Category Archives: nostalgia

“The Great Ph.D. Scam” (or: Academy Plight Song)

Thanks to the Wayback Machine, here’s my piece from the Boston Phoenix on the MLA, the first feature piece I ever wrote for publication, twenty-one years ago last month.

Who knows if the Wayback Machine is forever?  Just in case, I’m including the text of the piece here.

The Phoenix gave this piece its title, which I think is too fighty.  My title was “Academy Plight Song.”  (Get it?)

I think this holds up pretty well!  (Except if I were writing this today I wouldn’t attach so much physical description to every woman with a speaking part.)

Melani McAlister, the new hire at GWU who appears in the opening scene, is still there as a tenured professor in 2018.  And all these years later, she’s still interested in helping fledgling academics navigate the world of scholarly work; her page “Thinking Twice about Grad School” is thorough, honest, humane, and just great.

Here’s the piece!

The great PhD scam
by Jordan Ellenberg

“We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light. They come at a time of life when failure can no longer be repaired easily and when the wounds it leaves are permanent . . . ”
— William James
“The Ph.D. Octopus,” 1903

By nine o’clock, more than 200 would-be professors have piled into the Cotillion Ballroom South at the Sheraton Washington hotel, filling every seat and spilling over into the standing space behind the chairs. They’re young and old, dressed up and down, black and white and other (though mostly white). They’re here to watch Melani McAlister, a 1996 PhD in American Civilization from Brown, explain to a committee of five tenured professors why she ought to be hired at Indiana University.

Everybody looks nervous except McAlister. That’s because, unlike almost everyone else here, she doesn’t need a job; she’s an assistant professor at George Washington University. This interview is a mock-up, a performance put on to inform and reassure the crowd of job-seekers. As McAlister cleanly fields questions about her thesis and her pedagogical strategy, the people in the audience frown and nod, as if mentally rehearsing their own answers to the similar questions they’ll be asked in days to come.

This is night one of the 112th annual meeting of the Modern Language Association, the national organization of professors of English, comparative literature, and living foreign languages. Ten thousand scholars are here in Washington, DC, to attend panels, renew acquaintances, and, most important, to fill open faculty positions. A tenure-track job typically attracts hundreds of applicants; of these, perhaps a dozen will be offered interviews at the MLA; and from that set a handful will be called back for on-campus interviews. For the people who are here “on the market,” that is, trying to become professors of English and so forth, the MLA is the gate to heaven. And, as everyone in the room is aware, the gate is swinging shut.

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A Supposedly Fun Thing (a book review)

I wrote a review of David Foster Wallace’s book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again in 1997 for the late great Boston Phoenix, whose archives don’t seem to be online anymore.  (SOB)

But I have a pdf copy, so here it is, for my own reference, and yours if for some reason you need it!

I should have anticipated this and downloaded all my Phoenix stuff. The first pieces I ever reported were there, a short one about a Michael Moore rally and a long one about the MLA. They’re gone. But wait! I was able to recover the MLA piece from the WayBack Machine.  Thanks, WayBack Machine!  I’ll post that later.

 

 

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Linger

Dolores O’Riordan, singer in the Cranberries, died today.  In the fall of 1993 I was living in an apartment by myself for the first time, the Baltimorean on N. Charles Street.  I was devoting myself full-time to being a writer and kind of hating it.  I didn’t know anyone in Baltimore and the people in my program were mostly older than me and socially inaccessible and I was lonely.   The apartment was always too hot.  I ate spaghetti with jar sauce for dinner by myself and listened to “Linger.”  It’s still the sound of loneliness to me, after all these years.

 

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A rejection from Gordon Lish

At some point I’m going to go through my gigantic file of rejection letters from the mid-1990s, when I was trying to be a fiction writer, and write a post about them, but for now, here’s the one I have from Gordon Lish, from 27 June 1996, when he was editing The Quarterly:

Excellent Jordan — you only impress me further with your force. I
would take the cut if I liked it. I don’t — but I do admire the man
who made it. Cheers, Gordon.

