January 23, 2006 / This player is taking a break from the academic game. I have withdrawn from my graduate program at Yale and will be using the next twelve months to take stock. I write this entry with a twofold purpose: firstly to bring my loved ones up to date, secondly to get a position fix as I embark on a new course.

[distorted letter Y, white on grey] This player is taking a break from the academic game. I have withdrawn from my graduate program at Yale and will be using the next twelve months to take stock. I write this entry with a twofold purpose: firstly to bring my loved ones up to date, secondly to get a position fix as I embark on a new course. Some may construe what follows as motivated by a certain amount of cynicism and bitterness. It isn’t so. I’ve given this issue some careful consideration over many months, and I’m writing with both a cool head and a warm heart. And it behoves me to add that time out is not the same as “game over,” and I do have the option of returning next year. The outcome of all these deliberations remains to be seen.

The Big Picture

Last year, somewhere amidst the ball of string that is my pursuit of a Ph.D., I reached a point-of-choice: either stay in school and be miserable with my entangled academic self, or leave in the hopes of clearing the decks and finding some balance again (what my dear friend Jefe knows as “zimelela”).

The last time I had to make such a decision was about five years ago, as my undergraduate studies were drawing to a close. The question then was not whether I would remain in school, but whether I would pursue further study in psychology (as I had originally intended, with the goal of becoming a clinician) or in sociology (where my intellectual and political interests more obviously lay). Since my first sociology class, SOC103: Society and Gender, I had been hooked. My imagination, as I quickly discovered, was most at home with sociological thoughts, not clinical ones.

My undergraduate exposure to sociology was revelatory: this discipline and its proponents, as I knew them then, addressed as no-one else did, a barely articulate anger that I had increasingly felt with the world-at-large: An anger that the social world presented to each and every one of us in our daily lives was teeming with human problems that went ignored in the collective consciousness. This was multicultural Australia in the last decade of the twentieth century. Sure, people expressed their outrages on talk radio, tabloid TV probed our fears of communal breakdown, politicians waxed ever-more hysterical on crime, the Catholic church accelerated towards crisis, public utilities were sold to make investors of the middle-class Mums and Dads and the High Court opened up, then tried to re-seal and burp, the Pandora’s box of Native Title.

But everywhere and anywhere you cared to look the majority were trying to keep a lid on things. Trying to remain calm. In 1996 Australians voted for the conservative coalition; in the weeks before the election, party leader John Howard expressed his desire for Australians to feel “relaxed and comfortable about their history, their present and their future.” (A bigger smoke signal, in hindsight, I cannot readily imagine.) Still, the sense of impending havoc was palpable, at least to me. As the decade wore on and my focus sharpened on what kind of job I was going to try to hold down one day, it seemed increasingly unlikely that I could balance my growing anger with the unexpressed contents of the social bile duct by talking to individual people about their personal problems. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to help people, or that I thought I couldn’t, it was the concern that what was more important was that we all needed to start talking about the Bigger Picture—that trying to do so in person-to-person therapy was like aiming your garden hose at a bush fire when it arrived on your doorstep instead of banding together to clear control lines at the disaster’s edge.

I also had another big motivation. (It wasn’t all political consciousness.) Experimental psychology bored me senseless, and an experimental research dissertation was the only safe vector for one day establishing my own clinical practice. That was the way my school did things, it was the American way (which was to say it was successful at attracting funding), it was the scientific way. It was the only way.

I was not attracted to being a scientist. At that time I was more of an emerging fan of social theory, of critical theory, of post-structuralist writing, of post-colonialism. I liked talking about social problems and I was a big fan of those who imbued their writings with a sense of the same anger that I felt about the way the world was policing itself (how we were policing each other) and exhorting itself to placidity (how we were telling ourselves that we should be relaxed and comfortable instead of wondering aloud why we weren’t). Social theory touched on some of these issues and it was fun. Experiments were mostly dry and boring, trying to isolate a single effect from the “noise” of random error. For me sociology was easier, it made sense. Where psychologists saw random error, sociologists saw discourse; where random variation, structured inequality; where interaction effects, power and domination; where sex differences, gender relations. (You get the idea.) It fitted me. In contrast, the psychology department—and this probably seems passing strange to those who view sociologists as a pretty left-wing crowd (and ideology as a left-wing bias)—annoyed me as excessively ideological.

Ideology, discourse, bias or opinion, call it what you will. The point is that in the end, the decision was easy. Sociologists were willing to talk about Big Picture social problems. Sociology, then, is what I would do. If that meant becoming an academic, then so be it—as long as I was doing something I cared about then the rest would sort itself out. I was even warned that once I got onto this train it would be hard to get off. I took the warning with a grain of salt, but as with most such advice, it turned out to have two edges, one of which was obvious and (I thought) relatively safe, the other of which was sharp and impossible to see coming.

The visible edge can be summed up by the idea that, despite the risks of sticking your neck out, you may get what you wish for. I did: in mid-December of 2001 my sociology advisor called me into his office and told me that if I hadn’t considered applying to study abroad, now would be an opportune time. And I mean right now. Starting immediately. Yale was accepting applications until January 1st, or maybe 2nd. Get the main paperwork in yesterday, and then work like a bastard to finish your application. This meant, among other things, quickly preparing for and sitting a horrendous examination called the GRE. I’ve always hated exams. My score was barely acceptable. But, in the end, acceptable enough: I was admitted to the Yale Sociology Ph.D. program. I would be moving to the United States to pursue my studies at the highest levels. It was all that I wanted and more—the chance to see more of the world than I had considered possible, the opportunity to live in the fascinating land called America, and a sense of validation that I was, after all, doing the right thing.

