Monday, February 6, 2017

On Leaving Academia

I am having a good time, researching and writing my dissertation. I was turned down for a grant about a year ago on the basis that most of my planned research could be conducted by email or Skype. That claim suggests a fundamental misunderstanding of the culture of Central and Eastern Europe. Personal relationships are key here. The willingness to walk into someone's home, or meet them in a cafe in their neighborhood will lead them to reveal often seemingly innocuous but important details that would be hard to obtain via the cold mediation of the Internet. I had been trying to figure out forever what the role of the film critic was in socialist Yugoslavia. It was a small cultural world, which involved two degrees of separation at most. So, how could a film critic function in an environment in which he presumably knew everyone? The answer: Pretty much the way he functioned in the U.S.

One film, Neboder / Skyscraper (Joško Marušić, 1981), confused me. It depicts a day-in-the-life of a massive apartment building. Like every apartment building, socialist or non-socialist, excrement pours down a middle section behind walls, via plumbing, always close to every apartment, always out of sight. People have sex. They play with their pets. Their lives are constantly impinging on one another. The building looks socialist, and the film looks like a commentary on the failed attempts to organize life in a socialist state. But, as a Vojvodina-born architecture critic pointed out to me, in the film women stay home, and men go out to work, a cultural situation that did not exist in Yugoslavia, particularly in cities in the more affluent parts of the country. I asked Marušić about that issue. There followed a long soliloquoy about his thoughts on male-female relations, which was interesting and may make it in to my dissertation, but in the end, one of the most important details concerned the fact that he was thinking of the apartment buildings he lived in in Croatia. I'm getting a sense of how the Zagreb School did not depict one city, socialist or non-socialist. It depicted various ideas of "city," taking suggestions of urban life from the rapid changes the country experienced in the post-war period, others from advertisements in Yugoslavia's magazines, and still others from American and Western European sources.   

In other words, I am seeing what is right in front of my nose, which, like many things right in front of your nose, is hard to see. I believe this is the work a good academic performs. A good academic makes the world a little more visible to himself and to others.

I offer this as a lead-in to some news I got this evening.

A good friend of mine who obtained a Ph.D. from Northwestern has just announced that he will be taking a job at a consulting firm in California, following one of his former professors who left a tenure-track position a few years ago. My friend is brilliant. He has published several articles. He's likable. But his adjunct pay is as low as mine and requires twice as much work. Another friend who was a Ph.D. student at Iowa, where I completed my M.A., announced on Facebook several months ago that he was walking away from academia as well, without completing his dissertation. He's brilliant too, and in fact one of the few people I know in academia for whom his mind directly matches his chosen discipline. I don't know his motives in detail, although I can guess them based on what I know, what we all know, about the brutality of my profession. An old Hungarian friend I saw over the weekend told me about his decision to leave academia a few years ago for a job at Ericsson. He had a family to support. But he missed his old life of the mind. I'm happy for all my friends, inasmuch as I think they will or have found greater happiness and certainly greater financial security outside academia than they would inside it. 

Still, I can't imagine myself living a life different from the one I live now, the one in which I am forced to constantly learn things about a wonderful, interesting subject. There's so much fun in what I do. And even on my bad days, I like teaching, mixing it up with 18-22-year-olds, the best of whom are the most curious people on earth. Consulting offers a lot of opportunity for creativity, and I'm sure a lot that isn't so different from what I do, but there's a lot that you don't get in that world: the personal relationships, the emails from former students about new things they've discovered that they wouldn't have if not for your class, the time to cultivate your prose while studying an obscure object, all things that the cold eyes of the true capitalist can't appreciate. I wrote a post awhile back about a couple of young talented actors who went on to very different careers. I hope to stay in my profession as long as possible. I don't see myself having a family to support anytime soon, or manifesting more material desires. I desire a job that allows me to learn that which I want to learn and to express myself on my own terms. So far, academia has satisfied those desires. Until the day that stops happening, or until I stop making enough money for groceries, I don't think I will leave academia.

I will also note that we perform an invaluable service to our world, one whose effects can't be measured. A culture that makes it so hard for my brilliant friends to continue the life of the mind won't last very long. If the modern neoliberal university can't sustain my friends, we need to start building something else.    

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