Grad Students are the Worst

Grad students are the worst. I know this, because I was a grad student for many, many years. I spent enough years in post-secondary institutions to be a doctor. A real doctor. Not a PhD. So long in fact that I should be able to write prescriptions, but every time I go to a pharmacy with ‘20 x Vicodin’ written on a Post-It, I get arrested. Or detained, anyway. No convictions. My lawyer is aces. And most people hate lawyers, but not me. I hate grad students. Because grad students are the worst.

Grad students aren’t bad people, per se. Some of my closest friends are grad students. I know this, because my Facebook feed is filled with status updates about late nights writing essays on Northrop Frye, the merits of coffee mixed with Monster Energy Drinks, and the endless task of grading Composition papers. Hell, I was married to a grad student for much of the early part of 2008, and besides a still missing cat, a scar above my left eye, and bit of infidelity, it ended amicably. I imagine some grad students are good people, and have gone on to write really, really great SSHRC applications. And, in all seriousness, someone has to teach/date undergrads, right?

I can’t speak for all disciplines. I have no idea what History or Economics grad students are like, but I would assume that they are the worst. But in my many years as an English grad student, I came to loathe both myself and my classmates. Not as people, because many of them have lent me money, but rather as proponents of grad student speak and their tendency to surgically remove beauty and soul from literature. My MA years were filled with classmates making declarations of variations of the following statements:

  1. “Well, I hate to bring Foucault into the conversation so early, but…”
  2. “Pardox, paradox, derivative, pedagogy, pedagogical.”
  3. “So-and-so said this, which I am now also saying, but with slightly different adjectives, making it my own thought.”

I hated nearly every lit class I took as a grad student, not because of the subject matter (though it seemed tired), or the profs (though they seemed tired), but rather the general attitude of the discussions. The grad students thought as one, hated undergrads, and reduced all forms of literature to such a scientific and sterile level, that it was hard to believe that they actually liked books. I tried to loosen things up in the discussions, delivering papers with titles like “Joy Kogawa: An Insult to Trees” and “The Dude Blamed the Chick, I Heard the Chick Blamed the Snake, I Heard They Were Naked When They Got Busted, I Heard Things Ain’t Been the Same Since: Genesis in the Works of Leonard Cohen” but my wit was frowned upon. And that’s the other thing. Grad students are humourless, believing any literature with elements of humour is childish, beneath them, second rate. I even had one prof who would preface my contributions by stating: “Now remember, Mike’s not an academic,” which I took as a compliment, but was apparently a slight. Not from the prof, but rather my peers. Grad students are the worst.

I remember one particular incident with a Canadian Literature prof quite fondly. This merry gent believed that Canada ended at federation, and thought very little of my own writing and that of my peers (writer peers, not grad student peers. Grad students are the worst.) I was called into his office a few weeks after I had handed in an essay entitled “I Killed Thomas D’Arcy McGee: Getting Beyond the Suck in CanLit”. He asked me what I thought of my grade, to which I replied (honestly) that I had yet to check. He considered my aloof indifference to academia as he topped up his double-double with maple syrup that he had pulled from his desk drawer. “I gave you an A,” he told me, “but you’ll never be able to present that paper at a conference.” I tried to explain to him that I was in the creative writing stream, and that I had no plans to ever speak at or attend a conference, and so my grade was of no matter to me. He nearly choked on his Timbits, and I left before he could scold me further on my failures as a grad student.

And therein lies a bigger question: If grad students are the worst, and grad students become PhD students, and PhD students become profs, are profs then, by extension, the worst as well? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is no, with a but. And then, what can we say about creative writing profs, most of whom have just an MA or MFA. Does that make them grad students in perpetuity, and as such the worst in perpetuity? Fortunately, no, as from what I can gather, something happens to grad students during their PhDs or after publishing one or two poorly received novellas which makes them human again, because I liked most of my profs, except for those who I’m currently suing for defamation of character. (If you’re reading this ma’am, I refer you to the above statement that my lawyer is aces.)

Is this just bitterness? a self-loathing that has evolved into something sad? Probably, but I’m an unsuccessful writer, and sad bitterness has been my bread-and-butter. All joking aside, I can pinpoint the exact moment when I came to believe that grad students were the worst. I was in the early stages of my MA, and spending a spring morning as I spend most spring mornings: drinking gin and Tropicana, and checking Facebook. An acquaintance had posted as their status that they had finally finished writing a good draft of their novel and that it was not genius, or beautiful, or a highlight of their young writing career, but rather that the work was “tenure worthy”. Tenure worthy. Like that was the benchmark, the goal, the dream.

