Thursday, July 25, 2013

On Being Post Post-Academic

With the collapse of the humanities and simultaneous gutting of the academic profession, there are plenty of folks out there who have left the groves of academe for greener pastures.  Many identify themselves explicitly as "post-academic," a term which I guess could maybe be applied to me as well.  Post-academics are both outside academia, but also engaged in a critical critique of it.  The more militant types take a John Brown approach, hoping to free those entrapped in a system that has failed them.

These days I don't really think I'm post-academic, I'm more post post-academic.  Why?  Because I no longer give a flying fuck about the academic profession.  I. Do. Not. Care.  I do not see its fate in any way to be connected to my own.  Post-academics are still invested in reforming the system or at least trying to change it.  I have withdrawn my investment, except for the fervent hope that my friends still immeshed in it will be protected, advance up the ladder, or find a better life.

For the longest time I wondered how I could leave something I had devoted my entire adult life to.  Turns out, it was pretty damn easy.  What I discovered was that for once in my life, my gut instincts were actually correct.  When I started graduate school, many things I saw really bugged me about the academic profession.  Many scholars wrote indecipherable prose intended to prove a didactic political point, and yet were deemed successful, even demigods.  Others professed a support for the toiling masses, but were more than happy to reap the benefits of cheap grad student labor.  Uninspiring scholarship on "trendy" topics got rewarded much more than much more impressive research on non-trendy topics.  Some profs at my grad school, whose salaries were taxpayer supported, disdained teaching undergraduates as beneath them, and thought any professor who did care to be suspect and inadequate as a scholar.  The whole enterprise stank of bourgeois snobbery, hypocrisy, and privilege, even though I had and still retain a great deal of respect and admiration for many of the professors in my graduate department.  When I started going to big conferences, I had a hard time seeing myself as a member of the professors' club.

Worse, once I left grad school and became a "visiting" professor and later an assistant prof, I noticed the most damning thing of all: nobody was satisfied.  I found the place where I "visited" to be a wonderfully livable city and the school to be comfortable enough, but the tenured and tenure-track professors were often miserable, thinking they ought to be in a trendier location, or employed at a more prestigious university.  At conferences I often heard much the same from people I knew who actually had R-1 jobs in major cities.  They still weren't satisfied with their positions, and I began to wonder if anyone in this self-hating club ever reached a stage of contentment.

Over the years I found ways to ignore my nagging doubts and socialized myself into academic culture.  While a student enjoying my immersion in the study of history, I did not give much thought to what came after.  I was lucky enough to be surrounded by a bunch of fantastic people, and was happier than I had ever been in my life, despite the poverty, anxiety, and labor demanded by grad school life.  Once I was out and trying to claw my way out of contingent labor into a tenure-track gig, and then to fight my way out of my tenure-track job to be closer to my wife, the immense effort of six years on the job market blinded me to the fact that I was sacrificing myself for a profession I wasn't suited for, and which had rewarded my years of toil with rejection and anguish.    

Leaving academia initially made me feel like a failure and a reject, but the tables have turned.  I reject academia, because it has failed.  It's fucked up and wrong, not me.  Rather than define myself as "post-academic" and tilt my lance at the windmills of higher ed, I'd rather just forget about the whole tawdry, overrated, hypocritical, awful mess of a profession that it is, even if my posts on academia tend to get the most hits.  That chapter of my life is over, and good riddance to it.


Anonymous said...

I wonder what is with the unhappiness. Someone from graduate school said recently that if you went to graduate school where we did, everything was a comedown, it was so much more interesting in terms of school and also place than most, so one got a really unrealistic idea of what it felt like to be an academic.

Drew Beard said...

I really needed to read this today. I'm at a similar point, and everything you said resonated. I noticed similar things that left me uneasy, but I assumed I was overthinking it. Thanks for making me feel less alone in this. :-)