Archive for July, 2006

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the loneliness of the academic

July 22, 2006

John McGowan has a nice post up at Public Intelligence about the isolation and self-doubt of young academics, and about his experiences just starting out trying to find a job and a publisher for his first book. (Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get a direct link to the post to work; go to the main page and scroll down to July 11th, 2006: “The Loneliness of the Young Academic.”)

Having found a tenure-track position after years of difficulty, McGowan writes:

I now had some vision of an alternative, so being once again on tenure track, still racking up the rejections, didn’t give me knock-down depression this time around. The first book got taken and I wrote a letter of thanks to the sweet man from Brown (Roger Henkle: I never met him and saw a few years ago that he had died) who read the manuscript and recommended its publication. The letter alluded to how grateful I was for his approbation because I had no way of knowing if the book was really any good, even though I thought it was. He wrote me back a very nice letter—and picked up on that note of isolation in my letter to him.

For McGowan, this isolation seems to have been directly related to his situation as a not-yet-established academic; after that first acceptance he

started in on my second book—and it was as if someone had waved a magic wand over me. I still got articles rejected from time to time, but now they were accepted more often than not. And I never had any doubt that the book would be taken. Yet it wasn’t as if I somehow knew how to do this now, or that I really thought my essays had taken some kind of quantum leap in quality. What was the difference? I don’t think I can say exactly. Yes, I now had a kind of confidence that came though in my prose. I had a “voice,” that mysterious thing that both means nothing and also means a tremendous amount.

For others, however, that sense of isolation and doubt can last on through the years, long after worries about finding a job, becoming tenured, or establishing oneself in the profession have passed.

Michael Kammen’s 1982 article “Vanitas and the Historian’s Vocation” (JSTOR)* opens with the discovery of such doubts where Kammen least expected to find them: in the person of Charles McLean Andrews, one of the biggest names in colonial American history in the early 20th century. Kammen quotes from a letter Andrews wrote to Max Ferrand in 1915 when, according to Kammen, Andrews was 52 and had been at Yale for five years after previously teaching at Bryn Mawr and Johns Hopkins:

Dear Max:

Of course I liked your letter. Who would not have liked to have something that made him feel that what he was trying to do was worth while. Expressions of interest in onesself or ones work are so rare in New Haven that I am almost tempted to have your letter framed. I get into the habit of wondering sometimes whether it is all worth the effort and the sacrifice and the drudgery. But I always come back to the one great solace that it is all to the good, and that whatever contributes to knowledge or to life is its own reward. Then I love it and that adds to my cares, lest I be doing that which is purely selfish because I am never happier than when I am at it. I am glad you liked the paper, and I am more glad that you told me you liked it. I liked it myself, and felt that it opened a lot of possible interpretations that had not been in the past a part of our thought of colonial history. I sometimes in my climbing think that I am looking on a new world of colonial life, and that in the past we have been living like cave men instead of searchers for the truth and the light. I keep at it, but it[is] all so slow and there is so much to know. I wonder whether I shall live out the doing of what I want to do. (1-2)

For Kammen, Andrews’ letter is a useful point of departure: it provides

a parable for the rambling reflections that follow in this essay. Andrews’s candor about his crisis of confidence is wonderfully refreshing. Haven’t we all felt as he did? Haven’t we all suffered self-doubt? And having achieved some goal–the arduous completion of a monograph, the presentation of a new course–haven’t we wondered whether it was really worth the expenditure of time and psychic strength at the expense of some other activity? Were we adequately appreciated? Was the effort itself properly understood? (3)

Not having completed a monograph or even a dissertation or article I can’t quite say that I have felt as Andrews did. To look back on these particular kinds of doubts is something I have to look forward to.

*Reviews in American History, December 1982.