Confessions of a Malcontent

In Confessions of an Opium Eater (1821), a book in which he detailed his slow descent into a tortured state of insatiability and endless agitation, Thomas de Quincy proffered an apology for "breaking through that delicate and honorable reserve, which, for the most part, restrains us from the public exposure of our own errors and infirmities." There is nothing, he wrote, "more revolting to English feelings that the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars," or "tearing away that 'decent drapery'" that separates gratuitously self-humiliating individuals from the "decent and self-respecting part of society." Despite his heightened sense of propriety, de Quincy went to great lengths to explain his addled state. It was his hope that, by providing instruction about the seductive qualities of opium, he might save his readers from harrowing addictions.

Having once lived one block from the Arsenal football stadium in Finsbury Park in London, the world's capital of spectacularly drunken brawling, I'm not sure that reticence can be said to define Englishness. If it does, I can be certain that I'm not English. When something is on my mind, I'm bound to rant loudly and publicly, and often in the most hyperbolic terms. If I have a moral flaw, I am bound to expose it. Given the option, I would probably even do it on television. One of the moral flaws I would invariably expose, the one that most obtrudes on the consciousness others, relates to the fact that I am, at heart, a malcontent.

In three days, I will be printing out the final copy of my dissertation and submitting all of its 439 pages to the Graduate Student Services Office at my University. What this means, very simply, is that I am about to finish up a doctoral program that began over eight years ago. What it means, in a more complicated sense, is that I'm about to leave part of my life behind, in this case, to take a job as a professor. I'm as thrilled as I am broke to have a job starting up in a few months, and I'm further encouraged by the fact that my future colleagues all seem like decent and friendly people. But I've been a bit edgy lately about the prospect of entering the ranks of professional historians. No, scratch that. I'm feeling totally unhinged. Being unhinged, I feel somehow compelled to come out, as they say, and address the malediction of malcontentedness. Like Thomas de Quincey, who at least had the excuse that he was extricating himself from the clutches of a debilitating addiction, I have only the most rambling and disjointed thoughts about my predicament. Like so many authors indulging in muddled introspection and existential musings, I might as well begin with my childhood.

When I was in kindergarten, I excelled in reading and even math (I've become mathematically disinclined since), but my report cards were always sullied by the predictable carbon-copied note in the "Additional Comments" box that I "didn't play well with other children." It's worth pointing out that I had numerous friends, even if most of them were 'tomboys' and 'problem children'. That said, I didn't participate easily or happily in most organized group activities. One afternoon, for example, my kindergarten teacher organized members of my class into an assembly line of sorts, so that we could co-operate in the completion of a project that involved making cookies from scratch. At the end of the assembly line, I plotted silently as my classmates beat eggs, sifted flour, mashed sticks of butter, and kneaded a sticky and unwieldy mass of chocolate chips and dough in a large plastic mixing bowl. When the bowl came to me, I was supposed to mold a portion of the dough into small cookies on a designated tray. Instead, I peeled the dough out of the bowl and threw it upward, flattening it against the foam tiles of the classroom ceiling. In general, I disregarded the rules of almost every game we played in class, and one morning, I even crouched down under my skirt and urinated on the floor right in front of my stunned teacher. I honestly don't know why I did this.

I must have been in trouble on numerous occasions, but strangely, I don't remember my kindergarten teachers ever expressing anger in my presence. Most of them just encouraged me, in the gentlest of ways, to redirect my energies into productive activities as a "member of the group." It's possible that they found my behavior too disturbing to categorize and address. There is also the possibility that my teachers were too burdened with their own personal lives to deal with my strange ways of acting out. Then, there is the third possibility that they found my actions peculiar, but not necessarily indicative of any predisposition towards academic failure or a future life in crime. After all, I was doing terms of my grades. I was exactly the kind of student who could do outrageous things and still register in adults' minds as "an essentially good kid" with all sorts of potential.

Looking back, I was the perfect candidate for graduate school. Graduate school is filled with people who aren't quite ready to hack it in a 9 to 5, and people who generally don't play well with other children. For better or for worse, most people who end up in graduate school, or at least in endlessly protracted doctoral programs in the Arts and Sciences, are intelligent, interesting, and occasionally competent people who simply haven't been socialized to accept cubicle life. I'm not sure they'd necessarily be the sort of people you'd most expect to urinate on tile floors in the presence of others. In any case, "Hell is Other People" is the mantra often buzzing in the heads of the bespectacled types who quietly shuffle down the hallways of History Departments all over this country.

My main problem - the one that puts me at odds with my wholeheartedly anti-social 'colleagues,' those with whom I should share the deepest of sympathies - is the fact that I haven't even reconciled myself even to the scarce company one tends to keep in the academic world. This isn't just because academics, not being pack animals, tend to be wary of each other in the best of circumstances. It's something else. This week, as I was organizing my computer files, I came across a diary excerpt from the year 2003. It is an entry I recorded shortly after going on one of my first academic job interviews. If nothing else, it might provide some insight into the social milieu - not to mention the emotional state - I've been occupying for at least three years.

