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.