The Life of the Mind

In one of his increasingly rare blog posts, Scott McLemee draws our attention to an article in the Chronicle by one of the foremost advocates of not getting involved in academia at all — but more importantly, he also draws our attention to a comment by “dcbetty” that is worth reproducing here in full:

One problem is when students and faculty think that the only way to HAVE a “life of the mind” is to go to grad school. I suggest prospective grad students start hanging out with writers and artists. In my experience, ideas that in academia are treated as revolutionary are in fact concepts that artists and writers outside academia often explored literally decades earlier (and without a PhD). Academia is indeed a fantastic place to explore the life of the mind– but it is also often conservative, derivative, and uncreative in its thinking, even among those who fancy themselves radicals.

Scholars might as well go be with the artists, for becoming a credentialed intellectual (by going to grad school) now has a high likelihood of landing people in the exact social and economic situation experienced by artists and writers — no, or very little payment for your “real” work, and little interest or even notice shown by the rest of the world. The difference is that writers and artists usually have few illusions about their moneymaking prospects, so it’s totally acceptable for artists to have “day jobs” that no other artist would ever fault them for having so that they could continue to do their work.

Academics, on the other hand, tend to be much more mainstream and narrow in what kind of moneymaking work is acceptable, and a lot more worried about social status. (What else can you say about a profession in which teaching high school, or publishing an essay in the New Yorker or a book aimed at the NPR-listening public, is seen as evidence of unseriousness and will, in all likelihood, be detrimental to your career?)

These days, though, scholars, like writers and artists, must accept that what they do, they must do for love (because no one really gives a damn about it except your peers), and persevere even if they have to work at Whole Foods during the day to do so. In the world outside academia they can find a fascinating group of people living an often far more adventurous “life of the mind” then you will find in a university. (and believe it or not, some in this group will be reading the same books you are, and have interesting things to say about them)

The cost is that such scholars will have to give up on the idea of upper-class social status, and know that mainstream academia will now consider you a loser/crank and probably never let you back in. The benefit is that you can work free of intellectually-restrictive career-ladder restraints. And that might produce work so interesting that you could become a professor someday after all — especially if/when the current academic model finally destroys itself.

In these dark times, where I have been more fortunate than most and yet hold no illusions that such good fortune is likely to continue, this comment was perhaps the most encouraging thing I could possibly read.

40 thoughts on “The Life of the Mind

  1. In this lecture by Astra Taylor (director of Zizek!)

    she says some very interesting things on education vs credentialling from about 30 mins, but the whole thing is interesting.

  2. This ties in with the legibility article from either IHE or the CHE from not very long ago. There is at least a way (not a very reliable way, but a way) to become an academic, and everyone knows more or less what it is. How do you get to be part of the artist-n-writer conversations? I surely have no ideas that don’t also involve graduate school, and it’s not as if little magazines are flourishing, n+1 and The Believer to one side.

    Obviously Scott managed to turn the trick, and others do as well, but it seems marvelous to me. Or as if it must involve considerable interpersonal skills if not connections otherwise established, both of which are also marvels in my mind.

  3. As Arnod rightly points out, it’s all about the day job. But it’s not just a matter of getting one. It’s getting one that doesn’t suck everything out of you. The modern workplace being what it is, that is hard to find. Given the fact that those of us who tried (and failed) at academia end up in catastrophic debt, choosiness isn’t always an option either. At some point, one has to wonder whether one’s 10+-year run in higher education should be viewed as a “good while it lasted” kind of thing, and as such regarded as one’s retirement, enjoyed in advance of actually retiring. This would at least deaden the frustration of regret.

