It was a Privilege Being your Cash Cow: Reflections on Academia

More often than not, I forget to confront my own privilege. Even when I remember to confront it, I often fail to do the important work of interrogating it, pushing back, making space for underprivileged people, making right.

This post began as a cynical, navel-gazing look at how annoyed I get when I think about how my MA program failed to prepare me for the real world. (The underbelly of this is annoyance with myself for doing so little to prepare, to investigate the actual options I would be able to seek out upon graduating.)

In the context of my personal experience, this annoyance with the program is valid. But there are always multiple, layered contexts. In the broader context of American society, with its nearly impenetrable stratification of resources and opportunity, the original idea for this post is disturbingly privileged.

The catalyst of this realization was a twitter conversation initiated by Tina Vasquez (@TheTinaVasquez), a writer based in Los Angeles. Ms. Vasquez’s thoughts on the now-standard trope of white academics bemoaning their “disenfranchised” lot in life inspired me to rethink this post and take it into what I hope is a more constructive direction.

Instead of whining about my terrible experience in an MA program and how little it did to prepare me for a job, I intend to explore the origin of that type of privileged perspective, and do my best to see past it. So thanks to Ms. Vasquez for cutting me off at my very white and very middle-class knees. She is doing great work. You should read it.*

Onto the post!

I’m in the process of reading Magaret Atwood’s newest collection of short stories (she calls them “tales”). Atwood delves into the lives of older adults who seem to spend a lot of time with their pasts. These tales are wonderful, absorbing, and hit upon some truths that strike even the younger readers among her fanbase. To wit, I was in the middle of “Revenant,” and a character had the following thought about MA students:

“Superheated in the academic cooker. The hot air expands. Poof! An M.A,” Not bad, he thinks. Also true. The universities want the cash, so they lure these kids in. Then they turn them into puffballs of inflated starch, with no jobs to match. (p.44)**

In my MA program, we knew at the time that we were the department’s cash cows. Even with 1/3-off “merit” scholarships flung at us like they were going out of style, the department was making bank off our aspirations and idealism. This was a conduit to a PhD, we were told, if we worked hard enough, if we cultivated relationships with the right people. Academia was the be all end all, held up like fodder for the cash cow hive mind.

Afterwards, those of us who didn’t pursue a career in academia were left casting about blindly for an alternative. Some of my colleagues were far more proactive and had opportunities lined up & waiting upon graduation. I gave myself over entirely to the sense of being adrift. You could also call it depression. It took me a year of volunteering to crawl out, another year to find a volunteer opportunity I was passionate about, and a year after that to match a passion with a career.

That’s a lot of uphill struggle for a post-graduate degree, but having the opportunity to even contemplate a post-graduate degree (especially what turned out to be a time-sink one) requires being in a privileged position in society. It didn’t feel that way at the time, but I was lucky. I am privileged. To have been a cash cow in the first place is not something everyone has access to.

And still my feelings about the whole experience are fraught, bitter. to a large extent, I’m upset with my own naivete and lack of ambition. That didn’t mean this cow didn’t turn around and try to cash in.

Although a career in academia was most likely out of the question, still I clung to the MA program. For a while, I could make my academic lineage sound impressive. This was because I believed in its power and cache’. I believed my degrees had clout for every possible employment and volunteer opportunity that came my way. Which is ridiculous. You don’t need a degree to excel at administration, at event planning. Not my degree, anyway.

Some people are still impressed, when I remember to tell them that I graduated from X institution, but as I wandered further away from academia and deeper into a semblance of a career, that particular “credential” gave way to the priority of promoting whatever organization I was shilling for at the time. It didn’t matter to me anymore. The degree is in the past–a symbol of my wandering 20s and my privileged ability to wander into academia and flounder there for an extra year, all for nothing.

We graduated into a crap economy, we were told. Our generation is SOL, went the refrain. But “our generation” refers to the privileged few who didn’t come from hardship to begin with. Besides, how is it hardship to be able to mooch off your parents when our contemporaries were working their asses off at one, two, three crap part-time jobs AND raising families? The difference in lived experience in this country is stark.

Last night, in a series of thoughtful tweets, Tina Vasquez took aim at this sense of entitlement by deconstructing and recontextualizing an article about what it’s like to be an adjunct professor. Vasquez–and several of her astute followers who joined in the conversation–pointed out that the idea that the system “owes” you something–that you are deserving of success–is a very privileged viewpoint to occupy.

And boy, was I guilty of it. I hammered that note for years, using it to explain my lot in life–or, more frequently, allowing others to use it to explain my lot. Honestly, it wasn’t the circumstances I was in so much, it was my attitude that underlay the depression. I wasn’t working hard enough, putting myself out there, making enough effort. I didn’t believe I could.

As life proved later, this was bullshit. Once I started trying, it was pretty easy to get in the game and secure some good jobs. And I know that is largely due to my advantages within our society: white, middle-class, & educated.

Being able to have a sense of shock that the system isn’t working for you is itself a product of the system and your advantaged place within it. As @blackgirlinmain pointed out last night, it’s a very white phenomenon.***

We all know (I hope) how our society privileges whiteness. I’ve worked hard; society owes me a good job is a thought easy for those who of us who come from privilege, and difficult, if not unthinkable, for those who don’t. (Unless, of course, someone has bought into the whole American Dream fantasy, but as some in last night’s twitter conversation pointed out, the American Dream is a lot easier for poor whites to buy into than poor people of color.) Working hard and getting screwed have historically been part of the deal for a lot of people in America. Thinking that society owes you something is an attitude reserved for the already-enfranchised.

It’s when the system stops working for those who historically benefit from it that these phenomena become newsworthy, that dominant voices begin their hand-wringing over a socioeconomic crisis. And that’s what happened to me and my MA program cohort. We graduated, expected the moon, and quite a few found dirt that didn’t even pay. For us, this was revolutionary. For most, it’s just life.

Clearly, we have a LOT of things to tackle as a society if we’re even going to pay lip service to a level playing field. Thank you to everyone who is keeping this at the forefront of the conversation. Please keep writing, keep talking, keep thinking, keep working. Maybe a change will come.

—–

*Visit http://inthefray.org/author/tina/ for a sample of her work. 

**Quoted from Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood, feminist, environmentalist, and so much more: http://margaretatwood.ca/

***@blackgirlinmain’s full tweet: “The concept that we are ‘supposed’ to have financially abundant lives feels like a very white thing to me.”

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “It was a Privilege Being your Cash Cow: Reflections on Academia

  1. CH

    Provocative and a good job locating your privilege! But I have to say that *any*one in the US should be upset about being jobless and incomeless. Otherwise I’m not sure what the point of having a government in a capitalist economy is… I do remember reflecting on my position in college (a semester abroad!) with awe: how many people in the longue durée of humanity have had such an opportunity? On the other hand, the ability to sustain oneself within a group’s economic system (so as not to have to “mooch off” one’s parents) … hmm. Criticism – even if from a privileged vantage (and really, it should be/is coming in surround) – ought to be sounded and heard.

    Like

    • Oh, we should absolutely be vocal. The post doesn’t stray all that far from navel-gazing, after all.

      But those of us whose voices are more likely to be heard by virtue of our location in the social hierarchy should consider being loudest about (and standing in solidarity with) those people for whom disenfranchisement has historically been the norm, not the “new normal.” Otherwise, what are our critical voices for, except to look out for number 1 and reproduce inequalities?

      Like

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