Self-regard

In a book I dearly love, and which I have read many many times, Timequake, Kurt Vonnegut describes a scene from his youth, in which he suggests that he wouldn't play a particular school friend at table tennis because the ball had so much spin on it, it was as liable to go up one's own nostril as back over the net. When this fiendish spinner of the ping-pong ball met another classmate, Skip, he met his Waterloo: 'Skip cut me a new asshole', the friend reported to Vonnegut. While partaking of a little schadenfreude in relation to his friend's 'colostomy to his self-regard', Vonnegut spins this into a parable about the relation of oneself to the world: no matter how much you think you're hot stuff, if you go out into the world you're bound to meet Albert Einstein or Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who will inevitably provide you with a supernumerary asshole.

Well, I've never felt I was hot stuff. It's probably my working class upbringing and all that, but I find it very difficult to take pleasure in, or even care much about, the intellectual work I've done in academia. Sure, I do the best possible job with anything I set my hand to in terms of books or articles or the professional apparatus of academia, but after it's done, it embarrasses me a bit. As an academic in literature, this is my wholly ironic 'fatal flaw': in terms of a career, I don't suppose I ever have, ever do or ever will do the 'right thing' with regard to making a career or getting promotions or anything else. I like meeting people and talking about their work, but not my own; I'm not a very effective networker as I like to ask questions and draw people out a bit, rather than telling them about what I do.

In some ways, of course, this suits me ideally to the role of teacher or mentor or supervisor, which is certainly the thing I'm best at, I would say. This last few months three of my doctoral students have passed their viva examinations and I'm proud to have been able to support their development (and of course will continue to do so) and today, in what occasions this (now very occasional) piece, another of my doctoral students had her first piece of work published in an academic journal. (It's here.)

Now this fills me with delight. I didn't know that article was being published today, it appeared on my twitter feed; and I feel an uplift, as I did last Friday when two of the vivas took place, that these thoughtful, hardworking, brilliant people had achieved what they had wanted to, and not through my work but through their own. It's a pleasure and a privilege to accompany them on their journey.

This isn't a kind of humblebrag, as I hope my friends and colleagues would testify. But as I feel increasingly adrift in an academic world so consumed by REF and TEF that it can't (or won't) see the crumbling fabric of the world and the communities beyond the campus, where these brilliant students come from, of course, being there to help and to witness their successes provides a bit of light in the thickening gloom.

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