Here is a very nice passage from Vivian Gornick's "At the University: Little Murders of the Soul" posted by Amitava Kumar. It ties in nicely with some previous speculations I posted on academia as a culture of conflict. Concerning the professors inhabiting an English Department she visits, Gornick writes:
I soon discovered that each of them held the place they found themselves in at a discount. One and all thought they belonged somewhere better. The atmosphere reeked of brooding courtesies and subterranean tensions. I did not for a long time understand exactly what it was I was looking at. I had never before encountered mass depression.I like the term "mass depression." It seems to capture the dispirited feeling one so often encounters at committee meetings, conferences and other venues where academics congregate. I think that cases of mass depression like the one described by Gornick are extremely common in academia. The solution to this malady that is usually imagined, though, is an individual one. It consists of moving on to a better department and a better institution where one's talents will be appreciated and where the mass depression of "brooding courtesies and subterranean tensions" do not hold sway. This grass-is-greener solution doesn't seem a likely one to me. Aside from the real difficulties in job mobility, the problems in the academy are structural, not just personal. There is little reason to think that as one moves into more and more competitive academic environments that the tensions will lessen -- this is something each of us should have learned simply from watching the various dysfunctional relationships between the faculty on our own dissertation committees play themselves out.
Changing the system from the current one of ever escalating competition and conflict over publications, teaching loads, and service obligations to one where our work loads are predictable and tenure, raises, and promotions are also predictable outcomes that can be looked forward to, rather than battles that have to be fought would help create the conditions for ending this mass depression. Collective bargaining could replace the multitude of individual labor disputes now taking place on a case by case basis in a predictable cycle that moves from open and bitter hostilities to "subterranean tensions" and back again in a boring and endless repetition of the same.