A couple of months ago I decided that at the end of the summer I would quietly leave the graduate program that I started last September. Now I am leaving my second university in as many years, preparing to embrace the precarious mercy of the labour market, in the middle of a pandemic. This was not part of the plan.
Leaving academia was a very difficult decision. Since finishing my undergraduate degree I have been desperate to find an intellectual home, a work place where I could contribute to the world and feel that I belong. I had hoped that maybe this program would resurrect my love for academia, and show me a path to that place of belonging. But from the very beginning, it was soul crushing.
I had so many ambitions when I started. For one thing I was going to be constantly writing for my website, documenting the struggles and accomplishments of graduate school as a mad scholar. That never happened. I was going to write for the campus newspaper, and volunteer at the campus radio station. I was going to negotiate with my professors to make sure every assignment was meaningful and fulfilling. My thesis would be a manuscript for the book I would write on madness and resistance.
Instead, my time was completely eaten up by grunt work. Keeping up with readings, assignments, marking papers, and the day to day life of an invisibly disabled parent on poverty wages, left little to nothing to invest in the kind of scholarship I wanted to pursue. Without time for a social life, creativity, or ambition, my mood quickly tanked, and life felt meaningless.
The professors who had attracted me to the multidisciplinary program, specialists I wanted to work with in disability studies, the philosophy of psychiatry, and critical approaches to education, were all too busy for me. They held other obligations to other students, or else were constantly bogged down in administrative and teaching duties. I tried to reach out for support, for guidance, for mentorship, and while every academic I reached out to was sympathetic, the resources simply couldn’t be spared.
Ironically, I learned more about political economy by observing what I could not learn, what the educational institution could not achieve, than by the extensive reading lists and seminar discussions on the subject. Under the pressure of austerity, universities are increasingly behaving like corporations, aiming to maximize efficiencies and drive down the costs of production. In the process, educators are becoming overburdened, the options available to students are becoming limited, and more students who are marginalized and vulnerable are falling through the cracks.
I had hoped that a graduate degree would make me more employable, but that was never enough to motivate me to do anything. Careerism is, in a sense, the root of my madness. More importantly, I had hoped that a graduate degree would teach me the skills I would need to be a more competent writer. I would learn, at the very least, to complete a book-length manuscript of rigorously researched scholarship. After one semester it had become obvious that if I did finish my degree with a book, it wouldn’t be the one I had set out to write, and it wouldn’t feel like an accomplishment when I was done.
So I made the decision to stop driving myself mad with vain hopes of climbing the academic and economic ladder, and try to find some kind of fulfilling work that would at least leave room for a social life, maybe even some time for creative hobbies and ambitions. Maybe I could even do the scholarship I had set out to do, but outside academia, as an independent scholar.
Fast forward a couple of months and the age of pandemic is upon us. What will I do for work? How will I pay the bills? I really don’t know.
All I know for now, is that I am no longer writing for grades or accolades or recognition in the hierarchy of knowledge. In the age of pandemic, what is there to lose if I start now to write for myself?