s what I’ve learned about this process. These are not general lessons that will apply to everyone. These are things that I’ve figured out about myself while writing a dissertation, with more universal aspects that I’m sure others will find familiar. It is definitely not a “how-to guide to finishing your dissertation in five years.” Nope. That’s not me.
- I hate bullshit, and now I see it everywhere. I started the dissertation as a theory person. My dissertation proposal was basically unreadable—as more than one committee member told me. I’m glad they did. One piece of advice I received early on was to make sure that when I finished I said something “real” rather than invent some clever piece of rhetoric. At the time I thought, well, what do you mean by “real”? LOL. But the advice sunk in and over time it became the single most important guiding interpretive light for the project. I’d like to think I became a better writer as a result. The incentives of academia run in the direction of neologism, of hitching your project to the latest fad to get fellowships, jobs, and honors. Well, I gave up on that pretty early on. Perhaps I’m a weaker candidate for it. That’s a legitimate risk, but not a major concern of mine. I’ve become a firm believer that those incentives, rather than help generate innovative or original work, make academia an insular, conformist place.
- Do I sound bitter? I am. Academic institutions and norms degrade the labor of academic research and writing. I’m not just talking about writing for free—like producing a 2,000 word essay for an encyclopedia company in exchange for “free” textbooks. Ha! I’m also not just talking about the way universities under-pay contingent faculty, or the way many TT and tenured faculty condescend to and harm their nontenured peers by excluding them from faculty governance and strictly enforcing so-called “merit-based” hierarchies that, most of the time, have little basis in merit and more to do with networking, social status, and luck. Rather, I’m talking about the two together, and here’s why: I’ve taken so long to complete the dissertation I feel like I’ve had an entire career of essentially working for free in a cutthroat industry where everyone aggressively guards their turf by obsessing over inconsequential distinctions.
- Make it real and make it count. I’ve been in the wilderness of southeast Michigan for the past several years—wilderness in the sense of my own geographic and social isolation from what I knew. I live far from my home institution of Temple University in Philadelphia. I’m now more plugged into the University of Michigan, where I teach as a lecturer, but I’ve been cut off from many of my grad school peers who either remain in Philadelphia or have taken jobs in other cities. This social isolation has been hard but instructive. It’s given me some unexpected independence. Before I started working at UM, I spent most of every day with people outside of academia. Even now, since I live nearly 50 minutes from Ann Arbor, I don’t really interact with colleagues all that much. That’s a sea change from my time in Philadelphia, where I lived and breathed grad school. This summer I started working for the union that represents lecturers at UM. This experience, more than anything, has brought home to me the way higher ed institutions degrade academic labor. As an organizer over the past two months, I’ve talked to dozens of lecturers, many of them with families like mine, who are scraping by on little pay for lots of work, while employed by a fantastically wealthy university. In the union I’ve found, for the first time, a meaningful solidarity in cutthroat academia. I don’t mean to sound self-righteous. That’s not my intent anyway. I only want to note that it’s very hard to maintain generous social ties grounded in a principled empathy, rather than in naked self-interest, in an industry that encourages its workers to ceaselessly find ways to outcompete each other. Fuck that.
So. If I have learned anything over the past nine years (!) of grad school, it’s that I love the work but I hate the workplace, with a passion to change it.