09 September 2007

Gardening at Night

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.
Nor beauty born out of its own despair,

Nor blear-eyed wisdom out of midnight oil.

O chestnut-tree, great-rooted blossomer,

Are you the leaf, the blossom or the bole?

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,

How can we know the dancer from the dance?

— William Butler Yeats

So tonight, slightly bored as most folks I know in Cold City are out of town or otherwise indisposed, feeling mildly bloated from a modest supper consisting of a grilled cheese sandwich and a bowl of minestrone, I began Googling. On one hand, the electronic infrastructure of web, email, and other assorted circuit-based paraphernalia means that we, as an egghead class, are as far removed from our dusty sinecures as we have ever been. We are everywhere, yakking and writing and commenting and engaging, far from the remove of our isolated Ivory Towers (or cement-brick basements, as the case maybe). Yet, that networking also means that the fates of friends and enemies long forgotten are also at our fingertips. Such information, if not judiciously weighed, can provide a one-way ticket to the Funny Farm.

Schadenfraude and Envy seem to be two cardinal emotional states in the academy, and the Internet provides us with the ambivalent deliciousness of both in equal measure. But a little of this goes a long way, and after entering some key names and idly reviewing university profile pages, course descriptions, and conference programs, and perusing listings on Rate My Professors and Amazon, I did not feel the usual self-loathing I usually experience at such tortuous, masochistic moments. You know the drill: Mr. X has Fabby Job #2439, Ms. Y has Post-Doc #746338, Ms. Z is still at the Roy Cohn Center for Self-Aggrandising Studies, et cetera. Woe is me. Slow curtain, the End.

No, instead, this time, as I monitored, through casual Internet stalking, my former colleagues and doctoral student peers, I realised with a mild start that we move at different paces and speeds. In fact, the stars of my cohort and the ones immediately before and after seem to have hit a wall. They burned bright, burned hot, then flamed out. Some have received early tenure, and retreated into bourgeois respectability, producing no doubt hideous monster children and buying homes. Others have just dropped off the map, stopping at book #1, or article #1 as the case may be. The Next Big Thing turned out to be rather the latest Flash in the Pan. Some are still passing through the Merry-Go-‘Round of mentions in equally moribund authors’ acknowledgment pages (“So-and-So continues this important work,” and other such nonsense), or they have nice positions in which they’re producing little, a name on a webpage, all pixel. Like most of the profession, once we have achieved a certain level, many of us die a figurative death. We continue to breathe, theoretically, but professionally we have become the embodiment of a certain sort of social parasite.

In my fields in particular, this final resting place is one that is deeply political. If I were to look at the range of people in my areas of research and teaching expertise, the ones who landed the plum jobs or had early articles or clawed their way to the top, were also the ones who, to a certain extent, worked for it. And not in some snarky CHE sort of way, but rather in terms of the desire to succeed at any cost. I have commented on this particular sub-strata of homo academicus before, the Fine Young Cannibal. And I have always felt bereft in front of their dazzling skills (not to mention gleaming fangs), the dedicated talent at leaving no ass unkissed in their rush for their positions and name recognition. But tonight, I remembered that the profession is not only the terror-induced adrenaline rush of the probationary period, the desperate grasping at the keys to tenure. Rather, it is (also) a longer race, a deeper challenge.

The probationary period and its unpleasant rigours has distracted many academics of my generation from the real struggle, which is ultimately the task of maintaining a vital and dynamic intellectual and teaching life beyond the tenure finish line. This tends to be true across disciplinary and interdisciplinary boundaries, and is also a relatively familiar trial. It is not by accident that we have, for our use, the term Dead Wood. Also, the dangerous depression that many academics face immediately after receiving tenure is indicative of this struggle. And that is why, tonight, instead of self-loathing, I felt curiously relieved.

