The Academic as Artist: “Not a Lot of Money Here”

“This is more art than science,” a professor recently said in a class on research methodology, before quickly adding, “Don’t quote me on that.” Sorry, Professor, you’ll have to settle for anonymity.

He had no way of knowing this, but the line between the social sciences and art had been something on my mind all week. It started when I saw Inside Llewyn Davis over the weekend, and while I tend to enjoy Coen Brothers movies generally, their story about a self-important starving folk artist really struck a chord (pardon the pun) with me. A few days later, some female peers of mine told me, to my surprise, that other women sometimes treated them differently when it was learned they were doctoral students, as this carried the implication that they, as academics, were more successful. I had always assumed the world went by the old adage of “Those that can, do; those that cannot, teach.” If you have the talent and skills to really make it in this world, it is presumed that you will plunge into the private sector and make money hand over fist; those who embrace academia are doing the opposite, running from the “real world” and eschewing the mind-numbing 9-to-5 rat race to pursue their esoteric projects in the Ivory Tower.

Like for most people, my image of the stereotypical college professor is a tweedy, bespectacled intellectual, but for me, defining characteristics also included a proclivity for blowing the minds of young, doe-eyed students; forgoing formality to build bonds with students; and, invariably, some quirk that made him or her unsuitable for a “real” job, be it extreme absent-mindedness or a militant, unwavering devotion to feminism, Marxism, or something similar. What separated the college professor from the high school teacher (especially the substitute teachers) was passion. Whereas the latter were dead inside, their souls destroyed by years of apathetic and rebellious teenagers, professors loved what they taught, loved expressing and sharing their knowledge and, rather than wanting to staunch youth in revolt, actively encouraged students to think critically and question authority. Campuses were the battlefields of student activism, and I expected the professors – the good ones, anyway – on the same side of the barricades as their students.

There is always some truth nested in stereotypes, and while I may have crossed paths with professors just as dispirited as any high school teacher, the vast majority genuinely love what they research and teach. Also, I do not think it unfair to say that, in terms of personality, they range from the introverted (I count myself in this category) to the downright mechanical. All generalizations are false, as the paradox goes, but I cannot count the number of times that I have gone, demoralized and full of doubt, to a professor seeking guidance and have been greeted either with cool indifference or even further grim discouragement – not intentionally, I think, but rather because the professor either did not pick up on my deflation or did not feel responsibility for trying to rally my flagging spirits. Granted, professors are not obligated to anyone’s friends, and with the sheer number of students they sometimes have to contend with, it is unrealistic to think that they can act as therapist as well as instructor to all their pupils. Yet it is not beyond the pale in my estimation to expect some kind of solidarity between the aspiring academic and the professor who has obtained his or her degree and can relate to the cold, hard slog from coursework to dissertation to doctorate. I have been told many a time by professors that I would want to kill myself after my first few years of doctoral work, but I do not think I have ever heard that fundamental, redemptive phrase of “It gets better.” There is something wrong with that.

I do not blame the professors so much as I do the profession. The intensity of academic politics is fairly well-known. As Sayre’s law states: “Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Unless you are the golden child of a major prestigious university, an academic must scramble for scraps with great force and viciousness, even if the end result is securing an adjunct job, receiving a grant, or claiming that most golden of golden calves: a tenured position. Climbing the ladder also requires saying and doing the right things in the correct way. I have attended several job talks where freshly minted academics presented theses as bland as scampi so as not to invite controversy with statistical formulas as airtight as a Tupperware container. Although surveys have shown that academics are not required to conform to a particular theoretical paradigm to be published, those same surveys have illustrated that to get those coveted citations from other academics and thereby become a “name” in the discipline one should fit neatly into one of those paradigms. Those same surveys also show that grand theoretical narratives attempting to explain how the world works have all but disappeared in place of wishy-washy hypothesis-testing. Rather than seek to say anything new or novel or even just insightful about the world, most scholars run “kitchen sink” regressions with their statistical software, find a relationship they find interesting, and then build an article around it. Karl Marx has been stood on his head: the point of scholarship is not to try and change the world, but only to interpret it, to learn about it in tiny increments as set out by the very rigorous and particular demands of hard science-aping positivist methodology.

