"In many disciplines, for the majority of graduates, the Ph.D. indicates the logical conclusion of an academic career." Marc Bousquet

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Academic Fantasy vs. Reality

Unfortunately, a great many people -- both inside and outside of academe -- imagine an academic's life to be very different from what it is for most academics these days. Fantasies of what academic life is supposed to be like come from a host of sources: books, movies, personal experiences both good and bad, observation limited by factors from familial relationships to socioeconomic privilege to willful self-delusion.

Before you can begin to extricate yourself from academe -- if only from the exploitative danger of its myths -- you must begin to examine your own fantasies and expose them for what they are.

What were my fantasies and where did they begin? I offer this evidence in the hope that it might stimulate you to think about your own academic fantasies vs. the reality behind them -- and those of your friends and family and advisers and all the rest of the people who don't understand why you've gone so far only to walk away. It isn't the only experience that affected my distorted perceptions of academe, but it's a good place to start.

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When I was growing up, one of my adult relatives whom I admired and liked the most was my dad's brother-in-law, my uncle, a professor at a small liberal arts college (SLAC). During the summers, my aunt and uncle would stay at their summer cottage on One of the Great Lakes, and my parents, who were K-8 teachers, would often take my brother and me there to spend a week or two visiting. The cottage was part of a collective of 10 or so other cottages, and though but the humble relics of what had been something like a hippie commune in the 60s, these cottages were located on a property that included a private beach. It was idyllic. It was rustic. It was the kind of place where, if you were a kid, your imagination might play tricks on you as you watched the sunset over the lake.

The lake itself was mesmerizing, sometimes still as glass, sometimes turbulent. The air was intoxicatingly fresh. And the beach and forest smells blended with dinner on the grill and my uncle's tobacco pipe ... the sounds of the waves with carefree laughter ... things I dreamed with things that were real ...

Needless to say, I loved it there, but while most of the adults chattered away and the kids played games or splashed around in the water, my favorite pastime was sitting in a lounge chair -- on the land just above but overlooking the beach -- under a big, shady tree reading a book. 

My uncle was always reading, too. His books were scattered all over the cottage, on shelves, tables, chairs, the floor. At night, as I was falling asleep on a cot in the living room area, after everyone else had gone to sleep, I could hear him typing away on an old-fashioned typewriter by the light of a small desktop lamp, pipe smoke drifting across the cottage, out the window and into the night.

No one else paid any attention to me and my reading. But, while not much of a talker, my uncle would ask me what I was reading: "Oh," he would say, scratching his chin, "That's a good one. What a great writer! I'm so glad you're reading this. Have you read Other Book by Famous Author? No? Oh, well you should when you finish this one. In fact, I think we have a copy in the cottage ... " And then he would pat me on the shoulder or the top of the head, as if to say, "Aw, what a good kid," puff on his pipe and wander off, lost in his own thoughts, and I'd go back to my book.

I saw my uncle as a sort of kindred spirit during those summers, and for a long time the very small glimpse I got of his life as a professor colored my perception of what life as a professor was like for everyone. When I thought of becoming a professor myself, long before I'd even finished high school, I thought about my uncle. I wanted to do what he did (read books, think deep thoughts, write arcane essays). I wanted a life like his life (summers on the beach, winters on a quaint campus in Connecticut, a tweed jacket, a fragrant pipe, a comfortable office, distinguished colleagues, witty friends ....... my aunt in the kitchen taking care of the children?)

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Wait. "What?" you say. Yes, exactly. Cooking? Children? Housework? There were things about my uncle's life as a professor that I simply missed. My aunt's role was one of them. She took care of everything related to home and children so that he could be "free" to think his deep thoughts, teach his classes, and write his books. My aunt was one of those "faculty wives" back in the 60s and 70s as my uncle was building his career. I don't know how she felt about this role, but it is certainly true that his success wouldn't have been possible without her willingness to fulfill this role. 

There were other things, too ... my uncle, of course, began his career in the late 60s when there were still jobs aplenty. A call from your adviser, supposedly, was all it took. But even then (and I didn't know this until much later, well into my own grad school years), he spent several years as a VAP at two different institutions, as well as a year as a postdoc somewhere else, moving his young family all around the country before finally landing a tenure-track job. But the way my parents talked about it, he had simply "taught" at these different places. They made no distinction because they themselves didn't understand academic hierarchies. My uncle, retired now, was the only professor in our family and the only one with a Ph.D., until I got mine (though we do also have a few medical doctors).

And the cottage on the lake? The large, nicely appointed house in Connecticut?? I don't know what my uncle earned at any of his faculty jobs, but he was a full professor at the liberal arts college when he retired. I'm sure his salary was comfortable enough. The thing that I didn't know, though -- again, not until much later -- was that whatever he was earning, it didn't really matter all that much. Nor did job security. Nor benefits. Not really. His mother, I learned, was quite well off. He had a good relationship with her, and he knew that she (and her house and resources) were available to him should he and his wife and children ever need them. Moving across the country for a one-year VAP appointment with no assurance of employment beyond that term? No problem if it doesn't work out. There's always Mom. Taking a postdoc that doesn't pay enough to support that second kid that's on the way? No problem, Mom can help out. 

When his mother died about 25 years ago, she left everything to my uncle. He could afford to live the "life of the mind." 

But as opportunities have become even scarcer than they were for my uncle's generation, as academic life has become even more precariously contingent, it is ONLY people like my uncle who can afford the sacrifices.

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The purpose of this post is not to belittle my uncle. He's still one of my favorite relatives. He and my aunt still have the cottage on the lake, and Peaches and I still go now and then to visit. But my uncle's reality is not mine. The "opportunities" he took advantage of early on -- the postdoc and the VAPs -- no longer carry the career-furthering weight they once did, and I don't have the luxury of leaving it up to fate and "fit."

And that is why it is important to separate the fantasy of the "gentleman scholar" from the reality of poverty and job insecurity that the majority of younger academics face today.

(Oh, and if you are into symbolic evidence, there was that pipe smoking ... but not anymore. Lung cancer. He survived and has been cancer free for several years now, but he lost a lung, too ... )

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