  4. I am commenting from the other side. One of those so called (i.e. non career, mainly work with art, hardly ever make art) artists and or writers typing this in from “real” job… where I often dream of going to grad school to get a real degree, that is, anything other than an f’n MFA. It would be worth it, wouldn’t it, to pursue a more academic degree? Just to be able to have the freedom to read really awesome texts and think really awesome thoughts? And get the hell away from the dreck that passes for writing/ thinking in art circles. Please, scholars, do not follow the path of the artist!
    Not enough time for an extremely detailed response, even though this is already longer than I had intended, but I found some of the notions in the above concerning the life/ work of the artist problematic. As well as the idea that you could somehow take art production as a model for scholarship or academic production. For example, some MFA programs function as art star factories/ lotteries. They seem to offer tremendous advantage. Though for every star there are countless MFAs that never achieve commercial success. But still, it could be worthwhile, the underlying assumption or hope (for galleries, collectors and students in those programs) that out of the Yale or Columbia, say, MFA programs there shall come an artist whose installations, paintings, photographs, etc. will, within five years of that next to be discovered star’s graduation, sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars at Art Basel Miami Beach. Or some shit.
    Can the same be said for a paper or book produced by a scholar? Do scholars hope that the scholarly equivalent of a Eli Broad or Dakis Joannou will purchase unique manuscripts for their own personal benefit and save said scholars from the horrors of trying to get work published? Is there an academic equivalent of Hans Ulrich Obrist, an organizer of conferences that, if you are lucky enough to be included as a speaker, bring you instant fame and fortune?
    Maybe I too will make it big one day. Meanwhile I will continue to visit AUFS, my haven for the mind.

  5. I don’t think anybody is suggesting people follow the disciplinary path of the professional artist. If anything, I see the advice being played practically as simply being involved, actively and aggressively involved, in intellectual circles in general. A bit like AUFS, to some extent — though there is much to be said for flesh-and-blood contact.

  6. I really like the article posted but at the same time it is these kinds of articles that reinforce the bizarre (pseudo)dichotomy of theory and practice that seems to function and be supported in the academy. I find in the article above a preference for the artist and writer (outside the academy)over the academic. Why? I suspect the theory vs. practice debate is at play here. In short, what I’m suggesting is, we really need to rethink how we think about academia, the academy, and the academic.

  7. Umm, perhaps my first response an attempt at semi satirical comment gone awry. But as per Kampen, I found a strange sort of preference for, idealization, privileging of the artist/ writer against or over the scholar in the dcbetty comment. However, not so much that dcbetty was prescribing art/ writing practice as a cure for scholarly/ academic theory, but
    “Scholars might as well go be with the artists…” I read that to say, unfortunately, that pursuing a scholarly or academic career is already looking a lot like the sort of crap shoot that an artist would go through to become established, to the point where they could subsist off of the money they earned selling work in galleries, etc. But that such an environment is not necessarily a bad thing.
    And why wouldn’t the artists and the scholars get together? And the scientists too. Let’s not leave them out. Why not join with the artists and writers? Hell, some scholars may have already. Lots of room for collective action, engagement, etc. There are countless arts/ writing collectives and organizations, online publications, exhibition spaces, etc. that operate alongside the gallery, museum, collector, curator, non-profit institution art world. Sometimes in conflict, tangent or cooperation with the varied objectives of that above mentioned art world. Are there academic collectives and scholar run conferences/ discussion groups? Scholar run publications? I personally would love to see some arts events infused with presentations of some of the thinking and writing that I encounter here.

  8. I tried this sort of thing at the AAR a few years ago. I’d pitched what I thought to be a very striking session on W. G. Sebald — lining up a theologian, a philosopher, an artist, and a literary critic, and a professional editor — to discuss his work. But, alas, there were no takers.

  9. Brad, sort of along the lines of scholars joining the artists, or artists joining the scholars, thanks to a post of yours was inspired to go to The Gallery at the LeRoy Neiman Center for Print Studies for:

    Selections from the filmography of James O. Incandenza

    Worth the subway ride up to Columbia.

  10. I think the potential mental block here is that we need to get out of the mindset that one must be doing art/writing/scholarship for one’s “career” in order for it to count as real. It’s a rare historical period when the material conditions are in place for people to actually make their living directly off their creative intellectual labor — we seem to be watching the long unravelling of such a period, and that’s terrible.

    But the thing to realize is that the time of the “career” in virtually any field is coming to an end, and it’s fucking insane that the people most dependent on the idea of a “career” for their self-worth (i.e., the type of people who aspire to be academics) are the people for whom a “career” is the first thing to go, society-wise.

