In a previous incarnation of this blog — indeed what feels like a previous incarnation of my life — after receiving some well-deserved and pointed criticism, I wrote a post about the pitfalls of blogging while on the academic job market. I had begun blogging while still in grad school, when the only people who knew I existed were friends and family, and for many years, my blog reflected my life. I was as likely to write about my romantic life as I was to write about Buddhism as I was to complain about then-President Bush. Over time, the blog became more overtly political and less concerned with my personal life; nevertheless, I intentionally blurred boundaries between the personal and the professional, for better or worse. For worse — well, that was the cause of that pointed criticism I received, and it caused me to consider the professional consequences of this particular type of public speaking.
This was in 2009. A lot has changed since then.
Not long after this incident, I launched myself headlong into my professional career. I felt I had a choice to make, one primarily about time. Do I spend my time arguing with people on the internet? Or do I spend my time doing more “serious scholarship”? Or, better yet, going out and being social with family and friends? Consciously or not, I began spending less and less time worrying about the blog and more time on professional pursuits. We hosted a conference. And the subsequent book project consumed a fair amount of mental energy. This came with increased responsibilities at my home institution which further forced me to make choices about how I spent my time. My wife and I had a child. I was presented with an opportunity to write a book — and not the book I was expecting to write. When you want to be a present and active member of your family, when you want to be a “successful” academic (however that might look), when you want to be a good teacher, when you only have so many hours in the day, you are forced to make choices. Finding work-life balance is a cliché only because it’s true.
Meanwhile — while I was loosing sleep and touring pre-schools and doing unexpected research — the world began to shift. The idea that scholars can be scholars and also creatively and effectively use social media suddenly gained currency, even in some corners of our little field of Buddhist studies. (I wouldn’t say that the field has wholeheartedly embraced the idea of blogging or tweeting or tumbling or anything else; but I have seen more active engagement from scholars in these spaces which is encouraging.) And at the same time, a whole new genre of academic writing has hit the mainstream — quit-lit. There’s no point in linking to examples; a quick Google search will suffice. The gist of these pieces are usually a litany of all the things wrong with academe: the rise of the administrator more concerned with data than learning; a preponderance of PhDs in a job market that cannot possibly employ all of them; the exploitation of contingent faculty; how “contingent faculty” became a euphemism for adjuncts; backstabbing and petty colleagues; the general failings of the humanities. All of this is evidence used to justify why the author has gotten the hell out of the game and, presumably, gone on to better pastures.
Of course, all of this is true. Academia has problems. The humanities have problems. Higher education has problems. That any of this is surprising should be surprising. All human-created institutions suffer the fatal flaw of being human-created, of being imperfect. Imperfection is not the same as without value; we will never reach the idyll. But that does not mean that we shouldn’t even bother trying.
I am going to make a concerted effort to write more, to revive this space. Without mistakenly falling into self-importance, I think it’s important. There are things worth fighting for, and these things need to be voiced, need to be said. There is value in the work we do as scholars not only to ourselves but to the wider culture. Critical inquiry, critical analysis is important. Not to be cranky (a charge too often lobbed at us), but to let criticism do its actual work — uncover the sources of our failings and provide glimpses of alternatives.
The institutions of the academy, of higher education, are not without flaws. Not all of them are worth saving. Some need to be dismantled and forgotten. Other can be remodeled. But there’s value in what we do, collectively as scholars and practitioners — both value in the abstract (the quest for knowledge for its own sake) and value in the specific (developing the critical tools necessary to be responsible members of the body politic). Criticism in the form of quit-lit is important. But it cannot be the only voice, the only solution, to the problems. Other voices need to be heard. Other stories need to be told. Stories that point as much to the failings of academia as to its potential.