Tag Archives: university

Dr Edith Vane and the Hares of Crawley Hall: A long digression about the horrors of graduate school

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?

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction

Dear Committee Members: Drop out of University and Get a Job Alreadyear

140805_books_illo.jpg.CROP.promovar-mediumlarge

If only it was as funny to be a part of the dying university as it is to read about the death in Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members. A lot of my job can be likened to the orchestra aboard the sinking Titanic. Rather than changing the conditions – fixing the massive hole in the hull – my job is to distract and soothe (entertain?), but without drawing too much attention to the need for distraction.

Dear Committee Members is a distraction trying very hard to draw attention to the flooding lower decks. An one-side epistolary novel, the story is the whip smart satire of the contemporary university (in particular the Humanities) attempting (badly) to grapple with declining funding, increased enrollments, ‘job-ready skills’ and the promised-not-yet-delivered panacea of technology. Taking about two hours to read, the book is the fastest way you can get a sense of what it’s like to be a humanities PhD in 2015: hilarious(ly heartbreaking/dream-crushing).

The book skewers the disparity within the university between high-profile/high-budget programs and those lesser cousins, takes on the nepotism that undergirds hiring (and tenure) processes and questions the purpose of the university as either job-skills or big ideas (and the validity of the binary itself), by marshalling forth the glut of reference letters a single professor in the creative writing program at a middling university must write over the course of one year. The letters are funny. Very funny. Funny because they show the extent of the damage and the absurdity of a single professor scooping water with a paper cup. And yet scoop he must.

I’m not sure the novel has yet committed to the need to get on the lifeboats; it holds hope for the future of the university. And because we all know I’m secretly an optimist (not a secret), and that I have a yet unshakeable (if probably pathological) belief in the university, I loved the steadfast resolve that concludes the novel. And I love the idea that satire can push us to improve, to ask us whether students might not only deserve something better, but actually get something better. So read it. Then get out and get involved with federal (provincial and local) politics. There’s an election coming and I’d rather not have to swim.

Leave a comment

Filed under Fiction, Funny

Higher Ed: Bulimia isn’t the worst part

8472709399_48c7f8eef2_b

Tessa McWatt beat me to the novel I haven’t written in Higher Ed. The novel takes up the current state of higher education in Britain (to be fair, I’d write the novel about Canadian higher ed, so perhaps there’s still a market – not). Through the interwoven narratives of five characters – the administrator, the film professor, the waiter, the law student and the civil servant – the novel explores the way we live in alienated, precarious and exhausted existences and how we might live otherwise.

Metaphors work to give contour to this exploration. Our administrator, Francine, works as a Quality Assurance officer at the University, helping programs through the absurd and demeaning process of justifying their existence by way of forms, counts, assessment checks and more forms. Francine, our character-stand-in for the university itself, has a distorted self image and bulimic practices. She wants to be ever trimmer, ever more efficient, to see herself, and more importantly to be seen by others, as successful. Yet, as any bulimic would know, in the attempt to purge, all she succeeds in doing is wasting energy on what isn’t important (and getting – ironically – bloated in the process). She sells out her ideals (and her body) to get ahead, only to discover that in the process of proving her worth to others she’s forgotten her own sense of self and priorities. Read the last paragraph again replacing “she” with “the university” and you see how the metaphor works in the novel.

Enter the civil servant who works disposing of the forgotten or “lonely dead,” those who have no one but the state on which to rely when they die. The civil servant, Ed, works with his once estranged daughter, the law student, Olivia, to bring some kind of meaning to these sanitized and bureaucratic deaths complete with mass graves and – again – forms. Their attempts at meaning take the shape we all recognize as meaning-makers: song, storytelling and poetry. As the two characters make this lone and ultimately futile (like life, the novel poses) effort, they deepen their relationship and come to trust and rely on one another. Pitted against the horror of the forgotten, lonely, death this quickening of a relationship is meant – I suspect – to offer us some hope and solace.

And there’s the crux. The novel suggests we live and function among cold and uncaring bureaucracies that are driven by profit and absent either individual or community. Yet, against these efficiency efforts the novel offers budding relationships and clumsy romance. As if to say we may have forgotten how to reach out to one another, how to use poetry to understanding our humanity and how to speak to one another in words not in text(s), but we are not so far gone that we can’t try to, maybe, hazard the attempt at, remembering and connecting.

In other words it’s not an overly optimistic or heartwarming story. Instead, as a sort-of administrator in higher ed myself, I find the call for connection, for real conversation, for extended empathy as at one and the same time entirely appealing and utterly insufficient. We live in the tragic gap, says Parker Palmer, between the reality we recognize and the reality we imagine as possible. In this novel we sit precisely in that space between what the university (what our society) is– profit driven – and what it could be – people driven. And from this gap we’re meant to both witness and imagine. If only we had a way to do that. Oh wait, we do: we can read.

2 Comments

Filed under Book Club, British literature, Canadian Literature, Fiction