“Look at what they make you give”

2 June 2011

I walked into the research library today and got introduced to a head librarian. “We’re very happy you’re here,” he said. “We’ve heard wonderful things about you.”

My response? Panic. I believe he is actually saying, We’ve heard terrible things about you and we are perversely delighted to meet you. I’m quite certain I had a look of terror on my face — even the poor librarian recognized that something wasn’t quite right with me. “We were so pleased to hear about your book prize, for example,” he offered as reassurance.

“Look at this. Look at what they make you give” — that’s what Clive Owen’s character, The Professor, says to Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) in The Bourne Identity (2002). The Professor has just tried to kill Bourne, as requested; as he’s dying, they discover they’re both assassins, both trained by Treadstone, and that they suffer from the same headaches. If it seems ridiculous for me to compare myself to Bourne, I must insist that this line makes me want to weep.

I became an academic for a lot of reasons that seem foolish in retrospect. To ruin a terrific exchange from Casablanca (1942):

Didion: I became an academic for the intellectual freedom.

Captain Renault: The freedom? What freedom? Academia is an intellectual cage!

Didion: I was misinformed.

On days like today — faced with a lovely man who wants to complement me, only to make me feel like I’m going to throw up — I realize how much academia makes you give. It’s not that I hadn’t seen it before; I’d seen other people get destroyed by the tenure process before me (and they got tenure). The thing about academics is, each of us believes that we will not suffer the slings & arrows of outrageous fortune. (I am a quoting machine tonight!)

Yet here I am, jumping at the slightest noise. I’ve survived — just barely — but with so many injuries and grudges and emotional damage that I can’t take a complement from a librarian. And I’m someone who, for the most part, did what I was “supposed” to do to move through the tenure process.

So now I study my email inbox, which now has four requests for letters of recommendation for undergrads wishing to go to grad school. They’re perfectly nice students and have the brains to do well and, more important, seem to have the drive to power through the sheer cussedness of grad school. But before I agree to write those letters I want to show these young men and women my wounds and scars, and force them to read posts by people like Professor Zero and Historiann and the other academics who write frankly about the long-term damage they’ve suffered. These bloggers write about wanting to quit their jobs, even after they get tenured. Oh young people, beware: look at what academia makes you give.

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10 Responses to ““Look at what they make you give””

  1. servetus Says:

    becoming an academic: I did it without thinking. A stupid decision, for an intellectual, no?

    I gotta see this film.

    I’ve got tears in my eyes after reading this, because it’s exactly the same experience I have every time I walk into a new scholarly library to meet with the bibliographer or whoever. I feel I’ve gotta prove myself, they something nice about me, and it makes me want to run away and hide. I don’t know what to do about these wounds, either, especially the one that forces me to look for the hidden, poisonous meaning behind every nice word that’s ever been said to me.

  2. Didion Says:

    I’m not sure getting into academia without thinking is worse than my situation: I DID think, but I assumed it was a rational world of people who like to think.

    The problem is, we DO like to think, right? So I wasn’t entirely wrong. I just had no idea how much time I’d spend trying to prove myself. And you know what? I’m actually a pretty rational person; I don’t spend a lot of time thinking I’m not good enough. (Hell, I’ve seen a lot of the competition.) But whether I’m actually good enough isn’t the issue: it’s whether the gossip on the street says you’re good enough — and all it takes is one bitter, sexist, homophobic jackass to spin the word on the street.

  3. servetus Says:

    Yeah, how not to have your buttons pushed in response to words when words are so important.

    • Didion Says:

      There’s another part of this that I’m realizing now: the accrued layers of weariness when one survives these situations in which one (crazily) feels the need to prove oneself. All building up, like a big toxic hump on one’s back.

  4. Hattie Says:

    Always having to prove yourself. It’s awful. I got out after my M.A. I was older and therefore not subject to the kind of ego damage a younger woman might have suffered, but it was bad enough.

    • Didion Says:

      It’s tragic that the smartest grad students — like you — get out when they’re smart enough to see the lay of the land. For a while I harbored the fantasy that I could make it better for the women who followed. Now, I’m not so idealistic.

  5. Z Says:

    Thanks for the reminder that it’s (also) academia. I tend to forgive them and blame other bad influences, but my present job at least really has been toxic.

    Wounds: you get a book prize; I immediately think, well she kept on working well, so I should have been able to!

    Everything always seems to be, you didn’t work hard enough, you didn’t spend little enough, you didn’t play each situation perfectly, etc. … which is of course the liberal illusion and guilt trip.

    Always proving, always applying, always under suspicion somehow, yes. And condescended to. And then people wonder why one catches hesitancy, defensiveness, self doubt.

    (Right now I am trying to prove that the library needs books published this century, and that we should continue subscriptions to journals.)

    • Didion Says:

      When I finally, finally finished my book ms. I experienced a huge spurt of creative eagerness to write. I was blogging a little and that helped get the juices going. I applied to conferences and volume editors. I had a new research project and a bunch of other sideline projects and it all made me feel great. It’s like I finally understood something about myself: writing is always hard, it’s always a slog, but I can’t do anything else. More important, writing was finally something I was doing just for me — not for a grad school adviser, not for a tenure committee, not for anyone except me.

      I had a whole lot of questions — some utterly esoteric and some big, important questions for my discipline — and I wanted to try to answer them. In other words, I had started writing with a post-tenure attitude. It was only later, when I actually went through the tenure process, that I received the intense scrutiny by administrators and a few of my senior colleagues, who expressed a lot of doubt about whether I was “good enough” to keep my job.

      So on the one hand, I think experiencing that burst of creativity at the time I did made me want to keep writing. On the other hand, the tenure process has utterly knocked me about, such that I feel like an old woman with osteoporosis.

  6. Z Says:

    Good for you re the projects!

    Osteoporosis feeling, I know, I got it from forces other than the tenure process, but I know the feeling. I’m still trying to de-internalize.

    However, it is so great about your projects!!!


  7. […] Didion reminds us that it is not just a question of discipline, it is work circumstances. I say it is good to be reminded of that because it is true, but that my own discouragement does not even come from work circumstances but from advice as to what to do about these: […]


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