Being in academia is hard.
Of course it requires a lot of hard work, but no one ever thinks about the difficulty of becoming an academic for those who aren’t born to it. It’s like a special sort of sedentary sport where success is measured only by survival; there is no finish line except perhaps tenure. And unless you take to your subject like a fish to water, you’re in for a very rough time of it.
The problem is that once you’ve entered academia, it’s assumed you’re a fish in water. If it turns out you’re just a rather good scuba diver who really likes fish and water, your going to find your oxygen tank will eventually run out. To illustrate this point, it’s time for a little personal narrative:
In 2007, I graduated from high school. I found that I was particularly good at English, Foreign Languages, and especially Latin. My final project in Latin had been a presentation on Vulgar Latin. I kept asking questions about sound changes, and eventually my enthusiastic, inspiring, and all-around-awesome Latin teacher brought in her college ‘history of Latin’ notes for me to photocopy.
At the time (and still to this day) I thought ‘w’ was possibly the coolest sound ever. It could go through so many different changes and be realized in so many ways! With all the excitement and enthusiasm of someone who has absolutely no idea what they’re talking about but thinks the topic is cool anyway, I found myself enrolling at Ursinus College asking if there was some correspondence between Welsh ‘w’, Latin ‘v’, and Greek ‘ω’ (because it looks like a ‘w’. I kid you not.) Soooo….that’s kind of embarrassing to admit to now, but I thought I was being brilliant at the time. And no one wanted to tell me I was full of shit because I was just so darn passionate about it (At least, that’s my theory. Ursinus would never seek to quell a passionate student). I made a Linguistics major for myself so I could study historical linguistics, I spent a year in Edinburgh studying theoretical linguistics, and returned to Ursinus…to write a thesis about Aeneas. I’m not saying me decisions always made sense.
In 2011, the year I graduated with my BA and double major in Classics and Linguistics, I was absolutely shocked to hear that I’d been accepted to Cambridge. Seriously shocked. I didn’t actually believe it until I was sitting in my supervisor’s office six months later talking about Mycenaean Greek. Somewhere along the line, I’d decided that learning Linear B would be super cool (it is. I’ll post later about ‘dwe’ and ‘mu’).
Then I ran into trouble. I was attending lectures on Indo-European Linguistics, Linear B, Mycenaean and Greek Dialects, and Latin Sociolinguistics and realizing, slowly but surely, that I was many steps behind my classmates. Many of them had graduated from Cambridge and already been exposed to these lectures. For those who hadn’t, the information still came rather easily. Self-doubt began to settle in. When it was time for me to present on my topic, (was Mycenaean epenthetic ‘w’ phonemic?), I did it the way I always had – some notes-to-self and largely ad lib-ed. I made a statement that X author said Greek was the first truly alphabetic writing system, and a fellow student contradicted with a writing system I had never heard of. This required that every following point I made be followed by the tagline, ‘unless X is wrong about Greek’. My confidence was shattered and I entered depression. There were significant external personal matters as well, but it all mixed together to form a horrifying cocktail of self-loathing and angst. Go read Hyperbole & a Half if you want a good idea of what I’m talking about.
I came through that with an extension, a counselor, and sympathetic supervisor, and sheer, painful force of will, and collapsed into Christmas break. In January, I attended the APA conference in Philadelphia to court PhD programs (Harvard, Princeton, and the rest). I successfully networked, but I think it was obvious my heart wasn’t in it. I couldn’t answer the simple question ‘what are you interested in’? While I was there, I attended a few talks about Education and how to make Classics accessible to modern students.
When I returned to Cambridge, I buckled down on my second essay, and thought about teaching. I should mention that I have wanted to teach my entire life. Literally from the time I was 2. I had gone to the PA Governor’s School for Teaching, and entered Ursinus with every intention of gaining a teaching cert. It was my freshman advisor who said the word ‘professor’ to me, and I thought that sounded awesome.
About a month ago now, I was sitting in the library and feeling well an truly pained about it. I had to get up every 15 minutes to do something, I couldn’t focus, and I felt anxious and claustrophobic. I realized that academia, or at least, studying the minutia of sound changes, was definitely not for me. I applied for an MA & teaching cert program at Villanova, was accepted, and I now feel carefree and exuberant. There is a light at the end of the tunnel. I will eventually return to a PhD program in Education and Classics, I think, but only after I have some teaching experience and am certain I’m still incredibly passionate about it.
So this is my point. Academia requires depth. A lot of depth. And if you’re a student in a field like Classical Linguistics, you can’t even justify the depth of your studies with any more convincing a statement than “All knowledge is worth having.” For some people, this is enough. They are passionate enough about their subject that it can be food for the soul in and of itself. I find myself needing a little bit more. As clichéd as it is, I want to make a difference in the world. I think there is quite a lot of value to be had in studying the Classics for a myriad of reasons, and I think it should be available to everyone. I think the way we teach Latin and Greek is idiotic, benefits only a specific type of learner, and does nothing to help move Classics from the realms of the elite and into the hands of the people.
So why is being an academic hard? Because it requires absolute dedication to a topic, and unless you are one of the very few for whom that comes naturally, it can be an absolutely soul destroying process. I have all the respect in the world for my friends who have chosen that path, but I don’t have the stamina for it.
1. Vulgar Latin is roughly the term given to Latin as it was spoken on the streets. It’s a complicated term because it encompasses the sort of Latin found in graffiti scrawled on walls in Pompeii, the way Catullus would have spoken with his mates, and the form of Latin that developed into the Romance Languages, which differed from Classical Latin in many respects.