Everything in this Chronicle piece by William Pannapacker rings true, so true in fact that were it not for the fact that I know that he and I are not the same person I might wonder whether there has been an unparalleled rupture in the quantum reality of the universe.
Professors are, indeed, trapped, by cuffs both gilded and cutting. That's why I left and why I would advise any young Ph.D. or professor in a humanities field to retrain, get the hell out, and put their considerable energy, skill, and humanistic sensibility to work, without regret, in the world at large.
I have been exceptionally busy, but in raising my head above water I could not miss the announcement of the founding of a new college, the University of Austin, an attempt by a coterie of public figures self-described as being all over the political spectrum to fix the ills of modern higher education by decamping to new digs. I certainly share the overall sentiment that in many respects higher ed is broken and I fully support, in principle, the notion of trying something new, whether that's online alternatives, reinvesting and rethinking existing programs and institutions, or building from the ground up. I am mildly amused by the tone of aggrievement in the founders' expressed endorsement of anti-aggrievement; conversely, in Ferguson's piece I find the notion that higher ed is “liberal” somewhat lazy and misleading (more below).
In the end I suspect none of this business will work, but not for the reasons the founders might anticipate.
It seems that every academic or ex-academic I ever talk to or work with or still keep in touch with has the same scar. It's a I'm-never-good-enough kind of thing, or a no-one-respects-me sort of chip on the shoulder, or the lingering seduction of passive aggressive reactions. I suppose many fields have their distinctive scars, similar but different. Some people get over them or cope or maybe hide them more than others.
There are two kinds of mind poison that linger after extracting oneself from the academic priesthood. The first is yourself thinking like an academic. That's about thinking of projects as never-ending, worrying that your expertise is not expert enough, drowning in imposter syndrome, giving away your labor for free and so forth. But there's a second kind of academic mind poison too, not completely divorce-able from the first, which fosters the condition of constantly looking over one's shoulder, an intrusive thought which asks “What would an academic think?” about whatever it is that you are doing.
Today’s humanities disciplines are not ancient, integral modes of knowledge. They are modern, artificial creations—where made-up lines pretend to divide the single sandbox in which we all play into each boy’s or girl’s own inviolable kingdom. It is a sham. . . . If the lines were real, disciplines would not need so relentlessly to police their borders within colleges and universities
James Turner, Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, 385
Last week Shadi Bartsch published a pithy piece in the Washington Post about the latest iteration of debate/discussion/confrontation around race, the discipline of Classics, and the adoption of various bits of antiquity (Sparta, stoicism, hyper-masculinity, etc.) by the far right. I have no interest in wading into those issues and their various and ugly eruptions in that field, except to say, as a starting point for what piqued my interest, that I agree with Bartsch on all points.
As I have no skin in this game about Classics specifically, seeing all of this from afar has made me think a lot about a different sort of question, relevant to all parts of the academy nowadays. Namely, who gets to decide the future of a discipline? Who gets a say in a field of study?
A handful of angry, downwardly mobile English Ph.D.s aren’t by themselves enough to overthrow the institutions of society, but they can make hugely outsized contributions to unrest and discord if they are so inclined. Remember, these are very smart people who are very good at writing things, and well-schooled in any number of dissident ideas. Those are the kind of people who tend to lead revolutions.
Riiiiighhhhtttt..... because upon leaving academia the first thing that Ph.D.s want to do is foment rebellion. Not feed themselves? Not do interesting work? Spend time with family and friends? Read some good books?
I haven't always appreciated the importance of endings. As I wind down my academic career I have been thinking a lot recently about endings. The venerable 1980s self-help volume Transitions makes a big deal of endings. They're the part we're liable to overlook and not give their due. They feel unpleasant, or at least less pleasant than the excitement of thinking about what comes next. I am particularly prone to revel in the planning and, conversely, susceptible to avoiding endings, never really ending things, and letting things linger.
When trying to find a way into this, I struggle for a foothold. There are many ways in and not a few of them lead in tangled messes over and around each other. It is a giant knot of who I am, strung along a particular journey, crushed from without by a sense that there are more pressing issues.