Stolen from Servetus

Servetus says being a scholar …

* is about having a question or questions you need to answer. Not want, need to answer. For you or for the world. Not for your tenure committee or to fill out your vita. To inform the world. To change the world. To find the truth. Your truth, whether continent or eternal.
* is about watchfulness, about seeing the detail that changes the meaning of the picture.
* is about seeing the big picture. Your big picture, no one else’s.
* is about telling people who need to know. They might not be the people who “matter,” but they still need to know.
* is about integrity, about craft, about fashioning a perfect thing.
* is about joy, about the delight in watching the mind work, about delight in watching the minds of our interlocutors work, about delight in the process of seeing students’ synapses–or our own–connect and lightbulbs go on.
* is about power. Power to determine what is real, what is important. Power to tell our OWN stories as we see fit.

I am trying to get in touch with this. I know how to teach other people to be like this but not really how to be like this. When I got back to Maringouin from New Orleans last night, I had the academic raven sit down on me again. It reminded me that being an academic (note that I am not yet saying scholar) was about repression, suppression, service, duty, drudgery, sacrifice, lobotomization, self-abnegation, drudgery, punishment, guilt, shame, hopelessness, incarceration, pain.

WHAT I LEARNED BEING A PROFESSOR

“We will not let you survive here if you cannot renounce your intellectual orientation,” is the message I have received in more than one academic job. I wanted to leave academia because of this. When I was talked into staying, one of the elements in the discussion – an element I accepted at the time, after some effort – was that I expected too much from life and had not dedicated myself sufficiently to pain. “I suffered greatly in Racine, Wisconsin. I still got my book out and managed to get hired in Jacksonville, Florida,” was the sort of sentence I listened to.

I always said helplessly, “But I do not want to live in Jacksonville, Florida. I want to live in Miami, New York, Houston, Chicago, Los Angeles, or New Orleans.”  Then people said, “Dear, dear. Do not be so snobbish. Are you interested in nothing but money?” I was unable to make people realize that it is not money I want, it is urban life, sidewalks to walk on. Urban life, an intellectual orientation, and often also college level teaching are the desires I keep trying to repress.

Notice that academia does not promise urban life, but it does promise intellectual life and college level teaching. Two out of three is the standard academic formula for good enough, and that is why I originally thought things would be all right. In the worst case scenario one would not get urban life during the academic year or week, but one could get it weekends and summers. I did not imagine renouncing the other two elements. My attempts to do enough violence to myself so that I can fit in such small spaces have not done me a great deal of good.

For academia’s sake I also repressed the desire for autonomy as a person. I accepted a situation in which one must indebt oneself to support one’s professional activities, and remains otherwise dependent for everything upon the apron strings of an institution which approves or disapproves of one and one’s small requests. This is simply unhealthy. It goes against my grain. It is worthy of further discussion (in a later post).

WHAT I LEARNED ELSEWHERE, AND ON THE MARGINS OF SCHOOL

I liked college and graduate school a lot. It was generally assumed there that one was already a scholar, and was now learning to be a better one. Upon first looking into Servetus’ post, however, I realized with wild surmise that I never realized I would be allowed to come out in public as a scholar. Scholarship, as it applied to me, was something one did secretly. When one did it in public it was to:

* prove to brunette graduate advisers that not all blonds were vapid, and then
* prove to senior male colleagues that one could publish while female.

I had learned that only other hallowed people could be scholars. The rest of us, including all women, could only put on puppet or ventriloquist performances and earn a living that way. We were to remember that the object of the game was not to produce worthwhile things, but to produce things which would be counted in a certain way. The main objective was to keep one’s health insurance.

I thought this was a very sour and negative way of being in the world. I was tired of being made fun of for my comparative lack of cynicism, however, so I became quieter and quieter. I tried to learn that this way of being in the world was not sour and negative, it was realistic, and that any attitude I would have thought more practical  was in fact self-indulgent and generally unworthy. I tried to learn that positive people are self-indulgent and unworthy. It seemed that if one first suffered enough, one would be seen as worthy at last, and not to be criticized any more for self-indulgence. It seemed that one must emulate the Velveteen Rabbit.

CONCLUSIONS

This shows that ultimately I do FEAR SUCCESS, and that the reason I fear it is that I want to live. If you succeed,  they will kill you, not just torture you, the next time they drag you off to the chambers. If you succeed, you will not have a second chance at life. Furthermore: to want to live is an insufficiently cynical attitude. Show it and you will have withering scorn heaped upon you. You have to remain in the shadows until the coast is clear. You can have a creative life so long as it is invisible. In public you must be seen to toil and suffer. Only this way will you be allowed to continue to live.

