"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
I was 20 years old when I entered a Ph.D. program in English at the University of California at Berkeley and devoted what I believed would be the rest of my life to contemplation. Except for a month spent working at a sandwich shop, I had done nothing with myself but attend school. Both of my parents were teachers; and so it came to seem that the entire universe was some kind of educational institution. If you broke my life down to a quantum level, you’d find qualities of particles whose entire existence depended on a form of reality known only as “metaphysical.”
If not graduate school, then what? Oblivion.
In retrospect, I realize I had convinced myself that being a graduate student was an end in itself, a destination rather than a temporary stopping-off zone on my way to something else. My inexperience, combined with Berkeley’s academic insularity, encouraged my fantasy of everlasting graduate school. Especially these days, when graduate students are expected to teach and publish before they earn their degrees, a professorship really is just graduate school with better pay.
The further along I advanced in my program of study, the clearer it became that most of my professors lived under the tyranny of the tenure review in the same way I lived under the tyranny of grades. And yet this knowledge had the peculiar effect of blinding me to the fact that I was being trained for a job. I can recall a politically minded classmate demanding in our introductory theory seminar that the professor address what it meant to learn about literature just so we could go out and make money as teachers. His concern — so distant from what I considered real — was easy to ignore in a class devoted to the idea that social reality is only discourse. “What does he mean, make money?” I thought belligerently. “This is about consciousness.” For me at that time, economics was just another metaphor. Because everyone around me behaved as if this were true, as if professorships and tenure were about intellectual vitality rather than salary, it was hard to see how “making money” mattered.
Now, nine years later, that politically minded colleague and I are both unemployed. In the words of the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Professional Employment, we have “failed . . . to find the kind of employment for which [we] had presumably been trained.” According to this same committee, we are hardly in the minority. They estimate that 55 percent of people receiving Ph.D.s in English and foreign languages will not find “appropriate” employment as tenure-track professors within a year of receiving their degrees (and some of those students have already been on the market five years, while getting their degrees). As pundits and professors have been saying throughout the 1990s, there is indeed a job crisis in higher education, particularly within the humanities and social sciences.
What’s telling about the recent outcry over this crisis is that the disappearance of traditional academic jobs is largely being mourned by academics themselves. Often, it’s the relatively privileged professors, those with tenure at research institutions, who seem most despondent over my predicament as a victim of the academic job meltdown. Rarely have I seen any public protest from unemployed Ph.D.s or flex-timed adjunct professors. Most of us are too busy commuting to three part-time teaching jobs, or trying to beef up our skill sets by learning Java and HTML instead of Latin and Old English.
But there’s more to it than that. It’s not that the famous tenured radicals such as academic labor activist Cary Nelson speak for us because we are too tired to speak for ourselves. Something else is at work — a system of beliefs that has sent the professorate into melancholia and people like myself into silence and paralysis. Not to put too fine a point on it, this system is as old as the ivory tower itself: It’s known as elitism.
I don’t mean to accuse Nelson and his colleagues of elitism. After all, it’s from his own work and that of other public intellectuals, like professor-cum-Village Voice pundit Michael Birubi and NYU postmodern rabble-rouser Andrew Ross, that I learned the full meaning of the word “elitism” in the first place. What I want to suggest instead is that elitism is still — despite the so-called democratization of higher education — built into the structure of the academy. Ever since the G.I. Bill and affirmative action programs drew a less typically aristocratic population into universities after World War II, campus radicals and liberal social critics have celebrated the potential for higher education to bring intellectual interests in line with more egalitarian ones. And yet earning a Ph.D. in the humanities or social sciences is, at this point, supposedly good for nothing but university teaching. We’re studying and laboring with the antiquated idea that higher education should give back only to itself and not nourish other communities and industries.
Understandably, of course, professors don’t want to see the industry that rewarded them fall apart before their eyes. Having devoted their lives to teaching future scholars and publishing academic work, they’re threatened by the job crisis in academia with feeling like irresponsible mentors. After all, it was under their watch that many talented scholars were downsized. Moreover, as the university system crumbles, so too does their intellectual authority. And therefore, professors who are appalled by the state of their profession continue to recommend reform of the academy: In the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Lingua Franca and dozens of other professional journals, they argue that graduate programs should cease to “overproduce” Ph.D.s; university administrations should stop converting full-time positions into part-time ones; and most of all, state and federal governments should stop cutting back on university budgets.
For Ph.D.s heading into the academic marketplace, however, all these wise recommendations have not, so far, helped us to find jobs in the academy. More important, the elitism that suggests a Ph.D. recipient is only as good as her professorship fosters a crippling sense of shame when we are forced to discuss what are whisperingly referred to as “alternatives” to academic careers. Although our professors clearly mean well, their responses to the job crisis shy away from questioning why we must consider university-level teaching the only appropriate use of our Ph.D.s. Within the sciences, after all, there is no shame attached to leaving academe and pursuing a career in industry.
