The Confessions of a University Drop-Out

During the years 1992-1998 I was a full-time Ph.D. student at Queen’s University at Kingston Ontario. It happened something like this. I had completed an undergraduate degree in English Literature at Brock University and a M.A. at Queen’s. The deepest recession since the 1930s, or so I was told, was setting in, and I was faced with bleak prospects. Like many of my contemporaries, I decided to drift further into graduate school. Call it laziness or inertia if you like. At the time it was the best option available, for reasons I’ll show later. And after all, I’d been told since age 4 that an education is the key to success, whatever that means.

I had graduated from high school during the recession of the 1980s, so the territory was familiar. I worked as a bartender, and had even less talent for this than I’d shown as a student. I would have been fired were it not for the fact my employers were kind and generous friends. Eventually I figured out I was going nowhere, and school represented itself as a strategy for improving my fortunes. In 1984 I returned to my education, applied myself for the first time, and completed grade 13. Had you asked me ‘What is the purpose of an education?’ when I was a high school graduate and a simpleton, I would have replied, ‘To get a Job!’ I didn’t care for school until my university sophomore year, when I came to realize that I believed learning for its own sake is a noble endeavour. I admit it is a selfish endeavour also, but then my purpose here is not self-glorification. My point is, I still believe that education is a noble endeavour. I suspect this is a minority opinion, and that most who go to university would find it a bit quaint. They are there for the job training, which is not the same thing, in my opinion, as an education.

You are doubtless eager to chastise me at this point. You suppose I am going to issue the commonplace laments about the University: that it does not educate, that it does not lead to a job, that it is ‘outdated,’ etc., etc. And you want to tell me, as if I’ve never heard it before, that I ought to have studied something useful. ‘Computers. Now there’s a degree! They’re dying for people who know about that.’ True, the market demand for English majors is relatively low, and yet I’ve never doubted that I have a useful degree. I also feel that I got an education, so there will be no laments forthcoming.

I was accepted at Brock University and began my English degree in the fall of 1985. Why did I choose an English major? I don’t recall my thinking, but I imagine I’d figured out by then that I had a knack for literature and an interest in writing. Indeed, I’d wanted to be a writer since the age of 8. My other principal interests were, and still are, biology, general science, and music. But English Literature it was. I chose my courses, bought my textbooks, and went off to class. Of those early years my memories are few but pleasant. I recall the pungent lectures of Michael Hornyansky and, incongruously, the Brock pub, Alphies Trough. The years went quickly, or so it seems in retrospect, and by 1988 I had decided I would pursue a graduate degree. Here I recall my reasons with clarity. I was a good student and loved nothing more than loitering in the company of history’s great and infamous minds.

I applied to Guelph University and Queen’s, and chose the latter after visiting Kingston in the winter of 1989. The trip I remember well because it was viciously cold and because I scored an apartment for the next fall at a house party my first night there. I saw little of the city, but fell in love with it because it was everything St. Catharines was not: intimate, communal, convenient. The students I met all lived within a few minutes’ walk of one another and within blocks of the university. I would discover later that this cliquish intimacy had its dangers, but at the time it felt marvellous – and I have to say that nostalgia for this college-dorm life is doubtless behind the success of Friends, Seinfeld, Beverly Hills 90210, and other such Peter-Pan let’s-never-grow-up TV shows.

I moved to 379 Alfred Street in Kingston on 24 August 1990 – I remember it well – and began my M.A. in September. It was a gruelling year, academically speaking, and personally difficult, but productive and rewarding. As I look back to 1985, when my education began in earnest, the markers of my life’s significant events and discoveries include entries like: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Penguin Classics, Either/Or volume I, Ulysses, Paul Fussell’s Bad, George Orwell’s essays, H.L. Mencken, and so on and so on. Every year brought with it a new set of discoveries, new vistas, a bigger imaginative world. I feel about these what others feel about Ebbetts Field, the moon landing, or the death of John F. Kennedy. You see, I can’t imagine my life without them. Beyond that, it seems almost pointless to try to put the matter into words. Either one understands, in which case the explanation is unnecessary, or one does not, in which case the explanation won’t help.

My involvement with the Ph.D. program began, ironically I now find, with money. One is required during his or her M.A. studies to apply to several funding agencies for Ph.D. assistance, even if there’s no certain intention to become a doctoral candidate. I therefore wrote a thesis proposal, filled out the forms, assembled a team (advisor, second reader, etc.), and posted the paperwork – a tedious task, and one which I expected to end up nowhere. To my surprise, I ended up with grants from every agency to which I’d applied. Imagine living on perhaps $400 or $500 a month (perhaps you don’t need to) and then suddenly being offered grants totalling about $30,000 a year to do something you find difficult but also rewarding and noble. Well, are you interested? Perhaps now you see why this was the best option.

