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.

On Not Recommending One’s Choices

Recently, all too often, I catch myself saying something like the following, “I took decision X, and I have my fair share of regrets and self-congratulation about it but I would not recommend X to anyone” or “In all honesty, I couldn’t recommend that you take decision X as I did.” Or something like that: I took this path, and I’ve reconciled myself to it, but I cannot recommend that you do the same. Even with the express caveat to be prepared for mixed blessings, which would seem to provide all the ‘cover’ needed.  (The kinds of decisions I have mind included some of the most momentous of my life: immigrating, choosing a graduate education and then an academic career, entering a monogamous relationship, and having a child.)

Some of this hesitancy is, I think, quite straightforward. Many of these reasons–cultural, intellectual, psychological–are familiar and infected with a favorable assessment of ourselves and others. We are reluctant to preach and proselytize; we are modest, and think it inappropriate to convey the impression of having gotten things right; we do not want to oversell the good and we do not want to understate the bad–we do not want to brag, we do not want to whine; we want others to take on the terrible responsibility we felt when we took those decisions; we value the boundaries of the autonomous protective space that others have built up around themselves (see: ‘reluctance to preach…’ above.). And lastly, I think, a less exalted, but related, reason: we do not want to saddled with the burden of having pointed out the path to someone, we do not want to be ‘blamed’ when things go wrong.  (There are dozens of web sites, or at least pages, which are dedicated to getting ‘modern, sensitive’ parents to overcome their loathing to preach to their kids, urging them to ‘just do it’ and ‘say something’; don’t be afraid of being a ‘hypocrite’ or a ‘preacher’ if your child’s safety is at stake, and so on.)

I experience my hesitancy as grounded in all these reasons, of course. But there is also another quite fundamental grounds as explanation for my–and possibly others’–failure to preach. I am never quite sure if my interlocutor and I are talking about precisely the same thing: too many dimensions and facets of their existential choices remain hidden, unclear, or ambiguous to me. I do not know whether all the paths of conduct that are entailed by these decisions are understood as such by them; I do not know if they mean, or refer to, the same objects and states and affairs as I do. These differences, always minor in the context of conversations with most we know, acquire an added facet when we encounter something like a truly crucial choice–made by someone else, another possessor of a unique, only partially accessible perspective.

That is, much like in another state of ignorance that I described in an earlier post about not interfering with others’ self-conceptions, I am reluctant to act for fear of blundering into an unknown space with inadequate navigational aid.

‘Don’t Call Me A Philosopher’

I cringe, I wince, when I hear someone refer to me as a ‘philosopher.’ I never use that description for myself. Instead, I prefer locutions like, “I teach philosophy at the City University of New York”, or “I am a professor of philosophy.” This is especially the case if someone asks me, “Are you a philosopher?”. In that case, my reply begins, “Well, I am a professor of philosophy…”. Once, one of my undergraduate students asked me, “Professor, what made you become a philosopher?” And I replied, “Well, I don’t know if I would go so far as to call myself a philosopher, though I did get a Ph.D in it, and…”. You get the picture.

I’m not sure why this is the case. I think folks that have Ph.Ds in mathematics or physics or economics and who teach those subjects and produce academic works in those domains have no hesitation in calling themselves mathematicians or physicists or economists.

Part of the problem, of course, is that in our day and age, in our culture, ‘philosopher’ has come to stand for some kind of willful pedant, a non-productive member of society, content to not contribute to the Gross Domestic Product but to merely stand on the sidelines and take potshots at those who actually produce value. The hair-splitter, the boringly didactic drone. (Once, shortly after a friend and I had finished watching Once Were Warriors, we began a discussion of its merits. As I began pointing out that the director’s explicit depiction of violence toward women might have been necessary to drive home a broader point about the degradation of Maori culture, my friend interrupted, “There you go, being philosophical again! Can’t you just keep things simple?”).

But this modern disdain for the ‘philosopher’, this assessment of her uselessness, her unemployability, is not the only reason that I shrink from being termed one. There is another pole of opinion that I tend toward: ‘philosopher’ sounds a little too exalted, a little too lofty; it sounds insufferably pompous. It comes packaged with too many pretensions, too many claims to intellectual rectitude and hygiene. Far too often, that title has served as cover for too many sorts of intellectual prejudice. To describe myself thus or allow someone else to do would be to permit a placement on a pedestal of sorts, one I’m not comfortable occupying. (This situation has not been helped by the fact that when someone has described me thus in company, others have giggled and said “Oh, you’re a philosopher now?” – as if I had rather grandiosely allowed such a title to be assigned to me.)

