11 February 2013

Becoming Batman (Academic edition)

We like to think about the events and people that changed people’s lives. When we talk about “life changing events,” it’s often a positive thing. It doesn’t have to be, though. Bruce Wayne had an event that changed his life.

Bruce Wayne’s parents were killed in front of him.

Whether the event that starts you on a path is positive or negative doesn’t matter to the story of Batman, or the story of an academic. The point is that these things can happen when people are powerless to do anything about it.

This is many students, maybe at the high school or beginning undergraduate days. They have something they want to do, but... they realize they have to wait.

Eventually, they start to train. And they train hard. Often to the exclusion of everything else.

For some people, this is their university education. For others, this might be grad school.

After all that training, there’s that chance – finally – swing into action. To put all that training to use. His first time out as a crime-fighter, Bruce Wayne put on a ski mask and hits the mean streets of Gotham City. And he gets his ass kicked.

This is a lot of academics at the post doc or assistant professor stage. You have the theory and the training, but not the experience. You’re not yet Batman.

Bruce Wayne had a very definite point that demarcated when he became Batman.

You reach that where you have the training and the seasoning pay off. Bruce Wayne becomes Batman.

For academics, this can be a very drawn out process. Imposter syndrome, for instance, is something many successful academics struggle with. They’re still think they’re Bruce Wayne in the ski mask, not Batman. For some, tenure might be a point where some might think they have “made it.” At some point, you realize that you can do this.

You can’t do everything, but you realize that in some domains, you can do a lot. And people can marvel at how it is you can do all the things you can do. They don’t quite know how you manage all those things.

But here’s the turn in the story. And the reason for this post.

Batman has always had a drive, a confidence, and was always a man with many, many advantages. Very few people seriously challenge him. And those two things combined can turn nasty.

Bruce Wayne is, ultimately, a regular human being, not a Kryptonian or someone imbued with mystic energies. He is a person who, like everyone, is going to get older. And age will take its toll. There are different versions of what happens to Bruce Wayne as he gets older.

In The Dark Knight Returns mini-series, we meet Wayne who has tried to give it up, but is so completely driven that he returns to being Batman.

The Batman who returns is not the Batman most of us are familiar with. This is a relentless, ruthless Batman. He still doesn’t carry a gun. His supporters in the media keep reminding the television audience, “Batman hasn’t killed anyone.”

But you’d be surprised what you can live through.

Batman doesn’t seek out companionship, but through a series of events, a girl named Carrie Kelley comes to his aid.

In this story, you never get the sense that Batman cares deeply about Robin. He’s glad to have her a resource, and he tries to keep her alive. I think Batman even calls her a “soldier” at a few points.

This Batman is the academic who is charitably called “effective.” This is the primary investigator who brings in a lot of money, and has often unreasonable expectations of people working with him or her. This person is often brilliant, and fascinating, but... harsh. This is the academic who can make life hell for students and postdocs and colleagues.

But there’s another story of what happens to Bruce Wayne.

In Batman Beyond television series, we again meet a much older Bruce Wayne. He’s quit being Batman, and he has to live with a the choices he’s made, and they weren’t always good ones. Particularly at the outset of the show, he’s not a warm character.

But in this story, Bruce meets Terry McGinnis. Terry has his own score to settle with criminals, and enlists Bruce’s aid.

Bruce decides to help Terry, and work with him. He gives him a job as an assistant. He is the voice of experience in Terry’s ear when he is on missions, providing Terry with insights earned from Bruce’s years on the street. Sometimes the relationship is strained, sometimes both are frustrated, but both work through it because there is a common understanding of what they’re trying to achieve. In short, Bruce becomes Terry’s mentor.

This is my question for those who make it to the point of becoming a senior academic. Who become Batman.

Are you going to be the Batman who is driven to complete his own mission, come hell or high water, and see those who follow you as chess pieces on the board?

Or are you going be the Batman who passes on the mantle?

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