The Academic’s Peculiar Dissonance

The academic state of mind is distinguished, I think, by a peculiar kind of dissonance; the academic is able to entertain two conflicting states of being simultaneously; each informs the other and brings to it its peculiar intensity and torment.

At one end of its affective and emotional spectrum lies the well-known impostor syndrome: the academic worries that he or she is a fraud, unsuited to the rigorous demands of the profession that their life’s choices have brought them to; they are besides themselves with anxiety that one day they will be ‘found out’ or worse, that they will go through the rest of their lives living out this charade, one in which they have managed to somehow convince others–by a toxic combination of lies and artifice and outright dishonesty–that they are purveyors of knowledge, skilled and educated beyond the imaginings of most. They are shocked and surprised and intimidated by the blustering displays of knowledge that their fellow academics subject them to; they examine their own achievements and find them wanting in every dimension when compared with those of their colleagues and other contemporaries; they find that academic life, rather than providing for occasions in which their knowledge will be on display instead provides one forum after the other in which they find out just how much they don’t know; they enter a bookstore and retreat, intimidated by the talents on display; they are convinced their ability will never match up to all those who seem to effortlessly master domains of knowledge they themselves can only nibble at.

At the other end of the spectrum lies what I will call the ‘frustrated and unrecognized genius syndrome’: the academic is convinced that the world has failed to adequately recognize his unique and distinctive talents and knowledge, all the while paying obeisance and elevating to the highest reaches of their profession charlatans of all stripes. They look on with barely contained frustration and anger as accolades and recognition are funneled and channeled to those they consider unworthy; they consider themselves cheated by the vagaries of the fortunes of the academic world; their books and articles are unread, unremarked, uncited, falling stillborn from the press to be embalmed on the dusty shelves of libraries, while those of utter nincompoops are elevated to the status of icons; they look back on their intellectual careers and remark on its many contingent occurrences that could have, with a slight twist or two, catapulted them into those very zones whose air they yearn to breathe. They are always on the cusp of ‘making it’; but they never do; and they remain convinced that if only the chips had fallen in the right way, they would be where those they consider unworthy reside instead. Fate and fortune have been cruel; accursed is this world and its ways. A prophet is never recognized in his day and age.

This is an uncomfortable state of affairs at best; it afflicts students and professors alike. It infects the life of the mind with its own distinctive anxieties and neuroses; it may account for some of the depressing statistics pertaining to mental health in the profession.

Hug an academic today. Or not.

The Acknowledgments Section As Venue For Disgruntlement

In The Revolutionary Career of Maximilien Robespierre  (University of Chicago Press, 1985) David P. Jordan writes in the ‘Acknowledgments’ section:

With the exception of the Humanities Institute of the University of Illinois at Chicago, whose fellowship gave me the leisure to rethink and rewrite, no fund or foundation, agency or institution, whether public or private local or national, thought a book on Robespierre worthy of support. [pp xi-xii; citation added]

Shortly after I had defended my doctoral dissertation, I got down to the pleasant–even if at times irritatingly bureaucratic–process of depositing a copy with the CUNY Graduate Center’s Mina Rees Library. The official deposited copy of the dissertation required the usual accouterments: a title page, a page for the signatures of the dissertation committee, an abstract page, an optional page for a dedication, and lastly, the acknowledgements. The first four of these were easily composed–I dedicated my dissertation to my parents–but the fifth one, the acknowledgements, took a little work.

In part, this was because I did not want to be ungracious and not make note of those who had tendered me considerable assistance in my long and tortuous journey through the dissertation. I thanked the usual suspects–my dissertation adviser, various members of the faculty, many friends, and of course, family. I restricted myself to a page–I continue to think multi-page acknowledgments are a tad self-indulgent–and did not try to hard to be witty or too effusive in the thanks I expressed.

And then, I thought of sneaking in a snarky line that went as follows:

Many thanks to the City University of New York which taught me how to make do with very little.

I was still disgruntled by the lack of adequate financial support through my graduate studies: fellowships and assistantships had been hard to come by; occasional tuition remissions had somewhat sweetened the deal, but I had often had to pay full resident tuition for a semester; and like many other CUNY graduate students, I had found myself teaching too many classes as an underpaid adjunct over the years. I was disgruntled too, by the poor infrastructure that my cohort contended with: inadequate library and computing resources were foremost among these. (During the last two years of my dissertation, I taught at NYU’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies and so had access to the Bobst Library and NYU’s computing facilities; these made my life much easier.)