This discomfort arises in part from my self-assessment of intellectual worth, of course. I do not think I am sufficiently well-read in the philosophical literature; there are huge, gaping, gaps in my education. I remain blithely unaware of the contours of many philosophical debates and traditions; the number of classics that I keep reminding myself I have to stop merely quoting and citing and actually read just keeps on growing. I do not write clearly or prolifically enough.  And so on. (Some of these feelings should be familiar to many of my colleagues in the academic world.)

For the time being, I’m happy enough to make do with the opportunity that I’ve been offered to be able to read, write, and teach philosophy. The titles can wait.

On Not ‘Interfering’ With Others’ Self-Conceptions

Sometimes, when I talk to friends, I hear them say things that to my ears sound like diminishments of themselves: “I don’t have the–intellectual or emotional or moral–quality X” or “I am not as good as Y when it comes to X.” They sound resigned to this self-description, this self-understanding. I think I see things differently; I think I see ample evidence of the very quality they seem to find lacking in themselves. Sometimes, I act on this differing assessment of mine, and rush to inform them they are mistaken. They are my friends; their lowered opinion of themselves must hurt them, in their relationships with others, in their ability to do the best they can for themselves. I should ‘help.’ It seems like the right thing to do. (This goes the other way too; sometimes my friends offer me instant correctives to putatively disparaging remarks I make about myself.)

But on occasion, I bite my tongue. I have heard this assessment too many times from this person. My previous interjections and interventions have had no effect. They are caught up in this conception of themselves; when they look in a mirror they know what they see–or want to see. And this recalcitrance of theirs makes me wonder whether my swooping in on from high will have any efficacy, and even more fundamentally, whether it is even warranted or desirable.

My friends are complex creatures, as all humans are. We encounter diverse personas in them, tips of icebergs we too often mistake for the not-visible mass that lurks below the water. They have constructed their selves over an extended period of time. Its components have been assembled by a process whose details are unknown to the rest of us. The self-assessments they offer me are their glimpses of this self, and they are part of this ongoing process of self construction. But my view is a partial one, occluded by all kinds of boundaries and barriers–physical and psychological. I do not know what role is played by this kind of self-assessment in their psychic economy.

Perhaps they use this kind of lowered ranking of themselves as a spur to improvement, as a warning against complacency, as a spark that lights some fuse. Perhaps making this concession, here, to a nagging doubt that they have entertained about their self-worth, allows them to offer more inflated assessments of themselves in other domains, ones in which a more exalted rating enables more of their lives’ ends and purposes to be realized. As therapists–and their patients–are fond of saying, we are the way we are because in some shape or fashion this is how we choose to be; this is what works for us, even if not for others. Some value of ours, even if it is not one esteemed by others, is preserved by so doing. Perhaps there is a payoff visible to my friends who talk thus, even if not to me.

And so, I wonder if I really should rush in to interfere with this project underway, a unique and distinctive one.


Don’t Tell Me What You Think of Me

Over at the Anxiety blog at The New York Times Tim Kreider gives voice to a common fear, that of finding out what other people really, really think of us:

I’ve often thought that the single most devastating cyberattack a diabolical and anarchic mind could design would not be on the military or financial sector but simply to simultaneously make every e-mail and text ever sent universally public. It would be like suddenly subtracting the strong nuclear force from the universe; the fabric of society would instantly evaporate, every marriage, friendship and business partnership dissolved. Civilization, which is held together by a fragile web of tactful phrasing, polite omissions and white lies, would collapse in an apocalypse of bitter recriminations and weeping, breakups and fistfights, divorces and bankruptcies, scandals and resignations, blood feuds, litigation, wholesale slaughter in the streets and lingering ill will…. Hearing other people’s uncensored opinions of you is an unpleasant reminder that you’re just another person in the world, and everyone else does not always view you in the forgiving light that you hope they do, making all allowances, always on your side. There’s something existentially alarming about finding out how little room we occupy, and how little allegiance we command, in other people’s heads.