    I don’t think the comment I quoted is working with any kind of theory-practice divide, nor is it fetishizing artists over above scholars — or at least if it is, that’s not what I took out of it. What I got was that we want to do this stuff and need to figure out a way to do it, whether or not it pays the bills and whether or not it finds some kind of official endorsement. We need to do it for ourselves and for the kind of people who are going to like it. A lot of art people do that, the commenter is saying. Maybe that’s true about art people and maybe it’s not, but I do feel pretty confident that we should be figuring out how to do that whether or not art people are. I know for a fact that a lot of people in experimental literature and small-press publishing do that — I have friends in that area, friends who I am miles away from romanticizing but whose ambition and commitment I admire. Pointing out that the academy places certain limitations on thought should not be controversial, nor is it anti-intellectual — it’s pro-intellectual, saying that we need to find as many venues for intellectual work as possible rather than relying on a system that’s decaying and that is, in practice, often outright abusive.

  11. @ Adam: What I gathered from the comment initially was that dcbetty was suggesting prospective grad students ought to go hang out with writers and artists over against pursuing graduate studies in the academy, period.
    You wrote, “…we need to find as many venues for intellectual work as possible rather than relying on a system that’s decaying and that is, in practice, often outright abusive”. If that’s what you gleaned from dcbetty I agree with that and it’s definitely the kind of thing I’m pushing when I say we need to rethink how we think about academia (so that the intellect and the arts, theory and practice, knowledge and politics, whatever you want to call it, aren’t thought of as two separate realms).
    I just didn’t think you thought that too.

  12. I’d say people need to consider finding places other than graduate school to do their intellectual work — although if your grad school is paid for, why not? Basically, we need to find circles of affirmation to encourage us in our work and keep us going that are more robust than the academic system can be. And that might’ve caused some of my confusion reading your comment — you seem to be talking about academia in terms of “the kinds of intellectual work people do in academia,” while I was thinking of it solely in terms of the institutions. Or maybe I’m not understanding still.

  13. I think the whole process is FUBAR, but it’s not just restricted to academia. I’m teaching Deer Hunting with Jesus by Joe Bageant, to try to give students a sense of what’s actually going on, at least in the US. We are reaching real global limits of resource extraction/exploitation, and things are starting to compress, contract and sheer apart, for reasons Goodchild discussed in A Theology of Money.

    I still can’t believe I have a tenured job, it took me six years from finishing the phd, and I was just about to give up. Part of the reason I didn’t was I had nothing to fall back on. I still don’t feel right telling students not to go to grad school, but I try to let them know the reality, and that they can’t expect a typical academic career at the end of it. You should only do it if you can’t imagine doing anything else.

  14. You should only do it if you can’t imagine doing anything else.

    I’m not sure even that is enough, Clayton. The Humanities in general facilitates a stunning lack of personal imagination and courage, in terms of what one can do (& what one can imagine one might do) with themselves. We, the product of the Humanities, may tell ourselves that we don’t know what a body can do, but we don’t actually believe it. We enjoy the fiction that is the intellectual life way too much to give up on it. This is not purely the fault of academic depts., but mostly the nature of the subject and its student.

  15. I have very often found myself saying that line about “imagining” as well — both to other students and to myself. I agree with Brad that humanities programs generally don’t provide us with many resources for “imagining” other possibilities (perhaps the very fact that we all so instinctively reach for that line is a symptom!), most fundamentally because of this overwhelming framework of the “career.”

    Why can’t we read and study and write and share all that with others outside of what we happen to do for a living? Why can’t we say, “I’m going to take advantage of these years I am devoting to study to lay the groundwork for an intellectual life that I’m going to enjoy for its own sake as long as I live”? Why is there this fear that unless you have some kind of institutional affirmation (including the ultimate “institution”: money), you are a pathetic crank hobbyist who will never be taken seriously?

