Sep 12, 2018, 05:55AM

The Grad School Blues

A graduate seminar discussion goes awry.

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Micah the Graduate Student straightened his lavender tie, hoping that its fat Windsor knot would obscure or at least draw attention away from the fat under his insignificant chin. He loved graduate seminars, but his affection was born out of a pathological need for attention rather than an insatiable thirst for knowledge. He wanted to be the cynosure of all eyes, even though he despised his colleagues and respected only the eminent Professor Ruggleteapot, the most famous member of his department’s faculty.

As he strolled out of the tiny bathroom and into the cubbyhole of a living area where he passed his idle moments, he struggled to organize the names of various cutting-edge theorists and important new books. If he did not have a pungent sound bite for each, he might be proven a fraud by one of his enemies.

Few of the graduate students would admit that a departmental cold war was underway, and none of them could grasp its significance. Most, however, would concede that Micah and a handful of his voluble rivals comprised its vanguard. They were the ones who pored over the fresh book reviews, desirous of any kernel of knowledge that could be employed to demonstrate their foes’ ignorance. Even though no living person could read books at the rate claimed by these burgeoning scholars, a mutual fear of exposure prevented anyone from noting this.

Before he departed to catch the bus, Micah removed several books from his cinder-block shelves and slid them into his satchel. These were heavy, dense works that most academics claimed were brilliant but that few academics had ever bothered to read. Micah had no intention of reading them but thought it was important that his adversaries could glimpse the books’ titles over the lip of the satchel that he always left unclasped, in a seemingly offhand way, for precisely this purpose.

On the bus Micah had to sit among blue-collar workers, beggars, and mental defectives. Although he presented himself as a broad-minded liberal who viewed a state of economic equality as a desideratum, he secretly despised these people. Their rough bodies, hardened by the sort of physical labor that he’d sedulously avoided throughout his life, frightened him. Their soft minds, which preferred cheap diversions to serious contemplation, appalled him. Today he entertained himself as he often did during the five-minute commute to the college, speculating about how future disciples would regard the fact that a man of his genius and sensibility was forced to use public transportation.

When Micah reached the immense eyesore of an International Style building that housed his department, he disembarked from the bus and scurried toward the safety of the seminar room. During the short time that it took him to get from the building’s first floor to the third, he kept his eyes low, trying to avoid the penetrating gazes of former students whom he had awarded low marks. He graded harshly as a way of inflating his own ego while scourging the popular bigmouths who wouldn’t have given him the time of day during his troubled adolescence.

The seminar room, which contained a round particle-board table ringed by a dozen uncomfortable wheeled chairs, had once served as a coat closet but had been repurposed after recent cuts to the university budget. Several of Micah’s nemeses had already arrived and were caviling about some topic that none of them really understood.

“And Kamperland would argue that the focal unit is the habitus,” said a bandana-wearing Camden Camden, a struggling Millennial media hot take “journalist” who doubled as a grad student and simultaneously believed in several competing conceptions of feminism, some of which favored the wearing of the burqa and some of which didn’t.

Emily Twiggs, an angry young class-obsessed Marxist with a poor grasp of Marxism but a good-sized following on her thirst trap thinspo fitness Instagram, opened her mouth to reply but was cut off by Micah. “No one who’s read Traiger would ever bother to mention Kamperland,” he said. Since Micah had read neither author but did know that Traiger had published her important book more recently than Kamperland had published hers, he felt he needed to make this dismissive statement as soon as possible.

Jen Score raised a painted-on eyebrow. “And why is that, Micah?” she asked. Unlike her classmates, Score had read most of the books they talked about. Because she didn’t date or have any friends, she was able to devote most of her energy to the pointless coursework that the others ignored.

Micah removed a massive volume from his satchel and placed it on the table. The book, Lantane’s 3500-page Odysseys of Penury, was not assigned for the class or even implicated in any of this week’s readings. As such, Micah believed it was the perfect riposte to Score’s barbed question.

Georgiy, a fortysomething international student who was the graduate school’s gray eminence, shrugged his bony shoulders. Owing to a preternatural ability to preserve his funding stream, he had survived in the department long enough to have mastered Lantane’s dreary treatise and thousands like it. However, his lengthy course of study had so filled his brainpan with conflicting theories that he could no longer articulate a comprehensible statement. “There are, one must concede, many approaches to Kamperland. First, one can consider the habitus as a unit of value rather than a focal unit. This is Marchel’s approach. Or one might take focal unit to mean hypostasis, either in its philosophical or theological sense. Ridge and Koders offer support here. Traiger does attempt a synthesis, but it is unclear whether the attempt is successful.” At this point, distracted by the flaws in what he had just said, he began to trail off.

Micah glared at Emily Twiggs, hoping that this stream of gibberish—even he wasn’t familiar with most of the scholars to whom Georgiy had adverted—would silence her. Score and Georgiy were too serious and thoughtful to be aspirants to his throne, but Twiggs—with her better-than-average looks, which made her a beauty queen by graduate school standards, and louder-than-average voice, which made her a veritable Demosthenes among these introverted mumblers—presented a legitimate challenge. He needed to stop her.

