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Every Academic's Secret Desire, Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 2, 2002

You can tell a lot about a profession by the fantasies of its members. Academics, I have found, secretly want to be freelance magazine writers. For a long time, while I worked on my doctorate in English, I suspected as much. But once I became a journalist myself, I attracted sotto voce confessions. They want my job.

Does this mean they want the financial risk, the rejection, and the uncertainties of the market? Of course not. They do, however, want the romance of writing, the freedom of freelancing. Some of my friends from graduate school, now safe in tenure-track jobs, tell me they wish they knew how to write, because they want their ideas consumed out of love, not obligation, and they want their research to matter in the world. I understand that perfectly well. That’s why I do what I do.

Other professor friends love to hear what I’m working on now; I wish I could figure out a way to live off their need for vicarious thrills. And when I interview academic experts for a story, inevitably I hear about their desires to write for magazines, usually the ones they have sitting on their coffee tables. I don’t extract such confessions; they’re freely offered. I feel like the nun in Don Delillo’s White Noise, who maintains the trappings of her faith so that her secular, cynical contemporaries are freed from belief.

Perhaps the biggest surprise came in a conversation I had with my dissertation supervisor more than a year ago. It started out as a debriefing on my experience on the academic job market in 2000, right after I defended and graduated. That year I had some interviews at the Modern Language Association, a follow-up phone interview, and an invitation for an on-campus visit, which I had turned down. After five years of teaching while I wrote my dissertation, I needed a break, and I didn’t want to move to the hinterlands of Colorado, even if you could cross-country ski to class.

And more than anything else, I wanted to write. I was taking a risk, financially and psychologically, but I felt I couldn’t stand in a writing class and encourage students to stretch their language, play with ideas, and put their personal investments on the line if I hadn’t done so myself, and for stakes that really mattered. I didn’t want to be a hypocrite.

I told my dissertation supervisor all the news, then described what I was doing. “Just hang in there,” she said. “You can go out again next year. Something will turn up, I’m sure.”

“But I really like what I’m doing,” I told her. I was learning to battle the learning curve in areas far from my own expertise; I was becoming professionally curious, and national magazines were paying me for it. I also had an agent in New York City, who was encouraging, even if only mildly so. It was all penury and industry, as a friend put it, but I was traveling, reading widely, and meeting people. And I hadn’t abandoned my dissertation topic, either — an editor was interested in a piece about the future of linguistics.

“I don’t know if I want to go back on the job market,” I told her. “I’m having a good time doing what I’m doing.”

She paused. “Well,” she said, “I’ve always had a fantasy about myself as a freelance writer. You know, go out there and be able to write whatever you want.”

As a graduate student, you keep so much under wraps about yourself, for fear that if anyone found out, your professional credibility would be lost, particularly if that person had the power to dictate the shape of the rest of your life. She knew that I wrote, but she considered it a hobby, I thought. Suddenly I realized: I was a threat.

I remembered the time I gave her a photocopy of my short story that the North American Review had published. For some reason I thought that academic colleagues spread the happiness of publication with each other, so I scribbled a note of appreciation to her on the top of the story and gave it to her.

She took the story. Her eyes flashed over it. “What’s this?” she asked. Eventually she managed a look of mild pleasure, but I never found out the reason for her restrained reaction. Perhaps this wasn’t protocol after all. Or maybe, as a graduate student, I didn’t quite count as a colleague yet. Once I heard her secret fantasy, however, I had a better idea. Was she restraining her envy?

All these confessions are not simply cases of greener grass, I believe. Instead it’s a symptom of a delirium that’s endemic to the profession, particularly in the humanities. Only now do I see it clearly. It’s a version of that deep need that crops up among academics, the need to prove that what one does is relevant in the world. It’s a fear that what one spends all one’s time doing does not, in the end, matter.

In that sense, the rhetoric of the “public intellectual” and the “intellectual entrepreneur” is one way that academics try to professionalize this fear. They do not acknowledge the fear, and they do not conquer it. They merely paper it over.

And what academics do not know is that journalists have a similar fantasy, except it works in reverse. As I’ve met more journalists and other news-media types, they express surprise that I would actually leave the academy. A fellow magazine writer once asked me, Why would you leave something you’re good at? Some journalists I’ve talked to want to teach someday, to see an audience face-to-face, to change them, to really have an impact on the future. And to be able to write and study one topic in-depth for the rest of your life? Now that’s a job I’d like to have.