In which I compare academia to a party in a way I will probably regret

Posted by September Blue Friday, 5 September 2008

Or, Why I Have Not Been Writing Anything About My Own Academic Work On Here Recently. To which the short answer is: because I haven't been doing any. I'm busy, but that's not why. Being entirely honest, it's more because I struggle to care at the moment.

This doesn't mean I don't care about my subject. I still find my subject pretty interesting, especially now that the PhD jitters have worn off a bit, and I would continue to find it interesting if I gave up academia entirely tomorrow. Translating that interest into actual academic work, though - writing journal-format articles in academic prose, hunting down what Big Name Theorists have to say about related matters because someone might ask me one day and I should have an answer, trying to get published - that stuff is getting to be somewhat more of a drag than it used to be. To put it mildly.

Okay, okay, I know. It's part of the job, it's the difference between being an academic and being someone who knows a lot about X obscure field of Victorian literature (and while I think about half my readers already know what this is, I'm going to leave it blank here anyway in fear that future academics won't work out who I am and decide not to hire me based entirely on this post, so obviously I do still care about this academic stuff a little). It's what I need to do to get a job, and I shouldn't claim I want to be in academia if I whine about having to do all the boring stuff ("Klinger, aren't you ashamed of yourself?" "Yes, sir! I don't deserve to be in the army!"). I know this. And, yet.

Imagine it this way: There's a party. It's a great party, full of the kind of people you really want to talk to having fascinating conversations about stuff you find interesting. It's not perfect - of course it's not perfect - but still, you know you'd rather be in that room having those conversations than at any other party on the planet.

Now, imagine also that there are chores to be done at this party, and that everyone must take time out from the really fun stuff to get those things done. Glasses need to be collected and washed, bowls of Twiglets* need to be refilled, sandwiches need to be made, someone's got to phone taxis home for the semi-conscious drunks - you know the sort of thing (especially if you've been to some of the conferences I've been to). Also, periodically someone's got to write letters to the neighbours explaining what's going on over here and why they should continue to support it through their patience, assistance, and donations of time, money and Twiglets. And those letters are very time-consuming and boring, etc etc etc, and nobody likes doing this stuff - but it's the price you pay for getting to have the fun conversations, and so that's what everyone does. Everyone. Including all those people having the fun conversations

Now, imagine further that the party is in a small house; that more people want to get in than there is room for people inside; and that anyone on the waiting list has to hang around outside the house, in the mud and the rain, waiting for a possible vacancy.

And. Further. That the people waiting outside have to prove their dedication to the party by:
- explaining that really, they are seriously good at writing begging letters to the neighbours;
- finding ways to demonstrate their Twiglet-bowl-filling abilities, even when they are allowed near neither Twiglet nor bowl;
- and pressing their ear to the window while standing awkwardly in a flower-bed, trying to hear enough of the fun conversations to prove that they really do know what's going on and totally could have something great to contribute if only someone would let them in.

See what I'm saying, here? It's not that I don't want to be part of a scholarly conversation about a topic I find interesting. It's just that I am standing in a flowerbed, and it is dark, and there are slugs. That scholarly conversation is full of people who have library access and can go to conferences, two things which are far from certainties for most unemployed post-PhDs; how are we supposed to keep up with the current state of research in our area when the means by which that knowledge is usually transmitted is restricted access only? At least I'm lucky enough, working in a university library, to have all the borrowing privileges I want plus a few I probably shouldn't have - what are my post-PhD friends supposed to do, buy personal subscriptions to all relevant journals themselves?

So, back to the boring stuff. The bibliography-checking. The academic-prose-ifying. The conversion of MHRA into MLA formats, with all the wailing and rending of hair that goes in its path. This stuff? This stuff, I would manage to do with minimal grumbling if it was the price to pay for being part of academia, in the same way that I wouldn't mind cleaning glasses at the party if it was the price to pay for joining in the good conversations in the living room. But cleaning glasses outside in the cold? Less tempting, that. Less tempting by a long, long way.

* - Twiglets, for those of you whose upbringing cruelly deprived you of the experience.


  1. Francofou Says:
  2. I feel for you, Vic, I really do.

  3. Laz Says:
  4. Or you could chuck in the academia malarkey and join me in the nails and staples business!