Before Micah could re-establish his credibility, Associate Professor Theodore “Ted” Tunnell entered the room. A short, schlubby failure in a moth-eaten suit, Tunnell clung with admirable tenacity to the bottom-tier academic position he had lucked into during the late-1960s, a time when universities were hiring only mediocre men and had modest expectations of them. While he lacked the cachet of his colleague Professor Ruggleteapot, who had developed numerous faddish theories, he compensated with a willingness to teach an overload of classes each semester. In this way, Tunnell neither published nor perished, but rather persisted.

Unbeknownst to his students, an angel clad in a cloak of fire had appeared yesterday in Tunnell’s office while the feckless academic was digging through piles of coffee-stained photocopies in search of a somewhat amusing New Yorker cartoon. “Truly I say that you, Theodore ‘Ted’ Tunnell, will not taste death,” the angel proclaimed in the rich baritone that all conservatory-trained angels have.

“I apologize for everything,” a frightened Tunnell told him. “Nobody at Berkeley was a Christian. So you see the bind I was in, especially if I wanted some action.”

“What?” the angel asked.

“I was trying to say that I’m sorry I didn’t believe in God,” Tunnell clarified.

The angel laughed. “Don’t be sorry about that, Theodore ‘Ted’ Tunnell. That God stuff is a lot of superstitious mumbo-jumbo. I mean, a virgin birth?  People climbing into chariots of fire? Get real, man!”

“But you’re an angel,” Tunnell said, slightly confused.

“Oh, don’t hold that shit against me. Anyway, I’m here to tell you that I’m going to materialize in your seminar class tomorrow.”


The angel picked a seventh heavenly booger out of its nose and flicked it in Tunnell’s direction. “Because, Tunnell, I have to turn one of your students into a cat. It’s, uh, the lord’s will or something.”

“I don’t follow. A cat?”

“That’s right, a cat. There are a thousand reasons for this, but I don’t have to explain myself to you. I just need you to enter the room like everything’s cool. When you get in there, lock the door and wait. I’ll show up and effect the transformation. Got it?”

Tunnell nodded. “But what do I get out of this?”

“You won’t taste death,” the angel said. “You can keep working this crummy job of yours forever. I think that’s a pretty fair trade given how rotten the market for tenure-track jobs is.”

Thus, while the students fiddled with their notebooks, laptops, PDAs, and so forth, Tunnell fulfilled his end of the bargain by securing the door. He then took his seat at the table. As promised, the angel manifested in the center of the room, atop the round table. The graduate students gaped in horror at the sight of this seraph in its flaming cloak. “Your judgment is at hand, Micah the Graduate Student!” it announced.

“Why me?” whimpered the cowering Micah.

“And who can tell, Micah? For though there are sixscore thousand persons that cannot discern between their right hand and their left hand, you alone have been marked,” the angel said.

“This doesn’t make the least bit of sense,” said Camden Camden, her voice angry but tremulous. “Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It’s the opium of the people.”

The angel snapped his fingers, and Camden was transformed into a “World’s Greatest Grandpa” coffee mug. “They that observe lying vanities forsake their own mercy,” said the angel.

“This wasn’t part of the bargain,” Tunnell said. “She had been coming to my office all the time, and we were really getting along well. She hadn’t even thought to file a Title IX claim against me the way my last few advisees had!”

“Shut it, you old creep,” ordered the angel. He took his pinkie with its incongruously long nail, which he used to arrange his cocaine into a line when he and the other seraphim “laid some rails,” and pointed it at Micah. “I’ll take you away with hooks, and your posterity with fishhooks.”

Before the angel had finished speaking, Micah the Graduate Student was no more. In his seat sat a flabby tabby with orange fur and saucer eyes. The angel extended his arms, and the cat leapt into them. “I shall call you Micah the Cat, and with you will come multitudes,” it said.

“Cut!” shouted wunderkind director Brian Powell. “Where’s the energy, people? Where’s the love? I feel like I’m the guest of honor at my own funeral! Let’s do this again and do it right, huh?”

With that, the actors took their places. Tennis great Jennifer Capriati, who was playing the role of Camden Camden, shook her melon head in frustration. “Was it this bad on the set of that dumb movie about the Lana del Racism hot take?” she asked grizzled character actor David Keith, who had been cast as the rogue angel.

Keith gave her a knowing and sympathetic wink. “You ain’t seen nothing yet, kid,” he told her. “Our Brian’s anything but the picture of mature contentment.”

Anyway, Micah the Cat scored big at the box office because it exposed what a silly, superficial place graduate school was. The screenwriter, a failed ex-grad student named Oscar Berkman, received a great deal of acclaim for his work on the script. However, Berkman’s 12 years there had made him an expert on the subject, so all he had to do was write down some of his observations.

What this summary can’t tell you is how bad that time was for him. It was about as bad as it could get, and Berkman didn’t have any choice in the matter. Not that we have much choice in our matters, but his situation was more desperate. The only thing he got was older. With age came the story of his aging. After he wrote it, he had nothing left to say.


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