“For every projection you make—I know it would be fruitless to ask you to forswear the projective temptation altogether—make a promise. Tell us not just what will happen but what you plan to do to bring about a better world, or a better university, or just a better neighborhood. Utter some words you will need to stand by. Because only then will you be answerable to the future that you so confidently predict.”
Branko Milanovic reads the bios of “several contemporary economists” and is struck by their “bareness”: “The lives sounded like CVs. Actually, there was hardly any difference between their CVs and their lives (to the extent that I could tell).”
The lives (i.e. CVs) typically went like this. He/she graduated from a very prestigious university as the best in their class; had many offers from equally prestigious universities; became an assistant professor at X, tenured at Y; wrote a seminal paper on Z when he/she was W. Served on one or two government panels. Moved to another prestigious university. Wrote another seminal paper. Then wrote a book. And then…this went on and on. You could create a single template, and just input the name of the author, and the titles of the papers, and perhaps only slight differences in age for each of them.
Surely there are some generic conventions at play here — indeed, Milanovic could be describing his own academic bio in the paragraph above — but is the boringness of so many academic bios indicative of some special paucity of life among the contemporary professoriate?
If so, Milanovic wonders about the implications:
[H]ow can people who had lived such boring lives, mostly in one or two countries, with the knowledge of at most two languages, having read only the literature in one language, having travelled only from one campus to another, and perhaps from one hiking resort to another, have meaningful things to say about social sciences with all their fights, corruption, struggles, wars, betrayals and cheating. Had they been physicists or chemists, it would not matter. You do not have to lead an interesting life in order to understand how atoms move, but perhaps you do need it to understand what moves humans (cf. Vico).
I think Milanovic has point, but again, part of this is genre. Academic bios elide all kinds of interesting stuff. That’s what makes them academic bios. Remember, too, that Milanovic is talking about economists. Yet I also wonder if the template he skewers has a normative function. There is a danger, it seems to me, of trying to live a life that might lead to one of these conventional bios, rather than a life that flows from other concerns. If you’ve ever warily asked yourself, “How would X look on my CV?,” where X is something that’s maybe just slightly unusual, and which is a question academics (particularly junior academics) are encouraged to ask themselves, you’ve submitted to the subtle tyranny of the boring academic bio.
I imagine such self-disciplining happens in other professions, too.
One school of thought says, as per Flaubert, “Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” But another school of thought — the school I increasingly find myself admiring, if not fully a part of — wonders if something about Flaubert’s formula doesn’t add up, or is at least a kind of privilege. “Orderly and boring lives are a privilege of rich and orderly societies,” asserts Milanovic.
Recents events have exposed the fact — if it was ever really hidden — that maybe we aren’t living in as rich or as orderly a society as we might have once liked to think we were. Paths that once seemed straight have become more obviously crooked. If the perfectly neat and tidy academic bio was always a sort of humblebrag by those who made it to the top, the résuméic equivalent of a millionaire wearing jeans, now it seems fanciful in its lifelessness.
Let us turn instead to unconventional, unacademic bios and advice for inspiration, as I have long found myself doing.
Sinclair Lewis argues that aspiring writers should “become a doctor or a grocer, a mail-flying aviator or a carpenter, a farmer or a bacteriologist, a priest or a Communist agitator” in addition to seeking to become a writer. Decades later, Werner Herzog would proffer advice to aspiring filmmakers, encouraging them to “work as a bouncer in a sex-club, a warden in a lunatic asylum or in a slaughterhouse. Walk on foot, learn languages, learn a craft or trade that has nothing to do with cinema.” This, needless to say, isn’t the advice given to aspiring academics. If, for example, you’re an academic who dabbles as a dominatrix, you might be blackballed.
Writer Charles Bukowski famously worked a number of odd jobs while cranking out poems and stories. Composer Philip Glass worked as a taxi driver, plumber, gallery assistant, and furniture mover until he was 41. Before becoming a bestselling author, Louis L’Amour was “a longshoreman, a lumberjack, an elephant handler, a fruit picker and an officer on a tank destroyer in World War II. He had also circled the world on a freighter, sailed a dhow on the Red Sea, been shipwrecked in the West Indies and been stranded in the Mojave Desert, and had won 51 of 59 fights as a professional boxer.” Compare these biographical sketches, which I draw energy from, to the one Milanovic puts forward above, which puts me to sleep.
