Pushcart 2014: Taymiya Zaman, “Thirst” from Narrative, Fall 2012

We strode the halls of the overeducated. Ideas were our battlefield…. On the first day, the department chair told us to look around the room, because more than half of us would not walk out with a PhD. Some would leave. Others would be screened out of the program at the discretion of our professors. When we saw someone open a slim white envelope and run out of the mail room crying, we were relieved it wasn’t us. And we pretended that we had known all along that our newly departing colleague wasn’t cut out for a PhD anyway…. Sometimes we thought of quitting ourselves, but we couldn’t bear the thought of those still standing thinking that they had predicted our departure all along.
Our ambition was a clawing, grasping thing.

How much you enjoy this story (available online; requires registration that is free and painless) might depend on your feelings towards the bureaucratic hierarchy most central to your life: not necessarily the academia in the story, but maybe a corporation, government bureau, military unit, or church (don’t laugh; you haven’t seen a power struggle until you’ve seen what happens to a minister who suggests something new for the Christmas pageant). I found it hilarious.

The academic setting particular to the story adds a certain tang to the satire, since somehow it’s assumed by non-academics that serious scholars are above all the ambition stuff. “Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small” is often attributed to Henry Kissinger, but there’s a lot of competition for the title of originator, going back to Samuel Johnson in 1765, which gives you some idea of how deep into the Academe this goes. For the record, my brushes with academia have only been at the lowest levels; still, this fiction piece felt more believable to me than the non-fiction I’ve read in the anthology so far.

Maia is a grad student in… I’m not even sure what, linguistics, literary theory? Or, more accurately, she was a grad student, until, to everyone’s surprise, she got the slim white letter. Her fellow students are bewildered, since she’s a great student. And, these being scholars who are too smart to know anything, they start scholaring:

Maia’s case carried the heady risk of profaning the sanctified halls of our graduate program with suggestions of the bodily, unintelligent matters that plagued the masses who read bestsellers and tabloids. We theorized about masculinist modes of signification and sexism, but the actual thought of something akin to a sex scandal had us salivating…. It helped that Maia was beautiful.
…Maia was of us but unlike us. Voluptuous and half-Italian, given to red lipstick and leather boots, coy but effortlessly popular, she inspired brainless lust and pangs of envy. She reminded us of things we thought we were too clever to hanker after, such as popularity and charisma.

This is where the first person plural point of view – the “we” voice that sometimes feels like standard first person until you realize there’s no individual narrator – is at its most effective: the examination of flocking behavior. Flocking, or murmuration, is pretty interesting stuff (and beautiful). Ever wonder how birds fly together? Seems it boils down to three things: separation, alignment, cohesion. These principles have been quantified for computer graphics, and serve as useful templates for understanding all manner of traffic flow and crowd dynamics.

Then there’s the virtual crowd: think trending. Were you on Twitter the night Justine Sacco tweeted about AIDS in Africa? Baratunde Thurston, a tech guru/comedian/author I follow, forwarded her tweet, which is how I saw it. Baratunde has a very ironic sense of racial humor (his hilarious book How To Be Black has a chapter titled “How to be the Black Friend” for pete’s sake) so I didn’t think much about it; I figured it was someone he knew making disdainful commentary about popular misconceptions linking the disease and race. Within an hour, the previously obscure Ms. Sacco became the Worst Person in the World; before her flight landed, her Twitter account was suspended and she was fired within 24 hours (granted, her tweet showed a grasp of the basics of communications that probably would be insufficient for the Communications Director of a PR firm). Something took over on Twitter in that hour: murmuration. Remember Sharknado, Wendy Davis, “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee”? Good news and bad travels fast these days; you’ve got to be paying attention to catch the right bandwagon.

The same kind of murmuration happens in this academic department, as outrage over Maia’s dismissal mounts and corrective actions are planned:

We had to do something. Too educated to take to picket lines and slogans, we organized a graduate student committee that would communicate to the faculty our concern about the lack of transparency in screening procedures. Now that we questioned the process, the signs were everywhere.

Just like the starlings change direction en masse in seconds, so do these students. I’ve been in rooms that turn the way the room turns in this story. This too blends nicely into the overarching Truth theme I’ve seen running through these first few Pushcart pieces: Truth undergoes four dramatic shifts in this story, including one spectacular shift in the last sentence; you could count more if you look at the nuances of the second, “analytical” phase. No wonder there’s a growing concern for the validity of the very existence of “Truth”. And as far as I can tell, we never find out exactly what happened with Maia.

