Being An Intellectual Won’t Pay the Bills
In Christine Smallwood's "The Life of the Mind," an adjunct professor ponders her dead-end life while she has a miscarriage
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In Christine Smallwood’s debut novel The Life of the Mind, protagonist Dorothy escapes the stifled environment of an academic conference for one she finds even more depressing: the slot machines. There, she runs into her former dissertation advisor, Judith, a woman who caused her significant emotional distress. Beholden to the complicated tangle of relationship etiquette that academia breeds, Dorothy follows Judith poolside, where she reflects, “Judith was a teacher and a foster mother and employer, and more than that, she was a node in a large and impersonal system that had anointed her a winner and Dorothy a loser.”
Dorothy, for much of Smallwood’s novel, is trapped in a dance of power dynamics. As an adjunct at the university where she teaches, she is severely undercompensated and unsupported by her department. She prints her papers at the library, where a member of the staff asks her to use the faculty printers instead. She attends conferences due to Lauren Berlant’s theory of “cruel optimism,” in which people “remain attached to fantasies and aspirations” even when those hopes begin to hurt them. She is stuck in a system that fails her again and again.
In addition to bearing witness to the collapse of academia, she experiences a more personal, bodily loss: a miscarriage, around which the book is structured. Interrupting the hushed rooms of conference panel ballrooms and the library is blood. This tension between the physicality of Dorothy’s loss and her cerebral interpretation of myriad different endings—academia as we know it, the baby she might have had, her graduate school career—reverberate throughout the book.
Over Zoom, I spoke with Smallwood about the way language shapes our perception of the body, the adjunct crisis, the energy in a library, and intellectual posturing.
Jacqueline Alnes: Dorothy is suffering a miscarriage throughout much of the book. It’s a pain she keeps secret from her best friend and therapist. I feel like historically women have often held this experience as a private one. What about writing a character miscarrying interested you?
Christine Smallwood: The easiest way to answer it is that it was my experience. I had a blighted ovum and a miscarriage that is very similar to the one described in the book. When it happened to me, I didn’t tell a lot of people. I wound up telling people after the fact or later, but right when it happened, I felt shame and a sense of secrecy. Later on, I was curious about that.
Intellectually, I know it’s not something to be ashamed of. It’s an incredibly common experience, yet why did I feel like I couldn’t talk about it?
JA: There’s such a deep personal shame associated with it for so many people. Or failure. I’ve heard friends talk about feeling like their body has failed them in some way.
CS: It did feel like a failure, or like something had malfunctioned. Dorothy is not me, but some of the thoughts she has in the book were also my thoughts. I didn’t feel grief, I didn’t have a religious idea that a life died, but something was happening that isn’t happening any more and I didn’t know how to feel about that.
JA: The language you are using is interesting, and mirrors what Dorothy uses in the book. She is having this deeply human experience and the doctor uses the word “blighted.” You also used the word “malfunction.” Those words seem so sterile and clinical compared to what Dorothy experiences in the novel, which is bleeding, everywhere, all day, at conferences, while teaching, at parties. It’s pervasive, and feels so oppositional to the language doctors use to classify our bodies.
CS: That’s right. We have these very medicalized relationships to our bodies. Anything revolving reproduction, even if it’s just menstruation, the actual embodied experience can feel gnarly and feel far away from the language that you’ve used ahead of time to anticipate it.
JA: It strikes me that bodies in academia become distant in similar ways. My body in front of a classroom is a thing that I view as more of an object than a body. I pick out the outfit that I will wear, think about how I will speak, think about the way I move through the room. There is so much that’s constructed, even if I try to remain accessible. Was it interesting for you to explore this body, especially in these academic settings?
CS: A thousand times yes. There are all of these different performances. You are in front of your students, you are at a faculty meeting. I was reminiscing about grad school with a friend the other day and he was reminding me that there had been so much private conversation about women’s bodies in the department, like “Oh, so-and-so dresses like this.” It was something that was talked about and dissected. I don’t think I took in at the time how much conversation and discomfort there was around on how people presented themselves physically. And then, of course, during office hours, you are often alone with another person. Your body is always there.
JA: There is something about academia that encourages this facade of productivity or like you have it all together. I have found that on Zoom, I’ve found it strangely easier to be more open in situations, like when a family member of mine passed away. I don’t think I would do that in person because of how embodied that grief might be.
CS: I don’t know how it compares to other kinds of workplaces.
CS: I think in every work place, there is probably body anxiety about doing presentations or turning around in front of people or picking something up off the ground. I think you’re always aware of that. But I do think in academia, everything is just a little bit extra. I wonder if it has something to do with the pretense that we are all there to be intellectuals and to talk about things that are fairly disembodied and then to bring our bodies into that space might feel an extra disjunction.
JA: It encouraged me to think about what parts of myself I hide on a daily basis, and about why I do that. Some of it is the precariousness of student evaluations and how students might view me as a woman—and I know even in saying that, I have so much privilege as a white woman who appears able-bodied. There are so many layers of power in academia.
CS: You’re getting evaluated in a customer service kind of way by students and then also being evaluated by people above you. Until you are actually tenured, you are in a precarious position. You are open to judgement.
JA: Do you think that academia encourages people to outwardly show their intellectual capacity in some way?
