Meetings, class time, and the neoliberal classroom / by Sydney Baloue

Once you recognize that a PhD in 2017 has a very different connotation to PhD work in previous years, then a lot of its oddities make more sense. For instance, the role of the classroom shifts completely in meaning. For me, I had a major breakthrough within the past couple of months once I realized that a PhD in its true essence is really just the freelance work of "knowledge production." For me, I treat this time in my life like a job, which it is (ableit the university is fighting the emerging student union on this point at Penn, but that's another topic). I go in from 9am to 5pm and I get my 35-40 hours in per week. I give myself at least one day of rest and I step away from work at the end of the day, i.e. when I leave "the office," which is our graduate student room where my desk is. I am grateful to be old enough at this point to know that I need to pace myself in this world because just as many of my friends in the world of freelance, DIY work or tech startups find early on, there will always be more work to do. This is why we had to create unions, to limit the amount of work that a person has to do because the work will always be endless.

What is interesting about this setup in the academy, however is that in this weird world of "knowledge production," (a silly term that academia uses to describe what it does - this is how this particular world views the journal articles, literature, and other academic materials it creates) work is unending. With other jobs, you can walk away from the office and not think about work, not look at emails, turn off your phone, etc. However, if your work is predicated on you coming up with ideas, then how does one turn off one's brain? In the first couple weeks of my PhD, I found myself coming up with new ideas while I would engage in mundane life activities outside of work. For example, I was in the gym working out and then out of nowhere a solution to an idea I had been working on in a paper came to me - in the middle of a bicep curl! Madness. I spoke with a professor about this and while she cautioned me that yes, it is good to delineate time/space between work and my life outside of this institution, she also said that sometimes those moments can be helpful and it's best to write down whatever you thought about, so it can still live somewhere else and that I should just move on with what I was doing that wasn't work-related. I really like this idea, that the issue I was trying to solve and its solution will come out somewhere and that I can capture it, like a thought bubble, and then put it away in a little cupboard drawer to pull out later when I need it. Helpful.

Also, I think a lot about some PhD advice I received from a dear friend of mine in London. My friend, Brooke, told me to find a way to incorporate meditation in to my regular self-care practice. I find this to be the most gratifying and rewarding thing I have done in recent years. Weekly, I attend a guided meditation session, which is provided by a woman from student health at Penn. This hour out of my week is extremely helpful in allowing me to slow down, focus, and feel less stressed by the enormous amount of work I am constantly being asked to produce. I think this is another way to make a deep separation between work and "real life." While I am very grateful for this opportunity, the angry little Marxist inside of me is slightly outraged that academia is such that we must take these extreme measures of "self management" in order to combat the never-ending pile of work and stress that accompanies this particular neoliberal paradigm of academic "knowledge production." I guess to some, they would see this as "a choice" that one must make in self time management. I'll just leave this thought here for those who engage in critique of this sort of thing...

As it relates to classtime, however this is an even more complex and bothersome thing and my current conundrum. Contrary to the fun intellectual conversations I have had amongst friends at dinner parties and other casual settings, classtime in the PhD world is absolutely atrocious. This setting is a particular kind of purgatory that I can only imagine happens because of this new paradigm of "learning" that exists in the academy. I am grateful that I have lived outside of academia and particularly in Europe where the idea of casual engagement with intellectual ideas over dinner, get-togethers, community events, and other 21st century makeshift "salons," as these previous experiences have taught me that there are healthier and more enriching ways of engaging in intellectual thought and even by the standards of the academy "knowledge production," which do not and perhaps never will happen in a classroom. Class time in the PhD is a bizarre time and geographic space where a variety of ideas, feelings and enormous anxieties are expressed. To describe it as tortuous does not even begin to describe the enormous level of discomfort, absurdity and general disarray that comes from this period.

Much of the nature of this period is dictated by the facilitator, i.e. the professor, who teaches the course and so much can be determined by this one person's particular mood, affect, and ability (or more often than not, inability) to organize and take leadership over this group dynamic and activity. In short, much of the terrible nature of this time comes down to management. To me, the failure of professors in taking leadership, ownership, etc. over this space says that this is one of the aspects of this pedagogical project, which is not taken seriously by the academy. There is a science to group management (which is why you have entire fields, MBA programs, etc. which are devoted to studying it). Of course, this is overlooked by the academy because this is already an archaic field, which is suspicious of "new ideas." Also, perhaps the irony of any sort of real investment in looking at this time is that while so many other aspects of the new PhD neoliberal educational paradigm are in alignment with "new public management," the efficacy of the facilitator, their (in)ability to engage in class management, etc. has not been accounted for or really properly examined, modified, etc.

Regardless, I recognize that in the world that we live in, class time, as it relates to my self-managed 35-40 hour work-week, is really just what those in corporate spheres call, "meetings." And you know what is funny about meetings? Everybody hates them! Like, everybody. Again, I am so grateful to have had the time outside of the academy to recognize why this time spent together with classmates/colleagues is so dreadful: it just is. Rarely, do people enjoy meetings in work settings - this awful time when we have to be exposed to other people whom we don't really like and/or are not "friends" with. In German, they at least have this nice word for "people from university," which draws distinction between friend and not-quite-foe-but-something-that-isn't-a-friend: Kommilitone. In this way, at least linguistically, we can give nuance to these people who are in our peer group, who aren't really our friends, and who we are with together in this scholarly environment that is quasi-professional, quasi-casual. The annoying thing about these "meetings," of course is that inside this geographic-time space, all of the unresolved issues of other people come out in unexpected, unsightly and often uncomfortable ways. Whether it's someone else's insecurities around being "good enough" or "smart enough" amongst their peers or a professor's insecurities around their abilities in relation to a student or some past life trauma a professor or student has suffered, under the guise of "analyzing a text" or "class discussion" these issues leak out and create the perfect storm for discomfort, unease and general dread.

That said, I find myself in the difficult position of trying to find how I can manage this awful thing I call "meetings" and my schedule calls "class." If only there were a way to get out of this! Or at least recuperate the time. Part of me says I should check in with my corporate friends and see what methods they use to mitigate the awful nature of meetings. It seems like such a high price to pay for my overarching goals and aspirations, which go beyond the academy. I am certain there is a way to get out of it. I guess this is my current Rubik's Cube of amusement in the ivory tower.