    Humanities departments absolutely feed into all those attitudes that wind up leading people into graduate study and academia, which winds up being a total dead-end for the majority of them and along the way sucks the joy out of the very study that drew them in the first place. And I would say that this misshaping of the humanities has a lot to do with the way that universities have been pressed into a “jobs” agenda, so that humanities have to justify their existences directly on the “jobs” they can prepare people for — which again is a total mismatch with reality, since workers would be prudent to be as flexible as possible but everyone is going into massive debt to get ever more specialized skills. A generic humanities degree where you just study what you’re interested in is perfect for the vast majority of white collar jobs! Yet no — we have to pretend that there’s a one-to-one match, so that you can get a job in journalism or technical writing or something with a degree in English, etc.

  16. Right, we also need to imagine other careers and imagine ourselves otherwise. And my only qualification to Brad is that I think our culture in general facilitates a stunning lack of personal imagination and courage, it’s not just the academy or the Humanities. Most or all of the spaces that shelter genuine thinking and authentic creativity are being shut down, so there’s no support, we’re on our own in so many ways. But there still is and are supports, networks and systems that function even if poorly, and thus there’s no place “outside” that we can get to, at least if globalization is the case.

    Part of it is making a virtue out of necessity, to take advantage of the seams that exist and exploit them, to say with Deleuze, there’s nothing to fear or hope, only to look for new weapons. Guerilla theology.

  17. None of this would be too big a deal if catastrophic debt was not the result of our ill-informed forays into higher education. In many ways, this nurtures that lack of imagination, because we have to treat our time in school as an “investment” that simply needs a lot of time to mature.

  18. Right, although catastrophic debt is the situation at all levels of society, all over the world. Debt creates chains that prevent us from taking chances, etc., and these chains are being drawn tighter and tighter as money gets more expensive due to deflationary pressures.

  19. If I were to get one of those three-year postdoctoral fellowships at a big-name university, my plan was always to continue living in penury and pay off all my student loans as quickly as possible — that way I would at least have broken even if there was no job waiting for me on the other end. That plan was perhaps over-optimistic, because it’s hard to spend NO money when you finally have an income, and it seems imprudent to follow it in my current situation, but it’s almost unimaginable to think of what it would be like not to have ANY debt at all (other than rolling credit cards, which I think are a great way of income-smoothing if used responsibly).

  20. Right, although catastrophic debt is the situation at all levels of society, all over the world.

    I’m not at all sure I want to draw a strict equivalence between all types of debt. Though, I’ll add further that my point is not to say debt accrued due to education is worse than, say, debt accrued due to medical care or daily subsistence. The effect is perhaps quite the same; but the causes of the debt are not. Namely, one can avoid the catastrophic debt incurred by higher education — i.e., by not doing it!

  21. Adam, I appreciate the post and your clarifying comment wedged between Brad and Clayton. I wonder how the issue/questions raised here resonate with non-humanities academics. Here I am thinking of my girlfriend, who is currently a chem-physics major at Reed (though completely enamored of their humanities core-classes).

    If the life of the mind in humanities-mode is relatively easy to pursue outside academia – when libraries across the world, now the blogosphere, as well as living artist and intellectual communities make opportunities to create and engage accessible – what about the people whose life of the mind might require the institutional support of university or corporate laboratories? With the exception of certain theoretical mathematics and physics, science anymore as a mode of the life of the mind seems deeply implicated in material and social structures that exceed what most people can access.

  22. To that end, the Ann Clayborne character from Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars books is an interesting case. She’s basically a deep ecologist who wants to study Mars as it is when they get there, and is in constant tension with those who want the presence and practice of science on Mars to be to, more or less, political ends – namely terraforming.

  23. Also, at what point does Adorno and the question of “free-time” (as opposed to time spent in productivity, a long-winded nod toward what I think people have in mind when they talk about “career”) come into this discussion? Does an extra-academic life of the mind erase or enforce the distinction between intellectual and and manual labor?

  24. With a great likelihood that I won’t have either a term or tenure-track position to begin on July 1 (start day in most places of Canada) and still waiting to hear on a post-doc, I’ve been looking at other employments–contract teaching just doesn’t cut it (even if it pays more in Canada than the US). My partner is unable to work due to a disability and, so, I’m responsible for the family income, completing a dissertation, and teaching 2/2. It is quite stressful. A soul-breaking bureaucratic position at about $65-75,000 (PM-05/06 in our federal classification system) certainly sounds nice. After all, Kojeve made a career as a head of a bureaucratic department.

