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Wicken GS: Energy, ingenuity and arch supports

You, dear readers, are a tough lot to keep up with.

Perhaps I ought to clarify. After an absurdly long time as university students, my Graduate School classmates and I are starting to have to think seriously about re-entering the outside world. Once upon a time, it would have been likely that we'd all be jumping to grasp the bottom rung of the academic ladder. Once upon a more-distant time, we might even have hoped to get hold of it.  

Today, however, the academic job market in the humanities is much like Iwo Jima, Will Ferrell's post-Saturday Night Live career or Thayer Street late on a Friday night — a cruel and desolate wasteland littered with the corpses of hopes and dreams. Each year, thousands of qualified candidates emerge blinking from a decade of misery and malnutrition to find that there are, on average, three full-time jobs for which they can apply.

Those earnest souls who genuinely cannot countenance a career outside higher education bolster their curricula vitae with teaching experience by adjuncting at each of the six closest colleges for a pittance per class. I dimly remember friends having hit the tenure-track jackpot — or tenure-trackpot, if you will (which you shouldn't) — straight out of graduate school, but they have immediately disappeared under a cloud, leaving my Gmail contacts, like rational people in Arizona, a little fewer and further between with the passing years.

One of the few comforting aspects of the academic job track is that there is an established set of criteria by which one is judged, much as in law or medicine. Publications and conference papers, teaching experience, a good dissertation — these are the basics from which everyone works. Outside of such regimented professions, however, is a whole world of projects and experiences. After a decade spent in academic blinders, like a particularly bumbling horse, I must confess that it is here that you lot have me worried.

Despite having been a university student since the turn of the millennium, I prefer to think that I haven't been completely wasting my time. In addition to picking up degrees, I've worked as a teaching assistant, written for and edited newspapers, organized conferences and edited book manuscripts. I've won fellowships, held positions in student associations and conducted research in multiple countries. A friend and I once hitch-hiked from England to Morocco wearing blond mullet wigs, and despite a night spent in a bus stop outside a French, ahem, gentlemen's club, we arrived physically unharmed — a crowning achievement, I'm sure you'll agree.

But next to you, dear, intimidating readers, I feel like something of a waste of space. By the time you graduate, most of you have worked for members of Congress, hosted radio shows or studied in Tajikistan. At an age when my immediate ambition was to captain the college cricket team, you start nonprofit organizations, write books and intern on Wall Street. You wrap your minds around languages, philosophies and computer codes while throwing yourselves into political parties and protests. I suspect that one or two of you enjoy the occasional malt beverage, but honestly I can't see where you find the time.

The prevailing stereotype of the university student in my native Britain is that of a feckless layabout in a dressing gown, watching daytime television and eating breakfast cereal between sessions of excessive drinking. In France, the caricature is of a perpetually smoking, black-clad waif, cycling jauntily between cafes and revolutions with a scarf flapping poetically in the breeze. Such typecasting inevitably is sloppy: Let me expose immediately one glaring inaccuracy when I say that my classmates and I ate more toast than cereal.

The popular picture of the Brown student — a Converse-shod, skateboard-toting, interpretive-dancing hippie — might have a kernel of truth to it. It is your privilege, as young, healthy beings, not to need the arch support so lacking in trendy footwear, however much you may live to regret it. Even so, your energy and ingenuity sometimes genuinely shock me, something I didn't think was possible once I became accustomed to my dog eating his own waste. I realize that as a group you're not in desperate need of a boost of collective self-confidence, but I find the prospect of bumping into you out there in the desperate hunt for jobs genuinely frightening.  

One piece of advice, however: Get yourselves some orthotics. You'll thank me in 10 years.  

Stephen Wicken GS, a fifth-year doctoral candidate in the Department of History, has only been likened to "a particularly bumbling horse" three times prior to this column. He can be reached at stephen_wicken(at)brown.edu.


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