Day 306: Bad Ideas

Bad Idea 1:

you decide to base your carreer decision not on concerns such as money, potential for fame, or marketability in social situations/pick-up lines in bars, but you go with your conscience and make an entirely ideological/idealistic decision. Hence, you choose academia and a life of the intellect, which you try to justify and desublimate from its lofty realm of what to MBAs appears to be splendid isolation from reality by formulating massive counter-interpellation based on the attempt to revive ideals such as critical thinking and social justice as the ultimate goal of your life. Thus far this seems like a good idea. What transforms it into a bad idea, however, is that the corporate university is being restructured in a way that it will be almost impossible to actually find a job that will allow you to do all these things. Becoming an assistant professor in marketing, engineering, biology… : easy. Becoming an assistant professor in the humanities: not that easy. Result: you train for the day that you will be able to start a carreer and make all your goals a reality and are then forced to sell out on alternative job markets, because capitalism quite paternalistically bars access to your object cause of enjoyment (which is not so much deferred as it is rendered illusory).

Bad Idea 2:

There are a few remaining jobs in academia for humanities professors each year, i.e. there is a slight chance of getting a job. In the field of English, choosing to specialize in composition and rhetoric (i.e. jobs in “writing across the capitalist curriculum” and “neoliberal service learning”), 18th and 19th century literature, etc. = good idea. Choosing to specialize in 20th/21st century literature, combined with a rigorous commitment to critical theory (however, not to deconstruction and poststructuralist postcolonial studies) and American Studies = bad idea. Just in case you were wondering, the chances of getting a job in this field are, depending on the position, between 250:1 and 350:1. Buying a sratch-off, low-win lottery ticket for each application you send out is therefore a good idea. If you get a job you’ll also win a few thousand bucks.

Bad Idea 3:

There is a German saying that says that sharing your pain with others means that you will only have to deal with half the pain. This may generally be a good idea and therapeutic to some degree. If, however, the only people you can share your pain with are living through the same pain, this turns into a bad idea. The equation in this case changes to: shared pain creates a closed set/system that escalates until everyone in the system reaches a state of emotional death, therefore consolidating the entropic equilibrium of disillusionment indicative of the closed system of the pool of humanities Ph.D.s on the job market.

Bad Idea 4:

Attempting to hold on to Oedipal, binary definitions of subjectivity meant to stabilize your emotional constitution. All such attempts will eventually reveal themselves as merely temporally stable, hence Oedipalism in the end also loses to the inevitability of job-market-induced entropy. An example: I had my mock job talk on Thursday (which went relatively well). After the talk I ran into a colleague who was waiting for his turn. My job talk had ended with the usual combination of encouragement and devastation (professors telling you that “you have a fantastic project and you will definitely be a professor–maybe not this year, but eventually–you know, it just such a crapshoot”) and I thus left the room caught in the usual combination of elation and utter depression. This mood, however, immediately changed upon seeing my colleague: haggard, shifty, his eyes barely able to look away from his feet that constantly, nervously and poignantly moved in place, he asked me: “so, have YOU heard anything? Have you gotten any calls?” “No,” I replied, then quickly adding, “but they just told me it’s still early. Most calls won’t go out until the 17th this year. There is still hope.” “Whatever,” he replied, surprisingly loudly, for a brief moment of strangely energetic spinal erection casting off that rock that up until that moment seemed to have weighed him down, “I can’t wait that long. I’m going nuts, man. Every time the phone rings I sprint across my apartment, knocking over all kinds of shit, just to find out that it’s someone else again. I don’t think I can last until the end of next week. I’m ready to walk into traffic, man.” That last sentences was followed by a nervous, desperate chuckle and the return to his previous habitus, that was simultaneously reminiscent of a Morbus Bechterew patient and an old rubber boat leaned against the side of a wall that was just punctured by the pocket knife of the small town’s richest family’s snotty 8-year-old. Thus, looking into his eyes that quickly returned to staring at his feet as if in a desperate attempt to hold on to the last remnant of a quickly fading idea of the potential for positive progress and movement into the future, I knew he was serious. The bad idea on my part was this: I felt strangely proud of myself for keeping it together so well, for not yet succumbing to complete depression, for dealing with this insane stress and existential insecurity so rationally. This was the binary I attempted to construct and hold on to. Turns out, however, that there was no binary, just temporality. Turns out he was just one day ahead of me.

Out of solutions, not even repression working any more at this point, the possibility of distraction by focusing on the insane amount of work I have before me (first grading then writing) disappearing increasingly, bad ideas appear to be all that remains at this point: heavy nightly drinking, followed by Tylenol PM to get to sleep, aspirin, a vitamin pill and coffee to clear the head for work in the morning…lather, rinse, repeat until head feels less/completely numb.

I managed not to smoke again, though.



  1. ‘Bad Idea 1’ sounds eerily familiar. the unfortunate news is: it often gets worse before it gets better, but from my experience: something always comes up. it may not necessarily take the form you expect (and think you wish for…). but you will come out of it alright and intact. I have no doubt about that. so get some sleep!

  2. I went through all these decisions four years ago, and in my case I’d say it was good for me to turn away from academia (I am still somewhere at the borders of it, but it’s just one of the wastelands you’ve described – also, I’ve taught English…).

    I am, however, certain that it is going to pay off for you in the end. You have other options than finding a position asn Assistant Professor right away. Be a research fellow for a year, of you could even go to Europe for a scholarship (plenty of Amerikanistik Institute) – it’s a slow way up the ladder, but don’t give up prematurely.

