A humanities scholar's occasional ramblings on literature, science, popular culture, and the academy.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Shanghai, Part Nine: Things I Have Learned

This experience was a test. The experience of taking a test isn't generally a positive one. It's full of stress and work and anxiety. But if you're lucky, you come out at the end of it with a sense of accomplishment. And as any good educator knows, a test doesn't simply evaluate what you know; it is itself a part of the learning process. So what have I learned?


I’m too old for this shit. I’m thirty years old. Leaving everything behind and flying solo across the world at the drop of a hat for very little money sounds awesome when you’re in your twenties, but I never want to do something like this again. I am not a rolling stone. I have too much tying me to the U.S., and I’m too set in my ways. Having to adapt to a radically new environment (at least under these conditions) produces more stress than excitement, and it just isn't worth it.

Alternately, I’m too young for this shit. Hopefully, in 20 years I’ll have the money and security to travel to a place like this the way my compatriots Bill and Sara and Fred did, but as it is, I don’t have the resources to make a trip like this comfortably.


You can make the right decision every step of the way and still end up with a worse outcome. My situation being what it was in April, accepting the opportunity to come to China was absolutely the right decision, both for my professional advancement and as a unique experience. There was no way to anticipate otherwise. But from the vantage point of July, it is clear that I would have been better off not coming here. All told, this experience was not terrible, but it was not worth it in ways that could not have been foreseen.


Generally speaking, my professional identity occupies a smaller component of my sense of self than I thought it would, and professional opportunities often aren't worth the sacrifices in terms of stability, security, and leisure.


I am not a writing teacher. My first love is literature, and teaching writing is ultimately just another job. I would probably have had a lot more enthusiasm for the whole experience if I found the teaching more stimulating, but, while I think I have a talent for writing instruction, I don’t have a passion for it.

That said, I do find certain things about teaching writing, especially introductory-level writing, extremely rewarding. A 100-level writing class is an opportunity to introduce students to entirely new ways of thinking and communicating about their world, more so than most college classes, where the students' preexisting knowledge and expectations are more reified. I saw several wonderful moments of growth in my students that were, because of the cultural translation necessary, perhaps even more exciting than anything I've seen in the U.S. Those moments are tremendously gratifying.


Some universal truths: wherever you go, the old people seem to be grouchy and conservative, the young people seem to be optimistic and curious, and the university administrators seem not to know what they’re doing.


Political discourse shapes our thinking in ways I hadn't appreciated before. This is both a good and a bad thing.

The hardest thing to teach my students is that academic writing is, fundamentally, argumentation. This struck most of them as bizarre and counter-intuitive. They could write very clearly, but were used to writing fact-based reports. The kinds of nuanced, interpretive arguments that incorporate a multiplicity of perspectives is very difficult for them, especially the engineers. At the same time, while they are adept at reading for meaning, they are less likely to apply a critical gaze to texts. If it’s published, the assumption is that it is “right,” and it doesn't occur to them to adopt a relativistic perspective on the correctness of an interpretation

I have to believe that this is tied to the political climate. Imagine a culture where nobody debates politics. Nobody bothers debating politics because there’s nothing they can do about it, so they focus on their own ambitions instead. They can do basically anything they want except criticize the government, and in an ironic way, their minds are freed--freed to focus on making money, raising a family, and other forms of personal fulfillment. Ultimately, the society seems less efficient and less pluralistic as a result, but they also don’t seem to have stuff like this.


The world is an incredibly large place.

On my last Sunday in town, I visited the Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center, which boasts a gorgeous scale model of the city, an impressive accomplishment that lends appreciation to the immensity of this one city on the mouth of the Yangtze.

I find it a real struggle describing what Shanghai is like, because there is simply no place in the world that conveys the same sublime sense of immensity. It's more than 24 million people sprawled out over more than 2,400 square miles. It's not just the density; it's the fact that the density goes on and on and on without end. The way that Bill described it, you can get out at any metro station and it looks like you're in downtown Dallas. Every station is its own Dallas. The fact that the city functions as well as it does, the fact that it's as clean as it is, is nothing short of an infrastructural miracle. The plumbing, the trash pickup, the air conditioning--when I think about the labor involved in keeping this city from becoming buried in its own kipple, it fills me with awe.


Still, the world is an incredibly small place.

