What is worst? academic edition

27 June 2012

During my regularly-scheduled existential crisis about being an academic, I ask: which of these is worst?

  • that I get paid for a 40-hr week when I work 70 hours
  • that after all this time I still get nervous before lectures (why?)
  • that I have to put my intellectual output up for constant evaluation from my peers — peers who often seem determined to find fault, no matter how petty or outright unfounded
  • that when I read book reviews of my friends’ work, I get even more outraged by such intellectual pettiness than when I read it about my own
  • that I cannot live where I want to live, because that’s not how academic employment works
  • that no matter how spectacularly, horribly, unbelievably hard it is to be single as a female academic, it is even harder to be a single female academic on the dating market
  • that if we’re lucky enough to have a helpful partner, academic employment often requires us to live apart from our partners (unless their partners have magical jobs that allow them to move and/or are willing to gamble on finding work once we arrive)
  • that academics go through appalling butt-sniffing routines when they meet each other (where did you get your degree? who published your book? who was your grad school adviser? do you know Important Person In Your Field? what did you think of Other Important Person’s recent article?), the answers to which all get adjudged as if we rank on some kind of hierarchical scale of importance
  • that of all the things I’ve written, only one of them actually sees royalties — and they’re for shit
  • that I am responsible for training grad students when I experience such existential crises on a regular basis
  • that I am more proud of pieces I’ve written for this blog than I’ve ever been of a piece of my academic writing
  • that I actually feel bad about myself due to the fact that I have better concentration for writing long pieces about Practical Magic or watching a terrible film like Aasif Mandvi’s Today’s Special than for my academic writing
  • that I feel bad about myself all the time because I don’t read enough in my field, write fast enough, or give brilliant enough conference papers
  • that I am surrounded by peers who are experts in analyzing power and discrimination, yet who still manage to be clueless, cruel, and defensive when it comes to their own sexism, racism, homophobia, or classism
  • or, WORST OF ALL? — that our political culture is now such that academics are under attack for being lazy, overpaid, out of touch, too esoteric, a drain on public resources, not dedicated enough to teaching, not dedicated enough to research, and on and on … such that I feel myself forced to defend what I do, why it is important, and why I should be paid for it
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16 Responses to “What is worst? academic edition”


  1. Didion,
    You do a fantastic job of pointing out the flaws of the academy. One which I suspects resonates with many is: “that I cannot live where I want to live, because that’s not how academic employment works,” as does “that I am surrounded by peers who are experts in analyzing power and discrimination, yet who still manage to be clueless, cruel, and defensive when it comes to their own sexism, racism, homophobia, or classism.”

    • Didion Says:

      Yes. On that last one, I was just told yesterday of one of these cases happening to a friend of mine which made my blood boil — but I could list a dozen right off the top of my head. And on the former, as my parents are aging I’m starting to wish I could live within a reasonably easy drive of them … sigh.

      But perhaps in my obsessive list-making I realize it’s the snowball effect problem. Double sigh.


      • I wish I had some comfort to offer. How far are your parents?

      • Didion Says:

        Well, it’s a plane trip plus a rental car … which is better than it used to be, when it was long, annoying plane trip with a connection plus a rental car.

        There’s no comfort, except my lingering fantasy that I figure out how to write bestselling books enough to pay for a house and my own health insurance in a region of the country where I want to live, and forego the teaching job altogether. But you see how much a fantasy this is? I’m still using antiquated terms like “books.”

    • Dark Iris Says:

      Dear Didion,

      My heart is pounding just reading this post from you. I feel the same way–acutely–and struggle with all of these deeply painful and frustrating issues as a fellow academic. Let me just say a couple of things:
      –You have changed the lives of your students in profound and meaningful ways. Not all of them, but enough to effectively say that you are changing the world. You ARE.
      –Your blog has inspired me, and others, to write productively, engage critically, and transform our influence as academics. You are a feminist with intelligence, wit, and heart, and believe me, fellow bloggers, readers, friends, even strangers, are moved by your ideas.
      –While it’s easy to forget, in many ways, we are doing what we love, even if our labor can feel thankless and unrewarded. I have held so many other jobs while growing up, right through grad school, some of them awful, others far less stressful and more monetarily rewarding. Yet my passion is for feminism and cinema, and academe is still working hard to beat that out of me–and losing. It’s worth the fight.

      Heh, when I’m panicking about my leave being over and a ton of things due by Aug. 1st, the day after tomorrow (practically), and feeling guilty for relaxing, and stressed about all the administrative crap I have to do, I should re-read these words!

      I just want you to know that I so understand, you are not alone, and you are pretty damn terrific.

      • Didion Says:

        Oh, Dark Iris, we could sit down over some very strong drinks….

        (Which reminds me: everyone needs to go to her blog and read her take on Mad Men, just to whet your appetites. I have GOT to update my Fave Blogs list.)

        Changing people’s lives … sigh. Teaching is a whole other source of aggravation and frustration that I’ll discuss more here sometime. I believe in teaching.; I believe good things happen in actual classrooms between actual humans who speak up and learn to debate. But I am not sure that I can do the kind of teaching that matters, given the way universities are structured … at least not most of the time. But then, I’m feeling really cranky and perhaps shouldn’t Blog While Cranky.

        Most of all you’re SO RIGHT about two major things: I’m not alone, and that other jobs suck balls too. I did those jobs. I remember. Must work hard to remember now.

