Saturday, October 1, 2016

Back On Track

I really think 2016 is going to go down as the year that simply didn't have enough days in it. Because it really and truly can't be October 1st already. 

I don't know how that could have happened.

The good news is, this morning I finally finished the article I've been working on for months and months. I thought I'd be disappointed that it took so long (because truly, it did) but the fact of the matter is, I'm just so happy it's submitted and off my desk that I can't even bring myself to feel the slightest hint of disappointment.

It's gone.  It's outta my hair.  Hallelujah. I think the article itself is either "good" or "okay," depending. I definitely don't think it's "bad," and in the life of a writer, that's about the best you're going to hope for.

Because sometimes, you think something is "good" and then you read it the next day and realize that you were delusional. And sometimes, you think something is "bad" and you read it a year later (because when you think it's "bad" you really can't face it any sooner than that), and you realize it "isn't so terrible after all."

So the best I'm going to say is that I think the article is "okay" or "pretty good" (see, I've already begun to qualify it a bit, because less than 10 lines ago, I was calling it "good"--this is what I mean).

A friend on Facebook shared an article yesterday that was, in essence, the perfect rainy September Friday afternoon article to share with a fellow academic on Facebook.  It's called "How to Live Less Anxiously in Academe," by Carl Cederstrom and Michael Marinetto, and it's been on my mind for the past 24 hours or so.

Cederstrom and Marinetto argue that there are basically 4 ways to avoid the anxiety that comes with being a professor and/or working in academia: 1) kill your institutional aspirations, 2) identify yourself as an amateur, 3) stop writing badly, and 4) start teaching well.

I have to say, I'm coming up on my 20-year teaching anniversary at my current job, and I think Cederstrom and Marinetto are right on the money.

If you want to be a "presence" in an academic institution--the person that everyone counts on to meet the needs of the institution--your intellectual aspirations will suffer.

It's just that simple. There are only so many hours in the day, and no one can think deep thoughts or read intellectually engaging material if they've spent too many of those hours attending meetings and filling out forms and discussing all of the various goals and drives and initiatives and what-not that are strewn along the highways and byways of academia.

I would argue that those who do so--or who simply try to do so--often end up angry and bitter because they've dedicated their lives to advancing an institution only to realize that institutions are entities that can't really care about anyone very deeply or for very long.  They're businesses, although in many ways, they possess some advantages that businesses perhaps don't possess, because they can look like communities, but... they're not.

Cederstrom and Marinetto suggest that, to be a less anxious academic, you need to "cultivate an indifference and apathy towards institutional demands." In short, care less about whether or not that report or assessment gets done, and whether or not someone besides you ends up doing it.

Their point is, once you've done this, you have more time to focus on the things that actually make you happy and productive: good writing, good teaching, and a love of knowledge.

I think it's interesting that Cederstrom and Marinetto embrace the spirit of "the amateur" because in academia, "amateur" is typically synonymous with "anathema."

No one wants to be an "amateur" because everyone wants to be a specialist, no matter how obscure or arcane the specialty might be.

But when you think about it, cultivating this kind of hyper-specialization means that you cultivate your own eventual obsolescence. In plain English, you ensure that you will become out-of-touch and incapable of communicating with others about matters of interest or importance (whether those matters are interesting or important to you or to others).

As a result, you will write badly--if at all--and you will (in my humble opinion) teach even worse.

If you're an amateur, however, you acknowledge that you love ideas and you love to move among ideas, teaching and testing and tempering them with the new knowledge that you constantly acquire.

Instead of drilling down into the depths of a specialty, you ride the currents of your intellectual interests, and go where they take you--this, at least, is my sense of Cederstrom and Marinetto's advocacy of amateurism.

This doesn't mean that you become a dabbler or a dilettante; amateurs take their interests and their ideas seriously and they pursue them with passion. 

They simply don't lose sight of the big picture, and because they are always thinking about this larger context for their ideas and interests, they realize that a single-minded focus on a singular interest isn't necessarily the way to enhance one's intellectual capabilities.

My only concern with Cederstrom and Marinetto's argument is with its claim that this will enable one to live "less anxiously" in academia. I think that's only true if a person makes his or her peace with the fact that, by making the four choices they describe, a person will relegate him or herself to positions of minimal prestige within an academic institution.

If power and glory are your thing--if you figuratively want your name in lights at the institution where you work-- the advice that Cederstrom and Marinetto offer will not give you what you seek.

It will, however, give you a sense of personal purpose and fulfillment. And if this is what you seek, then you will, ultimately, live less anxiously in academe. 

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."