Commencement: now what?

by Rebecca Lehmann on May 1, 2011

An aerial shot of the picnic tables at Carra bel le Beach, Florida

On Friday night I officially finished my PhD in English at Florida State University. I’ m entering into one of the worst acade mic job markets in recent history, with a slim chance of finding a position teaching in a university. Perhaps needless to say, it’s been hard to maintain hope that the degree I pursued for five years is going to lead to the sort of position I imagined it would.

Florida State University is located in the Florida panhandle, that is, the part of north Florida that touches the northern rim of the Gulf of Mexico. Consequently, the surrounding area is not made up of the theme parks, palm trees, and Latin mambo-beats that many people associate with Florida. My house is located less than thirty miles from the Georgia state line. Tallahassee, where I live, is a pretty Southern city. Perhaps because of that, Florida State University asked a correspondent from Fox News to give the commencement address at Friday night’s graduation ceremony.

According to her commencement address, Shannon Bream mostly covers Supreme Court rulings for Fox News. In her speech, which was filled with the sorts of clichés that are all too common in commencement speeches, she encouraged students to view their graduation as a beginning, not an ending, and to persevere, never taking “no” for an answer. She then catalogued a number of situations in which she had been told “no” on her path from law school graduate to television journalist, many of which left me with the conclusion that, after she “prayed on” her decision to become a television journalist in the face of an overwhelming tide of rejection, Bream, a pretty blonde with a nice smile, probably took the job at Fox News because no respectable news organization would have her.

In sum, her “go get ’em, tigers” speech left me feeling uninspired, particularly as the rejections for some of the fifty plus academic positions I’ve applied for continue to roll in. Is this the moment in this blog post when I realize that I, the ardent liberal, have something in common with the Fox News reporter/pretty-face? It probably should be. Fox News, do you have a job for me too?

Yesterday, after the graduation hubbub was over, my fiancé and I drove my dad, down visiting from Wisconsin, to Carrabelle Beach, a small, public beach with picnic tables that always remind me of the beginning of The Flintstones cartoons, when Fred orders those giant Brontosaurus ribs at the drive-through that he knows will tip over his car every time. The road to the Gulf was packed with weekend visitors, slow-moving RVs, and locals in trucks heading out to cast crab nets or catch mullet fish. I got frustrated with the slow-down, speed-up traffic, frustrated with my inability to find a job in the career I’ve trained for for so long, and began speeding down the highway, passing cars, sometimes three at a time. It felt good. I felt powerful for a moment, like I knew how to navigate the congestion better than the drivers around me, accepting their slow-moving fates.

Then I got pulled over in a speed trap, and issued a speeding citation. I hadn’t been pulled over in years. My dad was in the back seat. It was humiliating. As I sat on the side of the road while the officer printed out the citation in his car, lights flashing, I began to wonder where I was trying to get to so quickly. This question has broader implications in my life, and probably broader implications in the lives of many recent graduates. But, coming off the hangover of five years of doctoral course work, of doctoral preliminary exams, of dissertation writing, defending, and submission, it’s too hard for me to connect the dots right now.

 

Jerry Brunoe May 1, 2011 at 2:29 pm

Congratulations on graduating, good luck with the job hunt, and enjoy this wonderfully new beginning :p

David Alm May 2, 2011 at 5:55 am

As a friend of mine told me when I decided to move to New York City after college: “We live in a capitalist country. Good luck.”

But seriously, good luck. I know well the anxiety you’re dealing with. You’ll find the angles, but I’m not sure academia will ever be healthy again. (If it ever was.)

Rebecca Lehmann May 2, 2011 at 7:47 am

Thanks David.

I want to believe that academia isn’t turning into an intellectual sweatshop, but there’s so much evidence to the contrary. 70% of the undergraduate classes at Florida State University are taught by “teaching assistants.” (Although I’m not sure whom they’re assisting since, like I’ve been doing for the past five years, they are the sole teachers of these classes. Maybe they’re assisting the university in making as much money as they can off of cheap graduate student labor and undergraduate tuition paid in earnest with the hopes of having an actual professor teach one’s classes? It seems your friend is right about us living in a capitalist country there.)

Claire May 2, 2011 at 6:52 am

I think everyone in the department should read this. 🙂

barrington May 2, 2011 at 6:58 am

Great post, Rebecca.

Rebecca Lehmann May 2, 2011 at 7:50 am

Thanks Jerry, Claire and Barrington!

Kate May 2, 2011 at 8:14 am

Oh, this is good, Rebecca. Sad, but good. Thanks for sharing this.

cynthia newberry martin May 2, 2011 at 6:41 pm

What Kate said.

Rose May 2, 2011 at 7:55 pm

Wonderful expression of the anxiety we all face right now. The routine catch phrases about why we do what we do, the value in it, the importance, have not caught up with the realities of the market. It is saddening to see so many smart, hard-working people saddled by student loan debt after years of dogged effort emerging to discover they cannot earn a fair wage for their genuine talents. Add to this the political nature of many departments, amplified by reduced funding, and all that is left is privately nurturing whatever love of words, of dedication to original craft, brought you there in the first place. Congratulations on your degree, and good luck to you.

Jeff McMahon May 2, 2011 at 10:06 pm

Rose, this doesn’t sound that bad to me, and I wonder if it does to you:

“All that is left is privately nurturing whatever love of words, of dedication to original craft, brought you there in the first place.”

If that’s all that is left, all that is left may be all that really matters. I mean, it would be nice to live in a culture that valued teaching, and that compensated teachers through some scale other than the adjunct market, but does this sentence toy with the thought that the decline of the academic career is not so much lamentable as essentializing?

Jerry Brunoe May 2, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Rebecca,

I remember my Aunt once told me, many professors are not there to teach, but to do research, to write, to study themselves in some form or other. I was like, “yeah, yeah, yeah…” but after a few years in the college system, I realized what she meant.

Jerry.

Angela Argentati May 3, 2011 at 12:23 am

Rebecca, this is lovely: “I began to wonder where I was trying to get to so quickly.”

I think it’s very good and natural (psychologically speaking) to allow yourself some trepidation and to learn to live with it, while continuing to pursue the position(s) you desire. Not dwelling in worry–not being worried, but being with worry. It sounds like you’re doing a more than admirable job considering the circumstances.

You have so much to celebrate, so don’t let an inchoate future suck the enjoyment out of your Now.

And a question for the larger audience, if academia’s broken, if capitalism repurposes and appropriates it, then what shall we do to “fix” it? Can we imagine an academia for the new century?

Rebecca Lehmann May 3, 2011 at 8:28 am

Jeff, I agree, that getting back to a more basic state of writing for writing’s sake is a good thing. As my fiance keeps pointing out, now I will have a lot of time to work on writing, and I’m grateful for that.

The frenzied part of me is the part that thinks practically about paying bills, finding a financially sustainable way of life, and so on.

Angela, I think one way to “fix” academia would be for a) citizens of this nation to decide we value education and respond by returning state funding levels to percentages they were at say, twenty years ago (that’s a big reason why tuition rates have risen so rapidly for students; states are picking up less of the tab), and b) for universities to respond by stopping the practice of hiring adjuncts to teach full loads and instead hiring enough tenure-track faculty to actually cover the number of classes that need to be taught.

The other Rebecca Lehmann May 5, 2011 at 10:03 am

Congratulations from your name doppelganger!

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