Being in, but Not of, the Academy

By Rachel Toor

The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Chronicle Review, September 8, 2000

One of the least attractive features of life in the academy is the emphasis on credentials and the constant comparisons that go on: between the degreed and the nondegreed, the elitely educated and the products of mediocre institutions, those who teach and those who publish. It’s a lot easier to measure productivity by the number of ball bearings produced or the number of burgers flipped; when it comes to evaluating qualities of mind, it’s a murkier business.

“Smart” becomes a kind of essential signifier. “It’s a smart book” means it’s a book that will win the biggest prize in the field. “A smart critique” means someone has savaged someone. “He’s really smart,” whispered in hushed reverence, tells you he’s up for a Nobel. You almost never hear the term “brilliant” in conversation, unless it’s deployed in that favored phrase, “Brilliant but flawed.” Like poor Mr. Ramsay in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse, who sees thought as an alphabet, everyone is trying to figure out the letter they’ve landed on. Or gotten stuck on.

The university is naturally a hierarchical place, but the hierarchies can be confusing. Sometimes it seems that those at the top are not necessarily those whose minds are farthest along on the alphabet — how many administrators have written Really Important Books? A few, to be sure. But the job takes a different skill set. That’s not to say that academic administration isn’t challenging intellectual work. Budgeting and strategic planning and figuring out where to put a new art museum are nothing to sneeze at in terms of brain power. How much easier it must be to do such tasks in the context of the Real World, rather than in a university, where being powerful is about having powerful ideas, where individuals (OK, only a few) can effect paradigm shifts in ways of looking at the world. The big dogs in academe are the thinkers, not the managers.

But between administrators and scholars are a host of people who choose to live tied to academic life, but not as academics. Sometimes it’s because of the people they love: Their spouses or partners are academics. Sometimes it’s because the Real World seems less interesting, or because college towns are, let’s face it, nice places to live. Or sometimes they came to a place when they were 18 years old and never managed to leave.

Some of the smartest people I know have no Ph.D., because they either never finished graduate school or never started. A.B.D.’s (All But Dissertation) and N.W.D.’s (Never Wanted Dissertation) are abundant in academic life. They are directors of university presses, public-relations gurus, teachers of freshman composition, editors of alumni magazines, vice presidents for student affairs, speechwriters, directors of development, and deans of undergraduate admissions. They are also people with terminal degrees — social workers and librarians. All are essential to running academic institutions — yet, unfortunately, they don’t get much respect.

In the slash between faculty/staff lies a world of difference. Or as an A.B.D. I know says, there are two categories in the university: faculty and not.

It seems to me, and I could be wrong about this, that many of those in, but not of, the academy are women. The Association of Research Libraries tells us that there are something like 50 percent more female librarians than male. But who’s running the libraries? Hmmm. I don’t know what the statistics are for offices of admissions, alumni affairs, development, student affairs, or psychological counseling, but I’m guessing that you will find a preponderance of women in the rank and file, led by men. Just a guess.

Living and working in an academic community, I certainly know lots of smart women (and, yes, smart men as well) who hold support positions — not necessarily in secretarial support, but infrastructure support. And, mostly, they are neither seeking nor getting a lot of recognition for their work. I’m always delighted to find, in the acknowledgments of a scholarly book, an author who thanks a librarian.

Not much money, prestige, or power comes with being an academic, but even less comes with not being an academic and hanging around an academic setting. I don’t think I suffer from Ph.D. envy. I never wanted to go to graduate school. After falling into scholarly publishing right out of college, I didn’t want to limit myself, to narrow my focus the way one must in order to get a doctorate. I liked being able to flit around different disciplines; I embraced my status as a dilettante. As time passed, I also realized that I had become too arrogant and too old: Having spent my brutal youth telling distinguished academics how to revise their manuscripts, I knew that I wouldn’t last a nanosecond as a downtrodden grad student.

As an acquisitions editor, I did enjoy a certain kind of organizational respect. At least, I had some clout. To the authors I worked with, I was Oxford University Press and then Duke University Press. The status of my employer elevated me. Of course, that only went so far. I was once drawn into an altercation between another editor and an academic. The editor wanted to know if the academic could really hold the reactionary position he was espousing. The academic wanted to know why the editor cared so much. “I mean, you know, it’s not like he’s the one doing the work,” he said.

On the other hand, when I first started publishing books in classics, having previously worked in other fields, I was shocked to be continually asked the same question: Where did you do your training? In classics, that meant. When I responded along the lines that I had been trained in publishing, not in a particular field, I was usually met with a sneer. Now, most of the really good editors I know don’t have Ph.D.’s in the fields in which they acquire books. They still, however, manage to do good, even important, work. They are, after all, the ones charged with identifying and then publishing the “smart” books.

When I switched to working in admissions, it was a whole new thing. Any trace of respect for my organizational affiliation dried up. Admissions folks are generally well-dressed, shiny, happy people, who don’t tend to be regarded as intellectual heavyweights by the professoriate. My academic friends seemed to have some vague understanding that someone in the university was bringing in students; who those people were and how they did it were a bit of a mystery.

Conversely, I was considered an outlier in my office for consorting with faculty members. Many admissions officers don’t really know how to deal with faculty members. Some treat professors with the same fawning admiration they had for them as students. It’s hard enough for graduate students to make the transition from plebe to colleague; it’s even harder for those in, but not of, the academy. Other folks in admissions — often at the management level — work hard to keep faculty members at arm’s length. “They don’t understand how we do our jobs,” the argument goes. “The more they know, the more trouble they’ll make.”

Those rigid demarcations are as false as they are unfortunate. But interactions among faculty members and staff members tend not to get facilitated. I remember the struggles of a former university-press director who tried to get his editors the privilege of paying to eat really mediocre food at the faculty commons. It would make it easier for editors to meet with faculty members, he argued to the administration. Nope, came down the answer from on high. The faculty commons is only for faculty members. Not editors. Not admissions officers. Not staff members. Oh well.

There are wonderful things about being in, but not of, the academy. It is darn nice to have an office on a campus. I like being able to take short walks in the middle of the day or to have coffee with a zoologist. Or a political scientist. Or a speechwriter. I like being able to use a research library, not to mention the convenience of being able to work out in the gym during lunch.

Then, too, college towns are culture magnets. I think that I went to more music, art, theater, and dance during my first year in Durham, N.C., than I ever did during my eight years in Manhattan. Events come to a college town, and they’re easy to get to.

Ultimately, though, when you ask people why they choose to live among academics, you tend to hear the same answer: You get to hang around with really smart people. I used to respond the same way, but was caught up short when I recently asked a friend, a well-established San Francisco money manager, what he liked about his job. His answer: You get to hang around with really smart people. Perhaps there’s a world worth exploring outside the ivied ivory towers.

There are tradeoffs. You don’t get the remuneration you would if you went into investment banking or a dot-com. You feel yourself aging as a majority of the population around you remains in the 18-to-22 age bracket. You don’t always get the respect you think you deserve. But isn’t it the case that even those most famous in their fields — say, the world’s expert in the history of Shaker furniture, or the guru of the literature of the Tibetan diaspora — may also be underappreciated? You have to find a way to make your peace with your status.

Some of us develop disdain for the eggheadier members of academe; others of us prefer to date them. And some find ways to exercise power. Chatting recently with an old friend, an A.B.D. who has spent his career in publishing, I asked him about this stuff. “Do I feel inferior? Yeah. But if I’d really wanted to be an academic, I’d have gone ahead and finished the diss,” he told me. “Now, I’d much rather publish and let them perish.”