I was over at postacademic‘s place reading about those famously awkward conversations between academics and non-academics. Like the time my uncle, upon discovering I was enrolling in a PhD program (I already had an M.A.), exclaimed with exasperation, “How much English can you learn?” At the time, I thought he was a dumb redneck who just didn’t get it and never would. Now, I look back on his question and marvel at its profundity. In some ways, I am still trying to figure out the answer.
Anyway, postacademic’s story reminded me of my own recent experience revealing my academic background at HHB, the social service agency where I volunteer as part of my plan to get a life after academia
A few weeks after I started volunteering, the Director and some of the staff decided I should help create some job training workshops for their clients. Three of us got together one day after the Food Pantry to talk it over.
At first, Mary, the Director, was putting me in my place. It was clear to her that I have zero experience in the kind of agency she has run for almost twenty years. It was like she was thinking who is this person coming in here with her Big Ideas? She would cut me off a little bit and nicely explain why my plans for the workshop wouldn’t work. I don’t blame her. She was mostly right about everything. I knew that once I emerged, dazed and embittered, from the graduate school prison, I would have a lot to learn.
Eventually, though, Mary looked at me quizzically and asked, “Don’t you have a job?” (I should have responded, “Who are you, my mother?”) Instead, I felt myself tense up because I would have preferred not to discuss my PhD. I just find that people either think you’re a smartypants snob or some kind of aloof genius. Since I’m neither, I just try to avoid the subject. But I could tell I was going to have to give some answer to their “who even is this person?” queries. I explained that I had finished grad school and was looking for full-time work, blah, blah, blah. And I work at home a lot, etc.
“So you have a Master’s?” she asked. I said, “Actually I just completed my PhD.”
That’s when I felt an almost palpable shift in the direction of the conversation. Here’s a list of things that were said to me (and what I would have said in reply if I had had the guts) by Mary, or by one of her two assistants, after my Big Reveal.
Them: “You must be smart!”
Me: Did you not hear me? I said I spent a decade of my life in graduate school….in the Humanities! I got skillz, yes, but whether I am smart or not is an open question and depends very much on your definition.
Them: “Wow! We will have to put out a press release about the job training workshops. We’ll say that a PhD is running them!”
Me: Oh Jesus Christ
Them: “I have problems writing myself. I feel pretty insecure about it. You must be a good writer!”
Me: Frequently, academics (especially if they have an English degree) have to deal with this kind of response. When people hear you’re a teacher/academic they all of a sudden start admitting all manner of language-related sins. It’s almost like fucking Catholic confession: (“Forgive me, English teacher, for I have used a comma splice!”)
Them: “I was sitting here doing all the talking when, it turns out, I should have been listening to YOU!”
Me: Sorry? I don’t know my ass from my elbow until you find out I have a doctorate, and now I am somehow qualified to lecture you all on your jobs? Jobs that I have never done? No, you were right the first time: I don’t know my ass from my elbow.
Them: “Some of our clients might be intimidated by you.”
Me: (I really did say this out loud) “Well, we don’t have to mention the whole PhD thing. We’ll just say I’m a former teacher.”
Them: “No! We have to tell everyone.”
Me: Ummm, what?
Them: “You could be a university professor!”
Me: In theory, yes.
By the time the meeting was over, I was glad to go home to my apartment where two out of two people who live there have PhDs, so it’s nothing special. A few days later, I got an email from Lisa, one of the HHB staff members. At the end of her note, she wrote “Happy PhD!”
Not really, no.