back to school special: on being postacademic

I found this post discussed at Perverse Egalitarianism, and found it very brave for this writer to lay out his view of the systemic unhappiness, emotional disengagement, and micropolitics of departmental life.  This passage rings especially true for me, when I watch our junior faculty learning about our departmental and institutional history:

The scariest thing a young faculty member experiences is not, as is conventionally supposed, the “need to produce” and therefore her/his experience is not aided by the “mentorship” of an experienced scholar.  Rather, the young scholar’s fear stems from the fact that no one in the department is talking to each other about scholarship.  Faculty are socializing, going out, schmoozing all the time, and the ideas that supposedly drive the work they do are not being discussed.  The mentor, if assigned, will try to teach the young faculty member how to navigate the minefield of the department, but that is exactly what is alienating. .  The mentor, especially when well-intentioned, may be the model for what is wrong, not an aid in coping.  Indeed, if the mentor is really similar to the young faculty member in terms of ideology or social identity, the mentor may be a model for what the young faculty member does not wish to become.

This was one of the surprises for me when I crossed the line and became tenured: how hard it is to mentor people in a way that doesn’t just invite them to join our shared sense of alienation.  The PE comments are worth scanning, too, especially this one:

There is an odd disjunction in the academic. I have never encountered so many supposed-to-be-happy sad persons, all working in a rather lively youth-embued enivornment. To put it to a polemical extreme, it is as if Kafka has written about how Disneyland is run. In my brief time in academia I encountered people largely disappointed with themselves, frustrated with their position, or happy to the meager degree that they were able to exercise a very small measure of local power (however benignly thought of). It seems an industry of personal unhappiness in the most banal of senses, very much for the reasons the author above describes. A Tantalus world of well-intentioned, ideal, intelligent people.

A bit further down, Shahar, the initial poster had this to say (the thread  goes on long past this point, but this makes for a good full stop):

I’ve said it before, but ultimately, pushing all the logic of self-declared, self-important “projects” along with the self-serving “global” ethics of the profession aside (eating berries in Zagreb and all that), at the end of the day the best we can do is fuck with our students and cook up interesting paths for thinking. And I mean that in the best of ways.



17 responses to “back to school special: on being postacademic

  1. Please disregard that rather nasty exchange between me and Levi, it happens once in every while that we get into it, but the rest of the comments on that thread are indeed on the issue, I think.

  2. Mikhail,

    I saw that, but I liked the rest of the thread so much I wanted to call attention to it. Hope you’ve managed to patch things up. Best, DM

  3. Laura Rosenthal

    This is an interesting perspective and thanks for posting it. But I’m not sure I’d call it brave to characterize the career you’ve left as structured by unhappiness.

  4. Dave Mazella

    I wouldn’t want to make too large claims for this account, but I do think the descriptions of the departmental micropolitics and the alliances that seem to preclude friendship and intellectual exchange ring true to me, at least in some moods. I can certainly recognize some of these tensions in the mentoring relationships, though I don’t know exactly how to address this. But I thought it was worth thinking about while I try to wrap up my summer work and prepare for fall classes.

  5. Do you think there’s something to be said for Academic issues being regurgitated among a select few who have decided to become experts in a specific field, but never leaving that small sphere? Perhaps there would be more happiness and more purpose in the career of an Academic if that person tried to use his/her expertise for a larger purpose than writing papers only other experts and Academics are going to read?

    What is the point of Academia? I don’t mean to be impertinent – I mean that in all seriousness. If a student were to ask you why he/she should consider going into Academia, what would you say? Is there a way of giving back to society by being an Academic or do you really only serve the small Academic community?

    • Dave Mazella

      For me, it’s teaching, learning, thinking, writing, talking about the stuff I love, which varies from day to day, but usually involves eighteenth century literature one way or the other. It’s not really about impressing the in-crowd, because those people already know (or think they know) why it’s important. My job is to show this stuff to people who have never heard of it, and see if I can show them why it’s important enough to become part of their lives. DM

  6. But who is actually reading articles and essays published by Academics? Isn’t it really only other Academics or students who need to write research papers?

    Perhaps I am being harsh on Academia, but there have been certain university classes which have had a major impact on the way I think, read, and approach life. Except I feel as though that experience is rare, and a student must be open to having that experience. Plenty of articles that I have come across seemed to focus on details that may be very interesting to those who care about that particular piece of literature, but are not clear in why a person should care about those things beyond a research paper.

