Fear and Self-Loathing in the Humanities


It’s good to see you. Take a seat. Oh, you’re already seated? Well, grab yourself a cup of tea. Make yourself comfortable.

Ever since DML, this blog has been sadly neglected. This was not for lack of things to write about. In fact, I have a folder of bookmarks full of exciting links I gathered over the past few weeks from SXSW Interactive, a new (and very fascinating) advertisement from the Guardian, and the buzz over Curator’s Code. Oh, and don’t even get me started about the chitter chatter circulating re: Mike Daisey’s falsified Foxconn tour. For those of you who haven’t listened to it already, it is absolutely worth your hour to check out the “Retracted” episode from This American Life all about the fact-checking process on Mr. Daisey’s story and, of course the “defense” from Daisey himself. This goes not only for those interested in technology, but anyone interested in issues of journalistic ethics and – well – what it means to capture an experience “truthfully.”

The great thing about writing about technology is it seems that there’s no lack of things to talk about. New stories arise every day. Gadgets are exciting! The development of new technologies (typically) means the cultivation of new ideas or at least the streamlining of old ones.

But I don’t think I’m going to talk about those things today. Those things will (likely) emerge in upcoming posts, ones that will appear shortly after this one, not after a long hiatus. After all, what good is reporting on news that ever-so-quickly becomes old news?

I think this post will end up being more reflective because I’ve hit the end of (yet another) quarter. Two quarters down and one to go for completing my first year in a PhD program. It’s surreal. I’m sure this will feel all the more surreal once I’ve actually completed this first year. By then, I have even more right to say, “Well, NOW I’m 1/5 of the way through this whole graduate school experience.”

But at 2/3 of the way through this first year, I’ve surprised myself with the number of apologies I’ve been compelled to make about my career choice. Why am I pursuing a PhD in English? I end up falling back on hackneyed lines:

I love to read! I love to write! I love to teach!

Heck, this is a great way to spend five years! The economy sucks right now, so why not go back to school?

Yet all of these reasons somehow sound like lies to me. They’re not. They’re abbreviations of the truth. Yet they’re stale and they somehow feel ridiculous to say aloud. Sometimes, I feel like telling people I’m pursuing a PhD in English is as remarkably dumb as telling people I’ll be an elephant trainer in the circus. And if I told people that, I’d probably get more positive response than a tight-lipped smile, raised eyebrows, and an “Oh, so what do you plan to do with THAT?” at the end.

Let me explain: I was at a family event this past weekend and it became starkly clear to me that no one knows understands how I spend my time and make a living. I was introduced to friends of family as a “teacher” or simply as a “writer,” but never as a student of English. Questions that followed included:

“So, do you like working with kids?”

“So, have you read any good books lately?”

I didn’t know how to answer these questions. Kids? Well, are college students “kids?” If so, aren’t I technically still a “kid,” only two years out of college? Am I simply a kid teaching kids?

And GOOD books? Well, I’ve read plenty of books. I read at least two books every week. Are they GOOD books? I don’t know; I thought about a lot of different things. Could I name you new favorite writers? Probably not. But, again, with the thinking. That’s how I spend most of my time. In my head. Thinking.

How do I explain the fact that I’ve chosen a career where my job is to think? I may have had final seminar papers to write (a primary reason why I haven’t written in here lately) but other than papers that one other person (my professor) will read, I’ve produced very little. Nothing, in fact. The other favorite question asked this weekend:

“So, when are you going to write a novel?”

I’m not producing a novel any time soon. This isn’t my job. But again, when one’s job is relegated to reading stuff, saying some smart things in a room with ten other people, grading undergraduate essays, and writing a little bit here and there, what does that mean precisely?

Well, here’s the short answer: I see this time as an investment. One way or the other, I’m investing in a future. Will that be a future in academia? Possibly. It doesn’t have to be. And I think that’s OK. I’d like to think I’m receiving some valuable training on how to be an organized thinker, how to communicate with others. These are likely skills I’d gain doing a lot of different kinds of things; I just so happen to be receiving this training while talking about things like literature and literacy.

Given this perspective, I still struggle with my compulsion to laugh nervously when someone asks me what I want to do with my future. I don’t like that I feel the need to backpedal and apologize for choices that I’ve (mindfully) made. This would not be an issue if I was a law school student or a medical school student. Without having to say a word, my accomplishments would be deemed impressive. But since I’m pursuing a higher degree in the humanities, I’m met with skepticism. This whips my ego into a tailspin; the inner former Honors student emerges indignant: “I’m making a GOOD choice that YOU simply don’t understand!”

Of course, it’s a good thing I don’t allow that inner former Honors student to emerge like the Ghost of Christmas Past too often because she says some awfully silly, immature things. However, whether I like it or not, she is still very much a part of me and very much a part that leads me to wonder, “Why do I pursue work that so few people understand?” If I care so much about communication, about clarity in prose and clarity in thought, why am I in a field that takes me a good five minutes to justify?

This does not mean that I regret my choice to attend graduate school by any means. I’ve been given a wonderful opportunity to work with bright, forward-thinking individuals in a major, public institution. My college experiences all indicated to me that the kind of work I’d do in academia would be work that would fulfill me, enrich me, and make me feel like I am contributing to something larger than myself.

Unfortunately, I often feel mired in recursive self-loathing/self-indulgent thinking. I want to remain open to questioning, open to seeing the bad for the bad and the good for the good in the field that I’m in. But I think that I also need to make sure that the bad I see in the work that I do is not influenced by ┬ámy fear of uncertainty or my fear of criticism.

Next quarter will be a time to remain open-minded, to pursue the work I love, and to be mindful of the fact that training (AKA graduate school) exists for a reason: to give me the space to ensure that I continue to make choices that will ultimately benefit both myself and others.

One thought on “Fear and Self-Loathing in the Humanities

  1. I think, actually, that the fear and self-loathing is not so much in the humanities per se as it is in the social sciences. Specifically, economics. Given the obvious applications (…) and their theoretical-psychological-philosophical underpinnings (Am I doing something that will gain me the maximum benefit in the minimum time? What determines maximum benefit?) this doesn’t really come as a surprise.

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