Looking in all the wrong places

My only excuse for being so late posting is that February is an unreasonably short month, and I was still living in February this morning. So, no deep thoughts today. Instead I thought I’d tell you a cautionary story about trying to live other people’s visions.

I have a Ph.D. in linguistics, despite having tried to escape the field three times.

It all started when I was a graduating senior with a degree in mathematics, very strong emphasis on topology, which at that time had absolutely no practical applications and fitted me only for graduate school in mathematics, which I had just enough sense to realize I wasn’t nearly smart enough for. So here I was at loose ends when my roommate came home giggling about the news that the linguistics department had a graduate scholarship in Swahili that was going begging because nobody wanted to study such an obscure language. (Bear in mind that this was 1966, before Black became Beautiful.)

I bounced up and down and exclaimed, “I like learning languages! And linguistics is all about studying and understanding languages, right? Where’s the chairman’s office?” So I ran off and nailed down an NDEA Title 6 to study Swahili as a linguistics major and went home for the summer feeling reasonably good about the future.

That lasted, oh, maybe six weeks into the fall semester. Linguistics might in previous generations have been about languages, but the field was just becoming devastated by Noam Chomsky, according to whose theories the structure of any language could be understood by simply applying his theories (which had great gaping holes in them) to just one language, so linguists could stay at home analyzing English. This switch in the field naturally attracted a whole slew of people who were afraid of foreign languages and actively avoided them, among whom I stuck out like a sore thumb.

I stuck it out until the end of the year, announced that I was quitting, and went home considerably less satisfied with my now-undefined future.

The head of the School of Oriental and African studies called and told me to come back to school.

“But I don’t like linguistics,” I said.

“But your scholarship has been renewed for another year,” he said. “And what else are you going to do?”

Having no answer to this question, I meekly returned.

At the end of the second year I quit again and went home again to my parents, who were by now somewhat distraught at my failure to establish myself in some academic field, this being the only kind of future they could envision.

This time the head of SOAS called with a much more persuasive argument.

“But you’ve been awarded a Fulbright to research Swahili in East Africa,” he said.

Well, East Africa was a nice long way from graduate school, and I also liked traveling. So I went back long enough to qualify as a Ph. D. candidate and escaped to Mombasa, where by living on a shoestring I managed to stretch the Fulbright money to cover considerably more time than anybody had anticipated.

Eventually, though, the money ran out and I returned. By now I figured I had invested two years in graduate classes and two years in Swahili research and I might as well write my dissertation. After all, what else was I going to do?

That was a really horrible year, but eventually I got to the point of submitting a nicely typed dissertation to the committee. Then came the oral defense.

I think I survived the defense fairly well up until the final question, which was a total surprise. “We like to feel that we award the Ph.D. only for a significant contribution to scholarship in the field. Do you think your dissertation constitutes such a contribution?”

I looked at my shoes and mumbled, “Not really, I mean the conclusions were obvious common sense and no surprise, can I just go away now?”

Suddenly I was surrounded by professors saying, “No, no, it’s just a pro forma question, all you have to do is say yes, that’s not too hard is it?”

So I said yes. After all, what else was I going to do?

And the moral of all this rambling is that if “You don’t have anything else to do” is the major argument for staying where you are, it just might be a good idea to explore what you really like and see if that can be turned into an occupation that will pay the rent. For me it took several years of teaching and computer programming to figure out that what I really liked was reading genre novels with a plot – science fiction, fantasy, historical novels, mysteries – and that those novels had to be written by somebody, and maybe I could become one of those somebodies.

After all, what else was I going to do?

12 comments

    1. I don’t know. I’ve occasionally used mine to shut down someone who was bragging about something just to show off. I tossed academic jargon and article titles at them until they slunk off and the rest of us could go back to discussing fun things. Oh, and I’ve used it in making airline reservations on certain foreign-flagged carriers, and gotten better service at check-in and while on-board. But that’s also a cultural thing as much as a “I have three letters after my name. How many do YOU have?” thing.

      “One master plumber beats three Ph.D.s” or so one of my dissertation committee members liked to say. But she was a geologist, and a poker player, and a bit Odd.

      1. Admiral Daniel Gallery ran into the “I have letters after my name, do you?” problem when he was commanding the US naval station in Iceland during WWII. He finally solved the problem by appending “DDLM” after his name when working with British navy types who had trailing letters. One of them finally asked what, exactly, did DDLM stand for. Dan was happy to tell them it was for “Dan, Dan, the Lavatory Man”.

  1. If only you’d realized that your Batchelor’s degree in topology qualified you to become a magician working for the CIA, you’d have had a much better answer to, “What else are you going to do?”

  2. I didn’t do a Fulbright, but took me almost 30 years to figure out that I could probably write the same types of books I like reading (liked waaaaay more than anything I was currently researhing).

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