On the Threshold: Approaching Elderhood & Retirement

By age 50 you are a survivor. By age 60 you begin to contemplate the end of institutional life. By retirement you are done with the university with all its blandishments, banes, and blessings. Your academic career has reached its limits and borne its fruits; it’s history, and so are you. The question is, what now?

In late career we still experience the perennial, existential anxiety of living in a world of impermanence, flux, and mutability. But to this we now feel a new kind of anxiety: identity loss combined with incipient mortality. Earlier, ambition, achievements, and honors motivated and sustained us. We built programs, developed ideas, published our research, gathered disciples, made enemies, and garnered awards, all with varying degrees of satisfaction. We were supported by an institutional and professional identity. For better or worse, we had both a position and a reputation. But now, we are on our own, with a surfeit of both freedom and time.

Untitled 2William Maxwell, who wrote and edited fiction for the New Yorker, once remarked, “The view after seventy is breathtaking.” On a clear day that may be true. But consider a grad school acquaintance who recently confessed, “If I am no longer a professor at Stanford, what am I?” Another, retired for half a decade, explained that he had begun selling his books. Several of his colleagues were pushing eighty yet still teaching. It was important, he felt, not only to make room for younger scholars, but also to embrace the challenges and opportunities of a new phase of life.   To stay alive, he felt, it was necessary to learn how to be an elder, not only for the sake of the world, but for the sake of your soul. Otherwise you ran the risk of succumbing to bitterness and sterility.

So we arrive at elderhood in spite of ourselves, facing a breathtaking view yet curiously unsure what to do with it. Maxwell continues: “What is lacking is someone, anyone, of the older generation to whom you can turn when you want to satisfy your curiosity about some detail of the landscape of the past. There is no longer any older generation. You have become it, while your mind was mostly on other matters.”

Fortunately, there is scholarship and learning, which need not end when we exit the classroom. “Books are our grandparents,” says Gary Snyder. Maybe now we’ll learn to read them in a new way. And fortunately, we also have each other to serve as companions and guides. Maxwell’s breathtaking view goes in both directions.

So in the weeks ahead Staying Alive will be posting and inviting posts on elderhood and retirement. This is the last and least appreciated phase in the model of academic careers that we have been exploring. Institutions devote little imagination or resources to it, feeling that elders, being no longer “productive” or active in business as usual, are both obsolete and a burden. Elderhood is not something they want to pay for. The profession, likewise, may honor elders for past achievements but generally wants to hear more about the latest new theory or discovery. And for the person, elderhood feels especially complex, fraught, and ambiguous, attended with ambivalence and anxiety. And yet, if we can learn to see it more clearly, perhaps we’ll enjoy a kind of summit view. Stay tuned.

Resisting Burnout is Revolutionary: Marisol Cortez at ASLE

by Sarah Jaquette Ray

At the 2017 ASLE conference, Marisol Cortez, of deceleration.news, talked about the importance of slowing down our feverish reactivity to “multiplying crises” of environmental injustices, climate change, the ascendance of white supremacy, etc.  (You can find her paper now published here).

Marisol and her partner, Greg Harman, have experienced debilitating mental health problems, prompting them to leave their secure jobs for the precarious lives of freelance writers and activists.  She talked about the “disabling assumption” that our “bodies can sustain constant conflict, constant crisis.”  She bemoaned the fact that all such action– chasing fire after fire, working, working, working to resist– reflects a logic of capitalist extraction, a “production imaginary” undermining capitalist growth ideology, that affects corporate life for sure, but also academia and even grassroots activism.

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In contrast, she said, deceleration, degrowth, is a praxis of environmental justice.  The “logic of ‘not-enoughness’ is disabling to activism.”  In other words, the overwhelming feeling we all have to increase the amount of work we do in response to the increased urgency and onslaught of crises is not sustainable to the “marathon” (Bullard’s word) of environmental justice.

Thinking of the “pace of life” expectations around productivity (in the corporate sphere but less obviously so, in the grassroots sphere) as “disabling” is so brilliant. Cortez just blew my mind.