I won’t go further with the details of plot; Zaman handles the shifts perfectly, and you’d be better off experiencing them through her voice than mine. If you’re surprised by the turns things take, you’ve never tried to set up a bake sale to raise money for your kids’ soccer team uniforms.

Murmuration. Maybe it’s hard-wired, in the part of our brains we share with birds.

6 responses to “Pushcart 2014: Taymiya Zaman, “Thirst” from Narrative, Fall 2012

  1. This story is a remarkable tour de force that will make humanities graduate students laugh and cringe at the same time. Zaman has brilliantly captured the mixture of insecurity and arrogance, high-minded abstraction and petty hostility, assertiveness and self-loathing that have characterized literature departments since . . . well, probably since those departments first came into being, but especially in the last three decades. It was a perfect choice to write the story in a style that echoes the kind of texts these poor creatures have to construct. Karen, “murmuration” is a perfect analogy. “Separation, alignment, cohesion”–yep, sounds right. Don’t stray away from the flock, don’t question its assumptions, but be sure to maintain an individual academic profile. But this particular flock of starlings is flying over barren soil.

    I must admit that I take this story very personally, and I don’t know how the non-academic world would respond to it. My grad school also gleefully did that “look around you, half of you won’t finish” routine. They didn’t say, “Look around you, only 5 percent of you will get a tenure-track job,” and to be fair, I don’t think they believed it was going to get that bad, though the signs were there for those with eyes to see. And now it’s probably down to 2 percent.

    I started quoting from the story but found I wouldn’t know where to stop. This story should do for humanities graduate programs what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle did for meat packing plants.

    Hey, that analogy is rather tame; if you don’t think so, read “How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang”:


    My favorite character is Dr. Anthony R. Davis, the genial, hearty, long-tenured old straight white male who can’t believe there could be anything wrong with his graduate department, while his students squabble like a hundred hungry rats fighting over one piece of cheese. The crowning irony (not addressed by Zaman) is that the most luckless of all the grad students in his department are the young straight white males, who are virtuality unemployable because every university already has its quota of SWMs–the old guys–and the last thing they want is to make themselves look even less diverse by hiring young SWMs.

    I don’t want to sound too bitter. I enjoyed getting my useless Ph.D, though if I’d known that my quarter of a million dollars in fees and lost wages would leave me unemployed, I wouldn’t have paid that price. Anyway, grads in my era had a wonderful second choice if they could swallow their pride–they could become high school teachers. I earned more than twice as much teaching high school as I would have if I’d continued as an adjunct, and I probably did the world more good. Of course, the high school option has now been ruined by the costly recession, the stinginess of taxpayers, and the moronic interference of politicians. It’s not quite as hard to get a tenure-track high school job as a college one, but in California it’s getting close. And if you do find work, plan on having 200+ students (my average class size in my last year of teaching was 41). Youngsters, forget about education, a better choice would be to . . . um . . . I don’t know, join me at the next round of “Occupy America” rallies?

    To be fair to the old SWMs in my former grad department, they were aware of their students’ problems and many of them actually wanted to do something about it. When I left in the late 1990’s, they were planning to shrink their graduate program to avoid producing so many unemployable Ph.D’s. And the additional ironies are: (1) decisions like theirs made their grad students even less employable, and (2) I’d bet any amount of money that their department is still too large and still turning out droves of unemployable PhD’s.

    • I’m so glad you liked the story – but I’m so sorry you’ve been one of those caught in the turning tides of whatever it is we’ve been in for the last 30 years. Everyone’s all for education (until it’s time to pay for it) but somehow, they think the Teacher’s Edition has all the answers in the back of the book and anyone can teach, so scholarship isn’t valued at all. At the moment, engineering is prized (it leads to better video games, after all), but I still feel this is a ploy to bring wages down in those fields as well. The 1% won’t be happy until everyone earns minimum wage and feels grateful for it. Am I paranoid? Maybe. I’m also a wish-I-was-a-geek (one step down from a wanna-be) so I won’t slam STEM, but they’ll be in your shoes soon enough, and then there won’t be anyone left to change things. I’m glad I’m not going to be around to see how it goes. Then again, my father – born in 1908 – probably felt the same way about the 60s, with my brother studying some newfangled thing called “software engineering.” My poor father: discussing a cousin, he said, “He taught some class in some sociology at Harvard, of all places, and he wrote some book I never heard of on cults, but I don’t know what he does for a living.” If the guy had sold shoes at the Thom McCann at the mall, he would’ve known what he did for a living.

      It was a great story, though. Perfect narrative drive.

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