January 4, 2009 at 1:21 am | In authenticity, Uncategorized, writing | 6 Comments

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been commenting on a couple of other sites. As a result, I started mulling over the odd (to me) idea that having a PhD from Harvard and having taught at MIT and Brown is meaningful over and above the ideas I try to contribute when I write anywhere, whether here, in my articles, or on other blog posts or forums. Then I had an epiphany.

Here’s what happened: I had responded to a compliment regarding my past credentials in the comments board to this post by elaborating a bit on my background. It’s a device (narrative, personal history) I find myself interested in more and more, since I’m in a transition phase (again), without a clear path forward. (In a recent October blog post here I already broached this).

Then, some hours after leaving my comment, it hit me.

Even though I’m the first person in my family in my generation to go to university, to grad school, or to get post-graduate degrees (including that PhD in Art History from Harvard), I never found getting those credentials difficult. It was, if anything, easy to do research and to write and to think up new ideas. In fact, I earned my PhD in just five years, which in humanities is considered speedy – some of my fellow students were taking twice as long.

Why was it easy for me, why could I do it quickly? Because I was keen, sharp as a knife: I knew what I wanted. Cut right through the bullshit, barreled on, damn the torpedos.

It was a pleasure.

The difficult part wasn’t coming up with new insights, or synthesizing disparate pieces of information, finding patterns, developing a thesis, going where no grad student had gone before… The difficult part came later, once I started teaching and realized what academia was also about.

First, I have to admit one thing: massive stage fright. I had no idea that a big chunk of my job would entail performing in front of crowds. That threw me for a major loop – I wanted everything I did to be perfect, and I was so afraid of public speaking that I initially wrote out every single word of my lectures. It was Pure Agony. I told myself I didn’t have the “winning” personality – because I’m a critical bitch myself – to get my students to love me, and I was afraid, horribly afraid, that they would hate me instead. Besides, I had imposter syndrome, and I never wanted to be a teacher or a performer. I wanted to be a researcher, a writer, a synthesizer, a connector. An ideas person, but definitely someone who thinks stuff up behind the scenes, not out front like a show pony at the circus.

But here’s my epiphany: I really, really came to hate (yet mourn) academia when I understood that at some point you have to stop being an ideas person – at least for a good chunk of the time. Yes, you have to grind out your lecture courses; but once you have them “under your belt,” you can repeat them ad infinitum with minor tweaking for the next few decades. I saw many professors do this. The seminars were a different matter, but even these were often variations on a theme – and that’s what I now realize was so depressing.

My advisors and most of the humanities professors I knew were too often one-trick ponies, repeating the same things year after year after year. It mattered not whether it was their lectures, or their seminars, or the endless variations on their initial dissertation work – even their “new” research was somehow a variation of what they had already been doing for years. In fact, it was imperative that you milked your dissertation for all it was worth and for as long as you could. To me that prospect seemed frightful, phony – after successfully transforming my 1991 dissertation into a book four years later – published by Princeton University Press in 1995 – I didn’t really want to belabor the topic any longer. Big mistake. Exceptions aside, many academics go on to belabor the same topic, over and over again. If the material seems to run dry, the hacks among them just turn up the volume on the unintelligible language, on the verbiage and jargon that no normal human understands, until they can tell themselves that they’re so specialized that they’re an industry unto themselves.

What I couldn’t stand, truth be told, were the limitations of working for years on one idea, of having to take this one idea on a nation-wide road-show (to conferences, symposia, etc.) in an attempt to get as many additional gigs with which to pad the resume, and of then being branded as “that” guy or “that” girl.

Further, because of the sheer numbers of PhD candidates admitted annually, everyone tries to get as specialized as possible – but without taking full account of how they’re already a “product” of the advisor machine. Student X of Professor Z will work on Xz – or maybe it’s Zx. Student X still has to differentiate him- or herself from Prof. Z enough to have some sort of identity. And so, if Prof. Z was working on the signifiers of female clothing in pre-Revolutionary French painting, Student X might “specialize” by focusing on a niche subject – like undergarments, or the transference of petticoat signifiers to colonial revolutionary settings. I’m making this up of course, but only slightly.

In short, the stuff gets stale, stale, stale – like underwear that hasn’t been changed in a generation.

I mourned the loss of academia: it had seemed like an ideal world for a while, like some kind of “Annie Hall” fantasy, lah-dee-dah. I have beaten myself up repeatedly for losing it, but I only have to read a few paragraphs in my discipline’s trade journals to be reminded of its worst aspects: irrelevance, staleness.

