Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Is Academia Suited for Us Weirdos With Catholic Tastes?

I often wonder if I'm right for the world of academia. How do people crank out manuscripts every few years? How do they work in the same basic field for decades? I can hardly stay on task for a full week. Let me walk you through my day in the library...

I wake up around seven a.m., eat something anonymous, and walk towards the bus stop. As I approach the stop, a very crowded bus pulls up and I decide that I would rather walk to the library instead.

I start out. Within twenty minutes, I am walking through the ''downtown'' area of this rusting steel town. There are swarms of elderly people on motorized scooters out for their morning travels; I am the only one on the sidewalk who is actually walking. A torn slip of an ex-flier clinging to a wall reads ''You're Missing Something''. I consider this for a moment. A mentally-ill man attaches to me and follows me for several blocks explaining why the city's construction workers should all be fired. I pass a series of brick store fronts; about half of them are abandoned, but still haunted by the ghosts of their former businesses.I am fascinated by every shop I pass, from the nameless one that seems to be filled with mounds of old action figures to the convenience store that also sells Persian rugs. This city is anonymous; its randomness and eccentricities aren't affected. They're not trying to impress anyone. Hamilton's idiosyncrasies fire my imagination.

I arrive at the library around nine-thirty. Today, I am supposed to read one of the books on my exam list. I have to take my exams at the end of the summer; after that, I'll officially be ABD. I have myself on a book-a-day schedule, which seems to be working. Happily, the book for today turns out to be shorter than expected, mostly because it has a great amount of illustrations. This also reduces the ill effects of my bibliomania- generally, the library is the quietest place for me to do my reading, and the worst place because it's filled with books. Almost every topic interests me on some level. Today I am sitting in the German section, and so, in between chapters of the book that I'm supposed to be reading, I read a collection of translated postwar German Expressionist plays, a translation of Gregorius the Good Sinner, and a collection of Susan Sontag essays. None of these have anything to do with my dissertation topic or any of the things I study, but what can I say? The books at the library fire my imagination.

Keeping my focus is difficult. I often wonder if I was cut out for academia. There seem to be two sorts who wind up in academe- people who love the academic environment and thrive there and people who love to research different things and who are generally interested in everything. Those of us who fall into the latter category- call us people with catholic tastes- tend to have a much harder time with day to day tasks. Department meetings, deadlines, grading exams- all of these things are bewildering to me. And not because I think that I'm above them; although I do find many bureaucratic tasks to be a bit pointless; but because they require attention over extended periods of time.

I worry often that the academic schedule, with its endless hoops to jump through, is just not the right place for someone like me. As often as I think to myself, whenever I see a professor who seems to have given up the ghost, ''Well, at least I love both teaching and researching...'', I still wonder if I have the patience to put together journal articles, stick to a publishing schedule, and go through the paces. And forget about conferences! Going to an academic conference is a steep price to pay to get free deli sandwiches and some warm Coke. I'd much rather putter away at various and sundry topics for twenty to thirty years, alone, and then publish a grand, sweeping text. But, that's not the way it's done anymore.

This also makes me wonder, strange and pompous though it might sound, if academia might not end up stunting my intellectual growth. A good gardener knows something I've just recently learned myself- plants grow best when you leave them alone as much as possible. I think that curiosity needs to wander wherever it will, but I'm not sure that academic life is really suited for wandering at all. Keeping up with publishing, conferences, journal articles, and so forth is professional, but I'm not sure it's intellectual. I'm not sure that there isn't a sort of bureaucratization of thought going on here. I hear talk constantly in the humanities about 'breaking down the bariers between specializations' and 'striking out new paths', but how is that possible in a publish-or-perish environment?

I guess my questions are: Is academic specialization, which seems inescapable to some extent, really a form of intellectual growth? Or is it just intellectual fine-tuning? And if it's the latter, instead of the former, does taking a career in academia really amount to a betrayal of your own intellectual development?

8 comments:

Holly said...

Specialization has been made to seem necessary, there is a laundry list of fields, developments, and Nobel prizes that would not have come about without it. However, your summary of what's not working for you are the precise reasons I did not choose academia. It seemed inevitable that I would one day get in front of a microphone at an art historians' confererence and announce very seriously to a roomful of dyspeptic junior professors that most likely the best outcome for everyone concerned would be to systematically destroy every portable work of art aged more than 500 years. Then I would methodically work my way through the PowerPoint presentation about why and how, with good diction and trying to remember not to make "Umm" or "Hmm" noises.

