Being a professor is a job but it’s a really weird job unlike most others. I was talking with one of my sponsors this morning about my job and meandering and talking in about 500 tangents and non sequiturs about things I was thinking about lately. Much of what I was talking about was vaguely related to what it is to be a professor, in part because all I think about is myself and in part because I saw the new Netflix movie The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) last night. I think this film is the most brilliant film I’ve ever seen and I’m quasi-serious when I say that I think that they may have taken my childhood and then changed the details just enough so as not to get sued.
What this film captures so perfectly is the utter self-obsession of the professor. I am a professor and both of my parents were professors, many, many of my friends are professors. I love these people, myself included. Professors have shaped who I am. So it is with respect and humility that I say that we are, in general, a weird lot. We are stricken in the most profound way with the affliction of being insecure egomaniacs. We are driven to contribute, to create, to transcend the ordinary to make our mark on society in ways that won’t die with us. This isn’t just for ego stroking though. It’s a compulsion, a need, a do-or-die. When I was nearing completion of the most cited paper I’ve written, I’d pray to myself “please don’t get hit by a car. When the paper is published THEN you can die.”
There are a number of famous male academics whose wives who were intellectuals in their own rights are known almost only for what they did for their spouses. Marianne Weber, for instance, wrote something like seven or eight books! (I have yet to finish one.) But she is known almost for completing her husband’s Max’s works (10 volumes, apparently, according to that most reliable of sources wikipedia) after he died (despite his having a long time affair with a friend of theirs, although I believe they had a certain kind of open marriage as part of their feminism. *shrugs*).
I now have new things on my computer that I feel must be completed before I die (my one incomplete book, for instance) making me wonder recently if there are men out there who complete women’s works when they die. I asked the partner/baby-daddy if he would think to go through all my files and do anything with them. He just stared at me a bit blankly. He doesn’t much like thinking about death, or my death, however. Fair enough.
At the same time that I feel like I can’t die until I finally get my __________ paper/book published. I also spend a lot of time feeling like a fraud, like I don’t really belong, that I’m intellectually too weak and thin skinned, that I don’t really know anything. As I have heard people say in my recovery meetings, I’m an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.
Although a lot of professionals feel this way, it seems from my particularly self-absorbed perspective to be particularly true of academics. Perhaps that’s why there are so many blogs about why it’s okay to leave academia (here, here, here, here and about a million others). Partly it’s the fact that one cannot easily change jobs from one university to another, especially without doing some major family upheaval. I had to move 1,500 km to get out of my first toxic department. As such, if you’re going to leave a professor position, you better be sure. And to have a position where you can’t be fired without REALLY fucking up is certainly a rarity in today’s labour market landscape.
However, I think that the struggle is far more emotional than rational. Being an academic requires us to regularly make ourselves vulnerable to criticism which can cut us to the core of who we are. In the doctoral seminar I’m currently teaching about how one becomes an academic, we read a chapter by Caroline Dayer about one’s “posture theorique”. She interviewed a number of emerging to senior scholars about what it means to be an academic. Across the board, they noted things like that they didn’t choose their research, their research chose them or that one’s intellectual pursuits are a reflection of who we are as people. Our work is who we are.
Throughout the movie, Dustin Hoffman’s character, a sculptor and retired professor, is forever putting down other artists and everyone else while explaining all the reasons for why he never had the fame of his friends. He insists that those with more success are actually more mediocre intellectually. At least two of his children believe in his underrated-ness, despite his terrible treatment of them, and work hard to get him the recognition they feel he deserves. At the most poignant moment of the movie, after tussling with his brother over the value of their father’s art, Adam Sandler’s character reflects that maybe he has to believe his father was a genius, because “If he isn’t a great artist, that means he’s just a prick. But I think the work is good.”
Having grown up with two professor parents, I related to much in this movie. This is not to say my parents were pricks but the constant criticism was certainly there and the sense that my parents were special and unique but never fully valued, each in their own way.
When I was younger, I would I sometimes catch myself using them to give me an identity, by bragging about them, I can have value by proxy. Their various obsessions, however, meant that there was a certain amount of neglect of their children. We were expected to be little adults from a very young age; we had to keep up, both my mother’s pace while speed walking and intellectually when the adults were talking. I resent them for the things that I use them for.
