I just read an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “Why It’s So Hard to Leave Academe,” that got me thinking. The author, Dr. Debra Erickson, who these days considers herself an “independent scholar,” lists intellectual satisfaction as a factor that keeps academics connected with university systems.
I understand the concept of intellectual satisfaction. It’s something I feel whenever lecture #2, on subject B, is able to make sense of lecture #1, given last week on subject A. It’s the feeling one gets whenever one’s students finally connect the dots.
I recall a conversation, back when I was working toward my 1st master’s degree, with two classmates. We were enjoying our program, rigors and all, but found ourselves wondering whether the energies devoted to our studies were self-indulgent. All three of us had been high-school teachers, and we felt as if our time pursuing an advanced degree was some massive form of playing hookie. How marvelous it was to have time to read and write without having to grade papers!
The Chronicle, lately, has published a stream of articles critical of the mindset that pursues the life of the mind for its own sake. Are we intellectual indentured servants? What makes us willing to work within the academy for significantly less than we’d earn outside?
Shortly after earning my MFA I got a job that paid significantly more than my current position. I was employed by a textbook company at the rate of $125 per published page. Back then I could crank out seven to ten pages a day without ever working past 2:00 pm. It was good money, especially when I got paid for pages loaded with pictures, graphics and sidebars. Early on I figured out that the publisher cared less about the intellectual depth of my submissions than whether I was able to meet my deadlines. And I’m good at nailing deadlines.
The job paid so well I wanted to love it. Unfortunately, the level of intellectual satisfaction it provided could often be expressed as a negative integer. It sucked the marrow out of my soul to compose textbook after textbook that I would never have assigned to my own classes.
What I experienced, back then, was intellectual dissatisfaction. And I learned more from it than anything I learned during my journeys through grad school.
I’m not yet ready to consider myself an intellectual. Indeed, it still tickles the inner ear to hear students call me, “Dr. Farnsworth.” It seems strange, after a glorious ten years in grad school, no longer to consider myself a student. However, I’m determined to continue my pursuit of intellectual fulfillment, even if wandering down that pathway sounds a little self-indulgent.
Journal of Natural Hist. Ed.
Natural History Institute
Center for Humans & Nature