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Sundry Musings on the Academic Phenomenon of the "Eternal Student"
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-07-19 11:14:07
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A professor and students at the first University in Bologna

Anybody who has been to a Graduate School will remember observing the phenomenon of “the eternal student.” The kind of student who simply hangs around in academic halls, dormitories and libraries. He will take odd survival jobs as Teaching Assistant to an eminent professor, or even one as an adjunct or a substitute professor, while pursuing the elusive Ph.D., which may take him ten or more years to obtain, if he ever obtains it, while deluding himself all along that he is integral part of the faculty of the institution he is hanging around in. Most students call him professor, so the delusion goes on. In effect he has a role conflict: is he a student or a professor?

Were one to look at the salary of an “eternal student” one would soon realize that it is one tenth, at best, of that of a full professor at the same institution. In fact, he might as well have taken a vow of poverty; with tuition and other fees (including that of staying registered in Graduate School) to be paid, one can only afford an austere Spartan or a miserly life. He might even have to resort to government sponsored food stamps. It has been known to happen.

Of course all this can be traced to a dysfunctional academic system in some way reflecting the social dysfunction of the larger society with its disparity of incomes and wages and disregard for distributive justice, but that is not what this piece is about. It is about the “eternal student.”

Sometimes he is nomadic, he will go from one academic institution to another (average time: two or three years), hopping around from field to field, getting various degrees. This is easy for him since he tends to be a generalist and likes the interdisciplinary approach; he is in fact proud of his generalist tendencies which, to be sure, give him a wider horizon than those of many pedantic professors who know everything about a banal inanity and see no connection between any two things. However, he never seems to focus on a particular intellectual endeavor, albeit one that is interdisciplinary.

Neither does  “the eternal student” ever settle down in one place and one field to build a career there. He will never obtain tenure which usually implies settling in the institution that has granted it, besides the fact that tenure also guarantees a modicum of freedom of thought, the so called academic freedom. Not having tenure means he is not wholly free to speak his mind and this explains his hopping around. After a while he is declared a “persona non grata.” So he resigns himself to the nomadic life, a sort of Kierkegardian life of “quite desperation” wherein one has given up on academic honors and recognition and grants and pins all one’s hope on writing the book that will revolutionize the field he is in, or perhaps reveal its absurdities. It usually never happens, if it does, it will probably happen outside academia. In academia, by the time one manages to get tenure, there is a good chance one has become a pedant. One thinks of Petrarch, Freud, Goethe, or Newton, as great minds and scholars, founders of movements and fields who succeeded outside academia. Those who succeed in academia may ultimately do so despite academia.

The other extreme to this life of “quite desperation” in academia is the spectacle of radical rebellion and iconoclasm against everything the academic world stands for. For example, you may have a student who enters graduate school having graduated from college summa cum laude. He dreams of the academic life dedicated to scholarship with tenure in a prestigious university surrounded by adoring students and a grateful society. After all, he has the smarts. He chooses a brilliant advisor and a mentor designed to guide him to this dream, but who after a while tells him that he is not suitable Ph.D. material and ought to consider leaving the place. He is too much of a generalist and a free spirit unable to follow directions, and he will never be able to finish a very specialized dissertation on a very narrow topic and then write articles for specialized journals which will be duly read by a couple dozen other specialist and then duly placed to gather dust on academic libraries’ shelves.

So what does this rejected “eternal student” who has just been handed this news do? One possible thing, which remains quite possible in a USA awash in guns, is to procure himself an assault weapon and explosive material, then go to a movie theater in town and proceed to commit a massacre killing 12 people and injuring 70 others, leaving his school of medicine’s apartment at the university all wired up with explosives.

No, this is not fantasy, it really happened in Colorado in the town of Aurora while the movie “The Dark Night Rises” was being screened, only two years ago. The graduate school this “eternal student” (by the name of James Holmes) was attending at that time, was the school of neuroscience at the University of Colorado. He had been dismissed from the school.

Most disgruntled disillusioned graduate students do not go that far, of course. Some of them commit suicide by the dozens every year in a dozen or so graduate schools, but one hardly ever hears of those suicides. The issue is hardly ever even broached. Those suicides are usually well covered up to protect the reputation and integrity of the school which wants to give the impression that everybody is a happy camper there. This is one of the dirty little secrets of academia.

Of course in between the life of quiet desperation and the life of rebellion to the point of destructive rage, there is the well balanced successful academic life exemplifies by the full professor with tenure (usually by the age of forty or so),  who hails from a well-endowed family who can easily afford to finance his expensive graduate studies. He will and end up making a six figures salary, gathering honors and fame in the field he has chosen, attending hundreds of conferences, writing dozens of book and hundreds of specialized articles for specialized journals in the field of his expertise. Those books and articles will usually gather dust in the academic libraries of most universities. Precious few undergraduate students will ever consult them. But they will have served well its writer for it will have furthered his academic career, if not exactly the needs and the common good of his students and of society at large.

At this point the question arises: aside from economic considerations and the vow of poverty, who has the better life, what the Greeks called “the good life,” the eternal students or the eternal professors? Not an easy question to answer. We’ll leave the answer to the non-academic common-sense  of the readers.    

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Get it off your chest
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Emanuel Paparella2014-07-19 19:46:20
Errata: "Anything two things" should be "any two things."

Gerard Farley2014-07-19 22:00:26
Some persons engage in activities they cannot afford. George Bernard Shaw once wrote that alcoholics often cannot affod to drink, but drink alcohol anyway, and manage to get enough money to do it. Some persons cannot afford to pursue advanced studies at a graduate school, but they do it anyway.

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