Tuesday, May 10, 2011

How useful am I?

As an academic, I question my usefulness. Society will always need carpenters (or plumbers or tailors or nurses or farmers). Their benefit is pretty clear and obvious. Will it always need historians? How important is my obscure research that might only be read by a handful of other obscure historians? Am I a producer or a parasite?

I think it is a normal to want to be a productive member of society. To know that the work into which you put your life force actually benefits humanity in some small way. Even to be able to ask these questions demonstrates a great deal of privilege.

On the one hand, academia is often criticized for being an ivory tower, from being divorced from "real life". On the other, academics are among the most engaged people I know. Rarely are they unconcerned with politics, society or human relationships.

In the hierarchy of academia, often the applied sciences and business are considered to be most useful - 80% of Canada's research funding is allocated to science and health. And in 2009, the Conservative government decided to increasingly allocate the social sciences and humanities research funding to business-related degrees. Already (as often decried during the most recent crash) so many of the best young minds are wasted in the financial sector moving money and creating paper wealth instead of solving society's problems. Even if I don't solve any major problems myself, maybe I will be partially responsible for teaching the generation that might do so.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Hello blog, I have missed you

I think I feel like blogging again. My last post was about a year and a half ago. What have I been doing in that time? I have been working on my PhD in history. I found I was too busy, and had too little energy for writing. Also my eyes hurt.

I just passed my comprehensive exams. To give you a sense of the scope, this involved reading 200 books over the last year, and then being examined on them with 3 written and 1 oral exam. It was a grueling process that involved regular 60-70 hour weeks. The last day I took off was Christmas (and I felt guilty about it). I can liken it to training for a marathon. Then it was over. Now I feel very strange. I'm absolutely exhausted, and feel a bit at loose ends. I've heard about the post-comps slump. I think that so much of my time and energy and self has been wrapped up in this process, that now I don't quite know what to do with myself.

I have to start preparing a research plan. But I feel a bit lost. I've never done anything of this scope before.

What are my plans for this blog? I figure I can use this blog to help me think through some of the issues, concerns, fears and thrills involved in researching my thesis. It will probably also still contain arts, culture and political commentary, and my usual musings on various topics. Probably commentary on academia as well. Many things in my life have changed since I began this blog back in 2005. (2005! I can hardly believe it's been so long!) My perspective has changed. I've become less sure about some things, more sure about others. The more I've learned the more I've become convinced of my own ignorance. It's been an encouraging, and yet humbling 6 years (6 years!) I feel old and young, wise and foolish. I hope some of you join me on the next stage in my journey.