For various reasons I find myself on the hiring side of technical interviews. This is not a customary position, as most of the hiring I've done has been in a role as a professor on a hiring committee. Academic hiring is its own idiosyncratic hellscape.
This new role had me thinking about how academic interviews function (or fail to function) as technical interviews for the business of academia.
It is wrap-up time in academia, at least for me, and I have gotten to the point with grading where it is a torture to sift through the online gradebook. Some of this is self-inflicted, as I tend to favor high-frequency low stakes assessments. So lots of assignments that count for very little means better learning for students but more of a slow burn for me. (The alternative would be epic grading sessions to plow through a small number of high stakes assignments) Over the past few years, my ability to punch grades and feedback into the system online has degraded to the point that I seem to be having some sort of traumatic reaction any time I launch the platform. I grow immediately angry and resentful and want to do anything in the world that is not this.
It's burnout, textbook-case, obvious and long-simmering.
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.
https://fivebooks.com/best-books/james-turner-on-philology/ gives a handy introduction to some key works about the 'pre-history' of modern humanities, with James Turner's answer here being the perfect explanation for why I never feel at home as a professor despite doing everything, outwardly, that would seem to say otherwise.
So do you think there should be philologists in universities now, studying this broad range of subjects? Or is that impossible?
I think it’s very difficult, not for any intellectually solid reason, but because of the institutions that have grown up around disciplines. For example, if you are an assistant professor of art history in an American university and you write a book about Dante, you’re going to get fired. You’re certainly not going to get tenure. It’s very difficult for people to ignore the present disciplinary boundaries and get away with it in the structure of the modern university. People who are not hampered by universities can do this kind of work and they should. People who are old and in no danger of losing their jobs can write a book like I wrote.
One correction there. It's impossible for anyone not already at the twilight of their career to do this kind of work. Not difficult. Impossible.
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.