18 February 2019

Blast from the Past: Hanging Out with Academics II

Back in December, I had the chance to attend a Christmas party hosted by my former employer. I have a friend who still works in the institute that I used to work in, and she took me to their Christmas party, as her plus one. Hence, I got to meet former colleagues once again, which was surprisingly a positive experience.

See, the thing is, I thought it would be a weird experience. I had other instances of meeting former colleagues, and the impression I got from those meetings was that now that I am not an academic anymore, then I am this sort of pariah individual, and as much as I tried sustaining a conversation, somehow, all conversation topics end up being a dead end, and we'd just stare at each other. Hence I didn't know how this event would be like.

It turned out to be the exact opposite. People somehow seemed genuinely interested to see me again, and they were asking how things were outside of academia. I even had the impression that they were the one who didn't feel like academia was a place to stay in, and they were at some point even asking me for tips on how to survive in the non-academic setting. In any case, I found the whole party quite enjoyable, and yes, it was definitely nice to see old faces again and share a few happy moments.

I suppose this event gives me another piece of evidence pointing to the idea that academia is a very isolated bubble. As much as it can be the vanguard bastions of new knowledge, somehow it seems to be detached from reality, and the rest of us here living in the real world. Academics are trained to be excited at the most unique and novel research topics, yet somehow its relevance to human day to day existence can be not obvious. This different mentality then creates barriers with the rest of society, and can translate to practical difficulties like the ability to be employed in a non-academic setting.

In a separate event in December, I bumped into another acquaintance of mine, who was doing a PhD in the humanities. We met for lunch, and had an interesting yet in my view a very inaccessible conversation about language and linguistics. He's from the UK, but he's doing a PhD in Japan. He's writing a book about Japanese literature, and at some point in our conversation, he was debating the choice of language of his book, about the implications of writing his book in English or in Japanese, when the topic is Japanese literature. It sounded very deep, but personally I found hard to care. Of course I did the polite thing and sustained the conversation as much as I could, but I couldn't help but ask myself why this issue matters beyond the context of academia.

Anyway, after spending two years outside of academia, I definitely think I am here to stay outside. I don't miss it. I recall a friend and ex-collaborator sending me an academic job ad for a post-doc a few months after I left academia, saying that I might be interested to "come out of retirement", but frankly speaking, my brain has been more engaged and fired up than ever during "retirement". Why would I go back to being brain dead?

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