When searching for a way to procrastinate, I often read, which is absurd, because my procrastination is supposed to help me avoid reading. I'm preparing for my comprehensive exams, and for a Hebrew reading exam to boot. I've got a major research paper to redraft, which has to be submitted prior to my exams (I'm also still working my day job). Still, for the first time in awhile, I've decided to add back blogging to the ways I can procrastinate. Because Facebook and Twitter just don't get me enough bang for my procrastination buck.
I've decided to add a post to my dormant blog (I know, I know, stop the presses) because I'm approaching an interesting juncture in my life and I want to think out loud about it: people are telling me I have to start thinking of myself as a scholar, even though the scholar (at least one who is paid, and isn't contingent) is an endangered animal. Add to that my age -- roughly twice that of most people in my PhD program -- and my late start, and it seems I'm facing dim academic prospects, indeed. Even if my work is any good.
However, I'm trying to earn my stripes as a scholar, not necessarily as a perfesser. I don't need scholarship to provide me with a career. Don't get me wrong: I would love to teach and to write, perhaps do a post-doc in a place I'd otherwise never live. I'd like to keep doing the work. But I don't see sitting at too many conferences, hat in hand, waiting for an interview that won't amount to anything.
So what do I want out of it, exactly? Why am I doing this to myself? And my wife (and my son, who could give a crap)?
I thought about this after reading some of the excellent and incendiary articles and blog posts of Rebecca Schuman (God, I hope I spelled her name right), a post-academic advocate for the intellectual downtrodden, who are legion. She makes the point that outrage is an entirely appropriate response to the way the academy treats its underlings. I think she's right.
But I'm of two minds, because I'm of two worlds -- three, really. I have a home life, which anyone who has a home has; work life, which anyone who has a job has; and school life, which any student has. These separate lives elbow each other for space; they overlap, but they don't intersect. As a result, my mind slips gears every now and then: I find myself thinking about the university as a business, the business as a learning experience, and home life as all of the above.
So on one level, I think, Why should the academy be any different? Subject to the same sorts of pressures, they may do a more articulate job of venting their spleens, but spleens they still have. The outrage endemic in the academy seems to me to be about diminishing resources, feelings of impotence, and the resulting fury about how those scarce resources are divvied up. I see those same dynamics at play in the industry in which I work. Heck, in the world. When resources get scarce, people get creative, and they get nasty. They draw sharp boundaries, they appoint gatekeepers, and they oil their guns. Deals get done in ways that would make Machiavelli blush. Generally, the rich get richer. People on the outside are scared, angry, and desperate. And they say so.
Dr. Schuman's rage is creatively destructive. I get what she's saying and doing. I mean, I don't think I'd say some of that stuff, but I both defend her right to say it and applaud her willingness to suffer whatever consequences may come (I judge the consequences to have been mostly positive).
And that's key: she's standing beside her words, fully visible and identifiable, not just saying "F*ck this, everything sucks," but citing specific instances of obtuseness and naming names. The invective spewed in her direction is a symptom of how fragile peoples' psyches are. How rigid and humorless are the incensed! More to be pitied than censured.
There are too many disciplinary silos in the humanities, and this leads to a kind of intellectual inbreeding, an almost suffocating insularity, and to emotional hypochondria. Add to that the perpetual insecurities of the scholar, be she employed or unemployed, and the crumbling of the entire system to which she has directed her considerable resources, and -- well, it's surprising conferences aren't strewn with limbs, attended by armored grad students, eating each other alive.
That said -- I could be part of the problem. I'm exactly the kind of guy who could perpetuate the system against which Ms. Schuman rages. I could work as an adjunct and probably not wind up living under a bridge, or dying under my debts. I could bounce from place to place, or struggle to teach at several of them at once. I could find a bracing challenge in becoming an administrator or executive director, since I've run a business (heck, I'm an executive director now).
So maybe humanities graduate programs should consciously seek older students -- people who've made enough to labor for a pittance, but still have energy and expertise to do the work; people who are done having kids, who know a thing or two, who don't take everything terribly personally . . . and who do the work because they love it.
Not as many young people would get into humanities PhD programs. So what? That would mean not as many of them would emerge disillusioned, debt-constrained, and un- or under-employed. People like me would take the jobs that aren't really jobs at all. We'd be smart enough to confront bureaucratic monstrosities, and even-keeled enough to not sweat the small stuff. We'd train a generation or two of students who could see us modeling how to synthesize realms of experience and stages of life. They'd benefit from our connections, not only in our current fields but in the other fields we'd worked in. We wouldn't treat teaching as an imposition, and we wouldn't cram scholarly journals with our desperate attempts at self-promotion.
There might even be the occasional donor in a graduating class -- someone who tweaked her will to endow a chair or a scholarship fund.
Of course, this could just be reverse age discrimination. And it might make the problem worse: what, Johnny got rejected from Yale Divinity School, but his dad got in ??
Gotta get back to work.