I’m a weirdo. It has never mattered what community I’m a part of — I live and work in the periphery, and expect that I always will. At this point in my life, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
And I think that you too should be a weirdo. You probably already are one. Stick with me here.
Almost inherently, anybody working in academe is abnormal. If you are pursuing a higher degree or already hold an academic appointment, you simply aren’t a typical person (if there even is such a thing). And no matter your field, the institution you work at, or your personal values and ideological commitments, you probably aren’t even a good approximation of what most Americans consider in their own minds to be normal. That we are not typical citizens is not, in my opinion, a good or a bad thing, but simply a thing.
No matter your background, the single-minded pursuit of a single topic that graduate education requires is a pursuit that in itself more than likely sets you apart from people in other professions, even though intense focus and dogged pursuit characterize many successful professionals in all sorts of fields. Strictly demographically speaking, though, pursuing or having a graduate degree makes you a statistically oddity on many levels. The simple existence of this column is an acknowledgment that the professional life of the university, and all that it requires of us, is strange and unusual in comparison to other fields, and that it needs to be both explained and explored.
Many of my columns are attempts to decode the alchemy of strange and idiosyncratic conventions and expectations that govern the professional life of the university. Quite simply, my thinking is that our world need not be as strange and opaque as it frequently is even to those of us who inhabit it. As a rhetorician, my academic training inclines me to look for systems of unstated rules, the mechanisms through which we communicate, both intentionally and unintentionally, and to bring those subtleties to the fore, in hope that we can all navigate them a little more easily. As a teacher, I feel that learning need not be painful, and that if we can remove some of the trial-and-error learning from our development as professionals, we can remove some of the pain.
I also think that the mentorship model through which most of us enter the profession is necessary but incomplete, because as we become more incorporated into our professions, as we become mentors ourselves, we forget how much we have learned through trial and error. In turn, we take academe’s quirks for granted, and subsequently neglect to pass information on to the generations of academics who follow us, who are in turn damned to their own painful professional lives of trial and error. That’s not an efficient teaching or training model.
Usually my reflections are on how to navigate the academy's weirdnesses, while hiding those of our own that might be liabilities. But there’s a flip side, a case for being weird, openly weird. Stick with me here.
The academic job market spurs a lot of talk about "fit." When there are so many qualified applicants pursuing every available job, the power swings to those doing the hiring, and allows hiring committees to get very picky about this alchemic, undefined thing called "fit." I do agree, very much, that an individual needs to "fit" within the intellectual and professional culture of the department and college where that individual is eventually employed. And this, this need for "fit," is why we should all be weird.
To put things more accurately, the need for "fit" is why we should all be upfront about our own individual quirks and weirdnesses, and why we should display the ones relevant to our professional lives. While of course none of us want to offend or come across as off-putting, especially when we’re in the act of what is essentially an audition for a job, it is nonetheless important to be honest about some of our quirks. And neither does letting our own weirdnesses show require oversharing. But I think we’re all well-served in the long-run by being our weird selves.
Here's a relatively simple and low-stakes example. When I’m writing, researching, grading, or prepping for class, I have a hard time working (as in, I can’t) if I’m frequently interrupted or distracted. So, when I’m working and not holding office hours, I close my office door, or I work from home. Sounds like a pretty small and not so unusual weirdness, right? However, in some departments routinely working with one’s door closed is considered the height of rudeness. And in other departments, working from home too often is the fast track to being dubbed lazy or anti-collegial, either of which could have profoundly negative consequences.
But my weirdness in this case — that I simply can’t learn to work through or around frequent interruptions, unlike some of my colleagues, who can focus and refocus their minds like choreographed lasers — is actually a big deal. I would be supremely unhappy, and a lot less productive, if I were in a department with a literal open-door policy. (My door is always "open" to students and colleagues though — even if it is literally shut — just knock.) If you have a similar quirk, it’s important to find out if such behavior — simply keeping your office door closed in this case — would isolate you from your department in more consequential ways. And if you do not ask, you will not know. The greater the magnitude of the weirdness, the greater the stakes, for you and your colleagues alike.
Of course other quirks — and I’m only even talking about the professional ones here, because we all have our quirk-riddled personal lives as well — may have even higher stakes (and they often bleed into one another in our world, sure enough). Each department and each college and each university have their own institutional cultures. Some will accommodate, even welcome, your quirks, which will make you happy, while others will hold you in contempt for your idiosyncrasies, which will make you miserable. On the other side of the weird, a department with too narrow a range for the acceptable weirdnesses of its colleagues may find itself losing colleagues to other universities, not to mention mired in conventional mediocrity, devoid of ambitious (that is, risk-taking) scholars, and staffed by the stiffest, least imaginative of pedagogues.
If your scholarship is particularly weird or controversial, it will be important for you to know whether or not your new department can tolerate your intellectual position. From my perspective, the healthiest departmental cultures are the ones wherein minority or unpopular opinions or specializations are not treated as second-class. Such intellectual health, unfortunately, is not as common as we all might hope.
But at least in comparison to a lot of other professional communities, the academy appears to my eyes to be pretty accepting of weirdos. We’re supposed to be, anyway. And if we aren’t, then so-called “academic freedom” isn’t worth the breath it’s muttered with. I like that in the academy, I’m allowed to be a weirdo. And I like that I get to work with a lot of other weirdos of different stripes. Maybe that’s part of why I was attracted to this life. Maybe it’s part of why you were.
When I was a graduate student, an undergraduate in one of my classes asked, in all politeness and earnestness, how I or anyone else in the English department could pursue such specialized subjects so intensely. I had to think for a moment before responding, and even then I had to answer in a roundabout way.
"Imagine that academics were not academics," I said to the student, "but that instead were skateboarders."
At this point in my response, the student’s expression was predictably blank.
I continued my explanation, unfazed: "If academics were skateboarders, they would be the types of skateboarders who would skateboard off the top of a downtown skyscraper, maybe with a parachute, but maybe not. But they aren’t skateboarders," I told the student. "Instead they’re into things like medieval literature. Or quarks. Or economic theory. Or zooplankton." Committing oneself to the academic life is similar in nature to being obsessed extreme-athletes who throw themselves body mind and soul into a single undertaking, with the difference that our interests don’t, generally speaking, make for very interesting TV.
In the moment of delivering my explanation, I realized why I like so much being part of a university community, both as a professional and as a citizen. I don’t know anything about zooplankton (and had to use spellcheck to write the word), but I love running into someone who knows lots about it (or whatever else), and whose excitement about microscopic sea creatures is so passionate that I, a zooplankton ignoramus, am caught up momentarily in their excitement.
Some of your own weirdnesses, depending on what they are and how they manifest themselves, may play a critical role in whether or not you can or will be happy at a particular university. But because we often appear normal to ourselves, it’s often difficult to identify what makes us weirdos. But if you can identify those things about yourself, and find a place where your colleagues, who will hopefully also be your friends, accept those things about you, you’ll probably find yourself living and working in a very happy place, for a very long time.