Let us now sweep all of this away. Écoutez et répétez. Not only scholarship, but also life:

* is about having a question or questions you need to answer. Not want, need to answer. For you or for the world. Not for your tenure committee or to fill out your vita. To inform the world. To change the world. To find the truth. Your truth, whether continent or eternal.
* is about watchfulness, about seeing the detail that changes the meaning of the picture.
* is about seeing the big picture. Your big picture, no one else’s.
* is about telling people who need to know. They might not be the people who “matter,” but they still need to know.
* is about integrity, about craft, about fashioning a perfect thing.
* is about joy, about the delight in watching the mind work, about delight in watching the minds of our interlocutors work, about delight in the process of seeing students’ synapses–or our own–connect and lightbulbs go on.
* is about power. Power to determine what is real, what is important. Power to tell our OWN stories as we see fit.

Axé.

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14 Comments

Filed under What Is A Scholar?

14 responses to “Stolen from Servetus

  1. Servetus’ post startled me in the same way — as a very young grad student, I’m only starting to discover my intellectual orientation, as you put it (“the intellectual center,” my beloved M.A. supervisor called it). It’s important to read things like this, and like Servetus’ manifesto, in the interest of developing a kind of armor against professionalization’s advancing phalanxes of bitterness, alienation, and cynicism.

    So thank you — perplexed though I am at not having discovered this blog sooner, I’m glad I’ve found it now.

  2. kiita

    Yes. I’ve been thinking about your latest posts here and on your site at blogspot.com, and when I read Servetus’ post, I thought of you. And myself of course — how would I write a similar list? It’s all percolating.

  3. Hi Moria! Re “professionalization’s advancing phalanxes of bitterness, alienation, and cynicism” … do you know, most of my education took place before that, and my cohort in grad school complained [in the late eighties] that UCB was not giving us enough of that?! It’s time to turn the clock back, [Barack ... I used to rhyme back with Chirac, but now it's Barack].

    Hi Kiita! Note – I’ve made the blogspot site invited only for the moment because certain IRL people could find it and I don’t want them to. But I invited you to be a reader. Anyone else who wants to be invited, ask … I’m going to make it public again soon, anyway.

  4. Fascinating. If you are expected to sacrifice so much, where are the rewards.

  5. Well, it’s partly the way I took it. I heard a lot of exhortation that wasn’t really meant for the likes of me. But I am also set off lately by this post, insofar as it suggests that we are lucky to be paid at all to do this work.
    http://carldyke.wordpress.com/2008/11/26/class-consciousness-in-the-lumpenbourgeoisie/

  6. Hi – I’m set off by your responses too. Which are reasonable, sensible, respectable, widely shared but seem optional; that is, something that we can choose or not choose. Want to find a way to make space in our conversation for my own quite different perspective without coming off like a reality nazi. Still working on it.

  7. “seem optional” … that is what I said when I set upon the path of resigning myself.

    But I can’t help it: I am not primarily interested in teaching Spanish verbs to recalcitrant Suburban-American 19 year olds. I can’t help wanting: urban life or else serious access to nature, really meaningful work, a research job, and enough money to be able to visit family including family abroad without having an utter crisis. I also want less gender discrimination than I’ve had to put up with.

    I don’t have to have all of these things all the time or all at once, but 20 years on, when I have health, energy, and talents, and there is so much in the world to enjoy and also so much that really needs to be done, it feels sacrilegious not to be using what I have been given. It feels wasteful to be investing so much of my energy in resignation.

  8. P.S. You also have to realize my issues about academia are imbricated with my issues about Reeducation and family, and also with the discourse I got from numerous colleagues convincing me to stay when I was going to quit.

    The whole blog is about trying to get over that c*** and over the self abuse it takes to try to fit myself in spaces where I just … don’t … and also *shouldn’t* have to try to fit myself, even by academic standards and so on.

    So I am *allergic* to the idea that one must be noble and put up with things.

  9. P.S. I have so, way, moved beyond the pain in this post since I wrote it, it is amazing.

  10. servetus

    Sorry, I fell asleep over the weekend. Thanks, Cero, for all of the coverage and everyone else for the kind words. I think the distinction is between being a scholar and a professor, or between being a scholar and an academic.

  11. I should have just slept!!! Anyway, yes, thanks for reminding me of the distinction. My whole problem has to do with trying to conflate these things. And while I appreciate scholarship, I’m not sure I am committed to it enough to be willing to be an academic for its sake. I’d do other things for the sake of scholarship, or scholarship for the sake of other things.

  12. Pingback: Iskolar « Tanglad

  13. Interesting post from Tanglad … so it is a PURGE, not one’s own inadequacy or inability to adjust. This has occurred to me before but I do not remember it regularly. I am sure it is true.

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