Sunday, February 14, 2010

The myth of sincerity and the life of the mind

After Friday's Finishing the Dissertation meeting, I came home to Amanda's response to Thomas Hart Benton's (aka William Pannapacker) Chronicle essay, "The Big Lie about the Life of the Mind." Besides agreeing with what she says about smart, bookish kids growing up to imagine that there's only one real career for smart, bookish adults, I'd like to add that academia is often also positioned as a sort of peaceful, utopian place where you have colleagues who share your enthusiasm, instead of co-workers with whom you compete.

This is nonsense, as the story from Friday's meeting about the people trumpeting their brilliant dissertation experience should suggest. My experience so far is that though it's not impossible to have close friends who work in the same period as you, it's a little less likely, especially during the dissertation and jobmarket process. Nor are they the only people with whom you feel pressured to compare yourself. At a party I was at last night, I heard a classmate, a couple years behind me in the program, lamenting the fact that all the other people in her cohort seemed to be doing their written exams this quarter (this weekend, in fact!), when she wasn't doing hers until the spring. Inevitably, I've wondered whether something was wrong with me for similar reasons. The national average time that it takes to complete a dissertation in English (according to the grad program director, as of Friday's meeting), is 7.8 years. Our program's average is 7.2 -- but I have two friends who are likely to finish around the 6 year mark. It's hard not to think about that.

Pannapacker writes that graduate school in the humanities works to make its students believe that it is "shameful to abandon 'the life of the mind.'" It also socializes them to believe not just that academia is a meritocracy, but that it's the only fair meritocracy in existence.

In non-academic jobs, you have co-workers. In academia, you have colleagues. Collegialism. I was well-aware of the fact that there were some long-standing disagreements being played out in essays, monographs, reviews, and speaking engagements, my impression was that in general, academia offered a fundamentally different community experience from that offered in careers such as banking, law, or real estate. And by fundamentally different I'm not referring to what is being produced: monographs and essays vs. contracts and legal documents; or book prospectuses vs. muni bond prospectuses.

What I mean is the sincerity involved in one's profession. Academia fairly glowed with authenticity; while the aura of non-academic professions reeked with the idea of faking it; of only being in it for the money; of cutting corners whenever possible. Not only did my concept of the non-academic professional world suggest that people were constantly involved in petty competitions over things that didn't matter -- I also had the idea that no one would hesitate to cheat if it meant that they could win.

In my defense, this wasn't just a completely false imaginative conception of the business world, but part of the reality that I saw in working at three different brokerage houses. Part of it. Because there was also plenty of collegiality and generosity as well. It's harder to cut corners in academia the way that they can be cut in other workplaces. Systems like peer review do help to maintain fairness -- in terms of publications. But of course, publication is only one aspect of many in the academic career.

But this post isn't about whether academia is more or less fair than business, law, or real estate. Or any other career category you'd care to name. It's about the myth that the life of the mind is a guarantee of sincerity -- that you will always be able to feel genuine as you work.

For me, there have been countless hours where I felt as though I was faking it to save my arse. Mostly, I've found that they're just part of the process of realizing that I had found something important, and simply didn't know how to fit it into the context of what had already been established. Sometimes, not. Sometimes, as one of my mentors says, "an odd fact is just odd" -- i.e., more odd than meaningful or useful to an argument.

There's a whole other discussion that could, and should, take place -- about the life of the mind in relation to subjects that don't fit into the sphere of "traditional" humanities. In terms of the myths of academia that are often recounted to prospective humanities graduate students, we need to revise them to reflect two points:

1. The life of the mind, in academia, is not separate from competition. It is characterized by it.
2. The activity of the life of the mind may involve strenuous and stimulating intellectual work. It also involves stumbling around in the dark, and is accompanied by the suspicion that you might just be creating needless bullshit.

On another blog, now taken down, I wrote that "the thing you're best at doing in life is the thing that you're also worst at doing." If you add up the mistakes you've made in whatever discipline you've devoted yourself to be it cooking or paleography, and compare the number with the mistakes you've made in any other hobby you pursue, the number you've made in your career will be higher. And that's healthy. Often, it's the mark of a good career.


