I have a PhD and I don’t have a faculty job. I do have a job in the academy with an academic leaning, so I’m considered an ‘#alt-ac’ (if you needed a label for me). There are a set of feelings I am meant to feel about this so-called slide in circumstances: shame, bitterness, regret, anger, sadness, overwhelming ennui, etc. I’m supposed to have horror stories of graduate school – nightmarish committee members, or a protracted and impossible thesis writing experience, or denied funding, or destroyed mental health.
Too bad I suck at the post-PhD dinner party game of reciting the escalating list of terrible things that happened during graduate school. I had a reasonably good time in graduate school: a fantastic supervisory committee who supported me in my work as well as in my recognition that I wasn’t going to go tenure-track, stable funding*, supportive family/friends/relationship, and the self-awareness to know my thesis didn’t need to change the world (though it did change *my* world…) it just had to get… done. Plus I got to spend four years reading novels (and starting this blog!) and thinking about them in coffee shops whilst going to the gym whenever I wanted and staying out to all hours drinking pints and pretending to care about theory. I cannot overstate my privilege. Both as a graduate student (privileged to have the lucky set of circumstances I had during school) and as a person that could be a graduate student.
Even still, reading Suzette Mayer’s Dr Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall gave me anxiety nightmares. Our protagonist, Dr. Edith Vane, is a tenured professor at the fictional Canadian Inivea University. Her life – like the building she works in – is crumbling. Her long-awaited book experiences a troubling release, she is being threatened with ‘refreshing’ (a euphemism for firing) and she suffers from debilitating anxiety that impacts her personal and professional lives (of course there isn’t much distinction for her). She reminded me a fair bit of Stoner, the 1965 gem about the failed academic just trying to get by. A resonance that affirmed that while the structural conditions of the university have certainly changed in the intervening years, the pressure to publish and to be (seen as) successful have continuity.
The structural conditions are where this book does well enough. It pays attention to the economic disparity within the university between ‘have’ and ‘have not’ disciplines. It lays bare the demand for professors to outwardly demonstrate their perpetual productivity at the expense of actually being (let alone being productive) and with the consequence of radical deterioration in mental health. It calls into question the inequality within their ranks from adjuncts to administrators to endowed chairs. That said, it largely ignores the experiences of students – there are scenes of teaching, to be sure, but students are largely impediments to Edith’s happiness in their constant demand for feedback and for higher grades. That is to say we aren’t invited to consider how the crumbling structural conditions impact on learning. Which is fine. This book doesn’t need to be about that. Just pointing it out for all my (potential) teaching & learning readers.
So right. The crumbling structural conditions. For a book about an English professor I have to admit I found the mapping of plot and theme in the book incredibly… obvious. The physical building of Crawley Hall is haunted and falling apart. Edith, proxy for academics everywhere, is falling apart. The pathetic fallacy is noted. Again and again. I get it. I got it. I get it again.
So if it does okay in showing us some of the issues in Canadian post-secondary, it doesn’t fair as well is in the plot, writing and character development. Which is to say, unless you are a former academic yourself, hell bent on some masochistic exercise in reliving the trauma of your own experience, I can’t offer much encouragement to seek this one out.
*I feel a bit defensive about this part. I was crushed each year to not receive the giant scholarship, but got by on the usual TA stipend and by working part time. But because I *didn’t* get external funding, I *had* to work part time. And this part time work turned into the full time job I got before graduating. And my career now. So… thanks for not funding me, I guess?