Finally, Cortez rejects “resistance” on the grounds that it nurtures conflict– the very conflict that disables us.  It “internalizes not-enoughness”, while “deceleration rejects our exhaustion with resistance,” which can be “boring” and “joyless.”  Drawing on Gloria Anzaldua, Cortez proposes instead that “inner work, public acts” is a better mantra to live by.   I love that Cortez engages disability studies’ critique of productivity in her talk, politicizing self-care and mental health as central to (as opposed to an elitist luxury getting in the way of) environmental justice.

She cites the 2017 anthology Degrowth: A Vocabulary for a New Era as a key inspiration for her ideas; in it, an essay on “care” — especially care of the self– argues (as I understood Cortez’s summary to say), that we should resist the debilitating forces of production, exhaustion, not-enoughness, action, extraction of our labor, acceleration, accumulation, and the emotional and affective results of these values (despair, nihilism, impotence, depression, etc).

Although the feminist in me bristles a bit when somebody tells me that “care” is the antidote to capitalism, I take her point. I never feel I have the time it takes to properly care for myself, my family, critters, and my friends and loved ones. I resent those humans and non-humans that demand care from me, because I am compelled, torn to do the important work so needed to resist, valued “work” that I imagine happening external to the banality of my domestic life.

But what Cortez is saying, I think, is that I needn’t feel so conflicted, and that if I prioritized care, I might care for myself as much as the other critters that need care, instead of cutting self-care in favor of hard work and care of others.  In short, Cortez’s paper prompts me to rethink the complexity of “care”, especially as the discourse of “self-care” surfaces as the key to long-term scholar-activism in a post-election moment.

I was struck by the arguments about temporality implicit in Cortez’s paper.  She talked about the work of environmental justice that is invisible even within the counter-hegemonic work of justice, the slow, daily, monotonous work that is taboo and uncool in the fight to “resist”: meditation, writing, thinking, creating, tending to relationships, tending to our joys and loves. She says that our unwillingness to “count” this work as valuable is a reflection not of our selfishness or our inadequate commitment to justice, but rather of the capitalist logic of extraction and productivity.

If Rob Nixon’s theory of “slow violence” helps make visible the forms of violence caused by environmental injustices dispersed and displaced across time, then perhaps what we might call “slow activism” (which may not even look like activism as we know it) surely is the response to surviving it.

 

SarahJRaySarah Jaquette Ray teaches at Humboldt State University, where she also leads the program in Environmental Studies. Her research and teaching focus on environmental justice, race, identity, and environmental discourse, affect, and pedagogy. She confesses to spending most of her time these days wishing she could find time to write about pedagogy, interdisciplinarity, parenting, resilience, climate justice, friendship, eco-grief, and critical hope. Sarah maintains the blog “Writing at the End of the World”, where this post first appeared, and serves on the Executive Council of ASLE.

 

Retirement as Challenge

By John Knott

To a professor retirement can feel like an open-ended sabbatical, offering the luxury of time to write and travel unconstrained by an academic calendar. At first it was natural and easy to stick to familiar ways, researching, writing, and continuing to teach a course I had recently developed. When the director of The Nature Conservancy in Michigan proposed that I edit a book on the Conservancy’s Michigan preserves, I agreed, after persuading her that it should include essays by writers as well as photographs. This project complemented a book in progress (Imagining the Forest, on the evolution of cultural attitudes toward the forests of the upper Midwest) and gave me insights into the working of the Conservancy and the opportunity to go into the field with biologists and writers. It presented new challenges, including appealing to a general audience and respecting the norms of a large NGO accustomed to working with big business and government as well as scientists, that left no doubt that I had gotten outside the academic bubble.

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Into the Forest with a Seeing Eye (Photo by John Knott)

Working on the Conservancy project, as well as on a book that took me into areas including environmental history and restoration ecology, convinced me that reorienting myself could be more energizing and enjoyable than doing more of what I had in pursuing an academic career. A half dozen years into retirement I was looking for other kinds of challenges and found them mainly in writing personal essays and fragments of a memoir, with the support of an established writing group that provided structure and an audience, and in taking workshops in nature photography. My ultimate audience for writing of the sort I have been doing lately is family, chiefly children and grandchildren, and friends who might appreciate particular essays. I’ve tried to shake off old habits of academic writing and develop a different kind of voice. I’ve learned from my colleagues in the writing group, few of whom have had academic careers, and put together a body of work that my children actually seem to enjoy reading. I’m still learning to be reflective about my experience and to find effective ways of representing it, recognizing that imagination plays with memory as we invent our versions of the truth.

