Saturday, January 8, 2011

"Myths and Mismatches", Oh My!

Over the next week or so I'll be blogging my responses to "Myths and Mismatches", an e-course by Jo Van Every and Julie Clarenbach. The goal of this series is to bring attention to a number of "myths" that can get in the way of making "conscious career choices" in the academic environment, particularly for those who are feeling "dissatisfied" with academic work.

I've been thinking about this a lot lately (and blogging about it too), since I need to make decisions about "where to go" next, and I find the options overwhelming. I thought it would be interesting to think through my responses to Jo and Julie's course by writing about each of them as they arrive in my inbox.

"Myth #1: The Life of the Mind, or, Academia Is the Only Game in Town"

The first post refers to a misconception about the nature of academe, the idea of the "Ivory Tower"--one that is perpetuated by media images of university life. Jo and Julie advise us not to fall into the trap of imagining "academe" as a cloister into which one can retreat from the Real World whilst pursuing one's ideas in peace among like-minded colleagues (and as far from possible from demanding undergraduate students, for example).

I would say it's no coincidence that this concept of the Lone Scholar is reinforced by the ideal of the tenured research professor, which we're generally encouraged to think of as the norm or the goal. If this utopian environment/position ever came close to existing, it was a characteristic of the traditional "elite" model of university education, something I've written about in previous posts.

The point here is that given the current context, you're certain to be disappointed if you see this as the ideal, since the job description for professors includes juggling not only research but also teaching, committee and other "service" and administration work, student advising and mentoring, attending and planning events and conferences, and and array of extra-curricular work/activities. In fact the trend is for professors to be more "engaged" with audiences beyond the university because ultimately, public communication is what strengthens and smooths the relationship between universities and the communities/contexts in which they operate.

In terms of my own experience, I don't think this idea of the "life of the mind" has ever been one to which I've had much access; and as wonderful as it sounds, I've also never really expected to be able to participate. Jo and Julie make the point that the mythical Great Solitary Thinkers were all men, which is only one part of that equation; there aren't too many role models to emulate. I also don't come from a particularly privileged background (economically or culturally), so my expectations have been different all along. I certainly never imagined I would end up doing a PhD at all. Since my undergrad years I've talked a lot with full-time faculty and had a good look at what happens in the day-to-day life of tenure-track professors (and part-time/contract profs as well). Probably the combination of these factors is why I've always felt ambivalent about the idea of trying to become a professor, as a specific career track. The increased competition in recent years has only made me feel less certain.

Jo and Julie point out that the flip side of "academe as intellectual cloister" is that the "world" outside the university is a barren and banal place, devoid of intellectual engagement. I think the myth of "real world" vs. "academe" is quite destructive, including that of a corporate/business world that's somehow inherently unethical and opposed to academe. It simplifies the problems faced by universities, often reducing them to an "us vs. them" argument, and it precludes the possibility of meaningful engagement across boundaries. This kind of belief also seems to entail that academe is somehow more ethical than other environments. But to cling to that idea is to set oneself up for a despairing fall--academics are no more (or less) inherently moral or "good" than other groups.


  1. I really liked what you said. I think that myth of the Ivory tower and the University at the lone bastion for the brilliant mind has caused a great deal of dissonance between Community College Professors and University Profs as well. This makes the current influx of PhDs to the college uncomfortable at best. As an ABD PhD and a (fairly) long-time Professor of English at a college, I've often been engaged in discussions where it became clear that the PhDs at the college were 'slumming it' and made that widely known to everyone else.

  2. We really need to appreciate that the academic isn't the only space in society for critical thinking. Government policy shops, industry, think tanks and community organizations are increasingly looking to a highly educated workforce to make informed decisions about public policy and professional practice. As we seek to increase the extra academic impact of investments in university and college research and training we will increasingly require critical thinkers to analyze information, generate knowledge and make recommendations to executive decision makers.

    this week we shall be posting a blog on the ResearchImpact blog, Mobilize This! ( about peer review vs. blogging. Might be of interest to your deliberations.

  3. @girlwithapearl: That's a perspective I hadn't heard before, but it makes sense given that there's a hierarchy of institutions as well as people.

    @researchimpact--I agree. The way I think of the university now is as more of a coordinator between those other actors/stakeholders/sites, I think it could be so more than it is now--that the connections need to be more obvious between the PhD work and being able to contribute in those different contexts.
    Looking forward to the blog post!

  4. Great to read your responses. I look forward to seeing future ones.