March 6, 2008

Searching for meaning in academia

One of the more psychologically-minded and empathic professors who blog about teaching, Louis Schmier writes a blog called "Random Thoughts." His most recent post touches on an issue that I often hear professors talk about: how to find meaning and purpose in academia as you struggle your way up the academic ladder. In an atmosphere where over-working and not having a life can seem to be prized, and where in the years before tenure you feel the need to hide your real self and cater to bureaucratic demands, it's hard to stay in touch with the idealistic visions or intense intellectual passions that got you into academia in the first place. I'm encouraged that he describes having been to a conference (The Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching) where people were able to discuss their feelings about the loss of connection to a "meaningful purpose."

Don't wait until you get tenure to think about these issues. You don't want to arrive at your destination and find out that the struggle to get there wore you out and left you without motivation or interest in your field. Here is a recent post from one of the professors I work with that illustrates what can happen to your life during the tenure-track years if you are not careful:

I actually stopped socializing ... I think it happened in my second year on the tenure track. My work schedule made me avoid people and then I got so used to being alone I stopped seeking people out. Before that, I was fairly social... I think it is really important to maintain contact with friends and socialize. I don't know how to achieve that balance. I think my life is kind of a cautionary tale because I stopped socializing and now I'm not sure I even know how to do it anymore. Not interacting with people outside of work besides my immediate family is a habit for me and I am concerned that I may never get back into a social groove now. I lost some social skills and interacting with people feels exhausting to me and too much work. I can't get to any deeper level with people because I only see them every six months. I don't think this is a good solution at all.

Read Schmier's recent blog post for a more thorough description of the thoughts and feelings of the professors he talked to who "want something more."


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