Being an academic used to be a pretty set in stone kind of life. You got into grad school, studied hard while teaching entry level classes, graduating, and finding a tenure track professor job. It’s not really like that anymore. Increasing tuition costs, increasing class sizes, and a decreasing number of open professorships means that its no longer a smart option to go along to grad school and seek out academic work.
Historically colleges and grad programs were important because it took a lifetime of reading books and talking to people to acquire an expert level knowledge about something. Today, knowledge is available to everyone. We make bulleted lists and podcasts and infographics so its pretty easy to grasp what even complex subjects are all about. No one is gatekeeing all the smarts anymore and its really pissing some people off.
Case in point. I was at AWP this weekend and attended a “traditional reading.” It was at a tired kitchy bar where a bunch of middle aged people stood around listening to people speak too quietly into a microphone. I’ll summarize each reading for you since you missed it: “vulgar word” (pause for stuffy white audience to recover after hearing a vulgar word at an adult reading) “reference to vulgar sex act” (pause for stuffy white audience to recover after you refer to a vulgar sex act at an adult reading). Ad Nauseum (sic). You know the lolz dolls aren’t prudes but this was offensive because it was someone describing vulgar sex acts not because it was important to them or they wanted to describe their experience or something they were curious about, they just wanted to say something gross to get a rise out of us. Do better.
This is the old gaurd. The wine and cheese being passed around by a group of MFA grads who are Really Serious About Lit. They know things and they want you to know about it! As an afterthought they may have created a Tumblr account for their lit zine to connect with kids these days.
Academia doesn’t belong to the academy anymore or to god awful readings with a table of books and a cash box in the corner. Academia belongs to the internet and those who know how to use it well. Cut to the Pop Serial party. There was a hundred people packed into Stephen Tully Dierks lil apartment. These kids are smarter than the old guard for the simple reason that they aren’t around trying to impress anyone. They’re still kids who get to do what they love and aren’t encumbered by having to keep up a professional reputation or pay a mortgage.
Sam Pink began the readings at the Pop Serial party. He doesn’t need to rely on vulgarity or raunchiness because he’s a good writer and he cares about the work he is delivering. People were crowded into Stephen Tully Dierk’s apartment. They were sitting on the floor, standing, leaning, and laughing their asses off. Readers stood on Dierk’s furnace or coffee table and spoke without a microphone. Cassandra Troyan blew me away with her attitude, taking a pull from a whiskey bottle between each poem. People exhaled between her poems too. There was massive cheering and yelling.
What you learn at places like AWP is that if you are passionate about something, you do it. The best writers I met didn’t go to panels where they told you things like “be bold in your writing,” I don’t think any of them even had tickets to the actual conference. They are just writers because it interests them, there to drink and read and have adventures with other writers. The old model of networking is kind of moot, everyone is already friends on Facebook and noting up and comers through their Tumblr dashboard.
There is no more hierarchy. There is no more of the kind of readings Bukowski described as “the saddest damned things ever.” The value of your graduate degree is depreciating beyond recognition. If you care about something, care about it for it’s own sake. If you need an award saying you know a lot about literature, you probably don’t even care about it as much as the person who’s made themselves known as an expert about it on the internet.