Walking through the Baltic where it is so smooth and shallow that progress is quicker in the water than it would be in the reeds and boulders on the shore. Latching onto Russian, German, Estonian, and English one after the other and all at once in the old town of Tallinn. Finishing the book about the Northern Crusades. Carting many more books out from the office to pile up in temporary stacks all over the little house opposite the Andersen museum. Translating a paragraph from the Old Norse reader at dusk in the yard with – at last! – something approaching fluidity.
Such are the things that stick in my mind from the past fortnight. Quite a mix, but they have at least one thing in common, and that is the fact that they have brought an understanding of how little fulfilment academia has come to give.
With the clarity of the landscape, and the historical intensity of Tallinn, the Estonian holiday evoked the old desire to understand things again. I realized just how much it had been worn away, just how much curiosity, discovery, and learning had been displaced by the pragmatic circumstances and consequences of year upon year in insecure positions.
I knew this already on some level, but it took the change of scene to make me grasp it properly. And, when I came back, something was different as a result: there was no longer any mental disjunction between clearing out the office and entering the world of history, language, and literature that the books open up. In fact, it suddenly seemed accessible again.
Why is this so? What has got in the way?
There are the practical things – exploitation, cynicism, cronyism, insecurity, and all the rest of that. There is the intellectual frame, which seems to be becoming increasingly fragmented into narrowing specialisms and particular lines of enquiry that are identified as ‘the future’ in any particular context. There are, finally, the changing principles that define the spaces in which research and teaching happen – such as what I perceive as a tendency to embrace the rhetoric, if not the agenda, of utilitarian approaches to university ‘education’.
All of these things – to an extent, at least, they feed off one another – have become more and more noticeable to me since I started out. How much of this is really new, may be a harder question to answer … I have come across too many cases of scholarly rivalry in earlier centuries to idealize the academic past. I think, though, that one can safely say that the consequences are the more pressing in a climate such as the present one where long-term opportunities are so very rare.
What has saddened me most is none of this as such, but more the apparent inability of the profession to confront the inequities that result from it. Take for instance the job market. Anyone who has been in this game for any length of time knows that things happen that are not fair in any reasonable sense of the word – but how often is this discussed frankly and inclusively in public?
It’s not that I’ve had enough once and for all. One of the nice things about this fellowship is that it has left me knowing very clearly what I would like to do with my research in future, without too many lose ends to carry over, and with a relatively clear intellectual framework for how I would do it.
But that would require – as I wrote a few days ago to a truly generous colleague who offered to keep an eye open for teaching cover needs – a position with a meaningful future. Further tilting at windmills trying to create it by proving the ‘value’ of what one does – is simply not an option.