If you see a whole thing - it seems that it's always beautiful. Planets, lives... But up close a world's all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life's a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. - Ursula K. LeGuin

Monday, September 7, 2009

Desperate Academics

Academic did a lovely job hosting Scientiae Carnival this month. The theme was Inspiration or Desperation and, while there seemed to be fewer entries this month than some others, they are all great posts. However, as Academic noted, most of the posts were of the Desperation variety. This both saddens me and makes me think. Are academics a desperate lot? I can think of several possible answers:
  1. Yes, academia is a stressful work environment where faculty are asked to produce too much, in too little time, for too few dollars and the stakes are incredibly high (i.e. unemployment) if you don't deliver;
  2. No, academia is no more stressful than other work environments however there are particularly stressful times of the year and September is one of them (possibly one reason there were fewer entries is no one has time right now to post);
  3. Yes and No, academia is more stressful for some people than others--particularly women of a certain age trying to balance their passion for their work with personal and societal expectations of womanhood.
I am sure there are other possible answers but these are the ones that come to my mind. It saddens me that academia is seen--by women--as a place of desperation and not inspiration. I believe most people come into academia because they were inspired--by a teacher or some other introduction to their field. I believe academics start out full of passion (albeit a nerdy passion) and optimism and yet are quickly brought down. Most of the entries were written by students, post-docs and/or junior faculty. Of course it is not just in this carnival that we see the desperation but rather it is a daily theme across the women found in the academic section of the blogosphere.

There is good cause for women, especially women in the hard sciences, to feel this desperation. In spite of all the advances in our society, achieving the standard measures of success in academia is harder for women. In addition, although our definitions of fathering is slowly changing, for the majority of women the responsibilities of home and hearth fall squarely on their shoulders. Many students have a naive belief that academia--with its flexible schedule and summers off--offers the ability to balance home life with a career. It doesn't take long for that myth to be shattered.

Having said all of that, I do need to add that I love my job. My work life inspires me on a daily basis. Yes the years I balanced graduate school, work, publishing, Angel, my husband, paying the rent, and living a healthy lifestyle were incredibly hard and--at times--desperate. And even now, with Angel out of the house and a very healthy tenure packet submitted, I still struggle to balance time with b, time with myself, time to exercise, and time spent working. For the most part time spent working wins out. This is not because the demands of work are so high (although they are) but because my work is what I love to do. If my work did not sustain my soul I would find another job--one that pays a reasonable salary for the level of effort it demands and actually pays me for the full-time work I do every summer.

But where else am I going to find employment that rewards me for reading and writing and thinking and talking about the ideas that have filled my head since I was a child? Where else can I be surrounded (both physically and virtually) by colleagues that produce research and share concepts that fascinate me? Where else would my nerd-dom be not only welcomed but celebrated? Where else could I share my passions with younger, less experienced, but fresher minds? What other job would give me a front row seat to see these young minds and lives bloom?

Academia is where I belong--at least for now. If I leave, I don't believe it will be from desperation but rather from a new inspiration.


drax said...

"Where else," indeed, would you find the arena/avenue that addresses so many of the needs identified in your "closing?" It's something of both a blessing and a curse: the demands and sacrifice of the work required and the hard-fought rewards...

God, I love this post's penultimate paragraph! (Sorry.) I want to pin it up over my desk! "Nerd-dom?" Hardly. More like heroic. Minus any self-serving BS. Talk about "knowing thyself."

Quick note: it is a balm, I think, to have a place such as a blog to process and codify such complex thoughts and emotions—to get it straight first in one's head, THEN on the page, and subsequently allowing others to appreciate the struggle and the reward. I type the following with a straight face and unhesitant fingers: "Bravo."

Julie said...

Absolutely beautiful. I think all of your answers are right. Your last sentence says it all.

Annie K said...

I just read your post for the first time today. It's a beautiful tribute to your work, and what you do, and why you do it. I like Drax's note about having a blog to process and codify complex thoughts and emotions. I think that's why I do it. And no, being a researcher and a teacher doesn't make you a nerd; like he said, it makes you a hero!