  3. I may be too drunk to make sense (in a way, this is a pretty representative day, then: 10 hours with Jameson’s _The Seeds of Time_ and _A Singular Modernity_ at the coffee house, followed by serious drinking until 3 to prepare for bedtime), but the problem is this: I don’t care if anything else comes up, or if I have other options. What I want to do and what I should do in life is teaching and writing. If that does not work, there is always the shotgun option, which this country, god bless it, makes possible due to the wonderful second amendment. Yeehaw. He, he.

  4. When I wrote ‘options’ I meant: Options you can turn to _in the meantime_, i.e. before you have gained the professorship and will be able to do nothing but teaching and writing.

    If I look at the people I know and how have made it in the academia business, there is no one who got a professorship right after his or her PhD. On the other hand, those who did note give up right away reached what they (and you) wanted after a while.

    Turning to the shotgun NOW because you cannot devote your life to teaching and writing writing RIGHT AWAY might be a premature decision.

    After all, research fellowships aren’t a bad thing either to kill your time until the big break.

  5. I agree with anaj in that you *may* have to open up your mind to other options. Not as a final decision, but for a solution in the meantime.

    The way it works is that you have to have, at all times, more than one Eisen im Feuer. It’s never a good idea, in any area of your life, to just have one Eisen, as this means you’ll be exclusively dependent on that one and very likely left disappointed. Trust me, I am an expert on the more than one iron in the fire – game.

    In your position, I would focus on what you enjoy most about your current job/work. Is it the fact that you’re surrounded by books, that you engage intellectually with thought and language? Or is it the teaching – the interaction with students, planning and preparing seminars, etc.? Or the writing of your thesis?

    I’d then make a list of jobs where at least some of your qualities and interests could be fulfilled. A job in an area such as academic publishing, or editing, or even, teaching at a school/college or whatever might even be useful for your CV in the long run.

    For instance, I have a PhD in Media Studies but currently work in an ad agency. While I’m not immediately interested in working as an academic, I can see myself in the future maybe lecturing part-time. The great thing is that my practical job experience will no doubt make a big difference when it comes to any future applications – seeing that I would be highly qualified not only theoretically, but also practically, to teach Media/Advertising/PR/Marketing and related areas.

    What I’m saying here is don’t close off all your options, *especially*, when there are so many applicants and such few jobs. Consider taking a year or two to gain some experience working in the real, evil, capitalist world, and then apply again – or even continue applying for academic jobs while you’re working in the evil, capitalist one.

    There really aren’t that many alternatives. We who are not rich cannot just *not* work and devote our time to what we enjoy doing. We who are not rich must compromise, and must often achieve our goals the hard way.

  6. Lenina: I agree with you. Looking at other options is the pragmatic, rational and considering the realities of the role of humanities in our world, the reasonable way to deal with the future. I am, therefore, also currently exploring other options along the lines of the things you mention above (editor positions, for example, since doing research, reading and (critical) writing is really what I want to be/am best at). Well, I will first explore additional academic options such as postdocs in the US and in Germany, the British job market in early 2008 and, as a last resort, lecurer positions in the US. My quarrel at the moment, thus, is mostly with the usual experience of capitalism, namely that hard work is not always (or in fact rarely) rewarded and many employment etc. decisions are based on other reasons (I will not go into detail here–especially people in academia will now what I mean–only this: I do, of course, NOT mean affirmative action–just to make this perfectly clear–this is not an attack on diversity policies–we are talking about far less justifiable but more frequent practices).

    Apart from the fact that people in certain professions have to work a lot harder than in others in order to get ahead and make a living (as you mention above, lenina), I essentially put my life on hold for large parts of the last few decade (and quite a number of readers who know me personally in some form can attest to this and have experienced the negative effects this brought with it [often brutally so for those around me]). I worked my ass off and put together a CV that, as various sources have told me, should be one of the top CVs on the market this year. Add to this the fact that I have more publications, talks, prizes etc. than pretty much most other applicants in the pool and it is rather surprising, that up to this point I have not received a single call. My professors are perturbed by this and partially more depressed than I am, repeatedly saying “I have no idea how this can be happening,” but all of this does not really help me. Yes, the job market is all about chance and that this is a fact I should try to respect. However, I know people who have lots of interviews lined up who have dicked off for large parts of their Ph.D. careers and put together a dissertation and general work profile that is less than stellar (to put it mildly). Similarly, these are the kinds of people who have always been lucky and shit just fell into their laps. I always had to make shit happen for myself and the things I have been able to accomplish have never been given to me for free or have been obtained easily. I have been disappointed a lot of times, seeing opportunities being given to less qualified and less committed scholars. I always had to hear professors from my own and other institutions tell me that I should take pride in the exceptional quality of my work, that I should not be disappointed, since many decisions are political and depend on personal networks, and that I need to remember that people will reward me for my work in the future and honor the quality of my output. If, however, the job market is not the time when this happens, since it seems to be based on other considerations than quality (inofficially, of course), then I am beginning to wonder when this moment of fair consideration of ability and quality of scholarship is actually going to happen. I.e. more than anything I am beginning to lose confidence in the way academia is regulated. This rant could go on for a while and I could get a lot more specific, but that really doesn’t help anyone. Instead, I will keep writing (and for the next few days at least, I’ll also keep drinking).

    As for the people who are trying to reach me via phone and want to chat–sorry for not returning your calls. I am currently in no mood to chat, but will call you for sure in a week or so. Sorry, but I need to completely focus on writing to keep the rest of my sanity.

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