existential death spiral

Existential, adj: pertaining to existence.

Deathn.: 1.the act of dying; the end of life; the total and permanent cessation of all the vital functions of an organism. 2. an instance of this. 3. the state of being dead. 4. extinction; destruction. 5. manner of dying.

Spiral, n. Geometry. 1. a plane curve generated by a point moving around a fixed point while constantly receding from or approaching it. 2. a helix. 3. a single circle or ring of a spiral or helical curve or object. 4. a spiral or helical object, formation, or form. 5. Aeronautics. a maneuver in which an airplane descends in a helix of small pitch and large radius, with the angle of attack within that of the normal flight range.

This is one of those things that we never want to talk about. Keep reading if you dare.

When I started my Ph.D., I had a quote-unquote “manageable” amount of student debt. I won’t tell you how much, but it was kind of like having a lot of credit cards. I had those, too, but they were also relatively under–control.

And then.

And then.

And then.

I thought to myself, what’s a little bit more? I mean, certainly I will be the one who will come out of this Ph.D. program and get a job right off the bat, right? They can’t take it away from me; education has no price. Right?

And yes, I got a job. It’s full-time. It comes with very good benefits. It’s much better than many of what my fellow English-Ph.D. folks are coping with (cobbling together miscellaneous part-time gigs, which come with lots of commuting and not-a-lot of pay). It’s a good job, and I’m lucky to have it, and every day I enjoy it, and that means something. But there’s kind of a little financial problem.

(I’m not tenure-track. At all. Not. At. All. And the pay difference? Well, it’s in the neighborhood of $30k per year. So there’s that.)

Here’s the thing with my own history: yeah, well, a little bit turned into kind of a lot (cue Guns n’Roses song now). And, this past weekend, as I completed and contemplated the consolidation application that took a frighteningly short amount of time to fill in, it occurred to me that I could have a really nice fucking house for the amount of money my various degrees, when all put together, have cost me.

But they can’ t take it away from me, goddamn it. Those degrees are mine. I earned them.

Truth be told, all is not lost. Thanks to the federal government’s IBR (income-based-repayment) option, it’s more like having a really nice car than a beach house in Antigua. But the problem is that I also need a car. My ’98 VW, yeah. It chugs and staggers. I mean, it’s something. It usually gets me where I need to be. But it moans too much and I’m afraid to take it on the highway. The Craigslist ad might say this: “it doesn’t smoke or leak, and you can plug in your iPhone 4!”

Anyway, I digress. As I tend to do. I keep fantasizing that super-agent will get me a fabulous book deal that lets me write while I teach, worry-free. The irony, of course, is that none of what super-agent and I have going has anything to do with my degree. In a fictional world, I could have written the novel with no degrees whatsoever. Problem? I needed existential death spiral to inspire it. I’ll let the novel explain that on its own.

But, shit, that’s yet another digression. So, here, I’ll be serious for a minute: it strikes me that we need to do something about this larger problem, in the humanities, of student debt. This is not an unfamiliar topic: I remember being told something along these lines: “only accept a spot in [insert graduate program here] if they pay you decently and you get health benefits.” Okay, I did that. And now I have a fucking beach house in Antigua that I’m too busy to visit. Or maybe just a goddamn reliable car.

Here’s what we need to say—this is what I will say, given that I could land a tenure-track job this year and have students who actually give a shit about my advice: “if you can’t imagine doing anything else? And I mean anything else. Then do it. But think long and hard about what that means.”

Pause. Eyebrow gestures.

“Okay, so, you can’t imagine doing anything else. Then think about what kind of goddamn existential death spiral you’re making for yourself. The job market is shit, at best. You won’t be ‘the one.’ So what are your plans?”

Blank-faced look. Eyebrow gestures. Maybe a squeeze of the nose-bridge.

“I mean it. What do you plan to do?”

Blank-faced look, maybe with a lowered eyebrow. “I want to teach.”

And what do I say? Do I tell her not to go to grad school, even though it’s the only thing she’s ever wanted (to be a writer-slash-teacher, which is the only thing I ever wanted?)? How do I talk her out of it, especially if she has talent? I don’t. But, shit, someone needs to be honest. Someone, please. Just be honest. I will be honest.

I had a prof in my M.A. tell me I’d be better off with an M.B.A. than a Ph.D. And, yeah, financially speaking, I probably would be. Here’s the thing: I worked in business for a while. At the time, it seemed like a long time. And I had this weird shit happen where I started to not be able to look myself in the eye in the mirror. Chalk it up to having to fire a guy on Christmas Eve (thanks, HR!) or myriad other fucked-up things (thanks, HR!). Chalk it up to whatever you want. I could have been a business shark, wearing power-suits and not giving a shit about anything except the bottom line. I mean it: I could have done that. But instead, I’m an assistant professor and a writer. And, honestly, I’m happy. Much happier than I would be with an M.B.A., methinks.

Big deal: I’m happy in spite of the goddamn existential death spiral.

And that’s saying something.

I mean it, though. What do we tell these fresh-faced young, talented, people? What do we say? We have to be honest. So maybe we give them some Camus and call it a day. Maybe something else. You tell me.