The bureaucracy is maddening, and clearly a challenge to anyone with better things to do. However! It also seems that no one is going to pay anyone to explore their catholic interests in solitude, without at least the pretense of serving a learning sandwich to the youths. And, no matter how much I loved working at the bookstore, I actually read fewer books while I was there, and could do almost nothing to further my interests in life, because having a job I enjoyed actually took up too much time & energy. Obviously, I can't speak to anyone else's experiences, but I now begin to suspect that the applied structure of academia might actually have helped me. And now I feel like I'm too far outside it to get in, even if I wanted that, which I'm STILL not sure I do.

But to answer your other question, the fine-tuning is great if you are OK with discarding so many other areas of interest. Seems rare that people can specialize AND maintain vigorous contact with the world at large. It was never possible to know EVERYTHING, but we are also well past the point where a person can read all the books, or see all the movies, or engage in all the discussions. There's just too much out there, so it kind of seems like choosing one's battles is wise.

Probably the way to go is stay in academia until you've published enough books to support your habits, and then skip the teaching, do the research, and just write about things that are interesting to you.

gregvw said...

It is a scientific fact that if you are writing a dissertation that EVERY single book in the library on other subjects will be more interesting. I actually thumbed through some conference proceedings on marine shipping storage containers once.

In terms of liking to wade in knowledge and discovery while eschewing the political and bureaucratic aspects of academia, that is called autism and many professors have it.

Certainly, I can relate. I don't want to spend my life writing for grants. I like teaching, but really only to students who like learning, which is the minority.

I'm afraid that overall the whole institution of higher education has lost the plot. Sure there are bright and shining counter-examples, but they are three standard deviations and an airmail stamp away from the norm. I do occasionally feel like becoming a professor is essentially riding the falling bomb ala Slim Pickens.

What was plan B?

Rufus said...

Holly- I think the applied structure has helped me to be more rigorous about the things I'm studying. Of course, that also makes it a lot harder to complete articles on anything because I'm more accutely aware how little I know on any subject. I really do think academics should be discouraged from publishing a lot more than they are. Certainly I've read too many history books that read like a good journal article stretched to a thin manuscript.

Greg- Plan B is a tough one. I've been thinking that taking up freelance writing on the side might be a good back up plan. Certainly, it would be fun to write for a few magazines that I can think of. I'd still like to publish the sort of magazine that I'd like to read because I can't find it anywhere. But, from what I've heard from Emily, publishing is damn near impossible. And, if all that doesn't work, there's always pornography, right?

Holly said...

I saw a picture of Larry Flynt today, he probably needs a successor soonish. He looks like he died about 6 weeks ago. Publish whatever you want, PLUS porn.

In fact, how about an academic journal of pornology?

Rufus said...

Well, this is how you could get past the problem of nobody reading esoteric or academic subjects- just include smut. Of course, it could go the other way and assure that nobody would read it.

Anastasia said...

greg is right. i spent three whole days reading about soil science--I'm in religion, now--just because it was more interesting than my dissertation.

that said, i think there's a balance once can strike between becoming a narrowly defined specialist and becoming a well-informed generalist who happens to have a specialization. Don't ask me how or what the hell that means. I just think it can be done.

Rufus said...

It's good to know that others have found themselves wandering the library while they were supposed to be researching. Actually, today I supplemented the required reading with a book on fauvism and a few issues of Salmagundi.

I think what got me thinking about this was the Sontag collection- she wrote about everything under the sun! Actually, whenever I read her essays, I notice how non-academic they are- on one hand, I think this because they're a bit sloppy and disordered; on the other hand, I think this because they're so wide-ranging and exuberant.

Maybe the trick is to become an essayist.

Holly said...

The Fauves: Also a good example of doing the thing that makes your spirit effervesce, and not the thing that is academically approved.

I came across this commentary: http://blog.wired.com/wiredscience/2007/06/wired_science_w.html by David Brin discussing the not only desirability but necessity of anti-specialization. He seems to regard it as a necessary balance to the extremes of specialization, given that specialization is highly productive behavior.