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Notes from an Inattentive, Lumpen Professor

By Nandini Dhar

It took me an inordinately long time to finish my PhD thesis. It wasn’t that I went long stretches of time without writing. It wasn’t that I wasn’t thinking about my dissertation topic and the arguments I needed to make. I was, all the time. It wasn’t also that I hadn’t done adequate research. I had done everything that needed to be done, everything a “good” PhD student should do. Still, I was taking an inordinately long time to finish writing the damn document. Partly because, I took too literally the title of a book one of my advisors who was familiar with my writing struggles, had given me – Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. I literally wrote my dissertation every day. For three and a half years. But I never wrote it for more than 15 minutes each day. I am not making this up. Beyond that, I simply could not write. Inside my dinky apartment in a Mexican and black working class neighbourhood in Austin, Texas, I had a writing ritual. I would make myself a cup of tea or coffee, would set my phone timer, and write. There were times my phone rang as I was writing. I would not pick up. Normally, at the end of those 15 minutes, I would have 250-300 words. And that would pretty much be my writing quota for the day.

Yet, during those three years, everyone who saw me, saw me writing. I wrote in cafes, I wrote in libraries. I got up at 4 am to write. I came back home early to write. And, even then, much to everyone’s surprise, my PhD thesis remained incomplete. Because, to tell the truth, beyond those fifteen minutes every day, I wasn’t writing my dissertation at all. I was writing poems. I was writing poems in two languages – English – and my native language, Bangla. The poems I would write would become the foundation of my two first books in two languages, both published in 2017, exactly four years after I finished my PhD.

In other words, during the last three years of my crucial years in graduate school, when I should have been rushing to finish my PhD dissertation, two forms of writing stood face to face in my life – academic prose and poems. The first one was tied to my professional status and overall respectability. The second one was tied, at least in popular common sense, to the idea of rebellion and bohemianism, to the realm of the deepest emotions and expressions of intimacy. What they both shared, in a queer kind of a way, is the idea of smallness. Poems, poets and readers of poetry often claim, are not for everyone. They are not novels, after all. Academic articles, academics claim, are not for everyone either. Both poetry and academic prose stand outside of the literary marketplace of the bestsellers, usually occupied by novels and nonfiction prose journalism.

I will have to admit, though, that my allegiance lay with my poems. I obsessed over them, I struggled with them, I couldn’t keep myself away from them. Whereas, my relationship with my PhD dissertation was merely instrumental. I just wanted to get it done. And that, too, because I needed a job. And because I didn’t want to tell my parents that after spending more than a decade in the US, I couldn’t even finish my PhD dissertation, let alone have the high-flying job, luxury car and suburban house all NRIs are supposed to have, getting that damn document written was important for my own sanity.

But, it’s also true that so long as I didn’t finish my PhD, I felt like a failure. My friends graduated, published sections from their dissertations as essays in academic journals, got jobs. Or not. But that’s a different story. And I couldn’t even finish writing the damn thing. Let alone have the courage to publish chunks from it as articles. Without the degree at hand, I did not dare to apply for jobs. Without at least one published article on my CV, I knew that even if I got my degree, my chance of landing a tenure-track job in post-2008 American academia was miniscule. At the same time, I didn’t want to come back to India without a concrete job offer, for many different reasons. In other words, I was in the middle of the classic academic meltdown, which fortunately or unfortunately, many in my generation are all too familiar with.

It was during those few foggy months that seemed never-ending that I came to one of the most self-evident understandings about the nature of academic writing as a genre. This isn’t unnatural. That’s what crises do. They make us confront certain things which we wouldn’t dare to see otherwise. What I realized is that academic prose, like most forms of writing in the modern world, is a financialized mode of written expression. If those of us who are academic writers are to make any headway with the form, this is the first thing we will have to face up to.

Yet this is a reality we academics work hard to conceal from ourselves, from each other and from the world at large. We get up early to write academic essays. We stay up late to read books and other articles that will help us to write those essays. We tell each other, research is a way of life. And, because research happens to be a way of life, we give up our weekends to write essays which, we know, even as we write them, nobody will read. There have been recent studies that claim most academic articles will be read by two people – the writer herself and the journal editor. I will add a third one – the peer reviewer. By any reasonable standard, we shouldn’t be wasting our time writing these articles. We especially shouldn’t be wasting our time when we tie our academic research and writing to our political commitments, to our deeply felt social needs and interests. Yet we do anyway.

