What Is A Scholar? or, Primordial River. Original Groove


What my job ideal description was and is: Active, fast-paced career in large, urban, research oriented, policy making institution, involving national and international partners. Find documents, analyze and discuss them, discover their role in the national and international imaginary. Make decisions, write reports. Organize research groups. Write books alone and in groups. Give seminars and entry level workshops, travel for research and business. Create and disseminate new knowledge, found innovative social and educational programs, strengthen community ties.

From what I  had observed in the seven institutions I attended before becoming a professor, I really thought this was what professors in Latin American Studies did! Many would say that means I utterly internalized the R-1 model, which makes me an elitist. I suppose I am guilty as charged, but I do not think elitism is the most accurate term in which to frame this issue.

What the public R-1 mentality means to me is the opposite of elitism. It means that everyone is seen as a professional, and works as one, and people are treated as (hu)mans and citizens whether they are known to their interlocutors or not. I do not see elitism in that, I see democratic vistas.


Servetus distinguishes between being a scholar and being a professor or an academic. Before that I had found a distinction between being an intellectual and being a scholar, but in the Academic Industrial Complex Servetus’ distinction seems more à propos. Not being allowed to be who one is, when to be who one is was what one was told was the job requirement, is my problem with academia.

The hardest thing for me has been not getting to work as a professional, but having to go back to models based more on family dynamics and the social patterns of high school cliques – with a patriarch or two in charge, of course, running a few fiefs regulated through patron-client relationships.

It seems to me that many of the internecine wars that take place are not actually over scarce resources but over dignity, recognition, and small bits of psychic space. Everyone is trying hard to gain, however they can, the rights of (hu)man and citizen they need to actually do their work. Those cannot really be gained except collectively, and that is why I believe in civic virtues.


I hasten to say that these comments are not necessarily, and certainly not primarily related any current events, or to events in any single place. Remember, I have studied at seven institutions, if you include the ones where I was a Visiting Student. I taught in three departments as a T.A. I have had more than one job since. I am and always have been a member of more than one administrative unit.

What I keep on learning are the things I knew in the first place, and from which I amiably tried to dissuade myself. Now that I have finished boiling Reeducation down, I have begun boiling academia down. What I have figured out so far is that the root issues for me are: can you be who you are in it (a scholar!)? Can you work professionally in it, that is, can you really do what you say you are doing, as opposed to merely create a simulacrum of it?

I have personal reasons to have come to doubt whether these things were possible, but many other reasons for it are external. My experiment now is to see whether, if I sweep the personal reasons away, it becomes more possible to be who one is, here – since, after all, who one is is, officially as well as unofficially, who one is supposed to be. I have been told many times that thinking was a bad thing and I have duly tried to renounce it, but thinking is my primordial river.


4 thoughts on “What Is A Scholar? or, Primordial River. Original Groove

  1. you know the succinctness of some of your analogies are so spot on . . .

    happy holidays to you!

  2. OOOH, and I am supposed to be a lit prof and I am not currently identifying the analogies in this piece … c’est mauvais. But merci and happy holidays to you, too!

    The Safari browser, the only thing you can use on this Mac, doesn’t support WordPress so I cannot post. But I’m noticing ideas for whether one should be a professor or not by being back home.

    1. If you are from a good place like California and you think it is normal to enjoy the mountains and seas … i.e. if you are a person with either a bicycle, a surfboard, backpacking equipment, etc., then you should not leave for any reason.

    2. If you are an urban person you should not give that up for any reason.

    3. If you are a suburban American or a middle American then yes, you should consider being a professor.

    4. If it is a big step up from anything else you can think of or that your family has done, i.e. meat packing and other jobs like that, then yes, you should consider being a professor or anything white collar … blue collar wears on the body too much and it can be dangerous.

    5. If you are independently wealthy and have a second home in a place you enjoy and where you can live and do research when classes are not in session, then yes, you should consider being a professor.

    6. Otherwise DO NOT consider it at all, unless it gets you to a great town, or a great job, or a great natural setting. And DO NOT let anyone else tell you what a great town, a great job, or a great natural setting is. There are NO great natural settings east of the Rockies in my opinion; there are no great towns with fewer than a million people in the metropolitan area; there are NO great jobs except at public R1s with emphasis in humanities and social sciences … and if you’re not going to work in that kind of setting, you should go into movement type work.

    7. If you are one of those who says teaching is important: it is to elementary schools in inner cities is where the important educators need to go, not to the over 18 lumpen middle classes and children of the rich. Don’t move to middle America to do that, stay home and get some real work done.

    ***This is what I say to people who fit criteria 1 and 2, not 3, 4, and 5.***

  3. Another question for graduate students: why did you REALLY go to graduate school?

    By the time we finish we have said it was for scholarly reasons so many times that we forget the others.

    My REAL reason: because I was interested in the subject, but also because it easily funded an interesting life in an interesting urban place with easy access to mountains and seas.

    Why this matters: because it was a hint about what sort of job situation one might like. !!! A hint one should listen to! Everyone, do as I say, not as I did!

  4. P.S. We walked from 27th and Noe to Haight and Divisadero, and came back on two Munis, transferring. Normally I stay at an alternative hotel to the MLA hotels, but now I have gone yet further and am staying in a little house in another neighborhood. I feel normal. I always feel normal and do not have to ponder if I spend a night in a town … ! This is and should long ago have been an Indication.

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