In the end, I decided against it; my dissertation was over and done with, and I wanted to move on. A parting shot like the one above would have made felt like I still harbored resentments, unresolved business of a kind. More to the point, the Graduate Center, by generously allowing to me enroll as a non-matriculate student eight years previously, had taken a chance on me, and kickstarted my academic career. For that, I was still grateful.

I deleted the line, and deposited the dissertation.

Note #1: An academic colleague who finished his dissertation around the time I did dedicated his dissertation to his three-year old son as follows:

Dedicated to ‘T’ without whom this dissertation would have been finished much earlier.

Fair enough.

My First Academic Conference

The first academic conference I attended was the 1999 Annual Meeting of the Association of Symbolic Logic, held at the University of California at San Diego. I submitted an abstract for a presentation, which was accepted, and so off I went, hoping to gain ‘experience’ and ‘exposure.’ My paper was based on part of my then in-progress dissertation; to be more precise, it presented the first model of belief revision I was currently working on with my thesis advisor.

I  had applied for, and received, some limited funds for travel–these barely covered the flight to San Diego and did not help with car rental fees. (I had arranged housing with a philosophy graduate student at UCSD.) I arrived in San Diego, picked up my rental car, and drove to my host’s place. The next morning the conference began, and so did my disorientation.

First, I was in the wrong conference. This meeting’s attendance was mostly comprised of mathematical logicians (set theorists, model theorists, proof theorists, recursion theorists, complexity theorists, and the like) – no one was likely to be interested in the model of belief revision I was presenting. It was simply not interesting enough, at the formal and mathematical level, for this crowd. And its philosophical underpinnings and motivations were hardly likely to be of interest either; those features were not the sorts of things mathematical logicians looked for in the formal work that was being presented that weekend.

Second,  as a related consequence, I knew no one.  This was an academic community I had no previous contact with–I knew no faculty or graduate students in it. I wandered around the halls and rooms, occasionally striking up brief conversations with students, sometimes introducing myself to faculty. My thesis adviser was known to some of the faculty I introduced myself to; this fact allowed for some useful ice-breaking in conversations. (I also managed to embarrass myself by pushing copies of my paper into some hands.) But mostly, I stayed on the peripheries of these social spaces.

Third, the subject matter of the talks was utterly unfamiliar and incomprehensible. I had studied some logic, but I was an amateur yet. And the inclinations of the mathematical logicians who comprised the primary attendance at this conference were pitched entirely differently from the philosophical logic I had been exposed to: their work was almost entirely concerned with the mathematical properties of the frameworks they worked on. I attended a couple of talks, but all too soon, bewildered and bored, I gave up.

I did not feel I belonged. Not here, not at any academic conference. I was intimidated and made diffident; my doubts about my choice of career and dissertation topic grew. By the second day of the conference, this feeling had grown worse, not ideal preparation for my talk. Quaking in my boots at the thought of being exposed to a grilling by a heavy hitter in the audience, my nervousness knew few bounds. Fortunately, the worst case did not eventuate; I put up my slides, described the work underway, answered a perfunctory question or two, and walked off the ‘stage,’ relieved. 

That year, the final year of my dissertation work, I attended three more conferences–a graduate student meeting at Brown, and international professional conferences in Sweden and Greece. By the end of the summer, I was a little more comfortable in my skin at these spaces. One such attendance almost certainly helped secure me a post-doctoral fellowship. (Yet another saw me lost again among mathematical logicians.)

Over the years, I’ve attended many more. But I never got really comfortable with conferences; I never felt like I fitted in. Now, I don’t go to conferences any more; the travel sounds interesting, but the talks, the questions and answer sessions, the social schmoozing, the dinners, (and the conference fees!) don’t sound enticing. I prefer smaller-scale, more personally pitched interactions with my fellow academics.  But perhaps a suitable conference venue–with mountains close by–will overcome this reticence.

