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[MAY 2008.]

A New Career in a New Town

There are arcane ins and outs to the present budget crisis at the university with which I’m associated, but the short version is that the administration has responded to massive state funding cuts with at least two boneheaded decisions, axing a large portion of a) language courses in Chinese, Japanese and Korean, and b) the required two-semester undergrad composition sequence. Both a) and b) are routinely overenrolled as is; they’re about to get much more so. The consequence of a) may well be to restrict Asian language courses to people who are majoring in those languages; thus our proud leading 21st-century Pacific Rim university which is charged to provide its students with Competitive Skills in the Global Arena will not be able, for example, to teach its business students any Chinese. As for people who might want to study Chinese at a university out of intellectual curiosity—that pays no dividends, buster.

Now the consequences of b). The farce of requiring students to take logistically inaccessible courses will cause the undergrads a lot of scheduling headaches and prevent many of them from graduating on time. Further, since the Ph.D. program in English and most other literature departments funds its doctoral students by giving them these courses to teach, most of us have just found ourselves without the wherewithal to finish our programs. At present the university guarantees its doctoral students four semesters of teaching; since that is insufficient to get anyone out the door with a degree, teaching semesters have always been extended in practice. It appears that next year this will cease to obtain. The faculty in our department, outraged as anyone, are trying to put together some stopgap measures for next year; but in essence this new policy makes it impossible for anyone to get a Ph.D. in English who does not have independent wealth, a full-ride fellowship, or another job.

As I’m in the middle of a fellowship year and looking to get out the door very soon, I personally am not as fucked as many of my colleagues, in particular the incoming students who just signed on to the program with the understanding that they’d be able to teach indefinitely. But obviously no one is getting hired at a public university in California in the near future. It is starting to seem to me that higher education is not even a ship from which one jumps; it’s more like a collection of rafts, loosely bound together with odd lengths of netting, some more seaworthy than others. In the past I’ve been cynical about the mission and I never know what to do with systems, but this is very sad.

Fatalism is a position easy and comforting enough for me that it is probably suspect. But it’s a reflex of mine, as is introspection, and it tends to trump any impulse to action. It’s not that I have no concern for the social; rather it’s the same reason that I can’t stomach the kind of artistic self-promotion which I’ve seen many people employ to great success. Interest doesn’t get very far into praxis with me. And this is a problem between me and the current academy, which for perfectly good reasons is interested in the social and historical valence of the texts it studies. You get a lot out of that, except, except—to evaluate texts by their effect in the temporal world is to treat them as highly wrought works of propaganda, and this unfortunately eviscerates them of everything I care about. Most of my favorite books are elegies of some kind, and the ones that aren’t are probably hymns of praise, that is, elegies in reverse. The work of mourning needs help, and it needs company, but it can’t be turned into any other kind of work. Insofar as the profession doesn’t recognize this or doesn’t care about it, it doesn’t speak my language.

For one thing, trying to teach elegy in the classroom is stupid. It makes more intuitive sense to teach literature with some kind of social valence, whether it be the inane accounts of self-discovery beloved by essay-writing freshmen and the New York Times Book Review or the glorious edifices of someone like Raymond Williams. I’ve repeatedly found myself in the classroom trying to give literary works various socially applicable morals, simply because it’s the easiest way to answer the question of what is the fucking point. My course evaluations reflect my halfhearted and unconvincing performance of this task. You can talk to society, but I don’t see where it talks back. There is the sphere of natural law; and there is the sphere of individual persons; and then there is the sphere of persons in the aggregate, which is unlike the sphere of nature in that it yields no invariant laws and unlike the sphere of individuals in that praise and blame do not apply. Like I say, I don’t do systems, and even if the university system weren’t falling apart I’m not sure it has a place for someone like me.

So yesterday I finished my novel, and today I’m flying to Colorado for a week-long seminar on current trends in mining law, because I have to start moving along new paths. All us monads need to shake out somewhere. I’m close enough to the doctorate that there’s no reason not to finish, and I’ll go through the forms, at least once, of applying for academic positions, again because there’s no reason not to. But as a self-moving errant child of the Enlightenment I reserve the right to turn 180 degrees whenever necessary; or better, to keep on looking for a new direction orthogonal to everything.

 

The novel is near completion, but I was suspecting that I might need to put all the writing projects away for a brief while; and this morning God confirmed it by sending me some momentous gastric upset to keep me moaning in bed all morning. (If you think you are likely to vomit in the near future, do not swallow those bright red strawberry Tums, because they will terrify you coming back up.) J. took care of me until I was well enough to come downtown and get some carrot juice and open up Aristotle’s Physics, which is where I’m at now and will not be tempted elsewhere from. He always cheers me up:

Again men propagate men, but bedsteads do not propagate bedsteads; and that is why they say that the natural factor in a bedstead is not its shape but the wood—to wit, because wood and not bedstead would come up if it germinated.

 

I’ve had very little contact with my department this semester and have been neglecting my academic duties to finish this novel; I feel like I’m taking off one suit of clothes after another, scattering them around me until they are completely shed and I leap into the sun. To land in Spain.

Something is shifting. I can’t tell if this means I have left the academy in my heart, or if it’s just the usual shift of coming to the end of a project. Either way I keep falling out of voice contact with people, I get surprised by how many kinds of light there are in the world, inexistents upset me, I get the old urge to drink coffee and stay up until dawn. I pace the house and don’t clean. I write these posts.

 

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