The Greyhound bus enters the Coach Terminal in Rochester with a large, lazy curve. It’s only a few minutes late, which is more than acceptable if you consider that the St. Patrick’s Parade has blocked the circulation for nearly six hours. Yet a traveler – a lean lady in her fifties, holding a backpack camping and a lilac pillow – is steaming with anger. She looks ready to leap on board, even before the engines are turned off, the doors opened, the luggage of the arriving passengers down on the sidewalk. The speaker keeps announcing the incoming buses. The driver, who has been driving since the morning, needs a break: the time of a cigarette, a snack, and maybe the luxury of taking a leak. He asks us to get back inside and wait. He is still standing outside, leaning against the wall and picking some blueberries from a box, when the fierce backpacker with the lilac pillow feels the urge to move. She has barely the time to say: “I understand that you’re eating your blueberries, but …”, before the driver tells her where to go (and no, it’s neither Buffalo nor Toronto).
We finally leave Rochester and we are in the open countryside in a matter of minutes. The light of the late afternoon gives a warm aura to the otherwise anonymous landscape of Upstate New York. The grass is of a thick and pasty green. We pass by an endless series of manors and farm. I recognize the shapes of many barns, a kind of construction that I, being an the average Italian, only know by having played Farmville (for the sake of clarity, I played it for a very short time only, in the wake of a devastating break-up and consequent depression). Everything outside seems wrapped in an opaque film; I thus come to the realization that the dirty window of a coach is the low-budget equivalent of Instagram.
The human landscape at the Buffalo Coach Terminal on a weekend looks familiar and reassuring to me.
It has nothing to do with the tragic characters whom you can spot during the night, or in other stations. I still remember the people I saw during an endless stopover in Detroit: toothless women in their forties (either drugs, or pyorrhea and lack of health coverage), old bikers with illustrated biceps, young men traveling with cardboard boxes, frantically picking their own skin. Here I see families overwhelmed by their bags, old women wrapped in extra-large shirts and adherent sweatpants, men in their 30s who proudly wear sportswear or university sweaters, children doing cartwheels and falling on the floor, and young couples indulging in some petty kisses while promising eternal love for at least one more week. Commuting humanity looks alike everywhere, be it in Ravenna, Italy, or in Buffalo, NY.
From Buffalo to Toronto, I find myself sitting next to a Chinese-American girl. We speak for a few minutes. She’s also in the academia, working as an adjunct in a small town in Massachusetts. I have been there once, a few years ago for a family lunch with my aunt, and I remember it as a strecht of malls and chain restaurants and divey bars. She’s also traveling to a convention, whose annual meeting will be held right in downtown Toronto. She asks me for some street directions to follow at her arrival, then she goes back to work on her presentation. She’s still writing the paper she’s supposed to deliver tomorrow. She’s writing it from scratch, word by word, sometimes using Google Translate from Chinese. I can’t help spying between the lines of her presentation. Her English is just beyond imagination.
I somehow have the feeling that this lean, stressed and wi-fi-addict teacher might be the Chinese reincarnation of Marc Bloch who simply had no time to prepare, as overwhelmed as she was by mountains of assignments to grade, letters of recommendations to write, email to answer, and committee meetings to attend.
I’ve seen established academics give talks they had pulled together in half a day – again, not for lack of professionalism, but just for lack of time. If I struggle to find the time for my research while I’m still doing a PhD, I can’t even imagine how the life of an adjunct will look like, AKA a precarious worker in the academia. Yes, my friends: as many of my Italian colleagues are only recently starting to grasp, and as I myself ignored until a few years ago, there are precarious workers in North America too. In fact, there’s a whole army of them.
That this will be our future (and only if we’re lucky), we were told quite abruptly at the convention I just attended. On Saturday, I joined a very young and brilliant PhD student from North Carolina and we decided to attend a panel on the future of the humanities – a mistake not to be repeated ever again, as some older colleagues reproached us later in the evening. Yet, I do not think of it as a mistake. I’d rather say it was a good educational experience: humiliating but somewhat instructive.
