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Friday 8 June 2018

The Pitfalls of Academic Investment

Suppose you are a student of the Arts and Humanities and end up spending five graduate years reading the works (all of them) of some well-known writer/thinker. Along the way, you submit an MA thesis and a PhD. After all that, only two outcomes are possible:

Either you think that the writer you have studied is truly one of the greats, deserving of the most careful and prolonged study, exegesis and discussion. Having read all the major works (of which there are many), you will now go on to read the minor works, the correspondence, and the shopping lists. You will build a reputation as an expert on X.

Or else you conclude that your writer is entirely mistaken, wrong-headed, positively evil (in the case of Marx or Nietzsche, say) and that it is your duty to build an academic career exposing their fallacies and faults. You will be the scourge of all those still deluded enough not to spot the errors, the confusions, the dangers.

What you will not conclude is this:

Yeah, I spent a lot of time – years in fact –reading this guy. There are some good ideas but overall – and there is a lot of stuff to get through – it’s not so brilliant as some people make out. Frankly, it’s not worth doing the criticism line by line and, well, now I’m going to turn my attention to other things.

That italic passage could only be spoken by someone willing to write off a very heavy graduate school investment of time and money. Life is short and to write off five years of school is more than most of us have the stomach for. It is as a result of human caution that we end up with tenured academics who live off the intellectual capital they banked in their youth.

I see only one way of avoiding the usual outcomes. You just have to discourage young researchers from putting all their eggs into one basket. Make them move around a bit intellectually. Fine if they want to settle down with a mortgage and a dog and a human partner, but try to keep them away from intellectual monogamy. Maybe later in life; maybe in retirement when they can invest as much as they like of their leisure into whoever does it for them.

I think I was fortunate in my early academic career. I never really got a crush on anyone, or at any rate, a crush which lasted. I shopped around. I don’t regret it, though in terms of a career it was not a sensible way of behaving.

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