Emily Marie Passos Duffy is a Colorado-based poet, educator, and performer. Her written work has been published in Boulder Weekly, Portland Review,Cigar City Poetry Journal, Spit Poet Zine, and Iron Horse Literary Review. She is a contributing member of The Daily Camera's Editorial Advisory Board and a 2020 artist-in-residence at the Boulder Creative Collective. She earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from Naropa University in 2018. You may also choose to Listen to Emily reading her essay. Enjoy!
Pedagogy of enough
I could make a whole life from saying no
breaking up with higher ed.
Consider for a moment that Quit Lit is an established genre—like wow! Higher Ed has a litany of scorned exes, and I’m happy to join the ranks. This is a breakup letter and a eulogy.
Much of my life, I’ve received the message, whether subliminal or explicitly expressed, that an important part of adulthood is doing things that are unpleasant, trivial, boring.
I am obstinate; you might say it’s in my Taurean nature. I’ve always struggled to do things that seem, at their face or upon deeper examination, like bullshit.
There’s a distinction between bullshit and things that are difficult. I am not averse to doing things that are difficult.
A longstanding relationship of mine that has included plenty of both—difficulty and bullshit—has been my tumultuous romance with higher education. I say romance because, for the daughter of a Brazilian immigrant —my mother was a first-generation college student—who was told “an education is something no one can ever take away from you,” I looked at the institution of the university with stars in my eyes.
Much like children are socialized to believe in the redemptive power of romantic love, I believed a degree would save me and make me worthy of existing in this world.
I’ll gloss over my 4-year degree. It will always have a tender and pure place in my heart.
At various points during my undergraduate career, I was a 3-season athlete, a scholarship student, an RA, I did 300 hours of community service per academic year, I presented at undergraduate conferences, I studied abroad, I did research, I joined a sorority, I performed in dance recitals, I collaborated, I agitated, I protested, I drank, I consumed drugs, I studied. I was cum laude, I came loudly. I was devoted. I was in love. If nothing else, I got my money’s worth.
A driving force, I believe, behind my varied and enthusiastic participation in both academics & extracurriculars was my imposter syndrome. I did not take a moment for granted, and I worked exceptionally hard.
My mother, the first generation college student, began her journey at Ithaca College, where she recalls witnessing late night revelers push a soda machine out of a window. She later transferred.
I remember being an RA in a notorious party building while the members of the lacrosse team threw furniture off of a third floor balcony. The resident director did nothing to stop them.
The size of an item one throws off a balcony without consequence, I believe, could be used as a metric for class privilege. I will admit I did throw a champagne bottle off of a balcony once. It made a beautiful sound, and I didn’t get in trouble.
Going into my senior year, I realized that I couldn’t possibly take out another private loan to cover the gap between aid and tuition. I wrote Financial Aid a letter, outlining all of my various and wholehearted participations; the blood, sweat, and ejaculate I’d offered to its endowment. I begged them to give me more money. I took on another campus job; I called my grandmother, my uncle, my mother, and my father. I did everything I could to close that gap and I did. My relief was palpable; I would be able to engage in class pageantry for a final year. I could pretend I was on equal footing with my peers.
Underneath my verve was a persistent, nagging feeling. I don’t deserve to be here. I’m here on borrowed dime.
I graduated with a job offer at a sister university overseas. My relief was palpable. The position was in an office of service learning, and I learned very quickly how much I hated sitting at a desk. The most wonderful parts of that job were training students and nerding-out about community engagement—which I believed at the time to be the saving grace of the university. I felt almost evangelical about it.
I began to realize then that universities invest money in caring about equity. Caring about equity is a brand.
It was a wonderful first job, but I was homesick and once again feeling like an imposter. Why don’t you love me?? My colleagues were forgiving and compassionate towards my shortcomings.
During that time, I applied to graduate school. I loved graduate school. It was more…. relaxed. People had their own lives. It was not obsessive and all consuming. It felt a little more moderate and manageable—a more mature relationship.
Where undergrad was an oxytocin bender, grad school was the kind of relationship where you have three dates a week and sex maybe once or twice a week. It had its own obsessed (and self-obsessed) quality, but it was more balanced.
I fell in love with pedagogy and teaching. I thought, I could make a life from this.
I began stripping to start paying off my debt and it was also something I fell in love with. When I tell people that teaching and stripping are the best jobs I’ve ever had, I mean it. But, you can love the work and hate the context.
And the strip club context is decidedly more honest. If I have to do a little dance to be a part of a discourse community I’d rather do it with my clothes off. I don’t like the duplicitous nature of academia. As my brilliant friend Shay Reynolds once put it, “I don’t mind working at McDonalds, I mind working at McDonalds and being told I’m a chef.” This speaks precisely to the adjunct industry and use of graduate student labor to teach classes.
Look closer at the university, and you begin to see these gaps—cracks in the prestigious visage—the ugly and self-serving business side of this institution that is, in many ways, committed to upholding the very systems of oppression in purports to want to dismantle—or more accurately, ameliorate. The promises of post graduate employment and powerful networks are just a snake oil salve on a hemorrhaging system.
As I said, the strip club is honest. The expectation of flirting is out in the open, and I feel I’m compensated fairly for my labor. I don’t want to climb any ladders or participate in departmental politics as I move from institution to institution. I’d rather climb a pole and show strangers my asshole.
When I think about the University I feel grief. I feel grief for my own disillusionment
I feel grief for an image I had of myself.