Admittedly, my dalliances into the anti-positivist postmodernist playground have not made me feel any better about the state of academia. If on one end of the spectrum is the unadventurous number-cruncher reducing “identity” and “conflict” to easily quantifiable variables in order to get a job, on the other end is the soft, feeble pseudo-philosopher for whom there can be no wrong answers or generalizable conclusions, who is absolutely petrified of staking any sort of claim for fear of “exercising privilege” or “dominating” someone or something. For them, the world is chaos, constructed entirely by norms and ideas, with virtually no grounding in material concerns. Like a pinball, reality is just bouncing from one contingency to another. This nihilism, however, does not seem to bother them since they find comfort, as did the French intellectual celebrities of the 1960s and 1970s, in “cults of personality” that serve as nice mutual admiration societies. They exist on the fringe; or rather even thrive there, as the token critical theorist on the faculty.

All of the above has led me to perceive parallels between academia and the art world, or at least the music industry as the Coen Brothers presented it in Inside Llewyn Davis. If you have not yet seen the movie and plan on doing so, you may want to stop here, since I am going to discuss the movie and some of what I write might be considered spoilers – although the move itself is less concerned with plot and a definitive ending than it is with portraying the titular artist, whose goals, lifestyle and flaws have a lot in common with many would-be academics.

For those who do not know, Inside Llewyn Davis offers us two weeks of the life of Davis, a folk musician barely getting by on the eve of the huge folk music revival that would catapult other folk artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to national stardom. Davis is very talented, singing his hundred-year-old ballads with great emotion, but as a person he is careless, self-centered and conceited. He sleeps on the couches of friends, asks friends and family for money and burns bridges without much of a second thought. He cares very deeply about his music, however, and is concerned with being authentic; he criticizes one of his benefactors for being a “careerist” and a “square” for wanting to please the public in order to “make it” and settle down. In the middle of the film, he leaves Greenwich Village and heads to Chicago, determined to prove his ability to a well-known manager who can give him the recognition he feels his genius deserves. After pouring his soul out by performing a folk song about a medieval Caesarean section, the manager waits a beat and delivers the fateful verdict: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” Davis simply cannot “make it” on his own terms, even if that is what he wants; he could “sell out” and become part of a trio (like Peter, Paul & Mary) and perform hollow but catchy folk songs, but he simply refuses to. Defeated, he returns to New York and has to choose between his dead-end music career or becoming a working stiff like his father and sister, who just “exist” as regular people.

Like Davis, the typical hopeful social scientist lives hand-to-mouth, barely survivng in whatever city she resides in, and her university is her equivalent to Davis’ Gaslight Café: it is where she does her work and collects her meager paychecks. The academic has her research interest, and while it may not be folk music per se, it could be something just as obscure as centuries-old folk songs. The academic wants to “get it right,” to uncover and share the truth, to express her passion in a way that the whole world benefits. The academic, by and large (we hope), is concerned with authenticity. Yet, as it is with Davis, there are double demons at play. The first is the internal demon: the pretentiousness, the self-importance, the arrogance. The academic, like the artist, may see non-academics as “squares” and “careerists,” content to toil through data-entry jobs in service to a hard-nosed boss, while non-academics may regard the academic (like the artist) as a dreamer, a loser, a free spirit disinterested in the “real world” and thus of no use to anyone. This mutual resentment leads the academic (and the artist) to become even more egocentric, as she probably already lives most of the time in her own head. The second demon is external, the patron who either sees “a lot of money here” or doesn’t. The academic and the artist either play to themselves or they play to the public. She is either prepared to compromise who she is and what she does or she steadfastly stresses that her genius be recognized for what it is, no conditions required. She can be a successful sell out, an authentic and pathetic failure – or she can just quit, admit defeat and petition for acceptance into the “real world,” dimming or even snuffing out the passion inside that prompted her to take the less-traveled road to begin with.

Is that just a depressing way of looking at what I do and what I hope to do? Does it say more about me than it does about the social sciences and academia? I will validate and affirm in both cases, but I think my allusion is still more realistic than the idea promulgated by many social scientists that we are akin to actual scientists, just without the lab coats. It is a myth that has done more harm than good, for reasons already stated. It may be not more sunny or positive to think of ourselves as more akin to starving artists, but it could well be that it is more honest, and I think if there is something heartening and redemptive in my possibly strained comparison, it is that deep down, academics – like artists – put a very high premium on finding the truth and sharing it.

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