Tuesday, October 02, 2007


For a long time I have resented the term "academic" as applied to people in my profession because it seemed dangerously close to trivializing the work. People say, "it's all academic" to mean it doesn't really matter. I preferred the term "scholar" because it suggested the actual work of what someone like me does. Scholarship. Dignified. Important. Certainly not just academic.

But lately I've been more deeply involved in the administrative side of the university, and I have a better appreciation of all the various things that need to be done to keep this ship afloat. Moreover, I've found myself thinking more and more about the future of this place and how I might contribute to it.

And it occurs to me that being a professor is about more than one's own research and teaching and even more than what is blandly called "service" around here. To be a professor is to be a custodian of an ancient tradition. Often neglected, to be sure, often sullied by cupidity and small-mindedness no doubt, but somehow, through all the years there is still, miraculously, a place where people like me are paid good money to be high-minded idealists.

It irks me to have to keep track of receipts for printers and desks, and it wearies me to get terse emails from faculty who have been accidentally left off mailing lists or who have been assigned a course they don't want to teach. But through all that I manage to work slowly away on a book whose only effect when finished will be to help readers better understand a single play. I spend hours every week instructing a captive audience on how to better read poetry. If universities had never existed, the idea of spending millions of dollars on public money for such things would seem absurd to our pragmatic legislators. But here they are, and here I am. And a great many of my colleagues feel the same way.

In a small way we are like the great Plato himself who was taught by Socrates never to accept conventional wisdom but to question everything and to seek for virtue and truth, no matter how remote they may be. He called his school the Academy and people like me try to keep that spirit alive as best we can.

This is the academy. I am an academic.

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