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 Dependence Of Autobiography On Biography (And Vice-Versa)

A few weeks ago, I briefly spoke at a conference hosted in honor of my dissertation advisor’s eightieth birthday. In my talk I offered some personal recollections of having worked with Distinguished Professor Rohit Parikh, his intellectual influence on me, and the various lessons–personal, technical, moral–that I learned along the way from him. As I began my talk, I apologized for what I described as the ‘self-indulgent’ nature of the talk. After all, even though the talk was about Professor Parikh, it would keep me center-stage at all times; I was as much a character as him. The stories I would tell my audience were about him and me; they would describe my passage through my dissertation, my post-doctoral fellowship, and then later, my work as a faculty member of the City University of New York, all the while informed by my advisor’s presence. (And indeed, I found myself telling tales of my first encounter with my advisor, my decision to work on a dissertation topic that spun off from one of his papers, my struggles to become more mathematically proficient, the shaping of my philosophical world-view through the many discussions and conversations we had, and the various insights into mathematical method, the philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein, and the nature of logic and knowledge that I gleaned over the years from him. I recalled memorable lines, jokes, profundities; I briefly mentioned our political differences.)

As part of my ‘apology’ therefore, I said that in trying to provide a biography of someone I had interacted with over an extended period of time, it was necessary to provide an autobiography as well. I went on to note that this was not surprising: after all, the recountings of our autobiographies must necessarily call on the biographies of others to be made complete. Our lives are not lived in isolation; they inform, interact with, and impinge upon, many other lives. We form relationships with others; we enter into them, and move on out again; they take us from station to station. The stories of our lives, thus, are also the stories of many others’: friends, lovers, enemies, teachers.

Biography and autobiography are fickle genres of story-telling; they rely on memory, and are infected throughout by all kinds of prejudice. The interaction between the two I describe here shows how these errors may accumulate: my autobiography might distort the biography of others. I might cast myself in a more favorable light, paint myself as more virtuous when contrasted with others; if my autobiography is relied upon as a biographical source for others’ lives, these errors will be perpetuated. In the particular forum in which I was recounting my ‘autobiography’ a converse possibility existed: that I would be corrected by the very person whom I was speaking about; my advisor could have raised his hand at some point and told me that he remembered additional details that I had forgotten, or that I had gotten some quote or location or time wrong.

No man is an island and all that.

On Surviving A Police Stop (Unlike Terence Crutcher)

One morning in the winter of 1989, after finishing up a short trip to Binghamton, NY with a pair of friends, I was driving back to my home in New Jersey. Rather, I was dozing in the front passenger seat after having performed my share of driving duties. I was jolted out of my slumbers by the awareness that we had come to an abrupt halt; some excitement seemed afoot. On groggily inquiring into the reasons for our stopping, I learned we had been pulled over by a state trooper for speeding. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘now we’re going to have to go through that old driver’s-licence-registration-insurance bullshit; but at least it won’t be me getting a ticket and two points on my driving record.’ I settled back drowsily in my car as the trooper walked over, asked for the windows to be rolled down, demanded our papers, and walked back to his car to run the appropriate checks.

A few seconds later, I was jolted out of my complacency. The trooper was now standing next to his car, pointing a gun at ours, while loudly yelling for us to get out of the car with our hands up. We stared at each other dumbfounded, a collective what-the-fuck informing our facial expressions. Even as we asked each other what the problem could be, we scrambled out of the car. It was December in upstate New York; we were wearing thin sweatshirts, and in the haste, forgot to put on our jackets. Our hands held high, shivering instantly as our formerly protected bodies encountered the freezing air, we stood next to the car, a large-caliber handgun pointed at our heads. The trooper ordered the three of us to turn around and put our hands on the car. We complied again even as the freezing metal made our fingers and hands almost instantly numb. I was scared and confused; we all were. Why was a state trooper pointing a gun at us? What had we done wrong? Our panic steadily mounted. We were frightened and freezing, an armed man was threatening to shoot us if we did not follow his orders precisely.