Photography workshops, in my case weeklong affairs run by professionals in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or the Smokies, have brought greater challenges. Imagine a group of amateur photographers, some of them highly skilled, roused before dawn each morning to take advantage of the early light and expected to produce several images that can be critiqued by the instructor and the group later that day or the next. You are under pressure to find and compose promising shots, some of which you will process and submit for critiquing. It’s like being a freshman all over again, having to scramble and hoping that your work stands up to scrutiny. With a skilled instructor and supportive fellow students you tend to learn fast. You may even begin to produce images that you are pleased to share and preserve.

I value my connections with my university and with former colleagues and enjoy continuing to do a little teaching, but what really keeps me going is finding new ways of challenging myself. If not now, when?

John Knott

John Knott is Professor of English, Emeritus, at the University of Michigan.  An ecocritic and long-time member of ASLE, he retired in 2006.

 

 

On Mentoring in the Environmental Humanities

By Stephen Siperstein

I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

-Gary Snyder

For the past ten years I have counted myself lucky to be a member of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). Traveling to biennial ASLE conferences has always felt to me like coming home, and this year’s conference in Detroit, Michigan was no different. Attending an ASLE conference means building and sustaining meaningful relationships—at the registration desk and the opening reception, during the concurrent sessions and the plenary talks, through field trips and over drinks in the evenings. My wish, and why I continue to support ASLE, is for such experience to be commonplace and available to everyone in the Environmental Humanities (students, professors, independent scholars, creative writers, community organizers, secondary school teachers). My hope is that all who attend an ASLE conference leave feeling as I do: joyous, refreshed, energized. And ready to do the difficult work of teaching, service, and writing to protect our environment—work that in today’s political climate is more important than ever.

But while community has always been central to my understanding of ASLE’s purpose, this year something new hit home for me: at its roots what ASLE is really about is mentorship. ASLE has since its inception had a robust graduate student mentoring program. The program supports the ASLE community in many ways, and you can read more about its specific functions on the organization’s website. As a graduate student, in addition to the support of faculty at my own institutions, I found support and guidance through the ASLE mentoring program, and the unofficial relationships that grew organically at ASLE throughout the years.

Two years ago I contributed to this blog a post about how graduate students could imagine a multiplicity of career paths, including ones that are not pre-determined by the organizing narratives (or myths) of our fields. The post grew out of a roundtable session on “The Environmental Humanities Beyond the Tenure Track” that Clare Echterling, Mark Long, John Tallmadge, and I organized at the 2015 ASLE conference in Moscow, Idaho. We invited a range of panelists to speak about their various career paths. Their stories were dynamic and inspiring: stories about charting new directions, about the unexpected turns they took, about their failures and missteps, and about finding different forms of fulfillment and joy in their work. With guidance from the panelists, as well as the imaginative and interactive activities led by John, those present at the session began thinking of their futures in more empowering, and less passive, ways. The panel encapsulated Gary Snyder’s poem, The Trail is Not a Trail, in which he reminds us of the possibilities when we are “Out in the open / Everywhere to go.”

 

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Walking in the open on Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington

After that panel I began to imagine many potential career opportunities. I imagined paths that were rarely straightforward, except maybe in retrospect. I imagined many futures for myself. It was exciting, but also disorienting. When we have “everywhere to go,” we need guides.

At the time, I was a PhD student about to enter the job market. The ASLE panel was a turning point in my career (I can see this now in retrospect). The insights I gained from it helped me both finish my dissertation and pursue multiple career paths, which led to my current position in the Department of English at Choate Rosemary Hall, an independent high school in Connecticut. As part of my job, I live at the school’s environmental immersion program; teach courses in Environmental Humanities, American literature, and expository writing; run the writing center; advise the literary magazine; and take part in all aspects of school life.

