Thursday, February 23, 2012

the problem with academia and a light in the face of that darkness

I had a breakthrough today in my graduate program, and I'm really happy about it. Lately, I have been feeling like I am running on a treadmill: working hard, going nowhere, and quickly losing energy. I kept trying to make contact with professors, looking for guidance on completing my master's thesis.

I am so passionate about my topic, yet academics find a way to smother that excitement with as much banality and specificity as possible. There are things I knew about academia before I came here, general rules about how academia works, its place in our society, and the culture of it. Here are some of them:

- write as obscurely as possible. that way, no one can critique your work because no one knows what you're talking about.
- pick obscure and highly technical topics. that way, no one can criticize you because no one knows what you're writing about.
- treat the scientific method as a religion. care only about the mighty power of the rational human mind, and scoff at anyone who defies the holy dogma of the Enlightenment.
- care about hierarchy and competition. always find a way to compare yourself to others.
- love individualism. don't help anyone, they're your competition. every man is for himself.
- when someone asks you something clearly and sincerely, give them book recommendations and talk about theories that have big words in them. that way, you won't reveal that you don't know anything about what they're asking.
- never say I don't know.
- promote yourself, market yourself, sell yourself. Always know how to answer the question: 'I am amazing because...'
- truly think that your work is important even while talking about the incremental nature of the scientific method.
- espouse ideas that are en vogue in the discipline, even if they're wrong or make little to no sense. academia is a religion with a thousand sub-cults.
- never tell a story or talk about emotions or senses in your research. stories are for novelists. never mind that they're more compelling. stories are for sissies (or, even worse, dumb people who don't understand logistic regression).

So, I forgot a little about these things last semester. I was all caught up in figuring out my place, goals, and life in this new program. I didn't see the world around me, or I was too cognitively occupied to notice these things. But this semester, these aspects of academia about which I learned in college have again come to light.

I was trudging along, trying to get help and meeting resistance by all members of the academic-stasi who shot down what I want to study, how I want to study it, and why it matters.

Ok, so here's what I care about. I think food matters. I think it matters in a lot of ways. It matters that people have enough to eat, it matters where it comes from, how it gets where it's going, who grows it, how they grow it, how people eat it, how people feel about all of these things. I want to tell a story about some aspect of food. I think stories are the best vectors for ideas. I know how to do statistics, I get good grades in math classes, I just think they're boring and arrogant.

So, my ideas were met with a lot of hostility both for the content and the methods by a lot of people. Yet, the clouds of skepticism broke for a moment today with the chair of our department. She not only nurtured my ideas, my way of thinking, but also filled me with more enthusiasm than I came in with. She pushed me to think about the classical theorists, to consider different ways of thinking about my problem, while also coming up with tangible goals toward a realistic master's project.

She and I discussed the silliness of purely rational thinking, how academics write obscurely and why, the futility of thinking only in terms of the scientific method. She gave me practical advice on how to approach difficult theories (read two interpretations of someone like Marx and then read Marx himself). On top of all this, she said she would be *honored* to be on my committee. Que simpatica.

My chair is a rare gem in this individualistic world of academia. She renewed the spark in me to learn for the sake of curiosity, not just because I'm doing it professionally. Without her, at this moment I'd be lost.