 

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I guess Caffe 608 was in trouble

Eight years after I wondered whether the arthouse cinema / cafe in Hilldale could really make a go of it, Sundance 608 is getting bought out by AMC.  I have really come to like this weird little sort-of-arthouse and hope it doesn’t change too much under new management.  It’s a sign of my age, I guess, that I still think of “movie at the mall” as an entertainment option I want to exist.  It’s my Lindy Hop, my vaudeville, my Show of Shows.

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The past was bad

It’s looking tonight like the GOP will manage to pass some version of the AHCA, a bill repealing the Affordable Care Act and creating some kind of return to the pre-ACA status quo; hard to know exactly what, since the vote will be taken without the bill being publicly released, and the House has decided not to wait for the Congressional Budget Office to estimate just how much this bill will cost Americans.

GOP fans will say: “How can this be such a big disaster, crying liberals?  Ten years ago there was no Obamacare, and people did fine.”

Some people did fine!  Some people didn’t do fine.

You’ll hear people say, in the same sad snappish tone of voice, “Parents today are obsessed with safety, in my day kids rode in the way back of the station wagon, they didn’t wear seatbelts, they crossed the street by themselves, and they were fine.”

Some kids were fine!  But just so you know:  in 1975, about 1600 kids 13 and under were killed by cars as pedestrians, and another 1400 were killed in crashes while riding in cars.  In 2015, those numbers were 186 and 663.  Throw in teenagers and that’s another 8700 dead passengers in 1975; down to 2715 in 2015.

People did fine, except for the thousands of kids who got killed back then who wouldn’t get killed now.

A while ago I was reading the reunion book for the Harvard class of 1893, the people who graduated exactly 100 years before me.  You know what you notice in their bios?  A lot of people’s children died.  In 1920, about 8% of American babies died before the age of 1.  It’s now 0.6%.

People were fine!  They had a baby, the baby died, they got on with their life.

But I like it better when babies hardly ever die, when thousands of children don’t get killed in car crashes, and when Americans have access to affordable health insurance even if they’ve been sick before.  The past was fine.  But it was also bad.

 

 

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Curry apple chicken

I didn’t have time to do a real shop and had nothing for Friday night dinner so I bought some chicken and a bag of apples and made something that came out surprisingly well; I hereby record it.

Ingredients:

2-3 lb boneless chicken breasts

5 apples, cubed

some scallions

some vegetable oil, whatever kind, doesn’t matter, I used olive

1 tbsp ground coriander

1 tbsp ground cumin

1/2 tsp turmeric

1 tsp salt

however much minced garlic you’re into

1/2-1 tsp garam masala

some crushed tomatoes but you could use actual tomatoes if it weren’t the middle of winter

Recipe:

Get oil hot.  Throw apples and scallions in.  Stir and cook 5 mins until apples soft.  Clear off some pan space and put coriander, cumin, turmeric, salt in the oil, let it cook 30 sec – 1 min, then throw in all the chicken, which by the way you cut into chunks, saute it all up until it’s cooked through.  Put the minced garlic in and let that cook for a minute.  Then put in however much tomato you need to combine with everything else in the pan and make a sauce.  (Probably less than you think, you don’t want soup.)  Turn heat down to warm and mix in garam masala.  You could just eat it like this or you could have been making some kind of starch in parallel.  I made quinoa.  CJ liked this, AB did not.

I took the spice proportions from a Madhur Jaffrey recipe but this is in no way meant as actual Indian food, obviously.  I guess I was just thinking about how when I was a kid you would totally get a “curry chicken salad” which was shredded chicken with curry powder, mayonnaise, and chunked up apple, and I sort of wanted a hot mayonnaiseless version of that.  Also, when I was in grad school learning to cook from Usenet with David Carlton, we used to make a salad with broiled chicken and curry mayonnaise and grapes.  I think it was this.  Does that sound right, David?   Yes, that recipe calls for 2 cups of mayonnaise.  It was a different time.  I feel like we would make this and then put it on top of like 2 pounds of rotini and have food for days.