The position is challenging for many reasons. The roles I have to inhabit are many and shift constantly. The pace is demanding. The institution is facing some of its own difficulties. And lastly, taking a job like this was not what I was expecting when I was a graduate student. Indeed, though I gravitated to the idea of exploring multiple career possibilities (i.e. alt-ac), the reality was that for at least eight years (the time I was in graduate school), and perhaps even longer than that, I had a particular vision for the path my career would take. That vision was of a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college or research university. Even with all the goodness of my current position—especially the opportunity it affords me to work with students passionate about environmental justice—I have not been able to give up my original vision of what my career would be. It can be tough giving up a vision, a preconceived notion of what you’ll be doing or who you’ll be. However, with the ongoing guidance of mentors, both old and new, such “giving up” can been an opportunity for growth, and for me it has been a way for me to discover the dimensions of my work, and of my identity, that I value most.

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The Kohler Environmental Center, where I live and teach—an opportunity for which I am incredibly grateful, and grateful too for the mentorship that guided me here

At the more recent ASLE conference in Detroit I had the opportunity to contribute to a roundtable session on mentorship. Organized by the two current ASLE graduate student liaisons, Aubrey Street Krug and April Anson, the session featured three pairs of mentors-mentees speaking about diverse professional paths in the environmental humanities and their own mentoring relationships. I spoke alongside Stephanie LeMenager, who served as my adviser at the University of Oregon. When I was a PhD student, Stephanie encouraged me to be loyal to my own vision(s) for what the future—both my individual future and what I saw as a broader future for the environmental humanities—might look like.

“Students look to mentors,” William Deresiewicz writes, “to give them what [others] won’t or can’t: the permission to go their own way and the reassurance that their path is valid” (178). As a mentor, Stephanie gave me permission to go my own way while also steering me when I seemed a bit lost. I developed a hybrid dissertation form that fit my topic (on pedagogy in the environmental humanities), and with Shane Hall, a PhD student in the UO Environmental Studies Program, we three collaborated on a project that eventually became the volume Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities (an experience that helped me both develop “transferable skills” and more capaciously understand the field of environmental humanities). These experiences, among others, allowed me to cast a wide net during my job search and eventually to find my current position.      

In her remarks during our session, Stephanie emphasized that at their best, mentors reflect their mentees’ gifts back to them. Mentors can be mirrors, showing us who we really are. But they also play an important role in helping their mentees build the courage and the capacity to fail, and the imaginative capacity to take risks. Or in other words, mentorship builds resilience. In the ecological and political times that we find ourselves in today, we all need such capacity for resilience, and thus we all need mentors, likely more than one. James Engell explains this kind of mentorship as follows: “Who, in this welter of activity, can act as a mentor? To this challenge confronting everyone who engages—from whatever angle—climate disruption, mitigation, and the need to lessen dependence on fossil fuels, this essay offers one answer: we must act as mutual, reciprocally subservient co-mentors. Multiple mentorship pays great benefits, and we need it” (25). As Engell points out and as Stephanie reiterated during her remarks, we must all be “co-mentors.”

Since leaving the University of Oregon, I have continued to turn to Stephanie for mentorship (and she has continued to offer it, always graciously, always thoughtfully), but I have also found other co-mentors. For example, Jason BreMiller, who teaches at Exeter and directs the Environmental Literature Institute, has helped me transition into the world of secondary education. And there have been other mentors too along the way: Allison Carruth, Bill Rossi, Mark Long, John Tallmadge, Lee Rumbarger, and Jason Schreiner, just to name a few. I hope too, along the way, that I have provided my fair share of mentorship to others.

Every time I left Stephanie’s office or the coffee shop where we often met to discuss the most recent chapter of my dissertation, I felt like I had been given a gift and all the energy that comes with a gift feeling flowed through me. I felt grateful, and as Robin Wall Kimmerer has eloquently argued, gratitude provides an opening for reciprocity. So I try to pass on the gift of mentorship to others: to my students, my department colleagues, my friends at ASLE. This is reciprocity, what Robin Wall Kimmerer explains as the “matter of keeping the gift in motion through self-perpetuating cycles of giving and receiving” (Kimmerer 165). Receiving the gift of mentorship always comes with a responsibility to use it for the benefit of many. When mentorship is in motion, it can last forever, finally taking root in our education institutions and academic organizations and flourishing into a culture of mentorship, in which everyone knows that the gift will “follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you again” (381).

