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?