Fearing Tenure: The Loss Of Community

In ‘The Clouded Prism: Minority Critique of the Critical Legal Studies Movement‘, Harlan L. Dalton wrote:

I take it that everyone drawn to CLS is interested in specifying in concrete terms the dichotomy between autonomy and community. If so, talk to us. Talk TO us. Listen to us. We have lots to say, out of the depths of our own experiences. For many of us, our sense of community is a strength, a resource, something we struggle to hang onto, sometimes in the most peculiar ways, especially when the pull of autonomy is strongest. The day that I am awarded tenure, should that happy event occur, any pleasure that I experience will be more than offset by the extreme panic that I’m sure will set in; I will worry that I have been propelled (or more  honestly that I have wittingly, selfishly and self-destructively propelled myself) two steps further away from so much that has nurtured me for so long. Even for those of us who have revelled in the sense of connectedness that, paradoxically, racial oppression has conferred upon us, there is a kicker: we don’t have any choice in the matter. We can’t choose to be a part of the community; we can’t choose not to be a part of the community.

When I first read these lines, I was reminded of a conversation that used to recur in some of my therapeutic sessions: Why would you shrink from that which you most–supposedly–desire?

Some insight may be found in Dalton’s confession. Tenure would mean not being part of a ‘community’, membership in which, while a reminder of exclusion from another, was also a belonging in a very particular way. It meant the enjoyment of a very distinctive camaraderie, the dwelling in a state of being that had its own rewards.

I will not attempt to speak for Dalton’s experiences so let me just briefly address my own. Gaining tenure meant the end of a ‘struggle’; it meant the end of a state in which I had a very ‘clear and distinct’ goal, a terminus of achievement, one that had established yardsticks and baselines for me, calibrating my ‘progress’ and reminding me of how far I had come and how far I still had to go. I saw myself as member of a group marked by its presence in the margins, by its distance from the center, by a vaguely heroic air of struggle against economic, intellectual, and even political barriers. We were the untenured, the ‘assistant professors’; we had secured the prize of a tenure-track position, but we were still ‘battlers.’ I had trajectories to follow, and I had fellow-travelers. My lot was sympathized with; many were solicitous of the state of my journey, my distance from its destination. I was assured of celebrations and revelries were I to cross the finish line. I could look ahead and see the goal; I could feel my cohort around me, propping me up.

In the midst of all this, even as I desired that onward and upward movement, I knew what I would leave behind: a time and a place in which I was in possession of that dearest of things, a clear and unstinting purpose.

I am well-aware that a reflection like this, in the context of today’s job market, is an extremely self-indulgent one. I write it only to highlight the ironic and puzzling nature of the situations that Dalton and those in therapy might find themselves in, and of the artfully hidden blessings of even those portions of our lives that we might find oppressive and worth delivering ourselves from.

Of Therapy And Personal And Academic Anxieties

Reading some of the discussion sparked by Peter Railton’s Dewey Lecture has prompted me to write this post.

In the fall of 1996, I began studying for my Ph.D qualifier exams. I had worked full-time at a non-academic job for the previous year, saving up some money so that I could take a month or two off and study for my exams. I had notes, I had copies of the previous years’ exams. I was set. I began reading my way through an unofficial reading list.

As I worked, my mood swung between extreme anxiety and over-confidence. There were times I felt I would breeze through my pair of inquisitions; on other occasions, I would fight a rising tide of panic at the thought of sitting in a classroom, an empty blue-book in front of me. Sometimes, I would rise early, drink two cups of coffee, smoke a few cigarettes, look through my notes, and decide I could not read any more, just because the reading was making me anxious. Sometimes, I would check out, smoking pot all day before returning to work again the next day. Sometimes I wondered what the point of a long, endless pursuit of  a degree which would only guarantee unemployment at the end of it all was. I was lonely and isolated in my apartment; my girlfriend returned home late at night from her corporate job.

One day, I worked out in the morning, returned to my apartment, stared long and hard at the papers in front of me and burst into tears, sobbing on and off for about thirty minutes. The next day, I called a friend to ask for help.