After visiting the Urban Planning Center on Sunday, I found myself rushing home. I was running late and was worried that I would miss the last shuttle and would have to take the long, uncomfortable subway ride all the way back to Minhang. I got out of the metro at my station and ran to where the campus shuttle picks up, but found I had just missed it. I walked back to the street and paused for a minute, thinking, since I’m stuck taking the subway anyway, I might as well stop somewhere downtown for dinner. While I’m pausing to think where I should eat, who do I run into? Sara Blair. She was in town for a conference. I ran into a University of Michigan English professor on a street corner in the largest city in the world on the other side of the planet when both of us happened to be in town unbeknownst to one another for completely separate reasons, on my last week here on my second-to-last visit to downtown, all because I was running two minutes late. If I had gotten to the shuttle two minutes earlier, or if the shuttle had been running two minutes late, or if I stayed downtown for dinner originally, as I had been contemplating, we would have just missed one another and probably never known we were in the city at the same time. That's serendipity for you.


I might not have been a very good tourist, but what I was was an expat. Being a tourist requires levels of energy, organizational skills, and outgoingness that I can’t muster, at least not alone. Being a tourist involves immersing yourself in a culture (or, more often than not, the comfortable and commodified simulacra of that culture), typically for a few days or a few weeks at most. Being an expat, however, is about solidifying your sense of your own cultural identity. I have never felt more American than I have these two months, and while there’s much to criticize about America, I don’t mean that as a mark of embarrassment or as a limitation.

A couple of times, I went out for pizza or a hamburger, and they were possibly the best meals I ate here (except for Yang’s Dumplings) and not just because they were at pricey restaurants that cater to Western visitors. It’s because they felt like they were culturally “mine” in a way that local cuisine wasn't. Also--and this feels very strange to actually admit—I would often pass white or black or south Asian people on the street and have an Ezra Pound moment:
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.
It was a very minor difference, but I know I found myself looking at non-Chinese faces a bit longer, sometimes hoping to overhear a bit of English or French or German. It came from a sense that our shared experience of foreignness created a kind of community, and it came from a curiosity as to their story. What brought people to this massive, crazy, overwhelming city? Are they tourists, or are they expats like me? It’s always an interesting question.


Peanut butter, Starbucks, and shitty TV shows on Netflix are all life savers.


I’m not nearly as anxious as I used to be.

I’m very much a product of the Millennial generation, and like so many of us my life has characterized by a low-level nervousness that can be impeding, if not crippling. Trying new things and meeting new people always feel harder than they seem like they should. I know that this is a product of a rather privileged and sheltered upbringing, and I had come to accept it.

But, coming here, a funny thing happened. This is probably the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and I spent the first week in a state of abject terror. I spent the second and third weeks experiencing high degrees of angst over a job interview. But, after the third week, I didn't really worry about anything. I had moments of depression and homesickness, but the nervousness was essentially gone. Coming here and simply surviving has allowed me to feel more “present” than mindfulness therapy or meditation ever did. I’m not so naive as to call this experience “transformative” or assume that it will really last when I get back to my worries in the U.S., but it does feel good.


The dumplings are as good as everyone says they are.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Shanghai, Part Eight: The Reset Button

"We have reviewed your application for the Marion L. Brittain Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Georgia Institute of Technology, and we would like to schedule a 25-minute Skype video interview on one of the dates listed below."

I got the email on May 13, four days after I had arrived in Shanghai. I had submitted my application for the Brittain Postdoc on February 1. I had long ago assumed that I would be due to receive a form rejection letter at some point, the same way I had for so many jobs and postdocs before this one. But with funding and enrollments often remaining uncertain, I get the sense that these decisions get made later and later every year.

As postdocs go, the Brittain is a good deal. It provides three years of support at a decent salary that increases each year and that includes full health benefits. Postdocs teach three courses a semester. They are writing courses, but their emphasis is on multimodal argumentation--instead of simply writing four papers, students might be assigned to write one paper, give one presentation, create a video essay, and design a website. The school isn’t known for the humanities, but it is a prestigious university with strong science and engineering programs, located in the beautiful city of Atlanta. I knew two UM grads who went on to be Brittain Fellows, one of whom went on to a tenure-track position at SUNY Stony Brook a year later.

All of this appealed greatly to me. The money was good, the three years of security meant I could take a year or even two off before going through the wringer that was the job market. It was exactly the kind of teaching opportunity that appealed to my interests in science studies and digital pedagogies. There was only one problem: I was in fucking China. And I would be here for another seven weeks, after which I already had plans--to move in to a new apartment with my fiancée Paula, to teach for UM for the Fall semester, and to get married in the Spring.

I tried to put those thoughts in the back of my head. I scheduled the interview for Monday, May 20, at 11pm, which would be 11am Atlanta time. Because the fates decided that my nerves were not amped up enough already, we got one question in to the interview before my spotty internet connection cut out. I’ve since come to realize that my apartment’s DSL connection works superbly during the day, but during the peak hours of 7pm to midnight, the connection slows to a trickle making Skype and streaming video impossible. Via email, we rescheduled the interview for midnight the following day (noon Atlanta time). I stayed in my office on campus that night with my laptop connected via ethernet to the University’s much more reliable internet.

