(Mis)adventures in Academia

I freely admit that my first foray into Graduate School was my vain attempt to forestall dealing with the dreaded “Real World” for as long as possible.  While I had been overall a mediocre High School student, I thrived as an undergraduate in college, even earning a place in the National Freshman Honor Society my first year at Texas A&M, and earning a modest Sul Ross Scholarship from Texas A&M University itself, and 3-year NROTC scholarship from the United States Navy, based on my academic merit.   I would later lose the NROTC scholarship owing to physical disqualification based on my abysmal eyesight at the time, in those pre-Lasik days.  Back then RK was the only eye-corrective surgery available, and it was new, experimental, had unpredictable side effects and was firmly NOT accepted by any of the Armed Forces at that point in time (post-Cold War, Bush Senior and early Clinton years).  Since my primary motivation for going to college had been to become an unrestricted-line Navy officer, I was left rudderless for a brief time, but quickly found new motivation in wanting to emulate a new cadre of adult professionals in my immediate social environment, namely the German Studies faculty of Texas A&M.  I really admired the wisdom, intelligence, and cultivation and learning of these men and women.  I also enjoyed the subject matter (German history & culture) that was the focus of their academic study and teaching and decided quickly that I wanted to follow in their footsteps and become one of them.

I felt so betrayed by the US Navy and so ambivalent about the First Gulf War that I turned my back on all things military and national-security related (FBI, CIA, NSA, etc).  And because the Republican Party in 1992 was openly embracing the Religious Right and because I was definitely an atheist, I jumped ship and declared myself a Democrat, voting for Bill Clinton in 1992.  I proudly wore t-shirts saying “Aggie Democrat”, precisely because of the glares and looks of disbelief it got me.  I had had half a mind to transfer out of TAMU and just head to Austin to join friends at UT to finish out my undergrad years;  I might very well have lead a happier life had I done so, but I’d already put down roots of a sort at TAMU and decided to stick it out as quirky, counter-culture liberal quasi-hippie in College Station rather than blend into the generally more liberal mainstream at UT-Austin.
I freely admit to abusing alcohol in College, including indulging in underage drinking.  I did it partly because I’d been such a squeeky clean goody-goody in High School and wanted to try some riskier things and live a little on the wild side…and I continued to drink throughout my initial years in Higher Education because it was a way to self-medicate and to overcome my inherent (but not yet diagnosed) Aspergian social awkwardness.  It blunted my inhibitions to the point where I no longer cared if I sounded weird or was awkward and forced myself to interact with others in spite of ordinarily being shy, etc.  I also managed to find genuine friends in the TAMU German and TAMU Russian clubs, where (heavy) social drinking was very much part of that milieu anyway, owing to those respective European cultural traditions.  Drinking allowed me to hone my German and Russian foreign language speaking skills, and as they say, practice makes perfect.  I won a modest speaking role in the annual Spring German play as a Sophomore, which was a rare thing for one so young.  I did a 6 week summer abroad in 1990 and a full academic year abroad from 1992-1993.  I can’t explain why fully, but I felt so utterly at home in orderly, by-the-book Germany.  It was a perfect place for an Aspie like me to live.  Alas, I could not find a way to stay beyond my allotted one year, as much as I really wished I could.  Two of my life-long yearnings have been to either 1) return to living in Germany or 2) barring that, return to a sheltered life in Academia….and for the time being content myself with life as an under-employed staff member in a Public library system.

I had wanted to attend UT-Austin for graduate school–not least because of the recognized prestige of their graduate program in German–it was in the national top 10 at the time–but also because my best friend(s) were also still living in Austin.  But I also applied to Rice University’s Graduate program in German Studies as my back-up.  Rice interviewed me first then offered me a full fellowship.  UT kept dithering.  Rice pressed me for a response one way or the other.  UT still hadn’t made up its mind whether to even accept me into their program or not, much less whether or not any financial aid of any sort would be forthcoming.  I felt I had no real choice and told Rice I would accept their offer and so packed my bags and returned to the greater Houston area.