I completed my required first year of courses, my second year of comprehensive and specialist examinations, and one of my languages (Latin). I still had one language examination to complete (French), and of course the thesis itself. The actual thesis, a scholarly argument of 200-400 pages, isn’t begun until year three, after the first year of courses and the second year of exams. In years three and four I read dozens and dozens of books and articles, hundreds I suppose, and made notes which filled several yellow 1½” ring binders. The actual writing, which began in year four, was protracted and felt often disgusting. There were days, many of them, I did anything to avoid my computer. The problem was I never quite knew what it was I wanted to say, or even why I should say it. My title page read “Autobiographical representations of the Indian, and the making of the self, in Eleanor Brass’s I Walk in Two Worlds, Maria Campbell’s Halfbreed, and James Tyman’s Inside Out, by Wayne K. Spear, A thesis submitted to the Department of English Literature in conformity with the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy.” The argument, in a nutshell, was that our conception of ourselves is shaped by narrative conventions, social institutions, and cultural beliefs working in a complex and dynamic interrelation. I came up with some clever insights and a few marvellous paragraphs, but it occurred to me I could say everything I wanted in plain, ordinary English – in about 100 pages. Too bad for me the scholarly mode of writing is tortuous prose by the pound. I had another problem also, which is that my profound skepticism over my project kept creeping into the discussion. Here, for instance, are the opening lines of my Introduction: “There is a refrain among Native peoples with which I would like to begin this study. I have heard it spoken at academic conferences, and in that context it serves as a suitably dark suggestion both of the limitations and the effects of research and of knowledge. That refrain goes something as follows: ‘Indians have been studied to death.’” I may as well have added, from Ecclesiastes, ‘of book making there is no end, and great study is a weariness of the soul.’ This quotation is from memory and may be garbled, but no matter; it’s precisely how I felt about the work I was doing.

Stubborn as I am, I lingered in the thesis-writing stage for 4 years, convincing myself I would finish my dissertation. But in the end I had no incentive, other than being done, and it was making me quite miserable. Writing a thesis is a gruelling ordeal, which would not have been quite so bad had it served a purpose. I do not mind hard work, provided it has a purpose. Certainly I was no longer in it for the money. The government grants had run out in 1996, and again I was living a careful life. I was going on sheer determination, and not even my love of learning could help me now. You see, one learns little writing a thesis; it is a solitary, pedantic, technical exercise, a hoop through which one jumps on the way to becoming a professor. I had decided however that I didn’t want to become a professor. Then why was I sticking with this massive, rambling, pointless exercise called the dissertation? Because I’d made a commitment and had been given public money to do so. I rationalized the decision by telling myself a Ph.D. would give me more ‘options,’ which I think is another way of saying I could become a university professor. It turned out all English Ph.D. roads lead to teaching.

I’d had enough experience of the teaching profession to learn I wasn’t well suited to it. For 5 years I was a teaching assistant, and I realized that most students don’t really care for what they’re doing and are just trying to tell you what they think you want to hear. In other words, they’ve already learned the cynical art of ‘getting ahead’ in the world. Some of them have figured out what they need to pass and put in the minimum effort to get there. Others, god bless them, are good, decent people who never quite get it, no matter how hard you try to help them. As a result, I marked a good many papers littered with statements like the following:

…the wife [of Bath] tries to explain that men write about women’s being unreasonable, because men do not understand who women are, and then she likens women to Venus who stands for partying and spending money.

Most people have an image in their head of a fish stuck on the hook trying desperately but vainly to escape.

The English Romantic writers very often use their works to criticize and judge the society and people in which they live.

Additionally, Byron emphasizes the important role memory serves, as it enables man to remember all the intricacies of life, and at the same time, reminds us that our memory will always be with us from the moment we remember them.

Keats lost both of his parents and a brother before the age of fifteen. He had a chance and got his training as a doctor and could have made money, but chooses to make a living as a writer. He had a love of his life, but was too poor to marry her. One likes to assume this made his writing more positive.

The fact that there is no real inclination to believe that the speaker is actually surprised at the fact that she worships him leads the reader to believe that worship is what he expects. The belief that he believes that he deserves to be worshipped is pure arrogance.

Though hidden in the weather, Browning ironically describes an arrogant person…

A man who tries to weir a women through poetry will say that they are devoted the them and only them.

Social construction for each culture is unique and built on their knowledge of self and the culture in which they live.

It is obvious that Dante [Riordan, of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man] would stand behind the church no matter what the outcome and fiercely believed that sinners should be published.

