Intellectual Pursuits and Life Outside Academia

In the world outside of academia, intellectual pursuits
increasingly seem to lack respect among the wider public.
Photo by douglas reeser.
by douglas reeser on November 9, 2013
I've been on a bit of a writing hiatus for about two months now. The break was mostly expected, but the extent to how deep of a break it would be has come as a surprise. I've been writing regularly for Recycled Minds since 2005, recently completed a two year stint as a contributing editor to Anthropology News of the American Anthropological Association, and have been working on completing my dissertation for about a year. These projects do not include a couple of peer-reviewed journal articles, and a few random pieces for other sites that I've also written recently. Writing has become somewhat of what I do, although it's largely a labor of love that has not brought any financial benefit in my direction.

And sadly, this lack of an income was one of the driving factors in my decision to take a few months, return to my roots in Pennsylvania, and produce a Halloween show. The production proved more intense than I fully anticipated, and for two months I was forced to drop everything else that I had been working on. To be fair, the move brought me back to family and old friends, all of whom I sorely missed, and I did some writing for the production - a 30 page script based on historical figures from the local area where the production was set. Still, if, through my 8 years of graduate school work and over 10 years of writing regularly, I had developed some sort of income for myself, I wonder if I would have made the same decision.

Now, with the Halloween production behind me, my financial outlook is no better, and I'm in a bit of a hole writing-wise. My PhD dissertation in anthropology, based on nearly 2 years of fieldwork in Belize, needs to be drafted in three weeks. My work on Recycled Minds has come to a complete standstill, and I'm finding it difficult to write about anything of significance. My other writing projects are left to the past, although I've somehow managed to hold onto an unpaid position working as a web manager/editor for an anthropological journal.

So why am I writing this? Why is this piece something for the public to consume? Why should anyone besides the voyeuristic among us care?

I'm realizing that mine is a story similar to many young and middle-aged adults who have taken the path of academia. We have poured our hearts and souls into our training, our studies, our research, our work, only to find that this path offers precious few of us a home, a place at the table of the academic intelligentsia. Not only that, but outside of our academic circles, there is little respect or understanding for what we have done. Our training, studies, research, and work are largely uninteresting to the general public, our families, our friends, most of whom have chosen different paths in life.

It seems that in the world outside of academia, a Ph.D. means nothing.

This realization is a bit sobering. I'm not sure what I expected, and really, I'm pretty sure I wasn't expecting anything - my choice to pursue a Ph.D. has always been about challenging myself as opposed to some end-goal or symbol of success. Still, I've been in the bubble of academia for over 8 years, and I've been completely transformed - not just by my studies and work, but by the experiences I've been lucky enough to have throughout my time in the academy. These experiences include meeting people from around the world and from an amazing array of backgrounds, traveling through parts of the world that most people don't even know about, immersing myself in thought and passionate discussion in a way I never had before, along with an unknowable number of unique moments experienced in my day-to-day life.

In short, my graduate school experience was transformative.

I am now a different person.

Yet, old friends and family, not to mention those more casual acquaintances don't seem to notice these changes, and they're largely uninterested in my experience, my knowledge, or the person I have become.

Still, this is not meant to be a "woe is me" column. I'm quite comfortable with the person I am, and beyond thankful for what I've been able to do and experience in my life. I would do nothing any different. I'm even excited about the position and challenges that I'm finding placed in front of me now. My point is that this lack of interest and respect in my transformation was unexpected. Perhaps it's simply people falling into old patterns as far as how they interact with and see me as a person. But I am different now. And I wonder what it is about our society, our culture, our communities that lets such a transformation go by unnoticed?

Further, I feel this disinterest in my work points to a wider devaluing of the academic and intellectual aspects of life. I've always thought these pursuits were invaluable to a healthy society, yet it seems that we've come to a point in the U.S. where such endeavors are not valued and often frowned upon. Experiencing this kind of backlash to the life I've chosen has been an eye-opener, and it may be a useful consideration for others pursuing a similar path.
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