Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Rat Race

"I'm a professional cynic, but my heart's not in it."

Sometimes I think I represent the aspects of academic life that are least appealing. I'm talking about those that it shares with other forms of life, other vocations. Once you divide your time between teaching and research, and then schedule your research time (your writing time in particular) as rigorously as your teaching, scholarship can come look as much like "one damn thing after another" as, say, marketing or accounting. More disturbingly, once we buy into the link between performance measures (publication) and promotion ladders (tenure, permanent chairs, etc.) it becomes hard to distinguish academia from any other rat race.

There is, indeed, a real danger in letting your awareness of the practical and rhetorical problems of research foster a kind of cynicism about your work. Once you distinguish between what makes a phenomenon interesting to you and what makes it interesting to your peers, as I did in a PhD course yesterday, and especially if you frame this distinction (as I may accidently have done as well) as one between what makes your work interesting and what makes it publishable, or between what you have learned from your research and what your peers should learn from it, it is tempting to think of the social aspect of research as a kind of pretense. The idea that social life is fake is at the heart of cynicism.

The original cynics took the consequences in a radical way. Diogenes, it is said, lived in a barrel on the outskirts of town. He dressed in rags and masturbated in public. He didn't care what people thought. Modern cynics (the reference of the modern sense of the word) are a bit less authentic in their response to the inauthenticity of social life. Since social life is fake, they argue, there is no shame in being instrumental about one's participation in it. It is okay to lie and cheat, it is okay to "perform" according to whatever standards society offers, and it is okay to succeed. When the rat race becomes too much, they argue, you can ("ooops, I've got a lot of money," as the song goes) retire to a country house and be yourself. Why suffer life in a barrel?

Both senses of cynicism turn on the question of whether or not "your heart is in it". That's why that line in Blur's "Country House" is funny, and actually somewhat inspiring. There are aspects of research that you need to be instrumental about if you want to succeed. There are things you'll have to do without your heart being in it. But if you let them constitute your main problem, you risk becoming a real cynic. (These people exist in academia, as you may already know.) Make sure you respect the part of your research that your heart is in. Make sure that you don't find your heart in your cynicism. In a word, be professional about it.

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