Thursday, March 27, 2008

Making the life of the mind earn its keep

Back when I was organizing for the graduate student union, there was a certain crusty old professor whose opposition to the union was legendary. Whenever confronted by the idea that graduate students might be otherwise than perfectly happy, Dr. Crusty would smile, shake his head, and say, "But you're living the life of the mind! If you want to get paid like an investment banker, go get a job as an investment banker!"

It made no difference to Dr. Crusty whether the students' grievances actually involved money; as far as he was concerned, there were two kinds of people in the world: those who valued the life of the mind, and those who were money-grubbers. The fact that his own Life of the Mind had been underwritten first by family money and then by a job he'd slid into during the boom hiring years of the 1960s (and had somehow managed to keep and get tenured at)--and that it might be awfully hard to live The Life of the Mind when worried about paying the gas bill or getting evicted--never seemed to occur to him.

Within the union, then, "the life of the mind" became shorthand for the position of those who Just Didn't Get It, and I still use the phrase today, usually in sentences that begin "So I guess I'm living the life of the mind, and shit, but--" and then conclude with a complaint. Sometimes it's about overwork, or another encounter with a bald-faced plagiarist, but usually it's about money.

So when I found out this week that I'd been awarded two of the four short-term external fellowships I'd applied for, the progress of my reactions went something like this:

1. Oh thank God. I wouldn't have been able to face my recommenders if I hadn't gotten something (the first letter I'd received had been a rejection, and many weeks elapsed before I heard from the other institutions).

2. Ooh, it'll be fun to get back in some archives.

3. Hey, I have a 12-month salary. And these awards are on top of that? I totally don't need this much to rent a sublet in X City or Y City. Holy shit--that's like THOUSANDS OF DOLLARS!

Now, it's true that some of that money will, in effect, just be helping me to pay for those conferences that my departmental budget doesn't cover--and that the rest will quickly disappear into the black hole that is the debt I incurred while in graduate school--but for at least a few minutes I considered talking about the Life of the Mind with a little more respect.

14 comments:

medieval woman said...

Oh man - I organized for our grad student union as well (sadly, unsuccessfully) - I think you've explained that patronizing tone of the Dr. Crusty's (and Grad Student Crusty's who don't want to be associated with the "working-class bumpkins" who unionize) is right on!

And many congrats on your fellowships - does one of them include going out West? My BFF is at the big archive in the sky out there for all of June.

Enjoy those thousands for however long they last!

dance said...

congrats! how fun to feel rich, even for a moment.

I have a 9-month salary. I'll never get that feeling of "yay, bonus money!"

Renaissance Girl said...

YAY! I love this great news, and I've long ago bought into the idea that the life of the mind is much more productive, sustainable, and downright fun if you don't have to support it by working weekends at a chain bookstore. Congratulations! (I'll look foward to hearing where you go and what you do, offblog if necessary for continued pseudonymity, with the funding....)

neophyte said...

Oooohhh, congrats!

I'm always amazed by the inherent tautology of the "life of the mind" thing. I know which life I'm living. I am living it, after all. Now that that's been established: my teeth are falling out. Can we talk dental coverage? Sheesh.

Way to make it work, Flavia.

What Now? said...

Congrats on the fabulous fellowships! And on your life of the mind paying down the debt from your earlier life of the mind.

Jack said...

First, CONGRATULATIONS!

Second, having just made the call between confidence that my rent check would not bounce and getting some cash so I can go out tomorrow night, I totally sympathize. Guess how I called it? It was Marx I believe who said that wages for wine are necessary to reproduce labor power in France, beer in England. In my case, apparently, it’s wages for margaritas.

Third, at least your Dr. Crusty (ha, can’t help but think of the Simpsons) didn’t *serve you cookies* when you went to talk to him about the union, as a certain “radical feminist” dean did to us while the paperwork to get us all fired was no doubt sitting signed on her desk.

Up the goddamn working life of the mind.

Flavia said...

Thanks, dudes!

And no, MW: that was one of the rejections (possibly because I got greedy and applied for a longer period of time than I likely actually need). One's in an Eastern state and the other's in a state that neighbors your home one (or the one where you did you UG work--think they're the same??). You can probably guess where.

And Jack: I have exactly $18 in my wallet. Any margaritas in excess of that (and there may be some, since I think I owe you at least one drink) will be going on the credit card, lest my student loan payment bounce.

phd me said...

My mind gets hungry, thirsty and cold, just like the rest of me, so it would be awfully nice if all parts of my life involved a decent income. I'm pretty sure I won't get over the debtor's life of grad school for quite a few years.

Congrats on the fellowships! That is fantastic. Enjoy the experience, the prestige and the income!

Sisyphus said...

Congratulations on getting outside funding stuff! (and too bad you won't be coming out to the Wild West to visit me, sigh.)

And you-all who did union organizing warm the cockles of my little black heart! Especially Flav, who I bet had it scarier than anything I did over here w. our union.

May everyone's life of the mind provide them with enough beer and cookies to thrive!

The Constructivist said...

Fantastic news! One tax hint: let the government take more out of your regular salary job, so you don't have to pay more upfront next April when your taxes are done. That is, if any of your grants are anything like mine, i.e., taxed.

medieval woman said...

Oo fun! Maybe we can meet up!!

Belle said...

Congratulations! Can you use any of those extra bucks to provide some long-term goodies? Dental insurance?

heu mihi said...

Congratulations! Hooray!

Flavia said...

Constructivist: Ooh, that's good advice. The last time I had a fellowship like these--which is to say, short-term and taxable but without those taxes taken out--I owed a ridiculous amount the following April.

And Belle: I actually *have* both dental and vision coverage, not through my state insurance (which is otherwise excellent), but through my union. Love my fucking union. It feels like some kind of reward for--or at least validation of--all the crap we went through in my grad union.

(But Sis: nah. Not so scary. The situ at Jack's school was way scarier.)