From lecture hall to LA Law

July 26, 2002

More academics are recognising that universities are no longer the only place to exercise the mind and make a difference. Stephen Phillips reports on those who moonlight and those who have quit the campus for good

It has been a good year for moonlighting academics in the US. This summer's literary sensation is a 47-year-old Yale University law professor. Critics have lavished praise on Stephen Carter's novel of racial tensions at an Ivy League campus, The Emperor of Ocean Park . Publisher Alfred A. Knopf was so impressed that it advanced Carter $4.2 million (£2.7 million) and Warner Brothers snapped up the movie rights.

In March, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon , written by Columbia University film studies professor James Schamus, scooped three Oscars. His partnership with director Ang Lee has spanned several critically acclaimed and commercially successful films, including The Ice Storm , which garnered a best screenplay award at the Cannes Film festival, and the Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility , produced by Schamus.

While the lure of cash and creative opportunities means some academics are juggling extracurricular careers with college commitments, others have quit the campus for good.

Part of the reason is that US universities are producing ever more higher-degree graduates, while the number of tenure-track opportunities remains fairly constant in areas such as the humanities.

Moreover, if the past 30 years are any guide, roughly half of those studying for humanities doctorates are not destined to find a job in the academy, says Robert Weisbuch, president of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, which is in the vanguard of efforts to find such people gainful employment elsewhere.

With 81 per cent of humanities PhD candidates setting their hearts on an academic career, according to a recent University of California, Berkeley, survey, many face disappointment.

But this is a wrong-footed way of looking at the situation, Weisbuch says. He takes issue with the notion that a non-academic job represents failure. The Berkeley PhD poll, he notes, found that, ten years after graduation, job satisfaction was higher among those in non-academic posts than among those in the professoriat.

This is ammunition for Weisbuch's message to students that there are fulfilling opportunities outside academia, in fields such as writing and editing, management and charities, for which an advanced education confers an edge.

This view would be endorsed by John Romano, a former Columbia University English professor who has written critical studies of Charles Dickens and 19th-century literature. He has penned and produced television series such as Hill Street Blues and LA Law . His latest project is writing the script for a biopic of captured American Taliban fighter John Walker Lindh.

Another campus refugee in Hollywood is X-Files star David Duchovny, who with an MA from Yale University was just months shy of gaining his PhD in English from Princeton when he defected to Tinseltown.

Others prefer to keep their non-academic work on the side. Peter Brunette, an English and film studies professor at George Mason University, near Washington DC, has become an arts journalist, even though he says he felt decidedly sniffy when a friend suggested he attend the Montreal Film Festival 17 years ago. "I pooh-poohed it. I said, 'I'm an academic'," he comments.

But he went along out of curiosity and a new vista opened. "My head was turned," he recalls of his induction into the world of premieres, advance screenings and directors whose names he knew only from his course curriculum.

Brunette started thinking about how he could use his academic credentials to become a player. "The real world has a hunger for academics," he reasoned, but "what the festivals invite you for is to get in newspapers." To his surprise, The New York Times and The Washington Post took up his offers to write about film, and over the years he squeezed in interviews with the likes of Tom Stoppard, Mike Leigh, Baz Luhrmann and David Mamet between faculty commitments.

But Brunette still felt a little unfulfilled. An editor once struck out his observation that the acting in a film was "brilliant". "'This is too evaluative - this is the role of the critic not the feature writer,' I was told." He took this as a cue to begin reviewing for The Boston Globe . This was "a chance to weigh in on the national cultural conversation".

However, there are trade-offs in popular writing, Brunette says. "The downside is that you cannot work at the level of complexity and density of academia. But on the other hand you reach many more people." Nevertheless, he still attempts to use academic ideas in his reviews, he says.

Brunette believes the access he has to cinema luminaries enriches his teaching: "I can show a film by Peter Greenaway to my students and say, 'I've interviewed him three times and here's what he says about his films.'" Attending festivals helps keep Brunette up to date, but moving in industry circles has also given him a less lofty view of the movie industry and what films can accomplish amid commercial pressures - "I know that films have to have a happy ending and feature people in their 20s." That is why he is loath to take his passion for film further and turn his hand to screenwriting.

Some academics find that a taste of life outside gives them a critical view of campus life and provides them with the spur to move on. Former political scientist Delia Boylan swapped the cloistered calm of the University of Chicago for the buzz of the city's public radio station, WBEZ. As associate producer of Odyssey , a daily talk show, she frames topics for discussion and books guests.

Boylan's mid-career shift came after much soul-searching. She enjoyed an upwardly mobile career at America's leading research universities before she finally pinned down the cause of the nagging sense of dissatisfaction that dogged her from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Chicago. "I didn't wake up excited to go to work. I began to wonder what was wrong with me."

During a sabbatical in 2000-01, Boylan's experience as a policy adviser at the US Treasury crystallised what she was missing from academic life. "The big insight was that I was more interested in people than policy."

Political science, in the US at least, tends to be very theoretical, she says.

"I love to write," Boylan adds. But publishing dry articles in academic journals had become onerous. "I didn't enjoy regurgitating theory, hypothesis and conclusion."

She also felt frustrated at the lack of collaborative opportunities. "I like to work in teams, which you can do in academia, but it's like 'I do my part and you do yours'."

Such success stories may not be commonplace, but they show how attitudes are changing. Many people no longer see an academic post as a job for life, and they fit their studies around other pursuits or use their knowledge as a springboard into different activities.

Linda Hutcheon, professor of English and comparative literature at the University of Toronto, who has helped organise career workshops for students, says employers are also becoming more receptive to what advanced degree-holders and academics can offer. "They are no longer afraid of getting a bookworm."

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