The academic’s work is never done

This story is true.

Last week I was sitting on a hilltop with my book in basically the absolute middle of nowhere in Wales. Dressed in gray and brown. Motionless.

Two women maybe my parents’ age walk past me on the cliff path. We say hi, in the cursory way that’s the norm for passing hikers.

A third person goes by, and I don’t even look up. But then she peers down under my hat brim.

“Are you somebody?” she asks quizzically.

“Yeah,” I say, nonplussed by the nonsensical question.

“I saw something as I was coming,” she explains, “but I thought it was a bush or a rock.”

I laugh.

“Are you studying?” she asks after a moment.

“Yeah,” I say.

“Nice spot for it,” and she looks around at the view.

“What are you studying?”

“French politics,” I say after a second of scrambling around in my brain for a quick explanation of what I do.

“What?” she says. Her accent sounds a little German.

“French politics.”

“French politics!” she exclaims in surprise. “Well, good luck with it.”

“Thanks!” I say, smiling with a half laugh.

She goes on to her friends, tells them “French politics!”

And they go on among themselves, speaking another language, German perhaps, and taking each others’ photos with a cheap tourist camera as they vanish downhill.

The moral of this story would appear to be that if you aren’t careful and you do academic work in nonacademic places you may be mistaken for a shrubbery. Or perhaps a small boulder.

Alternatively, the moral of this story is that overinvestment in academic work can become a bizarre spectacle for passers-by.

The moral of this story, and here I’m going to be serious for a second, is that it’s mighty strange that graduate school can manage to induce this state of perpetual work where even the most obscure corners of summer are subjected to neurotic productivity compulsions.

In the end, in spite of everything that this blog pretends to know about the little dominations of academic life, I have to confess that I can’t help mostly feeling that I love my work.

Disturbing, I know.

3 thoughts on “The academic’s work is never done

  1. I’ve always maintained that I’m basically *always* working, just at varying levels of productivity and aimed at several different goals. I’m always working since I’m, effectively, always learning/reading.

    The only time I feel this is not the case (for more than an hour or so at a time) is when I’m out in social settings with non-academics (nightclub, bar, beach).

    And this isn’t a complaint. Nothing like a complaint.

    The idea of not thinking about my academic interests–at all–for a full week is… incomprehensible. Unimaginable.

    And this is coming from someone as woefully unproductive (academically) as me.

  2. I realize that subjectively this kind of extreme commitment doesn’t feel like a complaint — not to me either — but objectively, the idea of constant work is comic and dystopian, a ludicrous managerial fantasy. I guess that’s a contradiction, but perhaps one we are too deeply invested in to feel bothered by.

    Which is disturbing.

  3. It’s like the parable of Thales who fell into a well while looking up at the stars.

    Maybe the trick is just to shrug it off as if you meant to appear that absentminded, this way you avoid awkward moments with people who aren’t used to that level of rigor.

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