by Crystal Parikh, Associate Professor of English, New York University
Fifteen years into an academic career, I have landed upon four general truths that have been crucial to grappling with the professional opportunities and challenges that have come my way and make it possible to live with myself and others in a way that feels productive and authentic:
We are human—as are our colleagues, mentors, and students. I’ve been writing and thinking a good deal for the past several years about what it means to “be human,” and now wonder what it means to bring that question to bear on our professional lives. To be human is to be a vulnerable, flawed, contradictory, willful, unpredictable creature who lives in interdependence with others. And to be human is to be recognized by others as human and to grant others that recognition. We seem to know this about those whom we teach, but we should also recognize it about the people to whom we turn for mentoring, protection, and support. The latter group can be the source of unexpected and tremendous generosity, inspiration, and pleasure. But they will also inevitably fail us, neglect us, and disappoint us. They will, in short, be all too human, as will we. Recognizing the humanity of others doesn’t lead to easy answers about how we should engage them or how they will treat us. It simply means that doing so is essential to surviving structures and institutions that are not, and never will be, human, even if they can be made more humane. Remembering the humanity of those who share these spaces with us means cutting some slack, extending some forgiveness, recognizing that we are surrounded by complex, contradictory persons who might surprise us. It means too, that they ought to do the same for us.
Our institutions are not. Strange as it might sound, it proves all too easy to want to think of the academic institution as a kind of home and even like a family, and expect that it will grant us the social recognition, value, and pleasures that go missing from so many other spheres of life. I’d hazard to guess this is the case because, for so many people of color in the profession, these were the spaces in which as students, not only did we embark on the richly rewarding work of critical reading and writing, but we perhaps began for the first time to make sense of the deep structural inequities around which racial, gender, class, and national difference is organized. We immersed ourselves in alternative histories and archives that allowed us to (in the words of literary critic Kandice Chuh) “imagine otherwise” regarding what matters and what a good life might look like. As we move from being students to becoming professionals (and even with a savvy sense of how economic restructuring has altered the conditions of labor for everyone involved in the institution), it can still be shocking to realize that institutions of higher education are as impersonal, indifferent, hierarchical, and unresponsive to us as individuals as every other bureaucratic, corporate entity that makes up modern life.
Navigating the administrative opportunities and pitfalls is not optional, and that means each of us has to understand the particular professional cultures in which we work and come to terms with where and how we fit in. But to whatever degree possible, keeping a distinct sense of one’s own priorities and sense of worth, apart from those of the institution, is the key to surviving and even flourishing in structures and systems over which we too often have little control. It’s incredibly difficult to not take personally these structures and systems—whether student evaluations, job search outcomes, or the details of curricular reform. To the extent that we know that those structures and processes shape our very experience of ourselves in those spaces, it would be disingenuous to say that they aren’t in many ways personal. Yet, to the extent that we can remind ourselves that our institutions aren’t human and for the most part are indifferent to us (which is not to say our colleagues and our students are!), both the highs and the lows of academic life become a little easier to take in stride.
Live in reality. I am a literature scholar who believes deeply and earnestly in the pedagogical and political capacities of fiction, fantasy, and the imagination. And I believe those remain absolutely crucial if we are to have energetic and constructive intellectual and social lives. But I also believe we do ourselves a huge disfavor if we aren’t able to see with clear eyes the places and relations we inhabit in the present. What are the possibilities —and, as crucially, what are the limits—that inhere in our classrooms, departments, and disciplines? What types of effort, individual and collective, would it take to transform those? What is it possible for me to achieve now? What might be possible in the future? Living in reality also means being rigorously realistic about my own skills, resources, ambitions, and obligations, measuring myself not according to some elusive fantasy of what “success” looks like for others. Contending with myself, on my own terms, about what my reality is and what I might want it to be has proven, at turns, frustrating, rewarding, and eye-opening. But not living in reality has always seemed like the surest way to complete exhaustion and alienation.
Care for yourself. I avoid the phrase “take care of yourself,” which might too easily read “look out for only yourself,” which I most assuredly don’t mean. Instead, I have in mind something like that admittedly over-used metaphor of the emergency oxygen mask that I hope none of us will ever literally need on an airplane: you must make sure you yourself can live and breathe before you can tend to others. Caring for oneself means advocating for oneself within the institutional structures that were not created to care for us. It means understanding why we are in those institutions in the first place, what we hope to achieve while there and what the risks involved are. It means building relationships within and outside of the academy that nourish and sustain us and refusing those that devalue and deplete us. And, to return to my opening gambit, because being human means being interdependent on others, it ultimately also means caring for others as we care for ourselves.