How Alaskan Cruises and Graduate School Are the Same

Sometimes you have to stop working for social justice and go on a cruise.

That’s right, I went on a cruise. To Alaska! Some very generous people paid for my ticket. Well, okay, it was my parents who are thrilled to bits that their kid has a PhD, so they wanted to celebrate by testing their tolerance for seasickness. (Why do I have to point out here that I did not pay for my ticket? It’s because I don’t want people to think I actually wanted to go on a cruise. It sounds better to say that I was forced to go!) Somehow this fact grants more authority to the analysis that follows.

Anyway . . . I took a week off of volunteering in homeless shelters and at food pantries to gaze in astonishment at gorgeous scenery, to gorge myself on food and drink on a daily basis, and to do nothing. It was the trip of a lifetime, something few people will ever get to do. I am immensely grateful.

Still, the question remains, did I enjoy the cruising part of the cruise, that is, the part that entailed being on the ship?

I did not. I have determined that my cruise experience was, in some ways, a terrible ordeal. I am not the first person to remark on this, of course. None other than David Foster Wallace described cruising as being “pampered to death” (“Shipping Out”).

Thank you, DFW, and I concur. There are several reasons for my own distress aboard the ship.  And some of them are actually related to the supposed theme of this blog.

I was disturbed, frequently and possibly in indirect proportion to the actual significance of the offense, by what I perceived as the horrendous labor situation aboard the ship. The Cruise Director, an inhumanly cheery man who never met a fat tourist whose every predilection he did not aim to satisfy, kept telling us that the ship’s “international crew of over 700” gets along better than the United Nations!

What did I see instead of happy, “international” workers? I saw a third world labor force that had most certainly been warned by management of the dire consequences of not providing obsequious service to passengers, that is, the kind of service that would perpetuate the myth that we, the bourgeois cruisers, were taking part in a storied nautical tradition first experienced by 19th century aristocrats on their way to a Grand European Tour. I saw workers (cabin stewards, food service workers, singers and dancers, bartenders) from Bangladesh and Peru and Turkey who endured months-long separations from their families for a job satisfying the gluttonous desires of vacationers. (The beauty and remoteness of Alaska must have seemed rather grim and lonely to workers so far away from home.) And, after fulfilling our desires and whims, these workers would thank us profusely, and over and over again, for the pleasure, indeed, for the honor, of serving us.

Who would not be creeped out by this?

In addition to the labor situation, I was troubled by how the choreographed fun and hyper-managed relaxation that cruise ships are famous for providing can merge into infantilization. All these fat Americans sitting around the pool on their beach towels reminded me of infants waiting for their next feeding, for their next dose of prepackaged adventure (i.e. “shore excursions”), or for the pleasures of being lulled to sleep at night by  a gently rocking ship. On a cruise, everything is done for you. You never have to make a decision; all you have to do is choose from a menu of options that have been carefully planned with your pleasure in mind.

Also, people are always taking your picture aboard cruise ships. A photographer comes around at dinner and takes your photo. You can dress up with your husband and sit for a formal portrait. Your kid can have his photo taken with a guy in a bear costume. Then you can have the pleasure of purchasing these photos of yourself and your loved ones for $24.95 each! See, cruising is not about the cruise or the beauty of Alaska. It’s about YOU, and YOUR pleasure, and the fact that you are on a cruise right now. And don’t you want to take home several dozen photographs of yourself so you can remember that you were once on a cruise? Don’t you? Just like the relaxation and the fun, the memories you will take home with you have been carefully chosen and packaged so you don’t have to think about them.

So why am I writing about this on a post-academic blog that is supposed to report on my Adventures in Volunteering? All this not-thinking aboard cruise ships makes me nervous about my inability to not think aboard cruise ships.

While I was made very uncomfortable by the labor situation, by the pre-packaged “fun,” and by the memorializing in advance, I wondered if all the negative emotions I experienced on board are just an example of an academic penchant for over-analysis that I can’t seem to shake. At best, my discomfort is evidence of a kind of internalized theorizing that is less about being self-aware than about imagining myself as the center of a universe where I am the only one who really sees what’s going on here. At worst, my “terrible ordeal” amounts to a paranoia in which I can no longer enjoy things because those things are never what they seem. Even earnest solicitations from service staff being paid (presumably) to pamper me seem vaguely creepy and insincere.