    Isn’t the entire point of being a thinker to guide others to use better thinking, reasoning, and reading skills? So many classes care more about specific works of literature than they do the broader idea of HOW that literature was approached, thought about, and written. What I have gotten out of most articles and essays that I’ve read have been other people’s readings of specific details in specific material. Yet isn’t the whole point to be able to do your own reading? Not for the sake of other people’s literature – who cares how many times Jane Austen has her characters blush (I read an article about that once)? – but for the sake of creating your own literature, or your own anything, and for the sake of facing the world, which is a literature of itself?

  7. Laura Rosenthal

    The purpose of Academia is to create a more educated and reflective populace. This operates on two fronts: specialists who delve very deeply into disciplinary/interdisciplinary problems and teachers (of many kinds) who share the resulting insights and forms of knowledge. Sometimes they are the same people, sometimes not.

    The question of why a student should pursue an academic career is distinct from higher education’s purpose and more of a personal decision.

  8. Laura Rosenthal

    Yes, the point is exactly to be able to do your own reading. Whoever wrote the article on blushing in JA was doing that (their own reading). If you feel that way into the material is trivial, then you need to figure out why, and then figure out, by contrast, what IS important, and then work through the material to see if it supports your sense of what’s important. Then you are doing your own reading.

  9. Dave Mazella

    Dear “Student”: Laura answered your questions better than I could, but I do think that different questions will arise among different audiences. Sometimes with a class of entering majors, it’s why is literature worth studying in the first place? When I’m addressing other scholars who’ve devoted their whole lives to this kind of work, we may very well discuss an argument step-by-step, its evidentiary basis, the sources used, its implications for other figures and histories, and so on. But no one I know does this to pick up a paycheck, and if it just stays in one’s head it’s s huge waste. And yes, yes, you need to be able to do your own reading, but that often demands the ability to distinguish your own contribution from what others have said before you, and why, as Laura rightly pointed out.

    Laura: yes, Academia exists as a set of institutions designed to produce an educated and reflective populace. It operates on multiple fronts in its mission of disseminating knowledge and insights ever more widely, and engages its participants at a number of levels. Institutions like academia are no more and no less vulnerable to the betrayal of their ideals than other professionalized institutions like the law, medicine, and so forth.

    As for the “bravery” of this writer, here’s one final thought: I think Mostern knew perfectly well that his mixture of confession and institutional diagnosis could be construed as sour grapes, a post facto rationalization. Ever read Laura Kipnis on monogamy and marriage? Or any one of a thousand writers on child-rearing, therapy, divorce, etc.? Or for that matter Rousseau on any aspect of the society that surrounded him? I think that some degree of self-serving rationalization is a given with these kinds of writings. I just wish the piece had had a little bit more introspective insight about his own motives and role in the departmental life he describes. Nonetheless, even if one’s choice of academic life is a personal decision, we cannot control what that life and what those other people will make of us. The same could be said of most of our adult decisions.


  10. “In my brief time in academia I encountered people largely disappointed with themselves, frustrated with their position, or happy to the meager degree that they were able to exercise a very small measure of local power”

    It would seem that the world of academia isn’t that much different from the world at large. Perhaps they are a bit more disappointed than the rest of us, but, if that’s true, they must have begun by being greater idealists.

  11. Dave Mazella

    Right, and here I wish this writer could have brought more outside perspective: there are going to be “micropolitics” in any work environment, whether we’re talking about a law firm or a car dealership or a restaurant. I do think that academia attracts people who hope to find a place not totally dominated by such things, and I think those are the “idealists” we’re talking about. This is the kind of attitude that is sure to get disillusioned, no matter where it goes.

    Nonetheless, what this writer unreflectively describes, and which a writer like Bousquet really hones in on, is the extent to which academic institutions systematically exploit (and then transform) their members’ idealism. For me, this is the piece to take away from this confession.

  12. Laura Rosenthal

    I really didn’t think Mostern was being self-serving or rationalizing, although it is true that at this point he has a stake in seeing the darker side. Nevertheless, he did get an excellent job and tenure, so it wasn’t sour grapes. The geographical issues are absolutely real and the result of a nineteenth-century institution’s poor fit with contemporary gender, family, economic, and environmental realities. This really has to be fixed. I’m just going to disagree that it’s brave to criticize an institution that you no longer have a stake in. Kipnis, I think, has a greater claim to courage, as she will probably continue to be in sexual relationships or at least live with their potential. If she entered a convent, I would not consider her book brave.

