On Sad and Joyful Passions of Academia

It is a pretty common trope of academic blogs to complain, one could say ceaselessly, about academia. Surely there are some decent reasons for these complaints. We’re not making much money, we put in a lot of hours reading, researching, and writing about largely obscure topics or, if the topic not obscure, the way we go about discussing it is arguably so. I get that people are unhappy with their advisors, with the lack of support from the university, and from the seeming glacial pace of publishing. These are surely all constitutive of sad passions and do no increase our power. I don’t feel particularly bothered by these issues though. Perhaps it is because I know I shouldn’t be here, that I’ve pulled a pretty good con, or perhaps it is because I don’t think my work has been good enough yet to be published or to get the support from the university others have. But the complaints, especially from those fully funded at institutions I would imagine are very exciting, foster a different sad passion within me. They even foster a kind of resentment that they have been given this opportunity while I have to scratch out a future, likely back in the US, with a British PhD in philosophical theology and yet they seem to enjoy nothing about academic work (except, perhaps, that it really proves they are clever).

This is a sad passion I’ve been struggling with this past year. It has been like a cloud over my reading, researching, and writing of my own obscure topics. I knew that I wanted to be here in academia, I knew that I didn’t suffer the same sad passions, but I also knew that I was not joyful in my research. This past week, in the sprint to finish my MA dissertation, I rediscovered what I love about academia. Everything I’ve been reading this year came together in my dissertation. Finally feeling a bit of confidence to write on Bergson and Deleuze/Guattari’s metaphysics I felt I finally understood, from the inside, their concepts and more so I agreed with them and say ways they could be extended. Looking back at this past month, though incredibly stressful with all the normal trails of writing, has been a very happy time. I’ve been sitting too much, of course, but I was sitting surrounded by books I had spent time with, with ideas that had given birth to their own time within me, and with a piece that I was creating that, despite all its flaws, was a creation.

Today I handed in my MA dissertation and I am filled with joy. Academia, for all its faults, its myopia, its pedantic elitism; it is still academia that provided the structure in which this joy could be expressed.

28 thoughts on “On Sad and Joyful Passions of Academia

  1. I truly believe that only an obsession with academic work can sustain one’s happiness. All the other reasons people enter academia — an attraction to the “lifestyle,” a desire to do something “meaningful” (often underwritten by a very romantic notion of what it means to “teach”), a perceived lack of other options, etc. — will lead only to bitterness or, at best, resignation. People should only go into a PhD program if they can honestly say that, even if they weren’t in a program, they would be scraping by on as little paying work as possible in order to be able to have time to continue their research and writing.

    That is, it’s not simply whether you would be “good at it” or whether you think it’s the “only place you’ll be happy” — it has to be pathological. You have to be a self-destructive person. That’s the only way to guarantee that the pain of going through the PhD will be “worth it” — not based on whether you get your nice cushy middle-class job (which often isn’t as cushy or middle-class as one would think), but based on whether it is intrinsically worth it. Whenever I talk to someone who’s thinking about doing a PhD (a frequent thing at a seminary), I look for a profound level of (the right kind of) mental illness — if it’s not there, I encourage them to run away as fast as they can.

  2. Congrats, Anthony!

    I don’t know that you have to be pathological. To put it crudely, teaching is fun… Depending on what sort of person you are, at least. The thing about academia that no one ever really tells you is that your life is never your own. In many other lines of work you punch a clock or leave the office and you’re done. In my experience, the temporality of academia is a very strange thing. There are always things to do when you get home: more to read, more to prepare, more to grade, more to write, etc. There are always looming deadlines and obligations. There’s never really an opportune time to take a vacation. Nothing ever really belongs to you again.

  3. There are always things to do when you get home

    I think that’s the most liberating thing about academia. Knowing in advance that you will never do “enough” releases you from any obligation (it’s just occoured to me this might be applicable to a Derridean ethics, too).

  4. I have to say not much about being an academic bothers me. When I was working I tried to steal as much time to do real work, wrote two book reviews, delivered a conference paper. The alone time is, well, I’ve felt lonely my whole life and I still get out to the pub plenty.

  5. what’s the difference between academic life and just a simple graduate student life? are you really “in the academy” before you get a real full-time job?

  6. it’s Evgeni, not Eugeni – though i appreciate the effort, Nate, and thank you – “i’m in! i’m in!” – still i have a sneaking suspicion that a lot of graduate students think they are “in the academy” and thus all the moaning and groaning – how about those graduate students that study for their MBAs? are they “in the academy” too? or science PhDs that do research? isn’t it all just wishful thinking? you’re not in until you get a job, fellows, yes Adam you might very well be just an unemployed loser :-)

  7. well, i was half-joking, but since i see that you weren’t – why “of course”? and why “just silly”? what is “academia” then? do you mean graduate students that pursue their graduate degrees in humanities? is the pursuit of study important? is the institutional affiliation important? there are plenty of questions that your “of course” ignores and, honestly speaking, ignores rather dismissively and arrogantly – the issue, i believe, is far from settled, and settling it with “it’s just silly” isn’t going to do it…

    adam, i’m sure once you get tenure finding a date problem should be solved, unless by then you’ll be like a captain married to the sea – what’s that Rushmore line: “unfortunately, it’s not my forte, father”

  8. you’re right, Adam, it is clearly an indication that i must seek the answer to my inquiry within my lost soul and its hidden insecurities…

  9. Either that, or you should give up on the need for a sharp line dividing those who are “in academia” from those who are not. Fuzzy concepts are worthwhile too.

  10. you’re right again, Adam, although i’m wondering what other kinds of definitions are out there besides the clear-cut ones? doesn’t definition, by definion, have a sort of “clear-cut-ness” that makes it a definition rather than, say, a general description or a blog musing? i feel that this is a whole different topic that is probably better left for more certain, clear-cut, if you will, times…

    thank you for the advice anyway, i sense you are a kind person with much much wisdom to share – i was merely pointing out the fact that the question of the graduate students belonging to the academia is, indeed, an interesting one, but i got caught up in my own desires, i suppose…

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