April, 2003.


Naturally, I was excited, this year, to conduct a job search that didn't involve checking boxes on xeroxed forms to indicate whether or not I'd ever been convicted of a felony. After years of waitressing, desk-clerking, hack-writing, and holding various academic assistantships, I was finally seeking my first "real" job. When I'd modeled the brand-new suit bought for the purpose (black knee-length skirt and matching summer-wool jacket with linen blouse from Talbot's, $354.00), even my generally reticent English boyfriend, in a more effusive moment, had to concede that I looked "quite smart." En route to my second on-campus interview, I was feeling more or less professional," at least in that thirty-something, corporate happy hour sort of way, with my crisp hems and cuffs, tastefully matching accessories, and my stylish but ultimately sensible shoes.

And so it was a little bit disturbing that, during the three-hour drive to my interview, my thoughts found increasingly clear expression in the lyrics of Beck's Mellow Gold, a disturbing album filled with songs of despair and frustration with life and work in dead-end places and relationships. On this particularly grim February afternoon, as I neared my destination, a "medium-sized teaching university," Beck's music and lyrics seemed to exist in a perfectly symbiotic relationship with the rolling grey hills stretching beyond the frozen slush and streaks of dried road salt on my windshield. As I entered the outskirts of the sprawling Midwestern university town, the strains of Beck's "Soul-Suckin' Jerk, "Beercan," and "Loser" seemed to surge through the landscape, carried along capillaries filled with brooding and malevolent energy.

Between my exhaustion, the inherent madness of any ongoing job search, my creeping existential crisis, and a acute sense of what Hunter S. Thompson has described as 'Fear and Loathing' in face of the strip malls matasticizing and spreading outward from the university, there was something mildly hallucinatory about my slow, stop-lit journey through a town filled with used and rusted car lots; abandoned Victorian houses; vaguely unhygienic fast food restaurants; countless breakaway churches in prefab structures - all marked with letterboard signs about Jesus, salvation, and the war in Iraq - and windowless taverns bedecked with banners reading: "Welcome Deer Hunters." In a nutshell, the town possessed neither small town charm, nor the hint of urban cosmopolitanism; rather, it was a nightmarish suburbia creeping across the countryside in search of a city; a post-industrial, post-911, post-optimism creature sprung from the pages of Fast Food Nation; a place, I imagined as my spirits plummeted, that might well provide the setting, even for an otherwise temperate individual, for an aggressive flirtation with heroin addiction, or on good days, the more socially acceptable abuse of oxycontin.

Late in the afternoon, with outside temperatures dropping into the teens, I finally ended my short exercise in ethnographic masochism and checked into a designated Hampstead Inn beside the highway. One hour later, somewhat refreshed and focused after a solitary pep talk in front of the bathroom mirror in my motel room, I was sitting in what I can accurately and without snobbery (I grew up, after all, almost entirely on canned goods and Kraft Mac & Cheese) call a steak mobile home, located suspiciously well-beyond the outskirts of town (suspiciously, because the entire visit, it later appeared, had been organized to limit any and all exposure to the university or its immediate environs). My distress over the dinner venue, while seemingly rooted in condescension, actually bore little relation to the strange pretensions of the town's newest steakhouse. The steak mobile home, incidentally, was comprised of five tables - elegantly bedecked with candles, linen, and all the accoutrements of fine dining - inside a double-wide trailer accessible by an icy ramp leading from a gravel lot. My distress, rather, was rooted in the alienating behavior of my three dinner partners, two of whom seemed incapable of generating inclusive conversation - whether in the form of witty repartee or professional intercourse. These two individuals, the Chair of the Search Committee and a young female professor twelve months from her tenure review, spent the entire dinner locked in the heady exchange of cultural capital, one marked by awkward and halting prosaic flights inspired, in the first instance, by the appearance of lobster bisque on the menu.

After asking me if I'd ever undertaken to master the culinary arts (the answer, in so many words, being no), the Chair of the Search Committee turned his back slightly toward me and launched into a lengthy monologue about the joys of cooking (not to be confused, as often the case, by those with less refined palates, with the somewhat declasse book, The Joy of Cooking) and the gastronomic bliss to be found increasingly in this, the new Paris of the Midwest. Having failed miserably, time and time again, in the culinary arts and chosen, for unrelated reasons, to pursue the liberal arts, I attempted several times over the next fifteen minutes to steer conversation gently back onto familiar ground and, more specifically, to academic and professional subjects more directly related to my campus visit. Unable to break the tight conversational loop encompassing the Chair and his untenured companion, both celebrating the latest technological advance in the production of homemade ravioli, I desperately edged my way into the crossfire of an aggressively flirtatious exchange between my third dining companion, a young and bristlingly frustrated male professor, and a pretty but cosmetically challenged waitress gushing on about what must be the exciting life of professional historians (As she blushingly noted, History had been her favorite subject in high school).

