Saturday, April 19, 2008

Homo academicus

i am a bad academic.

i say this without judgment of either myself or the academy, but it is pretty obvious at this point that i simply don't fit. the people i've worked with in the university are amazing. and by "worked with," i mean -- well, these people work work work work work. they love to work. they live to work. and me: i just don't. not no mo', anyway.

i've been at a symposium this weekend that i helped organize. as is always the case when you're an organizer, you hit the event tired to begin with. add to that the week we've had at home, what with the recalcitrant roofers and aunty jo suddenly in the hospital, our trip to buenos aires just a week away, and you've got all the ingredients for a stress fest.

there's something about being this tired that turns me into a human portal. i have a body that i can propel around campus. it's your typical human body equipped with two legs, two eyes and a pair of hands. i myself was in another universe, the parallel universe of the exhausted. but through those eyes, like some kind of extraterrestrial anthropologist, i could see the academic life. and it's ... well, frankly, it's kind of staggering.

one person at this symposium came in spite of the fact that her 18-year-old daughter had just been admitted to the hospital with a brain clot. this colleague is a lovely woman. after apologizing for missing the first half day, she explained that she felt coming at all was a "healthy choice." besides, her husband, who had been in europe, arrived in toronto to spell her off at the hospital. she was in edmonton for something like 36 hours, all told, and faces an all-day journey to get back to the maritimes. it's not that i am scandalized by her decision. if she says it's a healthy choice, i'm sure it is. i am just stunned that she could do it. me, i don't have that much energy.

most academics, from what i can tell, enjoy working on the weekends. i seem to be the only sourpuss who complains that conferences should happen on working days, or that department retreats should take place instead of, not in addition to, our regular commitments, or that people deserve a couple of weekdays (not weekend days, which are a whole other thing) to turn documents around. i don't know how they do it, these colleagues of mine. i find it hard to work five days a week, let alone six or seven.

don't even start me on colleagues with kids. i fare badly on one night's sleep; they are chronically underslept. i need weekends at the end of each and every week, downtime when i dust and vacuum, cruise the blogosphere, catch up with my friends, and, on a good weekend, rent a movie or two. while i am squandering my life this way, they are giving up yet more time to other people, driving to soccer practices, making nice at play dates, and running endlessly for groceries. i keep reminding myself that there must be payoffs to that life choice, but for the most part it looks to me like two full jobs.

it's not just the lack of energy that sets me apart from my colleagues; it's also the lack of patience. you need extraordinary amounts of patience to deal with people, but especially, i think, academics, who, god love 'em, take every opportunity to become their own nightmare students. take yesterday. i announce, "lunch is across the quad. i'll stay in the room so your stuff will be safe." there's already a hand in the air. "heather, can we leave our stuff here?" "yes." another: "will the room be locked over lunch? will our computers be safe?" "yes," i say, but already somebody is tapping me on the shoulder. "heather," she says, "i'm just wondering, do you think i can leave my things in the room over the lunch hour?" there must be some people who don't mind this or are inured to it -- perhaps people with kids?? not only does it irritate me to have people constantly tugging on my virtual shirtsleeve, but i've lost my ability to pretend it doesn't. so by yesterday i found myself saying, snippily, "yes, that's why i just announced that very thing." which is, i think, a pretty significant sign that you've been in it too long. i don't want to be an irritable bitch, and i don't want a job that turns me into one.

this morning, i walk the group through a process. i explain what we hope to get from it. i solicit the group's agreement to the process, and we carry on. i'm in a bathroom stall when a handful of symposium-goers comes in. "i don't think this makes sense," says one. "i know," says another. "we should do it like this," she says, and goes on to explain what she thinks. the third person with them agrees. when i re-enter the room, one of them approaches me and says that she thinks we should do it differently. i say, as pleasantly as i can, that if she feels that way, she should go ahead and lead the group. "oh, i don't want to take over!," she says.

it sounds like a bald lie -- and yet, the logic of homo academicus suggests that it isn't. i think what academics truly love, more than anything, is being right. they don't like the unknown, they don't want to trust processes, they don't want to take a wrong turn and end up in unfamiliar surroundings. they want to know things, and they want the things they know to be correct. critical by habit, by training, and by conviction, they always, always know best.

and this is ultimately the biggest difference between me and the academic world. there are gazillions of things more important to me than being right. for one, being happy. for another, learning. for a third, collaborating. also: taking chances. making things. using my imagination. seeing beauty. listening to other people. trying things out. leading.

so, i disgraced myself. i left the symposium in tears, before it was even over.

the surprising thing is how disappointed i am.


Anonymous said...

by which i hope you mean...disappointed in them.

someday, over gin and tonic, let's talk about why I vowed never ever to marry another academic.

Shawna Lemay said...

thank god for people who 'don't fit.'

Anonymous said...

see, that's why i'm so happy i'm your student!

Anthony said...

i am scared shitless of going back and getting my BA, because i am afraid mostly of being annoying, of fucking up in conferences, of not knowing the protocol, of taking too much the other people in this room.