I was so offended I couldn’t finish my gin and OJ. I spent the rest of the morning considering what had upset me so, and I began to realize that this was a problem not just with grad students, but with a lot of the writing had been exposed to at the time, both in school and out. It wasn’t written for joy, but rather it had been written for other grad students. It was thick with obscure literary references, humourless, and sterile. The writing had become academic. It seemed like I was too stupid for everything I was reading, and when I would mention this to my peers they would tell me that I just hadn’t been exposed to enough writing of the same ilk to understand it. They said as I read more during grad school, then I would come to appreciate the work that to me was boring, scientific, and soulless. Man, grad students are the worst.

So where did this all come from? Why, years removed from those classes and that writing, am I making note of how grad students are the worst? Well, this afternoon I was sampling bourbon with my 3-year-old niece and looking for freelancing gigs online. Craigslist was down, and so she opened up a Word doc, and started writing. She said she was writing a poem, and after a couple of minutes, she said that she was finished, and I asked her what the title was. “The Mobile to the Rescue” she declared without hesitation. Good title, I thought, and while I read it over, questioning her use of enjambment and alliteration, all I could think was that this was exactly like one of those experimental poems of yesteryear that I didn’t understand. I could clearly picture some pompous first-year MA student, with aspirations for the PhD program at Upper Iowa State at De Moines and an affection for progressive indie math-rock, telling me fifteen different theorists I needed to read before I would understand my niece’s efforts. “The poem exists in what isn’t written,” he would tell me. “Try and see what isn’t there. The absence is the poem.” “Have you never read the Latin translation of Eunoia backwards, using Žižek’s writings on metaphysics as a filter?” Grad students are the worst.

But my niece is the best. So, here is her first published poem, beating out both me and Bukowski by thirty years. An essay on its use of irregular grammar and punctuation in order to reflect the writer’s naïveté contrasted with a unified commentary on the theory of literary criticism to follow.

The Mobile to the Rescue
by Piper Jean Spry Weissenberger

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Sabermetric Relationships Pt. I

So, I’m hanging out with my 3-year-old niece yesterday afternoon, you know, just drinking Stellas (Lights, don’t be judgmental), thinking about my last two divorces, why my former employer keeps telling people I’m illiterate and that my left foot is articificial, and wondering if anyone would buy the film rights to my book of poetry so that I could pay off my substantial student loan debt or perhaps buy a Crispy Crunch, and she says to me “Uncle Michael, you have no children because you are alone.” At first, I thought it was the Belgian ale talking, and that her comments were ill informed and mean-spirited. But, you know, she’s three and her tolerance is embarrassingly low, and the more I thought about it, the more I realized that her declaration was born of both caring and ingenuity. She was reducing my existence to a very basic equation: (Uncle Michael) x (0 partner) = 0 children. At three, she was quantifying her uncle for the purposes of evaluating his position in life. She was, perhaps unknowingly, developing the philosophy of sabermetric relationships.

Sabermetrics is the “specialized analysis of baseball through objective, empirical evidence, specifically baseball statistics that measure in-game activity.” It is a term coined by baseball historian Bill James, popularized by Billy Beane as General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, documented in the book Moneyball by Michael Lewis, and brought to the masses by the film adaptation starring Brad Pitt. Its philosophy is quite simple, though its execution is less than scientific, certainly something that can be said of dating. Statistics such as stolen bases, runs batted in, and batting average, historically typical quantifiers of baseball players, are antiquated notions of a 19th century perception of the sport and the statistics that were available at the time. More specifically, sabermetrics relies more on empirical evidence, and less on chain-smoking, heavy drinking, overweight scouts in fedoras sweating through their short sleeve dress shirts making summer long road trips to places like Bluefield, Virginia; Missoula, Montana; and San Pedro de Macorís, Dominican Republic.  Basically, it removes the romanticism from summer’s pastime.