    For academic criticism, this, I think, is brave:

    Public education really needs people to fight for it right now.

  13. Well, now you’ve brought in the distinction between “politics” and “micropolitics,” which might be better described as “ethics.” But it is certainly true that departmental politics don’t look very onerous when compared to the systematic looting of one of the world’s best public university systems. That is an epochal change, and a very bad deal for one of the richest, most populous states in America.

    I agree with you that this is a fabulous blog, and one that I’m going to share with my colleagues on the senate. I’m glad CA senate is doing this, and hope it gets a wider circulation.

    As for fighting for public higher education, I think we all do this, and need to keep doing this, but it also requires keeping down the levels of alienation, our own and our colleagues’, to the point where we can feel justifiably proud of what we’re accomplishing. Much of the demoralization that Mostern discusses stems from the self-perception that the university is either not doing its job or that no one cares whether it does or not.

    Unfortunately, a lot of the “accountability” talk we see coming from politicians nowadays is so sweeping and indiscriminate that it hijacks the language of improvement and professionalism for its own anti-intellectual purposes. And whatever local and institutional gains we make in any direction can always be swept away by a fiscal crisis or a tax-cutting season. So I continue to maintain that academics need to develop a robust argument about how what they do serves the public good, and then maintain that (and live up to it) as much as possible.

  14. Laura Rosenthal

    Right, but I’m not sure it’s only a difference between macro and micro politics. I was really just speaking to the issue of courage. If you discuss the triviality or hypocrisy or whatever of the academic world in this current climate, I think you are going *with* the grain of the dominant culture rather than against it. (For example, read some of the comments on the article in *The Economist* linked to the UC blog.) This doesn’t mean that Mostern shouldn’t do it or that his insights aren’t useful or correct., or that they shouldn’t be taken seriously. But I think there’s a big difference between hanging out the dirty laundry of a household you’ve abandoned and sticking around for the delicate cycle.

  15. I think I get what you’re saying: this is a version of Foucault’s parrhesiastic argument, wherein we admire the truth-teller who assumes the risk of the audience’s hostile response to his observation.

    (e.g., one of the reasons, for example, that celebs get ridiculed for their political stances is the fact that they risk so little when they announce them)

    So what risk does Mostern run by falling in with thoroughly conventional stereotypes about academic irrelevance, pettiness, etc.? At one level, not much. I will say, though, that changing careers at this stage of life (and I’ve had to contemplate this, too) is very much like divorce, in that one has to admit some degree of failure in order to move on.

    I suspect that we will not ever agree about the applicability of “brave” to Mostern’s piece, but I think my reaction has been shaped by one thing: one of the really demoralizing ways that academic life operates sometimes is to tell the “failed” (i.e., the underemployed, the perennial grad student, the adjunct) that whatever problems they encountered in the environment, their failures to thrive were entirely their own. It’s a very common and personally disabling phenomenon, I think, and it works because people really do internalize such things.

    In other words, there is a self-justifying mode of rationalization at work in institutions as well as individuals, and I think that these kinds of “exit interviews” contain potentially valuable information about the place, even for those who really are committed to the institution in ways that Mostern was not.

    I do respect the “airing dirty laundry” argument, because lord knows the enemies of higher ed don’t need any more ammunition, but I also think that some departments, like some families, can have tacit but bullying environments that need to be exposed. So I think this is a case by case question, and depends on what the atmosphere really was like at his place.

  16. Laura Rosenthal

    I agree exactly with the way you have broken this up. There is little courage in this kind of low-risk speech (and much courage, I think, in the California people who are analyzing an institution with real power over them). I also agree that it takes personal courage to admit that a career you have invested so much in isn’t working out for you. This isn’t exactly what M does, though–as you point out, the piece is not introspective. It blames the institution. I agree that universities can be hugely demoralizing toward the supposedly “failed,” as you mentioned and there is much internalization that should not be happening, but M was actually very successful with a book and tenure at a research institution. Nevertheless, it would be very hard to start over in another career and a huge disruption at many levels and would indeed take courage to confront the trade-offs even if you don’t blog about them.