For the next few minutes, I experienced eternity, slipping back and forth between the perimeters of two equally impenetrable conversations, one punctuated by peals of our waitress' titillated laughter, the other consisting of endless pontificacious statements about the patent absurdity of using infused vinegar on the salmon-walnut salad featured in the last issue of Gourmet magazine. By the end of those few minutes, I had come to the very distressing conclusion that I was, quite clearly, not the Department's first-choice candidate. In fact, I was most likely a "filler" candidate invited to campus for the sake of protocol - a patsy of sorts set up to fail so that an inside candidate could obtain the position in an ostensibly open search. At the very least, it quickly became apparent that I represented an obligation rather than a welcome opportunity for the interview committee, and that I had become an increasingly shaky third-wheel on a bad dinner date.

Having invested seven years of my life and $354.00 of a modest graduate student stipend in preparation for the interview, I decided to attempt a recovery before the coffee and Florentines arrived. After all, I thought, there was every reason to salvage what could be carried from this train wreck before it was all over. Before I could pass a few remarks into the conversation, however, the Chair suddenly spoke, addressing himself in my general direction, and through practiced condescension, without explicitly acknowledging. "The great thing about this town," he declared, "is that property is easily acquired." As he explained to no one in particular, a buyers' market in local real estate, combined with a competitive professorial salary, meant that many recent hires had already managed to purchase single-family homes and "refurbish them quite nicely in ways not possible for professors in other areas of the country." Before I could inquire about specific amenities in the town, the Chair continued that he "had just purchased a new home and had it fitted with a custom-design kitchen for his wife." It was a "delightful" kitchen, he assured his listeners, but not one that he actually used much, "since his wife actually did all the cooking." So much of this talk about cooking, really, is "all a bit academic," he said, bemused at his own play on words. Twisting his thin, bloodless lips into a smile, he added, "my wife likes to cook healthy meals for the children, and I guess I'm content, in any case, to refurbish the study." Turning suddenly to me, he asked again whether or not I had any special interest in cooking. Transfixed and silenced by the absurdity of the situation, I was actually grateful for the lap-doggish outburst of the young tenure-track professor, who immediately began extolling the pleasures of a well-designed kitchen and begging the Chair to advise her on the purchase of a hanging rack for copper pans.


I could reproduce more of this journal entry here, but the point is that I've long been alienated and ambivalent in relation to the academy, not because of its inbred snobbery (and I mean that literally, since most professors at top-flight universities are, themselves, the children of at least one academic parent), its dense population of sycophants (if anything, sycophantic behavior is as prevalent and much more highly rewarded elsewhere), or the pretension that we live in a country where education is organized along democratic principles (when, in fact, the conversation in upper-level academic settings suggests otherwise).

Despite this, I'm giving the academic life one last try. First, I am thoroughly relieved at the prospect of employment after years of living below the poverty line. Second, I still harbor hopes that my views of the academy have, thus far, been unfortunately and unfairly shaded by experiences in a particularly elitist institution. In any case, I have to get my shit together, as they say, pretty soon. In two months, I'm going to be teaching people who are busting their asses (in some cases) to be in college. In all fairness, I can't be like some of the more pompous, bored, and uninspiring professors I've come to loathe over the past few years. There was a time, way back, when I was sitting in an undergraduate lecture hall, madly in love with books and amazed at the world of knowledge and ideas opening up in front of me. I owe it to my students to remember that time. I owe it to myself to give this new job, quite literally, the old college try. I'm lucky to have the job, and I confess, even happy. That said, I'm sure I'm going to be ranting 23/7 if not 24/7 after I start teaching in August. I am a malcontent, after all.

David, May 15 2005 1:36PM

Thanks for tearing away the drapery, Alice. Congratulations and good luck on your defense.

Sandie, May 17 2005 9:50AM

I think your new job will feel quite different from the experience you had at the large Midwestern university you are soon to leave behind. Fresh ocean air from the Sound, a cultural metropolis nearby and some bright-eyed energetic students will bring perspective to your academic pursuits.

Good luck!

mark, May 22 2005 4:14PM

i think a little (or a lot) of alienation / exclusion from your peers in a field is healthy. from my perspective i have seen too many 'yes' people reach no higher than a chair rail and produce truly mediocre work.

i applaud you for looking for opportunities beyond the cozy seat that academics occupy inside the ivy covered walls of tenure and routine.

congratulations on finishing your dissertation and i really enjoyed reading your contribution.