Sunday, August 04, 2013

Grad School & Survival

by Matt Dineen

After the sixth day in a row working my wage job at a Philadelphia coffeeshop it was time to put things into perspective. Because we live in a society that tends to define us by what we do for money, I struggled to remind myself that this was not all that I was doing with my life. And of course I understood that intellectually, but by that last closing shift my body solely identified as a barista; not only what I do, but also who I am. Pointing this out is not to demean this labor, or others who work in the caffeinated service industry, but as a reminder that we are all much more than the tasks we perform for money. We are all multidimensional creatures and our desires exceed what we do to survive.

At recent reunions and weddings, people that I haven't seen in years ask me what I am up to now. I tell them where I live first and then proceed to talk about Goddard. This program is a more accurate reflection of the kind of life I want to be living. But I am also not just a grad student. I tell them about the anarchist bookstore where I have been active the past four years, but feel obligated to add that we're all volunteers. These are our multidimensional lives.

My first semester at Goddard began two months after I started a job I hated. I was a driver for a corporate catering company, delivering food to offices around Philadelphia. In an attempt to balance school and work, and to makes sense of that whole experience, I kept a journal documenting my hours on the clock; my time in uniform, taking orders, and entering spaces where, given my politics, I never should have been allowed. When I first returned from the residency I tried convincing myself this was just field research, as a coping mechanism, or perhaps a mechanism of empowerment. But that quickly faded and the job began to take its toll, on my spirit and my studies. The reality was clear: I was only working in order to pay the bills, in order to survive.

How do we balance Goddard and survival? The imperative to sell my labor, whether it's through delivering lunch to a business meeting at JP Morgan's office or in the more relaxed and palatable environment of the hip café, is in dialectical relationship with my study plan. It would be an oversimplification to suggest that the two are just at odds, or that my time on the clock necessarily subtracts from my school work. That experience with the catering company, for example, was exhausting and comprising, no doubt, but it also provided rich material to write about and analyze. And the Zen time I have washing dishes at my current occupation is often the incubation site of some of my best ideas. It is a complex, sometimes complementary relationship.

A prevailing challenge, though, is maintaining focus in a social construction of reality that does not recognize low-residency education. After our week on campus ends and we return to our everyday lives outside of Goddard, we must swim against the prevailing current of production and consumption, of business-as-usual, conference calls, and law students studying for the bar exam together. Every morning that I wake up and prioritize my interdisciplinary graduate work, transforming corner tables at neighborhood coffeeshops into a mobile office, is a small act of resistance. I look up and the clock is ticking. It's noon and I have to be at my job in one hour. I need to make that money. Have I gotten anything done yet? This is the balance we face every day.

After my shift at the catering job, I would feel emboldened to seize the rest of the day. I felt more conscious of this time off the clock, to read Marx and write with a sense of urgency. My experience at the cafe is different. After a six hour shift my coworker and I will go to the bar around the corner and continue conversations that we began earlier while we prepared sandwiches and espresso drinks, this time more candidly, over a pitcher of lager. We'll order another round and further explore the politics of online dating or the efficacy of celebrating the death of an imperialist former prime minister. On the clock, we are baristas, but also DJ's creating an atmosphere that reflects our mood or that provides a soundtrack to closing up shop. We are also free to feed ourselves, concocting elaborate meals when our boss isn't around. Sometimes we are DIY bartenders, throwing cans of beer from the basement on ice an hour before closing time, or mixing some fancy sparkling lemonade with the remains of a bottle of tequila hidden in the backroom.

Which is all to say: it's not that bad. But not-that-bad can be stifling, even oppressive. It can limit our potential to actualize our dreams. It numbs us because it begins to seamlessly fit into everything else. It feels like it makes sense even though we may never freely choose such an arrangement otherwise. The challenge is to be conscious of utilizing one's time off the clock and to make sure that the not-that-bad job doesn't take up too much space, that it doesn't seep too deeply into everything else. Because it is not the priority right now. This is easy to forget.

What if we didn't have to work while we were in school? This is the reality for some. The capitalist work discipline shapes us to be dependent on a structured schedule so that we don't know what to do with such abundant “free time.” I have heard other students say that people who do not have a full or part time job have a hard time with their Goddard work. So it is it, then, not merely economic imperatives that prevent us from putting all of our time and energy into our graduate studies?

On the cusp of my final semester, I think ahead to my post-Goddard life. 2014 is a big, wide-open question mark for me. There are, however, two things that I know: I will graduate from the IMA program in February, and I will stop working at the coffeeshop. I'm ready for new challenges. I'm ready to start over again. The not-that-bad job I'm working this year extends to describe my experience these past four and a half years living in Philadelphia. I have chosen to stay in my comfort zone, to avoid risk-taking—with the exception of selling my soul for the catering gig. My life now doesn't look much different from the year I lived in Madison, fresh out of college, almost one decade ago. 

I want something more; something different. I'm not sure what this will look like and that is okay, as I choose to embrace the unknown, the infinite uncertainties of the future.

After six days in a row closing the cafe last week—navigating leaky refrigerators, lack of air conditioning, and passive aggressive notes—I found myself in my hometown having breakfast with my dad and stepmother. They asked me about school and I told them about this remaining timeline ahead. My stepmother proceeded to ask what, exactly, was my degree going to be in, and then, what does that mean exactly. That same question that my grandmother sternly confronted me with at the beginning of this semester: “Well, what do you do with that? I mean, what kind of job will you get?” I fumbled, muttering something incoherent about nonprofits, and, um...teaching someday. Maybe. Eventually.


And then, just in time, our breakfast arrived and I changed the subject to their recent membership in the town's re-emerging Odd Fellows society. The fellows, apparently, have no idea how to run an organization. I filled my mouth with raspberry-butter-covered French toast and pretended that I was on summer vacation. Everything is just fine.