Three years previously, shortly after I had begun graduate school, I had met my friend at a student party. Over a beer, she had told me she was in ‘therapy.’ I was surprised to hear her talk about it openly, as something she ‘needed’, which ‘kept her from going nuts.’ Then, in the fall of 1993, it had not been even six months since my mother had passed away after a long struggle with breast cancer, and I knew I was still mourning. I had often felt in the months that had passed, a melancholia that was not easily dispelled by the immersion in school and off-campus work and the long hours of drinking in bars that were my primary modalities for treating it. I had flirted with the idea of seeking help for a mood that was stubbornly resistant to being lightened, sensing that I was not in the grip of a garden variety change in mental disposition.

But therapy seemed like a cop-out. Many of my male friends spoke disparagingly of it, of the culture of whining it seemingly created, the endless childish blaming of parents for adult pathologies. Therapy seemed wimpy, not manly enough; it seemed like a solution for those not strong enough to deal with life’s adversities, who wanted to wallow instead in self-indulgent pity parties on therapists’ couches.

So I had held back, hoping I would just ‘deal with it’ and get better. But I noticed little change; I easily descended into gloom and doom; I struggled with sleep, with drinking too much, with staying in romantic relationships; I found anxiety and panic to be constant companions. I never used the d-word to describe myself, but I often suspected I was depressed.

In the fall of 1996, with my qualifier exams creating many new opportunities for questioning my self-worth, and thus further compromising my fragile sense of being held together, I had finally broken down. I went looking for help.

My friend directed me to the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy in Manhattan where, after intake interviews, I began therapy twice a week. A year later, I considered taking anti-depressant medication, and consulted a psychiatrist for an evaluation. The good doctor told me he could prescribe one of the most popular medications at the time–Prozac or Serzone. I agreed, but then, panicked, and said I didn’t want to start. I continued with my talk therapy. But it was a secret; I told no one, and continued to feel like I had ‘copped out.’ Sometimes this secrecy would require elaborate subterfuge; I would tell friends I had to leave them to ‘run an errand’, sometimes walking in the wrong direction, away from my intended train station.

A year later, I changed therapists. I had felt like I was going in circles. Much had changed; I had passed my qualifiers, passed my oral exam with distinction, and also ended my older relationship and begun a new one. It was time for a new therapist too.

I found a therapist and resumed therapy twice a week. I continued to keep my therapy a secret (from everyone except my girlfriend and my friend.) I finished my dissertation, and for the semester that I was in the US after completion, stayed with the same therapist. My move to Australia meant my therapy would be interrupted. I took this break in stride, telling myself that perhaps I could move on now, a new person in a new land.

But a few months after I had moved to Sydney, I was looking for help again. I found a therapist–a Kleinian interestingly enough–and began visiting him twice a week. I was struggling with the usual anxieties academics suffer from; these seeming ephemera jostled with my struggles with a long-distance relationship, with subterranean feelings of fear and non-belonging, and an anxiety that never vacated the basement. I crossed an important barrier when I told some good friends–including a particularly near and dear male friend–that I was in therapy; that openness felt liberating.

After I returned to New York to take up my current position, my therapy was interrupted again. Two years later, I called up my old therapist to find out if he would take me back as patient; he was agreeable, but he had moved. I gave up looking for therapists, unwilling to go through the process of finding a compatible one. Over the years, on several occasions, I would go searching for therapists, look through web pages, and even make a few phone calls. But I never went all the way. I stayed hesitant; finding a good therapist had been hard work, and I seemed unwilling to do it all over again. I wondered if a cognitive behavioral therapist might not work better for me, compared to the analytical types I had previously worked with. Some good friends of mine urged me to resume therapy, sensing from some of my pronouncements that I might need it. (My career moved along; I was tenured and became full professor, but I never stopped doubting that I belonged in this profession, never stopped suspecting that I was simply not smart enough, hard-working enough. And I never stopped missing my long-departed parents.)

I haven’t started therapy again. Perhaps I dread its ‘ramping up’ phase too much; perhaps I have convinced myself my ‘workarounds’ are adequate; perhaps I’m ‘cured.’ I’m not sure but whatever the answer, I’m glad my graduate school friend helped me out when she did, that she urged me to overcome my hesitancy and discomfort about seeking professional help, that I was able to speak openly and frankly with my friends that I had done so. I am now a father and my anxieties have not diminished; if anything, they have increased. Perhaps I will seek help again. I won’t be shy about telling my friends I’ve done so.