CS: Well, that is the business that academics are in, so it stands to reason that you would be expected to perform in a certain way. Intellectual posturing can also be fun. A kinder way to say it is that we are there to talk about ideas and so let’s talk about them. I think it gets tricky only when someone probes too deeply into another person’s ideas and then it feels tactless. If someone were to be too aggressive in asking about a reading or ask a question that could expose you haven’t read a book, I feel like in a department, you’re always walking right up to the line of calling people out.
It’s been a while for me, though. I left grad school in 2014.
JA: Dorothy struggles with power dynamics between her advisor, her former cohort, and feels like a failure in so many spaces. It is such a striking representation of the way the current system fails so many people. What was it like writing into those relationships?
CS: It was depressing. I got discouraged at one point and put the book away for a while. I decided I was going to write a TV pilot set in academia about a manipulative senior faculty member. I wrote this pilot script about a character who wound up being Judith. The whole time I was doing it, I thought I had left my book behind, but after I finished the script, I realized I had successfully tricked myself into continuing on with the book. It involved a lot of rewriting.
JA: I was really into Dorothy’s course, called Writing the Apocalpyse, which seemed way too fitting for the world we’re living in. I read it now, a year into a pandemic. Why this course? And what about it informs the way Dorothy sees the world?
CS: I knew that the book was going to be about endings and what endings mean, and so I decided to give her a class to think about that. It seemed plausible to me that she would design this class. Adjuncts do so much teaching of composition or first year writing but they are allowed to design the course around themes. I did that for a couple semesters, and if you pick different interesting readings you can kind of convince yourself that you’re not teaching first-year writing.
JA: We are privy to Dorothy’s precarity as an adjunct on a granular level: she decides whether she can afford to spend money on therapy and, while talking to a friend, she expresses that her job is “real” before realizing many people don’t have to insist on the validity of their career. The adjunct crisis is so real. What do we do about it?
CS: I’m not an expert. I have not thought about this in the way that other people have. My gut sense is that there are too many people enrolled in graduate programs. I think it’s really unethical for departments to continue to accept graduate students when there aren’t jobs for them. Graduate students are used as a labor force. For example, at Columbia, where I went, there were a very large set of English Ph.D. candidates. The reason they had so many was because they used them to staff the university’s required writing classes, the freshmen comp class. Why were they doing that? Why were they churning out so many PhDs who couldn’t get jobs? Oh, I know why, to staff their writing program. That is really unethical.
There are some people who say, “Graduate school is great. You study, you read a lot of books, it doesn’t matter if there’s not a job at the other end.” But, I don’t know. You enter at a certain age, you leave six to eight years later, you’ve acquired no capital, you’re economically behind, and you’re not trained for any other type of work. I actually don’t think it’s okay to pass that risk onto students.
JA: In the programs that I attended, there was very little formal training on how you might market skills outside of academia.
CS: Can you market your skills outside academia? I don’t know if it’s really true. I think that you can switch careers, but you can have those careers without having your Ph.D. I don’t think there are actually that many jobs outside of academia for which a Ph.D. is such an advantage. Some of the alternatives to academia stuff is an alibi for the university to avoid saying the truth, which is that graduates are kind of screwed.
The other thing is that I believe there should be different tracks within Ph.D. programs. I don’t think everybody needs to write a dissertation. Not everybody needs to be on a track for that. The weird thing about academia is how many things you’re supposed to be good at. You’re supposed to be a good teacher, a committee member, a mentor, a writer. It’s a lot of different jobs that have been compressed into one job. Academics should figure out how to separate out some of that work. If you’re someone who wants to teach at a liberal arts college, you don’t actually need to write a dissertation.
JA: The training would look wildly different. There are some parts of the job for which you receive zero training and then you’re expected to excel.
CS: I don’t know what your program was like, but we were never really taught to design a syllabus or a curriculum. There are things you are just expected to figure out for yourself.
JA: What was your program like?
CS: I finished my PhD. I don’t necessarily think that the skills are transferable. I don’t regret it, but I definitely am someone who looks at life as a series of decisions that have led to me being me. I wouldn’t be me if I hadn’t gone through that program. It was very difficult and I was very unhappy at different points. At other points, I was happy.
The thing about my book is that I hope people understand that Dorothy wants to have this life. She loves books, loves talking about them, loves thinking about them. She’s an intellectual. I am too. There really aren’t that many places where you can immerse yourself in reading and talking about literature with intelligent people.
JA: Dorothy lives so much in her mind. I love that scene where she is on the subway and she is literally hearing from the book. I thought it was a nice way of putting something into words that is so often intangible—like, how do I express to people that sitting in a room alone reading is magic? But in other scenes, like at a party, Dorothy is present, but devoid of the experience itself. She is so trapped with her own thoughts that she doesn’t seem to enjoy the sensory parts of the world.
CS: One way to think about writing is that we have these experiences and then we go away to our private place and analyze them. Dorothy does that writing in the moment. That is what I think feels odd to a reader. You have no delay there. She is always already writing the experience while she is having it.
There is also a question I have about Dorothy, which is how much of this is the miscarriage, and how much of this is who she is? If we could pluck Dorothy out of this book and put her into a different one, would she still exhibit this inability to inhabit her experience? Or not? I don’t know the answer to that question. Is the point of the book that the miscarriage is responsible for this disjunction? Or not?
JA: I was going to ask the same question about her apocalypse class. Is it the precarity of her situation as an adjunct that’s forcing her into thinking about endings and the world as a dismal, burning place? Or is part of it her, too? Would she work a corporate job and also be inclined to think the world was ending?
CS: I think that question is unanswerable.