When I joined the Army at the rather crusty age of 24, I was quite surprised to find that it was a lot like the movies. Drill sergeants really did line us up at 3 am, having dragged us from our bunk beds or sleeping bags where we were enjoying our four-hour quota of sleep, to yell at all of us because one soldier had gotten shoe polish on the floor. We really did march around in formation in the rain and do endless rifle drills. We really did run in formation calling cadence, singing songs about Airborne Rangers and the company commander’s grandmother.
And the cadences were hilarious, some of them – or would have been, if we’d been allowed to laugh. “CO ain’t got no socks / I seen him when he took ‘em off / They jumped up on the chair / demanded voting rights and welfare / I hate it / I hate it / I hate hate hate it.” There was precisely one form of criticism allowed, and that was the authorized roasting of the marching or running cadence. In order to earn the privilege of being able to give voice to it, you first had to be able to keep pace with the formation, and you then had to master your breathing so you could sing and run at the same time. You had to set the pace for the group, making sure your rhythm had every left foot of every soldier striking the ground at precisely the same time. Finally, you had to be able to run up a hill and keep from puking while simultaneously thinking of a new verse to an old song, one that could be at the expense of your squad leader without getting you into trouble. Enterprising satirists would stay up at night, composing them in their heads while they shined their boots.
Some songs were reserved for special occasions. The old favorite “Airborne Ranger,” sung in a minor key, was reserved for occasions of dignity – a slow march to a funeral detail or a change of command ceremony – and it was never, ever appropriate to change the words, though the talented could sing counterharmony. Every type of unit marched to this cadence – personnel battalions, mechanics, infantry, cooks, and linguists. There was no sense of irony at all* when the personnel sergeant, who essentially filed papers most of the day and had never jumped out of an airplane, sang
I’m going to tell a story
And all of it is true
About an Airborne Ranger
And the hell that he went through
My buddy’s in a foxhole
A bullet in his head
The medic says he’s wounded
But I believe he’s dead
Most of us, I think, had a sense of irony — or something akin to it — on a larger level, though. We were, in a way, very much aware of the tactics, tricks, and mind games that went into turning us into soldiers. We knew the 3 am pushup sessions were designed to mobilize peer pressure against the one wayward recruit. We knew the ceremony associated with the awarding of a small, cheap aluminum Driver/Mechanic badge was designed to give gravity and pride to the otherwise tedious and detested tasks of being the commander’s driver and learning to grease wheel bearings. We knew the songs were designed to give us a sense of place and identity in a tradition that stretched back beyond us and would continue long after we were gone. We knew we got our butts chewed over bullshit so we could learn to take it with a stiff upper lip later, when the stress was for real and not over how tight the bunk’s corners were.
We knew all of this and could see it, but at the same time, with a strange sort of double vision, we watched it all work on us, watched ourselves respond, watched ourselves turn into the soldiers they wanted us to be, and watched ourselves become people who wanted to be those soldiers.
In my first critical theory class as a full-time undergraduate after my separation from the Army, when I encountered the term “interpellation,” I understood it in my bones, immediately. I could even see the ways in which the Army manipulated the simultaneous currents of “unit cohesion” and “individual excellence” in order to seem to acknowledge the individual in a structure in which soldiers, after separation, relocation, or disintegration and dismemberment on a battlefield, were always replaceable: They’d just floated the new slogan, “An Army of One.”
In his review of William Clark’s history of “academic charisma,” Anthony Grafton writes, “The university has never been a sleek, efficient corporation. It’s more like the military, an organization at once radically modern and steeped in color and tradition. And it’s not at all easy to say how much of the mystique could be stripped away without harming the whole institution.” 
I find myself inclined to agree. One of the things I learned, rather quickly, in the Army was that everything I thought about the limits of the body, the limits of possibility, and the limits of humiliation as a pedagogical technique was wrong. I learned that people really can learn to put up with almost anything, especially if there’s a “stop date” on the horizon, if it’s temporary. And I learned that the ethos of the drill sergeant, the warrant officer, the crusty old weapons NCO, had just as much to do with stories we knew they weren’t telling as the stories we heard them tell. As privates, we would never hear the conversations that went on behind closed doors in the commander’s office, the ones that had the platoon sergeant’s brow all furrowed and the weapons sergeant running off at high speed to order new inventory. We didn’t know why we were suddenly ordered to leave work one afternoon, go get our gear, report for weapons issue, and spend the night in our offices on a newly locked down post on September 11, 2001 — but we did it. We trusted that somebody knew what they were doing, and it seemed perfectly natural to follow these orders without being aware of the bigger picture, which wouldn’t come until later.
The process of professionalization in academia is much, much slower, but I see — and feel — some parallels. I can’t think of another profession in which training for the profession so frequently involves being kept in the dark about the bigger picture and being forced to dig holes and then move them while the supervisor evaluates us on our performances. I remember the feeling, as an undergraduate, that I was in the hallway while some strange and mysterious conversation was going on, and all I could catch was the occasional phrase: Interpellation. Decentering the canon. Feminist pedagogy. Differance. Postcolonial. I remember being a new graduate student and finding myself in a similar hallway, and though the vocabulary was different, it was just as mysterious: Tenure. Assistant. Associate. 2/2. 4/3. AAUP. ABD. Adjunct. Soft money. We are willing to undergo an incredibly lengthy, often alienating and disorienting, and sometimes very mysterious process of “professionalization” to get into that office behind closed doors in “the academy,” and while it’s true that we don’t have to do pushups or shoot anyone, it’s also true that we are willing to pay a significant amount of money for the privilege. And we may very learn that we can, in fact, put up with just about anything in order to hang onto our developing senses of professional identity. (Look, that some grad students pick up their advisors’ dry-cleaning just proves my point. Don’t tell me they’re not out there.)
I’m not trying to misrepresent Grafton’s point, and I’m aware I’ve verged a bit from the charisma quote. I’m also not really complaining — I have had some very good teachers and mentors and I have an approachable and endlessly helpful advisor who has taught me more about “professionalization” in the past two months than I learned in two years prior to my signing up for his course. But I felt compelled to ramble a bit about where his connection really made sense to me as a student, a former soldier, and someone who is aiming for one of those elusive Jobs in Academia, and maybe speculate on just why we don’t have a system that’s immediately transparent to the people who enter it, despite the fact that I’ve yet to have a professor who says, “I’m keeping it all a mystery because I think that’s a good idea, dammit.” I don’t think the issue is usually gate-keeping and exclusion.
I sort of feel sometimes like I’m learning to sing cadence while running uphill, learning to march in time on my way to a frankly uncertain destination, because I seem to have some faith that the people giving me suggestions (and even requirements) know what they’re talking about. And I’m grateful to have been told, now rather than later, that much like the military, academia has a “get promoted or get out” system. But I have a similar sort of double vision as I look around, seeing how the system is shaping me into someone who wants to be “that kind of professional.” It’s all very strange, though certainly safer than lobbing grenades across a line in a sandy wasteland.
Now excuse me while I make up a song about my department chair’s socks.
* That’s not to imply that real Airborne Rangers didn’t make fun of us for singing that song, because they did, but that’s another post.