global politics, relationally

Thoughts on Perspective in Academic Life


As I was cruising Inside Higher Ed this early afternoon, I found a post about finding perspective in a tough academic job market. In it, William Bradley, a Visiting Assistant Professor of English at St. Lawrence University, tells the story of his VAP job alongside the story of his battle with, and survival of Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Bradley’s post serves as a reminder of the ties between job security and medical security, but it also serves as a reminder of the need to work to live rather than living to work. Bradley talks about the good times he’s had over the years of trying to establish an academic career, from meeting his spouse to traveling to raising kittens. As he explains, “teaching and writing have been important parts of my life, and I definitely would like to continue doing both” but “it seems to me at this moment that, if I have to give up the academic life, I can do so.”

I think the reason that those words seem so unfamiliar to many of the readers of the post is that, especially in a time of economic shrinkage and the rising percentage of courses taught by adjunct labor, it is easy to get sucked in by the notion that one has to do everything one can possibly do to succeed – to become the job. And even when people don’t become the job, its easy to see ourselves and our colleagues as the job – not looking deeper, not seeing dimensionality and depth, and not treating ourselves and our colleagues as people who work rather than as workers. 

So, as I read Bradley’s post, I thought it might be a good idea to think about who I am, and to ask who the people around me are. As people, rather than just as CVs, impact factors, citation counts, teaching evaluations, and argumentative engagements. But then there’s a balance to be struck – because if there’s a risk of sharing and knowing too much. After all …

I’ve since found out that wedding pictures on my personal website when I was on the job market in 2009 affected the perception of my cost on the job market. More than once, I’ve read an online comment about the tagline on my website (“talk nerdy to me”) being inappropriate. Also more than once, I’ve seen people misread something that was going on in my life as something that was going on in my career, or vice versa. Every inclusion of ‘the personal’ in ‘the academic’ carries with it fraught risks of exposure and misinterpretation.

At the same time, many of my friends who work in management in the corporate world spend a lot of time on team-building exercises, trust-building exercises, workflow charts, and the development of relationships among key personnel. The message that their companies seem to carry is that when people work well together, companies work well – so valuing the personal in the workplace environment is actually a work smart strategy.

Many discussions about networking in political science have suggested something similar – that there is a professional benefit to be had from relating well to people in the discipline. But most of those efforts seem to stop short of a full humanization of our colleagues, either at our home institutions or across the field. Instead, we often use shortcuts to identify the personality traits of those around us. For example, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told that I need to ‘work on my work-life balance,’ an assumption apparently made because of my productivity. I’ve rarely uttered under my breath, ‘if only you knew …’ – but have always meant it.

And I’m not saying people need to know that. In fact, I don’t think, as a general rule, they should. But I do think, with Bradley, that perspective is important – and that an important part of that perspective is reminding ourselves (and each other) not to be the job, and not to assume others are reducible to the job – even (and especially) in an era of professional hypercompetitiveness. Whether its lymphoma and medical insecurity or traveling, marriage, and cats – everyone who does this is more than the job, and the rest of the person matters most – for ourselves, and for those who we interact with across the profession.