This weekend I gave the commencement address to the Film Studies graduates at the University of Oregon, where I received my MA way back in 2006. It was wonderful, and not just because I miss that sweet sweet Eugene hippy food — but because the people who invited me back are a compilation of the teachers who most influenced my young academic self + one of my classmates, a brilliant guy who managed to do what I was always working towards: getting the elusive job at the school that matters most to you.
What follows is my attempt at an earnest and honest and quasi-inspirational twelve minute send-off — which, as you’ll see, is clearly inflected by everything I’ve been thinking and reading about for the last six months.
I’m so honored to be here today — because like you, this campus, and these professors, have all been pivotal to the person that I’ve become today. A person who loves thinking critically about the media that surrounds me, whose Twitter avatar is the biggest Hollywood star of 1927, who loves going to the actual movie theater but loves going to the actual movie theater alone most of all.
Some of those tendencies started in childhood; some came from my undergrad education. But they didn’t really bloom until I came here: until I sat down in a classroom not far from this one to learn about “star theory” — the idea that you can look closely at a celebrity’s image and BOOM all the different ideas about what it means to be a man or a woman or a straight person or a mother or a black person or a teenager come rushing out. There weren’t a lot of guys in that class, but there was one tall guy with red hair who had a lot of opinions, most of them very smart. Today, that guy is one of your professors.
I sat in that same room to watch a DVD of the collected early short films of Thomas Edison, and another one of your professors plaintively asking the class if someone, anyone, recognized the vaguely eerie music that played each time he went back to the DVD menu. It was Ennio Morricone’s theme from Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven.
I remember that moment, I think, because it showed me what it meant to really love film. It’s not just about loving the thing that first got you obsessed with media, whether that thing was Goodfellas or His Girl Friday or Harry Potter or The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. It’s about the rabbithole that that thing provides, to a whole labyrinth of history, of reception and production and ideological context. It’s about loving the early Edison films that are basically just YouTube videos of guys flexing and people kissing and a ‘70s film by a reclusive auteur shot almost entirely at the magic hour. It’s about opening yourself up to wonder, about exposing yourself to things that are alienating and then sitting with that alienation and unpacking it, about cultivating the posture that thinking about something doesn’t destroy pleasure, but refines it.
That’s what I really started to develop here at Oregon. That’s what I brought with me to the University of Texas, where I completed my PhD — and taught undergrads who were clearly not as good (or good at football) as all of you. I’d show them Weekend, a 1967 Godard film that is famously, notoriously, deliciously hate-able. It starts with a ten minute tracking shot of a traffic jam in France. But I loved teaching it, because I loved asking students to really think about why the film is so difficult. What does your boredom, or impatience, or disgust say about what you’ve come to expect from a text — and how you react when you don’t get it? Weekend is an absurdist comedy, but it’s also an opportunity, the same way that Beyonce’s Homecoming is an opportunity, or Fleabag is an opportunity, or Old Town Road is an opportunity. An opportunity to think more, not less.
Which, admittedly, isn’t the way that media studies is usually positioned. Even as I was completing my PhD, people of all ages would say, MUST BE NICE, WATCHING MOVIES ALL DAY. Within that statement was the idea that media studies is pleasurable, which it is, but that it’s easy, it’s for lazy people who don’t want to get degrees in something serious like ECON.
But each of you is proof otherwise. You all know that a movie is never “just a movie,” a video game is never “just a video game.” Doing media studies means seeing complexity where others see simplicity. It means running towards difficulty. It means always and forever being the person who watches something and then says “that was good BUT….” Over the course of your education, you have slowly acquired a pair of glasses that allows you to see the world around you differently. The great and obnoxious reward is that you will never be able to take them off.
It’s increasingly popular to think of the viability of college majors in terms of clear and marketable skills. And while many of you will find employment in a media related field, the major skill that all of you have acquired is how to be a more thoughtful, invested, engaged person in today’s world. That’s hard to put on a resume, and even if you could, I don’t know if employers would value it: somehow “understanding how ideologies of race, sexuality, and gender are encoded in the media that surrounds us and influence our interactions with each other” isn’t as marketable as “Proficient in Excel.”
But this is the point in the speech when I tell you that your resume matters far less than you think it does. It’s very important that all of you worked hard to graduate, but now that you’ve done it, what mattered wasn’t the grade that you earned, but the process of earning it. It’s not what you take away on your transcript, but what you take away — yes, this is super cheesy — in your mind.
It’s cheesy, and feels wrong, because it’s counter the message that your generation, like mine, has spent decades internalizing: that we are the sum total of our GPA, our job prospects, and our Instagram posts. That sounds facetious but I think it’s how many of us judge ourselves and each other — through our ability model a life in which we do work that we personally love, that impresses our parents, and that’s cool enough to tell our friends about.
In a commencement speech in 2005 at Stanford, Steve Jobs set this tone: “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life,” he said. “And the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking.”