Yes, my book(s) remains undone. Yes, I have devoted too much time to teaching and service and not enough to professional rimming. Yes, I never had the interest to fuck my way to the middle, and yes, perhaps I had better things to do than the relentless slogging that our professional coaches recommend in print and conversation. The truism of Arbeit Macht Frei in our profession has some chilling dimensions that are stifling, if not down right dangerous. My summers and free time were spent travelling, or reading, or staring into the air, thinking and reading what I wanted rather than what I should, or hours wasted spent talking and socialising with people I wanted to, rather than those I should have. (Flashback: a dinner with Paul Gilroy just as his star was rising, years ago. I was a first-year graduate student, unfamiliar with his work, and said nothing. Later, chastised by a colleague for my silence, I shrugged. I had, frankly, nothing to say.)

Yet, all this wasted time was not for naught. It has contributed to the longer term, to the intellectual and academic I am. Intellectual life is like tending a garden. True gardeners plant with an eye towards the future: this sage here will complement the bougainvillea, and fill in the space in front of the Cana. Any of us can plop ferns in the sun or marigolds in the shade, straight out of the pot. They look nice for a few weeks, but then die. Poorly placed, a disregard for their natures, instant gratification instead of building (a mystery). Similarly, the professional pace I have been keeping has not necessarily landed me in academic nirvana, but it has provided me with experience and expertise, space for reflection, bad times and good times, and the slow percolation of ideas and projects that are ripening and maturing. This is also generally true of other academics of my generation who I respect. They too are tending their gardens, learning the structures of the institution, and writing, just slowly, deeply, with care instead of flash. Learning their craft the old fashioned way, as instructive as the difference between Nina Simone and Brittany Spears, between mastery and pastiche.

As I closed my browser on the past, I felt hopeful, optimistic, not necessarily at the misfortune, the wonderful and horrible lives of formerly famous (or soon to be formerly famous) colleagues, although that is always a nice touch, but rather at the realisation that there is more than one way to skin a rabbit. Remembering that, in the face of the relentless and vicious propaganda that indicates otherwise, might save some of us from ending up exactly where we don’t want to be: moribund, self-satisfied, uncurious, stultifyingly cynical, self-involved and distant. I would rather have had the indeterminacy and constant questioning, and yes, controversy and resultant displacement into academic Siberia, that has characterised some of my time in the profession than a set of slogans and a polite audience that applauded at all the right moments, an airless sinecure, left to rot. That’s not an intellectual life, that’s a museum-quality death.

How we come to believe that this state of dusty irrelevancy is what we have been working towards, what we should want, tells us quite a lot about the current moment in academia.


Gray said...

Great piece, Master Gardener. My little contribution to this discussion comes from the only dictionary that doesn't cease to amaze me, The Devil's Dictionary by Ambroise Bierce.

n. Dust shaken out of a book into an empty skull.

Hilaire said...

You *are* a master. As you often do, you have managed to both inspire and depress me - at once. A great, great piece.

Sarah said...


Thanks for this bit of perspective. Well-timed, too, as I am getting ready to apply to grad school and at some point in the process of deciding on programs and studying for the gre and trying to write a personal statement I had lost sight of why. I was starting to get a grasp on things again and it's always nice to have some affirmation (and knowledge that one can maintain that perspective into the big bad world of academia).

MaggieMay said...

You know what the best part of that horrible "getting tenure is exercise" CHE piece is? That it inspired so many wonderful, thoughtful responses (or at least serves as a contrast piece to meditations like yours).

What I said at profgrrrl's is true for your essay, too: this should be required reading for all untenured faculty.

How inspiring. I can't wait to start working today :)

The Combat Philosopher said...

Good post. However, keep in mind all the academic frauds we have in putatively 'respectable' positions.
They do not accept their role as humble tillers of the soil. Instead, they create elaborate illusions of their own erudition. This is a much sadder version than what you describe. I know of one who lies about academic rank on their web pages. This is beyond pathetic. So, things could be much worse. At least you describe an honest situation (we assume -- many fictions appear on blogs, see my comments above for examples).

Peace, friend.

The Combat Philosopher

New Kid on the Hallway said...

Thank you, this is excellent. I continue to be frustrated with the forced hot-house flowering of most material just to follow the seasonal fashions of the tenure clock. I am so tired of the race always going to the swift.

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