Mind Games: Making the case for an academic calling

Siva Vaidhyanathan in Bookforum:

Cover00“I’M GONNA WASH THAT MAN RIGHT OUTTA MY HAIR,” I sang in a full voice from the back row of a University of Texas lecture hall, over the heads of fifty cringing undergraduates. It was the spring of 1995, and I was the oldest student (by at least five years) in a history course called United States Culture, 1945–Present. That day we had a guest lecturer, an American-studies professor who had produced award-winning books on documentary expression in the 1930s and on postwar Broadway musicals. His lecture was on the importance of the latter. He had just asked the room if any of us knew any Rodgers and Hammerstein numbers. Swept away by the enthusiasm of the moment more than by my affection for Oklahoma! or South Pacific, I raised my hand and sang my reply. Professor William Stott smiled and held his arms akimbo. He paused. Then responded. “I’m just a girl who can’t say no.” His voice was rich and joyful. We had broken the fourth wall of academic performance protocols; the expert’s lecture had somehow threatened to become a song swap. The already befuddled younger students in the class were now on the verge of horror, as this pair of aged show-tune enthusiasts shared a moment of mutual recognition with passion, confidence, and a complete lack of embarrassment.

That’s when I first began to recognize my calling as a scholar of the humanities—a vocation that these days is steeped in a corrosive identity crisis, seemingly never-ending job insecurities, and no small amount of wider cultural embarrassment. But from my outsider’s perch as a hitherto aimless humanities student rebounding from a dismaying false start to my career in the no-less-precarious field of journalism, this fugitive communion in song persuaded me, on some other-than-conscious level, that there was real joy to be had in the academic calling. And when I met with Professor Stott in his office after class, his ebullient description of his scholarly passions helped me grasp this crucial point more clearly.

More here.