Ancrene Wiseass

A would-be medievalist holds forth on academia, teaching, gender politics, blogging, pop culture, critters, and whatever else comes her way.

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Yes, this really is yet another blog by a disillusioned grad student. I sympathize, but that's just the way it has to be. For hints as to what my bizarre alias means, click here and here and, if needed, here and here. To get a sense of what I'm up to, feel free to check out the sections called "Toward a Wiseass Creed" and "Showings: Some Introductory Wiseassery" in my main blog's left-hand sidebar. Please be aware that spamming, harassing, or otherwise obnoxious comments will be deleted and traced.

Monday, October 24, 2005

On Selfishness in Academe

(Okay, so I'm going back on my earlier declaration that I wouldn't engage with anything serious in a blog post today. I give up: I had to write about this.)

Well, hey, maybe the editors at the Chronicle are finally wising up a bit, because this* is a "First Person" article that actually seems relevant, sensible, clear-eyed, and does not wallow in Pollyannaish "it's okay that I have to pay to do my research, 'cause it's an investment in me"-style delusion. It does, I think, err a bit in the direction of blame-the-victim. (I'm thinking especially of her self-indictment as "lazy" for not having been more aggressive about getting herself on the market, which I suspect is unfair; she doesn't exactly sound like the lazy type to me.) Nonetheless, it's generally an outstanding and revealing piece.

And while I'm not a trailing spouse, this section is hitting par-ticularly close to home:

I also said yes to a lot of . . . things that I should have declined. Eager to prove myself a good departmental citizen (and seeking further validation through caretaking?), I volunteered for committees and student-recruitment events. I agreed to teach a time-consuming first-year seminar, because its small stipend paid for an eye exam and a new computer battery. Unpaid, I designed multiple syllabi for a new academic program and cheerfully handed them over to the dean. (She later cut the program, but promised to hold on to my "excellent courses.")

My husband jealously guarded his time, which irritated me to no end. How could he be so selfish?

A better question might have been, "How could I not?" As long as I devalued my own labor, the university would, too. As long as I felt that my own research and writing didn't count as "real" work, I was running in place.

The equal-and-opposite-reaction syndrome happens when only one party in an academic relationship takes himself and his work seriously. That syndrome is not confined to private life. Until I started prioritizing my own research and writing over the labor that I volunteered -- or sold at a negligible price -- to the university, the university and I would have a mighty unequal relationship.

This is such an easy trap to fall into, and I have fallen into it so many times. Students who will have a serious mental meltdown if you don't lead them, step-by-step, through assignments. Faculty members who dupe you into doing their dirty work for years on end by hinting at how great it'll look on your c.v. and how many "connections" it'll make for you. Service committees whose members convince you that there are at least three projects upon which the fate of your fellow graduate students, both now and in the future, depend.

Toss in a pinch of perfectionism, a sense of duty, a desire to prove to the non-academic world that you do something concrete for a living, a few fistfuls of self-doubt, an eagerness to please, and a dash of soft-heartedness, and you've got a bona fide recipe for disaster.

It's a shame that universities (at least many of the more prestigious, research-oriented ones) don't do much more than pay lip-service to truly valuing service and teaching. But they don't. It's a shame that they don't have the ethical will to give young scholars a fairer shot at producing solid research by ensuring that they have time to do it. But they don't. And unless and until they do these things, those of us struggling to make it into the academy had better be damned selfish about claiming our research time.

Tomorrow, I'm spending at least four hours on nothing but my prospectus. Other stuff will have to wait, and I'm just going to have to get more comfortable with pissing people off.


*Discovered via Dr. B.