Performing academia

I was more than a little hesitant to commit to this project of the Calm Strength blog. There are many reasons for that, but the most relevant for this post is my reluctance to appear to do anything other than academic work. A major part of grad school is the indoctrination into the idea that your work is your life, your whole life. I had to do a lot of what a colleague calls “deprogramming” to even consider admitting publicly that I don’t research/write/teach/think literature during all my waking hours.

There has recently been more attention paid to the life choices academics make both as graduate students and as faculty (full- and part-time).  This year, in particular, there has been a noticeable increase in blog posts and longer articles about not choosing the academic life. So much so that the genre has been dubbed #quitlit (see a spreadsheet on the subject here). The “going public” of the various factors involved in deciding to continue in academia is a welcome change. As Melonie Fullick writes in “Fight and Flight”:

The “Quit Lit” seeks to fill that silence with something other than the assumption of failure, one that’s perpetuated in the meritocratic culture of academe (where incredibly smart, capable people must keep insisting, “I was good enough”).

And:

They function as correctives, and often as confessions, too. The correction being made is usually one about how leaving an academic career is in fact a decision or a choice (and not usually an easy one – based on context), not simply an outcome of one’s lack of capacity or tenacity or merit. Not only that but the posts are statements about identity, choice, and control, even when they are full of the anger and grief and self-doubt that many people feel when they depart.

Beyond the vague mention that one could leave with a master’s degree, there was no discussion of choice when I was a graduate student. I clearly remember bringing the topic up with my advisor and him saying: “But what else would you do?” It is possible he meant the question seriously but I took it as rhetorical and continued on the PhD path. I haven’t always been happy with that choice (indeed, I have had to make that choice multiple times at various junctures of my professional and person life) but I have thus far landed softly each time.

I am incredibly privileged to have a full-time, tenured faculty position. I know I am and for the most part I am actually happy and grateful to be in said position. I won’t say I worked hard for it, because many worked hard alongside me and do not have this privilege. And, to look the thing square in the face, there are also many who did not work so hard and have a similar privilege. And I don’t use “privileged” to mean lucky. Unless we are talking the age-old redefinition of lucky to mean “when hard work meets opportunity” rather than the dictionary definition of simple “chance” or “accident.” Otherwise, I would be misrepresenting the path I have chosen to take.

A major theme in #quitlit is the refusal to continue to do what I call perform academia. That is, to be an academic at all times, in all situations, in every corner of your life. If left unchecked, academic work can take over your 168 hours per week (yes, even the few hours you may let yourself sleep). And, if it doesn’t, you have to pretend it does in order to avoid suspicion from those who hold your future in their hands (read hiring and tenuring committees). Don’t have hobbies, don’t have babies, don’t have a life outside the ivory tower, because for true, worthy academics, there is no life outside the ivory tower.

To return to Melonie Fullick’s article (you really should go read it – after this, of course – not just for the article itself but also because it’s chockfull of interesting links):

Lots of others have pointed this out, but it’s worth emphasizing that academic culture encourages us to see professional identity as personal identity – and thus to see “work” as “life”. What are you left with, then, when you walk away from the work? This has also been questioned through the recent criticisms of the idea of “do what you love”, which is in some ways the epitome of the rhetoric around higher education careers.

I sometimes fall victim myself to the myth of an academic career as part of the DWYL path. That is, until I am faced with some part of it that I unequivocally do not love. And then I remind myself that I have chosen this as a career, not a life. That I am allowed to embrace the choice as a good one for me in this moment, but not the only one I could have, or can ever make. That I am allowed to do other things I love. And, probably most difficult, that I am allowed to step off the stage and admit I do other things I love.

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