Panglossian Paradise?

Dorothea wonders whether we academics who generally like the academic life are blinding themselves to the horrific dysfunctions it perpetuates. If I could even tell you how often, at the end of a week of teaching and research, I say to myself that this is “le meilleur des mondes possibles et tout est pour le mieux”… um, wait… never!

I think part of the problem is that what Liz describes is increasingly the rare exception: a tenured or tenure-track position in a large, relatively well-funded and respected university. As I’ve said, I can think of literally no other job I’d rather have. Yes, there are the everyday trials. We always wish we could be doing more research or teaching slightly better, but I suspect this has more to do with motivating ourselves rather than specific extrinsic demands: this goes doubly post-tenure. More annoying is dealing with what is often an obstructionist modern university bureaucracy in combination with ideals and practices that are, in many cases, a throwback to the dark ages. But, yes, when all is said and done, all really is for the best. If it weren’t I wouldn’t be doing it. Like many academics, I’ve been lucky enough to field, and to turn down, jobs offered in the “real world” that would be much more lucrative and, at least in some cases, would end when I went home for the evening or weekend. As it is, I do not have a job, I have a life: and that’s the way I like it.

That said, I wish people could go into graduate school with their eyes wide open to what we do and what it means. I spent some time in the working world before returning to graduate school, and took a “trial run” taking graduate seminars at a local university before applying to graduate programs. Along the way, I’ve seen people who were there for all the wrong reasons. Some have the idea that “achieving” a Ph.D. will make others respect them more, or will lead to better jobs, and many end up in grad school “by default.” The truth is that graduate school should be rewarding in itself. If it’s not, you shouldn’t be there. This is true of many pursuits, no? We are forced to drive graduate admissions to keep the university afloat, even when we know that only a small portion of those we accept are there for the right reasons.

I know that there are those who hate their jobs as academics. I’ve met one or two. But when I compare this to the portion of people in industry who hate their work, there is simply no comparison. One of our biggest problems is getting people to retire; there are few other jobs of which this can be said.

None of this is to say I cannot envision a more perfect university or, more widely, a more perfect academic life. In such a utopian vision, no one pays tuition, libraries never cut subscriptions, and we teach courses only to students who want to learn the material. Removing money from the equation would remove a significant part of the strife. But as long as people are passionate about their work, peace and harmony at faculty meetings will never be achieved. And as much as I don’t like being yelled at for expressing my opinions, I would prefer this to the meetings I had working in the “real world,” in which employees were so often quiescent simply because they correctly assumed that they had no power to change their environment.

The implicit accusation from Dorothea, that the system is broken beyond redemption, is defeatist and wrong. The system is broken, but it is in a constant process of redemption. It is also far better than the alternatives: University of Phoenix, anyone? Just as I hope that I leave students better off for having been in my classes, I hope to improve the academic environment of my department, my university, “the academy” at large, and the lives of those in the community and society. I am convinced that I have been successful at this so far, and have little doubt I will continue to be. No, academia is not perfect, but in the final reckoning, it does far more good than evil.

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