Thursday, January 14, 2010

A little perspective

So, I said that I'd post about my conversation with a friend and colleague, whom I shall call Surly.  (Good thing my departmental colleagues don't read this blog!)  Surly and I met for drinks at a nice little wine bar in town that, thank heavens, offers happy hour specials even on Sundays, so we could afford to get something besides water.  I enjoyed the pinot noir more than the malbec, but that's neither here nor there.  The point is the conversation.  I am, I must admit, a little humbled by my own good fortune, after talking with her for a while about our department and its funding issues.

In a nutshell, I've been grumpy and bitchy because I anticipate having no departmental funding this semester, which means that I must subsist on student loans and what remains of my bank account after paying tuition.  It also means that I will lose my university health insurance, and thus have to pay a fair amount to keep some kind of health insurance around and avoid the ever-terrifying prospect of engendering "pre-existing conditions."  I think you all know what I'm talking about, after all these months of debate about national health care policy.

I've also been wrestling with my long-held understandings of how funding is distributed, which clearly no longer hold within the department.  More or less, I understood funding to depend primarily upon one's proven worth as a student, i.e. being a good investment of time and money.  Spent a whole year writing no chapters at all, thinking about doing some more post-research reading?  Well, that's great; go apply for a part-time job at Kinko's so you have lots of time to fuck around like that; our funding will go to someone who actually made measurable progress.  Now, as I've detailed in previous blog posts, that system appears to be discarded, at least for the foreseeable future.  Now even a slacker, in extreme cases, can acquire funding by seeming more financially pathetic than someone who made some progress, since dire economic need outweighs productivity.  Each system has its merits and demerits; it's frustrating to experience the changeover, though, and to my detriment as well.

Surly, however, has a very different take on all of this, given her own circumstances.  She is, like me, a US national, and has no family to provide for, which is why we were both at the bottom of the funding list.  Unlike me, however, she entered the department with no funding guarantees at all, which still astonishes me.  For years, she went without any funding from the university; sometimes she had a job that she somehow managed to juggle with classwork, but when the job ended, she was left with no options but student loans.  She scored a good research grant that made that end of things much easier, but finishing her field research also exhausted her savings.  She has had departmental funding since then, but it has always been a struggle, and she has had to beg, plead, and argue with the department to cough it up.  And in fact, this time around they wouldn't even listen, and she had to find herself something on her own through another department.  Eventually, our department scrounged up something, but she already had her TAship, so the scrounged item has (apparently) gone to our other colleague at the bottom of the list.  (Call him Guevara, since it requires fewer syllables than Pretentious Asshole.)

And, although I didn't inquire into this, I assume from those circumstances that Surly has experienced stretches of time during which she had no health insurance.  Surly has worked in the health care sector, and she knows exactly how dicey that proposition is, but like many a colleague who has never thought seriously about what a poorly timed illness or broken leg can do to one's finances, she probably went without.

All of which to say, Surly has had a rougher ride than I've had, by far.  If I don't get funded this semester, it will be the first semester in eight years of graduate school in which I had neither internal nor external financial support for my work.  I've paid out of pocket for health insurance at times, and it's a bitch, but I have survived.  I've never had to eat the cost of my entire tuition bill before, but I believe that I can survive that, too, if this semester comes to that.  And, to the best of my understanding, none of this is because the department lacks faith in my work.  (Or, for that matter, in Surly's, at the very least not now that she has proved herself a capable researcher and analyst.)

It's kind of hard to pity myself in light of this knowledge.  And I really want to pity myself, mind you.  I'd like to feel put-upon and somehow persecuted; it offers the cold comfort of ennobling martyrdom.  But it doesn't take; I'm increasingly aware that, by the standards of many graduate programs in the social sciences (to say nothing of the humanities!), and in comparison to some of my own friends and colleagues, I'm even a little coddled.  So, even though I'd like to cry on the shoulders of my friends in the department, I'm now aware of the fact that they might not hear my bitching with a sympathetic ear.  And, compounding the realization, perhaps the departmental staff takes account of all this data and judges me overdue for the kind of semesterly rogering that some other students, like Surly, have been enduring for years.  That really doesn't bode well for my funding chances, but I suppose it's all down to luck now anyway.

And, to really make me feel like a shitheel for feeling abandoned by God and man over a TAship, one of our colleagues is currently missing in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake.  No one has heard from her in days.  From what I gather in the news, there's not much left standing in the city, and no one has any clear idea how many thousands of casualties there may be, much less who they all are.  Here's hoping that she phones in, once she can get to a functioning line.

Meanwhile, I'm going to shut the fuck up about my comparatively unimportant problems for a post or two.

1 comment:

  1. It's so easy to feel sorry for ourselves until someone else's story knocks us on our ass. You have been relatively lucky, but what kills me about your story is that you're the ONLY ONE in your department without funding. No matter how humble you are, that hurts the ego.

    Here's hoping your colleague makes it home safe and sound.