Why I didn’t go to grad school the second time.
I have become twitter friendly with Matt Thomas, a grad-student and teacher in Iowa. This post was provoked by his ongoing tweets about academic discontent — his and others — plus he said if I wrote it he’d link to it. Also, as I hurl towards 50 I feel like I’ve, y’know, figured a few things out, and think that maybe (maybe) my experiences might give someone a leg up. That certainly happened with me, older cats cluing me in to this and that and saving me grief; or telling me I was better than I thought I was, and other things that helped me along the way. I’d like to do the same, and think I can.
But to tell you about the second time I didn’t go to grad school I have to tell you about the first time I didn’t go to grad school, and to tell you about that we have to rewind all the way back to high school and the choices I did and mostly didn’t make about where I’d go to college.
As detailed in other posts, somehow I made it all the way through high school without really knowing how to read and write, and that had a pretty profound effect on my trajectory. I thought math, science, and music were solid, I thought history was okay, and literature was bullshit. My grades in various subject matter were commensurate with my attitude. My GPA was good, but not outstanding.
Also I never took the PSAT. Didn’t even know there was such a thing or that it was important. If I had take the PSAT I would have been flagged as promising (based on what I got on the SAT a year later) and that might have improved my attitude. But I didn’t and my attitude wasn’t. At the end of junior year I was bumped out of college-bound English and into bonehead english with the jocks, the stoners and whatnot.
I remember two things about applying to colleges senior year:
1) I remember my high school guidance counselor telling me or us (I can’t remember if this was specific advice to me or general advice) that applying to a bunch of schools was a waste of money.
2) I also remember getting the UC application (I wanted to go to UCSD to get back to the town where I grew up) and being really intimidated by all the written sections. Remember, I’m old. This is pre-computers. This was back in the day when you were expected to write things out in pen. As best I can recollect my grades and SATs were good enough, but I don’t think I ever finished the application, and I know I didn’t send it in.
So I ended up the local state college across the street from my high school. That was fine. My first real girlfriend was going there anyway, and it was cheap ($435 a quarter). My parents gave me the money for tuition and books.
I entered with a declared major of Mathematics, but I was secretly hedging by also taking all the classes required for a first year music student. But by the second quarter the jig was up. There was a scheduling conflict and I had to choose between taking calculus in sequence or some dumb music class that wasn’t even about music, but was required or you were kicked out of the program*.
I didn’t want to get kicked out of the program so chose music.
The problem with my choosing music was that my talent for music is modest (at best). I was facile with theory, but struggled with my performance studies (classical guitar). Fortunately about a year later (and quite by accident) I found photography, something I was good at and that I enjoyed working at 10-12 hours day. Which brings me to the first time I didn’t go to grad school.
I spend the summer of 1988 living in my VW van and taking summer classes at the University of Oregon (how I got there from SOSC is a story for another day.) I was taking a basic design and a print-making class that were part of the BS in studio art degree I was working towards, and two novelty math classes** to fill in the pieces of that same degree. But I ended up dropping of both of the math classes because that summer I was seized by an idea.
The idea was that it would be really cool to make a portrait of myself out of a bunch of little pictures of Andy Warhol. My design teacher (Paul Tetzner, a great typographer who was rumored to have designed the Dove soap bar) thought it was a really cool idea too. Having had the idea, there sorts of technical and conceptual problems to solve to actually execute it. I remember Prof. Tetzner, who looked and acted like a pudgy dwarf amped on too much coffee, taking me by the hand and racing over to the campus bookstore to rummage though their art supply department for materials that might help. Then we raced over to the Advance Computer Lab and he got me unlimited access to the school’s only Mac II. (Can you imagine? A Pac-10 univerisity with only one Mac II. Heady times!)
Anyway, I finished the thing in about six weeks of virtually non-stop work. The final product was about 12 feet tall and about 7 feet wide and was composed of 6400 xeroxed images of Andy Warhol. People were pretty impressed.
Now here’s the thing.
That same summer I did my Big Head, I also met this Dutch MBA student on a rafting trip and I was pretty sweet on her — like thought I might marry her sweet. The outdoor program at U of O was putting together a Grand Canyon trip, she was going and I wanted to go on it too.