    The problem, however, is the same as working at a tiny school–access to research resources. In order to have full access to a library (journals, books, archival materials, ILL, etc), you need to be teaching. That would mean working full-time and teaching part-time just get access to a decent library. At that point, you’re working 37.5 hours/week in the government and then another 10 teaching. Where’s the time for the life of the mind?

    The only other option is going to law school, which is hardly an environment in which scholarly work is encouraged, for either faculty or students. And what comes after that? An associates or junior partner’s position working fifty to sixty hours a week?

    Overall, there seems to be few options: no faculty positions and little possibility of being scholarly in a non-academic environment.

  25. Craig,

    As an unemployed pseudo-academic, I can definitely relate w/ what you say. Considering it’s a near-daily issue, I’m a bit surprised I didn’t gripe about it myself. There are avenues, though — many of them dependent on (a) your location and (b) the protocols at work at your area universities. I’m very fortunate here in the SF Bay Area, for example, that I have at least two top-notch public libraries, one of which (the San Jose public library) also houses a (fairly) major university’s library — all for free. Circulation privileges at the Graduate Theological Union’s library is available to me for about $60 p/year, I think it is; about $100 at UC Berkeley — non-circulation privileges are free at both. The only thing I find that I really miss is electronic journal access, specifically ATHENS.

    The upshot … it can be done. If you’re in an area w/ such access, the remaining barriers are that of time & energy.

  26. This excellent thread inspires hope that not everyone is as delusional as some who dispense idiotic advice like “If you work hard enough, you will all get jobs!” I think one of the worst academic myths/illusions is this notion that hard work necessarily translates into a cushy TT position, it just must because otherwise the world is a cold and lonely place. So a failure to secure employment then is explained by a simple “you haven’t been working hard enough, therefore it’s your fault you’re unemployed/underemployed.” I’m sure working hard is something we do anyway, but the idea that one is somehow investing in his/her future by taking time away from friends/family and working on that special project that will launch his/her career is not just silly, it’s dangerous.

  27. As someone who is currently applying for PhD programs in the humanities and likely attending for next year (thankfully, from at least one offer I’ve received, tuition is covered and I have a stipend, so no need for loans–I hope), I wonder if I can bring something new to the discussion.

    One thing that bothers me a little bit is this naive “subject-supposed-to-believe” (that entering into the academic world is an easy life; that tenure is guaranteed to those who do well, etc.), to invoke Lacan/Zizek terminology. Perhaps my knowledge and experience is fairly limited to make any definitive claims about this, but at least from speaking with friends and peers during undergrad, I can’t name anyone who was or is under the impression that higher education is some sort of bastion or ultimate path to a life of pure thought and class comfort, cushioned by a salary that will allow you to ascend to the ranks of the upper-middle class. If anything, the overwhelming mantra I’ve heard from PhDs, graduate students, and even fellow undergrads (no doubt repeating what they’ve heard via the chain of command) for the past several years has been overwhelmingly pessimistic and negative: that higher education is in rapid decline, there are no real tenure track jobs available, you may as well not go, etc.

    On the one hand, I find all of this convincing: one reason I took a year off between graduating and applying to PhD programs was precisely because I had it instilled in me just how bad the situation was (couple that with the economic crisis) and that, were I to be accepted, I would essentially be jumping aboard a sinking ship (my decision was basically to accept that fact). On the other hand, the pervasiveness of this attitude–regardless of its truth, which I wholly agree with (I have no illusions about just how hard things will be)–strikes me as suspect. For one, it seems worth asking what the specific function of this naive fantasized subject is. It also seems as though the obsessive and universal focus on the “realities” of just how shitty the academic system is–a discourse that seems to serve more to “legitimize” you as an authentic member of the community more than anything else–allows for those already embedded in the system to passively accept these very realities that are being criticized.

    Again, I say this not as someone who buys into some sort of mythical Horatio Alger tale of working from rags to riches in academia, but as somewhat of an outsider who finds the framing of this discourse as, if not questionable than at least worth analyzing itself, if not for any other reason than because of its prevalence.

