It's Your Duty to Be Miserable!

Brian Taylor

October 14, 2012

Every fall, during convocation, as we professors parade in our academic regalia, I am reminded of the march of the penitents in Bergman's film The Seventh Seal.

It is not just the medieval ceremony; it's the reflexive small talk:

"Did you have a good summer?"

"Well, I got a lot of writing done. And you?"

"Yes, I delivered a book manuscript, I'm waiting for decisions on two articles, and I taught three summer courses."

"That's too bad. All that teaching must have cut into your productivity."

As I eavesdrop on such conversations, I imagine them punctuated by the whish and crack of the flagellant's whip.

Of course, I am a penitent, too. If someone asks, "How are you?," I sigh, shrug, and say, "Busy, like everyone else." If pressed, I will admit that I spent some time with my family—the way a Mormon might confess to having tried a beer, once. For more than 20 years, I have worn what Ian Bogost has called "the turtlenecked hairshirt." I can't help it; self-abnegation is the deepest reflex of my profession, and it's getting stronger all the time.

In that context, anyone who dares to publish an online essay in The Chronicle arguing that academics should be choosy about where they live (as Alexandra M. Lord did in "Location, Location, Location"), or that one graduate student should be allowed to marry another (as Jon T. Coleman did in "The Graduate-Student Marriage Boom"), is just asking to be pilloried for breaking one of the basic rules of academic life:

"If you are a professor, it's your duty to be miserable." Cue the "Dies Irae," the lashing of whips, and the driving of Volvos.

Surely, the Catholic tradition of monastics and mendicants lies behind this tendency that I share with my profession, but there are other traditions at work here. As H. L. Mencken said, Puritanism is "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." Happiness is worldliness, and idleness is sin: Work is an end in itself, as Max Weber observed in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Likewise, there's an old, unspoken commandment, "A professor shall not be seen mowing the lawn on weekdays."

I should take joy in the Facebook posts of far-flung colleagues who travel with their families during sabbaticals. But for some reason, they worry me, especially the pictures of smiling children on beaches building sand castles. Like the Grinch on his mountain, my inner dean splutters, "Look at them, sipping wine in Paris, sailing the Aegean, and strolling through Tuscan vineyards! I wonder how that relates to their next book project?"

I would prefer that the state legislature not think that our lives are some variation of Eat, Pray, Love on the public's dime. So I reflexively recoil against anything that supports the narrative that professors are an overpaid leisure class accountable to no one and that sabbaticals are an unjustified, costly privilege (as opposed to a chance, once every seven years, to complete a substantial project).

Behind every suggestion that academics are not working as hard as we should be—expressed in countless op-eds and speeches—is an argument for more cuts to education: the elimination of tenure-track positions, more accountability measures, and the closing of entire departments. The recession has intensified the resentment many people feel toward professors who appear to have job security, good benefits, and relatively high incomes. Hardly anyone seems to know that most college teachers are adjuncts and that graduate students have none of those privileges. Our scholarly projects are met with incredulity that anyone could have paid for them.

The renegade American Calvinist Nathaniel Hawthorne felt disdained by the "stern and black-browed Puritans" who filled the graveyards of Salem: "No aim, that I have ever cherished, would they recognize as laudable; no success of mine—if my life, beyond its domestic scope, had ever been brightened by success—would they deem otherwise than worthless, if not positively disgraceful. 'What is he?' murmurs one gray shadow of my forefathers to the other. 'A writer of story-books! What kind of a business in life—what mode of glorifying God, or being serviceable to mankind in his day and generation—may that be? Why, the degenerate fellow might as well have been a fiddler!'"

With such ancestors, what can we do but examine our CV's for evidence of salvation? "How productive have I been this day? How can I write more tomorrow? Will anyone hire me? Will I be tenured? Maybe I don't deserve to be in academe at all?"

In Such, Such Were the Joys, George Orwell says we learn our place on the playing fields of elementary school long before we enter the field of cultural production: "Life was hierarchical and whatever happened was right. There were the strong, who deserved to win and always did win, and there were the weak, who deserved to lose and always did lose, everlastingly." And so we construct a worldview in which suffering and rejection equal success: We embrace what others do not want—not having any choice in the matter—and call it virtue.

Those tendencies have been in academe throughout its history, but the intensity of that culture today is a reflection of economic and social pressure to which our profession has been subjected for more than 40 years—for so long that few of us can remember a time when it wasn't this way; when students could pay their tuition through part-time and summer jobs, and did not live in perpetual fear of unemployment.

We are long past any hope of significant reinvestment and support for higher education, especially in the humanities. It is not surprising that academe—in keeping with the traditions I have sketched—is characterized today by an apocalyptic outlook. This is an era of Jeremiads: Liberal Arts at the Brink, The Fall of the Faculty, Education's End, Declining by Degrees, The Last Professors, and The University in Ruins.

If we see someone marching with a sign that says, "We are all doomed," we would respond, smiling grimly, "Yes, of course we are. The question is not whether we are doomed, but when we are doomed. How long do we have? And how should we live during the Great Tribulation?"

Perhaps an answer also can be found in The Seventh Seal: the scene in which the knight, Antonius Block, finally discovers the purpose of his crusade: He finds something worth saving. "I shall remember this hour of peace ... the strawberries, the bowl of milk, your faces in the dusk, Michael asleep, Joseph with his lute. I shall remember our words ... and shall bear this memory between my hands as carefully as a bowl of fresh milk. And this will be a sign and a great content."

How often do such moments occur in the lives of professors?

The pleasant lunch with a trusted colleague, the class that goes so well that we forget the clock, the scholarly essay that writes itself, the daily walks through a lovely campus, and the perpetual renewal of our lives with each season and semester. No career is so miserable that it is not full of such signs that we are on the right path.

There are so many small, good things about the life of a professor—even in these difficult times—that we can stop behaving like penitents and Puritans, and forget, if only for a moment, that we are all doomed.

William Pannapacker is an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Michigan. His Twitter handle is @Pannapacker. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent those of his employers.