Kreider is on the money here, of course. The thought of finding out how others refer to us in our absence, how even those who have most cause to adore us still do not so unreservedly, is enough to fill any reasonable human’s heart with dread. That terror generally finds its grounding both in an overly optimistic assessment of our worth and in an unrealistic desire to not rest content till we have attained a suitably high position in the ranking of the ‘rest.’ As Bertrand Russell noted in opening his chapter on ‘Fear of Public Opinion’ in The Conquest of Happiness:

Very few people can be happy unless on the whole their way of life and their outlook on the world is approved by those with whom they have social relations, and more especially with whom they live.

As a personally memorable instance of a variant of this behavior, after I received a teaching evaluation in which twenty-four out of twenty-five students answered ‘Yes’ to the question ‘Would you recommend this instructor to other students?’ I spent a considerable amount of time during my next lecture tormenting myself wondering about the identity of the exception to the rule. (And like Kreider, I’ve read emails not meant for my eyes in which friends of mine have expressed considerably unflattering opinions of me; some of those people are still my friends.)

I have long tried to insulate myself from the disappointment of the discovery that I’m not universally adored and the crushing horror of universal loathing by ceaseless repetition of the mantra that no one quite likes or dislikes me as much as I might imagine. This reminder of the ‘golden mean‘ of public opinion only has limited effectiveness; like the folks I refer to above, I retreat a little too easily into delusional comforts.

Addendum 6/24/2013: A discussion with David Post on Facebook suggests to me that my use of ‘reasonable’ in ‘..any reasonable human’s heart..” is confusing. I’m going to leave it up there but it really should just read ‘..human’s heart..”.

A Nerdy Break-Up: Leaving the Academic Life

In the past few weeks I have had several conversations–electronic and face-to-face–with folks–friends and acquaintances–that have walked away from academic careers. Though I do not have numbers to back this up, it seems such departures have become increasingly common in the modern academy. The reasons have been varied: bad job markets (some things never change; in my first two years of job hunting, I sent out one hundred and fourteen applications, received precisely zero interview calls, and almost quit right then and there), a reluctance to live in particular locales or more generally, pursue an endlessly nomadic existence, income, and sometimes, frustration with work environments (i.e., the whole package: troubles with publishing, professional recognition and acceptance etc.)

In each case, my interlocutors have expressed considerable angst about their decision: sometimes they miss the teaching and their extended personal contact with their students, sometimes they wonder about their intellectual self-worth (Does this prove that I really was a poser all long, and if so, should I have gotten out earlier?), and sometimes they worry about their supposed lack of ‘backbone’ (Should have I stayed and ‘toughed it out’?). But in each case too, I sensed a contentment at a difficult decision finally made. This contentment has come about for different reasons: a better salary, a more rewarding work environment, and lowered levels of stress being among the most prominent.

Still, their cognitive dissonance about their decision is not insignificant. Change is difficult; deviation from a life path that required so much investment of energy, time and emotion even more so. Perhaps, for the budding academic, this dissonance is even more intense, because of the intense identification with the identity of the academic.  And worries about intellectual self-worth are endemic among academics; rare is the academic who is able to fully overcome insecurities in this domain (and indeed, it contributes to some of the worst aspects of posturing at fora such as conferences, seminars, meetings, job interviews etc).

But perhaps the most insidious component of the dissonance generated by the decision to leave academia is the worry that this decision shows a lack of resilience. How is one to console oneself that the decision made was the right one, that it did not mean a walking away from a long-held dream, one perhaps too hastily made, that in doing so, one did not betray oneself? Slogans like ‘obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal’ seem to militate against such a decision: the right thing to do is to hang in there, grimly determined. Because if you do ‘cop out,’ then not only do you find out that you didn’t have the bottle, you find out in fact, you didn’t really want it enough, and might as well not have wasted your time in taking so long to find out. So goes the gruesome indictment.

It isn’t a coincidence these worries are almost identical to those entertained by participants in an extended  burial of a long-standing romantic relationship. That shouldn’t be surprising; making the painful decision to leave the academic life, for some, might not just mean changing professions, it can mean a fundamental recasting of one’s self-conceptions. Nothing quite does that like the old-fashioned break-up.