After my earlier post on adjuncting, I thought I’d better qualify things by saying that I’m not bitter about academic life or the academic experience.
I know that some are, but I’m not.
I enjoyed my years of teaching immensely, as I did my years as a Ph.D. student and then candidate. And it’s these experiences that enable me to do the job that I do today, in which I’m often described as unflappable, productive, creative, and authoritative.
It was enrollment in campus life that led me to write and publish the books that I wrote over many years, and that nurtured in me the temperament that later enabled my appearance and participation in big media and as a public figure. Life in academic circles forms a large part of what has fueled this blog for seventeen years, even if the actual daily content of academic life is mostly absent from its pages.
In many very real ways, academic life ultimately beat both the “stupid” and the “young” right out of me, often for better in the end.
Had I not followed the academic path that I followed, I’d be a very different person from the person that I am today. And I am mostly glad to be the person that I am today.
So it bears repeating that I’m satisfied with, and embrace, the path I took, even if there are particular parts of the experience that I either regret or wish had been otherwise.
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If I could earn a living at it, I’d spend the rest of my life on campus(es).
There’s something natural and right about an environment in which the young are trained by the older and more experienced and in which research and inquiry are married to production and an ethos of rigor and the pursuit of high standards.
Sadly, this arrangement—which recalls in many ways the guilds and apprenticeships of prior epochs, albeit with an emphasis on thought-work and knowledge-work rather than craftsmanship—is married to capitalist production and embedded in today’s larger neoliberal economic context.
The result is that to participate in it, whether as a student or as an instructor or mentor, requires that one suffer exploitation.
The very real benefits do justify this exploitation for a time. But there is a significant difference between, on the one hand, finding the cost-benefit calculation to make sense from the perspective of personal and career development, and on the other, trying to turn this particular mode and environment of exploitation into a career and method of economically sustaining oneself.
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Would I take it back, undo it all if I could? Absolutely not.
Am I grateful for the opportunity? Definitely.
Do I think that I also made the right choice in stopping, at least for the present, once I finished my Ph.D.? Without a doubt.
Do I rule out any thought of academic work in the future? Not at all, but the calculation involved in deciding whether or not to take it up again would be a significantly different one from the calculation that led me to pursue it as a student.
Am I happy to have the chance now to own, once again, who I am as a person, without worrying that it will affect my expenses, employment, or my future income potential? Yes.
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Let me expand a bit on the way that I think about academic careers these days, at least amongst the faculties.
I think that such a career is best imagined as a kind of honor or award, not as a path to be actively pursued.
Professionals ought to follow their interests, do their work, and develop their careers without any particular regard for the academy. Be productive. Think. Write. If those are the things that you do.
If, after naturally doing what you do, the academy pursues you, and you are in a position to be receptive to these overtures, then you are the right person for the job. Otherwise, you’re better off just doing what you do, being interested in what you’re interested in, helping and/or mentoring those that you will, without expecting a university to pay you for these things.