Life as a grad student at Rice University was incredibly fun.  I enjoyed my classes (though I suspect my professors enjoyed me a bit less than I did them).  For the first two years, it was the happiest time in my life.  Even though I found the formal curriculum and reading list tedious and boring, I supplemented my study with stuff I actually cared about and wanted to read, which was considerably more interdisciplinary.  I loved being able to be paid to spend my days lost in thought and reading and writing.  True, in the cold light of hindsight I was more of a dabbler and dilettante than genuinely talented scholar…but I still had fun.  I wrestled with French post-structuralism but eventually chucked the lot of it as incomprehensible.  While I loved German literature, film and culture, I did not seem to love the same books, films, authors, etc, that my professors did and that they wanted me to study THEIR material that I found boring and I felt constantly like they sucked all the joy and life out of this field of study…I felt like I’d made a mistake and should’ve held out for UT-Austin after all.  I alienated my first thesis adviser, though I’m glad to say we later reconciled and he turned into my staunchest defender at my actual oral defense.  I realize looking back that most of my relationships with my professors with only a few notable exceptions were often quite rocky and difficult.  Understanding my Asperger’s now sheds new light on the difficulty of those interactions, and why I chafed so hard at the constraints of the Rice U. graduate program in German Studies.  I developed severe writer’s block when it came time to actually put pen to paper and complete my MA Thesis.  I failed to complete it within the allotted time (2 years) and also got into GPA trouble and went on academic probation.  Luckily the newly incoming Department chair took pity on me and took me under his wing and guided me towards pulling up my GPA and towards writing a passable Thesis…I look at it now and find it to be dreck and utterly trite, but it managed to pass muster at the time.  Alas, though, I was declared a “Terminal Masters” and this meant that my funding dried up completely, I had to take out loans to complete my studies, and worst of all had to move back in with my parents.  No more consciousness-expanding long nights in the campus pub and stumbling back to my dorm to sleep it off at night and rising at my leisure for mostly afternoon classes.  I met a lot of very interesting, super-intelligent individuals during my years at Rice; some of them in class but about half of them at either Willy’s Pub or Valhalla, hailing from the “Greater Rice Community” of alumni, and just local academics from other institutions that liked to spend their off hours at or near Rice U. My intelligence grew exponentially in this fertile environment, exposed to so many intelligent, well-read, articulate individuals.  I knew I would sorely miss it if i ever left academia (as a student or post-doc) or found myself unable to find gainful employment as an academic later.  Moving back in with my parents to finish my MA thesis was a dark and depressing time for me, not least because of how it killed my social life based in the campus community there, which initially only worsened my writers block and lead me to the brink of despair.  Somehow I managed to power through and excrete my thesis into presentable form…the mental equivalent of passing a kidney stone (something I’ve never actually had to do and hope never to have to do in my life!!) or uncommonly hard stool.  I was at a complete loss as to what to do next, and my parents kept breathing down my neck, hounding me with the question of what I intended to do with my life to earn a living…?  I was stunned by their vehemence and sudden seeming unwillingness to indulge my intellectual endeavors any longer after so many years of seemingly unquestioning support.  Casting about for something to do…to this day I couldn’t tell you why I ruled out something like Law school…I opted to try becoming a High School German teacher.  I actually enjoyed my graduate level education classes at the University of Houston.  UH was not Rice University, but it had its own charms that I grew to love.  It was at UH that I first encountered and read the works (yes, going outside the prescribed curriculum–again!) of Michael Berube and Cary Nelson, who were writing on the collapsing job market of newly minted humanities PhDs being unable to secure good Academic jobs after graduation…the field of endeavor I’d wanted to pursue but had been forced to abandon temporarily owing to being declared a Terminal Masters by Rice.  Perhaps I’d dodged a bullet.  But High School German teaching turned out to be a disaster for me and I quit after only one year on the job.  The stress was just too much and I found I had a splitting headache by the end of nearly every workday.  I read Lit Crit theory books on weekends and longed for and planned once again to lay siege to the Ivory Tower, seeking admittance yet again.  While I did not go immediately back, and actually landed the best job I’ve ever had–with AIG International Services–I never quite got rid of my Academic itch, and although part of me still dreamed hazily of earning a PhD and securing a position as a tenured professor, safely ensconced in Academia, away from the pressures and concerns of daily life, I decided that my best route back into the Academic world lay through the road to professional Librarianship.  I swore that I would make my headway first as a successful Academic Librarian in a University setting, and then someday perhaps earn a PhD in Culture Studies or Film Studies or even Library & Information Sciences–then leave the world of Librarian practitioner and go back to being a full-time Academic, giving lectures and writing books, enjoying the rarefied cultural air of Academia, safely removed from the stupid everyday world, talking late into the night having intelligent conversations with very smart people while getting slowly smashed drinking snooty, expensive imported beer.  

Two failed attempts at making my way as an Academic Librarian in Library Technical Services later, the actual trajectory of my life has been far less satisfactory.  It’s still a beautiful dream, but I’m a bit more realistic about my actual prospects going forward.  My yearning for Academia was in actuality a yearning for general social acceptance as an Aspie.  Only now do I actually “get” that.  I still think, in a different political economy in a different time and place with a far more better funded and supported Academia that I would make a fine Academic myself, with the adequate requisite financial and social supports.  Ah, to have been a wealthy Vicar in the Church of England, say, circa 1780 or 1830…rich with lots of free time on one’s hands…I’m currently reading Bill Bryson’s latest work At Home: A short history of private life and let me tell you, I’m quite envious of that strata of English aristocrats.  I’m also reading the delightful (late) David Rakoff’s Don’t Get Too Comfortable…both books I’m consuming in audiobook format–otherwise I’d not have the spare time to actually read them in print.  Having a new car that finally has a CD player on board has been such a gigantic boon to me, allowing me to at least partly revive my active reading life of previous years, and this gives me some measure of solace.  I feel unhappy when I’m not able to exercise my mind with intelligent nonfiction that makes me think, that has the capacity to transform my consciousness, etc.  It’s joyous to be able to do that again, in whatever limited capacity.  Most ideal would be having interlocutors of comparable levels of education and intellect to bounce new ideas off of afterwards, but what I’ve got now is good enough, and definitely an improvement over where I’ve been lately.

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One thought on “(Mis)adventures in Academia

  1. Pingback: Seeming safe havens. | The Houston Aspie Blogging Collective

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