A golden ticket to a better life…for what? I remember the way my own mother spoke about seeing displays of nationalism as a child—parades, the American flag waving—it felt, almost magical, she mused. She bought into the Dream wholesale. This enabled me to buy into my own dream of being degreed … being… “better than.” Such is the mythos and violence of assimilation.
Honestly, a lot of academics are fucked up. Do I want to be a part of that world? Departments conceal abuse, faculty abuse power, and politics are sport.
There are some good eggs, there are some revolutionaries… but they exist in spite of those conditions, and not because of them. And eventually, the university’s goal is to sand their edges into complicity—into a more palatable, marketable version of those individuals’ liberating ideas and aspirations.
I have had so many incredible mentors that I would have never encountered were it not for my pursuit of degrees. I’m so grateful for and indebted to these people.
I am also grateful for the people who discouraged me. To the male undergraduate professor who told me not to pursue an MFA because they are “too competitive,” I love time traveling in my mind and telling you to suck it.
I did the things I said I was going to do. And, I’m also left wondering why I chose to do them in this way.
I don’t want to live as an adjunct. I don’t want to take on more teaching than I can in order to maybe one day obtain a full time position…. For what?
I want to say no…
I want to say no to the academic industrial complex…. To the pettiness, the bureaucracy, the performed martyred complaining about workload and grading.
What if I just… didn’t?
On a personal level, I’ve struggled with why I feel such a resounding “no” in my system.
Why can’t I love this? Isn’t it what I always wanted? To teach at the university level?
I am willing to do things that are difficult. But I have a hard time doing things that feel like bullshit.
What if every academic just said…. No? No. No! Enough!
I still love aspects of it…. Since being out of school, I’ve presented at conferences, submitted to journals, and continued reading curiously and voraciously. I feel engaged in the parts of the world that I loved. These things feel best when done on my own terms.
It’s true, an education is something no one can take from me—it gave me complex lenses, new vocabulary, friends, professional contacts, etc. But, the academic industry has taken more from me than it has given. There is an endless appetite for my labor within that context. At first that might feel good… it’s great to feel important and needed! But it’s a fucking gristmill, and anyone who has romanced a narcissist knows what it’s like to be taken advantage of in this way. I hate what higher ed does to people. Inside of this system, I could feel my spirit shrinking.
The institution encourages competition over collaboration… being first, being groundbreaking, being different (but not too different). Anything that’s not that exists in spite of the system not because of it. The university is out of touch. It is not political enough. It is so burdened and bloated. It clumsily tries to maintain relevancy. Meanwhile, adjunct professors live in cars and subsist off food stamps. In an Atlantic article on the tragic story of Thea Hunter, Adam Harris calls the adjunct industry “academia’s permanent underclass.” The article details the failures of an exploitative system, particularly for women of color.
The progressive façade of the institution belies its violent elitism. The university is digging its own grave. Here lies my former beloved. I’m happy to bury my credentials alongside its corpse.
Although I never made it this far, I know anecdotally that PhD programs are designed to break and not build. Here is an excerpt from a personal email correspondence with a mentor within academia responding to my interest in applying to a PhD program. She reflected on the toll the process took on her personally and had this piece of advice:
Anyhow, I would encourage you to think about your values, and what you want out of life. How do those things currently align? Is a PhD necessary to manifest the life you want? I ask because I thought I *needed* a PhD to do what I wanted to do, and I’m not sure that is true.
Truly, the jury is still out on that one.
A few years ago, when I received this email I thought yes, absolutely. It’s what I want. And now, I am so grateful for this mentor’s candor. I wish all academics spoke this frankly about the value of a doctorate.
So why are we still insisting upon the legitimacy of all this? I’m still unraveling and dismantling the harmful ideologies and coping mechanisms that 6 years of higher education instilled in me.
Saying no is one way I can carve out a life in a shape of my own desiring. So much self-help rhetoric these days is predicated in “saying yes!”—To life, to opportunities, to challenges and chances. I have been a “yes” woman. In many ways, I still am.
But, it occurred to me that if I start saying no to things that feel like bullshit, my life could take a beautiful shape—rejecting the systems of oppression that live inside of me… rejecting messages of what my “options” are and what I should be doing with my time.
I want leisure time. I want time to do nothing. Absolutely nothing. I want to read—I don’t want to be anchored to punishing academic timelines. I don’t want my labor consumed and spat back in my face.
I have made a commitment to live as an artist. This commitment is one I take as seriously as vows. Part of what this commitment requires is telling the truth and doing my best.
I want to be able to ask myself every day:
Am I telling the truth?
Am I doing my best?
With the understanding that “truth” and “best” are not stagnant maxims, but state-dependent and shape-shifty, like water.
Am I telling the truth?
Am I doing my best?
On some level, I still want to be loved and accepted by the University. I really do. want the powers that be to pluck me from my defiled existence and make me an academic star. I want to be the A-student, the perfect girlfriend, and the formidable scholar. Then I remember how strongly this narrative reeks of bullshit, and I snap out of it.
Last year, I participated in an interactive installation by Kevin Hoth at the Boulder Creative Collective. He printed images of what triggered you onto a Eucharist and you could eat it. As a recovering Catholic and ex-devotee of academia, this act was life affirming. I waited patiently for my turn and then placed the custom wafer in my mouth.
Walking through the gallery space, I felt the image of a university’s ivory columns dissolve on my tongue.