If I had a little foresight, and a bit less fortitude, I might think more strategically about “professionalizing” my portfolio. I need to reframe my brief streaks of insight into a more coherent shtick, something “academically marketable.” Then I’d be able to devote an entire career to perfecting my diatribe, so long as I stayed current with all the pertinent jargon (whatever’s relevant to my irrelevant niche) and published a new article every year or so, each mimicking the last though slightly nuanced in some new way. I’d also need to take great care not to step on toes, nor to trespass in the substantive territories where fancier scholars already called dibs.
That path leads to tenure: the world we’re told to covet. Most grad students anticipate feeling at home there, once tenured, and fortyish.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t even professionalized yet.
The trick to “professionalization”, my ex-mentor advised, is to “network, network, network, network!”
Here’s how it’s done. You shoulder your way into the groveling pools—semicircles of grad students kissing ass and hoping for future favors. Get to know “the big names in the field,” especially the “stars.” Watch how idolatry follows them at national conferences, be jealous. Pretend they’re baseball players, and gush like groupies. Bond with them; and, again, envy them. The bonds will feel forced, the jealousy contrived. Welcome to academic life.
“Don’t dwell on the bigger problems just yet,” or the implications of living a life that implicates nothing.
So said my ex-mentor. His body language carves an epilogue, admits what his words never will: that if you spend too long living inside a box it stops mattering what happens outside. That’s why somewhere along his prolific marathon, his printed tour of the unread & unreadable prestigious-journal circuit, my ex-mentor happened upon a happy-medium citizenship, whereby not caring became okay and suddenly felt normal. Now he moves confidently through the world without ever really having to exist in it.
Embrace that tunnel vision, young scholar. Make it your asset, your confidante. If such private esteem doesn’t excite you, neither will this boring vocation. For my ex-mentor, few things in life were more fulfilling than out-sparring a less-credentialed man in a trivial debate. Nothing cranked his joy-buds like the insular orgies of academia, its geeky circle jerks and anticlimactic climaxes. It amused him to expand his inner empire, to surround himself with grad students who promised to pretend to admire him. Protégés are validation for followers who need to feel like leaders. I could build a bubble just like his, he promised, with round soapy walls to polish my presentation, wash my mouth out, cleanse the frat guy I’d been before, and smooth over the coarseness in my truer inner voice.
But the perks of being comfortable only doused my spirit. Polite golf claps can’t silence the disquieting noise of nothing happening, nothing changing, inside or out.
The longer I sit still in my ivory tower, the more I’ll come to resemble something else. Who I am today will surely dwindle, with dreams of youth falling off me like hair from a widow’s peak on an aging scalp.
And what, in silence, would become of all my words? Somehow I know they’d stop sounding original. They’d learn to reveal little about my country & my own voice, more about my subculture—the nuanced academic circle in which I chose to voice it. My message itself, whatever it grew into, would become less important to me than how it was received.
This happens when one connects with like-minded others, or when his mind starts feeling at ease among those to whom his random decisions randomly connect him.
I have nothing against connecting.
But I am petrified of disconnecting.
To become the professors I pass in these pointless halls would require all the passion & energy I have today to slowly drain out of me.
I wonder if passion is indeed like energy, like the atoms we recycle when we die; if the fire inside my belly now came from somewhere; if previously it belonged to somebody else, someone better; and if it might migrate elsewhere, later, whenever I set myself ablaze or fade like a hologram. I wonder, will the zeal I know only as my own float off to something new? If so, where will it go? Will it get snagged on another trap, caught in another circular life like this one? Or will it flee to the paradises I never found but in my head, those magic hotspots more receptive to passions?
I wish I had some say in the matter.