Post/Academic Shame

Saturday, 11 June 2011 15:57

After completing my graduate studies and earning a doctorate in English Literature, I anticipated that I would feel a mix of exhaustion, relief, and accomplishment. I was completely unprepared for the overwhelming sense of shame that I would feel – and still feel in part today – that plunged me into a severe depression for several long winter months. Not following tradition, I did not have a celebratory meal and drinks with my supervisory committee after my defense. I was ill at the time and had called off the lunch that was planned. As the days and weeks passed from my defense date, I couldn’t bring myself to reschedule another time to get together. How could I celebrate my failure as an academic?

Despite excelling as a teaching and research assistant, being an active member within my department, and having highly praised writing/critical skills, I never managed to receive any external funding for my research. As anyone within academia knows, funding too often marks the perceived value of a scholar and without it, landing an academic job – and even other funding – becomes more challenging.

Being consistently poor and overworked inevitably caused me a great deal of stress. With each passing year, my work load and stress increased, while my pay decreased and my health worsened. By the end of my second year, I was suffering with chronic pain and I made the decision to leave academia once my PhD was completed. Still, there was always the lingering hope that maybe I could make it as a prof – if I was only lucky and clever enough to meet the right people and write the right things. I was not.

I felt deeply embarrassed for completing my degree. Why had I willingly endured so much hardship despite being acutely aware of the problems within graduate education and the miserable odds of succeeding in the academic job market? Knowledge was not power. It was like I was the victim of an email scam, but worse: I saw the scam for what it was and gave away my credit card information anyways.

The shame I felt was both startling and oppressive. I refused to look at the bound copy of my thesis and my PhD diploma was thrown into my lowest desk drawer (where it still sits, unframed and unlooked at). Everything about my 6+ years of combined graduate studies told me that success was only one thing: a tenure track job. To be sure, some faculty members gave lip-service to measuring success in other ways, but everything about the education and professionalization process screamed “tenure matters.” Even though I knew a university position was not for me, the parameters of what constituted success remained the same.

I know that graduate school is not an even playing field, regardless of the oft-spouted ideals of equality held by the majority of my Humanities peers. When measuring my academic production against many of my (well-funded) classmates, I fall short. While they were able to write and publish articles, I was dragging myself to doctor’s appointments. While they were out buying more books or traveling to another conference, I was struggling to pay the rent and accruing debt. There is nothing fair about graduate school … and I feel like a dupe for thinking that there might have been.

So here I am, nine months out, marginally self-employed and wondering if it was all worth it. The “no” that sits at the bottom of my gut shames me. I should have known better, I think. Or maybe I have bad luck. Or maybe I didn’t try hard enough. Or maybe the whole graduate system is actually broken. Maybe it relies on the shame, fear, and self-loathing it produces in those of us who don’t measure up, who don’t get funding, and who don’t get the tenure-track dream job to keep it going.

In my shame, I have been silent. It is not that I lack the intelligence and creativity for academic work – I am, in fact, quite confident in my strong analytical and communication skills – but I am physically and ethically unable and unwilling to participate in an institutionalized system of education that ignores the suffering of its workers.

I think that if the graduate school survivors who have been over-looked, under-paid, marginalized, and forgotten start feeling good about succeeding despite it all, we might evoke some change. If we can recognize that the failure lies not with us, but with a system that operates on economic and psychological exploitation, we can begin to push for change outside of the academy. If we can find the courage to voice our dissent loudly and widely in the public sphere, perhaps those inside might finally hear us.

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