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1.   Why am I doing this?    (If you don’t yet have a job, the question should be:  why do I want to do this?)

2.  Why should someone else pay me or support me to do this thing I love?

3.  Why is what I’m doing (or want to do) important?  What do I contribute?  Why?  In what way?  To what goal?


1.   Why am I doing this?    (If you don’t yet have a job, the question should be:  why do I want to do this?)

It’s the basic, existential question, right?   Most of us don’t ask it nearly enough. And for many people in the world, certainly the majority, it isn’t really a question:  you do what you have to in order to support yourself.  But that makes the question even more urgent, for everyone, especially those fortunate enough to have choices. And that already is an important point.  If you are preparing for an academic career, you are making a choice.  Why?  What motivates you?   This is not a trivial question.

If your answer to this question is because “I love to do it.”   Perfect.  Academe (contrary to cynical media reports) is an insanely tough, competitive profession and all the odds are stacked against you.  Over 70% of college professors are contingent or adjunct labor–no security, no benefits, no living wage.  In most instances, to be successful in such a profession requires that you make sacrifices in work/life balance of such magnitude that you better love what you are doing or you will have a very unhappy life.   (NB:  There are way too many unhappy academics.  Remember the Freudian adage that “love and work” are the most important things in life and the luckiest person is that person who loves his or her own work.)

However, if your answer to #1 is that you do it because you love what you are doing–you love your field, your discipline, you adore teaching and grading, you really like hanging out with academics, you are good at institutional problem-solving within a shared governance system including many who have been tenured into their opinions for decades, and you find it great to spend nights and mornings  and weekends doing research that may have little to do with your teaching, but you do it because you love it and you love to write and you  love the challenge of being a self-starter, staying utterly current in research, in being bold, and in moving past constant rejection for grants, leaves, publications, and etc (all huge components of loving academe) . . .

…however, if, despite all that, your answer to #1 is still that you do it because you love what you are doing, then you have to be introspective yet again and answer a second question:

2.  Why should someone else pay me or support me to do this thing I love? 

This is a very serious question.  This is basically an institutional question.  Why should some institution support you in what you love?  What does your passion offer back in support of the goals of the institution?

This is not a revisiting of that old cliche “I cannot believe they pay me to do this.”  You should be paid for doing your job.  Period.   What I am pushing is something deeper:  if you are about to enter into a serious relationship–financial, affective, institutional–you should be thinking not just about what it is doing for you but also what you are doing for it.

There is a deeper question here than simply “I’m doing what X institution says it wants done.”  Since we live in times when all of our institutions are under duress and have to be able to speak to their own value, it is important for job seekers to think about what they will contribute to the institutions that they will pay their salaries but that they, as individuals will also help to shape.

What is it that we do that we offer the institutions that hire us?   It does nothave to be simply “service.”  It can also be “transformation” and “leadership” and success, in all its social and human and complex forms.   It’s deep to think about that, even before you go into a job interview.  Because, more and more, we all need to think about what we contribute and learn how to articulate that.  Eloquently.  And we rarely do this.

This is also part of the activist component that HASTAC is dedicated too.   David Theo Goldberg and I discuss this in The Future of Thinking:  “institutions are mobilizing networks.”  We are part of institutions so why do we so often believe institutions operate outside of us?  What can we do individually and collectively to contribute which is to say to transform?   One of the ten tenets for changing the paradigm of higher eduation that I advocate:  “Take Institutional Change Personally.”  

(NB:  If you feel like entering into an institution is only a negative, only a condition of servitude or passivity, you need to go back and rethink question #1 more seriously.)

So . . . if your answer to the question “why should someone else pay me or support me to do what I love”  is  “because what I do is important,” then you are begging the question, not answering it, and so you need to ask yourself the third most important question:

3.  Why is what I’m doing (or want to do) important?  What do I contribute?  Why?  In what way?  To what goal? 

I wish every academic had a great answer for this question, not just those starting out.  We do a terrible job of answering it (even for ourselves) and often fall back onto the status quo, not onto a really profound engagement with this issue.  “Because X department needs a second Victorianist” is not an answer.   That’s an entitlement.  We live in a world where every basic aspect of professions—by no means just in academe:  look at the music industry, journalism, baseball, law, publishing, and many other professions–is changing.   Everyone should be able to answer seriously, profoundly, why what we do is important, what we contribute, in what way, to what goals.  As individuals.  As institutions.

And if you happen to be an academic just starting out in the profession, these three deep questions are great to have answered for yourself, to your satisfaction (at least for the moment) before you go into a job interview or even before you write a job letter.

Conviction about the meaning and importance of what we (whoever “we” might be) do in the world is a huge help on the way to a better life.   Amartya Sen says that all education is vocational in the sense that we are helping to train people to lead better, more productive, more socially engaged lives.   To my mind, that’s true of ourselves and our path to self-knowledge as well.


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Cathy N. Davidson

Cathy N. Davidson

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