Having just completed my MA and on the precipice of entering a competitive PhD program, I’m often asked by family members and others about the status of my work—not where I am in the process of writing my dissertation or studying for comps, but how close I am to being finished and, more importantly, how close I am to “actually working.”
These annoying conversations can sometimes be chalked up to the fact that the career paths within academia vary from discipline to discipline and are often enigmatic to those looking in from outside. Ignorance of something you’ve had no contact with is certainly not a crime and asking innocent questions is a normal way to reconcile what you think you know with what you don’t.
However, that’s not typically what is happening here. Generally speaking, what these people want to know is how/when is what I’m doing in grad school going to help me make money. The overarching tone of this line of questioning is that, if what you’re doing isn’t eventually going to pay dividends in the form of money, then why are you wasting your time?
Meaning and our understanding of meaning has been undeniably warped by capitalism. It is meaningful for me to better understand how society functions and the ways in which that functionality (or dysfunctionality) impacts people’s lives. I want to understand the way power flows through society and shapes our lives. I want to understand how the construction of the self and the desire to protect one’s identity results in widespread violence and harm to others.
My desire to understand is stronger than the capitalism-manufactured desire to live in complicity and comfort. Success, for me and many other academics, is not defined by access to power and money, but by degrees of meaningfulness. I want my life to be meaningful.
This sentiment is difficult to communicate in a short conversation. Further, the question about the profitability of my PhD question is complicated by the nature of my discipline. Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies is not a widely known discipline. If you’ve never gone to a 4-year college or university, you’re probably unaware of its existence. Additionally, the methodology of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies programs varies widely from school to school. Some programs are more philosophical, some are more literary, and some center more on social science. Some programs focus exclusively on the experience of women and gender, while others make a point to craft an intersectional canon that has a wider view of interlocking oppressions, like colonialism, capitalism, racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Most shot-in-the-dark guesses from family about what my discipline entails fall in the realm of “psychology of women,” “history of women,” and (once) in “men who want to be women.”
But gender is a common experience. Nearly everyone has a gender and everyone knows what gender is, at least implicitly. They may not understand why or how gender operates, but they can recognize its components and can even pick out experiences they’ve had in which gender and/or gender roles was reinforced. Despite this, gender goes unexamined in these circles because it is viewed as biologically predetermined, not socially constructed. Gender, for most people, is common sense. Why dedicate resources and time to trying to understand something that is common sense, especially if it isn’t patently lucrative?
If I were getting my PhD is something like Physics, Engineering, or even Philosophy I wouldn’t face the same blank expressions I get when I respond with, “I’m getting a PhD in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies.” This sentence often communicates nothing to the person I’m saying it to. It’s not lucrative-sounding. It’s not intimidatingly “smart-sounding.” It’s not an old, recognizable discipline. It sounds a lot like common sense.
However, the skills I have acquired during my undergraduate and graduate work in WGS are incredibly useful in deciphering, understanding, and communicating complex ideas about how the world works. My research on the metaphysics of dominant ideology and reactionary movements is particularly useful in this dark political moment. I have learned how to deftly braid and unbraid the common threads of racism, sexism, classism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia and extrapolate those experiences onto the broader concepts of identity and ideological frameworks. So when the conversation turns to something I know a lot about, like gender identity, white supremacy, or classism, I draw on that knowledge and those skills. I draw on the experience I have, not just as a woman, but as a woman educated and trained to stand in front of a classroom and teach undergraduates the broad strokes of social constructivism, the historical legacy of white supremacy, and the oppressive mechanics of capitalism.
I am the only person in my immediate family to attend college and the only person in my extended family to achieve a traditional graduate degree (i.e., not a law degree or an MA in Education). Because many of my extended family members neither truly know nor respect me, I have often been spitefully baited to “perform” my expertise. This baiting usually comes in the form of a homophobic Facebook post, a sexist comment, or a derisive remark about my politics. I have, in the past, obliged. Despite having the intellectual and moral high ground in these conversations, I am ridiculed because, despite my degrees, time spent, pages written, books read, classes taken, my knowledge is viewed as uselessly subjective and without merit. While I know this is not true, it’s still a frustrating experience. Moreover, it underlines the fact that my family doesn’t see the value in academia or my work and has no interest in attempting to.
For the less malevolent members of my family, telling them I’m teaching seems like a good-enough workaround for the otherwise “uselessness” of my degree. Teaching is, after all, a decent profession for a woman. And it’s a real job! You go to the place, you do the thing, you get paid.
For those who have no interest in reconciling the image they have of me as an awkward goth teenager turned leftist-atheist-warper-of-young-minds-succubus with what I actually am, there’s no point in having a conversation—any conversation. I do not owe them a compromise on the work that not only makes up my working life, but informs my identity in profound ways. I owe them nothing.
We deserve to exist without having to justify where and how we find meaning in our lives. More to the point, we deserve to work without having to justify the value of that work to people who either don’t have desire or ability to conceive of its nature or importance.