We don’t do this because we are stupid idealists who don’t care about numbers or external validation. We do it because we are career-conscious rationalists, who are perfectly conversant with the modes of operation of the academic market.

We write academic articles precisely because as workers in the theory industry, we must. It is a basic requirement. We need to write academic articles to get a job. We need to write academic articles to keep our jobs. In this, we are not that different from clerks.

The difference is that clerks write documents, but never author them. Academics do. The articles we write bear our names. Even when clerks write for fifteen hours a day, they do not have that privilege. In other words, while our writing lives are as financialized as those of clerks, and while we are just as tied to our jobs as they are, we have the right to own what we write. We academics can turn our writing into intellectual property just by putting down our names on the documents we write. In fact, we are required to put our names on the articles we write. This transforms us into privileged clerks, so privileged that we often forget that academic articles possess financial lives of their own – just like everything else in a capital-centric world.

To be sure, money or capitalization does work differently in the world of academic writing. To begin with, as I have pointed out before, an academic article is never read by a “mass audience.” An academic article never competes in the market in the same way a Bollywood or Hollywood blockbuster does. An academic article never competes in the market in the same way a popular novel does. Heck, an academic article never competes in the same way a journalistic article written on a similar theme does. It is easy to translate this difference into the notion that somehow, as academics, we are beyond the reach of that strange institution called the market. And all too many of us academics subscribe to this illusion.

For example, I will tell you a story about a friend of mine – an urban sociologist – who happens to be extremely insightful on the one hand, and yet extremely insular on the other, in the way only academics can be. We have nothing in common except for a city and a language. During our time abroad, we tolerated each other in the way people with nothing but cities and languages in common tolerate each other. Part of that toleration lies in letting the other person barge into your dinky apartment anytime during the day (or night). So, he barged into the rathole I used to call home one evening, as he often tended to do.

This was a time when my despair about not finishing the damn dissertation was intense. Yet, this also happened to be the time when I could not bring myself to write academic prose for more than fifteen minutes a day. Consequently, I tended to welcome all forms of distractions throughout the day and the night, including random visits from well-meaning and studious friends and colleagues. Most of them used to bore the hell out of me. If you happen to work in academia, you know there is no dearth of people who will bore the hell out of you in the name of sheer erudition. So, my friend, as it happened, was angry on that particular day. Angry because Etienne Balibar had just delivered a talk on campus, to which my friend had been to, and the auditorium was almost empty.

Now, here was the rub. I hadn’t been to the talk. So, I represented precisely the demographic that my friend was angry at. The thing is, we represent the two extremes of the academic spectrum. My friend sees life through academic monographs. Tell him that you’ve watched Gangs of Wasseypur and he will tell you, that’s the region where Gyan Prakash (or was it Gyan Pandey? Should I really care?) did his fieldwork. I, on the other hand, happen to be a reluctant academic. If I want to think of working class history critically, Dipesh Chakraborty wouldn’t be my first person of choice to go to, even though he wrote a book on the subject, and it was critically acclaimed by other academics. I find Chakraborty’s book interesting, but not earth-shattering. In my own life, what has been far more earth-shattering, is getting to know the actual, material realities of working-class movements – as an interested, concerned citizen. Consequently, if I really want to think through the complexities of the working-class movements of our times, I would talk to my middle-class friends who have worked as full-time organizers for long years within the movements, often leaving promising academic careers behind. I would talk to the workers themselves. As a result, I am not quite sure what listening to an hour-long talk by Balibar would do for me. After all, I would be sitting in an air-conditioned room with a bunch of other academics, all of us far removed from the contexts we theorize about. What can we really have to say to each other except for the fact that we are all complicit in this game called institutional knowledge production?

And I didn’t go to the Balibar talk for another very simple reason. An overwhelming number of academic talks bore the hell out of me. As do academic articles, which often have their genesis in academic talks and vice versa.

