Academic Relapse, Part 2: The Return

For Part 1 of my story of Academic Relapse, click here.

I cannot shake this feeling of the uncanny. I wonder if I am in the upside down. Or a minor character in a Thomas Mann novel.  But instead of lingering a little too long in a diseased and dying Venice, I lingered a little too long in academia. I have been living the past 18 months in dumb shock and terror, struggling to stay afloat as I was sued by the very same individual who exploited me in graduate school.

 It has felt as if I am trapped in a trauma cycle that re-lives the horror over and over. I am convinced that I am stuck a broken loop of Nietzsche’s eternal return. That the time machine failed. That I might not ever make it back to the present.

 And now, without warning, I am here. In the present. Preparing to go into the past. Again.

But I am also in the future, which appeared out of nowhere within moments of learning that the lawsuit was dismissed. It’s a strange temporal leap to make psychologically. I remind myself: it is over. No more lawyers. No more court dates. I found out hours ago, but I still haven’t told anyone yet. I don’t know what to make of it. In some ways, nothing changes. I am still me, still digging my way out, still forging a new path. Still bankrupt. Still exhausted. Still a ‘former academic.’

 A cold and a broken hallelujah indeed.

 Walking through the vibrant West Village to meet friends from graduate school, I realize I haven’t allowed myself to feel anything. To allow my emotions back in would be to forfeit the arduous task of surviving, of rebuilding. When I think about my former department, a rage rises up in my throat, and, if I think about it too long, my eyes tear up. The water in my eyes is a potent mix of shame and defiance. I try not care about what I know they say about me.

 

--

I think of my former professors as dinosaurs, still lingering but very near a last and final extinction. This is not a euphemism, this is real. Fewer and fewer tenure-track positions are offered each year. When a professor retires, more often than not, their position is replaced by temporary and contingent labor, in other words, adjuncts with PhDs. Adjuncts make, on average, 26,000 a year. With no benefits. A professor’s average salary is $75,000 with benefits. This efficiency and minimized overhead must be mouth-watering to upper-level deans. They must salivate over how much their year-end bonuses will be with all this streamlining (yes, this is also real). Oh, and, this insistence that ‘there is no money’ to hire professors? That is also a lie. There is money. It’s just allocated to more important departments of higher education. Like marketing. Events coordinators. Facilities.

 In the age of late-stage capitalism, money is the only indication of worth and of importance. And, for higher education, clearly, the task of education itself does not matter. The customer, they used to be called students, is always right. They want easy A’s. They want a degree. They want fun events. Or so they tell us. I suspect otherwise. That’s not giving students nearly enough credit. But I digress.

 In order to survive in this capitalist-nightmare, professors have resorted to eating their young.* This is what happened to me, only they forgot to finish me off entirely. There are not enough jobs to go around. Because there are fewer professors, competition increases, as does the pressure to publish. All of this ultimately yields an incredibly toxic environment. Like a warm damp space where mold proliferates, this toxicity allows personality disorders to thrive. Narcissists. Borderlines. Dare I say it, sociopaths. They are the ones who survive. The rest of us just go mad. And this is precisely how nothing changes.

*I talk about this more in the post “A Field That Devours its Young is a Field that is Dying

--

 

I extend my arm to open the door to the time machine disguised as a bar, thinking of dinosaurs and trauma. Suddenly, I am no longer in the West Village. I am no longer in New York. I am in New Brunswick, New Jersey at this tiny bar with half-off cocktails from 4:00 to 6:00 during the week.  It is 2012. I still listen to Kanye West. I’m still painfully in the closet. I’m with my grad school crew that assembles here each week after our particularly mind-numbing seminar. Together, we leave class at 3:40 and, like the broke graduate students we are, we sit at the bar chatting until 4:00, when we can finally order half-off drinks and food.

 I sit on a red stool of the bar with the low-ceilings and dim lighting. I can taste the weird lychee martini that I always order. Sometimes everyone from our year is here and other times, just a few. Regardless, we all agreed at the beginning of the semester that these happy hours are the only way to survive that class. That semester. Graduate school. Everything.  

 The class we come from is a reminder of the futility of our graduate education. (Perhaps this is only because of hindsight, but I think even then we sensed how dire things were for us.) We are smart. But we are not at an Ivy. We are not even in a department where the faculty members can bear to be in the same room with one another long enough to improve graduate coursework.

 And then, just like that, I am jerked back into the present-tense.

--

 

I look around and realize that I have actually slipped into a seat at a sticky table at the Four Faced Liar in the West Village. Like that, I am back with my ghosts. I am their ghost too. For tonight only, we are back together again. A handful of us anyway. I feel like pouring one out for those of us who aren’t here. I effortlessly join the conversation, some well-trod story from grad school, as if no time has passed.

 The past and present collapse into one another. The time machine is working as it should. We bitch about the same class. Laugh about the shenanigans we had. About the types of insanity our behavior belied-- who slept with whom, who didn’t sleep with whom. The usual. A fraught joy fills our table.

 It is good to see everyone. I cannot believe we are all together, after everything that has happened. It has not been an easy road for any of us. Of the twelve or so students who started the same year I did, only one has a tenure track job. For whatever it’s worth, he is a straight white male. One of the only ones in our department.  As I stare dumb-founded at everyone, they all seem the same. But nothing is the same. We are embittered compatriots in the corrupt and dying system of higher education.

 I let slip a reference to what has happened to me in the interval between the past and the present. I immediately realize that perhaps this was a mistake. It knocked the time-machine off kilter. Declared the temporal separation that has, until this point, kept us safely in the distant past. I see their nervous eyes refuse to make contact with me. I remember that I am alone in this.

 I knew the risks of coming here, I even knew that I might not psychologically make it back to the present. But the cruel logic of addiction demanded that I come, the temptation to relapse back into academia is simply too strong.

Part 3 of my slow burn: “Academic Relapse, Part 3: Total Recall” to read the rest of this story and how it all shakes down.

In the meantime, get in touch. I’m listening.

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