Words When You Can’t Sleep

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You know that wonderful, lingering state just before you fall fully asleep, when you’re just roaming back and forth between awareness and bliss, and the dreams are showing you their previews? I had that last night. And sometimes when I have that, it emerges in sounds and words.

The word of the night was beige-a vu, that state of feeling like every day trapped in your corporate cube is exactly the same as all of the other days you’ve seen…

There’s a lot of talk about “alt-careers,” which is good because most people with PhDs will have one. But one of the things we don’t talk about is how those careers start. See, the really, really strange thing about higher education is that we constantly want you to do things you don’t know how to do.

You did good in that class? Good, here’s a harder class.

You passed your comps? Good, now write a dissertation proposal.

You defended your dissertation? Good, now create three new courses from scratch and staff your lab and learn all about faculty governance.

The experience of “entry level” in almost every profession is that you get a week of frantic learning before you do exactly the same thing exactly the same way until you go mad. Architecture has “CAD monkeys” and computing has “code monkeys,” jobs where you come in at 8 and go home at 7 and the work comes to you and you do it. The corporate world depends on speed and reliability, which means they don’t try too hard for novelty. Comcast does the same thing day after day, and they get rich doing it.

The experience of “entry-level” in academia is perpetually that first period of frantic learning, if you’re doing it right. You’re always encountering new ideas and new edges of knowledge; always revising courses to take on recent developments, reading the latest publications in your field (and adjacent to it); always taking on new roles in the governance of your department, your program, your professional society. If you’re lucky and stay in academic life, you’ll be immersed in novelty and confusion and uncertainty every day of your career. It’s exhilarating and exhausting and wonderful.

You can make it into beige-a vu if you want, and we all know too many faculty who have. But a university faculty is one of the few blessed places in the world where curiosity can find its foothold, where uncertainty is a way of life.