It is not that I shy away from arguments. It is not that I am afraid of critical observations. It is not that I am incapable of debunking a phenomenon or a text or don’t enjoy doing so. I’m perfectly comfortable with the foundational categories that the social sciences and humanities stand on. Yet, academic talks bore the hell out of me. They bore me partly because I am never sure why I need to listen to extremely dense prose being read out in a dull monotone, when I could be sitting in my own room and read it by myself while sipping on a cup of tea or coffee. Even before critically reflecting on the content of a talk, the form and the aesthetics of such repulse me. Then there’s the small fact that my mind veers off after 15-20 minutes of listening to complex sentences about complicated concepts being read out loud. Rest assured I am far from the only person in the room to whom this happens.

But this is something we academics will never openly admit, in the same way we don’t acknowledge the economic nature of the writing we do. Instead, we perform attention. Years and years of attending and sitting through academic talks train us to treat listening as much of a form of performance of erudition, as is the presentation of the talk itself. Personally, I find these performances of erudition laughable. Our rituals of erudition can’t stop a communal riot, can’t prevent fascist governments from coming to power, can’t put food on a hungry child’s plate. Heck, our rituals of erudition can’t even make the institutions where we work more equitable.

To be clear, I have read Balibar. I will probably read him again, if I have to. But I won’t attend his talk. And I didn’t. I had better things to do. Like watching kids play from my porch. Listening to my teenage neighbours have ostentatious sex, which will invariably end with the boy shouting, “Oh baby, kill me.” Listening to Kabir Suman’s “Agun Dekhechhi Ami Koto Jaanlay” on loop. I even managed to churn out two lines of a poem in between, even though those two lines were ultimately edited out from my first book.

I asked my friend, how the Balibar talk (or any academic talk, for that matter) would be classified in terms of our lives within and outside of the university. Is it entertainment? Is it enrichment? Is it professional development? If it’s entertainment, I have the right to choose my form, and I would choose a Govinda film any day over an Etienne Balibar talk. I would argue that choice makes me a far more interesting person than the average academic. If it’s enrichment, as vague and uncertain that term is, watching children play and writing my own poems is far more enriching than listening to yet another old, white French dude drone on about things like citizenship. Listening to an academic talk remains a form of passive consumption, after all. Writing a poem is a form of active creation. And if it’s professional development, then it is work, pure and simple. Labour – the fruits of which will be consumed by my institution, and by society at large. If that’s the case, then I should be paid for it. Precisely because it’s work.

“What?!” my friend exclaimed. His eyes bulged. The expression on his face was one of sheer disbelief that I even said it. For him, what I said was unthinkable. In fact, most well-meaning, serious and sincere academics would respond exactly the way my friend did – with sheer disbelief. This disbelief is profoundly political in nature. Not only is this disbelief profoundly political, this disbelief is precisely what our classed subjectivities as academics are built upon.

As a class, we academics would like to think we reside in a zone of exception. This is most often expressed in phrases such as “the life of the mind.” We tell each other, the kind of work we do is different. To some extent, this is true. But then, the work a domestic worker is different from what a factory worker does. The work of a factory worker is different from the labour of a peasant-farmer. The very fact that we claim our work to be different with such aplomb demands serious interrogation.

To be honest, when academics use phrases like “the life of the mind”, what is expressed is a desire for insularity. A desire for insularity from the market. A desire for insularity from the label “worker.” Yet to confuse this desire for insularity with a full-fledged rejection of market would be wrong. What the professoriat has wanted, as a class, historically, is to enjoy a form of insularity from the “crassness” of market, while continuing to enjoy its benefits.

It is precisely this ambiguous relationship with the market that frames the academic essay as a genre. Curiously enough, while the academic literary critics of the last three decades have been heavily invested in the ideologies of academic form, the academic essay in itself – as a genre – rarely became an object of enquiry. This is true even for the most “progressive” and “radical” of the literary critics. Yet, the paradox is that this is the genre through which we are required to theorize. To put the academic essay under ideological scrutiny, would be to turn inwards. And not only to turn inwards, but to throw back our gaze on ourselves, to analyse ourselves. That is indeed a difficult undertaking, for any and all of us. To throw back the gaze at ourselves might cause us to potentially lose sight of our academic exceptionalism, which guides the fundamental class-subjectivity of academics. As it did to me.

