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The top ten life-lessons you learn from academia, even if none were intentional

January 10, 2013

I am quite tired so forgive whatever mistakes and typos you find below until I have time to revisit and  correct them. However, in light of many things happening over the past weeks in so many unrelated areas, I feel compelled to post these thoughts before they disappear. Maybe I have, inadvertently, written myself out of a future academic job.


10. Credibility: whatever your best scholarly intentions might be, if you lack credibility (and authority) in the eyes of your audience, your brilliance will not save you from scorn and dismissal. That audience might be your committee, your peers, the people you are giving a conference paper to, your future employers, and even the public you desire to speak to. Worse, you would just be dismissed as those labelled (even if wrongly by times) as one of those ‘vacuous pomo types’. How do you gain that credibilitiy? Well, this is a hard question, because it is easier being credible if you have a set of predetermined rules to work with even if the rules does not prevent a subjective outcomes. It gets harder if your work is all about questioning the golden rules, which of course can make some people unhappy or suspicious of what you do. For many, credibility is about having the sort of hard skills you can fall back one, or at least an object that anchors your arguments.

9. Marketing: this was something I actually learned before grad school but initially thought  the life of the mind as being above ‘crass’ crass marketing tactics you use to sell yourself in the open market. I thought, naively, that academics was about presenting , with much care and thought, and persuading, with the good ideas you think you have to the people you thought would jump at helping you develop them. Actually, that is never the case. How you need to survive in academia is not too different from when you would pitch any product or idea you have to a client that would then pay you good money to develop them. Or you risk losing your job. Kinda like in advertising, really. Or branding, No ivory bubble can protect you from that.

8. Politics: Winning grants, fellowships and whatever funding to finance your ‘intellectual’ work is as much about the politics of the institution as it is about your perceived self-brilliance. Sometimes, it is not even about your brilliance. Not at all.  You could just be a pawn to a larger game of chess at play involving paybacks, favors, and organizational strategies.

7.Self-interest: we like to think academy is about being in an ideal place where we may one day have good ideas to change the world….or maybe not (we just want to get that college-teaching job with the possibility of tenure). Nothing wrong with that, since we want to preserve ourselves, and our lineage, after all. I mean, how should being an academic make one immune to the structures of the world? Even the most self-sacrificing matyr has self-interest (I once read an interesting history book on this subject but I digress). But it is more important to admit to this with honesty, and then use that stepping stone to enlarge that self-interest beyond our immediate persons, because it is in our best-interest to maintain good balance in the ecosystem that sustains us, and being individually selfish does not take us very far in the long run, even if we are misanthropes. Animals form communities not for anything more altruistic than for better self-preservation and survival.

6.Being a not-activist: really, no better way to further your self-interest than be involved in a cause that you care about. Of course, if being a full-time activist seems questionable,  what about just being an already-activist by peddling your knowledge and sharing that towards the furtherance of something you believe in. Just like how some scientists decided to use science to empower certain poor segments of society by allowing them access to readily assembled and cheap technology, you can do the same with the work that you do. Of course, it might take a bit more imagination to figure out what you can do with literary/textual analysis or the study of an ancient artform or pop culture, but a person of the mind has to do that, anyway.

5.Guilt: we ride the freeway of guilt-trips from the moment we step into grad school until we become professors (if we do ever become one, that is). Why not turn that guilt into anger over being made to feel guilty, feeling less of a human being because we are tired of  the insistence that we overachieve when most do not care all that much about the content of our achievement. How about being guilty about not having a better life for ourselves and our loved ones? How about guilting ourselves into finding the best system by which we can then tame that roaring beast of guilt. We should feel guilty that much of the guilt we have acquired are about the things we would never be remembered for after we pass on.

4. Identity: we spend too much time identifying ourselves with our work (see Guilt and Self-Interest). When we don’t get good class reviews, our papers get rejected, or we fail to earn that fellowship or grant after all that hard work we have put in, we fall into the rock-bottom of despair. It is an identity that is forever stuck in that treadmill of the future, where the present is as meaningless as a pair of torn boxers. Maybe, since most of us like to be thought of as being brilliant, with the potential to become famous one day, our entire identity becomes wrapped around that goal, and we don’t know what to do outside of it all. Or maybe, it is just a desire to obtain that ‘coveted’ and ‘respected’ position.

3. Community: how having a community of kindred spirits whose goal is not to sabotage or eliminate you from being their competitor is important. Maybe it might mean going outside your immediate peer group and department. Or just having someone you can somewhat trust and talk to. Or insult (nothing like a good friend than someone you can insult). Just having people with whom you can have the kind of conversations some of you come to grad school for, or even to whine and bawl at, makes a world of difference between becoming a neurotic-sociopath and maintaining a healthy mental state by the time you graduate.

2. Recognition: a lot of the things we do as ‘people of the mind’ is a form of hand-waving, or hopping about like that short kid in kindergarten who wanted others to see him or her. We of course want others to recognize us for our excellence and our worth. Are we kidding ourselves? Really, nobody will ever pay you for your worth, not unless you become that superstar professor that everybody wants to have because it lends prestige to their institution.You know, the one the students want to go and work with, whose fame spreads outside of their geographical boundaries and effective physical reach. I am sure you have heard about hedge funds and investment portfolio. Or even that gold standard.The only way you can get your worth, if you can’t arrive at that level of estimation (and sometimes, it is less about brilliance but about doing the right thing at the right time, as some celebrities would tell you), the only way you can get there is by being your own boss. Then you can call the shots on your personal value. Otherwise, really, your fame lasts only as long as a twitter post or facebook status change.

1. Me: yes, indeed, academics, and a lot of things else really, is about you. How did you even end up in academia? Your choice, really. It could have to do with all the nine points above, or just some of it.  At the end of the day, it is about living out that fantasy life or illusion you have that there is no greater career than the life of the mind. Or, if you are of the more practical bent: what better financial investment, even if you have to take out loans to get there, than to be professionally certified for a job that will one day get you to the top of the economic and social ladder? Or, maybe, you do want to change the world and hope that your sterling influence will make the world a better place. But really, you are better off being honest with yourself first before trying to make honest people out of others.

0. [just added] In your mind, what of the above-mentioned points are invalid; on what assumptions do you evaluate my arguments, and how far will you go to verify or invalidate any of my points above?

One Comment leave one →
  1. musterman permalink
    January 10, 2013 3:52 pm

    “i won’t call point 10 “credibility” but “expertise”. if you don’t know things as good as you should you can also be credible but you don’t have expertise knowledge. you are credible insofar as you are true to yourself. be authentic.

    well said point 9. though i won’t say that the better argument will “never” convince others. there are several preconditions people in discussions should think about like e.g. the will to understand the other or the need to actually test arguments.

    is point 8 detached from point 9? why not putting both together?

    number 5 is written very good. i like your use of words. but why don’t you consider just to accept that people make mistakes, in fact all the time, and that we sometimes by hindsight chose the wrong path, we aren’t perfect. it should be ok to say the latter and to accept or even embrace our flaws, and finally get rid of that stupid guilt.

    i liked reading the rest of your points :)”

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