On Career Dreams

Yesterday on a blog, I found a father’s concerns about his daughter wanting to become an English professor.  Memories of career dreams poured over me and my own idealization of the English profession. I once fancied myself Mr. Chips.

Immediately I pondered several questions. Does the young woman want to teach English as an end? Does she have a passion for writing and see the profession as the perfect solution, even a hide,  for one who loves to read, write and expostulate on literature, its meaning, value, significance, et cetera? Is she open to other teaching opportunities: community college, trade/tech schools, secondary schools, overseas and especially teaching in the boondocks? Would she drop back and get the lowly secondary teaching certificate for high school — IF she could even find a slot there; or even in a prep school? Is English professing a means or an end?

More cynically I wondered if she might, all sexism aside, be attracted to a particular professor.   (I could wonder the same about a male student under the influence of professorial charisma.)   Good professors are actors and romancers.

The points are that the cushy university, tenured position, if it ever existed, has become incredibly difficult for the best of candidates. Professors are under much administrative pressure to publish and also to carry significant committee and university duties. Funding shrinks, especially in the Humanities. Universities still need indentured teaching assistants to teach English composition —  so that the senior professors can pursue their career dreams and play the effete aesthete. Universities cannot or will not afford Master’s scale to teach these courses.  Teaching the frosh is anathema to many Ph.D’s.

As far as a livelihood that will support a writer is concerned, they are whatever a person can find to survive and/or starve in pursuit of discovery. One could join a military service, for example, and manage to find time to write. I think of Fred MacMurray playing the novelist on the USS Caine (fictional) and Alex Haley in the Coast Guard (real). The passionate would-be novelist/poet can do as Hemingway and go into journalism (not an easy slog by any means).  Melville went to sea as a seaman. He was a better writer for it. Nothing has changed in the artist’s world. One could go into PR, but that demands a huge compromise. I found being a public information officer rather pleasant, but low-paying. PR people are usually among the first eligible for cutting. Working at Starbuck’s will work for some.

My heart says, “You go, Girl! Live your dream. Stake your will, talents and skills against all odds. Do it now while you’re young and have lots of time and resilience to recuperate and re-invent yourself, two, three, four times over. I want to say that; really I do.  Regretting a road not taken gnaws at the soul.

In youth we always think we will be the exception to the naysayers. That possibility exists, of course it does.  So, go out, be a hammer rather than a nail.  You surely would, if you only could as Simon and Garfunkel sang; but write yourself a note, young lady, a note that says, “I shall never become bitter if what I choose in full knowledge of the world doesn’t work out.”  Laminate the note and tuck it into your purse. That’s a tough one, too.  It’s T. S. Eliot’s “shadow that falls between the motion and the act” (The Hollow Men).

Finally, the universe of arts and letters far transcends and dwarfs the individual artist, professor, college, and university.  In the chance that a youth will choose the mundane pragmatic over the romantic challenging, I say to that person, remember that the academic approach to literature, even teaching literature, is only one approach.  Writers do not write for professors, scholars and critics.  They write out of desire, passion and native wit.  They direct their own study.   Art was invented by more creators without degrees than with them.  When there are no longer bookstores either on the corner or on the Internet, when there are no longer libraries, when there are no more writers and readers groups and publishers, then I will despair.  Besides, academe can stultify a lot of passion and creativity — not always.  The artists are the first heroes in this epic.  You can even find them in your cellar hide.

God bless youth!

Steadfast and cautious,

David Milliken

P.S:  For an interesting story of twenty somethings, literary types all, making their way in New York City, see this NYT article on Literary Cubs.

 

 

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Dropping Out of Grad School, the English PhD in Particular

I stumbled upon comments by Francine Prose in The Atlantic.  She expresses her thoughts about being among academics who somehow did not share her interest in literature in quite the same way and with quite the same passion. She was among people who study “texts.”  She terminated her doctoral program and left.

Prose’s words have taken me  back some thirty-eight years to my own similar moments and feelings in grad school.  Unlike Prose I  hung around to exhaust my last option because I wanted to feel I had done my best in face of the odds.   Those three years were not wasted, but only, only because of the reading, thinking and writing I did for myself. Now that I have forgiven the naiveté of a thirty-one year old, I have no regret — finally. After several livelihoods I find that the friends I made in my books are still there for me.

If you have stumbled upon this blog and you are facing similar decisions and feelings, I urge you to click on the link above. (The reference is the third from the last question on page three.)  Francine Prose is the author of twenty books including novels, children’s stories, novellas and short stories.  Elsewhere on this site in the Career category, you will find my experience with the PhD Octopus.

Your comments are genuinely and fervently requested.

Steadfast and cautious,

David Milliken

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Krauthammer: Occupy Wall Streeters, a Bunch of Disaffected English Majors?

I cannot win this argument. Nevertheless and being an English major, my soul is troubled, my conscience pricked. Since the Sixties and probably even the beat generation of the Fifties, the English major has come in for some easy scapegoating. Remember the image of the beat “poet” donned in beret taking a hit of pot, then standing up extending his drooping arms in mime, saying, “I am a tree.” That was and is the stereotyped English major. Actually Krauthammer would probably extend this image to psychology, history and philosophy majors, i.e. the liberal arts contingent. I wonder if he would include political science and economics majors who as everyone knows are highly productive contributors to the GDP. Alas, the old, Seventies images of Allen Ginsberg and Paul Simon, as pied pipers and troubadours wither. That millions of successful English majors wind up in education, communications, public relations and the law lies beside Krauthammer’s point.