The uncertainty of our post-Goddard, interdisciplinary futures is, I believe, one of the greatest virtues of this education. Since the market collapse five years ago, there are no certainties, no guarantees. In choosing this nontraditional route, we are recognizing the frailties of the system. Those who continue funneling themselves through the standard professional and trade schools, pursuing nursing, education, journalism, etc. degrees with hopes of economic security and stability, are increasingly being squeezed out, crushed by the new reality of austerity, job freezes, and mass layoffs. This of course, affects everyone—besides the “one percent”—in myriad ways, but those of us who are not buying into the pyramid scheme anymore are at least attempting to carve out a way around it. We will have more potential to adapt, to be flexible, and open to alternative arrangements and experiences.

What will I do, exactly? That remains to be seen. But I am hopeful.

I am hopeful despite the fact that seriously looking ahead to that moment, post-Goddard, also invokes the unsavory topic of debt. Like the question of how we support ourselves, and as a corollary—how we balance school and work, the issue of the debt that we are accruing to attain this education is one whispered about at the residencies during meals, but never directly addressed by students outside of workshops on navigating the bureaucracies of debt and aid. I believe that a radical approach to debt is necessary, one that goes beyond individualistic approaches to a very systemic problem. And of course, debt and survival are inextricably linked. So why can't we even begin to have a serious conversation about this?

Next year, after graduation, I will be expected to start repaying my student loans. I will no longer have my overpayment checks at the beginning of the semester to help me get by and, perhaps, will start to feel the pressure to secure a job which pays a living wage. Not that there would be anything wrong with that.

Over the past decade I think some of the choices I have made have perpetuated self-exploitation under the guise of resistance to compromise. I think this new era of my life, in which I will hold a masters degree, I should add to my list of ways not comprise my beliefs: never work a minimum wage job ever again. That won't include volunteer work however—our voluntary laboring outside of the market in an effort to sculpt meaning and purpose, to supplement our livelihood in dynamic and fulfilling ways, with activities that we are truly passionate about. But, as my mom likes to point out, volunteering doesn't pay the bills. And there will still be bills.

I feel grateful that I will be confronted with the consolidation of massive amounts of student loan debt just as the debt resistance movement is growing and becoming more sophisticated and strategic. The resources that Strike Debt, for example, has started to put together will prove to be invaluable tools and a reminder that I too “am not a loan.” 

It might be seen as a distasteful comparison, but I am thinking about military veterans returning from overseas, alienated by the vast bureaucracies holding their futures captive as they attempt to re-acclimate to being back home, out of duty. The comparison is not that of higher education and the military industrial complex—although there is a relationship between those institutions—but that of the emerging debt resistance movement and the groups that do veteran advocacy work, including Iraq Veterans Against the War. Again, instead of approaching a systemic problem through an individualistic lens, the institutions responsible for suffering and exploitation are held accountable, thus empowering individuals through collective action.

I think this is how change happens.

That's what Howard Zinn taught me when I was in high school. First, through his masterpiece, A People's History of the United States, and then in person, the evening that he visited the program I was in my senior called School Within a School (SWS). Howard and his wife Rosslyn used to stay on Cape Cod in the summer, in Wellfleet, where their son Jeff directed a local seasonal theater company. In September 1998, three months before President Clinton began a bombing campaign against a sovereign country in the Middle East called Iraq, Howard came to my high school one Thursday evening to speak to our group. He told us about his own experiences as a bombardier in World War II and in the Civil Rights and antiwar movements in the 1950s and '60s. After his talk in our high school auditorium we were able to ask him questions. I nervously raised my hand and asked, “What is your advice for young people like us who want to change the world?” In his response he reminded us that throughout history change has only happened when people have come together, when they were organized in groups fighting for what they knew was right. You can't make the world a better place all by yourself.

I need to keep reminding myself this. Another option after Goddard is to start a business, but not alone. Instead of just applying for jobs and attempting to establish some sort of career with a salary and benefits, I could get together with a small group of other people and put these politics of collectivity and direct democracy into action, beyond merely studying what other people are doing. Starting a worker-owned cooperative is one of the more realistic and practical options out there that is truly appealing to me and where I am at with my life right now.

Back at the coffeeshop, I don't understand why anyone would want to be a boss. Washing dishes in the back, I think about how we could run this place ourselves, horizontally, without anyone in charge. We would all be a lot more invested in the cafe and more accountable to it and each other. But do we really need another cafe? I have one friend in Philly that I have talked with about potentially starting a co-op of some sort in the near future and I think that, ironically, a worker-owned collective could be a pretty successful marketing pitch, like how the new vegan cafes and restaurants in the city have created a substantial customer base around ethical eating. Philly definitely needs more democratic workplaces. I'm excited about the potential of making that happen.

But there is also a chance that I won't even stay in the city after this year. Despite a number of important friendships and other social ties, there isn't anything that is keeping me anchored there, nothing to prevent me from moving wherever I want or traveling indefinitely. So, again, we will see.

No matter what happens, I know that this experience at Goddard will be worth it, despite the debt I will be saddled with at the end. Perhaps I will one day move to Vermont and work for the college. I guess anything is possible. For now, I continue to balance work and school, a part-time day job that is not-that-bad and a low-residency program that holds the potential to encapsulate my wildest dreams and to catapult me somewhere that I can't even begin to imagine yet. Hopefully into a world beyond bosses and day jobs and capitalism itself, but, as Howard reminds us, I can't do it alone.
Matt Dineen is a writer and activist based in Philadelphia where he staffs at the Wooden Shoe, an anarchist bookstore. He is also a graduate student in Goddard College's Individualized MA program.