And so, although I’m against New Year’s Resolutions, perhaps I should make a note to myself to craft a New Year’s Mantra: I want freshness to guide me.

That said, I now face the real problem of location and wonder whether Victoria is the right place for me.


  1. “Place” is increasingly irrelevant (to touch only on the tale end of your post). What state of mind do you need to be in to do your best work, and what “place” is the best for that?

    Comment by Boris Mann — January 4, 2009 #

  2. Oh boy, does all this sound familiar, except that I never finished (or even started!!!) that PhD. But I do have to M.A.s, one in a program that was considered revolutionary back in the late ’70s and early ’80s, and since we were the first crop of grad students, some of our theses ended up being close to 300 pages (like mine!!!!). I did teach in community colleges, and the stage fright is familiar. I don’t mind performing in front of a crowd, provided I have a script — so yes, I, too wrote out my lectures….

    But, since I also was contemplating having children around the time of contemplating doing a PhD at Berkeley, I clearly saw the problem with the one-trick pony — not to mention the ways in which that impacted my health — so having kids won the day, so to speak.

    You are very good at “freshness” — and that is not meant to say it is your one-trick pony to ride. Fortunately and probably unfortunately as well, the Internet can help make “place” irrelevant. But that is in terms of ideas. as for the hear, for what makes space the place of lives, that is a serious question.

    I wish for the best for you this year in finding the answer!

    Comment by maria — January 4, 2009 #

  3. Very interesting post – you are significantly further along a road that I have one foot in on. I am working on a business degree, am going to work on a masters and eventually a PHD on something – likely business. As you mentioned, my academic context will make a difference on what exactly that will be on, and it’s somewhat far off in the future. Often times I think about the different spheres of lifestyle offered to me professionally and academically – business owner, employee of a private sector company, student, and/or employee of a public sector organization. Each ones make me feel distinctively different about my interaction with society and I like that variety a fair bit. I don’t currently work in the public sector, but have in the past and enjoyed it. I am a student, I do own two businesses, and I do work in the private sector for another company as well right now. I like going to class, but I don’t think that being a student exclusively would be a good thing for me, nor do I think being an employee exclusively would be good either. I like to hash out things in an academic way, but I also enjoy the speed and vigor of a privately run business.

    Sometimes I think my get-things-done approach to class and academic approach to problem solving at work clash with those environments, but I enjoy the juxtaposition of angles.

    Someone asked me very recently what I want to eventually end up as. I could not answer – the thought of statically being one thing is not appealing to me. I have interest for many things and that’s not limited to my current study. Sometimes I enjoy not knowing. Like yourself, I am not certain Victoria is the right place for me, but I am here for now so I am making the most of it.

    How did you end up here?

    Comment by Davin Greenwell — January 4, 2009 #

  4. As per my comment on the other post on housing (Jan.7/09), apologies for not getting back to comments sooner…
    @Boris: It’s true that place isn’t significant in the same way anymore, but it’s still a factor. There’s the “culture of a place” aspect for one thing – islanders always joke about “island time,” except it’s not a joke! Scale also really still matters: it’s sometimes incredibly difficult to get something going in places where the critical mass or scale is not what a project requires (IOW, pick your projects carefully, I guess!). Finally: money (there’s always that, eh?). If you don’t live on an island, it’s cheaper to get to somewhere else (although I have to admit that the vast distances on the West Coast make everything look trickier, as opposed to the density / closeness of the East Coast – but the island factor intensifies separation). If you have the resources to get on and off, if not at will at least relatively frequently, island life is less isolating (same root word: island/ isolation). That said, it is easier today to make headway because you can overcome so many limitations (and “isolations”) of space with technology. (Yay, technology! Yay, the interwebs!)
    @Maria: Yep, we have many aspects of trajectory and personal choice(s) in common. I can’t help but think that this is also because of the era we matured in, plus the shared European background (which possibly influenced gender-related choices?). On Saturday night I went to a local jazz club to hear “Gail Harris and the Lowriders” (who were marvellous, btw). Gail and I went to high school together, right here at Vic High. I left Vic High in the middle of gr.11 to switch to Oak Bay High (from which I graduated in Jan.’74 – exactly 35 years ago, 2 weeks after my 17th birthday). I hadn’t seen Gail since we were 15 or 16, but at Vic High, she was the shy poet (she’s still a poet, but hardly shy, good for her).She was a gifted kid, but do you know what she told me on Saturday? She dropped out of school in gr.11 (probably right around the time I left Vic High to go to Oak Bay) and got married because she was bored, bored, bored at school.
    That, to me, is also indicative of a cultural epoch. We came out of a North American post-sixties-influenced pedagogical culture that modeled itself on Summerhill, but didn’t have the ability to pull it off. When I came to Victoria at age 12, it was 1969. By 1970, I was in a junior high program called “Viability Unlimited,” a high-falutin’ name for a local Summerhill (we even viewed a film about that school, to let us know what the ideal was). It was essentially a gifted program – except that we were bored by it. No classes to speak of, skeletal structure, a one-year try at it. What did we do? We skipped out and went to Beacon Hill Park, ostensibly to write poetry (by we, I mean my friends Grace and Amber, and often Fiona). We’d smoke some pot, for “inspiration.” We were 13 and 14 years old. We were under-challenged, under-utilized, under-mentored. While “Viability Unlimited” got axed after only a year or two, that same impulse toward pedagogical experimentation continued at high school (except there the fight was often on between the old teachers – often intellectual dinosaurs – and the new/ younger ones, heirs to 60s “enthusiasms”).
    I still approve of Summerhill and its intentions in principle, but boy, was it ever a failed experiment on lower middle class kids such as I and my cohorts. Whatever gifts we had were left unchallenged and unmined. There’s a fine line between rejecting the damnable “work-makes-you-free” ethic favored by Nazis everywhere, and the “let-it-all-hang-out, it’s-all-cool” attitude of the counter-culturalists. We got the latter in spades, not too much education in productivity, though.
    So there’s another example of the effects of a culture and an epoch.
    Gotta run, more later.