But somehow I got the impression from my folks that what I really needed to do was take my giant conceptual art portrait down to the Bay Area and show it to prospective MFA programs (Berkley, Stanford, UCSF, etc.); that going on the Grand Canyon trip would be evidence of grossly misplace priorities; and if I did go on the Grand Canyon trip I would be jeopardizing future support from my parents.
So I packed my big xerox assemblage into my folks’ Subaru wagon and went down to the Bay Area to see what I could see, and what I saw didn’t impress me very much. I remember a prof being really excited about some sort of “installation” his students were doing with black visqueen. I thought it seemed like a lame, unscary Halloween haunted house.
I went back to Eugene, spent the 88/89 school year transforming my BS into a BFA, started assisting full-time for a local commercial photographer, kind of dropped out***, and then went on to have a reasonably successful career as a photographer and filmmaker.
Once I got out of school no one ever asked me where I went to school, or what I majored, except sometimes after the fact. It certainly never factored into whether or not I got a gig, or how the work was interpreted. For photo gigs I’d show my portfolio; for film gigs I’d show a reel. The end.
20 years later I was in New York and I had reached the end of the line with as a filmmaker. I was putting more and more work into explaining my work, much more than actually producing new work, and so much so that I had actually produced a large, cogent body of text giving both historical context and a critical theory of where my films sat in culture.
While I had a handful of well-placed scholars and journalist who were intrigued by my work and treated me respectfully, I was also often frustrated by how my work (films and text both) were sometimes regarded and how I was sometimes treated. I suspected (rightfully, I think) that my lack of affiliation was the reason for this lack of regard. (Also in fairness I sometimes acted like a complete asshole. I’d throw elbows like it was game seven of the finals, when for my opponents it was just a friendly pick-up game.)
By the spring of 2010 I decided that the only possible course of action was to embrace credentialism with full vigor. I resolved that I would pour my research and writing though a PhD in Media Studies, while simultaneously producing my next, most provocative documentary under the aegis of an MFA in film.
Of course these degrees would have to be from a top notch school, or what’s the point? So I asked important people if they’d write me letters of recommendation (some of them even said yes!) I started cold-calling Harvard, Yale, Stanford, etc. Basically I’d imagine what the lower-third would look like on TV, and if the school name seemed impressive in that context I’d call them.
Then a friend (one of those well-placed scholars mentioned above) suggested NYU. He said they had “the hottest media studies program in the country”. I didn’t really like the way NYU looked in a lower-third, but I figured he knew more about this stuff than I did, so I checked it out.
Cold-calling NYU was not as much fun as cold-calling the other places. But I did find the Steinhardt school website, including abstracts of their PhD students projects.
And I was appalled and dejected both.
The subject matter was beyond arcane and the writing was simultaneously obfuscating and obsequious. It reminded me nothing more than of being back in my 11th grade English class, listening to my classmates play-acting at doing critical theory.
And then I experienced a moment of clarity. Within my head I heard a dialog with two distinct voices:
“What are you going to do after you finish your Ph.D? Do you want to teach?” said the calm voice.
“Maybe. I don’t know,” said the angry voice.
“Well what do you know you want to do after you get your doctorate?”
“After I get my doctorate I want to build a big boat.”
“Will getting your doctorate help you on your way to building your boat?”
“It might. If I get my Ph.D I might be able to sell more DVDs or a book and get more money.”
“Do you need to get more money to build your boat?”
“Is there some reason you can’t start building your boat right now?”
“Then why do you want to get a Ph.D?”
“Because I want to show them.”
“Show them what? What do you want to show them?”
“I want to show them that I’m right and they’re wrong.”
And just like that, I stopped think about going back to school and started thinking about what I needed to do to build my boat.
And then I built Mon Tiki.
Who are them? Who knows. My parents? Teachers? The bloggers who would delete my trenchant comments instead of responding to them? All of them? Does it matter? Probably not.
I don’t know what the good reasons are for going to grad school, but I’m pretty sure “to show them” isn’t one of them; not for me at least, not where I am in my life. There are more interesting and important things for me to do.