They were all there: the 40-year old tenured radical who says he’s aware of his good fortune, the 60-year old adjunct who has tried to unionize her campus for almost three decades, the modern languages professor who enthusiastically embraced the business philosophy to pump up enrollment in her otherwise collapsing program, the historian who landed in an American University in a place forgotten by God and by men, and, last but not least, the e-professor who teaches via Skype for several for-profit universities, bragging about how he’s able to grade mountains of papers in his pajama.
More than a panel, it looked like the A-Team of academic desperation. Because it’s not just about “not being picky” and find ways to survive in a changing world. That would have something I could have accepted, and maybe even appreciated.
However, for some speakers, this is about embracing the destruction of academia with sheer enthusiasm, convincing ourselves that no matter how unfunded or inaccessible higher education becomes, there will always be niches for “the smart ones”, and, finally, about blinding ourselves into believing that after all, the access to culture is not a right. Too bad for those who are crushed by this system (the students who are left behind, the unemployed graduates, the unemployable PhDs) – it’s their fault, they have been not been able to adapt and survive.
Half of the room stares at the speakers in palpable perplexity or bewilderment; yet, the only criticism comes from a Graduate Student at UC Berkeley – a skinny lad of Indian descent, who presents himself as the product of a public education before affirming that the current perspective is deeply ill. Yet the words of his speech, still marked by a strong ethics of public action, sound out of context here. Everyone is more than open to making compromises. There is no more space for idealism, and his utopia is as out of fashion as a jacket from the 70s with patches on the elbows.
Let’s face it: I am in the middle of a motivational crisis. I still love my job (but is it a job, really?). Either I love it, or, or more likely, I feel it’s the only one I could do. I left the little I had, in order to pursue this career. If I am 28 and I live in a basement, I have no family of my own, and I struggle to be above the poverty line, it’s precisely because I decided to undertake this career. So I guess I must somehow like it.
Maybe I’m having a crisis, or maybe not. Because academia seems to have lost its center of gravity, its nature, its function. I know where I’m going – problem is, academia itself does not know where it is going.
And this is why, in the global economy of our work (once again: is this a real work?), the means constantly overpower the aims. What brings us money, pleasing the student-customers, the grade inflation, the “spice-up your teaching,” the “pump up your publication count,” you name it: all of this seems to be more important than your actual research and the knowledge you really share, even in a public institution. And, please, don’t call me idealistic if I say this is a problem.
On days like today, I often happen to think of the distances I covered in these two and a half years as a Graduate Student. Thousands of miles to present research and attend events that will be transformed into a line of curriculum – always hoping that it will be the determinant one, in order to land a decent academic job.
My life is split into two halves that do not make a whole. I have two homes, my native Italian home (a home that I do not miss, but where some people I deeply care for still live) and my new Canadian home, my acquired country that everyday teaches me a new lesson in toughness, and which I couldn’t probably leave without feeling heartbroken at this point. Like many, I have two homes and it takes thousands of miles to hold them together. Thousands of miles, and thousands of dollars saved every year, literally stolen from the quality of my everyday life, and thousands of tons of carbon, burnt oil and kerosene. My life is certainly not one with a low environmental impact.
And here I am, thinking of all the nights and days I spent in sleep in contortionist poses, my knees pressed against my chin in some contorted fetal position, the ribs and the spine hurting for several days afterwards. I remember my epic voyages across the entire continents, all the nights I spent trying to sleep on a bench at the Buffalo Airport, and all the times I’ve crossed the US border via land at midnight, among screaming children and impatient adults. All these nights are nothing but the logical consequence of a lifetime of awake nights, long-distance loves, and families scattered like a flock of crazy birds; a lifetime of hugs in the dark and muttered goodbyes and “pleae drive safe”, nights spent bouncing on a seats, the seat-belt sawing through my shoulders, the glowing light of a neon hitting my face, having nothing to declare in the light of dawn.
This is why – I suspect – I feel really at ease only in these impossible transits, whereas I just feel out of place when I take my crumbled Sunday dress out from the suitcase – after all, I come from a family where deconstructing means using a bulldozer, not citing Derrida. Despite trying moving upwards through culture (something which has always seemed synonymous with emancipation), I will always end up reviving the fate of my family.
Again, it’s time to sip the bitter cup of the departure.
Swallow it all, we’re ready to go.