Journey Into the Valley of the Academicus

I had not intended to spend so much time among the Homo Academicus.  Yet, my ship wrecked, all means of escape seemingly cut off, I was stuck there.   They were hospitable enough, not anxious to drive me from their tribe, and so I stayed.  Eating their food (supplied by an outside tribe called the Sodexos).  Watching them.  Jotting down their behaviors in a little black notebook that I kept squirreled away in my old moth eaten messenger bag.

To the best of my knowledge, few observers have spent so much time among this peculiar people.  To be sure, the great explorer Pierre Bourdieu made a journey similar to mine, but that was many years before.  I recall that he found them a curious bunch, set in their ways, always forcing their young charges to leap through ceremonial hopes and coming of age rituals that might challenge the patience of those not of their kind.

What can be said of them now?

My jottings can hardly do them justice as their complexity is quite beyond my meager ability to express in words.  I can say that they are perhaps more prone to navel gazing and self-assessment than are other tribal peoples with whom I am acquainted.

Take for example Homo Conveniencestorius.  This group goes about its business without any great ceremony.  They distribute chips and soda and dust-encrusted hot dogs with nary a second thought.

Or Homo Truckerus.  Although one might imagine that long hours spent migrating from place to place would engender self-referential thought to an extent unknown among other groups, such behavior is seldom exhibited.

Homo Academicus is different.  These people relentlessly ask: “Who am I?  What do I do?  What is my family group?  What differentiates my family group from others?  What traits do I have in common and what differs between myself, my group?  Are those my feet?”  It is really quite dizzying.

In one instance, a would-be chieftain whom I shall call Unsworth, went so far as to express his interrogations in terms of “primitives.”  [The Academicus like to use such terminology.]  He claimed that all members of the Homo Academicus engage in “discovering, annotating, comparing, referring,” and a host of other behaviors.

My observations showed him to be quite right.  Indeed, he was not alone is seeking to define similarities.  A sub-tribe, the Harvardians of Cambridge, even issued a proclamation drawing attention to the many common features of this people.  It appears that they were anxious to make converts because in their case the goal was evidently to recruit new members.  The features, which they called “skills,” were said to be beneficial for all things—though such widespread applicability definitely caused doubt among more practically minded tribes such as the Homo Politicus, the Homo Reporterus, and the Homo Studentikus.

Yet there were those members of the tribe who seemed truly dubious of Unsworth, seeking instead to differentiate themselves from those around them.  The Historiani, the Literatti, and certainly the Philosophicalitus all claimed to think differently, to see the world around them in different ways, to ask different questions, to wonder at different things.  They often did this with reference to different “lenses.”  (I could not make heads or tails of this word, though it was just one of many they found useful.  For example, a number of members always wanted to “unpack” a “notion,” “gut” a book, or “massage” an idea.  The vagaries of local dialects cannot help but excite the observant traveller!)

I stood agape at it all.  Certainly there seemed to be inter-tribal political motivations behind such claims.  Each sub-group of the Academicus had turf to fight for, after all.  It was not so much that they sought mates as others might—although that was probably part of the underlying motivation—but rather that they were relentlessly interested in resources.

This too was a paradox, though not one that I can go into.  On one hand, the Academicus actually seemed to spurn material wealth, yet on the other hand they spoke of it endlessly, forever claiming to be overlooked, undervalued, unloved.

But the perplexing thing about the Homo Academicus were the conflicting interpretations of the message delivered by Unsworth and his ilk.  Even as the Academicus sought to divide themselves, they were almost equally prone to fits of fashion.  They liked to form alliances.  They enjoyed claiming that while different, they are really the same.  They stressed that their different skills, if combined, might offer real truth—for they were endlessly concerned with the search of truth (though some wondered if it was achievable or even if it exists at all).

As the months passed and I kept up my observations and note-taking, I witnessed the formation of a new alliance that the Academicus called “digital humanities.”  This curious term grew from the mutual affection its members had for various digital tools and software developed by the Homo Technicus, a neighboring people.

Of course, even as the alliance seemed to form, the relentless navel gazing took root.  They questioned what the alliance was, what it should do, how it should do it, and more.  There was an effort to draw in the idea that all “humanists,” for that is what they called themselves, are much the same.  Others were less sure.  It went on and on, a kind of dance, but for what purpose I could not tell.  Clearly, this sort of personality crisis is a defining trait.

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When my rescue finally came and I was able to escape back into the loving embrace of my homeland, I imagined that I could see the beginnings of new alliances and the breaking apart of the one that I had seen form.  For fashion really is the thing among the Academicus.  I imagine that they will not ignore their digital tools—much as knives continue to be used long after the Bronze and Iron Ages—but it does seem to me that perhaps the great dance in which they engaged during my stay might soon be surpassed by the hip new thing, held onto lovingly only by an aging elite who came of age during the heyday of the alliance.

Of course, I did not stay to find out if I surmised correctly.  There was only so much I could take.