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Sunday, January 11, 2015

Bethany Hayes emails me

about her art student daughter and academia:


Yesterday Leah was saying that she was very depressed thinking about art school so I said she probably didn’t want to read your [New Orleans] Postcard, and she said no, definitely not. Funny you emailed me that, because the day before yesterday Leah and I were talking about how she feels like a liar all the time in art school. Her teachers are always egging her on to go to grad school and get pissy if she says she’s not sure if going that way is the best thing for her to do with her life. She gets lectures about how men don’t worry about doing things just because they love it, and neither should she. Turn this into a feminist issue, right?

The fact is, though, she doesn’t love it. She works dutifully hard on her assignments and has not gone into near total or worse meltdown like some of her fellow students, but she doesn’t think much of her work. Last summer she finally broke with her insufferable boyfriend and started out the semester doing paintings of his face superimposed on a dog’s in many variations, and the teachers told her to stick with it, so she spent all semester doing that.

So I was giving her my usual pep talk: maybe you’re not so inclined to be a visual artist at this point, but the problem seems to be that you don’t have anything to say. I think what she needs to do is go out, be on her own, and deal with being really poor. She’s thinking she’ll sign up for Americorp and go somewhere and do something for them. Well, that doesn’t sound like the worst thing, although I have said she should leave the country for a while and get some perspective (advice I’m thinking of taking for myself). And I brought up your statement that we need public intellectuals. So it was quite fitting that you sent me this:

“I’m citing relatively recent examples to show that it wasn’t all that long ago when we still had functioning synapses between our ears. Jackson Pollock was profiled in Life magazine, and Steinbeck and Salinger were read by high school kids. Now, they have never heard of Mark Twain or think he might be a country singer, for in these gleefully illiterate and belligerently philistine United States, there is only a miniscule, coterie audience for any of the high arts, and this has been arrived at by design, of course, because it’s a lot easier to rob and manipulate an idiotic population. Though we have a vast cultural heritage, it’s being buried deeper and deeper, like a forgotten time capsule, while on the surface, blathering morons of every type are being pumped up and feted on a revolving stage.”

Exactly. 1984 is the book of the age, every other political article uses the term “Orwellian,” but this is something only the older comprehend. I know this because I’ve asked my students when I give them something to read that uses the term. They have no clue, but like all words they don’t know, they just pass right by them, and because they do this with many, many words—only looking up words when forced by a vocab quiz—they have very strange ideas of what they just read. If it has anything to do with the economy, or corruption in this bombastic State, it’s strange to them. Ask them what the NSA is and get ready for bewildered faces. Is this on the test?

And I cannot assign 1984 because one community college I was working at took it off the allowed list. I asked a young adjunct why, and she said the students just don’t understand it. I wonder how fucking badly can you teach it to get that reaction. It makes me think they don’t understand it either, and I’m probably right because I see them “teaching” in their classes through the windows; they’re having their student do little writing exercises while they’re texting on their cellphones.

And the one college I’m still working on doesn’t allow fiction in freshman English, and the head of the first-year writing program has compiled a customized textbook of readings which we all must stick to, and none of them use the term Orwellian, and those students won’t be reading any of your Postcards, I very, very much regret to say. You’re right: the campuses ban reality.

Everything you wrote in [the New Orleans] one is exactly right, the corporatizing of the colleges, etc. But where does that tuition money go? I’m sure not getting much in the way of compensation, and how much money does it really take to pay a bunch of adjuncts and a few remaining tenured folk, and have rooms to put the students in? It’s all going into the administrations, so the people sucking it in are sitting on committees talking about how to deskill instruction and crafting what can and cannot be said. God, I am always yammering about how education must be taken away from the institutions. This has earned me a reputation of being a union-buster, but you can’t have everything. Do something about a moronic population or support teachers’ unions? I pick door number one.


this [teaching] gig has become really problematic, morally and intellectually, and I’d do as well at some McJobs, where all people would care about is how my piss tested.


When I first started doing the adjunct work continually I was in grad school once again, where I spent many years just to get out of the corporate world. Ah, the beige towers, my refuge! I ditched out of there the last time in a profound depression. You'd think that English departments would be more compassionate about depression, given that most of the writers they admire suffered from it, but no. But I don't have to tell you what academia smells like these days.

And no doubt, it's always been a racket. It's just that it's a more insidious racket now. Robert Frost once said something to the effect that in college one learns what sort of pictures educated people put on their walls, and what sort of music they listen to. College was a place to park the kids for four years so they could differentiate themselves from the unwashed masses, and then they'd get the better jobs.

So, well meaning liberal types decided that everyone should have this experience, and this would lead to a more equitable society. Obviously, this did not work. My opinions and theories on this are something I've been posting about for some time, and I don't have the heart to expand on it right now, maybe some other time. But at least I could get the captive ears of 200 or so students per year, but now I am severely limited as to what I can assign, and my boss gave me a lecture on how I should know what I can and cannot say without elaborating, with the mention that he fires adjuncts for saying the wrong thing.


