Impertinent Questions

I am working on a longer post about temping at The Skyscraper Office. It is an epic tale of anger and sadness with global implications! I am completely serious.

In the meantime, I am compelled to write about a conversation I had with one of the other secretaries/receptionists about graduate school. I have been pondering it for a couple of days.

(Incidentally, I have met some interesting people while temping. I am utterly fascinated by the brief glimpses I get into their lives. I want to write a book about each of them. I kind of love them all, a little bit.)

Emily is 25 years old and has been working at The Skyscraper Office for less than a year.  She is smart, kind, and ambitious. But she hates her job (all the low-level people do), and is desperate to leave. “If I could just get a position making ten dollars per hour in a non-profit,” she sighed, “I would quit in a second.”

Of course, there are not many jobs for ten dollars or any other wage in non-profits these days. Emily, a woman with working-class roots, has little choice but to stay in the corporate world for now. What else can she do?

Of course, she is doing something to get out of an unhappy situation: applying to grad schools! She is enthusiastic about earning an M.A. in a social science field. She hopes it will open new doors for her.

This is a dilemma that many people face in their 20s. A few years out of college and they’re staring down the barrel of unfulfilling careers in industries that appall or bore them. In some cases, they earn little more than they could have made without college degrees.

Grad school seems like a good/the only option.

I did not warn Emily away from grad school when she announced her plans because it is not my place to do so. She is planning to enter a field that I don’t know much about. Perhaps there are jobs galore. I don’t want to be a total buzzkill, after all.

Later, the subject of grad school came up again. Emily and I were talking about office politics and gender. I said, “Do you ever wonder why all the assistants and support staff are women and 90% of the hotshot executives are men?”

Of course, Emily had already considered this reality and was quite upset about it. She said that her main concern is that all the women assistants sit in open cubicles in the middle of the room where they have no privacy. But all the penises get private offices along the windows (where they have that gloriously unobstructed view of the city). Emily said she suspects the office is organized this way because the lower-level people are not presumed to need any privacy. They’re just drones.

I agreed but added another possibility. “The bosses are afraid of what the assistants might say to each other,” I suggested, “if they could talk in private.”

Emily’s eyes widened. She was really into this idea. “I would like to know more about office architecture,” she said wistfully, like it was a crazy dream.

A switch got flipped in my brain. I was on autopilot. “Emily,” I said, “people go to grad school to study this stuff. If you choose the right field, you could write a thesis about this office, the seating arrangements, the gender relations, and what all of it means or doesn’t mean.”

We both talked excitedly about this prospect and discussed different ways the study could be conducted and what some of the implications might be. Then the phone rang or the boss needed a coffee brought to him on a (literal) silver platter, and we both had to go back to work.

Later, I recalled this conversation with some horror. When Emily told me about her thinking, and about the way she was framing her questions about gender in terms of ‘office architecture,’ the only thing I could think to do was encourage her to follow her interests in grad school!

Jesus Christ, what was I thinking?

I’m not saying she shouldn’t go to grad school. It’s not my place to say. There are blogs for that. Still. As the older, more experienced woman, why didn’t I tell Emily to take her Deep Thoughts to…..??

See, that’s the problem. Maybe there are other things Emily could do. But what?

Grad school is such a weird place, which perhaps accounts for the contradiction between my own experience and my advice to Emily. Even if you are thinking about questions of the world in grad school, you are not in the world.  Though grad school rarely provides the kind of  Ivory Tower existence that many presume, student status still grants one a temporary reprieve from gritty reality. This is why working as a TA or an adjunct is appealing for a while (and why some hang on to those jobs far too long). Though part-time college teaching is a (low wage) job, it also feels like a training period, a kind of limbo where you get to think about things that may matter eventually but don’t right now. Graduate school is a kind of living theory, a place where you get to inhabit generalities towards some specific, ill-defined end.

That is why the end of the PhD ­– with no job on the horizon ­– is traumatic for many. All of a sudden, you’re not pretending to be an apprentice member of the intelligentsia anymore. You’re just an office temp with a PhD and a monthly student debt payment. Theory must eventually give way to that gnawing sense (which was probably in the background all along) that this was fun while it lasted, but now what?

I’m not saying that most grad students pursue higher degrees to escape real life. They want to contribute something along the way. But what is that something? Is it any less important to ask that question now that we’re out of the game? There are parallels with activist work, which I also have some experience with. Many activists want to produce thinking and don’t want to dirty themselves with the way that thinking may or may not have some impact on people who are not them.

Where else might one ask critical questions these days and still prepare for some kind of career not in academia? I guess what I’m saying is that grad school is a good place for making inquiries, which is why I proposed it to Emily. But if the post-academic experience has taught me anything, it’s that merely being able to ask impertinent questions, satisfying as it may be, is not enough. One has to take those questions a step further (or is it actually a step back?) For example, say Emily enrolled in grad school and carried out her research. Would it be likely to have any effect on The Skyscraper Office? On any office? On any woman anywhere?

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5 Responses to Impertinent Questions

  1. Chris Llano says:

    It is very tough with Emily, she seems very young, mid 20’s? I would recommend that she does grad school only if she has some scholarship (the less student loans, the better) and go with open arms to learn, that she keeps working, and out of her head the idea of networking, in my experience that only happens in conference and they never return their calls, and most of all, you have to advise her not to ‘romantize’ working in a thesis or a NGO, everything has its flaws. I think that grad school will help her since she seems so inquisitive, would make her emotional strong, but that’s about it?! and she needs to know that?!

  2. recent Ph.D. says:

    The problem with academia is that, while you learn to ask the impertinent questions, you don’t learn to ask them of the right people. You ask them in an echo chamber, where even when people disagree about the answers passionately, their disagreement is usually predictable, never going outside of certain boundaries. Campus walls? And so there’s a limit to the pragmatic, problem-solving potential of the kinds of questions academics come up with. I mean, to use an example from my own weird reality, who outside of academe gives a shit about “exploring intersections” between studying the earth’s physical “climate” and studying a historical epoch’s cultural “climate”? But ask that question another way among the right people and it potentially does affect, if not actual people’s lives, at least public debate: How do we get people to see the difference between the science of climate change and the cultural bullshit surrounding it? Or, how do we get West Virginia mining communities to see that the coal companies themselves already recognize coal is not God’s gift to Mankind but a finite, dirty resource — and that they are simply exploiting these communities to the very end while pursing alternatives for profit with no care in the world about the stability, growth, health, or future of these communities, that the communities themselves have to take the initiative to find economic alternatives?

    And people are seriously working on this type of stuff outside of academe (albeit, a lot of them are postacademics), talking to the communities, the corporations, the lawmakers, the lobbyists, although this may be a pecularity of DC, where everything is “policy, policy, policy” all the time. I don’t know that there’s any hope for your Skyscraper Office, but what I’m trying to say is that “impertinent” questions asked inside academe’s echo chamber aren’t really impertinent at all. Which is more or less what you said. There’s no risk and nothing at stake. But it is absolutely those impertinent questions, asked in impertinent situations where there IS something at stake, that over time do drive progress. You’re in a glass house of sorts, but it isn’t your house. Start throwing some stones?

  3. nyc says:

    Awesome comment. You are right. Impertinent questions are only impertinent when you ask them in places where their impertinence is apparent and where such impertinence matters…..We have to find ways to ask those questions strategically outside the academy’s walls (without getting fired).

  4. unknownnarrator says:

    I really enjoy your blog. I guess I am going through Emily’s situation right now. Everything you said really hits home.

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