What does this remind me of you ask?

It reminds me of graduate school, where I entered confident and enthusiastic and left never really believing that Super Famous Graduate Advisor really liked me or my work or thought it was worthwhile. Why would he when I didn’t even think it was worthwhile anymore? Also, anyone who doesn’t think grad school is infantilizing hasn’t been to grad school.

So how else are grad school and cruising the same? Cruising is the only thing since graduate school that inspired me to see my experience as an opportunity for analysis in which I learned to hate myself in the process.

Why did I need to get a PhD? (To prove I am a smart, worthy person?) Why am I now volunteering to work with low-income people? (To prove I am compassionate?) And why do I feel the need to expostulate about it on a blog that no one reads? (To fulfill my desire to be “productive”?) Maybe it’s none of those things. Maybe I went to grad school to learn how to use my brain to contribute to the world, to really study the questions that intrigued me. Or maybe I am just a self-absorbed, dogooder who thinks I know things other people don’t. The worse thing is not that the latter of these options might be true. The worst thing is that I can never know for sure because, if graduate school taught me anything, it taught me to relentlessly explore different ways of thinking about the same problem without ever coming to a conclusion. Of course, as a (former?) academic, such thinking obligates me to quote a smart and famous person to prove my point, which I will do now.

Jane Tompkins’s great essay “‘Indians'” is about how accounts of the colonization of the Americas erased the presence of Native Americans who were already living here. (It’s also about the process of teaching and research and the dangers of lingering on intellectual dilemmas like academics do.) “The moral problem that confronts me now,” Tompkins wrote, “is not that I can never have any facts to go on, but that the work I do is not directed toward solving the kinds of problems that studying the history of European-Indian relations has awakened me to.” Some problems are only recognized as problems because, as academics, we are trained to see them as such, which is a good thing, until we don’t know what to do next.

At the risk of overstating the parallels, graduate school, like cruising, presents a moral problem similar to Tompkins’s. Once you have the facts, what do you do with them?

Another way to ask the question is: Is there a way across the post-academic hyphen? Can one take what is useful in academic habits of mind and ways of using language? Or is there no longer any outside the inside? What is post-academic? (In a double-meta irony of either the best or the worst kind, these are very academic questions, aren’t they?)

DFW, who really should not have killed himself, wrote this about his Caribbean cruise adventure:

” . . . part of the overall despair of this Luxury Cruise is that whatever I do I cannot escape my own essential and newly unpleasant Americanness. Whether up here or down there, I am an American tourist, and am thus ex officio large, fleshy, red, loud, coarse, condescending, self-absorbed, spoiled, appearance-conscious, greedy, ashamed, and despairing.”

Like Wallace, who feared that cruising revealed something essential about himself that he did not like, I am starting to see how graduate school, and my new, self-proclaimed post-academic life, has the potential, at least, to emphasize those things about me that I hoped my post-academic declarations would allow me to escape. Namely, my desire that all this living, writing, and thinking will amount to something in the end even without a “real” job in a “real” college, which may be a vain hope in the face of all the facts.

Perhaps the vanity of thinking reveals more than that. Maybe grad school is like cruising because it makes one feel out-to-sea, as it were, lost in the terrible vastness of the ocean of what’s next? Of my own next moves, I have only an inkling: I experienced things on the cruise that hindered my enjoyment, and those things were urgently real to me, even though (or because) my impulse was to theorize them. Perhaps the post-academic life is not so much a turn away from academic habits of mind, but a turn towards the world, a way to make our thinking do something even if we don’t’ know what that something is yet. If the hyphen in post-academic is impossible to cross, perhaps we can learn to live in that gap between the shores, in that place that is not one or the other, in the indeterminate in-between.



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One Response to How Alaskan Cruises and Graduate School Are the Same

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