Suddenly, the trooper yelled, “Keep your hands in sight!”As he did so, my roommate, standing next to me, frantically pushed his hands inside the car window. As he did so, the trooper screamed again, “Keep your hands in sight!” Turning slightly, with my hands still raised, I whispered, “Take your hands out!” He complied. A few minutes later, two more trooper cars arrived; we were handcuffed, pushed into the back of the squad car, and hauled off to the local precinct station. The car rental agency had reported our rental stolen, having made the clerical error of not having taken the car off the ‘overdue’ list even though it had been returned by the previous truant client. A few hours later, we were released. An embarrassing fiasco, you will agree. We considered ourselves unlucky and aggrieved; we could have sued for the distress and discomfort caused us.

But in point of fact, we had been lucky, very lucky. We were brown men; we spoke English in accents. We hadn’t been black. Had we been, I wonder if my roommate, who had misheard the troopers directives, and I, who spoke to him–out of turn–during his misunderstanding, would have made it out alive.

Terence Crutcher was a black man. His car broke down on the road. The police showed up. He expected help; they shot him dead. He didn’t get lucky. Just like too many other black men when they encounter the police.

On Driving Drunk: Bloody Idiot

In the terrible, often carefully hidden, mental category of ‘things I have done in the past that I am not proud of, and indeed ashamed of,’ my driving drunk–on many occasions–must take dubious pride of place.

I learned to drive as a teenager, and often drove during my college years–through New Delhi’s even-then chaotic roads–borrowing our family car from my mother. These were short trips, and I did not ever, it seems, drive to and from a party where alcohol was consumed. Matters changed once I moved to the US for graduate school.

Shortly after I secured myself my first teaching and research assistantship, I decided the time had come to buy a second-hand car for commuting. I bought a Toyota Corolla, and used it to drive to campus, to my classes and my work at a campus research lab. I also used it to drive back home after an evening spent drinking in pubs–either on or off campus.

I was not a light drinker (international students were notoriously prone to heavy drinking.) I drank beer by the pitcher; I liked to keep drinking till I could tell the alcohol had changed my perception of myself, the people I was surrounded by, the world I lived in, my take on states of affairs around me. That is, I drank till I was good and drunk. As I continued to drink, I would discover the wisdom of the old adage, ‘you don’t buy beer, you rent it.’ And then, when I was done drinking–in all probability, because I had run out of money, or because the campus pub was closing, or because I had become ravenously hungry–I would stagger out, head for the parking lot, get into my car, and drive home.

This pattern continued after I began working at Bell Laboratories in Middletown, New Jersey. I drove thirty miles each way to work–in a Toyota pick-up truck–and often went out for drinks after work with my colleagues. We drank beer for hours, and sometimes closed out the night with a whisky or two. We snacked during our drinking–something I did not do in my graduate school days–but there was no doubt that our BAC was still alarmingly high when we left to go home.

I never got pulled over; my only ticket for speeding came when I was stone cold sober. I never ran across a DWI check on a local road. I got lucky, very lucky. But I flirted with death and negligent homicide nevertheless. Two horrifying recollections from that period: on one occasion, I drove into the divider on a state route, badly damaging my front tires; somehow, I managed to pull the car to the side of the road, walk to a pay phone, and call a tow truck before a police car showed up. On another, I woke up in the morning, unable to remember where I had parked my car.

I do not know why so many of ‘us’ drove drunk. We were young and male, and that had something to do with it. Bad things happened to other people, not to us; and besides, we knew what we were doing. Or so we thought. Drunk driving was not approved of by many around us; but we forgot about that social norm once we were three sheets to the wind. One of us got busted for drunk driving, and lost his license; he was a repeat offender. We clucked our tongues and went right on driving drunk. Sometimes, I would chastise myself and resolve not to do it again. But I think I broke down all too often.

