What do Foucault, Martha Beck, George Mallory, and Death Cab for Cutie have in common? An ambivalent relation to the discipline required and imposed in the pursuit of a single-minded goal. In your case: the academic career, and the ways that you’ve become fixated on this goal to the exclusion of all else. Karen Cardozo shows you how finding and creating your own True North (to borrow Martha Beck’s marvelous phrase) can be the path out of indoctrination.
(For more on Karen Cardozo and the complete list of her planned posts, see this page.)
In my last post I argued that tenurecentrism has saddled us with a failed “Track” metaphor, since the untenured majority must actually navigate a crazy professional roundabout. Let’s now think back to before you could drive, so to speak. In a tenurecentric universe, Alt/Post-Ac discourse inevitably comes across as elegiac – a consolation prize for the lost academic career. But what makes you so sure that an academic career was the right choice for you in the first place?
In fact, many of us ended up in the Ivory Tower not through a genuine sense of election but as the default position of bright but undecided or under-informed students everywhere. Many of us keep doing it because we can, or, as British mountaineer George Mallory famously replied when asked why he climbed Everest: “because it’s there.” (Take heed: he died on the climb, his body not found for decades!). Did you ever—before the market made a decision for you—feel you wanted to leave academe, but had invested too much to turn away?
If this strikes even a faint chord of recognition in you, then joining the Alt/Post-Ac conversation may not be the stuff of mere consolation, but rather, a long-deferred awakening and liberation—what Martha Beck calls finding your own True North. A recovering academic herself, Beck is finely attuned to the ways our internalized “social” selves drown out the “essential” inner voices that know what we really want. Second only to our families of origin, perhaps, academic socialization has the loudest voice of all.
I recently attended a life coaching workshop where the speaker talked about “river-reed thinking,” a reference to elephant training. How do you get a creature that outweighs you by several thousand pounds to do what YOU want, yet what IT can hardly find desirable – e.g. spend long days transferring felled trees from one location to another? Answer: from young, tie it with an unbreakable iron chain to an immoveable iron stake until it gets the message: YOU CANNOT CHANGE THIS SITUATION NO MATTER WHAT YOU DO. Once the animal’s will has been broken, chain and stake can be relinquished: it will respond to even the lightest tug conveyed by a thin reed tied to its ankle. Thus is a powerful animal prevented from realizing that it could walk away at any time, crushing most obstacles in its path.
Death Cab For Cutie offers a similar message in “Talking Bird,” the perfect anthem for those wondering whether or how to leave academic life.
It’s hard to see your way out
When you live in a house in a house
Cause you don’t realize
That the windows were open the whole time
Michel Foucault had a word for all this and the attendant structures of feeling: Discipline. Do you see, my little birds and elephants, what has become of us in our quest to be accepted into the guild? To further crowd the menagerie, this educational system fails to teach us how to calm our monkey minds: it only clutters our heads with more thoughts and insecurities as we swing from fragile branch to branch, seeking a safe place to land.
We need to get free of the monkey chatter and the elephant trainer’s tugs. Each of us needs to cultivate an interior identity that is less dependent on, or subject to, our external circumstances. Yes, I’m talking about meditation, prayer, nature hikes, interpretive dance, yoga, inspirational reading – whatever takes you out of your tortured academic head to a deeper wellspring of hope and self-knowledge, what Tim Robbins in The Shawshank Redemption described as the place “they can’t get to, they can’t touch.” As a wounded academic, you need to expand the size of that “place” till there’s enough room for new aspirations and realization of change.
It is a commonplace of many ancient theologies that thought IS creation, hence the oft-quoted mantra: “everything is created twice—first in thought, then in form.” See, for example, this gloss on Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, which emphasizes that our material, psychological and spiritual fulfillment depends on cultivating positive convictions. As you think, so you shall become. The flip side is that negative thoughts anchor us to the past and leave us feeling trapped in the present, with no direction or energy for moving forward. Academe is the Bermuda triangle of positive thinking, and it will take strenuous navigation skills to get out.
Before I go further, let me remind you that I am a humanities PhD fully equipped for gloves-off cultural critique. I could mount an effective diatribe about how spiritual, self-help or positive psychology movements are but the ideological handmaidens of late global capitalism working to disable our capacity for systemic analysis by making “the individual” the reason for his or her success or failure. That we live in a time rife with the insidious displacement of social responsibility is clear enough.
BUT. Such analysis doesn’t invalidate the equally compelling insight that, while we may have little control over our situations, we DO have significant influence over how we respond to those circumstances. That choice determines what happens next. You may rail against an unjust system (and I hope you do) but at the end of the day, you still have to deal with the mess of your feelings—despair, doubt, fatigue, and worry, to name but a few. At such moments you need something more than Foucault, Hegel, or Marx. You need living friends, a wider support network, and self-renewal if it is ever going to be possible for you to consider – and create – new options for your personal and work life.
So. Whereas The Professor has devoted herself primarily to improving the odds for those on the academic job market, my focus is on helping you genuinely consider the option of stepping off the faculty track – whether for a different position within Higher Ed, or another kind of working life altogether. Ideally, you would have adopted a True North or Free Elephant mindset before you even knew you’d need it: as inoculation against indoctrination while pursuing an academic career. While this bit of tactical news may seem to have arrived too late for some well-disciplined folks, it is never too late to unlearn the elephant trainer’s lessons and adopt new guiding principles for your life. If you want to experience the power of thought as creation, believe that!
Instead of viewing your Alt/Post-Ac situation as imposed upon you by external factors out of your control, carve out some time and space to heed whatever vocational desires are bubbling up from within –possibly long-buried ones rendered inert by your time in the academic trenches. Don’t let financial concerns stop you, either. You already KNOW how poor, literally, most academics are. Beck argues, convincingly, that “in today’s climate, your essential self is a much more reliable moneymaker than your social self.” As many academics have learned the hard way, few organizations or fields now promise a coherent career course over a lifetime –we’ve lost the “company man” structure that once reinforced and rewarded the plodding social self. Thus, says Beck, in welcoming uncharted territory, the “creative and unorthodox essential self [is] the best chance you have of achieving financial security.”
So, what will YOU create today?