Self-Criticism and the Academy by Jessica Langer

Langer’s wonderful article really spoke to me.

I had to comment

I loved my years as a graduate student in Linguistics at UT Austin. I got to think long and deeply about my dissertation, pursue clues, dissect arguments and have discussions with Bob Harms, my wonderful chair professor.

But I didn’t want to finish and have to move away and teach. There were few jobs in my field. I suspected that the foundations of theoretical linguistics were shaky (and in the century of neuroscience I feel this even more strongly). Mostly I didn’t feel confident enough to be an academic: I couldn’t imagine myself standing up and teaching or proposing theories that I wasn’t absolutely certain about.

I’ve always perceived academia as being extremely competitive, a word not in the article because you’re looking at the flip side, the effects of criticism, something which I perceive as often delivered not in a spirit of inquiry but aggressively. We all know the academics who stand up after a talk and pugnaciously attack the speaker.

One time I gave my chair professor a dissertation chapter saying that another linguist’s data seemed to contradict my shiny new theory. I said that it “seemed unlikely”, “maybe mistaken” or something like that. My professor told to me to state emphatically that my theory was correct and that the other linguist’s data were wrong. “It’s his job to prove you wrong, not yours!” I loved this advice because it did give me confidence. (By the way, I got my Ph.D. and still believe in my theory.)

Then, when I’d decided not to pursue academia and to take a job as a publisher’s rep (traveling salesman to independent bookstores) for a major NY Publisher, someone gave me this priceless advice:

“Academics have the least imagination of anyone. They think that the only thing you can do with a Ph.D. is teach.”

I was free!