  1. Paige, just now discovered your blog! :) As a fellow grad student who has watched her colleagues graduate in 5-9 years, and knowing that if and when I do graduate, it will have taken me 7.5-8 years myself... let me tell you, I have had it with the life of the mind. You already know how jaded I am, but I'll say it again... I think it's a shame when people can't fess up to *wanting* to abandon academia. THAT takes real courage, in my opinion, just like it takes courage to express a sincere will to leave the church, or any other organization whose existence depends on you drinking their Kool-Aid until the end of time.

    Thank you for your honesty here--and we'll get through this thing. But keep seeing the matrix for what it really is--as cutthroat and ego-inflating/deflating as any other job in the "real world," except with a veneer of being "sincere and intellectual," while never really ever being fairly compensated for one's education. Such bullshit.

  2. Thanks, Johanna! I used to blog a lot more, but for a number of reasons, I've fallen off in the last couple of years. I'm working on changing that.

    The voices of people who've decided to leave academia -- or at least, the professoriate -- yes -- those are hard to find. But Amanda, who's linked above is one, and so is T.E., who posts here -- both recommended.

  3. I see that TE graduated and then left academe... what about Amanda? I was not sure if she graduated or was ABD, or is she still in the system?

    It seems very difficult to find anyone who's willing to talk about quitting while ABD... I figure most of them are ashamed, as I suppose I would be for a while if I did that. (I am no longer considering that as an option, as I do want to just get this thing done and THEN move on, but still.) Did you see the discussion on my FB page after I posted the Chronicle article?

    By the way, I am doing what no academic is ever supposed to do (at least, until they get tenure)... Jade and I are buying a house in Roosevelt/Ravenna. We are putting down roots here, or at least putting down more roots than I already had, ha. :) I am quite sure that most of my colleagues will think I am shooting myself in the foot, career-wise, but I don't care. I know what makes me happy, even if it took the last ten years of life experience to teach me what that was. I'm fine with limiting my job search to the immediate geographical area (Western Washington), and definitely fine with looking outside of academia. But how does one communicate all of this to people who will see me as a cop-out or failure of some kind, for walking away (I haven't announced it publicly yet)? I don't know, but I don't know why I should really care, either. We only get one life.

  4. I did finish my Ph.D, spent a year lecturing while trying to figure out what I wanted to do when I grew up, and then decamped for the greener pastures of information science. I'm still in academia in that I'm now a librarian at a college library, but there's no way I'd ever go back to being a faculty member.

    I thought everyone would see me as a failure, too. And there was some bafflement when I started telling my classmates and mentors I was leaving, but there were also a lot more supportive people than I thought there would be. YMMV, but you may find that people won't automatically see it as a cop-out if you tell them you're looking elsewhere, especially if they've ever thought about it themselves.

  5. Amanda, thanks for your response! So are you glad that you finished the PhD? Or do you think your life would have turned out just the same if you had walked away before graduating? If you are sure that you won't end up using that diplom to get a job (or even, that it might overqualify you for some jobs), what value do you see in finishing the dissertation, other than to just tell yourself that you finished it?

    I haven't gotten too many people implying that I'm a failure yet (even by just telling them that I am leaving academia as soon as I graduate--anathema to a recent PhD), but I also haven't totally "come out" yet--I feel like I have to keep up the facade at least until I get a job after graduation, and then slowly slip away into something else. Then again, the people who truly care about me are 100% supportive of me doing whatever makes me happiest, whether that includes quitting or starting another career or anything else. It's their opinions that matter the most to me, in the long run. :)

  6. I don't know if my life would have been the same if I'd left as an ABD. I would have had to figure out an exit strategy sooner, and certain opportunities wouldn't have presented themselves. The good things about having the Ph.D in hand were: 1) it let me apply for and get a transitional postdoc that introduced me to librarianship before I'd fully made up my mind to go back for more letters after my name, and 2) it was a selling point when my current place of work interviewed me. It wouldn't necessarily be an advantage for every library job, though, and for other types of jobs it might not make much of a difference. Depends in the end on what kind of work you do instead and what they're looking for.