22 July 2010

Cyclical time and the academy

Well, here it is, another summer and I'm back in school. There is something odd about being more excited to go to class than going to the beach, but thankfully the adult world is structured so that people who share enthusiasms can congregate.

I wonder sometimes if Americans don't have different connections to the seasons than do other cultures. I wonder this not because I want to posit some uniquely American relationship with fall or with winter, but largely because from age 5 to 18, at least, Americans experience summer as a long, unbroken string of endless days. (There's an entire, and astonishingly subversive, Disney cartoon about this phenomenon.) Other countries generally have a shorter summer break; Americans experience summer as a nice preview of life itself. The summer begins full of promise, ripens even as it sours, and ends in a haze of boredom and anticipation. The metaphor breaks down at that point, though, because the coming of fall heralds both the beginning of a new cycle and a promotion within a nicely hierarchical system. Whereas you were once a lowly second-grader, now you may know the mysteries of Third Grade.

Most people outgrow this cycle and graduate into the Real World. I think, in fact, that the linear nature of the Real World is what people have in mind when they discuss this mythical place. (That, and money.) After all, the stages of adult life are strictly sequential, and I suspect that the cumulative nature of outside relationships begins to overwhelm even the seasonality of jobs like those in retail, fashion, and tax accounting. By contrast, academics repeat the cycle until death or denial of tenure, in increasing order of terror. Each year brings a new crop of students, who are there to be taught, nurtured, tolerated, and finally cast out into the world. We grow older, and they stay the same age.

Cyclicality is probably the calendrical equivalent of folk physics. There's probably a good reason why religions structure themselves around cycles. From one perspective, human life is just the rehearsal of roles defined by forces beyond our comprehension and before our understanding. We think there is something natural and inevitable about cycles that are plainly both artificial and recent. Consider the concepts of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood, none of which existed in recognizable forms two hundred years ago, and for only a very few people a few decades ago. (I like to look at historical statistics, and I'm always stunned at how recently it was customary to leave school at 13 or 14 and begin working in what were essentially adult occupations.) The persistence of such notions in the face of obvious counter-evidence and despite changes across roles between generations is a good sign that we are slotting in our observations about life into a preconceived template.

In fact, I can think of only one other tribe of adults who live by as cyclical a calendar as academics (into which category I will admit, for one night only, teachers): politicians. The electoral cycle is slower now than it used to be, in the 19th century, when one- and two-year terms were the norm, but it must feel more hectic than it was. The principal difference between the electoral cycle and the academic cycle is stark: the participants in one cycle are all but assured that they will be in the same jobs in the next revolution.

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