Lessons From “The Renaissance Soul”: My Academic Breakdown, Explained

The Renaissance Soul.jpgOne of my favorite books is The Renaissance Soul – a how-to manual for folks with multiple interests and passions. Recently, I’ve been reading the 2nd edition. While a lot of it is familiar, I’ve been especially struck by several passages. One in particular, in which author Margaret Lobenstine explains why Renaissance Souls are ill-suited for academia, was especially poignant. Five years ago, at this time of year, I experienced what could be best described as a mental breakdown when starting my 2nd year of PhD work. In the end, it was one of the best things that could’ve happened to me (more on that later), but at the time it was devastating. This quote offers one possible explanation:

Renaissance Souls tend to enjoy a working style that doesn’t follow a linear, predictable process. We’re not like career academics, for example, who relish the process of starting out in the college of liberal arts, then choosing an English major, narrowing that down to Elizabethan literature, narrowing that down to Shakespeare, narrowing that down to tragedy, narrowing that down to Romeo and Juliet, then narrowing that down to dialogue within Romeo and Juliet, until they can clearly define their doctoral thesis topic. What to them feels like a satisfying sense of narrowing in on one clear choice can feel to us like a straitjacket.

Five years ago, as I prepared for my General Exams, I was feeling the pressure to narrow in on my dissertation topic. Feeling like a straitjacket is an understatement – it felt like “buried alive” levels of claustrophobia. Add in a series of personal problems and demons from my past that were starting to rise to the surface of my psyche, and the result was, predictably, disastrous. I ended up drastically altering my dissertation “topic” (which even now I can’t really explain in a few sentences) and finished the PhD through sheer brute-force and determination. Fortunately, at some point I recognized that I wasn’t cut out for academia and opted out of the job market (the hyper-competitive, economically-exploitative state of academic labor helped nudge me in that direction too).

I went into ethnomusicology because it’s an interdisciplinary field and have the acknowledge that my professors were as accommodating of my unfocused nature as possible. I loved my master’s work because I was able to explore a bunch of different things – keep playing jazz bass, learn several other instruments, take classes in a bunch of different departments, etc. But once I got my MA and reached the doctoral level, I was expected to be a focused as any other academic.

Looking back, I’m simultaneously horrified and amused by what a mess I became after I “broke down” (not a medically-recognized condition, but very real to anyone who’s experienced it firsthand). Luckily, I had a great support system in place and was able to get back on track and finish the PhD. The official “focus” of my dissertation was “authenticity,” which was primarily a result of my own struggles with being my true self. At some point, I had to acknowledge what I had known all along, but had denied at the expense of a lot of heartache: that I was no more cut out to be an academic than I was to be a Grammy-winning, internationally-touring jazz artist. In both cases, there were just too many other things that I wanted to do and I couldn’t bring myself to make the necessary sacrifices.

One common piece of advice given to young scholars about to enter the academic job market is, “Be able to summarize the findings of your dissertation in 1-2 sentences.” I often joke that the findings of my dissertation were, “I need to get the hell out of academia!” Lobenstine’s quote helps me justify me decision to leave academia without criticizing my colleagues or mentors. It never would’ve worked for me to build an academic career because it could never fit all my interests and passions. Besides, building a life as a Renaissance Soul is more rewarding than any tenure-track position ever could be…


Author: Leah Pogwizd

Bassist, Instructor, Writer

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