Vila goes to a workshop; or, How to get ahead in a post-Fordist recession

June 9, 2009 § 11 Comments


Today, I attended a career workshop for PhD students who are about to be unceremoniously ejected into the worst academic job market in years.  It was, in a word, awful: a vague mish-mash of pop psychology and group exercises that offered little in the way of concrete information or practical advice, and entirely too much about finding one’s joy and being “free” and “creative” in the face of imminent unemployment.  To add insult to injury, the workshop leader clearly had no idea what it is that doctoral students in my field actually do, which is an honest enough mistake but which left her struggling to respond to questions tainted by years of critical theory and draft beer.

Unquestionably, the highlight was a brainstorming exercise that was designed to help us discover our hidden talents and lost joys, which, once retrieved, would usher us into postacademic careers that would fulfill us in ways that academe never could.  The ostensible purpose of the exercise was to construct a pyramid of life experiences that would lead us to our newfound professions, and it began with a search for inspiration among our families.  “So, what do your parents do?” the workshop leader asked us brightly.  Our answers are pictured above.

Under normal circumstances, it would be considered impolite to ask a roomful of strangers to announce their class background, but in the context of a career workshop participants have no choice but to respond.  After some prodding, we all answered in turn, and with each response the workshop leader veritably exploded with helpful suggestions for our new career paths.  “Ooh, your father was a tree doctor?  Well then, you could explore a career in environmental issues!”  “Your mother works for the health department?  Great, so you might enjoy working for the government too!”

Of course, the problem with this particular exercise is that it makes people whose parents aren’t educated professionals feel uncomfortable about their lineage, an issue one of my colleagues deftly side-stepped by skipping a generation and citing his grandfather’s profession instead of his parents’.  I, on the other hand, have virtually no shame, so when my turn came I said, deliberately, “factory worker and cleaning woman.”  I then sat back in my chair and waited to see what new-age platitude this information would bring forth.

The workshop leader was clearly caught off guard and, still smiling, she stalled for more time.  “Well, that’s interesting!  Um, let’s see…”  After a few long seconds, she had it.  “I know!  I bet you like to work with your hands!”  My first impulse was to scream; repressing this, I retorted, harshly, “No, not in the least.”

Now, this isn’t technically true, since I use my hands to (a) write, (b) take pictures, and (c) play music, all of which I quite enjoy doing.  But the thrust of her suggestion was that working with one’s hands is the opposite of thinking, an assumption that has prematurely steered countless children into “vocational” programs and, despite my good grades, very nearly landed me in one as well.  Honestly, she might as well have said that I should consider janitorial services if the academic gig doesn’t work out, which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with being a janitor—there isn’t—but that one generally doesn’t require fifteen years of post-secondary education to become one.  At least, not yet.

To the workshop leader’s credit, she did offer a second and infinitely better suggestion, which was that my parents likely instilled in me a desire for an education that was fuelled by their hope that, unlike my colleagues, I would not do what they did for a living.  The irony, of course, being that the pursuit of said education led directly to my participation in a career workshop for soon-to-be-unemployed professors, most of whom would probably give their eyeteeth for a shot at a job with half the stability my father’s afforded him.

Obviously, it’s time to start playing the lottery again.


§ 11 Responses to Vila goes to a workshop; or, How to get ahead in a post-Fordist recession

  • mare says:

    I laughed out loud reading this, even though the underlying story is quite sad. Or maybe because, it’s sometimes hard to tell.

  • methesequel says:

    You have a flair for pummeling the ridiculous with its own absurdity, madam.

  • pocha says:

    I love that you thought to snap a picture of the chalk board on your way out. Brilliant.

  • I’ve been thinking about it since she said that yesterday and now I’m wondering what job I could do that *wouldn’t* involve me using my hands in any way.

    Still, I’m voting for the part where she started saying that we should all take the Myers-Briggs & vocational aptitude tests to see what kind of career we were most suited for as being the least helpful part of the seminar. The last thing I want to find out after all these years slogging it out in the academy is that I should actually have been a forest ranger.

    p.s. since you requested it so nicely I typed up a rant about new age communism for you.

  • Vila H. says:

    Mare: Good. To paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut, laughing is less messy than crying.

    Methesequel: Do you think that would fit on a business card?

    Pocha: Sometimes, life just screams “visual aid!”

    At the Workshop: You forgot to mention that they charge $15 for the service. Ka-ching.

  • My dad used to move pianos, and I always thought this meant I had missed out on a career as a musician. Now I know better…

  • Vila H. says:

    See, we’ve all learned something. Welcome back.

  • Frank says:

    One of the best posts I’ve read in a long time. I hope everything works out on the employment search.

    My father always wanted to become an architect, but went into finance to support his family. So I really had no illusions of how I became interested in construction.

  • Vila H. says:

    Thanks, Frank. It’s nice to know I haven’t completely lost my touch.

  • profacero says:

    God. I so cannot stand new age junk “thought.” Lovely post.

  • Vila H. says:

    Thanks. There’s certainly no shortage of it, is there?

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