Of Ph.D.s, gay lovers, slave narratives and the Ivy League

I have a choice of two schools for my doctorate; one is ranked 63 and the other is ranked 90. Which should I choose -- and what about my boyfriend?


Cary Tennis
March 20, 2008 2:15PM (UTC)

Dear Cary,

I am a 27-year-old with an MFA in creative writing. In my last year, I realized that I was really passionate about 19th century slave narratives and British imperial literature. So, I promised myself that I would pursue a Ph.D. in those areas. After I graduated, I had a breakdown, largely due to family drama, and my overwhelming dissatisfaction of being stuck in a Midwestern Snowbelt town working for nothing. I have spent the past two years bitter and miserable, but now, things appear to be looking up.

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While I was in graduate school, I became close friends with several Ph.D. students who came from Ivy League schools. I had always known I was smart, but that I tended to exert myself in spurts rather than some long, sustained effort. Anyhow, they befriended me for my great qualities as a friend, and my intellect. Needless to say, I got a decent little ego boost from all this. After my two years of purgatory, I finally managed to get my graduate applications out, and found that a lot of the top-ranked schools I applied to said no. It hurt, but I also told myself that a lot of these things depend on what one makes of where they go to school (Prepare for the irony of this statement in 3, 2, 1 ...).

Now, I find myself faced with a difficult choice. I have received offers (including funding) from two schools. One is further north along the Great Lakes, which means more miserable winters. (Did I mention that before grad school I was raised and studied in the South, including New Orleans?) It is middle-ranked (63 out of 144), but has a well-known name and a good reputation for 19th century faculty and scholarship. However, it is in a region of the country I find inhospitable. Winter there lasts even longer than it does where I currently live.

The other one is further down the list (90 out of 144). It is still in the Midwest, but further south, with more hospitable winters. It doesn't have the same name cachet as our Northeast school, but has a very structured program (i.e., actual classes for language requirements), and provides many opportunities to teach a variety of courses in English (i.e., comp., lit., creative writing, etc.). Both schools are very eager to have me, which I must say isn't a bad situation to be in.

However, I have found myself in a morass of sorts. The whole ranking system is retarded in my opinion, but every English department I have ever been in constantly goes on and on about them. There are many in the discipline that, given the dearth of jobs in English, strike fear into their students by proclaiming that a degree from any school that is not in the top 20 is a waste of time. This party line, combined with the generally shitty job market, makes me very anxious. I think a lot of it has to do with the knowledge that I will most likely be somewhere in my 30s before I earn my degree. Also, I am still currently living the heartache that is having a job that pays scarcely above the poverty line, is not in my field, and leaves me demoralized quite often.

Now for the final straw. I have a partner. We have been together for two years, going on three. We're both academics (he's an artist who teachers studio art and art history). We have known that the possibility of geographical separation is great, and he has recently interviewed for a position at a school in the South. I'd say his chances could be very good for getting the job. However, he is vocally uncomfortable with us being separated by the entire vertical range of the United States. He wants me to take the less prestigious school. I want to do so for the superficial reason of locality, but also fear I may need to suck it up for the sake of my long-term career, and deal with the permafrost.

Oy Vey! I should have been a pair of claws scuttling along the bottom of the sea.

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Any advice?

J.A. P.

Dear J.,

I am concerned for you as a person. I am concerned for you as a person who cannot read his own compass in the snow.

I know what it is like to befriend the moneyed and beautiful sons and daughters of the Ivy League and to watch them drive off when the fun is over; I know the sickening flush you feel when the historic room you are standing in, where canapes are served on silver platters by obsequious caterers of unknown descent, becomes a room in which you are the very thing that does not belong -- a thing to be removed, a thing to move away from lest unpleasantries erupt. One awakens in such a room as one awaking from a dream for the first time seeing with dizzying clarity the occupants as they are: sycophants of the court, transparently hungry for a crumb, self-hating, malnourished, their gazes cold as a lizard's gaze, their winter fingertips the temperature of junkyard metal.

This great and cruel country and all its contradictions lie at the heart of your suffering. I know what it is like to squint into the sun and see that blinding gulf of dollars and breeding and silence between us and them; I know those aging, paper-faced chameleons whose highest honor is to stand like statues while a nation's wealth is siphoned off by old white spies with puckered lips. I know this hunger you feel for their approbation and their praise. But it is an uncollectible debt, a flimsy promise made on a drunken night.

