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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Academia is an office job

Flavia has an interesting and, I think, spot-on post about the latest article from "Thomas H. Benton" in the Chronicle. I'd give you all the usual blogorhetoric of "read the whole thing," except given Flavia's hit counts, I imagine you all already have.

Anyway, Benton laments that the reasons his undergraduates decided to major in English--the love of literature, words, and ideas, basically--will be crushed if they go on to graduate school:

It surprised me that none of my students mentioned a commitment to social justice or to some specific political ideology as a motive ...

It makes me sad to think how little those motives will be acknowledged if they go on to graduate school.

They will probably go for the wrong reasons: to continue their experience as undergraduates. They are romantics who must suddenly become realpolitikers. Maybe that's why most drop out before they complete their doctorates. Those who stay have political commitments (and probably come from undergraduate programs where those commitments are encouraged early), or they develop them as graduate students, or they feign or exaggerate them to get through.

... They must, ultimately, purge themselves of the romantic motives that drew them to English in the first place -- or pretend to do so.

... You may be teaching English, but in many academic positions (and certainly in the mainstream of academic publishing), you'll have to fulfill your emotional life in other ways ...

Flavia writes, "This may reflect Benton's experience, and if so, I'm sorry to hear it, but it bears no relation to my own reality." I'm with her. My grad school experience had nothing to do with beating the love of early modern literature out of me (and, anyway, did I ever really "love" love it the way I do, say, a great novel, or a shlocky TV show?), though there were certainly some annoying and self-righteous people who pissed me off during my time there. My professional work relates to my own political commitments only tenuously, if by politics we mean something other than the idea (which is political) that teaching students to think clearly and critically might help them engage the world in a more active manner. Other than that (but that "other" is fairly large, I think), I don't have any illusions that my work has any real impact politically. I'm not saying one's work shouldn't relate to one's politics, only that mine doesn't, and that I'm skeptical of those who believe their literary research (as opposed to their teaching) has political impact.

At the same time, I've met plenty of undergrads who, when I ask them why they want to go to grad school, say, "I love to read," and who I also know are not cut out for grad school. Because academia is a job, after all, not a lazy Sunday afternoon on the backyard hammock with iced tea and your favorite novel. Reading is such a minor part of that job.

Now, as to Benton's purging problem, what I think is going on here instead is more simple: there are assholes in academia, probably in your own department in fact (shocked, shocked). Benton has probably encountered his share of them. And the particular form that assholery tends to take in academia is self-righteousness about the political importance of literary criticism and theory. Why? Maybe because our literary criticism and theory tend to be read by a couple hundred people if we're very lucky, and that can be a bit disheartening and can lead to some overcompensation. (On the other hand, over a career, we might teach, let's see, figure an average of 40 students per class times 6 classes per year times 30 years... 7200 students.) Maybe I'm oversimplifying (in my psychoanalysis, not my math, where I'm definitely oversimplifying), maybe I should have taken more Freud and Lacan in grad school. In any case, let's stipulate that some people in academia are annoying. And those annoying people may be at their most assholish in grad school, before time and the perspective of working for a living mellow at least some of them. But you know what? I've yet to hear of anyone working in an office who doesn't work with a few annoying assholes. That's office life, I think, in academia or elsewhere. You've all watched the TV show, right?

As I said, I'm skeptical of those who think their research has serious political effects, but I'm also open to the possibility that it might. And I have nothing against those who do believe that, and act on that basis ... so long as they aren't assholes. It's the asshole part that matters, see. And in that sense, I think all the geshreying about how politics are ruining the love of literature is generally beside the point. Academia is an office job. A pretty good one, sure, but still a job. I mean, wouldn't it be kind of sad if you really "fulfill[ed] your emotional life" entirely at the office? Personally, I like having a few "other ways" to do so. Some of them even involve the love of literature.

  • At 7/11/2006 09:42:00 PM, Blogger Flavia wrote…

    I just wrote a deep and insightful comment--okay, no, actually it was a snarky and somewhat unnecessary comment, but in any case Blogger ate it--so I will now say this only:

    Thanks for the shout-out, H.


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