Ultimately, this culture of mentorship requires a life’s practice, one undertaken in broader communities—both in our academic institutions and beyond them. When we step off the familiar paths and venture out into the open, we can still follow the circle, and the gifts of mentorship will flow back to us.

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With Mark Long, friend and mentor, during the 2017 Environmental Literature Institute at Phillips Exeter Academy

Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Engell, James. “Climate disruption involves all disciplines: Who becomes a mentor?” Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, edited by Stephen Siperstein, Stephanie LeMenager, and Shane Hall. New York: Routledge, 2016. 24-30.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013.

 

Let it Go

By Michael P. Branch

When you’re an ambitious undergraduate, you work hard to earn acceptance into the best grad school you can crack. There, you labor under a range of stressors to finally complete your doctoral degree. After that epic undertaking you must gird yourself for battle in a highly competitive job market. If you succeed in landing a decent position, you hear the tenure clock ticking from day one. If the tenure gauntlet is survived you look ahead to promotion, and you fantasize that beyond that promotion exists a kind of academic’s Shangri-La, an arrival state of security, harmony, and comfort that will deliver you forever from the countless trials you have endured to reach it.

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It is an open secret that many senior faculty actually have a very different experience. It must be said, immediately, that the trials of this advanced career stage are much less perilous than those that precede it. But it is precisely the fact that many senior faculty have earned relative professional security that often prevents them—out of sheer gratefulness, and out of sensitivity for the uphill battles being fought by grad students and junior faculty—from discussing the challenges specific to this career stage.

At my university, faculty have had access to merit pay only one year of the past eight. For many of those years we were also under pay cuts, furlough, or both. Programs that we spent decades building—the kind of mission-driven work that is for many of us fundamental to our sense of identity and purpose—were slashed or erased almost overnight, as the financial crisis caused an implosion of the state’s system of higher education. Having lost so much of what we worked most of our careers to build, many senior faculty have struggled to clarify their focus in the diminished thing that has been professional life in the wake of the financial collapse. Conditions are improving now, and we are hopeful for the institution and for the younger faculty who will drive its future, but so much has been lost that for many of us this transition has required a substantial reorientation to our professional identities. We are no longer working to build and support our programs, because they have been cut. We are no longer working for promotions, because those are all behind us. We are no longer working to earn raises, because no performance, however excellent, garners any financial reward. A question we had never had to ask ourselves before now presented itself on a daily basis: Exactly what are we working for?

As we contemplated this core question, many of us had a haunting sense that we had spent our careers building beautiful things that had been thrown overboard in a storm. Nevertheless, having come through the narrow passage I now feel that this transition in my professional life, however dispiriting and frustrating, has also been immensely interesting and ultimately very fruitful. Although I wouldn’t dream of giving blanket advice—indeed, I am more in need of advice than I am prepared to dispense it—I thought it might be helpful to share the following five observations based on my own professional experiences during this tumultuous past decade. I certainly do not intend these suggestions to be either prescriptive or proscriptive, but I’ll be gratified if any part of this is helpful to a fellow teacher/scholar/writer who is struggling with similar challenges at this career stage.

Choose Creativity over Productivity

As we come up in the profession, we are expected to produce, and we are judged primarily by our productivity. But any production economy has severe limits, and necessarily fails to measure a great deal of work that has genuine value. Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. This is not a game of he who dies with the longest CV wins. Instead of imagining yourself as a machine whose existence can be justified only if it pumps out a certain number of academic widgets per unit of time, instead attempt to reckon how much energy you gain or lose as a result of the work you do. Consider a more organic metaphor, in which the growth of the tree that is your professional life can be measured in many ways other than the marketable tonnage of fruit it produces. Some trees do produce fruit, but others produce shade or windbreak, beauty or shelter for other beings. If the work you do feels creative, energizing, or morally significant, then it is meaningful work regardless of how the institution calculates or miscalculates its value. Truly creative work may or may not be viewed by your institution as measurable productivity, but if it gives you energy rather than damaging your morale and rendering you cynical, then it is inherently valuable.

