Letters from an Epicurean (5)

You might not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. Academic politics is as unavoidable as politics in any other communal domain. Your withdrawal, your inaction, your compliance will help perpetuate existing structures, unexamined positions, and rent seekers.

academic olympics

At first glance, it may seem like the stakes are not high. Ego strokes seem to be the primary currency. But that itself is the outcome a diversion. The diversion begins when an academic sees him/herself as outside of the real world. It begins when we see ourselves as stroke accumulators. Yes, feel free to replace “stroke” with “h-index”, “citation”, or “publications”.

We ought to be more than that, but what exactly?

There is ambiguity in the identity of a scholar, and I think that ambiguity has to be embraced. If I am an agent of a specific theoretical position, e.g., responsible for defending a side in a debate, then I am a partisan. Being a partisan is relatively easy. We want to be more than that. We want to be scholars. But what is that exactly?

Forced Positions

A student stopped me on the corridor the other day, and asked: “I’m doing some research on task-switching, but I don’t know what is the relevance of this research to everyday life. How is my work relevant? How can I apply it?”

I told him, in a tone that I believed was playful and lighthearted, that there might not be any application. Basic research does not promise applicability. It’s better to accept that possibility, rather than hold on to the delusion that every experiment we conduct has a direct, important, real-life application.

Today, I saw him again. He told me he had shared my sentiment with his supervisor, and that his supervisor had strongly disagreed with my “partisan” position. Of course, he was talking about the partisan position that he had manufactured for me.

You might not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you. Your withdrawal, your inaction, your compliance might force you into positions with which you disagree. Sometimes it is necessary to take a side. Other times, it may be necessary to be able to clearly express not taking sides. It may be necessary to get out of forced positions.

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