Would John Williams’ Stoner survive today?

A tale of quiet devotion to scholarship seems all the more poignant given the relentless nature of today’s academy, says Rachel Carey

April 30, 2015

Source: David Humphries

Recently, almost 50 years after its original publication – but only two years after it became a best-seller – I got around to reading John Williams’ Stoner.

For those of you who are not familiar with the book, which was hailed by The New Yorker as “the greatest American novel you’ve never heard of”, it is a beautifully written story about one man’s perfectly ordinary life. Its protagonist, William Stoner, is an assistant professor at the University of Missouri and, through his perspective, we are offered (among many other things) a vivid portrayal of academic life. In his first year as an undergraduate, Stoner becomes enthralled by the study of English literature, having discovered the “epiphany of knowing something through words that could not be put in words”. The passion he feels for his chosen subject drives him towards a patient and lifelong dedication to its study. He becomes neither an extraordinary teacher nor a celebrated scholar, but we become invested in him and his life, and the world in which he works.

Just as the novel emphasises the importance of the character’s journey, William Stoner’s love of academia is rooted in the pursuit of knowledge rather than its end product. At an early stage in his career, Stoner is reminded by his adviser to “remember what you are and what you have chosen to become, and the significance of what you are doing”. Despite the novel being set in the first half of the 20th century, this piece of advice struck me as relevant – albeit increasingly difficult to follow.

Today, the unfortunate truth is that your “significance” as an academic, your scholarly worth, is judged almost solely on your output. You might sign up for a life in academia believing in, and enjoying, the scientific process itself, but succeeding in it requires more than belief. It requires, above all else, high impact publications and grants. The process of finding answers and seeking truths is almost entirely eclipsed by the urgency with which we need to report those answers, write up those truths and, of course, secure more funding.

Research commissioned in 2013 by the University and College Union showed that mental health problems are on the rise among UK academics. This might stem in part from the psychological make-up of those who work in academia, a world of overachievers and perfectionists; we often tend to push ourselves further, and harder, than we should. But there’s more to it than that.

There is certainly something in the nature of the work that makes self-doubt and anxiety inevitable. Working in academia has often made me feel as though I’m wandering through a forest. You start out wanting to explore new avenues and discover unknown territories. The trails are imprecise and indistinct, and you’re never quite sure that you’re going the right way – you’re not actually entirely sure you’re not going around in circles. You become acutely aware of the limits of your knowledge. You are reminded of it every time you read an old study you haven’t seen before, or hear for the first time about new, cutting-edge research. We often joke that we all have “imposter syndrome”, but honestly, it’s hard to shake the doubt when you are so regularly reminded of all that you don’t yet know – even, and perhaps especially, about your chosen area.

I think, though, it is the pressure that comes with a “publish or perish” environment, and the type of mindset it encourages, that has the most potential for harming our mental health. Academia is a world that breeds relentless self-comparison and self-assessment, where we feel the need to strive for impossible standards, to prove (as much to ourselves as to everyone else) that we are capable, that we can cope with the pressure, that we can succeed. We emerge from our PhDs knowing that there are more people than jobs and feeling like small fish in a rapidly expanding pond. When we try to keep up the pace by taking on more work, when we work longer hours, when we sit at our computers late into a Sunday evening, thinking “this is what I’ve signed up for”, we are accepting destructive and dangerous thought patterns that are becoming ingrained in academia. By accepting them, we normalise them, we trivialise them; we perpetuate them.

When, every so often, you emerge into a clearing in the academic forest, any sense of relief manifests itself very cautiously. There’s always another deadline round the corner, so we are reluctant to pause and savour these moments; the instinct is to run straight ahead. When we are only as good as our highest-impact publication, we cannot afford to get complacent.

Williams’ Stoner is an unassuming, unpretentious, unexceptional man. Yet, when I finished this book, I found myself admiring and envying him. I envied his raw appreciation for his chosen subject, and the fulfilment he’d found in committing his life to its study, regardless of where that study took him. It would be nice to say we should all take a leaf out of Stoner’s book, except that I don’t believe that would get us very far in 2015. Academia has become a world where one’s love for research is secondary to the extent to which one can yield output from it. In this context, it’s hard to maintain belief in ourselves and to “remember the significance” of what we are doing. When we are lost in the forest, the bigger picture can be frustratingly elusive.

I wonder how different life for Stoner would have been, if he had worked in academia today. Would he have carried on until his retirement with the same love for the university, the same belief in the value of academic life? Or, as is my suspicion, would the university have taken one look at his publications, told him that he should have applied for more grants, and kicked him out the door?

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Reader's comments (1)

Just finished reading it too. Amazing book and, yes, food for thought for contemporary academics too.