Imagine the worst-case scenario, the person who reads your essay has been in the field for decades. She is on the applicant committee because she has to be, and she’s read 48 essays so far that morning. You are number 49, and your reader is tired, bored, and thinking about lunch. Keep Her Attention. (statement of purpose advice from www.dontfuckitup.com)
Can you imagine it? God it’s angst inducing. I have spent my university life concentrating on the reception of beauty and interest, the pursuit of understanding, but now I must electrify my words with these same properties and WAKE UP this poor office worker. Her, hunched over her desk, and me, over mine. I have thought about her a lot over the past two years, though I do not remember the website I got her from, and this reification of her is the sort of thing I am writing about now: the obsession. The obsession never goes into the application because it would be too much for a side of A4. It is self-disciplining, it is a conversational tic that your friends hate, it is catastrophizing every email, it is an education.
There are several responses possible to colonial knowledge formations: a violent response, on the order of Frantz Fanon’s claim that violent impositions of colonial rule must be met with violent resistance; a homeopathic response, within which the knower learns the dominant system better than its advocates and undermines it from within; or a negative response, in which the subject refuses the knowledge offered and refuses to be a knowing subject in the form mandated by Enlightenment philosophies of self and other. This book is in sympathy with the violent and negative forms (Jack Halberstam, The Queer Art of Failure, p. 14)
I think I am uniquely sensitive to this education of the application because I have failed once; lessons learnt have been lessons wasted. I remember precisely where I was, by the number 6 bus stop on magdalen street in Oxford heading home after seeing a terrible student play called ‘The Importance of Being Nihilists,’ and what I was doing, punching a wall in distinctly male, yet childishly camp rage, when I received the rejection email. My knuckles had little jelly flaps of skin hanging off them. On the bus, I called my dad, on whom my year-and-a-half of preparation had made no impression but who understood that I was despairing, and we started to plan my second application. I had rushed into denial, having believed I was entitled to success. But I did end up going for round two and, on the cusp of second submission, I found myself at just the right perspective.
Beyond the forms and tests, I have had to learn this social identity of mine: “What are you doing after university” “Oh, thanks for asking, I’m applying for PhDs in…” This identity is often a comfort for me. I like the mild social loosening that comes once people perceive me as someone with work to be doing. It has its downsides, however. First, I am constantly nascent. I have developed imposter syndrome towards my social airs. My friends and family feel confident in my success, and they ask how the progress is going. Often, I volunteer the information in an unprompted gush. For two years I have lived with this illusion of progress. This illusion is a mark of good schedules and planning, but it is also impossible to cease. If the application is a marathon, then rejection is tripping on the final meter, and afterwards, like it or not, you are still a runner.
Second, I have nowhere near the social prestige of a marathon runner. No one likes an academic. Even academics themselves, when faced with the difficulty of accessing their profession, they give a systemic shoulder shrug to me, point out my youth, and suggest I get a different job in the meantime. Just as pervasive is the sense of childishness. The student, as an idea, is inherently sheltered. And the student striving to continue has merely accepted this state of patronization, running away from the raw world that probably rejected them because they were a bit queer anyway. Eventually the veneer of the professional will replace this subservience—I could even moonlight at a think tank—but as merely an applicant I have spent two years admitting that I want all this and frankly I feel embarrassed.
Many of those who consumed Neon Genesis Evangelion neither watched the completed anime, as a product, nor consumed the worldview buried in the background, as people did with Gundam, from the very beginning all that was necessary was information and anti-narratives.
(Hiroki Azuma, Otaku: Japan’s Database Animals, Japanese edition p. 62 my own translation)
It’s tabs all the way down with applications. I need tabs for each faculty member, program, university, year abroad scheme, and funding package. At times scanning these has seemed manageable. It is not. I have missed something. I will discover that Arnika Fuhrmann, though she lacked anything to do with my subject areas of Korea and Japan, announced on twitter a new project for Asian Digital Futures which shares terms with my project. Many discoveries like these are specific to people and universities I will never encounter. However, one thing links this expiring brain space: the pitch.
The database existence of the university is one seeped with metadata bringing academics and conferences and courses and workshops into relation through key terms; my job as the applicant is to pitch these together. Such engineering is the bread-and-butter of my 57 email exchanges and 8 statements of purpose: Does this professor prefer a discourse study, a cultural study, or a media history? Do they like Eiji Otsuka or Hiroki Azuma? Do they despise emic ideas as national essentialisms or love them as subversive counterpoints to globalization? Do they, perhaps, find the word ‘concept’ problematic? These questions and tabs and emails are all exhausting, but what matters is that I now cannot help but categorize what I see within my field with the metadata. It is a contextual understanding. It is also an administrative structure that ultimately dictates the scope of ideas and interactions between academics. Here’s an example: I cannot describe my research project without mentioning ‘Internet History,’ which is only a good explanation of it because the project itself emerged when reading the Internet History journal, when noting the tags for professor’s fields, and when finding out an ‘eminent’ Japanese theorist led a research collective called Our Internet History. Of course, I do take great happiness in my plan to research internet history, but this is years of my finite life—I cannot dismiss that before exposure, I had never understood my project this way. I fear that I have, throughout my inception process, only wanted to overcome my inability to belong.
Stitches to show something’s missing? No, No? Then
How can we give you a thing?
(S. P., The Applicant)
Finally, the process has engineered longings in me. Viewed through a glass darkly, applications are the exposure of yourself to futures in order to motivate yourself towards their possible achievement. I never knew about Cornell, Harvard, NYU, Minnesota, Chicago, and how much I want to be at their programs. As stated above, this infatuation feels inherently childish like a Disney adult—You want more institutions? More teacher discipline? More study? More student accommodations and new countries and relationship instability?—but it is necessary, both on a motivational and factual front. Motivationally, without real desires I cannot push through the tabs and standardized tests. Factually, without real desires I cannot maintain consistency on what appeals to me about the course. And this is what they ask for. For you to show that you have made an “informed choice” and want to study with them. The application is more than a statement of competency. It asks me to admit all the ways the program would improve my current state in order for it to understand this competency with those goals in mind: quality of application becomes proportional to loss of rejection.
My mendings itch. There is nothing to do.
I shall be good as new
(S. P., The Stones)
What if I get in? Will I ever be able to hold in the jaded depression if it all turns out alright? No, pessimism will become complacency. This is what is so annoying, I know even my future self does not really care about my position. So, I am writing this because keeping record of the in-betweens is important; because there is something essentially transferable about the how liminality’s stresses make the learning new of roles, codes, and desires into both coping mechanisms and possible exits; because only in such moments can we understand education without its success or its failure.