How to Live Less Anxiously in Academe

4 steps toward an alternative academic career

Randy Enos for The Chronicle Review

September 28, 2016

If it is still true that a university job is about teaching and writing, then in this age of market fundamentalism, those two faculty roles have attained a distinct nature. Successful researchers are what Christopher Hitchens once called "micro-megalomaniacs." They have carved out a small and distinct place for themselves, over which they rule uninhibitedly. Their writing is unreadable as well as unread, neither of which is a disadvantage, because, as Russell Jacoby reminds us, "if your work is readable and is read and therefore considered journalistic — then that’s a curse." And, he added: "If no one reads it, it’s certainly not held against you."

The same goes for teaching. At least where we teach — in Britain and Sweden — being a disengaged teacher is nothing to be ashamed of at a research university. In that institutional sector, a yardstick for academic success is the distance you can maintain between yourself and the students. We’ve both received advice over the years to spend our time and effort on research, not teaching.

Meanwhile, teaching or service aspirations — say, teaching something that actually engages students, or writing something that is actually read — are not rewarded.

But we already know this, and we know that this situation is not going to change all of a sudden. So for those of you who have grown tired of this futile moaning and wish to do something about it, we will suggest four steps toward an alternative academic career.

These steps are not fast-track routes to scholarly excellence, but neither are they suicidal, careerwise. We’re both living examples. True, we may not be singled out as role models in our institutions; for starters, our publication records are too short and too nonacademic in orientation. Yet we’re largely left alone to pursue our broader interests, which is all we ask for.

Step No. 1: Kill your institutional aspirations. There has always been a tension between intellectual aspirations and institutional demands.

While aspiring intellectuals, such as ourselves, may never be entirely free to do what we want to do, we can nonetheless develop a particular orientation toward our university employers. Instead of becoming part of an institution — filling in reports, sitting on committees, golfing with deans — we can regard ourselves as merely residing in an institution, doing no more bureaucratic work than what is required. Meanwhile, we can enjoy the liberties that come with having relatively safe employment, with actual weekends and holidays, which is something that has become an unattainable luxury to the freelancer. As Mark Greif has put it in a 2015 essay on public intellectuals in these pages, "One must simultaneously differentiate oneself from the university spiritually and embed oneself within it financially."

The trick is to navigate that fine line. Once you get an academic job, you may want to keep a low profile, and just live up to the basic expectations. Smile and nod, but don’t overdo it. Then gradually — without giving the game away — cultivate an indifference and apathy toward institutional demands. Little by little, you should distance yourself from the spirit of the professional university.

What we suggest here is not new or revolutionary. In a letter to his imaginary friend Tovarich, C. Wright Mills wrote that he was a "Wobbly" professor. He lived, as he put it, "outside the whale" of academe.

But crucial here: Remaining spiritually outside academe does not mean we should all recline on a couch, sleep through the days with our office-doors locked, and cash in a regular salary. We should just use the time differently. Spend it on meaningful intellectual activities. Which is what the sociologist Gary T. Marx did after his rise and fall from professional grace in the late 1960s. In a 1990 confessional essay, he describes how he started off as an academic supernova. But as he climbed the institutional ladder, the responsibilities expanded and got heavier. He was offered editorial positions, invited to give keynote speeches, and asked to take on senior administrative roles. The paradox of academic success, Marx wrote, is that it "brings less time to do the very thing for which you are now being recognized."

Things started to go awry for Marx — "the sweet smell of success" he had initially scented "turned slightly rancid." He grew disillusioned and angry, no longer knowing what he was doing in academe. Eventually he was denied tenure, and had to start over. So to avoid the same fate as Gary Marx, kill your institutional aspirations.

Step No. 2: Be an amateur. When you’ve rid yourself of all institutional aspirations you are ready to say it out loud: "I’m an amateur."

Both of us are amateurs. We were never trained to write; never trained to teach. Well, one of us was forced into a term-long, teacher-training course with a management consultant — which was about as helpful as a mixed-martial-arts course run by a peace activist.

Being an amateur is nothing to be ashamed of. Edward Said embraced the term. For him it was the mode of the intellectual. Amateurism, he said, is "the desire to be moved not by profit or reward, but by love for an unquenchable interest in the larger picture." It is a desire, he continued, that lies "in refusing to be tied down to a specialty, in caring for ideas and values despite the restrictions of a profession."

As an amateur you are naturally anti-instrumental. You’re largely indifferent to extrinsic rewards or status. When doing research, you’re not interested in gaining an elevated position among your immediate academic peers. You’re just interested in keeping your job, making sure not to get fired.

