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.

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.

The Subway Car’s Daily Dose Of Culture

My train ride into Manhattan today reminded me that yesterday’s lament about the possible lack of adequate ‘cultural consumption’ in my life in this city was sorely missing one aspect of my urban experience: the culture that this city’s residents  experience and ‘live’ by the mere fact of being in this city.

This morning, I dropped my daughter off at her daycare (one run by a very hard-working and well-organized Haitian lady) and then caught the uptown Q.  To describe that train’s usual complement of passengers as a veritable United Nations is a running cliché in Brooklyn; this morning was no exception. (The Q starts at Coney Island and terminates in Queens.) I could hear at least four different languages–Russian, Spanish, Bengali, English–around me as I sought a position in my crowded car. Having secured one, I opened up my book and began reading.

Distractions came easily. Standing next to me, and leaning against the subway pole in a manner that might soon require a reminder in subway etiquette from a subway rider more cranky than me, a young, fashionably dressed Orthodox woman read the Torah, swaying her body as her lips moved. Across from her, a thirty-something hipster, inadequately dressed for the cold, his lips, nose, and ears a bright scarlet, began loudly muttering to himself. A young couple, one standing, the other seated, held hands, and gazed soulfully into each others eyes, perhaps preparing themselves for the moment when the intended destination for one of them would induce a tearful and kiss-inducing separation. And so on. (For some reason, morning rush-hour trains do not feature, quite as often, the musical performers, break dancers, and various panhandlers who are a near-constant accompaniment in the evening hours.)

Such descriptions of the ethnic, cultural, and psychological diversity found in a New York City subway car have the status of cliché now: Oh look, so many different ‘types’ of folks and behaviors! How interesting! How fascinating! For all of that, the resultant edification remains the same as it ever was.

The substantive point here, of course, is that such experiences constitute a very distinct and pleasurable kind of cultural phenomena; they are not second-rate or low in comparison to attendances at classical music concerts, museums, ballets, operas and the like. They enable an education; they refine our senses; they introduce us to distinct ways of living (I have observed many, many, diverse techniques of wooing, childcare, passive and overt aggressiveness, reading, listening to music, and the like on subway cars). They bring us into contact, sometimes a little too closely of course, with those we share our urban spaces with. Yesterday, like a good New Yorker, I complained: about the lack of time and money and attention and energy. This morning, I was reminded of other riches in my possession.

Note: As a reminder of some of the mixed blessings of a subway ride, as my train pulled into the 34th Street Station in midtown Manhattan, a malodorous aroma indicating an overly rich breakfast or an upset stomach, or both, wafted around the car. The car emptied in a hurry.

Peter Gay On Bourgeois Insecurities (And Mine)

In Pleasure Wars: The Bourgeois Experience: Victoria to Freud, (WW Norton, New York, 1998) Peter Gay writes:

Only the most determined could gather up the leisure and the energy after a hard week’s toil, or for that matter the money, to haunt museums, or follow compositions in the concert hall with a score, let alone travel to improve their hazy acquaintance with what they had long prized from a distance. Their perpetual fear of social descent haunted them. Those who saved their meager assets for culture, then, were making a distinct choice of how they wanted to live, favoring beauty over beer, self-improvement over self-indulgence….To appreciate the finest in art and music is a trial for human nature; it calls for the hard work of breaking the cake of custom for the sake of discriminating pleasures running counter to the pressure for simplicity and mere relaxation in rare leisure hours.

Matters have changed little since the nineteenth century. I live in New York City, which is bursting to the seams with art, music of all stripes, opera, ballet, museums, theaters, live performances, film festivals, libraries, world-class universities–among many other sites of cultural production. And yet, thanks to my duties as a parent and a professor and the cost of living on some of the world’s most expensive real estate, I find myself, at most times, unable and unwilling to sample the pleasures of this gigantic smorgasbord of cultural offerings. Of course, I flirt with philistinism in not particularly caring for ballet, opera, or long days in museums, but you catch my drift.

Instead, on most occasions, I have to console myself that reading a book on the subway, reading an essay or two from the New York Review of Books at night in bed, or watching the products of this New Golden Age of Television i.e., an episode of a television series, is all the immersion in culture that I’m going to get. When the stars align, I watch a movie–or two!–on the weekends. At home.

The fear of “social descent” or worse, ‘intellectual’ or ‘cultural’ descent stalks me too: Surely, I should do more to pursue my cultural edification and be capable of the hard yards required to edge myself up the totem pole of “discriminating pleasure”? (Just to prove, you know, that I’m not an impostor?) That old clash between the willing spirit and the enervated flesh gets in the way: the choice of watching avant-garde cinema or a Netflix original series late at night, after my wife and I have put our daughter to bed, is rather easily settled in favor of the latter; the cost of theater tickets quickly stay the hand reaching for a wallet when thoughts of daycare expenses cross my mind.

Ironically, as a graduate student, I worked harder to ‘consume’ culture. I often  disdained ‘narrative cinema’; I worked harder to find discounts in this rapacious city; I more often preferred “self-improvement over self-indulgence.” Perhaps I was more uncomfortable in my skin then; perhaps, now, more familiar with myself, I’m content to be pushed in directions that do not call for such heroic effort.