Why do we in the humanities and social sciences cringe when told that we may have to use our knowledge in that place we jokingly call “the real world”? Beneath all the wry remarks lurks the knowledge that we’re being kept out of the intellectual frat house. Without entree into the land of learning for learning’s sake, the academic identity seems not only worthless, but ostentatiously faked, like counterfeit money printed on construction paper. Those feelings hit me hard when I realized that I would be joining the ranks of Ph.D.s graduating without professorships. Like some sort of addict, I had been in denial about my little problem until one night when I found myself curled into a fetal position on the floor of my lover’s bedroom, naked, crying and shivering uncontrollably. Melodramatically, I imagined that I had become the living dead. Having somehow survived my own demise, I was doomed to walk the earth like an intellectual corpse, my knowledge gradually rotting away.
It was all made so much worse by my having spent my entire life preparing to be Professor Newitz. I did everything to make myself into a ragingly proficient scholar. While teaching and writing my dissertation, I also published articles in prominent journals, co-edited a widely publicized anthology of essays for an academic press, presented my research at national conferences and incorporated a small educational nonprofit organization that promotes the critical use of new and alternative media. My work was considered such an unusual example of graduate scholarship that I was profiled in Lingua Franca’s Real Guide to Grad School. And yet, although I interviewed over a period of three years at a number of excellent universities, no job offers materialized.
I watched similarly qualified job candidates have the same experiences and try vainly to keep their spirits up. We found creative ways to be polite about what was happening. Rather than asking, “Did you get a job?” one would inquire, “Will you be here next year?” (i.e., “Are you unemployed and therefore not moving to another university town to work?”) Walking around in my newly zombified state, I finally got sick of all the humiliating pleasantries and began asking people what they were going to do. “Really, I have no idea,” said one unemployed colleague who had been awarded the department’s top fellowship when she entered the program. “Perhaps I’ll go into the music industry.” Two of my fellow graduates are heading down to Hollywood to break into scriptwriting. One is going back to law school; another is temping while he continues to lead a reading group on Marxist theory. Our tales of woe and financial uncertainty are apparently so universally poignant that they’ve even been given the Gen X twist in a Spin article about Ph.D.s with crappy jobs.
But I’m not so sure we need to be hauling out the Sturm und Drang just yet. The problem is not our so-called crappy jobs; it’s an educational system that teaches us to think we are not proper intellectuals unless we are employed as academics. Why should my colleagues and I be ashamed to take our considerable knowledge and work as writers, designers, administrators, researchers and teachers outside academia? Why should our worth as scholars be measured in tenure tracks?
In theory, everyone in the United States has the right to be educated. And yet, rather undemocratically, we continue to isolate education (and the educated) in certain elite institutions, effectively eliminating the possibility that useful ideas developed in the academy will ever reach a public that truly needs them. Being more educated than other people does not mean we should escape the real world. We should use our education to change the world for the better rather than hiding from it.
It’s only within the past few years that organizations like the Modern Language Association have suggested that graduate programs in the humanities prepare students for nonacademic jobs. In part, their previous reluctance to make this recommendation has perpetuated the silence of recent Ph.D.s like myself. We’ve been too ashamed to speak up because once we leave campus, our nonacademic lives become Careers That Dare Not Speak Their Names, reminders that academia is as much about getting a job as it is about smarts. But now that the job crisis clearly isn’t going away, graduate programs will have to rethink the role of Ph.D.s in the “real world.” It is imperative for graduate students to understand that becoming a professor is only one of many careers they might pursue with their advanced degrees.
During my less apocalyptic moments, I’ve become somewhat gleeful thinking about Ph.D.s pouring into Hollywood, writing sly sitcom scripts and weirdly symbolic movies of the week. I like the idea of teachers at Heald Business School who have studied class consciousness in American poetry, lawyers who have analyzed the humor of sexual transgression in literary obscenity trials and technical writers who have explored the way information technologies change the way we use language. These are the people whose higher education is relevant to their lives, despite the fact that their experiences fall outside the purview of university curricula.
What I want, finally, is for Ph.D.s to be proud of what they’ve learned, not because they’ve been granted the title of professor, but because they’ve done something useful with their minds. Likewise, I hope that professors will come to appreciate that all teaching does not have to end in the production of more professors. We should not be wringing our hands over the loss of tenure-track jobs, but trying instead to build an honorable tradition for thinkers who work outside the university system.
Although my despair over the loss of an academic future has begun to wane, and I’ve found work as a freelance writer, I finally realized that I had to leave Berkeley. Every campus building and student-clogged cafe made me feel like I was watching an ex-lover flirt with other people as if nothing were wrong between us. So I moved to San Francisco. Now it takes me over an hour and a half on public transportation to get to the place I thought of for 10 years as my refuge, my true community, my raison d’être. Like everyone who has ever been in a dysfunctional romantic relationship, I had to learn new boundaries. UC-Berkeley became a place I would visit only when I was offered something concrete, like a part-time lectureship. No more would sweet promises and false hopes lure me back.
Except, of course, if the offer were good enough. I’m still infatuated with research, still solicit the occasional teaching position. I’ll even confess to being on the market again this year, looking for academic jobs. This time I’m seeking many other types of employment, too: I know my intellectual dignity does not rest on being called professor. And yet no matter what happens, I suppose I will always foolishly, perhaps even self-destructively, adore the university like a first lover, who broke my heart but taught me the true meaning of seduction.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)