Confessions of a Middle Aged English Student

Posted by IanWilliams at 10:43 PM on Dec 17, 2015


The first thing I wrote, I mean really wrote, was for Greg Stafford, one of my heroes. Greg's the author of King Arthur Pendragon and Glorantha, the best roleplaying game and roleplaying game world, respectively, ever made. I was drunk when I pitched him for an as yet unreleased game set in Bronze Age Myceneae. It was all so intimidating, pitching work to one of the real legends in a field. When he said yes, he was interested in the book, I did a lap around the house. Maybe two or three. It was me, alone, reading the email, springing to my feet, and running around with my hands in the air.

I reacted the same way when I pitched to Jacobin for the first time and had it accepted. And The Guardian. I eventually stopped; you get used to it, you're in the public eye, your sensations deaden as the weird thrill and nervousness of putting stuff in your head out there for thousands of people to read fades to a workaday routine. It's a job. It's cool, it's one that I'm good at, but it's a job.

The reason why I lead with those reactions is because they stem at least partially from a deep down sense that I had (and have) no business doing what I'm doing. I took two stabs at higher education as a young man. When I was 18, I went to UNC-Greensboro for an archaeology degree. I wasn't ready, my advisor sneered openly about my desire to do Byzantine archaeology (I'll never forget it: "Why would you want to do that?" and I checked out on the first day), and I had a bad attitude. So I dropped out. Got a job, moved out. Then in. Then out and in, finally out for good.

My second go, I was 22. I ran out of money. And steam; I was driving from Lexington to Greensboro to Winston-Salem, then back to Greensboro, then to Winston again, until I finally got back home. I worked at a newspaper in the early days of digital putting up the online version of the paper; I got the job because nobody knew HTML and I had a smattering of knowledge, not because I was good. It necessitated being at work until 2am sometimes, making sure everything was right before the public saw it. I burned out on school after one good semester (religious studies this time) and burned out on my job when I fell half-asleep through exhaustion, leaving a newspaper front page going live riddled with mistakes. That's the only time I ever got fired.

My expertise, such as it is, is that I've always read a lot. But reading doesn't pay the bills, ever, anywhere. So when I decided to go back to school after staying home with my daughter when she was a baby, I set strict guidelines: do it online (cheaper), do it fast (community college), and make it strictly utilitarian (tech). In other words, my idea was to do exactly what the system encourages poor and/or working class people to do. I settled on getting an associate degree in database administration; what little I knew of SQL I found accessible and easy to do. Information is interesting to work with. Data professionals are needed everywhere, or so I was told.

I graduated this past Spring and my degree is useless. Now, it should be said that I'd decided that I was going to get a few more transfer credits and transfer if I didn't find a job over the summer in my field. I was hedging my bets and I'd soured on the prospect of going into DBA or SQL development once I started branching out into object oriented programming, which I'm miserable at. But I'm 38, with a family and a mortgage. I held and still hold no illusions about the "best" course of action: get a job because I'm old and have ground to make up.

I carpet bombed this city with applications and resumes. I signed up for CareerBuilder and parked at Glassdoor every day first thing in the morning. I applied for DBA jobs until I realized those only go to people with masters degrees. Then I kept applying anyway. I applied for SQL development jobs. I applied for quality assurance, something which my degree absolutely prepared me for and which I had professional experience doing. Nothing. No call backs.

CareerBuilder does a neat thing where they show you who you're competing with for specific jobs. There were no people like me. They were, consistently, 3% or so associate degrees, 70% or so bachelor's, 27% or so master's. Always 5+ years of experience. It didn't matter the job. Entry level? Slightly fewer master's degrees. And this is in Raleigh, a good job market.

All while I was going to school for my database work, I was quietly writing more and more. I've written two books (roleplaying games, yes, but still full length books) and edited another. I write more or less weekly for a great sports outlet in VICE. My work for Jacobin is taught in universities. Hell, one of my articles was presented at an Oxford digital labor and humanities panel by its co-author which means, by the arcane laws of academic transference, I've talked about it there, too.

I say this without any rancor or bitterness and absolutely no arrogance or entitlement: my professional life does not make any sense. I am going to NC State starting in January because nothing makes sense. I'm going for my English degree in what they call the LWR track (Language, Writing, and Rhetoric), which is aimed at being a hybrid of journalism, technical writing, and marketing copy with a healthy dose of literature as both a grounding in the humanities and a means of not driving you nuts when you're on your third editing class.

But I gave a lecture at State in November. So I, a person with an AS in database administration, gave a lecture to a graduate student class on my work which was written when I had no degree at the university I'm about to attend and get a degree at. In the meantime, I have what is now a pretty successful writing career; not enough to get rich, but certainly enough to do alright as a secondary income. And I did all of this without credentials other than being reasonably sharp and good at a keyboard.

None of this is to wallow or navelgaze. The kernel of why I wrote this is because I don't think our working lives make sense anymore and I cannot convey this properly to people even ten years older than me. Even the way we talk about school and work has become completely unmoored from its reality. We've purged entry level jobs from the market, we've decimated media, shit on the humanities, funnel people into a tech sector as a panacea for society's ills. All of this is beyond good or bad. Good or bad has nothing to do with any of this. The ABC progression of American working life even 10 or 15 years ago is just gone. It does not exist.

I have a friend who is a successful game designer at a AAA company. He has a degree in classical studies.

Another friend runs the American office of a large game studio, pulling down low six figures. He has no degree.

The smartest academics I know online can't buy jobs for love or money. One's looking at part-time work at a gas station.

I know people who run vast computing systems who have interdisciplinary degrees. I know people with comp-sci postgraduate work who had to leave the country to find work. People with bachelor's who are associate professors, people with postdocs who write articles for 50 dollars a pop. Humanities degrees are trash. Until they work. Tech degrees are great. Until they aren't. You have to get your degree until you don't need to.

You can't eat your resume. Lord knows I probably don't need to take on the debt of getting my degree at this age, especially when there's every probability in the world that I come out and do what I'm already doing except maybe I can eke out some more editing on the side. All I know is that it's all so weird and everyone feels every bit as weird as I do. So we just keep chipping away until we can't go anymore.