Thursday, May 06, 2004

Life is not an Essay Exam

But sometimes we act as if it were. There are a ton of smart bloggers out there. Lots of them are smart academic bloggers. Some of them blog exclusively on academic life, others blog on broader topics. Those who write about life in the academy approach it from different angles -- many from within, many more from the marginal existence of contingent faculty life, and more than a few having left academe behind. In fact, the latter has taken up Rana is one of the most recent to go. Like the Invisible Adjunct, Rana was unable to find tenure-track employment in her field. More surprising is Erin O’Connor’s departure – at least from the standpoint that she was a tenured faculty member. What isn’t surprising is that, as a critic of the many things wrong with the way colleges and universities are run, she decided to opt out.

Among those who haven’t left are the folks at Cliopatra, a group of scholars that actually includes someone I’ve known for all of 17 years, and the folks at Crooked Timber, many of whom I wish I knew. I read most of these people’s blogs fairly religiously, and comment frequently. I admire their writing skills and use the fact that they blog to excuse my own attempts, always hoping that no one thinks I’m a complete idiot. I also tell myself that reading good writing and writing more myself will help to keep me on track. I’m contingent faculty, you see. My community is therefore limited to the institution of the moment (or, in this happy case, the academic year on a pro rata contract). So I blog and read blogs.

Lately, however, I’ve found myself reading and commenting far too much. I have work I should be doing, yet I am drawn to my peers’ comments on the world around us. I have a review due next week. I have midterms to correct. I have a garden, dammit! I also have two new preps and, since a class was cancelled, an online course to develop by June. Oh – and a grant proposal, and two committees that actually require work. So what the hell am I doing? I want a TT job. I have the opportunity to move in that direction and pad my CV. Can blogging be bad for academics? Am I addicted?

And then it hit me. No. Most of us will have had conversations with colleagues over the last three years – and especially since talk began about invading Iraq – about reasons for low enrollments, students having trouble focusing, students missing class and being treated for depression. I’ve never had a problem believing the folks who claimed that much of it was due to the additional stress of our wartime world. I just never really thought about how it affected me.

These last couple of weeks have been especially awful. We all know it. Stories like this (don’t look if you are trying to avoid pictures) pushed me into a big ol’ morass of navel contemplation. So my blog reading has gone way up. No more just the mutual support of the “life in academia” blogs. Nope – it’s all Iraq and Bush, all the time. It seems to me that I’m not the only one to be doing this, either. Comments and trackbacks bloom in colorful and maddening profusion. Why this upswing? And then it hit me: because you’re an academic geek, doofus. Our students may just stop coping, but we have coping mechanisms. We have learned to argue our points with evidence! We know how to do research! We are used to taking information that might seem to be unrelated and make sense of it! We can do it! We have the technology! If we just do our homework, we can make sense out of this mess! So we read what the people we’ve come to trust and ‘know’ say about the subject, hoping to add to our own knowledge and perhaps validate our own conclusions. We add to the discussion. And finally, we realize that we’re using our training to cope in the only way we can, by trying to make reason out of the unreasonable. Or at least that’s my story.

One of the great things about being a trained historian is learning to recognize biases. I’d like to think it also helps us recognize when we’re spinning our wheels. I have recognized my coping mechanism, and I understand it. Now I can get back to work.