Ex-Mentors & Future Nobodies

(Cross posted at Love A.D.D.erall)

If I had a little foresight, and wasn’t hungry for a better world, I’d think more strategically about “professionalizing” my portfolio. I need to reframe my brief streaks of insight into a more coherent shtick, something “academically marketable.” Then I can devote an entire career to perfecting my diatribe. I’ll stay current with all the pertinent jargon, whatever’s relevant to my irrelevant niche. Every year or so I’ll publish a new article, each mimicking the last though slightly nuanced in some new way. I’ll take care not to step on toes, of course; not to trespass in the substantive territories where fancier scholars already are squatting.

That path leads to tenure, the world we’re told to covet. Most grad students anticipate feeling at home here, once tenured, at 40-ish.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t even professionalized yet.

The trick to “professionalization”, my ex-mentor advised, is to “network, network, network, network!”

Here’s how it’s done. You shoulder your way into the groveling pools—semicircles of grad students kissing ass and hoping for future favors. Get to know “the big names in the field,” especially the “stars.” Watch how idolatry follows them at national conferences, be jealous. Pretend they’re baseball players, and gush like groupies. Bond with them; and, again, be jealous. The bonds will feel forced, the jealousy contrived. Welcome to academic life.

“Don’t dwell on the bigger problems,” or the implications of living a life that implicates nothing.

So says my ex-mentor. His body language carves an epilogue, admits what his words never will: that if you spend too long living inside a box it stops mattering what happens outside. That’s why somewhere along his prolific marathon, his printed tour of the unread & unreadable prestigious-journal circuit, my ex-mentor happened upon a happy-medium citizenship, whereby not caring became okay and suddenly felt normal. Now he moves confidently through the world without ever really having to exist in it.

Embrace that tunnel vision, young scholar. Make it your asset, your confidante. If such private esteem doesn’t excite you, neither will this boring vocation. For my ex-mentor, few things in life were more fulfilling than out-sparring a less-credentialed man in a trivial debate. Nothing cranked his joy-buds like the insular orgies of academia, its geeky circle jerks and anticlimactic climaxes. It amused him to expand his inner empire, to surround himself with grad students who promised to pretend to admire him. Protégés are validation for followers who need to feel like leaders. I could build a bubble just like his, he promised, with round soapy walls to polish my presentation, wash my mouth out, cleanse the frat guy I’d been before, and smooth over the coarseness in my truer inner voice.

But the perks of being comfortable would only douse my spirit. Polite golf claps can’t silence the disquieting noise of nothing happening, nothing changing, inside or out.

The longer I sit still in my ivory tower, the more I’ll come to resemble something else. Who I am today will surely dwindle, with dreams of youth falling off me like hair from a widow’s peak on an aging scalp.

And what, in silence, would become of all my words? Somehow I know they’d stop sounding original. They’d learn to reveal little about my country & my own voice, more about my subculture—the nuanced academic circle in which I chose to voice it. My message itself, whatever it grew into, would become less important to me than how it was received. This happens when one connects with likeminded others, or when his mind starts feeling at ease among those to whom his random decisions randomly connect him.

I have nothing against connecting.

But I am petrified of disconnecting.

To become the professors I pass in these pointless halls would require all the passion & energy I have today to slowly drain out of me.

I wonder if passion is indeed like energy, like the atoms we recycle when we die; if the fire inside my belly now came from somewhere; if previously it belonged to somebody else, someone better; and if it might migrate elsewhere, later, whenever I finally set myself ablaze or fade like a hologram. Will the zeal I know only as my own float off to something new. If so, where will it go? Will it get snagged on another trap, caught in another circular life like this one? Or will it flee to the paradises I never found but in my head, those magic hotspots more receptive to passions?

I wish I had some say in the matter.


~ by Matthew Frederick on May 26, 2008.

5 Responses to “Ex-Mentors & Future Nobodies”

  1. This is an interesting post. I came very close to pursuing a postgrad life in the History department at UCLA. But having befriended some of my TAs as an undergrad, I decided academia was not the place for me, for exactly the reasons you’ve discussed here. I feel like the choice I made was a choice about the kind of person I wanted to be.

  2. I was married to a PhD in Creative writing, who got a one year contract to teach at southwest Missouri State. This was in the mid seventies and there were hundreds of highly qualified PhDs for every crappy job. Then another one year, and then another one year, and then Eureka! tenure! Now he is Chairman of the English Department. He was a great writer, who became just what you describe. I left the moment he got tenure. I saw his soul dying. It was a terrible sight. And I was a horrible faculty wife.

  3. Wow, a PhD in Creative writing. That must have been hell. There’s a formula for everything around here, rules and rigid standards, to quantify and measure “professional progress.” I can’t think of a better way to kill creativity than to enroll in a PhD program.

  4. Our whole society is effing pretentious.

    As bad as academia is, at least I’m not working directly for a corporation (although, in the final analysis, they own us all), which would make me want to open up a vein right here, right now.

    At least in the field of education, I can still feel a little bit of respect for myself.

    However, when it came time to choose between a Ph.D. and certification to teach at the secondary or elementary level, I chose certification.

    You can only laugh at the stuffed shirts so long before you start wanting put them in headlocks and pound on their faces. Or is it just me?

  5. This post definitely articulates the fear I would have had if I had decided to do anything at that level. Simply to concentrate one’s energies in a single field would be difficult enough; there are too many interesting things out there. But then to have to deal with the knuckleheads.

    SWB, it’s not just you. As much as I loathe the collegiate student body, some of those PhDs are asking for repeated blows to the skull.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: