Sunday, July 1, 2012

How to Thrive in the Academy … With or without saving the world first

This blog is about thriving, not just surviving in academia. There is an inherent contradiction to that, though. I believe that it is important to be happy, yet I am also well aware that the world (including the academy) is unjust. How can one be happy amidst widespread injustice?


As you may or may not have been able to tell from my posts, I am deeply committed to social justice. I think that the world needs fundamental changes and favor such things as open borders, universal health care, the elimination of private property, and other drastic measures that I am unlikely to see happen in my lifetime. Although I know the world needs to be changed, I still try to be happy in the world I live in. The reason: my being sad and depressed will not do a single thing to change the things I believe should be changed.

Being mad (as opposed to sad) can sometimes lead to change, but that happens only when there are specific actions anger can inspire you to take, and when change is possible. For example, I just got a call from my husband letting me know he got a speeding ticket. I am doing my best not to be angry because being mad about the ticket is not going to change anything. We already will have to pay the fine. Why also waste precious emotional energy on things I can’t change? You see, I just need to let it go. (This isn't always easy, but it's better than being mad all day!)

I don’t like feeling sad or mad, especially when those feelings are associated with a sense of helplessness. I can’t change the fact that my husband got a ticket. I can’t make universal healthcare happen right now. What, then, can I do? What is within my control? Being happy, it turns out, is usually within reach. And, I like being happy.

I separate out my day-to-day happiness from my long-term vision for how the world should be. Kerry Ann Rockquemore, for example, once told me that one criticism she gets from her book “How to Win Tenure without Losing Your Soul” is that the book doesn’t advocate for structural changes in the academy, or even for fighting racism and sexism in the academy. Well, that is not what the book is about. It is about how to do well in the academy, despite racism and sexism. We have to survive the academy in order to change it.

Similarly, this blog is about how to be happy on a daily basis, despite all of the structural problems with the academy and widespread injustice in the world. It also seems to me that, once we have our own lives together, we can do a better job of saving the world.

No matter what situation you find yourself in, you deserve to be as happy as you can be. This is another reason I have this blog – academics often seem to think that suffering and being insanely busy are job requirements. I am here to say that, from my perspective, this is not true. I am here to provide a model for academics who want to have a life, who want to be happy, and who don’t want to feel guilty for that.

Instead, we should own our happiness. In a recent blog conversation with Jonathan and Thomas, I came to the conclusion that happy academics are actually better writers. We need time to think, to muse, to ponder, and to spend with our creative spirit to do the best we can.

So, next time you heart leads you to spend the afternoon at the Art Museum, or to go for a long run in the park, or to laugh with your kids, or go to the opera – do it! We all deserve to be happy and to live life to its fullest. Although these actions won’t fix human suffering, they may do a bit to alleviate it – one person at a time.