Monday, November 14, 2005

Life Goals

A quote from a Dave Barry column (which I found on Life After York):

    "So I visited my son at college on Parents Weekend, which is a nice event that colleges hold so that parents will have a chance to feel old.

    I started feeling old the moment I got to my son's housing unit and saw a sign on the door that said: END WORLD HUNGER TODAY. This reminded me that there was a time in my life, decades ago, when I was so full of energy that I was going to not only END WORLD HUNGER, but also STOP WAR and ELIMINATE RACISM. Whereas today my life goals, to judge from the notes I leave myself, tend to be along the lines of BUY DETERGENT."

As my wife successfully completes her doctorate and launches her academic career, and I am coming up on yet another birthday, I can't help noticing that I'm less than a decade from retirement, and I have yet to start on, let alone achieve, most of my career goals. My self image is still that of the 'young turk', new to the faculty, about to start -- real soon now -- on one of my many major projects. So it is increasingly distressing to me that so many of my colleagues now seem to be considerably younger than I, and keep referrng to me as 'a senior member of the faculty'. When the hell did that happen?

So I keep looking at the various projects that I'm supposed to be working on and asking myself, is this what I really want to be known for? And the answer usually is, 'Not so much'. I mean, there is a tension between doing something because the opportunity to do it is there, and it will play well on one's annual report because it means a quick and easy publication credit; versus doing what I really am interested in, for which there is generally no market or career payoff. And the way life is, one thinks, "I'll just knock off this quick project to satisfy the annual report requirements, and then get on with the good stuff" but what really happens is that you're lucky if you have the time and energy to finish the 'quicky' and end up never doing the 'important' stuff....

It's obvious, of course, that academia is structured to prevent any of us from really making a difference. The annual report structure means one has to come up with a couple of publications a year, which are necessarily shallow because journal articles are too short to present any argument longer than 8000 words; are too specialized to be read by more than a handfull of other academics; and are controlled by a peer review process that rejects anything that challenges the paradigmatic status quo. So you can't get another Das Capital, because who has a lifetime to write one book? But I bet if you looked at who has an influence on our society, who actually changes the world and how we see it, it is the people who are writing books or movies, not the authors of research buried in overly specialized journals.

Hmm, sounds like an interesting study.....but I can't even consider doing it because there won't be time to get it done before my next annual report.

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