I’ve spent a lot of the past month telling students and colleagues why I have resigned my job as a history professor. My first explanations were a kind of nervous, disconnected stuttering. But it gradually grew into a polished presentation, with detachable modules that could be slectd and rearranged depending on the audience. In the process, my decision grew life of its own, following a logic of performance as much as explanation. It is becoming something else, yet again, as I translate into the written word. So, here is the latest permutation:
I’ve had a good career. I’ve written one book that is pretty good, and one that is really good. I’ve published several articles, including one that has been very significant in reshaping my field, another that has been very well-cited (although much less important in my opinion)—and a couple of others that I think are innovative and significant but haven’t gained much attention. I played an important role in helping define the shifting intellectual orientation of my department, helping to make it stand out from its peers. I can be happy with what I have accomplished. It’s time to move on.
The ideas that once felt so expansive now feel limiting. I haven’t had a really new idea for 10 years. To be sure, I have plenty of ideas for books and articles that can flesh out more permutations of those ideas and push them to their bitter end. And the kind of history I do is just beginning to catch on. I could still present myself cutting edge, and professional kudos and respect would only increase in the next ten years as this kind of history becomes more routine and widely accepted. But I know in my heart that I’ve already peaked. From here, it is the slide into careerism, repetition, boredom, and old fogeydom. I don’t really like teaching. Despite a few good moments, I am a mediocre teacher. I look at what my senior colleagues have done to take their careers to the next step—run centers, consolidate fields, become administrators, create teaching materials, write op-eds and get on television—and it doesn’t interest me. I can see some possible new directions, especially in computational history and collaboration with hard sciences. I have a couple of colleagues going in this direction, and I greatly respect their shift. But it doesn’t quite compel me. The curiosity and excitement that led me into academia are now pulling me into other ways of being—more experiential and sensual.
I’ve been thinking about this for five years, ever since I finished my second book. At that time I was headachy, sleepless, irritable and generally miserable. I figured that I had to learn how to enjoy my job. It looks so good on paper—why do so many of us find it so difficult to put that potential into practice? I got divorced instead (a wise decision). But I also put a lot of effort into making my job better: 35-40 hour work weeks during the semester (even less during leaves); only teaching classes I enjoy; saying no to things I don’t want to do (especially hiring and tenure committees); avoiding academic politics.
In terms reducing irritability, cynicism, sleeplessness, headaches, backaches etc. the new regime was effective. But I also found that:
1) The extra time allowed me to develop other interests.
2) I was rapidly losing interest in academic questions. I now find it nearly impossible to read a history or social science book or journal article. They’re all so predictable. Fresh approaches are increasingly rare for me.
3) I’ve become lopsidedly intellectual. Time to develop my emotional, sensual and intuitive sides.
4) The job demands more attention and conviction than I have been able to give it at only 35-40 hours a week and greatly diminished interest. It is nearly impossible to keep up with my readings & networking enough to be able to serve grad students, update classes or do my editorial work well.
5) I still enjoy helping graduate students and talking about ideas with them–in fact it is where I have focused much of my work time. But they are such potent conduits of that dark, heavy cloud of anxiety, insecurity, fear and doubt that pervades upper academia. They haven’t yet learned how to absorb or defend themselves against that cloud, and they channel and project it in an especially concentrated manner. I’ve had days when I’ve left work with my body literally drooping from all the anxiety I have absorbed from graduate students. And my favorite students—the ones who came with so many dreams and curiosities and are inept at careerism—are so often the ones most beaten down by this cloud. What am I doing working for an institution that so effectively squelches curiosity, wastes youth and encourages petty careerism, insecurities, jealousies and cynicism?
At the same time, the more I have externalized my insecurities as a poisonous institutional cloud, the less I am bitter and bitter and cynical about my job. Some anger remains, but nothing like five years ago. This, more than anything, has helped me to resign. On days when I have gone to some horrible meeting, talked academic politics and withered under burning grad student agonies, I go home and think “What a stupid idea to leave the job. It’s got so many perks, so much security. What a foolish idea to leave.” Bitterness and fear is a form of attachment. But on days when classes went well, when I see that people appreciate my work and find it useful, when I remember some of the great things that I’ve learned over the past 20+ years–those are the days when it makes total sense to move on. My heart is open. The past and future no longer trap me.