In contrast, the invisible edge of my colleague’s fateful warning can be summed up by the idea that you should be careful about what you wish for. The rest of this post will be my description and interpretation of what it is that I actually got. The ideas in it do not belong to me, or at least, I can’t take credit for their elegance and power. But I have learned them from others, and other students of sociology will recognise most of the main offenders.

The Silver Screen

Academia is a kind of game. Many of the official rules are obvious to anyone who has been through formal schooling. Most of the important rules however, can only be learned in situ. You have to be there. What matters most is recognition. It is a kind of currency that is to the world of higher education what the money supply is to the economy. Everyone who plays the game wants to accumulate recognition, or “symbolic capital,” because that is how their work is given value (and for most readers it will go without saying that most people want to create work that has value). Value in academic works, especially in the social sciences and the humanities, is not derived primarily from the use that is eventually made of that research in the wider society, but from the recognition that other players in the game are willing to grant it. This type of economic system creates manifold “goodness of fit” problems for someone, like me, who thinks that the value of sociological works should obtain from their ability to ameliorate, or constructively engage with, social problems. As I said though, the most important rules of the game can’t be readily absorbed from the outside so it is impossible to know where you stand on this issue until you become aware that it is an issue in the first place.

If you accept my argument so far—and I do not take it for granted that you do—it might be tempting to compare academics, especially Ivy League academics, to Wall Street bond traders whose quotidian goal is to step onto the trading floor (into the seminar room) equipped with knowledge of the “real” value of the commodities (claims, arguments, research) under consideration, and employ that knowledge to purchase commodities (ingest and appropriate ideas) from some seller (topic specialist A) for less than their going rate, re-value them using her own expertise, and sell them to a buyer (topic specialist B) at a profit. Specialist A has produced important work on some topic, but has not identified the most relevant insight that emerges from his endeavours. Specialist B, on the other hand, addresses the important issue but uses inferior methods to attack her problem. My work (call it C) recognises the value of A’s approach and applies it to the important question B asks. Commodity C, therefore, advances the field in a way that neither A nor B has been able to do. If my revaluation is accepted, then I should recoup greater amounts of symbolic capital for my efforts than I would have if I simply recapitulated A’s or B’s main arguments or findings.

But academics aren’t really traders, even by analogy. It may be an interesting metaphor but it misses some vital aspects of the way that the daily task of academic life unfolds in practice, and of the kind of life-long effort that goes into producing bodies of academic work. What is it then? While the kind of self-interested altruism I described earlier is why many people get into the game of academic sociology (as I did), it is not, I suspect, why most of them stay. Mostly, I think, they stay for the recognition which can only come from peers who are also in a position to know the rules of the game (other academics), rather than from the wider world. And it is in this sense that the sociological Big Picture becomes the disciplinary Silver Screen. Whereas I wanted to pursue a career whose practitioners and institutions were largely geared towards trying to solve social problems, I was actually entering a kind of actors’ guild, where the real prize was not the successful application of good research to public ills, but the successfully skilful performance of authored knowledge to an academic audience (Academy Awards, if you can bear it!).

I want to be clear that I’m not singling out sociology here; I suspect that my characterisation would hold across higher education institutions as a whole, at a level of explanation that resides above the murkier, more uneven and contested territories of disciplinary boundaries. Yet this is what my experience of the last three-and-a-half years has taught me, and I learned it in the Department of Sociology. I don’t think that many people who have been in this game long enough would, if pressed, actually disagree with the general thrust of my argument. Value is created through the production of consent to recognise some works and performances as better than others, within a field whose participants only (and not spectators or anyone else) are capable of cooperating in order to grant it.

Now here comes an important qualification: None of what I have said implies that academic work is not worth doing. I think that it is: the authors of all of the important works that fired my sociological imagination during my undergraduate years (and since) have had some kind of contact with the academy, and perforce with its performative aspects. For the most part that is simply how it is done. And just because work is produced in the academy—under the rubric of the symbolic economy—does not mean, of course, that it is without value to the wider world. Much of it may be, and much of it may not. (And much of it may yet be, and so on.) What I have come to question, then, is not the value of anyone’s participation in this game; it is rather the value of my own.


So I’ve decided to go for a wander. I’ve been in school for over 20 years and I figure it’s time to do something else for a while. Whether I will come back to the academic life I cannot say, which is just the way it is. There is certainly important work to be done (by my own way of measuring it), but I’m not sure if it’s for me. I am very lucky now to have the luxury of choice and I will be trying to use it as wisely as possible. My academic circuits are fried but I can already sense the feeling returning in other ways, and I’m no less interested in what is going on in the world than I ever was. So stay tuned for more of that opiniony, discoursey, biasy political stuff (if you like that kind of thing).

Meanwhile I’m refinding the simpler stuff, and indulging my love of computers and the web. Oh, and I just got Shpongled, so I’m off to hear their particular vision of—as Mr. Colbert would have it—“truthiness.”

Comments are closed.

Zero to One-Eighty contains writing on design, opinion, stories and technology.