Academia – I Could ‘a been a Contender

What does a MA give you, a ticket to the smart person room?

Why didn’t I pursue the Smart Person ticket?  I was the studious one of the family, I even wore glasses.  I got good marks at school, was the only one to go to college and did not seem to have much else going for me. Why wouldn’t I have gone ahead in the academic world, as my Dad would have loved?

I have a contemplative mind, I am an excellent and thorough researcher and thinker, and I can take criticism (sort of). I even have the ideal academic personality, if you want to be a bit brutal about the ubiquitous beginnings of most academics as a loner and outsider.

I remember moments when the obvious path in front of me  became littered with obstacles: a fellow student saying I wasn’t made for academics, too flighty and creative. I took it to heart, for some reason, maybe even proud that I could be considered creative when my family had me locked into smart and sensible since I could walk.

Why I would let a comment like this affect me I don’t know, but then again I was desperately looking for some sort of confirmation. I did lack confidence, but I could have pushed through, as I have seen many people do since.

One of the academic critiques of my writing was that it was a bit undisciplined; I remember the red pen comment on an essay on Chaucer in the qualifying year before graduate school, “Circular argument”. I was not linear enough, not forceful, sometimes writing, even now, in the passive.  I was also told that my style was ‘conversational’, but that was not a compliment at the time.

Then again, that year I received my only A+ for a paper on The Faerie Queen in Renaissance Literature, maybe this professor liked my style, I don’t know.  I think I put more effort into a clear argument because I had to read it aloud.

I have learnt a lot since then but my ears still twitch at that criticism, brow furrows, who is telling me how to write?  I need to be more linear, more forceful, and more muscular in my argument, you’re telling me what?

In my last year of my BA I took all Women’s Studies courses and won the award for the highest grades in Women’s Studies that year.  I thought about grad school, and felt it was possible.  My dream was to do a Masters at Concordia and learn French on the side. But when I looked at the forms I realized I needed a professor to back my proposed thesis, and I didn’t have either a professor or a thesis.

The women professors at University of Toronto were, to a woman, cold and unsupportive.  Except for Janice Williamson, but she went off to the west and never came back. But I can vividly recall sitting down with a professor to talk about an essay.  She sat silently and stared at me as I nervously babbled.  The long cold pauses discouraged me from going further in that field.

By the time I applied for grad school I had given up on Women’s Studies. The women professors that I encountered seemed to have been damaged by the process of becoming a professor, as if they had gone through some sort of initiation that had made them forgo their little sisters.

When I applied for grad school I had to have an interview with a man in a peaked cap and an attitude. I was working as a waitress at the time and came to the interview in my usual honest manner.  I told the professor that I did not think that BA had given me much of an education, because I had just taken whatever I liked and had huge holes in my knowledge of literature. He said, “Don’t say that!” It was as if I had told my minister that I did not believe in God.

I loved my undergraduate years, and enjoyed all my classes, but grad school was not the same.  When I went to Simon Fraser for a few weeks in the English Literature MA I found the atmosphere had changed drastically from the undergraduate world; there was a competitiveness in conversation that I found unpleasant, and a ringing of false bravado about everything. As I forced my writing into an acceptable academic form my essays became more lifeless.

I felt a deep dislike for being with people who grade you as you speak. But as I grow older and older I see that many academic type people are like that, maybe all of them are like that. And that their cold pauses as they watch you squirm and search for words, is just a power trip. I could have learnt how to do that. And then I could have become one of those professors I talked to over the years, who sat back in their chair and waited for the student to sweat.

I thought for a while that I should have stayed in my beloved Women’s Studies program. But the thought of writing a massive MA thesis on some sort of dry topic on gender relations made me feel exhausted before I started. And although I enjoyed my foray into feminist theory I emphatically did not want to write about conceptual thinking for endless pages.

In the end I thought to myself, if I want to write I’ll write. And I got a regular job serving pizza and wrote for Kinesis, a paper published by the Status of Women in British Colombia as well as writing for Co-op Radio. And I took a Creative Writing course and loved it.

It is funny that when I look back over my life, and start wondering if I made wrong decisions, I generally come to the same decision I did when I was younger. I remember thinking in high school that I would never want to be a teacher, not because of the kids, but because of the school itself and the mostly dull company. I was right about that.

I know what it takes to be an academic, and even now I resist the path. Writing has always been my salvation, and it is my own voice that I want. I know what my voice is, and I have always known what it is. It is a fairly quiet voice and a bit circular at times, but it comes directly from me.

I potter around in the garden of my mind, winding around an idea, digging about in the leaves and roots, leaving bulbs that will blossom at a later time.   It is not neat or symmetrical, but there are surprising little paths and ponds, and I like it that way.

7 thoughts on “Academia – I Could ‘a been a Contender

  1. on spot here, perfect description of academic death though I could argue that there are ways and means to circumvent them, or so I desperately believe, hope, pray. I am in the process of peeling off a billion skins of studentry as I try to broaden approaches, make them messy, circular, playful and incomplete – , I read on Facebook of a friend who just got an A+ on a paper and I shudder wondering if she realizes how long it will take her to undo the convolutions of working for good grades on a soul. Maybe she won’t as she is in biology and creativity seems to beholden to mother nature in that field.
    I, on the other hand, crave your freedom and am totally jealous of your talent, write on!


  2. Smart? No question…Creative? Unstoppably. Ability to tolerate arrogant, close minded, tightly permed thinking? Not so much. You are an academic just in your basic make-up, it can’t be helped. You have a thirst which you have been slaking since I first met you. I’ve always found your writing connects to the heart of issues, the journey of your words making it enjoyable to have my mind slightly expanded somehow….and it’s never been painful. So you are a perfect combination of Radical/Linear thinking…and it may come out circular, but always thought provoking, and insightful.


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