Also, over the past five years, when I’ve told people about my experiences in Thailand, they often answer, “That’s so cool, you should write an article about it.” But that is precisely what I don’t want to do. Is that really the end and value that makes all experiences worth having, to write an academic analysis of it? In so many ways, that just kills experiences and ideas. Yes, academic analysis has opened lots of doors to me, and has fundamentally shaped the way I see the world (and my difficulties in understanding how other people see the world). But now I am increasingly aware of the doors it leaves closed.
Of course, this would not be possible if my father hadn’t died last year. Selling his house in California has given me the resources to escape the bondage to mortgage, alimony and tuition that holds so many of my colleagues. But my father’s death also inspired this in ways beyond the material cushion. After buying an coop apartment, I realized that I have no good idea what to do with the rest of the money. I would probably just let it sit in the bank and wait. For what. Even with reduced material constraints, I realized, fear of change still lingered. Who would I be, if not a CU Professor? What could I tell people?
Then after I was actually promoted to full professor last summer, I laughed out loud. “I don’t want to inhabit this title. This is not me. I’m no professor. ” A professor is what my dad wanted to be. It is what my mom and ex-wife wanted to marry, the kind of children they wanted to have. When I grew up, my parents appeared to be totally liberal and open: “Whatever you want to do is fine with us.” But the one constant theme was “School is good. Go to school. More school is better. School creates opportunities. School is good.” So I never left. I followed their path all the way through. But throughout high school and college, my best friends were always people who hated school and sometimes dropped out. I have a girlfriend who never went to school. It’s time to see the signs, to finally live my own life.
The two classes I’ve enjoyed teaching most over the past years have been Big & Deep History; and Drugs in World History. I’ve enjoyed them precisely because they both point so firmly past the limits of an academic approach to the world. In big and deep history we read works that place human history in the context of the history of the universe, natural processes, evolution and neurophysiology (i.e., books that make many of my colleagues a bit uncomfortable and inclined to burrow back into their disciplinary boundaries). They relentlessly draw attention to the complexity of the human brain; the continuities of human, animal and chemical life; the fact that even the actions of conscious beings follow the same statistical patterns as non-conscious objects; and the triviality of human life in the face of time, space and complexity. Academic research made every of these books possible. And every one of this books takes us to the brink of the ineffable, lets us peek into the depths, and then steps back in fear and analysis to kill the vision. They respond to the vision with premature systematization, subjection to concepts and human abstractions, academic debates, and platitudes reaffirming the value of our conventional understanding of daily life. I love the directions those books have pointed. But I hate the theories, platitudes and egoic appeals they use to pull us back.
My drug class has consistently pointed to our repeated failures in understanding, representing, containing and regulating the drug experience (in other words, the experience of our minds and bodies). The drug experience has consistently all attempt to constrain it, whether through academic concepts, medicine, politics or police. Academic analysis can give us some insights. It can show the social and political and scientific construction of drug experiences. It can show the enormous diversity of drug experiences, and a few of the factors that may shape those variations. And, in the hands of a few authors (especially those who admit to being drug users themselves) academic analysis can even show us where the analytical approach hits its limits, and suggest the enormous mystery and possibility that lies beyond. As with Big and Deep History, I am thankful that academic analysis has taken me to the door. I am ready to take another step.
I’ve been doing enough meditation, tantric exercises and psychedelics the past few years to see that it is true what the mystics and psychonauts say: concepts, abstractions and words are one of the main barriers to having those mystic/ineffable experiences in their fullness. Words and analysis are very useful at certain stages to point you in the right (or wrong) direction. But they can only take you so far. You can only take the next step by letting go of those concepts, forsaking the need to intellectually fix an experience, by surrendering control.
The idealized Indian stages of life makes more sense to me that the life path into which I have been living. I have been socialized to expect that most of my life from mid-20s to late 60s will be concerend with ‘career’ and social responsibilities and achievements. After that, I will just fade away and ‘enjoy myself’ when I retire (if I haven’t faded away already).
The Indian stages, however, finish up the stage of money, career and household in the late 40s. A person should then go off into the forest and learn to communicate with the gods. It makes much more sense to make a bit shift in late 40s—with plenty of experience behind you and stil enough energy to go into the unknown. I look at nearly all of my relatives except one—they spent their last years alone, lonely and bitter, unable to make any sense out of retirement. I can see that happening to me so easily. It will certainly happen if I follow the career path to the bitter end. I should follow those other paths now, not just wait. If I fail, my past achievements still won’t have gone away any more than if I wait another 20 years to retire.