Pursuing the Life of the Mind

I’ve been taking an Information Studies seminar on “The University Professor and its Critics,” which is basically an easy way for me to do some job market research. We read about and discuss topics like peer review, tenure, and academic freedom. While I am getting a clearer sense of what I’m getting myself into with graduate school looming ahead, I am finding a lot of what we’re learning pretty depressing.

lecture hallThe state of our current education system and people’s perceptions of the “ivory tower” threaten the viability of the professoriat as it is today. Adjunct professors, who are typically employed part-time on a year-to-year basis without the job security (and academic freedom) provided by tenure, now make up almost 70% of university faculty (see Chronicle of Higher Education article). The advent of the for-profit university has triggered a move towards the university as corporation, where what we learn and teach is left in the hands of the market (look how well that turned out for Wall Street). Most tragic is the lack of respect for the life of the mind as a profession. Academics engage in the production and dissemination of knowledge; they preserve our cultural history and advance human intellect. It baffles me how such a noble pursuit has become so stigmatized in the anti-intellectual culture of modern society.

As much as I am in love with academia, it is obvious that the obstacles that stand in my way are very real. The treatment of academics, especially in the humanities, from adjunct-status to research funding cuts to teaching lower division remedial courses, inevitably affects my chances of pursuing the career path that I have chosen.

I was reading John Guillory’s article “The System of Graduate Education” today (as a way of procrastinating on homework) and was struck by this observation about students aspiring to become professors:

their chances of success in situations where the
odds are stacked heavily against them. (State lotteries
depend on this fact.) Those who labor intellectually
may be even more susceptible to
such hope, because they already possess some
measure of faith in their own abilities. These
persons are the least inclined to accept that mere
chance can determine their fate. We all know
this, because our students persist in pursuing an
academic career even after they have heard the
worst from us. In fact, they are often right about
their abilities, even if they are wrong about the
probability of success. Intellectual labor markets
can draw large numbers of very talented people
into what is essentially a kind of lottery, where
minimal differences in abilities will determine
very large differences in career outcomes.

“Human beings in general overestimate their chances of success in situations where the odds are stacked heavily against them. (State lotteries depend on this fact.) Those who labor intellectually may be even more susceptible to such hope, because they already possess some measure of faith in their own abilities. These persons are the least inclined to accept that mere chance can determine their fate. We all know this, because our students persist in pursuing an academic career even after they have heard the worst from us. In fact, they are often right about their abilities, even if they are wrong about the probability of success. Intellectual labor markets can draw large numbers of very talented people into what is essentially a kind of lottery, where minimal differences in abilities will determine very large differences in career outcomes.”

Like I said, depressing, right? But alas, it turns out that I am an optimist, hopeless romantic, naive undergrad, whatever. Maybe I should be running for the hills (i.e. law school). Maybe I should be changing my major to something more “practical” or participating in activities that will give me “real world experience.” Maybe I should just admit that I’m crazy and in way over my head. But my favorite Jack Kerouac quote always comes to mind:

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a common place thing, but burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars…”

crabnebula

I’d rather explode across the stars than never have made it up to space at all. Besides, if we don’t risk while we’re young, when are we ever going to?

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One thought on “Pursuing the Life of the Mind

  1. In the Star Wars expanded universe, there’s a superweapon called the Suncrusher that can make stars go supernova! It’s really really cool.

    I forgot where I was going with that. Oh well.

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