Over the past few days, I’ve scrolled through picture after picture on various social media platforms framing many of my students’ happy, grinning faces in graduation gowns and regalia; young faces brimming with excitement ready to follow their dreams. My heart felt full for all of them. But my heart simultaneously felt empty…for me. What happened to my dreams? I’ve been running on this academic hamster wheel for so long, chasing something I thought I wanted, or — probably more accurately — something I was told I needed in order to get what I wanted. What I wanted was to be a teacher. Now I am. Yet I still feel stuck at the beginning; and the Ph.D. remains unfinished.
Graduate school becomes job search becomes tenure-track pressure becomes “publish or perish” becomes me at 60+ years old wondering what happened to my smiling, excited face that one day, long ago. I used to be ready to fight to make my dreams a reality. I was hopeful of changing the world, making it a better place for someone, somewhere. My Ph.D sucked that life out of me. The Ph.D. might as well be printed on flypaper because my legs, despite being strong, have been stuck motionless. Sure, I’ve read a lot of complicated books and written page after page of useless theoretical drivel. That’s the thing: they keep you so busy that you don’t realize you’re not moving. At least not moving in any usable direction.
To add insult to injury, I’ve also been repeatedly beaten down by academia and my University and encouraged, if not threatened, to keep it all under wraps. As a graduate student, they call this a “disciplining” process, which is truly ironic because I’m part of an interdisciplinary department allegedly interested in dismantling power structures. Be weary of these departments, they are often most invested in upholding in practice what they purport to dismantle in theory. It’s sad really, because as excited as I was initially to become a graduate student and start down a professorial road, what I entered into felt more like an abusive relationship.
I’ve been called “downright dumb,” “incapable,” “stupid” by two academic superstars in their field; two world renowned feminist theorists at the top of their game, one of whom pretended to be my mentor for years. But I wear these juvenile insults as badges of honor. If you’re not pissing off those in power, you’re not doing your job. And I know for a fact that I am not, in fact, any of those things. These names were hurled at me, passive-aggressively, in writing because I broke the rules of academia. Spoke in ways unbecoming of a student. Lesson: defer to those in power; learn from them; cite them. Never blaze your own trail. Never prize experience at the cost of “high theory.” Never think creatively.
Or, if you do, be prepared to lose any allies you thought you might have had. Academia is all about petty personal politics and word spreads fast. After I stood up for myself, after I told one of the above renowned feminist theorists that the way she had spoken to me was inappropriate and violent and I no longer felt comfortable speaking with her, guess how many email responses I’ve received from anyone in my department? A big fat zero. See, you’d better pick sides and not stray. Ranks close at the speed of light. I’ve watched previously kind people shun me and refuse to acknowledge my presence, both via email and even while standing in the same room. This is politics in academia. It also resembles the politics of an elementary school playground.
I’ve been forced to apologize to two different University Deans. Because my classes were too popular. I garnered unsolicited national and international news around a class I created utilizing pop culture to teach gender, race, and sexual politics. Because of this unsolicited attention, demand for my classes grew. My department asked me to teach additional sections, and I agreed. Not to mention, I have bills and NYC rent to pay on an adjunct salary so I was happy to oblige. But this angered the powers-that-be; the same powers paying poverty wages to adjunct instructors on the regular. Administration quickly told me I was teaching “too much” and therefore must beg for forgiveness from multiple individuals, both far removed from day-to-day teaching, if I wanted to keep even a fraction of the classes I was scheduled to teach. I begrudgingly offered a non-apology and have never heard back from either of those Deans. The original admonitions were meant to shame me. Needless to say, it didn’t work. They saved the money they would have pay me for those extra classes; money I could have desperately used. I guess they count that as a win. And in five years, I have never once been thanked or credited for generating unprecedented amounts of publicity for the University or my individual department. Go figure.
I’ve hustled to create a position for myself both within and without traditional academia, worked my ass off frankly. And I’ve succeeded to a certain extent, despite those supposedly on my side working explicitly against me. But that’s not the story they would tell. That’s the story they have threatened me not to tell. Because I’ve shown that you can break their rules and still be successful, I must be counted as a failure in their program. How else will they “discipline” the next round of students if I’m not held as an example of “how not to do this”? I’m not optimistic they will ever reflect on their own actions and complicity in the same power dynamics they constantly talk about dismantling — in obscure, obtuse, incomprehensible language nonetheless. I’m no longer interested in playing childish games.
However, my nontraditional methods and actions have connected me to important people — people that are genuinely interested in what I do, who I am, what I hope for the future. They’re interested in education, but not solely education as dictated by an elitist Ivory Tower. They’re interested in change and challenging power, not reproducing it. These people come from all different walks of life and careers (both inside and outside academia) and they want to work with towards a common vision; not in competition.
I still teach at the same University. I still love teaching and will continue to do it. But my identity is no longer wrapped up in being a graduate student or a professor. I am an educator, and education can happen in countless spaces and places. Being an intimate part of academia has cured me of the delusion that there is only way to accomplish my goals or that there are certain qualifications one must hold in order to impart knowledge. I’ve decided to walk away from my Ph.D…and get my life. It’s been out there waiting for me for years. I was just too blind to see it. My life won’t come to find me and I’m getting older every day. It’s now or never.
Yes, I might be biting the hand that feeds me. But I’m scrappy. I’ll find enough to eat somewhere. And to be clear, the aforementioned hand that feeds me has not been feeding me particularly well. I’ve been scraping by for a while now; I might as well scrape by with more of a smile on my face. They say when one door closes, another opens. I’ve been in limbo for so long, with no new doors to walk through, because I’ve been afraid to close this door behind me. But today I’m slamming it and this essay serves as the lock on that door. I’m throwing away the key.
I’ve felt ecstatic seeing the students I’ve taught over the last few years, the students I’ve watched work their asses off in class after class, graduate and begin their lives. I think I’ve felt so emotional because this weekend was a personal graduation as well. Graduation for me, this time, doesn’t include a new degree, honorific, or cap and gown, but it’s just as important. It feels more monumental than any of my previous graduations. I kept returning to school — more degrees, more learning — to hide from life, and now I need to go find where I left that life many years ago. Without the weight of impossible expectation and judgement from those with the “correct credentials” pinning me to the floor. I think this graduation is gonna stick.
And I love the way it sounds when I say it out oud: I’m walking away from my Ph.D. to get my life. Here I come. Happy graduation!