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Seek Incentive over Reward

The distinction between these two terms is fine, so hang with me here. In the context of your professional life, a reward is the thing the institution gives you after your work is done to recognize the value of that work. Think pay raise or promotion. The problem, as many of us know all too well, is that for many academics no amount of good work will lead to substantial monetary reward. Perhaps there are no more promotions available to us, or perhaps we teach in a system where poor funding means that even excellent work does not result in pay increases. Many full professors at my university feel that if they achieve something important professionally—say, the publication of a book or the mounting of a major art exhibit—“it counts for nothing.” And that is certainly true, but only if the purpose of the project was to gain a reward that, after all, we already know the system is unwilling to provide. Incentive, by contrast, is the thing that makes you want to do the work in the first place. It is the up-front promise that draws us into things we do for reasons other than to achieve a final reward. If our incentive for taking on a project is that we anticipate enjoying the process, experiencing a stimulating immersion in its challenges and pleasures, then our work is not motivated primarily by an expectation of external reward. And in any system in which external reward is meager or absent, it is a dubious proposition to take on work that we have not ourselves incentivized through our own deep sense of what constitutes inherently meaningful work.

Distinguish between the Work and the Job

I often dislike my job, but I usually love my work. What this distinction means, in my own case, is that I love writing and teaching (just as I always have), and I dislike institutional politics and gossip, power plays and false promises, or corporate priorities that put football, fundraising, or unhelpful assessment exercises ahead of the welfare of students or the professional growth of faculty. I have genuine concerns about the increasing gap between rank-and-file university teachers and the increasingly specialized administrative class that often decides their fate. But think back to some of those less-than-ideal jobs we all had when we were younger. We called that work a job rather than a career, profession, or calling, because we didn’t expect it to be rosy, and we did the job primarily that we might be paid. Even when we do work we love—like teaching and writing—there will always be substantial parts of an academic career that are unpleasant. Those parts are the job, the part we do to earn a paycheck and not because it is inherently fulfilling. But within an academic life there is also the work—which Henry Thoreau called “morning work,” John Muir called “natural work,” and Gary Snyder calls “real work.” This is the work that matters most, that speaks directly to our ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual values. Within your academic career it is still possible for you to love your work even if you sometimes dislike your job. Try to avoid confusing one with the other.

Redefine Success

Early in your academic career, success tends to be judged by things like the acceptance of a book manuscript for publication, or the prestige of the journals in which your work appears. It might be benchmarked by well-defined milestones of professional accomplishment, like the earning of tenure. Later in your career, you may find that success has a way of becoming conceptually elusive. This is not to say that publishing books or articles is no longer meaningful later in your career. However, the external rewards of that work are much less well-defined. What, then, constitutes success for the mid- or late-career academic? Of course each of us must ask and attempt to answer this question for ourselves, but my point here is that although we really do need to ask this question, often we do not. What actually provides us a regenerative sense of accomplishment may shift substantially over time, and it is important to recognize those changes in order to calibrate our work to goals that we consider genuinely meaningful. For example, you might decide that you want to develop and teach a different kind of course, or attempt a new kind of writing, or participate in institutional life in ways that vary your usual patterns of engagement. If you can identify your desire for change and act on it, your work is more likely to result in a feeling of success. If you fail to identify the goals specific to this stage of your career and simply continue to do the things you’ve always done, you’re much more likely to feel the kind of deadening burnout or lack of inspiration that attends the repetition of any task.

Let It Go

Here’s the most difficult thing. No matter what you do, you’ll inevitably find that some aspects of the job leave you feeling disillusioned, under-appreciated, and exhausted. And the longer you function in any institutional context, the more clearly you’ll see how the sausage is actually made. I believe it is important to take responsibility for those negative feelings, especially if you have the power to change your way of working—or of thinking about your work—and yet don’t take steps to affect that change.

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There will always be short-sighted administrators, frustrating service assignments, bitter feelings that the institution fails to adequately value what matters most. But provosts don’t lose sleep at night worrying about our feelings. It is we who pay the price for our anger or cynicism. It is our own lives, and the lives of our colleagues and students (and, sometimes, our families) that are impoverished by our pessimism. I don’t mean that we should become less passionate, devoted, or engaged. I do mean to say that the chief art of a professional life must be to distinguish between what matters and what does not. To the degree you can devote yourself to the former and reduce your exposure to the latter, you may move, however incrementally, toward ensuring that this stage of your career is as gratifying as you always hoped it might be.

