Sunday, May 24, 2009

Academic Careers

A very talented student wrote to me to ask my advice about going to graduate school. Discussing this with her, as well as being at a professional conference at the moment, made me think about my own goals as an academic.
Unlike many of my colleagues, I could never feel appropriately enthusiastic about the issue of tenure. Securing a tenure-track position made it even clearer to me that tenure is not one of my goals. I am not planning to modify my research or teaching practices in any way in order to advance it. I am even less inclined to engage in contact-building (or networking, as people in the corporate environment would term it) that many of my colleagues cite as the main mechanism of advancement in our profession.
Another professional activity that it bores me to even think about is grant-hunting. Unlike people in sciences who absolutely cannot do without grants, in the humanities we can do perfectly good research free of cost. We don't need labs, research assistants, equipment. Of course, it is often very helpful to go to a certain far-away library in order to gain access to its archives. Honestly speaking, however, our salary is more than enough to undertake such a trip. And if you think that spending your salary in this way is a waste, then, buddy, you are SO in the wrong profession.
I wouldn't (and haven't in the past) say no to a grant if it comes my way with very little effort on my part. Investing time and energy that can be dedicated to research into pursuing grants is what I am not planning to do.
I am also very much oppoosed to any kind of group activities both in research and in teaching. Yet again, we differ a lot here from sciences where people cannot avoid working together. In the humanities, such projects might work for some people (although I have yet to see it happening) but I see them as a huge waste of time.
What I want to do is inspirational teaching and great research. These two activities are, of course, indissolubly linked (at least, in my understanding of teaching and research). Before I saw Terry Eagleton in person, I would have said that I wanted to be like him. Teachers, however, cannot be fully effective unless their life is something that you can admire.
In order to come to a stage where I will possess enough knowledge to do the kind of research I want to do, I need a lot of time and space to read and think. Instead of bustling around trying to get noticed by "important" people, participating in all kinds of unproductive group endeavors, hustling for grants, memorizing the tenure requirements, and so on, I plan to do anything I can to free up as much time as possible for activities that I find intellectually enriching: reading, writing, talking to interesting (as opposed to useful) people, blogging, or staring at the wall while my brain processes the information it receives.
It might turn out that I will never be capable of doing the profound and important research that I would like to do. But at least I will have a great time.

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