I have thought of writing other people's papers for money. I knew a guy who did that 35 years ago. Once I was looking up their rates and it was hilarious: actual rates for a dissertation within so many hours! WTF? Some grad students at Case set up a service, ostensibly to edit papers, and were making good bucks. I'm assuming the field is pretty much flooded at this point. See, my ethical restraints fucked me over, once again!

So I’ll leave you with a poem about being a freshman English teacher, but before I do that, I’ll tell you that it took me years to find a poem where I could use the image of the squirrel eating the heart of a blackbird on a fine day, which I did actually see one day decades ago, and the guy I was talking with said that I’m like that squirrel. He said it because I said I was more interested in finding work I enjoyed than making money. Talk about crashingly weird analogies!

Students, Trees, Lake, Daughters

It was like when two freshmen fell in love
And loved to read of the mighty earthworm
That slowly, slowly, remakes the earth,
Of Plato’s fear of the cave, the womb,
The place of touch.

They stop passing notes when I tell them to.
They love everything. So interesting!
Ah bliss.

It’s a dreamy April day.
A stroll stills the mind. I think,
Spring colors might penetrate and I could say,
Ah, this beautiful world, and me part of it.

The budding trees repeat in a cool lake.
The blue sky reflects its blue.
There is no throb in this stillness,
The trees branch and branch like capillaries
All through me, but do not throb,
For which I am grateful.

The reflection ripples.
Girl and boy pass eyes.
They will never need and not need language more.
They will never be more, or less, deceived.
Their notes are blank and beautiful.

On such a day as this, in a garden,
A squirrel perched on a stump and ate the
Heart of a blackbird, cradling
The carcass in its pretty paws.

You know your students’ hearts
According to your own.
You know one day, at a football game,
He will know her flesh is fat and that
Her womb spells terror.

They’ve composed for you, so
You know that he has family values
And her mother is a drunk.

His mother gives her dishes for their first place,
Hoping it will be their last.
They will never be so pleased or touched again.

The girl, or some other girl,
Worked hard to be the medical technician
Leading you down the hall to the still,
Miraculous landscape of your fatal heart,
The worst conclusion.

It didn’t last, of course,
But she has gotten over him.
She’s married now and has three daughters.



Ali said...

That is a weird analogy!

Her comment on the campus, and your original bit in the New Orleans postcard, reminds me of something I sent you in one of my first emails. This was after I read Jeff Schmidt's Disciplined Minds (

"I've been wondering how a university-style education would work without a campus that cuts people off the community that exists outside the campus. I started paying close attention to this issue after reading Jeff Schmidt's "Disciplined Minds". The campus is just one part of the package; the deadlines, the never-ending amount of work, the grading system, the encouragement of competition, the polishing of the resume, the "networking", and other such features of most universities seem to have created a very sick environment. I'm definitely not immune to the sickness either.

The thing that disturbs me the most is how this box of an environment somehow gets students, both undergraduates and graduates, to think that this is the only way a university education can happen. Some of the students, even those under a lot of work pressure, do not see a problem with how things are. The deadlines and the grades and the huge amounts of work that prevents a person to think for him or herself are natural laws of the universe and not something that needs to be critiqued."

Elizabeth said...

Thanks so much for posting this, but I must ask you again, would two daughters be better than three?


Linh Dinh said...

Hi Bethany,

I like three better, since two is too measured, if you know what I mean.


Linh Dinh said...

Hi Ali,

As you well know, just about no other country has the vast, town-within-a-town layout of a typical American college campus, so the removal of students from the general population is very pronounced here.

Many poor students also go to college to climb out of and, in many ways, denounce their working class background.



About Me

Born in Vietnam in 1963, I came to the US in 1975, and have also lived in Italy, England and Germany. I'm the author of a non-fiction book, Postcards from the End of America (2017), two books of stories, Fake House (2000) and Blood and Soap (2004), six of poems, All Around What Empties Out (2003), American Tatts (2005), Borderless Bodies (2006), Jam Alerts (2007), Some Kind of Cheese Orgy (2009) and A Mere Rica (2017), and a novel, Love Like Hate (2010). I've been anthologized in Best American Poetry 2000, 2004, 2007, Great American Prose Poems from Poe to the Present, Postmodern American Poetry: a Norton Anthology (vol. 2) and Flash Fiction International: Very Short Stories From Around the World, etc. I'm also editor of Night, Again: Contemporary Fiction from Vietnam (1996) and The Deluge: New Vietnamese Poetry (2013). My writing has been translated into Italian, Spanish, French, Dutch, German, Portuguese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Icelandic and Finnish, and I've been invited to read in London, Cambridge, Brighton, Paris, Berlin, Leipzig, Halle, Reykjavik, Toronto, Singapore and all over the US. I've also published widely in Vietnamese.