Everyone in academia has them from time to time. Moments when you look out and think to yourself, oh my god i’m a complete idiot and totally doomed.
It’s a little worse for me since I’m trying to do something totally different. There’s something called social validation which is useful. You think to yourself “what the hell am I doing pretending that I’m a professor” and than you look at your office, your parking space, and the piles of papers on your desk, and you realize that someone is giving you a paycheck to be a professor.
My trouble is that I don’t even have that. I’m basically forging ahead being a freelance junior faculty member without the normal support structure of a university. I have to invent things as I’m going along, and no one is telling me whether I’m winning or losing. So when I have those moments of “what the hell am I doing” I don’t have an organization to fall back on. The closest thing that I have is the forum at the Chronicle of Higher Education, which is proving very useful, because it tells me that the difficulties that I’m having doing something original, aren’t unique to doing something original.
I miss my mother. She passed away a while ago, and one of the things that she had was absolute faith in my abilities. I could talk to her when I had moments of doubt, and just hearing someone that believed that you would pull through was useful. At MIT, I had a network of people that I could also rely on. Listening to someone complain about their situation was useful, because it told you that you weren’t unique. Seeing people that you regarded as being on the same level as you pull through was also useful, because you could say to yourself, if they could do it, so could I.
What makes my life difficult right now, is that I don’t have anyone like that anymore. A lot of people have passed away. I’ve lost track of most of the people I knew at MIT. I can simulate what some of them would say in my mind, and that helps, until I look at the room and realize that I’m the only one there.
But I pull through. I’ve done it before. There’s no reason to suspect that this time will be different. And ultimately I have history and philosophy on my side, I hope……
What I’m doing is unique for the early 21st century, but there are examples of it happening before. The sheng yuan scholars of the mid-19th century, and Ludwig Von Mises, who famously was not a paid faculty member or for that matter Confucius. And then there is philosophy, one has to believe that if one is on the side of history, that this will give you power. The current university structure has only existed since the end of World War II, but scholarship and learning has existed for a lot longer than that. One has to believe that there is something fundamental in virtue and scholarship that one can gain strength and power from.
Maybe. Maybe not.
But I have come to the conclusion that to have a life worth living, you must at some point risk everything for your beliefs, if only to see if they are worth anything or not.
But it is still lonely. It is still painful. It is still scary to risk public humilation.
But if you are living with pain. If you’ve been humilated before. Then you can act with some boldness that would be impossible for normal people.
So accept the fear and the doubt, consume and digest it. Acknowledge it.
I am terrified, I am afraid, and I severely doubt my ability to do what I want to do.
But I’ve never let that stop me before……
And it’s not going to stop me this time……