 

 

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I got a message for you

“I got a message for you, if I could only remember.  I got a message for you, but you’re gonna have to come and get it.”  Kardyhm Kelly gave me a tape of Zopilote Machine in 1995 and I played nothing but for a month.  “Sinaloan Milk Snake Song” especially.  Nobody but the Mountain Goats ever made do-it-yourself music like this, nobody else ever made it seem so believable that the things it occurred to you to say or sing while you were playing your guitar in your bedroom at home might actually be pop songs.   The breakdown at the end of this!

“I’ve got a heavy coat, it’s filled with rocks and sand, and if I lose it I’ll be coming back one day (I got a message for you).”  I spent a lot of 1993 thinking about the chord progression in the verse of this song.  How does it sound so straight-ahead but also so weird?  Also the “la la la”s (“Sinaloan Milk Snake Song” has these too.)

“Roll me in the greenery, point me at the scenery.  Exploit me in the deanery.  I got a message for you.”

The first of these I ever heard.  Douglas Wolk used to send mixtapes to Elizabeth Wilmer at Math Olympiad training.  This was on one of them.  1987 probably. I hadn’t even started listening to WHFS yet, I had no idea who Robyn Hitchcock was.  It was on those tapes I first heard the Ramones, Marshall Crenshaw, the Mentors (OK, we were in high school, cut us some slack.)

(Update:  Douglas denies ever putting the Mentors on a mixtape, and now that I really think about it, I believe Eric Wepsic was to blame for bringing the Mentors into my life.)

Why is this line so potent?  Why is the message never explicitly presented?  It’s enough — it’s better — that the message only be alluded to, never spoken, never delivered.

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Wall words

When I was a kid I had an anthology of Cyril Kornbluth stories and one detail in the introduction made a big impression on me:  Kornbluth had lots of random notes among his papers, ideas, words, and phrases, and the editor of the anthology found it kind of poignant to look at these and wonder what stories they would have been.  Especially — and this phrase has stuck with me all these years — “ghosts in a Martian department store.”

Anyway:  while cleaning up the basement, I came across a pile of Post-its, which were on my wall when I was a creative writing grad student at Johns Hopkins in 1994.  Each of these, I guess, was something I meant to use for something.  I have no memory of what any of these mean.  But here they are.  Maybe you can use them.  None of them is as good as “ghosts in a Martian department store.”

  • “every third person in the world”
  • The Admonitionist
  • assapanic
  • “Bald men, a lot of them — yeah, that might work!”
  • Rick Ziggurat
  • The First Church of Christ Plaintiff
  • Community Reaction to a Horrifying Event – Arndt
  • out of the fishy-smelling steam
  • reckless use of a highway
  • THE UNDERTAKER’S BIRTHDAY (Did the stripper shoot the corpse?)
  • The grandfatherly crook gives a motivational lecture to fifth-graders
  • “you slug in a ditch!”
  • Solomon “Duck-Duck” Goos
  • A first line:  “Here’s something you might not know.”
  • “luz” — “an unidentified bone…”
  • The hobo community, waiting /expecting (esperar) for rich couples to pick them up.
  • The apocalypse counselor “If the sun went supernova, we wouldn’t know for eight minutes.”
  • “Of course, there is some element of risk involved in building a house out of oily rags.”
  • steeped in regret
  • Chief Louis Anemone NYPD (red)
  • “This guy’s been shot.”  “No kidding — you think he’ll make it?”
  • HIDALGO – hijo de algo
  • fetus/treatise
  • fuckadelphia
  • abacinate
  • “Victory without a whimper…the only sound:  excellence.”
  • “The ghost of Knute Rockne is living and he is smiling.”
  • “That’s a big number, but it’s a heck of a lot better than infinity.”
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i, you sneaky bastard

Childhood memory:  I learned that i is formally defined to be the square root of -1.  Well, I thought, that worked well, what about the square root of i?  Surely that must be yet a new kind of number.  I just had to check that (a+bi)^2 can never be i.  But whoa, you can solve that!  (sqrt(2)/2) + (sqrt(2)/2)i does the trick.  I was kind of bowled over by this.  i, you sneaky bastard — you anticipated my next move and got ahead of me!  I had no idea what “algebraically closed” meant, or anything like that.  But it was one of my first experience of the incredible power of the right definition.  Once the definition is right, you can just do everything.

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