I’ve published another article in McSweeney’s. For those of you who don’t know, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency is an online humor publication. Also for those of you who don’t know, getting a piece in McSweeney’s is extremely hard work.
I’ve published all sorts of things over the last ten years. Books. Academic articles. Poetry, editorials, film reviews. I’m currently uploading my curriculum vitae into The University of Iowa’s new faculty activity tracking portal. This is an enormous and soul-destroying undertaking. I’ve spent hours on the task and I’d say I’m 1/10 of the way through. As part of this work, I’ve had to list all my publications. I’ve been prolific, people. Also a little insane. Churning out essays for academic journals that very few people read. Grinding out books that have made their way straight to the bottom of any and all best-selling lists. I’ve made roughly negative $10,000,000 when you account for the cost of labor. Give or take $10,000,000 or so.
All of this is to say that my stupid article in McSweeney’s feels a little different. First, I was actually paid for this. I’ll put those hard-earned $40 towards groceries this week so that my children can continue to eat. Next, it is satisfying to publish something that is so, so stupid. And something that makes me laugh.
I’ll share McSweeney’s article if you haven’t seen it yet. Lord knows I’ve smacked the thing all over my social medias. My countless (like 300) followers are smitten, I’m sure.
Anyway, here it is.
The joke in the piece, as I see it, is that the thankless, impossible video game Elden Ring has all sorts of similarities to the thankless, impossible work of being a college professor.
Remember the faculty activity system I mentioned? People, I’m about 8-years deep into my career as a professor. I’ve got a curriculum vitae that is roughly 50-pages long. There’s a 10-page list of all the conference talks, guest lectures, and workshops I’ve facilitated. There’s another 8 pages of citations for writing I’ve published. Grants, courses I’ve taught, and don’t get me started on service. 10-pages of committees, service to the university, professional development, and Lord knows what else.
You know what there isn’t? Any documentation for the cost of business for doing all this work. How has all this labor been compensated? A 50-page curriculum vitae.
Now, I’m mostly joking. My hard work has paid off. I have attained tenure. That still feels like a big deal to me. And I do credit my curriculum vitae with helping to open a path towards The University of Iowa, a place I’m very happy to work as an associate professor of English Education. So, in terms of compensation, it is true that the work I’ve done matters. Despite what I wrote in the stupid article I posted in McSweeney’s.
And here I’ll write this. So many academics get caught up in the game of academia. Publishing, getting grants, doing service, attending conferences, and all the rest. They do these things just to do these things. Make a name for themselves. Create an enormous curriculum vitae just so they have a curriculum vitae. And I don’t even blame people who approach this profession that way. We are rewarded when we do well in the game of academia. Punished when we don’t. The stakes are real.
Still, I didn’t become a professor to brag about my curriculum vitae or howl about my productivity from the mountain top.
Thinking about things matters. Having space to make sense of and theorize things matter. Writing and teaching matter. No, I don’t think my academic articles are widely read or works of genius. But I will tell you that I only write things that I care about. I only say things at conferences that feel important to me. And a little of my soul is in each of the items listed on my vitae. The citations you’d find if you search my name on Google Scholar.
It’s important to remind myself what a scholar actually is. Somebody who works to make better sense of reality with the hope that sense-making creates a little goodness that leads to goodness for others. Certainly, that feels like the work of being a scholar of education.
2023 is bizarre. What’s happening in legislative, executive, and judicial bodies across the United States astounds me. Across the world too. The culture wars on social media are, in a word, disturbing.
I worry that I’m less free to say and think about things as openly with students as I was in 2003. And I’m surprised to be writing that.
Listen, I’ve never really cared whether or not students agree with me or think the same things as me. I don’t care about whether adults, colleagues, or readers do either. Still, it feels important to be able to share the things I think, listen to the things others think, and be open to the idea that new thinking or feeling or ways of knowing might emerge. Classrooms ought to be spaces where that can happen. Blank pages too. College campuses. And yet there seems to be all sorts of pressures afoot that would limit the capacity for the sort of intellectual openness or curiosity I’m writing about.
There’s nothing new about this. A cursory glance of history reveals all sorts of people burned at the stake for thinking or saying things that challenged the powers that be. Hell, don’t get me started on Jesus. People can be so awful to each other. Forgive them, I guess, they don’t know what they do.
I do know what I want to keep doing. That’s thinking hard and making sense of the time and space I find myself in. That’s the only healthy way forward I’ve found in a life filled with instability, pain, and trauma. As a great man once wrote, you just have to keep building card houses despite your limitations.
So that’s what I’ll do. And this stupid, stupid article I published in McSweeney’s will help me laugh as I do it.