less than pennies a day

capitalism and the sum of years

Just days ago, I turned in my thesis. Over a year of work across two continents has brought me to this 130-page behemoth (or so it feels to me) of knowledge, a tome to chronicle my learning experience through four years of undergrad. I’ve spent hundreds of hours reading Freud and Lacan and Haraway and Edelman and any number of lesser-known theorists; I’ve spent dozens of hours watching the films my thesis is about. Since the beginning of winter break, hardly a day has gone by when you wouldn’t find me holed up in Blue State, over-priced latte in hand, hunched over a batch of psychoanalytic theory or staring at my screen and willing the words to come to life. I spent $25 having a pair of copies bound—one for the department, one for myself—and I will graduate with the word “Honors” on my diploma. I’m not sure exactly what that means in terms of boosting my future prospects, but I assume it’s a good thing. It certainly can’t hurt.

I’ve learned many things about myself and the world through this experience. I’ve learned that if I work, and work, and work, eventually even the most impossible-seeming task can be completed; I’ve learned exactly how far I’ve come from that scared pre-frosh who arrived at ADOCH four years ago. Conversations with current freshmen have illuminated for me exactly how great an accomplishment this is. When I mention the length of my project, they cower in fear, and I think—eh. It wasn’t too bad. Stressful, yes. Agonizing and arduous and at times enough to make me question my worth as a person. But I did it, and everything seems easier once it’s finished.

What’s troubling me now is what comes next. I handed in my thesis. I’m free—from this project, at least. I hold these 130 pages of labor in my hands. And I have no idea where the fuck to go from here.

I could turn it into a book. That’s always been a half-formed plan in my head anyway. A few more years of labor and voila, a marketable product that will do more than sit on my shelf as a testament to my long-ago academic accomplishments.

Because that’s what all this will feel like in a month—long ago. A different world where I was privileged enough that money was, for the most part, the purview of my parents; where I could spend my days reading theory and writing papers and never wondering what lies beyond all of this.

Well, now I’m faced with that Great Beyond beyond academia. I’ve been to job interviews; I’ve realized that whatever salary I get very likely won’t pay for the beautiful apartment I’ve found in Cambridge; I’ve looked back over four years of labor and realized—so what?

I’m not trying to say that a liberal learning education is useless; far from it. But we all exist inside a capitalist system that exploits the majority of people and privileges substantial, marketable products over inner growth. With better perspective on this great machine of capitalism we spin within, I’ve realized exactly what the only tangible products of my humanities degree add up to—and in real world terms, it’s bupkis.

Think about the numbers. As an individual who hasn’t taken a single STEM course in my time at Brown, the vast majority of my labor has been in producing papers. Paper after paper after paper, what must be hundreds of pages by now, each agonized over for hours and handed in for a grade and then relegated to the back of my hard-drive. If my thesis is at a proverbial dead end, where will all of this work go?

That’s the quandary I face. My family has paid for as much of my tuition as they can afford so that I could have the privilege of performing free writing labor, the vast majority of which isn’t likely to lead anywhere—at least not anywhere that it will be compensated. Aside from departmental awards, there are very few places where these term papers have a chance of monetary compensation. They aren’t highbrow enough for scholarly journals, and are too obscure for most other publications. As far as I’m aware, Brown doesn’t go out of its way to advertise awards or journals that do take undergraduate work. As I stand at the cusp of monetary independence, I have four years of written labor behind me that could potentially give me a cushion should the job market fail me—and yet, in this time when I could have been writing for magazines or blogs or building a professional portfolio that is applicable outside academia, I have done little but write essays that, once again, are going nowhere.

I don’t mean to demean the value of a Brown education, or a degree from Brown itself. At the end of the day, I’ve received an incredible education, and the network of alumni, within Brown and throughout the Ivy League, will no doubt prove invaluable to my future career. The sum of my written labor has contributed to something magnificent.

I don’t like thinking of writing like an equation. It’s too personal for me. In the best moment of any writing experience, nothing else exists—there is me, my outline, the blank space of the document, and the knowledge I’ve accrued all swirling together to form a product I can be proud of. Academic work is often dismissed as dry or out of touch with the real world, but it doesn’t have to be, and I’ve put enough of myself into each individual essay that to hear someone say so becomes something close to a personal insult. Every essay, from five pages to 130, has changed me as a person and as a writer.

But I’m in the real world now, and I can’t help wondering whether my time might have been better spent worrying a little less about essays and a little more about work that could actually transcend the academic experience. It calls into question all sorts of “free” writing labor—fanfiction, for example, is part of what my friend Sunny (and academics) calls a “gift economy” that runs on exchange of pleasure rather than paper. I would never cheapen the time I’ve spent participating in this world, and neither, I think, would the professional authors who partake in the same activity. But whether you are considering fanfiction or academic essays, it leads back to the same question—when does written labor, done for free, become exploitation? And is it a challenge to the “purity” of liberal learning (or fandom, for that matter) to question why we spend four years producing work that is, in a broader capitalist context, essentially useless?

I don’t have answers to these questions. I am immensely proud of the work I have done at Brown. I might never find monetary compensation for “The Flashy Girl From Flatbush: Barbra Streisand and Jewish Iconicity,” but, hell, it was fun to write. I learned a lot. It gave me lessons in organization and structure and all of those elemental elements that make any kind of writing tick. I can’t hold it up to a non-academic employer as an example of future work, but I can show them the dedication I devote to my craft, my flexibility across mediums, and how much effort I put into writing whether capitalism “approves” of it or not.

I approve of it. I enjoy it, arduous as much of it has been. College is short, and life is long, and dead ends can be overcome.

I hope so, at least. Otherwise, Brown owes me far more than $25 for binding a pair of theses.