So with all that romanticism out of work, why not borrow it? Why not plug sabermetrics into the less quantifiable pastime of love? My niece, two sippy cups of Stella in, started the process, but since she naps often, is asleep by 7:11, and easily distracted, I thought I’d attempt to finish it.  First, let’s replace Bill James with Henry James. Makes sense, right? James was a realist, favoured celebrating the banal over stylized romanticism, and appreciated a good narrative, and what is baseball but an unending narrative? And what’s more banal than statistical analysis?

But the substitution of James for James is intriguing on many levels. Of knowledge, the exploitation of which fuels sabermetrics, Bill James wrote:

“There will always be people who are ahead of the curve, and people who are behind the curve. But knowledge moves the curve.”

Henry James had similar thoughts on knowledge:

“It isn’t knowledge, it’s ignorance that–as we’ve been beautifully told—is bliss.”

And what leads best to loneliness, but ignorance? Henry James enjoyed juxtaposing elements of the old world with those of the new, and what is sabermetrics but that exactly? My niece was on to something. Perhaps she could be the next Orioles GM.

Once we’ve exchanged the James’, we’re forced to confront the acronyms–the seemingly endless list of statistics that excite the sabermetrics faithful. Where once baseball was about the digits of RBIs, HRs, and AVGs, love was about acquiring seven digits, a six-pack, and occasionally doubling up. But no more. Love, like baseball has become more complicated. The sheer number of forums in which you can meet another person is seemingly infinite. From Facebook to Twitter to Lavalife to J-Date to Second Life to speed dating. Whatever happened to just going to the bar, getting drunk, and letting the rest sort itself out? Well, the same thing that happened to batting average, the Triple Crown, and chewing tobacco I suppose.

So, off-and-on for the next while, I’m going to consider a few of sabermetrics most prominent statistics, and how they relate to relationships, and continue to develop the philosophy of sabermetric relationships. Today, WAR.

Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a non-standardized statistic that is used to show how many more wins a player would give a team as opposed to a “replacement level”, or minor league/bench player at that position. While WAR values are scaled equally for pitchers and hitters, the result is calculated differently for pitchers versus position players: position players are evaluated using statistics for fielding and hitting, while pitchers are evaluated using statistics related to the opposing batters’ hits, walks and strikeouts.

Basically, this is the baseball equivalent of measuring a prospective partner against his contemporaries. Let’s say you’re a single young woman, and you’re at a respectable bar with some friends for an evening of cocktails and frivolity. Sitting across from you is a table of like-minded young men, out for similar cocktails and hopes of frivolity. As a young woman, you’re immediately judging that table, calculating each individual at the table’s value in comparison to all the others. The table is the bench. The stats are simple at the evening’s beginning, generally based on aesthetic. As the evening progresses, as the night gets into the later evenings, the stats change. Because WAR is non-standardized, on any given evening we can consider stats such as Drink Consumption, Conversational Acumen, Ability to Stand Up, and Tab Payment Quotient.  Depending on what point in the season we’re playing, and how deep our bench is, different considerations come into play within the umbrella of WAR. Most people strike out, some walk home, and some are fortunate enough to work the counts deep, score a few runs, and make it into extra innings. Okay, the metaphor is corny there and a bit weak, but remember this was the idea of a half-cut 3 years old. Work with me.

Next Week: STDs & BABIPs: DIPS, LIPS, and Prophylactics

Thanks, Earl McRae

Earl McRae, an institution in Canadian journalism, died this past week. It was reported that he passed away at his desk at the Ottawa Sun doing what he did best, writing. And if we should all be so lucky, to die doing what it is we love most, what we do best and are most respected for, well, that would be okay with me. Of course, that would mean I’d die streaming episodes of The West Wing, but whatevs. I dig Sorkin.

I grew up in Ottawa, and Earl McRae was the first newspaper columnist I can remember reading on a regular basis, certainly the first opinion not of my parents that I cared about. He was a sports writer then, with the Ottawa Citizen, and coming from a non-sports family he was my first adult entry into the sports world. His style was unique in that it was a gonzo approach to sports writing, not simply telling the reader the scores, who got injured, and adding a handful of clichéd quotes, but instead inserting himself into the narrative. It is a style that was not common then, certainly not common in Canada, and is underused, abused, and misused now (see: Simmons, Bill), filling column inches with ego at the expense of narrative.

