This one is rather more personal than most of my entries, so I beg your patience.

The title above is based on a pet saying of a friend of mine; the meaning is a little more complicated than a first reading might suggest.

It has to do with something most of us have witnessed – and many have not only participated in, but actively brought about – when exactly the wrong person, at exactly the wrong time, takes exactly the wrong stand, for exactly the right and noble reasons, all without the slightest hope of “survival,” much less success. (Usually they/we literally survive, but with physical and emotional scars that are added to an already long list.) Witnessing such a train wreck, you say to yourself (because the disaster is too overwhelming to even say it out loud): “Oh dear god; don’t do it wuss …” But you can see that it is already too late; even though it has not yet been done, it certainly is going to be.

To the uninitiated, this is perhaps an odd way to open a discussion about getting an advanced degree at University – even an odder way of justifying it, assuming you are that wuss.

This is a personal and anecdotal account, so it is appropriate that I start off with a bit of biography:

I went into the Army straight out of high school (June, 1975), and after basic training received some extensive electronics and computer training to serve as a tech on the IHAWK anti-aircraft missile system in Germany. My expectation at the time was to complete my service, and go to college to get (ultimately) an MS in Computer Science.

That plan unraveled in my first year at college – well, University, actually. Three things went fundamentally wrong for me. FIRST: I found myself required to take 4 – 5 semesters of Calculus and Analysis, all of which are entirely irrelevant when it comes to the discrete mathematics that is actually important in abstract Computer Science. Besides which, I despise the calculus. (I am not suggesting this is wise or appropriate, merely confessing my own sins.) SECOND: I was trying very hard to be a good boy. It was my commitment that I go-to-college-to-get-a-better-job. But because of my substantial, work based background in electronics and computers, my “summer job” the first summer break from University, was as a full-time technician at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Space Flight Operations Facility during the Voyager I & II encounters at Jupiter[1] and Saturn. Ummm … remind me again what this “better job” was that required a college degree? And FINALLY: the folks I met in the Computer Science program were all nice enough people, but ultimately they could only talk about one thing. On the other hand, the graduate students who taught the various humanities courses I was required to take, had a breadth of thought and interest that really fired my imagination.

Don’t Do It Wuss

So, already having “The Job,” I changed my major from Computer Science to Philosophy. I ultimately changed schools as well, completing my undergraduate degree at Occidental College. (Piece of irrelevant trivia for those of you who like such things: My year of graduation, 1983, is the same year that President Barrack Obama was there. We never met.)

I continued to work in the high-tech industry, and read and studied on my own. But I kept running into “questions that bothered me so,” questions I could not answer on my own. For the record, even with a natural proclivity for the subject, mathematics is the hardest subject to teach yourself, because the books are hands-down the most difficult to copy-edit. (The copy-editor must know as much mathematics as the author!) I found myself unable to determine if I did not understand the books I was studying, or if there were typos in the book that undermined my understanding.

Don’t Do It Wuss

So I decided to go back to school and get my MA. For various reasons, this landed me at DePaul in Chicago, where I was able to do an Interdisciplinary Degree, with about half the classes from the Math department in abstract algebra, the others in Philosophy. During and after my degree work, I continued to work in the computer industry, this time moving into networking and admin. But perhaps you notice a pattern here. On the one hand, I was well situated to support myself in my educational projects (I quickly paid off my student loans after both my undergraduate and Masters degrees), yet the “itch” for higher education was obviously there, and despite all my hopes and efforts, would not be satisfied by partial steps. That itch kept getting worse over the next eight years.

Oh Crap; You Did It

In 2000, I returned to school to get my Ph.D., a degree I finished in 2005, and then publishing my dissertation as a book in 2006. (This is a fairly rare, and substantial, achievement for a humanities dissertation.) I followed a not-uncommon path of temporary jobs in the years that followed, but that path was interrupted by personal matters that needn’t concern us here. What I wish to convey here is that my educational journey into scholarship and academia was not casual – I did not simply keep rolling off a log into more schooling. I fought tooth, claw, and nail against it, but in the end I could not escape the reality that this work is a genuine “calling” – in Latin, the term is “vocation.”

The modern sense of the term “vocation” is “job,” which is ironic because, you see, there aren’t any jobs in academia any more. This, finally, is the “don’t do it, wuss” moment. The preceding story is offered not simply for its own entertainment value, but to establish some “cred” at a personal level, and to suggest to those who have not heard this “calling,” that those who do hear it are generally driven, at the deepest levels, to act in the name of a passion that, even when things were good, often defied all economic sense. And things are far from good now; they are not even adequate.

and this is why

Higher education itself has been reduced to a travesty of its former self. Colleges and Universities are no longer run by educators per se, but rather by business persons with advanced degrees. But a University is not a business, education is not a product, and students are not customers. The educational relationship (which is not even remotely the same as mere “schooling”) is unique in human experience, a combination discipline, mentorship, invention, growth, and collegiality. The attempts to package it as a shrink-wrapped, “one size fits all” product, kills it outright, and leaves one with an indistinguishable mass that has no more nutritional content than a Twinkie, and lacks even that much social value. There are individual exceptions to the above, but this by far the current trend in Higher Ed.

No small part of this trend has been driven by shifting how money is spent at University. Increasingly, those who Teach are being eliminated in favor of those who Administer. Books, essays, and articles detailing these trends are not hard to find. Today, some 70% to 75% of teaching in Higher Ed is carried on by “permatemp” instructors: graduate students and adjunct Ph.D.’s who typically have very little pay, and no benefits. Meanwhile, administrator salaries skyrocket, new buildings are set up (yet no office space is provided for those who teach), tuition vastly outpaces the rise in the cost of living (for which, the teaching staff is often blamed), and the solutions proposed by those in charge are “more of the same.”

So if you know some sad little puppy that wants to get an advanced degree, remember: DON’T DO IT, WUSS. You might want to schedule an intervention; actual deprogramming might be considered. Your efforts will, of course, fail catastrophically. This, too, was part of the reason for my lengthy story above. People who get this “itch” are not the types to be dissuaded by reasoned arguments and careful evaluation of the facts — especially when those “facts” and “reasons” have only to do with remuneration, and NOT with what it means to be a Human Being. If they are, then they never had the “itch” to begin with, and have no business pursuing advanced scholarship[2].

Which brings me to my last point: I’m not sorry I did it. My job prospects are bloody awful (I am what is euphemistically referred to as an “Independent Scholar.”) Yet I like the person I have become on the far side of my degree work. I have, in fact, never stopped working, I just don’t often get paid for the work I do. Yet I’ve a major piece of collaborative research I hope to see in print by this Winter, I am an invited speaker at an international conference next year, and so on. My physical circumstances are a bit tenuous, but more secure than that of many people even in this country. And I have found my calling.

So go ahead and tell that poor, sad little puppy, “Don’t do it, wuss.” See how much good that will do ya’ …


[1] Technically, I missed Voyager I at Jupiter. But I was there for II, and for both at Saturn.

[2] Cynic that I am, I must wonder if the Modern University is basically dead. It is, after all, not over 200 years old globally (the Medieval University was a very different creature), and in this country scarcely more than 70 – 80 years. (On this note, it is worth mentioning in passing that the trends we see today are themselves not all that new: Thorstein Veblen discussed them at the turn of the previous century.)