The interview went tremendously smoothly. My friend the Stony Brook professor who had been a Brittain Fellow had coached me a few days earlier, and conversing with the roomful of interviewers (there were five, and each only had time for one question), it was clear that the program would be a good fit. I got the offer via email less than 24 hours later.

I immediately responded asking about the possibility of a deferral. I thought my chances were good--I was sure they would be able to fill their positions for this year and I would constitute one less position for them to fill next year. But they emailed me back the following Tuesday, May 28, saying that because the number of fellows was determined by courses that were already enrolled, they did not offer deferrals.

The entire previous week I had been Skyping with Paula and my parents, gaming out this very scenario and deciding what I would do. The offer letter stated that I would be required to attend orientation beginning on August 11. I was scheduled to return to the United States on July 5. Logistically, it was possible. I would be teaching a literature-based writing course and a non-literature based course (similar to English 124 and 125 at UM, only with the multimodal approach). I would need to write syllabi for two sections of one course and one section of another--not very different from what I needed to do as a lecturer at UM. I would need to get out of my existing lectureship commitment--a bit uncouth, but also not difficult; there are always people looking to take those jobs. And I would need to find an apartment in Atlanta--somewhat more difficult given that it was the last minute and I was in China, but if my only criteria were that it was close to work, not too expensive, and not a complete shithole, then I could certainly find something.

The real question was, did I want it? If I defined my life solely by my career ambitions, then of course I did. But that’s not how I defined my life. Paula has at least two more years in her program, at least one of which needs to be in Ann Arbor. I pictured myself cooking bachelor dinners alone in some studio apartment, teaching three courses a semester while flying back to Ann Arbor every other weekend. I thought about having to rush back into town during finals week in order to attend my own wedding in the spring. The prospect was miserable. (I couldn't face living like this for a year)

I declined the offer. After an incredibly draining year and all of the effort that went into my job applications, after rejection after rejection, it was an extremely difficult email to write. But it was also empowering to be the rejecter for once. They encouraged me to apply again next year, and I fully intend to--it is a great program. But ultimately, it is just a job, one that I would hold for a maximum of three years, and that isn’t worth delaying my life for one year.

Academia has a remarkable way of keeping people in a state of perpetual adolescence. The expectation that one can move across the country--or across the world--at the drop of a hat only appeals to a certain type of person: ascetic, individualistic, unrooted. It’s certainly possible to maintain relationships, have a family, and do all those traditionally “adult” things as an academic, but the academic hiring cycle punishes making those things a priority. Academia asks you to devote your entire self to it, and that has never been something I've been willing to do. A fulfilling career is part of how I define a good life; it is not the entirety of a good life. In fact, if money were no object, the career would be the easiest thing for me to sacrifice.

In some respect it might be unfair to personify academia as if it were a single, unified entity, but that is often how it feels. In my bitterest moments it seemed like academia was telling me, “You can advance in your career, but only if you spend two months alone and uprooted in Shanghai, followed by one month at home, followed by another eight months alone and uprooted in Atlanta. That is the sacrifice I demand.”

In my head, academia looks like a Balrog.
If I were not in China right now, or if I had gotten this offer before coming to China, I would have accepted it, and knowing that has soured this experience somewhat. Ideally, I would have gotten this offer six weeks earlier, would never have come to China, and would have spent the summer making arrangements so that I could live more comfortably in Atlanta and Paula and I could see each other more often (and perhaps she even could have joined me in the Spring term).

But that’s not the world we live in, and this experience has forced me to put my money where my mouth is and put reasonable limits on what makes an opportunity a “good” opportunity. Working in a profession that will pay for you to fly to the other end of the world to teach for two months--that’s a tremendous privilege, and I feel honored to work in that profession. But as immense an opportunity as this has been--as wonderful an opportunity as Georgia Tech would have been--they were not worth the sacrifices to my family life and my emotional well-being.


Like many people in my position, I've enjoyed the growing body of “Why I Left Academia” essays (or "Quit Lit," as they call it). But I also feel that most examples of the genre are a bit disingenuous, as the narrative form of the essay makes an ongoing process feel more linear and unified than it tends to be. I’m not leaving academia--I’ll be a lecturer in the Fall and I’ll be on the job market again. Hell, there’s a good chance that a year from now I will have accepted a Brittain Postdoc. But you can call this a “Why I put Academia in its Place” essay. Options that have long been abstract possibilities--stay-at-home parenthood, alt-ac, non-ac--now feel real. Knowing that they are real, knowing that they are parts of Plan A and not Plans B, C, and D, allows me to approach my job search from a much less anxious, much more empowered place. I think I found that reset button.