Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Getting away with murder...

For me, being a professor--teaching and research--has been like getting away with murder. I'm not sure there is another place for me to be gainfully employed at much above the minimal wage. But what makes it special is that I can follow my intellectual nose. Of course, I have to  be productive--grants, publications, courses taught that attract students--but that seems fairly straightforward. I usually have a portfolio of potential projects or courses I might teach, and depending on the flow of grants, the department's needs, and my own inclinations, I can almost always match my desires with what the world will support. What's amazing is that a project that seems too far out, or a course that would appear to be too esoteric, usually do have markets, sometimes if you wait for a while, sometimes if you dress them up in more presentable clothes.

It took some time for me to find a place where this match of desires and opportunity would work best, but along the way (maybe 15 years after my PhD), I could find temporary places and grants that led to my being able to be remarkably productive years later. Almost everything I was interested in, or courses I taught, would somehow end up being employed in the my work. That "end up being employed" involved my being inventive and willing to set up more presentable clothes, but that never seemed to be a burden.

Put differently, it would appear that whatever I was interested in, no matter how idiosyncratic, eventually would become grist for the mill, and lead to productive projects. It's not that the world came to see my ideas as natural. Rather, I could find ways of doing my work. And if you get grants and publish respectably, most departments will leave you alone and perhaps even celebrate you. I don't believe you win them over, but they cannot help but cashing in on you.

You also need to be able to survive for a long time. For the projects and courses only become possible in time, not when you first think of them. Hence, it's vital that you have enough alternatives in action at any one time that you can live long enough to be able to do some of your work. (Similarly, if you want to win awards, live long enough so that eventually they will get around to recognizing you. Posthumous recognition is ironic.) In effect, you have to have a diverse portfolio, be willing to wait for the right time, and at any time have work that you want to do (work that you may have been waiting to get to for some time).

They tell me the secret is to outlive the bastards. But I think you just have to live--it's not the bastards who are out there. Rather, there is lots of noise, and you just have to focus on your conversation--what is called the cocktail-party effect. (In a noisy cocktail party, you can understand the person you are talking to much better than would be expected: Wikipedia: "The cocktail party effect is the phenomenon of being able to focus one's auditory attention on a particular stimulus while filtering out a range of other stimuli, much the same way that a partygoer can focus on a single conversation in a noisy room. This effect is what allows most people to "tune into" a single voice and "tune out" all others."