  2. JustMeMike Says:

    List-making is therapeutic. And even if it isn’t quite that for everyone, it is a kind of a softer rant, that even when it goes public, is still, because of its semi-permanence (out of sight, out of mind – yet it still exists), … better than punching a wall or howling into the night.

    Sorry you thought Today’s Special was terrible. And if you got to the film after reading my review, than I’m doubly sorry.

    As for your last bullet item – just try to tune it out. I’l tell you a short story. I worked in the financial services industry. Not as a trader, or broker, or even on the research side (all of which are considered revenue-making). I worked on the other side of the street – the less glamorous side, what would be called a cost center.

    I told a friend that I was transferring out of Operations and going over to Legal/Compliance. He said, Oh – Compliance. You guys are like the trucks and workers that clean up the elephant shit after the circus parade ends.

    While that isn’t the case – it still stung and was hurtful. But I rather quickly forgot about it (actually I didn’t as I am dredging it up now) but I did move away from the comment, and ultimately enjoyed my work no matter what anyone else thought of it.

    • Didion Says:

      I completely forgot about your review and must re-read it because I very much wanted to love that film, and Mandvi, but perhaps the crankiness was already setting in. I did love the magical taxicab driver and his cooking. I think I wanted more cooking. (Damn. Must have Indian food for dinner tonight.)

      Yeah, the steady stream of crap over the airwaves demonizing professors is pretty demoralizing, but oooof — what a vicious thing for that friend to say about your work. Sometimes those of us in the humanities/social sciences feel that way too, at least relative to the schools on campus that get all the glory (the med school, the law school, the schools that have things like valuable patents or major scientific grants).

      Normally I think I tend toward the overly optimistic when it comes to what I do. But I do have these periodic crises….

  3. Becky Says:

    Well just to change your perspective, I think most of what you list is not only pertinent to academia, but to other professions as well. There is just as much petty competition, butt-sniffing, and power gaming in other professions! I don’t know if that makes you feel better or worse, but really these are societal or human problems, not just academic ones.

    • Didion Says:

      Yes, this is a reminder of Dark Iris’s excellent comment: academia is not the only profession that sucks. I wish I could stop feeling that it ought to be better than it is. But as a former lawyer friend of mine always used to say, you don’t know about horrible jobs till you’ve been a lawyer.


  4. Hi Didion,
    I feel for you. I work at a university, too. But I’m administrative staff–budgeting, enrollment mangagement, and advising, etc. So I’m even lower on the totem pole than you–I’m assuming you’re in a tenure track position.
    But no matter what profession a person is in, there will always be struggles. And as one of your commenters said above, as a teacher you are touching the lives of your students in ways that you–or they–may not appreciate now. Education of oneself or others is an onging process. And like making sausage, you like the end product, you just don’t want to see how it is made. Ha!
    For me, focusing on our students and my wonderful colleagues–who outweigh the not so wonderful colleagues–makes it worthwhile for me.

    We all go through times when we doubt our self worth, values, and whether we’re making a difference. I just try to believe that the choices I make–good or bad–are meant to be. And if something “bad” happens, I try to learn from it. Of course, after crying and wringing my hands a bit. Ha!

    So hang in there. You are not alone And remember a motto I like to invoke from time to time (please pardon the language): “Don’t let the bastards get you down.”

    Cheers! Grati ;->

    • Didion Says:

      It’s funny because I’m often the more philosophical one when it comes to navigating the insanity of the university; I usually have many layers of defenses set up to manage it all. Those defenses will come back. But these crises are regular occurrences. Maybe this is just a reminder that defenses are tricky, delicate things that require regular exercise.

  5. servetus Says:

    This is strangely dark, coming from you. However: yes.

  6. eteokretan Says:

    I thought I remembered you having a post someplace about how few women there are at conferences in stem fields. I found a couple posts about encouraging girls to pursue stem fields, but I that there was another one. Perhaps I’m imagining it.

    But anyway, imagine that you DID write something like that, and in response to that post I’m pointing you to the “Blogging Science While Female” Bingo card available here (you have to download it): http://scientopia.org/blogs/ethicsandscience/2012/10/18/want-to-play-bingo/

    Most of the bingo squares fit feminist blogging in general (“Maybe people would be less sexist if you weren’t so mean about it.”). Quite amusing.

  7. Orlando Says:

    Continuing to catch up on my back-reading, I feel I must share that I just received my first royalties notices from my book (singular), which came out last November. It has netted me thirty pounds and thirty-four pence. Wheeee! Shame I spent 500 on reproduction permissions for the illustrations.

    I’m one of those who made the decision to live where I want to live, for family reasons, which means I am staggeringly unemployed, and retraining for a field well below my already existing qualifications. And I miss teaching so much. There is just no value placed on my skills in this town, so I’m going to have to find something else to do until the world changes or it’s feasible to move. And try to keep publishing.

    Wish we could have dinner.

    • Didion Says:

      Oh Orlando, we have much to say to one another, don’t we? Not that we’re the first academics to make so little on book sales or anything, but it’s just so discouraging. One of my advisors used to say that getting a royalties check meant taking a very nice trip to an ice cream joint.

      I like my job in so many ways, but when I encounter the bad stuff — the inhuman way we cannot choose where we live (I am still a plane ride away from my family, which causes stress regularly), the long hours, the interrelational bullshit between academics — I just want to bail. Not that there’s anything else I can do, mind you. If only I wanted to read those drafts of my student’s thesis proposal.


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