So I suggest instead that you remember who you are: a young, creative American writer, a gay American man, a bright, idealistic gay American writer as prone to class envy as I was at your age and as much an outsider as I was at your age. I suggest that you rub your eyes and pinch yourself and splash some water on your face; I suggest that you wake up from this tweedy hocus-pocus; I suggest that you put Eliot aside and pick up Whitman; I suggest that you value what is in you that is true and yours alone, the voice that you alone can sing with, the voice you started out with.

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And fuck Eliot, by the way -- and besides it goes like this:

"I should have been a pair of ragged claws
Scuttling across the floors of silent seas."

But fuck Eliot anyway. Fuck everything 1917 that he stood for. Where was he when the sons of slaves were being lynched?

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Let us go then, you and I, and talk about your breakdown, your homosexuality, your class origins, your interest in 19th century slave narratives and British Imperial literature, and your writing talent. What does all that add up to? A craven sinecure in the 63rd-ranked school instead of the 90th-ranked school? Is that what you spent two years of bitterness and confusion to quest after? A tiny office in a steam-heated basement on the Great Lakes?

Why are you pursuing a Ph.D.? Where is your heart? And where are your friends? Are they waiting for you patiently?

Will you be inviting your Ivy League friends to stay in your summer house this summer?

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What? You don't have a summer house? Then you travel in the summers, no?

You don't travel in the summers? And you don't have a summer house? Then what, dear man, do you do?

I write in the summers so maybe if things go well one day I can buy a summer house.

Buy a summer house? Oh, but my dear man, what can you be thinking? Why not just inherit one?

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That's the world of T.S. Eliot minus the modernist poetic genius. That's the world of weasels and strivers and second-rate schemers who learned their tradecraft in the day schools of Westchester and Malibu. That's the world of those who, because they don't need the money and the pulpit is so old-fashioned, figure they might as well become academic deans.

You're 27. This is your life. What matters is your happiness. What most affects your happiness? What you love. So what do you love? Do you love numerical rankings abstracted from surveys filled out by half-awake post-docs unbearably desirous of tenure? What do you love? You love tales of slaves. You love tales of empire. You love writing. What else do you love? You can't be reading all the time. Do you love to swim? Do they have swimming? Do you love to study late at night? What are the hours of the library?

Can you spend your days in happy quest of knowledge, can you write in peace, can you feel at home? These are questions whose answers will affect your happiness.

One more thing before I pass out from this spell of apoplexy: What is the contemporary moral significance of your interest in 19th century slave narratives?

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Let's ask this: What was it that allowed my ancestors to overlook the human dimension of slavery in order to partake of its economic fruits? Was it not the desire of insecure and striving men for personal status that drove them to suppress their moral compunction and proudly proclaim at dinner parties in large plantation houses the number of slaves they currently were feeding ... and whipping ... and forcing to breed? And Christianizing and teaching to speak English and sing Schubert songs?

What is your own deep connection to slave literature? Could it be that the literature of slavery speaks to your own relationship to your own masters? Could it be that it also speaks to your own dream of eventual escape in the dead of night? Where is your commonality with those slaves? It is not the same commonality that you have with your Ivy League friends, I dare say.

The Ivy League scions of empire whom you so admire will leave you standing in the snow by the side of the road when the fun is over. You will think there must have been some misunderstanding. But there was no misunderstanding. The car was full of other Ivy Leaguers so they left you in the snow by the side of the road ... like a slave, or a nanny, or a field hand.

And where is the connection of slave literature to the contemporary American spirit? In our gulags? In our mania for imprisonment? In our lazy acquiescence in political illusion?

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So we ask: Where is our individual courage? Do we need another T.S. Eliot to mumble vague dissent into a starched white sleeve? Or do we need somebody like Rimbaud or Blake, or better yet like Whitman? Why are we so afraid of speaking plainly just how wrong our decade is? Do we fear looking like fools in front of each other? Do we fear social demotion and exclusion? Do we fear our own tiny feelings of discomfort?

At stake for you is your happiness and truth. At stake for us is the future of our nation and our institutions. Will they continue to be run by fretful courtiers jostling each other for a touch of the king's robe? Or will a few, as always, infiltrate the trembling ranks and speak plainly, with common sense and vision? Will a few at least stand up and say, I am here to study slaves, not to be one?


In grad school? Q.v. pp. 31, 160, D.V.


"Since You Asked," on sale now at Cary Tennis Books: Buy now and get an autographed first edition.

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