Thursday, October 01, 2009

Alienation and Happiness

Via. From On Being Postacademic by Kenneth Mostern:

The scariest thing a young faculty member experiences is not, as is conventionally supposed, the “need to produce” and therefore her/his experience is not aided by the “mentorship” of an experienced scholar.  Rather, the young scholar’s fear stems from the fact that no one in the department is talking to each other about scholarship.  Faculty are socializing, going out, schmoozing all the time, and the ideas that supposedly drive the work they do are not being discussed.  The mentor, if assigned, will try to teach the young faculty member how to navigate the minefield of the department, but that is exactly what is alienating.  The mentor, especially when well-intentioned, may be the model for what is wrong, not an aid in coping.  Indeed, if the mentor is really similar to the young faculty member in terms of ideology or social identity, the mentor may be a model for what the young faculty member does not wish to become.
The one conversation everyone is having incessantly is the one about the micropolitical maneuvers within the department.  This conversation is, of course always done with armor on, with an eye toward alliances and enemies already made, with everyone watching to find out which camp the new faculty member will join.  And while there is a relationship between micropolitics and geopolitics, it is far more tenuous, far more mediated by local institutional conditions, than the new faculty first imagines.
Because no one is talking about substance, only alliances, and because alienation is general, a vacuum exists at the center of institutional power which is not filled by talent or argument, but by those who feel most comfortable or justified taking advantage of it.  For those in power, and for those who hope to attain power, the arrival of a new junior faculty member is to be watched closely for his/her schmoozing choices. As a result, it is not simply the case that junior faculty fear senior faculty, but that the senior faculty fear the junior faculty, walking around wondering whether this new person will contribute to their already hatched plan to take over the curriculum.  The fact that the new person was hired with accomplishments and expectations much higher than so many senior faculty members does not help this form of fear, of course.
While it remains true that the power differential between tenured and untenured faculty makes the ubiquity of fear particularly threatening to the careers of junior faculty members, the longer one stays the more one discovers that one’s unhappiness is simply an example of the larger misery of faculty members.  Senior faculty don’t exactly help or support one another either.  Tenure might lead to a sense of security; it surely does not breed happiness.
Happines remains a very odd thing to to try to find through work. But this description of academic life is far too accurate. My own days are filled by interminable discussions of internal politics of interest to no one but those directly involved. Discussions about ideas are something that happen more often in my classes than with my colleagues.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, that's something I'm experiencing right now. While writing my dissertation all that was on my mind and all that people in my department cared about was my research. But since I'm a VAP not a single person has shown any interest whatsoever in my research. They're not familiar with it, they don't want to hear about it. In fact, I haven't had a single intellectual conversation with anybody on campus. What everybody IS talking about is funding, the evil administration, the incompetent secretary, who slept with whom, and that the department chair is a bad cook... It's a small department in a small university in a small town that nobody cares about, but still each department is a closed breeding ground for neurosis, paranoia and psychosomatic illnesses. It is the same at any other institution I've been at. Most academics I've met are a mixture of Gollum from LotR, Milton from Office Space and Stalin.