I’ve spent the last few years realizing that this advice is more or less bullshit. Which brings me to the other reason I think I was asked to come speak today: not because I followed the media studies academic path towards its celebratory end, refusing to settle until I ended up in the job I loved. I tried to. But for me, like tens of thousands of others in academia, that path narrowed and narrowed until staying on it became even more mentally and financially harrowing, before disappearing altogether.
I convinced myself that if i just worked hard enough, and long enough, and proved myself more organized and ambitious than everyone else, then the percentages, the stark realities, of what happened after receiving a PhD in media studies — they wouldn’t apply to me. That didn’t work out. I nearly got there, and then I didn’t.
But if I’m really, really honest with myself, I didn’t go to grad school becoming a professor was the only thing I could imagine myself doing. I went because I liked plans — maps that someone else had made for me. I knew I liked and was good at reading and thinking about media — and grad school was the only option with a built-in map of how to find a job doing that.
So imagine my dumb surprise, my great sadness, when the part of the map with the “happy full-time professor” just….fell off. I was furious — at myself, but also at the system. I was heartbroken. It genuinely felt like I had been broken up with. And while I’m still, in many ways, grieving for what happened — and not just because of the $1000 monthly loan payment — I’ve also found a different path, a wholly unanticipated way to use those stubborn glasses I put on during the same period of my life as you, and look at the world differently.
I tell you this story not because my own path is one to follow — it’s not. When people ask me for advice, I can’t tell them how to get a job at BuzzFeed, or even in journalism. I can give practical advice, like don’t go to grad school unless you can emerge from it with very little debt, and if you do go to grad school, look for one with a strong union, like the University of Oregon.
But most of my advice isn’t what I would’ve wanted to hear, and I know it’s not what people who ask want, either. Like me, they want a map. A well-marked map, if possible, but even a sketched out one will do. I can’t offer that.
What I can offer is this starting point: You are not your job. Your job is a part of your life, but it is not an expression of your value. Working hard is not, in itself, good. Not working hard is not, in itself, bad. And if, for whatever reason, you find yourself in a place where you cannot work in a way that society values — you’re disabled, you decide to stay at home, you care for your parents — that does not make you a bad or less worthy person. You might think you already believe this, but you probably don’t.
You might find a way to do what you love. If you do, recognize that your love for the job — your passion — can, and historically has been used against you. Doing what you love doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid a living wage. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t complain about exploitative work conditions. It doesn’t mean that trying to collaborate with other workers to be treated fairly means you’re ungrateful. Just because you love your work doesn’t mean you aren’t still working.
And if you don’t do what you love, that’s okay too. In fact, that distance from your work will make it all the easier for you to demand fair working conditions: something I never could do after my time here at UO, because I was “doing what I loved” which meant doing it at any cost.
There’s an old union slogan I’ve been thinking about a lot: 8 hours for rest, 8 hours for work, 8 hours to do what you will. What you do with that time “to do what you will” — go outside, read deeply and widely, go to the Bijou every night for popcorn with brewer’s yeast, run for office, go to church, advocate for things that actually matter to you — that is just as much who you are, if not more so, than the time you spend at work. Unions understood and still understand: work is part of life. But only part.
I’ve been thinking about all of this because I’m writing a book on burnout — the result of writing an article on my own burnout that, much to my surprise, eight million people read. Because even after I recreated my own map, I was so scared of the path disappearing that I kept doing the same thing that I’d done: I worked all the time, and valued myself uniquely on the results and feedback from that work. The result wasn’t a flameout, though, so much as a general numbness to the world around me.
I spend every day trying to unlearn that self-conception, to un-numb myself to the world. Some of you may have already steeled yourself against this. But you’ve all been breathing the same ideological air as me. And for various reasons, you’re scared, and exhausted. But you’re also invigorated, and ambitious, and at the beginning of a time when you can say, to yourself and others, it doesn’t have to be this way.
We don’t have to value ourselves and others by the amount of work we can do. We don’t have to think of building a profitable company simply in terms of how little we can pay the people doing the labor that built it. We don’t have to monetize our hobbies.We don’t have to value education for its ability to provide readily marketable skills. We don’t have to be scared of people who aren’t like us. We don’t have to be satisfied with the types of media that are currently available. We don’t have to shut up when people tell us we’re thinking to hard, or too much. We don’t have to submit to the idea that racism and sexism will be with us forever. We don’t have to watch the earth die. Most importantly, we don’t have to act out of fear. Of not having the “right” job, of feeling uncomfortable during that ten minute tracking shot, of failing to accumulate the signifiers of American adulthood at the appropriate time.
You, and your different way of looking at the world, is valuable. Your job might be part of that, it might not. The sum of a person is not, as I thought, their external achievements. It’s what you’re doing in and with your mind. It’s your ability to provide care and compassion, but also context, and consideration, and patience. It’s working hard for others but also working hard on yourself. It’s understanding that these dorky media studies glasses we can’t take off are a gift, one that makes the world frustrating and joyful but never, ever boring. It’s understanding that it’s a slog and a thrill to be alive.
These are the lessons of my own map. My hope is they’ll help you, in some way, as you build your own.
Things I Read and Loved This Week:
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