Academic Journeys, part the first


Round Peg, Square Hole

When trying to find a way into this, I struggle for a foothold. There are many ways in and not a few of them lead in tangled messes over and around each other. It is a giant knot of who I am, strung along a particular journey, crushed from without by a sense that there are more pressing issues.

Herminia Iberra's book Working Identities makes clear how much our notions of job and work are tied to our notions of self. For a professor this seems especially the case, with no end of think-pieces on how the professorial life is (or is not) a vocation, a job unlike others, or even a cult. The various professorial sub-labels — academic, teacher, researcher, administrator/coordinator/director/chair — fit in different proportions. “Teacher” is comfortable, like the simple cotton t-shirts I used to favor. “Researcher” is a bit stiff in the neck but I can put it on when appropriate. “Academic” is tight in all the wrong places, like it's been shrunk in the wash. A strangling collar that won't close, pants three sizes too small, and a jacket that rips down the back as soon as I put it on.

A former co-worker (in the rhetoric of academese, a “colleague”) told me, when it was clear to me that I had not real interest in continuing down the path of tenured professoring, that I had always been a round peg in a square hole in the department. I don't know whether that was meant as complement or criticism or both. I take it as indictment of the department I was in at the time and its exceptional narrowness; but of course I would see it that way. I'm not alone in pointing out the ways that modern academia is hostile to generalists and, for all the praise and theorizing of inter- intra- and trans- disciplinarity, the practice of working in, across, and through multiple disciplines is both extremely difficult and exhausting at many if not most universities. I had, for better or worse, come from places where such work was both the norm and made to look easy; I ended up at an institution and in a department with the worst kind of departmental silo-ing and entrenched intellectual conservatism. So while what I offered was attractive to them, in a grass is greener kind of way (that's why I was hired); what I was able to do was always constrained (that's why I was worn down year after year and eventually quit). I was a round peg, or maybe some sort of spiky ball with tendrils — use whatever image you like — being asked to be a block doomed to sit in a boring old square hole.

At an institution where the status quo is all blocks in square holes, it is taken for granted that one stays in one's place. Successful academicians at such an institution do the same thing, over and over, on and on. Same classes, same narrow area. I hadn't realized that I had been put into a particular square already or that those boundaries would be used to define what I should or should not do. I didn't realize that learning through teaching — the default method I had seen at the rather more elite institutions where I had come from — was not the regular mode. There were lots of things I didn't understand. I felt like I was living in some sort of Bizzaro world. Everything is angular and off, but no one seems to see it. Everyone does the opposite of what seems right and yet thinks that this is simply the way things are done. Even after all these years that feeling hasn't left, as if in an alternate universe where up has been defined as down, in a kingdom ruled by a Mad Hatter and a somnolent door mouse.

Quit lit always begins and ends with identity, because the process of leaving professoring behind is the process of, in Iberra's framing of all work crises, moving from an old identity to new one. Like the expected changes of state with growing older, adolescence, mid-life crises and the like, it's a reorientation about who one really is. For that reason quit lit can be self-indulgent and privileged, as any memoirist genre or any exploration of the self. It is a working through of how we got here, where to go, and what that means for what we thought ourselves to be. Like any memoir, the point is both personal and public, both therapy in the moment and sympathetic connection for anyone who wants to proceed further.

I have struggled for a long time to make sense of how my path started to veer and how to write in a way that serves that therapeutic purpose, that can be an exercise worth doing amidst all the other daily tasks and pressures and the work that continues on. I have had to come to grips with my habits, characteristics, capacities and limitations; among these is the curse of unyielding high standards or, in the more loaded common parlance, “perfectionism.” When someone first used that word of me it came as a surprise; in retrospect, it becomes obvious and presaged by blaring markers if only I had had the knowledge to recognize it. I could organize a chapter or an essay or a paragraph, drill down into the details and draft it carefully, imagine carefully an audience and worry about how to present myself and how to write it in such a way that I don't come off as too privileged or whiny or ungrateful or pretentious, elite, stupid, foolish, or any other negatives which are the Scylla and Charybdis of personal writing. Or, I can write as it comes. I can do the opposite of what I so often did as a professor — the hedging and accommodating and worrying about what everyone thinks and how one should behave in the hierarchy. I can perform a bit of sympathetic magic against academic gremlins.

Thus begins a counter-spell to the academic mysteries.

Be not a round peg in a square hole. brekekekek koax koax.

#postacademia #quitlit #highered #academia