At a very early age I was acutely aware of the politics of sport; how the little league coach’s son got more at-bats than others, how the gym teacher’s buddy’s kid got the last spot on the high school basketball team, how what would later be affectionately labeled ‘grit’ and ‘heart’ and ‘character’ didn’t garner the same respect in a sports world made up of 12-16 year olds. Earl McRae provided me with a template for participating in the world of sports without being tainted by it, but rather inspired and entertained. He was a gateway drug which led me to Hunter S. Thomson and beyond, and then eventually to the low-paying, low-reward world of CanLit in which I now toil.

For an all to brief period in the early 1990s Earl McRae had a call-in radio show on an Ottawa AM station. This was long before sports radio, before wall-to-wall minute-to-minute coverage of sport. It was on Sunday nights and I’d listen to it while not doing my job a local restaurant called The Cajun Attic. One week, after running into Earl McRae’s father in line at a Harvey’s in Ottawa’s Westboro Village, Mr. McRae, upon his father’s urging, dropped my name into conversation during his radio show. He gave me a shout-out, long before that was a part of the lexicon. It was the first time I had heard my name outside of the context of my own little life, and I loved it. It was a feeling that’s difficult to describe, but it’s the same feeling I get when I’m introduced to read, or spot a review of one of my books, or see my name on the line-up for a reading. It’s some strange mix of pride and wonder, and it’s that same combination that keeps me writing. Or part of it, anyway.

Westboro Village is where Earl McRae’s legacy will live on, for it is there that he founded the Elvis Sighting Society along with Newport Pizzeria owner Moe Atallah. Part faith, part laugh, all in fun, the Elvis Sighting Society has raised countless dollars for Ottawa charities over the past 20 years or so. And I imagine that many a glass was raised to Mr. McRae over the past few days at the legendary local eatery, and will continue to be raised for years to come. The Elvis Sighting Society contends that Elvis Presley is still alive and well, and living in Tweed, Ontario, a small town of just under 6000, west of Ottawa.  This contention was included in a short story from my collection, Distillery Songs, called “Emulsification.”  It was a subconscious inclusion, but a pleasant reminder of how random parts of our lives make it into writing. And now that Earl McRae has passed, it feels good that something of mine will forever include something of his. Below is “Emulsification,” for Earl McRae. Thank you, sir.

Emulsification                                                                                                  

Okay, there’s a goddamn dead hooker named Crystal or Shelley or Raven or something duct taped to my couch and it’s one twenty-four in the afternoon and my notoriously punctual parents will be here for dinner at five-thirty and wouldn’t you know it I’m completely out of almonds and cumin, the former which I can do without but without the latter I might as well not even bother cooking, and then to compound my problems the bastards at Lapointe’s gave me salmon filets instead of darns, the incompetent motherfucking fishmongering assholes. And I’m not even the sort who would normally pick up a goddamn hooker let alone a goddamn dead one, but it was Thursday yesterday and on Thursdays I like to watch CSI, the original not the Florida one or whatever, but it was pre-empted for some fucking Katie Couric special on teen sex, and, well, give me teen sex and two hours with Katie Couric and suddenly I’m at the kind of bar where a fat middle-aged man like myself might be able to get laid. But the place is full of other fat sorry men who are similarly disappointed in the pre-emption of CSI and similarly aroused by Katie Couric and teen sex and so it’s just a sad room filled to the rim with drunkards getting drunker so when Raven came in and sat next to me I hardly noticed. Then she grabbed one of my smokes and normally a drunk would get a punch in the fucking head for filching a smoke in a bar like this but I’m all filled with the drink and Katie Couric fantasies, so I say hi and Crystal says hello and can I buy her a drink and of course I say sure ‘cause every other drunk useless fuck in the place is jealous ‘cause I’ve got the one woman in the joint that still has teeth and I buy her a rye and ginger and she sucks it back like it’s the cure so I order two and three and four and five and ten more until I’m seeing sideways and she asks do I live close by and do I like to party, and by that I wonder if she means party like hors d’oeuvres and cocktails with fruit and conversation about rounds under par and politics and celebrities and maybe a game of Cranium but we’d need two more people but she flashes an eight-ball from her purse and I say ohhhhh, party, sure I like to party and ya I live close by so let me get the tab and the entire crooked room sneers and sways in a contemptuous envy as it sees me leave with her and I feel about nine and a half fucking feet tall.

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