Sunday, March 05, 2017

The exhaustion within.

When people talk about academics, it's as if they speak of something belonging to another, walled-off world. To many, that is probably kind of true. If you don't make academe your career, you visit it, live in a very particular type of bubble where you cram your head with knowledge and experiences that change you more or less fundamentally, and then you move on to a community where the changes wrought on you are more random, less planned, less visible and less controlled. In their lives, being at a college or university is a limited, enclosed experience. "When I was a student," they may say. "At the university, these were the experiences..."

This sense of living a life apart from every other experience makes being an academic something romantic and nostalgic, even if you walk away from it with scorn. Perhaps it is even why so many walk away with scorn. In order to be able to distance yourself from a way of living which is so different, you need to start hating it a little, to convince yourself turning away was the right things. To explain why you didn't study more, or learn something else, you sneer at academic knowedge, and call it irrelevant. It might be to cover the secret desire for a Ph D and a lifetime of learning, why you left, why you failed. The reason isn't really important, the thing that is still with you is the sense of those who become academics as people who remain in the dream, who live a life apart, who do not touch reality. They are still in the ivory tower.

Sadly, there's not a lot of ivory in that tower. Most of the resources invested in Universities you have already seen. The auditoriums, the classrooms, the libraries - they are there for the students, like you were and like your children will be. The offices are crowded and the book collections you perhaps admire during supervision are collected over decades of work, one book at the time, not through some magic privilege. Imagine the money you spend on your favourite hobby (drinking and shopping counts). Then every time you spend 25€ on your hobby, you buy a book as well. That's where the books come from. Also, the students admiring those book collections will steal your books. I lose some every year to students who "forget" to give them back, believing that there must be some secret source of books where I can just go get a new one.

And that professor you just "borrowed" a book from isn't paid particularly well. It's not bad, being a tenured professor is in most places of the world one of those pretty safe middle-class jobs. But the realities of life are as real to scholars as to anybody else. So where, in all this, are the ivory towers?

Hidden in between the intense competition for work, the throat-cutting ambition that makes you mistrust old friends and new, the non-disclosure statements, the extreme work-hours and the nights of grading - somewhere in that world, there really ought to be a silver lining. The thing is - you need to be able to see it. It's not in the relaxed work hours, because any teaching scholar who also tries to research and publish will laugh until they cry at that idea. It's not in the respect and status - at the moment education and research is apparently the place where all governments agree they can spend less and cut more (and how ironic is that - the well-educated in power pulling the ladder up behind them, and the public cheering the decision, because teaching the young to question the status quo is ridiculous. After all this is currently the best of all possible worlds... OK, I will stop there, let's just say that you don't need to be a conspiracy nut to suspect that there is an agenda to the attacks on public education.)

It is something very small, a bit of wonder, a bit of desire, a bit of mystery. If you want to do well, over a long time, working long hours in a complex, often overwhelming job, you need to be intrinsically motivated. If not, the lack of funding, the constant care you need to offer students, the consistent self-examination and push for creative questions and new knowledge will break you. It happens. Scholars burn out, or decide to follow alternative tracks on a regular basis. They become administrators, advisors, consultants, or just pull back and into themselves, getting by with as little effort as possible.

And then you sit there, like I do right now, asking yourself - how did we get here? I was planning to write about the wonders of being a travelling scholar visiting the oldest University in Europe. About going from the shiny glass building of ITU to the solemn rows of colonnades connecting the buildings of the University of Bologna, but instead what I wrote about - what my fingers needed to work through - was academic over-work, loss, and exhaustion. But then there is that little bit of mystery.

It is what I am here to be reminded of. I am going away from everything that has made me feel like I have been mentally scraped clean, to rediscover the why of being a scholar. And I have come here, to the oldest well of knowledge I could reach, to recover. One month and three days in. Tomorrow I start writing a book. Today I eat "melanzane", read a new language, and walk the endless colonnades.

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