Similarly, before he was an actor, James Garner worked as “telephone installer, oilfield roughneck, chauffeur, dishwasher, janitor, lifeguard, grocery clerk, salesman and, fatefully, gas station attendant.” Kris Kristofferson was a “Rhodes scholar, a U.S. Army Airborne Ranger, a boxer, [and] a professional helicopter pilot” before becoming a songwriter and actor. Viggo Mortensen’s “previous careers included driving a truck, delivering flowers, and loading ships in Denmark. For years he lived from gig to gig, check to check, mostly broke. It probably didn’t help that, on a whim, he left L. A. and moved to Idaho. He supported his acting career for years by bartending and waiting tables.” These were jobs these guys did before they made it big, yes, but they weren’t merely that; they were constitutive of who they were/are later as people and artists.
Even if an academic once worked as, say, a bartender, and I imagine a lot of academics have done some bartending, it’s not something you expect to see listed in their bio, which is a shame. Something like bartending, as Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner write in Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1969), “can be taken as evidence … that the teacher has been in contact with reality at some point in his life.” “One of the common sources of difficulty with teachers,” they continue, “can be found in the fact that most of them simply move from one side of the desk (as students) to the other side (as ‘teachers’) and they have not had much contact with the ways things are outside of school rooms.” Putting aside the eternal debate over whether the classroom is part of the “real world,” I’ll simply say this: rather than omit bartending stints from their bios, academics should be encouraged to include them.
The above are all examples taken from this blog, and admittedly white and masculinist ones at that. But there are many more such cases. And there has never been a better time to draw inspiration from them, whatever your career. Don’t worry if your story is messy, I say. Shun the boilerplate bio, and the conformity it hints at. Embrace the idiosyncratic and vibrant path you surely are already on, and let your bio be a testament to as much. In the end, those are the ones people like to read, not CVs.
I wrote about Killing Them Softly (dir. Andrew Dominik, 2012) for Decider, a Brad Pitt film you’ve probably never even heard of, but that I think makes for a timely (re-)watch post coronavirus.
Here’s a taste:
If you’re one of those people who, in times of turmoil, craves art equal in gravity to the moment, consider adding it to your Netflix list. Though it offers little in the way of escapism, the point it makes about America — namely, that we’re a country where consequences are unevenly distributed — is more relevant than ever.
From photographer Joshua Dudley Greer’s Somewhere Along the Line series, a compliation of photographs depicting “the state of America’s infrastructure as a physical manifestation of its economic, social and environmental circumstances in unforeseen moments of humor, pathos and humanity”:
“At Toni’s memorial service, Angela Davis was there, and we were talking about how Toni never thought anyone was guilty of a crime. Do you remember the Menendez brothers’ trial? Toni, who loved detective stories and trials and stuff like that, told me that the Menendez brothers were innocent. One of them had gone to Princeton for, like, five minutes, during which time Toni had met him. And Toni was a much nicer person than me. My meeting someone does not necessarily make me like them, but to Toni it does. The Menendez trial was one of the first televised trials, and Toni and I watched every single day on the telephone together. And the trial started at noon, because it was in L.A. I was supposed to be writing, of course, and I thought, I’m spending the whole day on the phone watching television, but it must be O.K., because so is Toni. And then I found out that Toni got up at five in the morning, and by twelve she had already done a full day’s work.”
I’ve actually been sending them out via email since 2014, when my buddy Austin Kleon suggested I share them in email newsletter form. (Email newsletters were all the rage then.) In that time, a few thousand people – including people at the New York Times – have signed up for the newsletter version with very little promotion on my part, suggesting there is interest in the email iteration of it. I’ve gotten some positive feedback and shout-outs on it as well, which is always nice.
In the first edition I emailed out to people, I explained that I started doing these Sunday New York Times Digests to “give myself a Sunday morning ritual, to keep track of articles I wanted to talk to my dad about, and to assemble an archive of my recurring preoccupations, as well as track how those preoccupations shift over time.” Those things are still, more or less, true. But my life is different now than it was when I started doing these, and sometimes I debate whether to continue. For now, though, I’m content to simply make them emails and free up this blog for other – and hopefully more-frequent – posts.
If you’d like to continue reading my Sunday New York Times Digest, you can sign up to receive them via email here: https://tinyletter.com/mattthomas. (And even if you don’t subscribe, you can read them, including the latest one I sent out yesterday, in the archive here.)
Who knows, I might change my mind and go back to posting them here, but for now I’m going to try things this way.