When we write academic essays, we are primarily writing for “experts”, as another “expert.” Until very recently – that is, before the advent of the internet and a complex digital culture – most academic journals were out of reach for non-academic readers. Even now, most academic articles in “top-notch” journals, mostly from the Anglo-American world, are locked behind corporate paywalls. The market in which academic essays operate embodies a complex politics, which demands critical examination. This critical examination needs to be conducted with the same intensity with which we deconstruct everything else in this world. An important part of this deconstruction hinges on the very question of writing for “experts” and almost exclusively for “experts.” We need to ask a couple of questions to ourselves and each other – what kind of writing do we produce when we write only for experts, and what kind of politics is embedded within that form of writing?

Admittedly, the market for “experts” is small. Entry into this market invariably takes years (and most often, generations) of training. The academic training also requires significant amounts of social and cultural capital. That social and cultural capital has to be acquired, but much of it is also unearned. In fact, the most important constituent element of socio-cultural capital lies in its indistinct character – it is genuinely difficult to discern which part of our social capital is acquisition and which part is undeserved. What we can say though with an amount of certitude is this: the market for academic articles does not remain small because of any deliberate and conscious act of dissent. This is in stark contrast to certain forms of radical literature and experimental art-forms. In fact, what keeps the market for academic articles small is exactly the opposite of radical art. A successful academic article is born out of a meticulous and painstaking sticking to norms.

The flipside of this meticulous sticking to norms is the fact that the very process of learning to write an academic article is almost entirely a learned process. In fact, there is a vast gulf between academic and other forms of writing. I am not suggesting that poems and stories and novels – in other words, “creative writing – are totally unlearned forms of expression. As a poet, let me vouch for the fact that poetry-writing is as much a learned activity as is writing an academic article. Yet, the modes of learning are very, very different.

A desire to write an academic article is not born out of an urge to express yourself in the way the desire to write a poem is born. A desire to write an academic article is not born out of the urge to express an anecdote from life on paper, or modelling our words on our favourite writer(s) in the way our novice efforts to write short stories and prose fiction are often born. We don’t grow up reading articles the way we grow up reading short stories, novels, poems or even nonfiction journalism. In fact, learning to write an academic article is an integral aspect of the professional identity of academics. It is what in the biz we call training. And since our professional identity is almost always the cornerstone of our class subjectivity, learning to perfect the precious art of writing an academic article is almost always about the acquisition of a particular class subjectivity.

I hasten to add class alone does not provide a complete answer to this question. Because learning to read a novel, or a poem or a short story, not to speak of writing one, is as much of a “class act” as learning to write an academic article. What is at stake, rather, in learning to write an academic article, is much more complicated.

Part of that complexity involves the process through which an academic article creates the notion of an “expert” – the “professional intellectual” – who is supposed to know more than anyone else in the world. This expertise assumes its most concrete form within academic articles through citations. Citations embody the idea of ownership, the notion that knowledge is the property of individuals. Just like money. Just like the private property accrued in tangible objects. And just as in the non-academic world, the work of personal financial accumulation is accompanied by constant little acts of homage – however mediated – to the idea of private property at large, an academic writer can only hope to attain the status of the coveted “professional intellectual” by accepting that knowledge is a matter of private acquisition. Learning to cite is formal acknowledgement of that acceptance, the rhetorical equivalent of signing a contract with other professional intellectuals that knowledge is indeed property, and in this world of property-making, there will be no trespassing into each other’s territory. In other words, the citation is a sign of the professional intellectual’s acceptance of the status quo, without which there would be no entry into the coveted guild of the fellow academics.

I should stress that absolutely none of this – neither the knowledge that intellect is a form of private property, nor the cognition that meticulous citation in an academic article is a form of seeking entry into a guild – comes to any of us naturally. It is taught. It is learned. It is imparted in much the same way as the mechanical aspects of the writing of academic articles. In this learning, there is labour, like all other forms of learning. But there is something else too – a conscious and deliberate concealment of the underlying politics and ideologies that constitute the very genre of the academic article.