After Gary Marx’s career crashed, he restyled himself as an academic with broad intellectual interests and minimal professional aspirations. Of course, that didn’t impress those who had "their hands on the reward levers." He never made employee of the month. Even so, Marx notes, this orientation "is likely to enhance the quality of the intellectual product" and it "feels good and helps keep one fresh."

Embracing the spirit of the amateur is a reminder that, while you can call yourself an academic, you aren’t the only person who can talk and write about sociological matters. Mills was early to point out that journalists, filmmakers, authors, and artists are doing social science, too. And their work is by no means inferior. If you’ve ever watched The Wire, or read Barbara Ehrenreich’s books, you know what we mean.

As amateurs we need to be open. And we need to experiment with different outlets, and work on how we get our ideas across. Which brings us to ...

Step No. 3: Stop writing badly. Academics publish more today than ever before. But the problem is not the volume. It’s the quality. With its jargon and passive phrases, our academic articles are rarely a pleasure to read. But who cares? Bad prose is not necessarily a disadvantage when making an academic career. Strange as it may seem, we are actively encouraged to write poorly, as Michael Billig explains in Learn to Write Badly.

Sure, writing well is hard and takes time, and most of us will never become great writers. But we can all try to stop writing badly. Or at least stop actively trying to write badly. There are several useful guides out there, which can help you on the way — such as Stephen King’s On Writing and William Zinsser’s On Writing Well.

But as much as we need to ask how we write, we need to ask what we write. Are we writing about topics worth caring about? Topics that move us? Topics that move other people? All too often we seem to write about topics that move no one and have no resonance to anyone, anywhere. Take Patricia Wilner’s damning 1985 investigation into The American Sociological Review. In "The Main Drift of Sociology Between 1936 and 1982," she looked at the subjects covered by the journal during those years and found that key social and political events were largely neglected. Up until the mid-1950s, only a handful of articles (around 1 percent) dealt with the Cold War and the McCarthy witch-hunts.

It doesn’t seem a lot better in our field of business management. According to Dennis Tourish, a professor at Royal Holloway, University of London, none of the leading journals in the field have published "a substantive paper dealing with the 2008 banking meltdown."

Step No. 4: Start teaching well. Academics often don’t want to admit it, but as teachers, we actually enjoy a considerable degree of freedom. And, no, the students aren’t as utilitarian as we like to think. Believe it or not, they often want an education. A few years ago, we interviewed about 40 juniors at a business school. You know what irritated them the most? When teachers talked about them in the future tense, as tomorrow’s business leaders and entrepreneurs, as though that was a dream they all shared. Not only did they have other dreams; they also knew that — given the vast numbers of business majors — not all of them could end up as managers.

For aspiring intellectuals, teaching offers a unique opportunity. When writing for academic journals, you’re lucky to be read by more than a handful of people. With teaching, however, it’s different. Not only can we reach many more, but, as Russell Jacoby wrote in The Last Intellectuals, we "have students who pass through and on to other things." And with students passing through the university each year, you might have an impact after all.

As an unapologetic amateur you should like to experiment with form. You’re not scornful about television series and box sets or even commercials because you understand and appreciate the craft behind those productions; and you know, as Gerald Graff wrote in Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind: "If educational institutions hope to compete with the media for students’ attention … they need to devote at least as much serious thought to how they organize their representations as do the media managers who produce a ninety-second TV commercial."

No, that doesn’t mean dumb things down or adopt an infantilized tone. Just put in the same amount of care and attention as though we were working in other media, such as television or radio.

Maybe we shouldn’t separate writing from teaching. They’re both forms of productions, like a documentary film. The Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo says that, for him, "there is no difference between what I do when I am teaching in the university, and what I do when I write a column for a newspaper."

The same goes for Georg Simmel, the early 20th-century sociologist. For him, teaching was the perfect way to test new ideas, which he would later develop into books. His lectures became so popular that German newspapers started to report on them. But he wasn’t born a public intellectual. He gradually turned into one. Prior to 1900, 50 percent of his writings ended up in scholarly journals, the other half in nonscholarly publications. After 1900, 28 percent of his publications ended up in scholarly publications, 72 percent in nonacademic ones.

But Simmel’s chosen career teaches us a sober lesson. His rejection of professional orthodoxy sent him to the lowest ranks of the German academy. He remained a tutor throughout his life, only reaching the heights of full-fledged professor for a few years at the very end of his career.

He is by no means the only academic who’s been professionally marginalized on account of writing and teaching for larger audiences. Many aspiring intellectuals have put their professional careers at risk in favor of something more meaningful. They’ve cared less about their careers — and more about the world. Which, we think, is laudable. Remember Franz Kafka’s words: "In the struggle between yourself and the world, back the world."

Carl Cederström is an associate professor of organization theory at Stockholm University’s business school and Michael Marinetto is a lecturer in business ethics at Cardiff University’s business school.