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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