Krauthammer pricked my conscience because in my time I have been a bit disaffected, not from capitalism, the pursuit of success and the American Way, but rather the way many conservatives would bully our culture.  The United States without a doubt has been the most materialistically productive nation in history and in the world. Because of this we had the might to save that world from the Nazis. We’ve been trying to top our glory ever since.

And, of course, it makes sense that the absolute business of America would be business. Business dominates and towers hundreds of stories above all while it supports everything else — no question here. I am grateful for it, but not everyone is totally motivated by financial profit. Ayn Rand is not everyone’s hero.  Must we forget that the economy has sectors which include government, education and not-for-profit enterprise — all of which provide jobs?  Traditionally these three sectors have ameliorated bad times in the profit sector.  They involve millions of productive people doing necessary work out of passion and commitment.  The arts and humanities are legitimate endeavors.  People pursuing them do not expect to be rich. Right now a malaise lies over all.

I am as put off as anyone by the recent interviewee at Occupy Kansas City, when he said, “I’m looking for a job, somewhat.” His counterpart shows up at Tea Party demonstrations as well. This is a disaffection of sorts, but it is not mine. Mine admittedly, comes from what my father would have blamed on “too many books.” Truthfully I cannot say that my disaffection came from reading Marx and a bunch of French writers, Keynes or John Kenneth Galbraith. Whitman, Thoreau, Melville and Henry Miller only gave me different views of life and the human condition. My reading has been far more an effort to understand the madness than to vilify America.  And yes, at times the books have set me adrift  from moorings.

My disaffection has other sources. True, my reading of William Dean Howells’ “The Rise of Silas Lapham” affected me profoundly as did “The Catcher in the Rye” and “The Fountainhead.” And I have read Hayek and Barry Goldwater. I listened to William F. Buckley on a regular basis. Pat Buchanan seems fair-minded  to me these days. Above all, I like Pat’s sense of humor — a healthier view of the absurd than the bleakness held by too many “liberals.” For years my stepmother railed against FDR and lionized John D. Rockefeller and GM. I am still unconvinced that a corporation is a “person” except in the law. I have never found large institutions affectionate.

So I majored in English to immerse myself in all that seemed to matter.  At that time it was the life of the mind — still very important to me.  I am older and hopefully wiser now. I take more time to ride my bike, tend to home maintenance and watch the passing scene. The world belongs to others now, but the beast still slouches toward “Bethlehem” as it always has. The falcon again is out of touch with the falconer. The center has lost its grip and the next best step out of this mess is an end to stereotyping in all its guises. “Somewhat interest in a job,” Occupy Wall Street and the “disaffected” English majors are an old, old story just come around again in new clothes.

Your thoughtful comments are genuinely and fervently requested.

Steadfast and cautious,

 

David Milliken

 

 

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Occupy Wall Street — Wherever, Even Kansas City!

It was a beautiful day in Kansas City, an October day when the temperature reached the eighties.  Under the cloudless, blue sky I concluded that October is Kansas City’s finest month.  I work from my home now; thus I was free to watch Andrea Mitchell on MSNBC at noon.  She was interviewing campers at Occupy Wall Street.  I heard about Occupy Wall Street in Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco and elsewhere.  I wondered when it might happen in Kansas City.  Indeed, it has already started, I picked up from the Internet.  Twenty-four people have been showing up near Liberty Memorial and its neighbor, the Federal Reserve Bank.

This is the way it starts then.   Next I went to Facebook, just to see what I might discover in the nature of an “Arab spring,” so to speak.  Sure enough, a leaderless throng develops right here in Kansas City.  Of course and how appropriate — Liberty Memorial next to the Fed!  The throng grows.

I was in the Navy when the Free Speech Movement started in Berkeley.  In May of 1968 when French students rioted,  I had just left the Navy, my heart and mind full of feelings and doubts about the war I had just participated in.  The student rebellion in France almost brought down the Fifth Republic and President DeGaulle with it.  The times, the conditions, the rhetoric of now and then are eerily similar and full of admonition.  The major difference I see is the makeup of the throng.  Now the assembly redressing its grievances is young, old and middle-aged, full of students, surely, but a genuine cross section of the American middle class.  Nothing, when it finally takes hold, can be more powerful than angry, unemployed people from across the socio-economic spectrum.  And they have nothing but time on their hands.   This time they are “leaderless” — at least for the moment.  The resemblance to Lybia cannot be missed.

The epithets are there: fascist-Leninist, anarchists,  spoiled kids, Commies, radicals, et cetera.  More likely they lean toward being anxious human beings.  For sure they have witnessed job loss in their fifties and no jobs in their twenties. Many have been foreclosed. Others have health costs out the ying yang. They probably have friends, brothers and sisters who have already headed West to Asia where, at least for awhile, there was a boom.  There’s not enough boom in North Dakota natural gas to give everyone a job.  Some have a kid in the service who won’t find a job after doing his/her duty. The great promise of the service industry that was going to replace manufacturing has died.  This is the way it starts then.  As the poet Yeats said, “the center cannot hold” and the “falcon cannot hear the falconer.”  Will “mere anarchy be losed upon the world?”  The global dimension is there — what with Europe slumping.

And it will not matter whether or not we speed up deregulation in order to free entrepreneurship — besides the normal capitalistic process pours out like molasses in a Kansas winter.  We have fiddled too long. If Congress doesn’t act now, and it may be too late already, somebody is going to act.  Something will happen, because it must happen.  This is the way it starts.

David Milliken

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