Why academic life is sweet

February 12, 1999

An extended family, secret societies and camaraderie I Harvey J. Kaye extols the professorial career

These days American academics rarely speak publicly about the delights of donnish life. No doubt we fear it would afford ammunition to our enemies, those bureaucrats and executives who insist that professors "have it cushy" and those conservatives who accuse us of corruption. We gripe, complain and protest. We feel besieged and we truly have every reason to do so. The culture wars may be waning, but the codification, commodification, and proletarianisation of higher education intensifies.

Does our silence on the joys of academe do us any good? Apparently concerned that we have allowed ourselves to sound like, if not become, a bunch of sourpusses, James Axtell, professor of ethnohistory at the College of William and Mary, has broken the taboo and authored The Pleasures of Academe.

Professor Axtell frames his book as a response to our antagonists. But he writes more affirmatively than defensively. Without conceding anything to our critics, he reminds us of the simple, yet rich, enjoyments of our vocation.

In chapters combining professional reflection and personal recollection, he treats not only serious questions like the demands and intrigues of scholarship, and "what makes a university great?", but also far more entertaining subjects like bibliolatry, interdisciplinarity, college sports, college towns, and academic family vacations. I read snippets to my family, rightly figuring they would empathise with Axtell.

Unfortunately, he does not really get into the pleasures of academic comradeship. Admittedly, in the course of endless meetings, and the even more dreadful peer reviews, friendships can be severely tested. But, in a country the size of the United States, pursuing a career that inevitably takes you far from your parental home, departmental colleagues and their families can become like kinfolk, especially at holiday times.

Every year, our family celebrates Labor Day, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day and the 4th of July with a couple of my colleagues and their children. After 20 years we are essentially an extended family. I particularly relish those moments when the older kids, having put up with us for so long, come home from college ready and eager to educate their professorial parents and elders. As the youngest of the three professors, I dread the prospect of our friends taking early retirement and seeking out warmer climes than Wisconsin.

Academic comradeship can even transcend seemingly immense obstacles, such as disciplinary boundaries, age differences and political antagonisms. Here I not only join with Professor Axtell in breaking the aforementioned taboo, but also I reveal my participation in a most secret society which has convened three times annually since 1987 to address the issues of the university, higher education, the US, and the globe. The group is so audacious, it usually tackles the past as much as the present.

Our mysterious, all-male society's membership is so unfathomable, I doubt my revelation will be taken seriously by those who recognise its membership. Our clandestine club consists of scientist Dave Jowett, humanist Jerry Rodesch, and social-scientist me; respectively, a conservative Liverpudlian in his sixties, a liberal Wisconsinite in his fifties, and a socialist New Yorker in his forties.

Consider what I suffer in hopes of solving the world's problems. On one side, I confront an excitable working-class "Scouser" who preferred history but felt compelled to study biology and then, after a stint with the Colonial Office in Uganda, came to the United States on a postdoctoral fellowship, became a conservative in the 1960s, and served a term as our university's vice-chancellor in the 1980s.

On the other side, I face a relaxed Midwestern "cheesehead" from a labour-union family who, having served a stint with the US State Department in Florence, returned home to pursue a professorial career in the humanities, and exults in belittling the excesses of social science.

To avoid detection, surveillance and distraction, we hold our never-quite-long-enough, five-hour sessions at a Mexican bar and restaurant located some miles from campus. And we always depart after dark. Furthermore, we only pause in our deliberations when ordering our fajitas or another round of Bass ale. Call us callous, in view of the urgency and weight of the issues we confront. But we definitely have one "helluva good time".

By 10pm, we have just warmed up. Had we another few hours in session, I think we would either figure out how to actually solve the world's crises, or end up never speaking to each other again. Fortunately, spouses and families beckon.

It is amazing. Nothing ever gets resolved, and yet I always leave feeling really good. (Lest you jump to conclusions, please note that we stop drinking well before we head our separate ways.) I would not want my co-conspirators to get swelled heads, but I always leave thinking that as wrong or inadequate as their views are politically, they do know far more than me. Of course, my dad always said, the smartest thing you can do is to make sure you have friends who are smarter than you.

OK, I have come clean. I love the academic life, not just for the excitements of teaching, writing and service, but also for the many other special pleasures it affords. Indeed, when you think about it, the worst problems lie not in academe, but in those institutions which, while they pay so well, fail to engender real pleasure and comradeship.

Harvey J. Kaye is professor of social change and development at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.

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