I’ve had two huge changes in my life in the past two years. The first is, I’ve started dancing in earnest. The second is, I’ve started meditating. These have both completely transformed my life. Dancing has allowed me to move from my brain (the natural habitat of the Ph.D., whether in the academy or not) to my body. And meditating has allowed me to move from my brain to my spirit, by way of my emotions, which I’m learning to observe in a mindful fashion as they come, wreak havoc, and go.
It’s hard to explain how transformative this process has been. It’s been wonderful. And it’s been terrible. Because, it has required me to acknowledge how much time – how many years and decades – I spent out of touch with my body and my spirit, and repressing/ignoring/condemning/acting out from my emotions.
As a post-academic person, I can’t help but relate this to my life in the academy. I ask: was I drawn to the academy because I was so emotionally stunted? Or did I become (more) emotionally stunted by being in a spirit-crushing academy?
Either way, the academy in this equation is the same: a place that denies the body, the spirit, and the emotions.
Is this a gross generalization? Yes, it is. But I don’t see much that contradicts it. I look at my life in the academy, at my former colleagues, at my current academic friends, at my clients and readers and Facebook and blog commenters, and I see a universe of people in pain but unable to speak openly about it, because the academy requires distance, logic, and irony, and deflects and sometimes openly mocks feelings, intuition, and any admission of weakness.
I mean, think about it! The Professor Is In core principle of job applications is: facts not feelings! And I stand by this completely, in terms of job applications. You want to have a job in the academy, you had damned well better learn to make your case on the facts of your record, not your feelings, desires, hopes, aspirations, wishes, and dreams.
Feelings, desires, hopes, aspirations, wishes, and dreams are also the stuff of life. So I juxtapose the academic job market advice that I give – which works! – and the values that I increasingly see as necessary to a whole and meaningful life. And I ask: is the academy destructive, in its premises, to a whole and meaningful life?
I am not implying, just yet, that it is. I might argue that, someday, but I’m not now. But right now I am completely absorbed by a question: is the academy good?
This is a shocking question to even contemplate for me. Of course the academy is good! The academy is what we fight to preserve from corporatization, and cost-cutting administrators, and vengeful, ignorant Republican governors. It’s the source of so much knowledge. Life-saving knowledge, even. And life-enriching knowledge absolutely.
I love the academy. I’ve always loved the academy since the first time I understood what it was, when I was about 10. I set out to be part of it. Now, outside of it, I still spend every day talking to it, and about it and caring desperately about its welfare.
Is the academy good?
In some ways it’s a terrible time to ask that question, when it plays into the hands of the anti-intellectual, budget-cutting impulses of the present moment.
But in some ways this is exactly the time to ask this question. Because if we can’t make a case that the academy is good, not just because it feeds our brains, but because it serves a deeper and wider purpose, then there is no hope of defending it against ideologues.
And right now, I don’t know that there is space to talk about its deeper, wider purpose, when so many individual academics (especially in the humanities, which I know best, and especially the tenured) are dedicated to maintaining an ‘ironic distance,’ and productivity above all, and hiding weakness or pain.
Never fear, I will keep giving advice about how to play the academic game according to its rules. You need a paycheck, and I can help. Some readers have accused me of reinforcing the academy’s spirit-crushing rules. But that’s actually not the case. My entire project of naming the academy’s rules AS rules makes the values of the academy explicit, and thus easier to critique, manage, and reject if you so desire. I find myself constantly saying, in my talks around the country: “So, that is the basic rule. Break it if you want! But break it intentionally! Know that you’re choosing to break the rule, and understand the risks. And then do what feels right to you. Do you! Just do it from knowledge, not from ignorance, or delusion.”
I’m so grateful that so many readers have recognized and responded to this. Countless have written over the last 5 years to tell me that they love making their job documents and interviews better and more effective, and they love doing better on the market. But that what they love most of all is knowing they’re not crazy. The system is what it seems, whether advisors admit it or not. By knowing that the academy has a rigid set of cultural rules and norms and values, you can both learn those rules, and choose the ways that you are willing to engage with them.
When you can separate the culture of the academy from your identity, then you have space to move! Space to critique. Space to act. Space to say no. That is empowering.
But now I want to take the next step, and ask: what do we think of those rules? What purposes do they serve? What damage might they cause for us as individuals? And how does that play out in our wider lives, out into “society” as a whole?
If it’s so easy for huge swaths of the population to hate us and think we have no value… what does that say? Let’s pause, and take the challenge seriously. What exactly are we doing? What do we stand for? What do we deliver?
These are the questions that I think about. That I can’t stop thinking about. What do you think? I want to know. If you’re reading this, I want to hear from you. Let’s make a space where it’s ok to talk about ourselves as whole people.