Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Academia: A Sob Story

I wish it were possible to be an academic without having to talk to other academics.

You may not know it, but that’s a shocking confession. The model of academic life as a solitary process of research and thought, resulting in a paper or a book which contributes to scholarly debate when other people read it and write about it, is increasingly being replaced by an emphasis on networking, cooperation, dialogue, and talk, talk, talk.

To me, it’s exhausting.

I’m the kind of person who has never really understood the expression "easier said than done". I’m an introvert, who finds talking to other people an effort at the best of times, and talking about myself is a particular nightmare. I can write about myself for ever, but speaking out loud and being required to explain or justify myself verbally on the spot wears me out. Just about everything, for me, is "easier done than said" – the saying requires all kinds of self-evaluation and struggles to choose the right word and the right expression, whereas the doing gives you a finished product, which speaks for itself. The most difficult thing I’ve so far found about being in academia is that you are often required to speak about what you’re doing, as well as just doing it. I know this is entirely reasonable: supervisors need progress reports, scholars want to know what’s going on in their field, the academic community as a whole is supposed to benefit from conference papers and seminars and networking. I understand all this.

That doesn't stop me hating it, though. When I have to explain what I’m doing, I always want to say “let me get on with it, and I’ll show you when I’m done”. Seminars irritate me, because talking is so much less precise than writing – people make up questions just to be polite, whether they care about the answer or not; the speaker has to fudge an answer, whether they have one or not; everyone has to pretend it’s an enlightening scholarly experience rather than a faintly awkward fumble. That’s assuming everyone is of genuine goodwill, of course; most of the time there’s a lot of bitchiness and arrogance and exhibitionism going on as well. People want to show off or to humiliate someone else, to draw attention to their own work and belittle everyone else’s. This is true in informal as well as formal situations among other academics, I’ve found – it’s worse, actually, at a drinks party than at a seminar, because people feel free to look down their noses at each other. Ambition and pride are the academic’s besetting sins.

You would think if there was one corner of the world where it was safe to be an introvert, academia would be it! Apparently not. It does make me glad for the collegiate system, though, because the problem is less pronounced when interacting with people from other disciplines; English students are, I think, particularly ready to show off, and anyway you can’t really show off to people who are experts in another field. Talking to a mathematician or a classicist or a chemist is humbling without being humiliating: I respect their expertise in an area I don’t understand, and they respect mine. I’m not in competition with them the way other English scholars seem to think they are with me.

This is all by way of explaining to myself why I’m not at a seminar right now. I have to go to these events regularly, and I dutifully do so – but I hate them, and usually come back loathing myself and everyone in the world. I went to Evensong instead.

No comments: