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On the cusp

Have been thinking recently about the rhythms of academic life, and I'm not the only one. Here at SU, we're hitting the second week of orientation for incoming TA's, with the start of the semester just a week away. I don't think it's just me--the tail end of August means that summer's over, and while we all giggle a bit at the cliché of writing on "What I Did Over Summer Vacation," there is pressure to account for one's self, to accomplish things that "count."

Coming to the end of the summer means facing up to the various grinds and pressures of the regular season, and doing so from a position that's relatively distant. Even though I've taught during the summer for 8 out of the last 10 years, and do a fair share of my research and writing during those times, there's a feeling that summer is "off," even though it's not for most of us. And that feeling, I think, requires me (at least) to sort of psych myself up, to remind myself of what I'm doing and why. There's a bunch of meta-academic posting going on, and I see that as part of this process. In addition to the links above, George Williams has embarked on an ambitious project, an attempt to talk about "how we are organized, what our responsibilities are, how we get hired, how we are evaluated, etc," specifically for people who don't have much idea (or, often enough, the wrong idea) of what it is that people in English departments do. Chuck just posted about the tenure process, and both his entry and the comments are worth reading.

I'm a little ambivalent--on the one hand, one of the rules that I try to follow is to avoid situations where I have to "educate" my audience about what I do. More often than not, that kind of rhetorical stance ends up either (a) sounding like a desperate attempt to justify myself, hence begging the question, or (b) implying that said audience is ignorant, sometimes willfully so. There's a lot of conversation in rhetoric & composition about how our colleagues, or administrators, or the public, etc., "just don't understand us," and that what we need to do is to "educate" them. The implication here is that if they understood us, they'd agree with us, and there's an arrogance underlying that position that I find really disturbing, even though I find myself falling into it more often than I'd like.

Now that being said (and this is the other hand), Timothy Burke has a review of the new book The Rule of Four, and one of the points I took away from his review was that ROF relies on some pretty well-worn, outdated, and inaccurate archetypes about academic life:

Now some of this is just part of the general clumsiness of this particular book. But I do think that this is still what a lot of Americans think academics arebasically a combination of the Nutty Professor, Professor Kingley from The Paper Chase, Dr. Frankenstein, and various and sundry novelistic alcoholic and lechers. People with secrets, people with strange and monastic passions, people with eccentric manners and esoteric knowledge, people who are sometimes horribly unprincipled but usually in an ethereal and otherwordly way. Its not utterly wrong, but its not especially true either.

I'm still optimistic enough to believe that what George is doing might make a difference in this regard. I don't get the impression from his post (or the subsequent comments) that this is about proving to some faceless audience that what we do is worthwhile. I'm projecting, perhaps, but I'd like to think that his project is about making what we do less of a blackbox operation, not because we need to justify it, but because much of our profession is invisible to the general public, but also sometimes to our employers, our colleagues, and our graduate students. I'm not sure that even we always understand what it is that we do, and if George's site helps in that regard, it'll be worth it.

And so, if it's worth doing, it's worth it for me to contribute. That's my next post...