Post-academic mind poison: WWaAT (What would an academic think?)

#academia #itchytweed

There are two kinds of mind poison that linger after extracting oneself from the academic priesthood. The first is yourself thinking like an academic. That's about thinking of projects as never-ending, worrying that your expertise is not expert enough, drowning in imposter syndrome, giving away your labor for free and so forth. But there's a second kind of academic mind poison too, not completely divorce-able from the first, which fosters the condition of constantly looking over one's shoulder, an intrusive thought which asks “What would an academic think?” about whatever it is that you are doing.

I struggle with this WWAAT (pronounced “Whhhaaaat?”, with extreme condescension) ailment periodically. It's easy to think that's just my critical brain doing its thing, but over time I've come to realize that it is the trained reflex borne from specific sorts of signals and cues that one gets as a graduate student and professor. In a simple sense, academia is always about decorum: one feels constant pressure to conform. That is natural in a highly hierarchical system. So one learns very quickly how to have conversations with “senior” peers both in a department or in one's discipline at large. There are certain areas of research or teaching that are more acceptable than others. There's a box that you are put in, often in graduate school but certainly by the time of daily professoring, where you are expert in x, y, or z and pretending or acting otherwise is an indulgence at best, professionally prosecutable in the skirmish wars of teaching schedules or publication. Some research is better left to the future, for “after tenure” or some undefined halcyon day when you won't have to worry about what grant agencies or peer review committee think. And then there are the soft decora, post-lecture parties where you need to talk aout the right places to visit in Rome or have the correct opinion on a recent article or be on the right side of a departmental faction.

I have had all of these experiences, reinforced both implicitly and, usually, with explicit admonition from well-meaning people. I would like to say the advice was wrong or misguided, but in fact in all cases they were right. Deviating from the lines or pursuing those pursuits would have and is looked down upon or looked on askance. The fact is that the academic system is set up to reward a certain kind of cultivated groupthink. So-called peer review simply reinforces this, as does the still widespread though perhaps a bit ess ostentatious system of insider networks and personal connetions. I have in many cases benefited from this; in other cases not.

That is all a problem within academia, but not really my interest. (Indeed, one could hardly build a better engine for creating a groupthink cult than a highly hierarchical power structure cloaked in the language of collectivity and peer power.) The issue is how much that inculcation lingers. I find myself still thinking, about endeavours in business or writing or anything public but well outside my life in academia, what would an academic think? What would that audience that I hvae had to worry about for so long think about this bit of popularizing writing? (answer: waste of time. finish the book. that's the only thing that matters.) What would they make of me doing a podcast? (answer: panderer! oh, how you'e lowered yourself!) What about all the teaching I do? (answer: stop wasting your time. No one cares.) And the business side of things, well, that would just be an epic dismissal I'm sure (“Selling out the life of the mind, I see...”, “Couldn't cut it!”, folllowed by a big dose of “Just who do you think you are?!” and belittling).

The appropriate point would of course be “who cares what academics think?” No one should spend a second worrying what the cult thinks of the world at large. In most cases, that academic habituation reeks of fear: the fear of stepping outside a box or imaginingthe value of things that aren't within the “academic” world. The well-meaning advice of people has always been about their concern, because they did care in many cases; but it was focused around a fear, a fear of what otherws would think, a fear of rejection. What kind of a way is that to think all the time?

That poison has to be purged. For my own work, it's a daily struggle to let those intrusive thoughts float away. But it's a forever scar. Maybe it won't hurt so much or ache, but it can't be completely undone. At a practical level, getting rid of that poison means committment to other activities, spending time among people who don't have those academically-twisted ways of viewing the world. It means thinking a bit less about expectations or expertise or how one appears. It may be a bit of shedding vanity. If I look like a moron or a fool, so be it. Life is short and at a certain point, maybe there isn't so much left to prove.

For academia itself, I don't know if that culture can ever improve. Once institutionalized, there will always be some who are comfortable in that power structure and in that cult. They will defend it by claiming that they are upholding standards or that they are championing the bounds of the discipline. or they'll hide behind the weasel words of shared governance and peer review, ideas which in theory could be mechanisms for equality and raising all boats but in practice are tools wielded for power and prestige and with effects contrary to their stated intentions. But there may be more that can be done to provide counterweights to this kind of thinking. (and indeed, there are some initiatives that have this effect, partiuclalry aimed at graduate students.)

In the meantime, the answer to “what would an academic think” should be pretty clear. No one should care what an academic thinks.