Saturday, December 16, 2006

On the Market Undercover

In the words of Bridget Jones, I have made a major decision. If I'm not going to end up shit-faced and listening to sad FM when I don't get the job I think I want, I have to take control of my life. No, not a diary. I've already got the blog. More important, I am going undercover.

Before I became an academic, back when I was a writer, I had this housemate. Probably the only native speaker of Yiddish under fifty in the country, she was a fascinating nutjob. She stayed up late to read the next day's New York Times online. She actually read The New Yorker, not just to read the poems and seethe at other poets' good luck, but the articles. What's more, she retained them. Talking to her was a wild ride, because she knew a great deal about politics, the humanities, the arts, the business world and made connections I sometimes couldn't follow.

She was the kind of intellectual that we in the academy should be -- with a broad knowledge of the world, the public sphere, and the latest developments in science, the arts, the humanities. But we are too caught up in our own private niche, our own bureaucratic compartment of knowledge until we end up pushing papers and arguing against ideas for something to say until, unconsciously flooded with the futility of it all, we wash up on the shores of postmodernism and actually believe that everything is play and nothing matters.

My housemate wasn't some stodgy specialist. By profession, she was a programming geek, a prodigy in math who had dropped out of Berkeley's graduate department. But the atmosphere of Silicon Valley and the obsessive work of its Gold Rush dreamers drove her nuts. So she went undercover. And wrote as an ethnographer of all the tirades of management, the overwork of programmers, the bang and bust of these software companies that employed her.

Dear reader, that's what I'm going to do. I'm going undercover. You'll hear about the absurd rituals, the mad foodways, the perverse mating habits of the academic villagers from someone who keeps threatening to go native.

The day before yesterday two different people stated I was different from many scholars because I am a writer. It struck me as odd. Odd that having a lifelong relationship with writing would mark me as different from people who regularly have to prove themselves with publications. Odder still because with all this dissertation writing, I realized I had forgotten that I am a writer -- that I entered the academy because the fit seemed decent-enough for a person who wanted to pursue intellectual, ethical, and imaginative questions in writing and who enjoyed helping others do the same.

Is it absurd to try to be a broad-based intellectual in the narrow intellectual halls of academe? To be a writer in the world of publish or perish? As silly as being on the market and still writing one's dissertation? For you, reader, I'm going to chronicle it all.

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