That doesn’t mean I’m completely over it.
My USCG Master Captain’s license and Mon Tiki’s CIO are only meaningful certifications I’ve ever received, and I’ve got to tell you, after a lifetime of being an uncredentialled outsider, it’s nice to be on the inside of something, to have a stamp from Authority that says “QUALIFIED”, and I still think it would be nice to get my creative work similarly endorsed.
In fact, just a few weeks ago I applied for an internship with a Brand Name media company. The pay was ridiculously low, less even than what I paid my unskilled laborers on Mon Tiki. But I wasn’t doing it for the money (which is not to say we couldn’t use the money. Building Mon Tiki has left us drained.) But more than the money, I thought it would be nice to have my writing appear under the aegis of a Brand Name media company. I thought would be nice, just for once, to be a part of an organization. I thought it would be nice, just for once, to not have to explain Who I Am as a preamble to what I think.
So just like when I thought I needed to wrap my films in a Ph.D, I asked some important people I know to sign on as references. And they did and wished me good luck. Affirmation!
And unlike the Ph.D thing, I didn’t bail. I went after the job full tilt, all in, do or die. Interview and everything.
And you know what happened?
They didn’t hire me.
They said that the spirit of the internship was educational, and that giving a 47 year-old man with an established career (albeit in another field) would be taking away from a younger person who could really use the break.
Whether that was a dodge because I wasn’t the best candidate, or their were concerns about my age, or it was the simple truth I don’t know. I have no reason to think it wasn’t, but whatever. That’s not the point.
The point, if I have one, is that if you’re considering going to grad school, or your considering writing for free, or your considering taking an internship at a Brand Name media company, or your considering building a big boat, you probably have more agency than you realize. You will probably do okay if your priorities doing what you want to do, if you can actually manage to figure out what that is. This might not be easy, but I think it’s easier than the other options.
A couple more points:
First: I don’t want this to come off as a slag on my folks. Mostly they were very supportive of the choices I made academically. Not mentioned in the above narration was the term I spent in Art School between Southern Oregon State College and the University of Oregon. That was $4000 a semester, which my parents also wrote a check for. Not being able square what I was getting vs what it was costing them was not the only reason I only stayed one term, but it was a big one.
Second: In the work I do now, my USCG license specifying what kind of boats you can work and where you can run them is called a “ticket”. Mon Tiki’s Certificate of Inspection (COI) specifying how many passengers, how many crew, what routes, etc. is also called a “ticket”; as in meal-ticket, ticket to ride, get your ticket punched. It is a truly novel experience for me to be able to throw a search string into Google and see hundreds jobs come up for which I am qualified and you are not. Weird.
Anyway, that was long, discursive, and personal. Whether it achieved its objective of helping anyone along, I do know. (The helpful career life and advice I got from those “older cats” was in on long car rides or airport waiting areas. I don’t know that a blog post can work the same way.)
And speaking of, not getting that internship at that Brand Name media company is one of the reasons Mon Tiki is heading South this winter. If you at a cross-roads, or have run out of road altogether, sign on to Mon Tiki as crew for a few days. Boats are famously good place to lose yourself or find yourself.
* The class in question was called “Coloquium” and with the benefit of hindsight it was a way to dragoon other music students into being an audience for the various upperclassmen’s performance requirement. To ensure attendance there was a punch card with an intricate punch shape that changed each week. At the end of the second quarter when my punch card was half-empty I got another student’s completed card and used it as a template to cut out my own with an exacto-knife. Then I ran it through the washer to cover up the bad cutting job.
** These math classes were weird. They were 400 level, but really easy. Later I found out they were for teachers to take during the summer to get their continuing ed requirements ticked off.
*** I actually left Eugene 2 credits shy of my BFA to open my own commercial photography studio in an abandoned swing slaughter-house in my hometown. But my folks said they wouldn’t let me move back into my bedroom unless I finished my degree, so I drove back up to Eugene and tested out of a Astronomy 101 course to get the math/science credits I needed. If I hadn’t stopped going to those math classes to make my big head Andy Warhol xerox thing I would have already had the credits I needed.