Saturday, November 21, 2009

Why I'm not an academic

When I was in high school my mother suggested from time to time that I become a surgeon. I was a good student and liked science. I have small, fairly delicate hands. I was a pretty good pianist which suggested to her that I had the dexterity she assumed surgeons need.

I found the idea appealing. I had little idea of the work doctors do. What I knew for certain was that I was destined for a life as an intellectual. I loved books and still do. I read voraciously. I was sure as a teenager that a life of physical labor would not suit me well.

So I set off for Bucknell University, a good liberal arts college, with a vague idea of possibly, maybe becoming a doctor. I signed up as a biology major. The first shock came in the second week of my freshman microbiology lab. We were examining a specimen, trying to draw the cells. Everyone else seemed to think this was extremely easy. I couldn't get the damn thing in focus. After a long struggle the lab instructor told me I had just drawn my eyelash.

By mid-term exams I was still struggling with biology lab and way behind my peers in the other subjects. This was new for me. I never failed at any subject but I could see I was on a course to fail now. The one bright light in that first semester was an English Literature course I took to fill a humanities requirement. I loved it. The professor was terrific. I did well. I didn't have a vocational plan but “temporarily” became a humanities major. I tried courses in History, Philosophy and East-Asian Studies. I loved them all and did very well. I started to learn to write. I got a BA in History with Honors. I never doubted my future as an academic as I earned a MA and PhD in philosophy.

In all the years of intense study I never questioned my ability to make a living. I did odd jobs. I taught freshmen and prison inmates. I learned basic plumbing and wiring. I heated with wood and became president of the local food co-op. I surrounded myself with books. I read every day and slowly learned to be a better writer. When I finally finished my PhD it took me a year and a half to land a regular teaching job, but I finally got one at a small Franciscan school in Western New York, St. Bonaventure University.

During my first years at St. Bonaventure I threw myself into really learning how to teach philosophy. It was hard but I had fun. I found I was pretty good at inspiring a fair number of my students to read, write and even think about things they never considered before. I developed a couple of new courses. I helped start a student outdoors club that flourished.

At the end of my second year I was called in by my department head for an evaluation of my work and my progress toward the golden ring of academia, tenure. He started out by praising my work as a teacher. He liked the fact that students gave me good evaluations. I was also pulling my weight in the generally distasteful committee work required of all academics. I was well liked by other members of the department and was fitting in. Unfortunately, he was not able to give me a good recommendation.

The problem, he explained, was that I had never published anything in an academic journal. In fact, I admitted that I was not even working on a research project. I had read a few papers at professional conferences, but that was it. Unless I could get going on something major, I would not be ready by the time my formal tenure review came up the following year and I would be let go.

I walked out of the meeting in shock. All the work I had done counted for nothing. I wrongly assumed that at a small college I would get a lot of credit for being a good teacher. I assumed lack of a research publication might be overlooked. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

About a week later I was starting to get angry. I stopped in to see the department head and asked him to name a journal where he would like to get published. The Journal of the History of Ideas.

Over the next few weeks I poured over that journal trying to get a handle on the sort of articles they generally published. I holed up in a library with a good collection of works by and about Spinoza, a philosopher about whom I knew nothing. I skimmed everything I could find about Spinoza's political and ethical views looking for a topic. Then I focused on carefully reading everything he said on the subject of freedom of speech. I wrote an article of exactly the right length with appropriate footnotes and references. I polished it and sent it in. A few weeks later, just as the summer break was ending, I received the letter telling me the article would be published.

I returned to St. Bonaventure deeply disturbed by this exercise. On first meeting my department head before fall classes I told him I had written an article about Spinoza. Great, he said. Was I working on getting it published? I handed him my acceptance letter. He was pleased, actually quite jealous. I had proved my point. Academic publication is a sham exercise, just part of the hazing, with no practical consequences except in the tenure game. Now I was bitter. I never recovered my enthusiasm.

The next spring my department head told me he was happy to recommend me for tenure. Maybe they would even consider early tenure. By then I was making plans to attend law school with hope that I might find an intellectually honest profession at last. I've not been disappointed.

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