There is no darkness in Heart of Darkness, yet there is no light in the Heart of Darkness…

I used to find undergraduate essays written like this frustrating, but today I find them amusing and, I admit, touching. There was a time, you see, when I wrote like that too. The above quotations are the product, not of dim-witted oafs, but of the best and the brightest of our high schools. In any case, I think fondly of my former students, most of whom were pleasant and lovely folks, and I wish them all well. This, by the way, is the attitude you’ll find among truly good professors, of which I could never be one. Good professors haven’t any self-flattering illusions about academe, yet they have a deep respect for what the university in principle represents. Somehow, through what seems to me a magical process, good professors make a profound and positive difference in the lives of their students. Besides my limitations as a teacher, the other reason I left the university is the ugliness of its bureaucracies and its complete lack of purpose, at least in the case of the humanities. I worry it will only get harder to teach well, given the current love affair with privatization, technology, ‘efficiency,’ and the free-market.

In retrospect, there are two things I miss about university life. The first is the feeling one has on a university campus in September. It is a feeling of optimism, renewal, and of hope. I have never felt quite so alive as I did each September when I was at university. The second thing which I miss is good seminars, which were rare and thus exquisite. Why do I miss these things? I find the answer almost too unpleasant to state. Nonetheless, this must be said. Beyond the university campus, intellectual curiosity is quite near extinction. Imagination and critical intelligence atrophy in the workplace, where only the narrowest, functional mental tasks are required. This assumes, of course, that atrophy has not occurred already in the public schools. Most of us learn to put behind us the grand philosophical ideals of ‘the good life,’ if we’ve heard of them in the first place, and focus on more practical matters like getting a job. And of course ‘popular culture’ is there to captivate us also. I am not saying this is always the case, but that it is often the case I know for a fact, having observed it. Most of us go through life passively, as spectators. Nor am I inclined to scorn, as I was when I didn’t understand the efficiency with which the ‘real world’ grinds us into conformity. As I’m certain you’ve noticed, human arrangements in America are not organized around basic human needs for creativity and participation, or for spiritual and intellectual development. But in a university they are, at least to a greater degree than in the surrounding culture. That is chiefly why I miss the university.

Never mind the maudlin social commentary and the ‘thanks for the memories,’ you are saying. What about all that wasted taxpayer money? The thousands and thousands of dollars? What about that? Well, it goes without saying I lived very well for four years at taxpayers’ expense. I am not complaining; life was good then. It is not, as one of my professors used to say, ‘politic’ of me to state this publicly, but that is the fact. I will not pretend that the money went only to high-minded and charitable things. At the time I was awarded the grants I owned 2 bookshelves, one desk, one twin bed, one area rug, a computer, and about 800 books. By the end of my Ph.D. I had accumulated furniture, dishes, appliances, a new computer, and 1,000 more books. Anyone who knew me then will tell you I had it very good. I ate decent food and drank wine with dinner at least twice a week, but then I had done so even when my annual income never exceeded $6,000 a year, which was up until age 26. I shared a house with two others, and despite being well below the so-called ‘low income cut-off line,’ we wore decent clothes and had good meals every night. Were we poor? No, not really; the children of middle-class parents never truly are, so long as the possibility of support obtains. While a middle-class Queen’s student, I discovered that perfectly good clothing is sold by the Salvation Army, that a large bag of rice lasts for months, that healthy vegetables and simple sauces are cheaper than meats, that you can make a batch of wine yourself in your house at $2 a bottle, that when all else fails S&R will let you pay for groceries with your Visa – and Visa will let you pay the debt at $24/month and 18.5% interest. But as a middle-class adult I would probably not need these lessons for long. As it happened, my research grants meant that suddenly I had become rich.

I do not know what to make of all this. I only know what generally is made. An egregious example of fraud or waste is disclosed (I assume this is how my story would be regarded), and from this a program of revenge is launched. A handful of authenticated welfare cheats is generalized into a social class, hence everyone on welfare is a cheat. A failure or crimp in the system is found, so the system must – all of it! – go. A story in the news now often yields calls for major overhaul, comprehensive reform, sweeping legislation. I suspect something like this will happen with publicly-funded education, and indeed it is happening already. Stories like the one I’ve just told invoke jealousy and rage. I don’t mean to insult you with moralizing; jealousy and rage may perhaps be appropriate responses. There is, for instance, little support for the university among the working classes, and for good reasons. The university appeals to the middle classes and derives from them its political constituency. This fact is obscured by certain rationalizations which are felt to be true only by the middle classes – for example the idea that higher education is an established ‘right’ inextricably bound to the public good. If only that were so. [-October 1998]

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