    Comment by Yule — January 12, 2009 #

  5. Ok, I’m back (dinner intervened)…
    So, @Davin: it would be nice to think I’m further along any road, but, meh, I don’t think I am! 🙂 It’s a constant experiment, Summerhill still lives here (alas?). What I like about how you describe your current path is that you’re keeping your options open, you’re aiming for flexibility. I think that’s really important.
    In fact, if I had advice to dispense to young people – women in particular (…oh, wait: I do, I have kids, one of whom is female!) – it’s to forget any sort of one-track approach and to aim instead for something that allows for flexibility. I mean the flexibility to step up and to step down, as circumstances demand.
    Now, taking that aim can be tricky. You’d think that academics have flexibility, but they don’t (or at least I don’t think so). They are constrained in significant ways by the demands of getting on a tenure track gig, and once they’re on it, there’s hell to pay until tenure comes along. So it’s really important to research the options when considering careers and avocations.
    Aside from all of that, work is changing (just as the significance and role of place is changing, as per Boris’s comment). The thing that won’t change significantly is the importance of where you get your mentoring, and whether you’re in a situation where you can find good mentors and be accepting of the idea of mentoring. I think mentorship is the benign version of what in Germany is called “Vitamin B” – where the “B” stands for “Beziehungen,” which stands for “Connections.” IOW, maybe we should translate it as Vitamin C here?
    Take it from me, kids, I am Vitamin B (or Vit. C) deficient – I have never managed to luck in to good mentors. (Remember, there was that 60s legacy at work: the idea of mentors smacked of fuddy-duddies and old guys and old systems and “the establishment,” too – so it was in-built to reject it.)
    In a way, we focus so much on “the system,” but what a focus on mentoring and mentorship again brings into view is that individuals matter, and some individuals matter more than others (sorry if this offends egalitarian sensibilities, but it’s true). If you’re lucky, you will have the ability to find and to surround yourself with individuals who can be your mentors. If you’re not so lucky, you’ll isolate yourself and have no mentors (back to “the island” motif here?)…
    Re. Davin’s question, “How did you end up here?” – see the above response(s) to Maria, with its supplemental personal social history thrown in. I grew up here – ’twas only for 4-5 years, but they were the significant ones (sex and drugs and rock-‘n-roll) – and I wanted to come back to the West Coast because I couldn’t see myself staying “back East.” Why Victoria and not Vancouver (which was an option)? Possibly pure stupidity, I don’t know. We thought, researching the options, that Victoria was more affordable (in one sense it was) and that technology would make place matter less. Well, as per my response to Boris, place does matter a little bit less, but it still has its effects, that’s for sure. (Aside: I think that we, here in Victoria, need to leverage our proximity to Seattle and stop looking at Vancouver for everything. Vancouver is far away to the north of us, while Seattle is much closer, after all. Too bad national boundaries separate us. ;-))

    Comment by Yule — January 12, 2009 #

  6. […] I was on a sort of nostalgia rag (see my comments to the Freshness post, for example), I was reminded of a book by Louise Huebner (go ahead, google […]

    Pingback by » Notes: Mystery Yule Heibel’s Post Studio © 2003-2009 — January 12, 2009 #

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