There was another point in the movie where Ben Stiller’s character screams at his dad for never being actually proud of what he does while also being obsessed with it. That he accomplished what his father never could (financial success) but it’s never good enough. When my mother was in grad school, she almost didn’t graduate because she couldn’t pass the French or statistics qualifying exams at a high enough level. And here I am teaching statistics and a doctoral seminar in French. I win. But she’s dead and, really, who cares?
My mother hated academia in the end and declared herself an artist, blaming her own mother for her failure to follow her true calling, whereas my dad loved academia until the end. Either way, I learned that it was the only thing one could do of true value. Everything else was apparently too boring, too easy, morally bankrupt, and/or filled with people who were either simpletons or assholes. I thought I would be a failure if I were to pursue any other career, while at the same time being told that I could do whatever I wanted.
When my mother was struggling through the early years on the tenure track, my father, by then a retired professor, would remind her that at the end of the day it’s just a job. I don’t think either of them really believed that though. When I don’t know something in my job, I feel it as a personal failing. When my work is rejected or I make mistakes, I struggle to separate those from defining who I am. If my work isn’t going somewhere, isn’t going to make a difference, then maybe I’m not that special. Am I just a prick? or worse am I just “a nice person”? Something my mother once spat out at my sister and me between sips of wine asking where she had gone wrong to make such “nice” daughters. I guess we were to be strong and tough leaders, not nice.
The book that I talk about more than actually sit down to write, draws on theories of the Ethic of Care that I want to build on with what I call a “praxis of humility.” The ethic of care suggests that we resituate our unit of analysis from individuals to relationships. That human existence is fundamentally based on a need to be cared for which requires us to care for each other. The work of caring for others is often made invisible or underpaid or undervalued and not seen as real work. I suggest that to enact this ethic requires a praxis of humility; that we actively acknowledge that we are each a flawed human being who needs love and care like everyone else. The irony is that I want the writing of my book and its publication to set me apart, to prove that I’m special. So, does writing my book prove its tenets wrong? Alas.
On my one year medallion for my sobriety are engraved the words “I am exactly where I am supposed to be.” I so often want to be bigger and better and to have more accolades to feed my delicate orchid of an ego. When I pause, I can see that actually I am valued to exactly the right degree and that that value is not above the size of my vita or the works I leave behind. As cheesy as it sounds, I feel most in-line with my value when I make others feel loved, when I feel emotionally connected to the people in my life, when I care. Still, I also feel panicked at the thought of not writing my book before I die (considering that I’m 41, I’ve probably got the time).
It is a total cliché to say that on our death bed we aren’t going to care about how many hours we worked but in the relationships we’ve had. I find the cliche annoying in most ways and don’t like the implied criticisms of those who care about their work, the blindness to those who can’t afford to reduce the amount that they work, or the assumption that caring itself isn’t sometimes work. But writing this has led me to my mother’s journal that she kept as she was dying of ALS. Her disease had forced her to give up her art and her work and to let go of the notion that she could have any semblance of control over her own body, never mind control over those around her. Her last entry was on my sister’s birthday, her normally very deliberate handwriting sloppy from the rapid loss of use of her hands. I never went through her computer to publish the things she never had a chance to complete (although publishing was never how she made her mark as an academic), but here, at least, is the last thing she wrote, less than two months before she died:
“Today is Rosalie’s 39th birthday. I was thinking that I very facetiously say, ‘I’m so lucky’ when I get yet another piece of equipment to deal with ALS. It’s meant as an ironic joke. But today it occurred to me that I am so lucky.
“I have two daughters who could not be more loving and generous with their time and energy. I don’t think I did a lot right as a mother but I always felt that mothering both was easy and rewarding.
“I am lucky too that I have enjoyed the love of two of the most decent and loving men I have ever known. Robert and Jim are different in many ways but similar in the way they make me feel–loved.
“I have interesting friends am close to them and my brother and sister-in-law. My life has been good. I am so lucky.”
I think her work was good.