Academic Mondays: What We Imagined

Someone recently mentioned an expectation of their academic career that they had had in graduate school and that was not fulfilled: they would move up, and up again.

I had not had that expectation, and certainly not on my own behalf. I did have some misconceived ideas about what academic culture was generally, that produced surprises for me later on.

What funny things surprised you, and what odd expectations did they reveal?

I expected some form of research culture. I expected heavier discrimination, but I expected it to be systematic in more predictable and less opaque ways.

What surprised me first was the arbitrariness of decision making. I knew these processes would be political, but I did not expect them to be as uninformed as they often are.

What surprised me most and still surprises me is how conventional people are, and at how immature most professors, and especially the new ones, are for their ages.

I did know there were power circles, but I did not expect the unsophisticated cliquishness.

What did you find?

ETA: I forgot when I wrote this post my very first culture shock, on the degree to which professordom is also an 8-5-plus office job. I had not realized there would be so many days on which one would be so heavily scheduled, with classes and meetings back to back all day and then a required evening event, and how much of the day would be spent attending to low-level bureaucratic needs. That was when I understood the difference between jobs and fellowships, I suppose, and I may still be learning to understand that — or learning how to take control of my job so that it feels more like a fellowship than it does. But at the time it was the humdrum that amazed me, just when I was ready to be inspired.


4 thoughts on “Academic Mondays: What We Imagined

  1. I have sensed — unless my imagination has deceived me — a certain fear of new ideas within academia, and a tendency to actively combat them as the most dangerous, immoral thing on the horizon. One has learned liberal tolerance as part of a contemporary academic outlook, but one has not learned intellectual openness to the same degree. Liberal tolerance is the poor cousin of the latter, because it is guided by heavy handed political considerations (the fear of being viewed as politically incorrect), rather than by intellectual considerations and training.

    1. These things are true, despite the fact that officially one is supposed to be creating new knowledge. And that disconnection, I think, is the source of a lot of academic depression. It may even be what the “whining” Clarissa points to below is really about, but that can’t be articulated easily given everyone’s investment in the system.

  2. I was shocked at how much nepotism there is, especially in the Ivies. While lesser known schools still hire many new faculty through an actual search process, most job searches at Ivy League schools only serve the purpose of making the hiring of somebody’s spouse, friend, child, lover, etc. look like a legitimate hire.

    I was also surprised by how much people in the academia love to whine about having no time for research, reading for fun, or spending time with their families, all the while doing everything in their power to create precisely that situation.

    The amount of whining about pretty much everything among academics is overwhelming. A colleague (especially a younger colleague) who seems to enjoy life is greeted with near universal derision.

    1. Nepotism: or someone’s favorite student. The nepotism is huge and it is one of the reasons this is not a meritocracy. And I think a lot of peoples’ disillusionment, at bottom, is about having invested in different ways in the meritocratic myth.

      The whining is big too, and it’s something I’ve thought about a lot because I’ve been a big complainer myself — although due to actual unhappiness/dissatisfaction, and I think that’s different. One thing I realized in professordom that shocked me was that people wanted to complain but not to solve problems. They call this venting but I don’t think it is — venting is different, and so is talking about a problem with a view to understanding it.

      I think part of the complaining is undertaken because so many people don’t think what we do is work or is difficult or rigorous. One may enjoy it, be interested in it and so on, and even think it is fun, but it also has to be done because it is what one is being paid for. So one has to defend one’s time and the culture thinks that if it’s work, it must be suffering, so one says one suffers.

      On enjoying life, I got in some serious trouble in graduate school, and I think later although it wasn’t thrown into my face explicitly, for this. The fact is that I don’t do well at work if I’m not enjoying life, so I used to do that — it was worth doing in itself but it was also even efficient. Yet I was told that to be taken seriously one had to appear to be suffering. _Fortunately_ after my first icky job, I ended up mostly in places where they did not have this attitude.

      On creating the situation in which it is hard to enjoy life, I believe I’ve been partly guilty of that here. I think this had to do with the fact that some things I didn’t understand, but that were causing me problems I couldn’t define (mysterious obstacles), were actually dragging me down and I did not know how to address them. I would say to myself, ignore or minimize certain problems and go out and enjoy life and the rest of work, but the fact was that certain things at work needed addressing — they were making us all miserable, and we were dysfunctioning in our efforts to get around them — and couldn’t be addressed by isolated individuals. In the meantime I found my efforts to rise above failing again and again.

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