Shortly before I quit my job and went back to graduate school, I sold my truck. Thanks to insurance hassles, I was sick of driving that damn thing. And I was going to go live in New York City; I did not need a car. From that point on, a night of drinking would end with me in a subway car, or, when I could afford it, a cab. And when I didn’t drive, the horror of what I had done in the days when I drove drunk sank in.

But nothing quite reminded me of the distance I had come and of the catastrophes I had been singularly fortunate in avoiding like a Brooklyn College student’s thesis, written on the topic of New York State’s efforts to combat drunk driving–through a combination of laws, market pressure, and social norms. She was writing it in memory of her uncle, killed by a drunk driver on a highway. Sitting in my office, talking to her as she struggled to maintain her composure while she explained the impact of that tragedy on her father, her family, her cousins, I confessed to having been a drunk driver in my past, even as I could not look her in the eyes.

Never again.

Note: The title of this post is derived from an Australian anti-drunk driving campaign slogan: If you drink and drive, you’re a bloody idiot.

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.

A Memento Of Fellow Travelers, Long Since Moved On

I have in my possession, one photograph of the only graduation (‘commencement’) ceremony I have ever attended–that for my first graduate degree, in ‘computer and information science.’ (I did not want to attend the ceremony, expecting it to be tedious in the extreme–it was–but I did want to send a keepsake back to my mother in India, to let her know that her saving and scrimping had paid off, that I had not, as I had once feared, completely lost the plot and crashed and burned out of this new venture.)

In it, I am flanked by two young men, both undergraduates, and yet, among my closest, if not closest, friends then.One of them, ‘M’ is grinning broadly at the camera, positively beaming, still clasping his textbooks tightly, holding them close to his chest–he had come to campus that day to attend classes, and then, on realizing it was my graduation, had decided to join me in my celebrations. The other, ‘J,’ is also smiling, but with a difference; he is impatient, he wants the photographer to hurry up and get on with it. It is freezing cold, and J’s usual skimpy leather jacket, good for showing wimps how real men dressed for the East Coast winter, is simply not up to the task of keeping him warm through repeated poses for a shot.

‘J’ and ‘M’ were both engineering students; the former studied civil engineering, the latter, computer engineering. They were both good students, serious about their work, driven and ambitious; they both looked ahead to life after school. We all worked as peer counselors, and we spent many of our non-working hours together in the school pub, diligently working through one pitcher of beer after another, a combination of activities which led to raised eyebrows and some snickers. (Our conversations had a political flavor to them; ‘M’ was a black radical; ‘J’ a patriotic anti-commie, I was still finding my political feet, finding many of my older political certainties rudely disturbed after arrival in the US.)

‘M’ was Haitian-American, ‘J’ is Cuban-American; we were black, brown, and white. We all spoke second languages; we all had anchors of one kind or the other in lands outside the US. We were an odd trio; some called us ‘The Three Musketeers,’  others ‘The Terrible Trio,’ some just called us Black-Brown-n-White. They were, along with another Cuban friend of mine, the first serious friends I made in America. Through them, I experienced a slice of life which would have been denied me if I had confined myself to the usual graduate student life: meals with roommates, seminars, working on campus labs etc. My grades suffered, I’m sure, thanks to these escapades, but I wouldn’t do things differently if I had to. They elevated what could have been a life confined to the daily, the mundane, the weekday, into something far more variegated; they helped me look under, over, and around the fairly conventional surface of an international graduate student’s life on my campus. (Which was, at the best of times, obsessed with merely getting through the day, the week, the semester; at its worst, you struggled against the persistent racism on campus.) They were a crucial component my introduction to life in America; my ‘American imagination,’ such as it is, was formed in conjunction and co-operation with them.

It would be the last photograph of the three of us together. No one died; but we all moved away and on. All of us, I think, have mementos and markers like this, reminding us of times and peoples gone by, stations and co-riders on this journey we are still undertaking.