What are academics for? (Or why I am in Hufflepuff)
The main thing I want out of academics is friends. No seriously. I am here to make friends.
I don’t mean that the intellectual stuff – the classes, the books, the library card, the conferences – are just excuses to make friends. I mean that I love all those things because, to me, they are about making friends. Sometimes the kind I go to lunch with, sometimes the kind I only interact with through books. Sometimes the books themselves.
When I first arrived at Duke to do a PhD, I was disoriented. I had meandered into academia and biblical studies through a series of accidents and rabbit holes, whereas everyone else seemed to have a plan, with binders and spreadsheets. Everyone was busy with work, at all hours. I wanted to have dinner parties, but couldn’t convince anyone to show up. It made me feel terribly unprofessional, and also lonely.
When the feeling that I had been let in by mistake became too strong, or when I couldn’t remember why I wanted to be here in the first place, I would read a reference letter written by my university chaplain. Goeff said I had the perfect disposition for academics for three reasons. First, I loved my academic work. I spoke of my thesis with unflagging enthusiasm. Second, I didn’t stay put in my academic discipline. I was generally interested. And third, I could always be counted on to bring food.
Geoff spoke of the things that made me feel unprofessional – enthusiasm, a bit of scatter brain, food – as strengths. He described someone I wanted to be, even though I knew that I am often more competitive, less generous, less at ease, than the person in the letter. It wasn’t enough to drown out my imposter syndrome, but it was enough to convince me that my values and priorities were worth sticking with. Now, almost a decade later, I think of that letter as a gracious piece of wisdom, and an excellent guide to what intellectual life can be.
First week of classes is over, syllabi have been handed out, assignments are becoming due. Academics are competitive and we are constantly evaluating and being evaluated. It is easy to feel like the point of it all is to be the smartest. But the drive to be the smartest is not, I think, a good way to learn. I tell my students that a critical reading always starts with the question “What does the author say?” Not “What do I think about this?” Not “Where is the author wrong?” Not “How could I write this better?” A critical reading starts with an effort to understand, to give another your full attention, with the assumption that you might learn something. A critical reading begins by listening to a book, an author, a talk, with the kind of attention you give a friend. “I want to understand you,” not “I want to be smarter than you.”
I can think of other examples of how a disposition towards friendship is essential for good thinking, but metaphors aside, I am always looking for friends. I often tell myself this is naïve, that people are busy and important and can’t be expected to take the time. But more and more, I try to choose collaborators based on whether they will be friends. I make an effort to correspond with people who extend friendship with me. I try to remember people’s names. I am grateful when people remember mine. I consider projects I feel unsure about because friends suggest them. I don’t have a clear utilitarian reason for this, but I believe it is a good way to proceed. It beats networking, if only because when things don’t go well, at least you have people to have drinks with.
All this used to embarrass me. I still have qualms about telling the whole internet that I am here to make friends. The part of me that gets embarrassed is the same part that scoffed a bit when the Pottermore sorting ceremony put me in Hufflepuff. Shouldn’t my PhD at least earn me a spot in Ravenclaw?! But then I thought about it. Hufflepuff values “hard work, patience, loyalty, and fair play.” Me too. Hufflepuffs are fierce friends. Me too, or I hope to be. Hufflepuff wanted to “teach the lot and treat them just the same.” That is the kind of teacher I want to be.
I am here to make friends. That may seem like a cop out, a soft-brained diversion from real thinking, a failure of ambition. I don’t think so. Making friends and being a friend is hard. Treating people you disagree with like friends is hard. Listening is hard. Making delicious pies and sharing them with people…actually, that’s not hard, that’s just fun. When I encourage you to consider friendship as the point of academics, I am not saying that the time you spend out of class is more important than the time in. All I am saying is you might get more out of this time, these years spend reading and arguing and thinking about things you might never think about again, if you are on the lookout for friends. Friends to have lunch with, friends from long ago whose words seem to be for you specifically, books to keep you company.
I am here to make friends. I hope you are too.