  28. It also seems as though the obsessive and universal focus on the “realities” of just how shitty the academic system is–a discourse that seems to serve more to “legitimize” you as an authentic member of the community more than anything else–allows for those already embedded in the system to passively accept these very realities that are being criticized.

    Well, for my part, this is anything but about “discourse,” let alone “framing” a discourse. I speak as one who is over $100K in debt, student loan debt alone, due to mostly self-financing an education that did nothing for me professionally. This is, of course, my own fault. I made the choice(s) that lead to the catastrophe. Be that as it may, I’m still inclined to say the professional Humanities are full of shit, and I’d welcome its destruction if this destruction wasn’t merely its becoming, even more than it is already, the home for a privileged class who can afford it.

  29. For whatever it’s worth, I’m also applying to Phd programs for the fall, although I’m finishing up undergrad right now. I have absolutely no expectations to find an academic job on the other end of grad school, and I’ve currently just about given up hope to even be accepted into grad school. To me, the entire formal process of academia (so far, for me, mostly related to the application process) sucks the life out of the enjoyment that I get from doing philosophy. I have a professor who has an advanced degree, is an excellent teacher, and has basically been content to do a adjunct position so as to avoid all of the bureaucratic crap. I imagine that if I’m lucky enough to even have somewhere to go in the fall, I might end up taking a similar type of “career path.”

    However, I also realize that this kind of hands-off attitude towards the bureaucratic aspects of the university is problematic, and that it’s impossible to take hold of the system from without. I guess I’m just cynical that anything substantial is going to change.

  30. Brad,

    As someone with student loans taken out during undergrad, I can commiserate with you regarding how miserable such debt is (Adam’s post above really struck a chord with me: if I had to live in penury for several years in order to pay off all my loans at once, and then live in penury some more, I’d be fine with that just to remove the shackles). Nevertheless, I think my point is more that I can’t think of anyone–friends, family, professors, etc.–that could be blamed or be held responsible for propagating a myth about academic life, and that, at least from my experience, the message has been overwhelmingly one of caution and warning: that there are no guarantees at the end, etc. And even if this message weren’t being delivered to would-be graduate students, how could they not be aware of how bad it is, just looking at, say, the crisis facing the UC system?

    I suppose then the question is why I would even decide to go, but I have to say, if there wasn’t an offer to finance me on the table, there’s not a chance in hell that I’d be attending. I’ve been doing graphic design for close to a decade, so if I had to choose between taking out even more loans to finance my education, versus a career in design, I think the choice sort of speaks for itself.

  31. I don’t think blame necessarily falls on individual advisers. Sometimes, I’m sure it contributes, but that’s not really the greater issue. Nine chances out of ten a highly motivated person who can gett (or has already gotten) accepted into a PhD program will not listen to nay-saying advice anyway.

    The greater issue is why so many of us feel that it is even worth pursuing life in the professional academy. I accept that everybody in all walks have their own delusions, and perhaps this is ours. But that ultimately seems far too simplistic. Is it a kind of feeble shot-against-the bow of capitalistic expectation? Is it some kind of Peter Pan Syndrome? Or, and I certainly hope this is the case in a greater degree than the previous, is it a hunger for a community of peers — i.e., those people bound before even meeting by intellectual modes and manner of thought and being — that a 9-to-5 clustering of strangers seeking common ground doesn’t offer? If this is the case, one still has to wonder why the fuck it must cost so much to have, and why we’ve continued to accept the price.

  32. Brad, you are right about libraries. The problem I have is that I want to work on a “history of cruelty” in Canadian law and policy. This requires access to archives, which are open to academics (defined as those paying tuition or receiving a salary from a university), but closed to the public (defined as everyone who is not paying tuition or not receiving a salary from a university).

  33. Brad says, “The only thing I find that I really miss is electronic journal access”.

    Here in Australia it’s possible to get electronic journal access from the State library (in Victoria, at least), which you can join for free. You can log in at home, same way you would with an institutional subscription (they just don’t tell anyone about it).

    There are more and more day-job-life-of-the-minders out there, certainly; but one word of caution from The Onion:
    Day Job Officially Becomes Job

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