Saturday, June 27, 2009

et in academia, äääääääähm, tu

Jenny Davidson has a link to this post on how best to tackle a dissertation as a route to an academic career.

I'm tired.

I'm a feminist. Qua feminist, I feel under some sort of obligation to chase prizes. If I drop out, I feel I'm letting the side down. And I once had a psychopathic (or do I mean sociopathic?) boyfriend who had an unerring instinct for what it took to rack up points on the scoreboard. So I must rack up points on the scoreboard. My tutors, at what had once been a women's college at Oxford, may, for all I know, have had this instinct; if they did, they chose not to share. So I found out about prizes, not from a mentor, but from a psycho- (or possibly socio-) path.

On the one hand, I went in for prizes of fiendish technical difficulty that women did not normally go in for (I think because their tutors assumed that public school men would have it sewn up, why cause unnecessary angst?). And, occasionally, won. On the other hand (know what? I don't wildly want to talk about this. But I've just read Nina Power's MS of One-Dimensional Woman, so I sort of feel I ought to)-- OK, on the other hand, when I had my final exams coming up, the psycho/sociopath would turn up at the library and want endorsement in the form of coffee in the Covered Market or some such thing, when I was just trying to prepare for the fucking exam. A week before the exam I went up to London to stay in a B&B for a night so I could revise for an exam in an X-free environment, except that X wanted to be called from a phonebox. I actually don't want to think about what it would have been like if I had had a tutor or tutors to explain how the system worked, without invocation of the crying need for a double bed.

Anyway, hm. I finished my thesis (Oxford for "dissertation") in four years, and OUP offered to publish it. But I couldn't face spending any more time on the fucker.

What I would say.

Superficially, academia looks very different from commercial publishing. I think they're really sisters under the skin.

As a graduate student, I did my doctoral research in the place that had offered me money. I did not survey the field of classicists, and/or the field of philosophers, and go where I could work with someone whose work I found exciting. I did my research in a place where I'd been offered three years' funding.

In academia, at least, you can find out about interesting people working in your field, even if you can't get money to study with them. So you can probably have some kind of intellectual engagement with them anyway.

In publishing, you have no way of finding out whether there are interesting people who would be receptive to the kind of book you want to write. Because, um, duh, in academia people have to publish to get jobs - you can get some kind of idea of whether you'd like to work with someone by his/her, um, publication record. Without which s/he couldn't had got the job in the first place. But in publishing, of course, there is no requirement to have a publication record to get a job. So. Well. Hm. It' s hard to be sane.


Andrew Gelman said...

Academic and commercial publishing seem similar in that, for either one, the author does lots of work and then the publisher gets free money out of it. Luckily for me, my livelihood doesn't depend on book sales: academic bestsellers don't bring in much in royalties.

P.S. Intellectual engagement is changing now that there are emails and blogs. I would say that, in aggregate, blogs are above journalism but below academia in sophistication. This is great for journalism but maybe not so great for academic discourse, in that sometimes I think that mediocre academic bloggers suck up some of the oxygen of intellectual discourse that otherwise might be used by better works. To put it another way, people are reading blogs rather than reading Plato (or Lakatos, or whatever).

The Steve said...

Even worse for us in that journal articles are provided gratis and getting books published sometimes requires a subvention. I think the comments to this blog post were more on target than the post itself. I don't know *anyone* who would recommend delaying completion of a dissertation, especially in these financially uncertain times.

The Steve said...

Correction: I do know some perfectionist professors, though most committees seem likely to give you a pass if you secure a job. That's the whole point of the thing, anyway. I'll never forget Terry Eagleton's acerbic parenthetical in which he describes as a "most scandalous and farcical feature" of literature programs "the largely wasted energy which postgraduate students are required to pour into obscure, often spurious research topics in order to produce dissertations which are frequently no more than sterile academic exercises, and which few others will ever read." Ouch--harsh words I wish I'd never read, to be honest, and all the sharper since graduate students invest so much of their pride in their dissertations. We really want them to be good!

Helen DeWitt said...

AG, I can see how it could work out that way; on the other hand, blogs and e-mail must go a long way toward overcoming the intellectual isolation that was once taken for granted. I've known a handful of graduate students who thought their supervisors were extremely helpful, and countless others who were reduced to despair - partly because, in the absence of helpful engagement with a supervisor, it was very hard for them to find someone with whom to discuss their work.

Steve, I remember that line of Eagleton's very well. (And yes, I agree that the comments were often more on target than the post. )

Jenny Davidson said...

I find articles the most monstrous of all from a "can't stand to spend any more time on the fucker" point of view - at least with a book there is something MONUMENTALLY insane about it (I always picture myself moving a ton of bricks about 30 feet over, in the middle of a football statium - reproducing the exact same cube of bricks - no other image quite evokes the sheer bloodyminded compulsiveness necessary to see the wretched things through to publication). In practice, I am encouraging students to finish more quickly (I finished my own diss slightly unexpectedly quickly and went on the job market for the first time with the degree actually in hand, which is relatively unusual in my field), but I have seen some careers crash and burn on the basis of a prestigious job offer when only 2 chapters are written. Also, of course, there often are mundane but pressing questions about health insurance, visas, etc. that offer incentives NOT to finish - I think this is very misguided, there should be a lot more CASH incentives to finish (surely if graduate schools starting offering $2000 completion bonuses and an additional year of health insurance, they would be able to reduce time to degree? though actually I think the psychic forces mitigating against completion are strong enough that even cold hard cash wouldn't always do it - but it couldn't hurt, and it would be a drop in the bucket of what universities spend on their graduate students...).

it said...

I've just read Nina Power's MS of One-Dimensional Woman

This makes my palms sweat...

Portia Saunders said...

I suggest bookkeeper, preferably in a small plumbing or electrical supply business. You wouldn't have to answer the phone. You'd have an office that people could see into, but they wouldn't bother because you'd keep your head down: have a wedding ring, a forgettable wardrobe and an American accent that few could decipher. You'd also be honest and reliable, and no one would know that you were an author of note, nor would they care much, or quite understand, if ever so informed.

Portia Saunders said...

oops. the above was meant for bonkers.

G.P. Butler said...


Your description reminds me of the main character in the novel "The Elegance of the Hedgehog". I read the English translation. Its a great book about a genius working as a concierge in a snooty French apartment building. For various reasons, she wants to keep her brains a secret, and the mystery is whether the building's other genius will ever discover her.

Portia Saunders said...

Would you believe it? Portia's lit crit axiom #1: never trust a French novel with "Hedgehog" in the title.