Indeed, the academic article is a genre through which we are taught to organize our thoughts in a certain way, in and through a certain kind of sentence, and a certain kind of paragraph. In doing so, academic articles discipline us to think in a particular kind of a way. Our PhD training is precisely the time when such disciplining is done most acutely. After all, every PhD dissertation is the genesis of the two other academic genres which dominate our lives as academics – the academic essay, and the academic monograph.

This training often takes place in our graduate programs by drawing attention to the ways in which academic writing is different from all other kinds of writing. A friend of mine, for example, was repeatedly told by her advisor that she writes like a journalist and not like the academic anthropologist that she was in training to become. Another friend of mine was told her PhD thesis is not exactly a novel – she can’t just “write her heart out” in the thesis. I myself have been told, my writing was either “too political” or “too beautiful”, and needed to be “toned down.” In retrospect, this is exactly where my alienation from my PhD was born.

Of course, there was nothing novel in my alienation from my PhD dissertation. Most graduate students go through this in some form or other, and learn to reconcile themselves with it. I did too. This reconciliation with a genre which so often makes us feel depleted inside is also an inextricable element of our class subjectivities as academics. In fact, this reconciliation is a taught and learned affect. We know this because so many of us have witnessed – as students and workers in academia – the fate of those who cannot reconcile.

In India, an overwhelming number of such students come from Dalit and other disadvantaged backgrounds. In the United States, the vast majority of such students come from low-income immigrant homes, African American or other minority communities, and working-class families. In other words, academic prose performs a powerful and political work of exclusion. In India, specifically, this political work is often conducted in tandem with another equally historically contentious category – the English language.

Consequently, when I began to write poems while leaving my dissertation unfinished, I was trying to address that very alienation. It would be hogwash to call it rebellion, although part of my middle-class self wants to do just that. After all, what is more romantic to the middle-class mind than playing truant to write poems?  For my own sake, it would be tempting to claim there is something inherently anti-market about poetry, as a lot of folks have done.

I can’t. There is a market for poetry, too. However small that market might be. And this market routinely churns out poetry that I consider problematic. Given the increasing global popularization of the American MFA in Creative Writing programs, there needs to be a complicated, political analysis of academic poetry, too. However, during that specific moment in my life, what poetry meant for me, residing as I did outside of the MFA-Industrial-Complex, was a space to be rowdy, irresponsible, and angry in and through language. It was a space that academic prose had denied me, despite the fact that it was the ability to be all of those things in thought, analysis and pronouncement that attracted me to writing and thought in the first place. During that specific period of my life, academic prose was work. Poetry was play, leisure, expression. And since in my own mind, play would always be more subversive and creative than work, poetry gave me something that academic prose didn’t. Yes, I am a poet first and an academic second. Yet my job as an academic writer is what puts food on my table, and gives me the time and resources to write poems. In that sense, my poems are hopelessly financialized, too. The financialized shadow that looms over all of my poetic lines is that of a successful, published academic essay, which I have three so far. They appear as lines on my curriculum vitae – testaments to the fact that whether as a writer or a human being, I am not really as daring or brave as I would like myself to be.  As much as I would like to reject the academic essay as a form, I haven’t been able to. This inability to reject, too, is what makes up my class subjectivity as a middle-class academic. There is, after all, no free lunch anywhere.

Photo: Anannya Dasgupta

Nandini Dhar is the author of three books of poems – Historians of Redundant Moments: A Novel in Verse (Agape Editions, 2016), Jitakshara (Aainanagar Prakashani, 2016) and Ma-Rupak Khelchhi Na (Aainanagar Prakashani, 2018). She is also the author of the chapbook Occupying My Tongue, as part of the FIVE collective chapbook project collaboratively conducted by Aainanagar and Vayavya magazines. Nandini’s academic work can be found in journals such as The Comparatist, Ariel: A Review of International English Literature and other edited anthologies. Currently, she is working on co-editing an anthology of essays on post-2012 gender-formations in India with Peerzada Raouf Ahmad. She also co-edits the annual Bangla little magazine Aainanagar with Madhushree Basu and Pramod Gupta. Nandini divides her time between her hometown, Kolkata and Sonipat, Haryana, where she teaches literature and gender studies at OP Jindal Global University.


For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.

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