Redefining Service

Our working definition of faculty service is less than useful. Service is in part defined by the reward system for many faculty that privileges scholarship over teaching and service; and yet, this reward system perpetuates an attitude toward service that renders this dimension of academic labor far less meaningful than it might be.

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In his most recent post, Mike Branch reminds us, “there will always be substantial parts of an academic career that are unpleasant. Those parts are the job, the part we do to earn a paycheck and not because it is inherently fulfilling.” Mike also makes an observation about the enormous privilege many of us have in academic institutions to pursue “the work—which Henry Thoreau called ‘morning work,’ John Muir called ‘natural work,’ and Gary Snyder calls ‘real work.’ This is the work that matters most,” Mike writes, “that speaks directly to our ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual values.”

But in a 2010 blog post “Counting What Counts” that Mike contributed to Stay ing Alive he cautions us to consider “the extreme circumscription of what counts” as faculty work and the “harmful effects” of this narrowing “that are substantial and often unrecognized.” Mike argues “definitions of professional success that devalue service to a community obviously promote corrosive forms of self interest.” He then calls on Emerson to help articulate a model of professional commitment that does not fall into the zero sum game of institutional life:

I maintain an Emersonian suspicion that most large institutions, often working under the banner of standards and assessment, ultimately tend toward real (if often benign) forms of control—that they tend toward a narrowing rather than an expansion of what counts—with the consequence that they become constraining, bureaucratized, or moribund. I don’t believe, as some do, that the problem is the solipsistic careerism of the professoriate, or that research universities are fundamentally ill-conceived. I do believe that, for a number of reasons that are considerably less compelling than they may at first appear, we have allowed our understanding of professional success in the academy to become far too limited. As Emerson wrote, it is “as if one looking at the ocean can remember only the price of fish.” We desperately need to nurture recognition that there are many different ways to think, write, teach, and serve, and that many varied forms of professional activity and achievement are meaningful, meritorious, and worthy of our respect and support.

I too rely on Emerson when it comes to institutions. At the same time, I have found profoundly useful a document published by the MLA over twenty years ago, a document that offered me a productive space to think more carefully about the professional life I was hoping to pursue. Reintepreting Professional Service made a case for intellectual work less confined to professional hierarchies and more sensitive to the need for generative faculty participation in that area of our jobs we call “service.”

IMG_1573A couple of years ago I pulled together some thoughts about what institutions call “service” for a group of new faculty at Keene State College. In sharing the document at a new faculty orientation, I explained that service should be a rewarding and productive part of our jobs and that it could also become a dimension of academic work. Might redefining service offer another way to stay alive in the academy?

Service is Personal and Professional Growth

  • Maximize personal strengths, draw on your expertise, enjoy the work you choose
  • Pursue a personal or professional goal that you find interesting
  • Do something completely new and potentially meaningful, if not transformative

Service is Building Relationships

  • Strengthen relationships with students by choosing committees that include students (e.g. advise student group or honor society)
  • Collaborate with students to sponsor campus events or organizing off-campus activities
  • Work on committees with staff to build your sense of institutional place and history from long-serving members of our community

Service is Building and Sustaining Community

  • Engage in campus-wide service
  • Collaborate with amazing colleagues and make new friends
  • Change the culture of College for the better
  • Partner with community and regional groups and initiatives
  • Pursue rewards of high-profile service that contribute to governance of the College, including administrative roles and leadership opportunities

Service is Teaching and Learning

  • Energize your teaching and learning (e.g. Faculty Development Committee, Student research Committee, IRB, Sabbatical Committee)
  • Imagine new opportunities for yourself and for others. What would you like to change to improve the conditions for your (and others’) teaching and learning?

Service is Scholarship

  • Relate, apply, extend your professional identity and expertise
  • Conduct service-learning and community-based research, or seek out and/or create opportunities for service as a public intellectual (local, regional, national, international)
  • Contribute to your intellectual / disciplinary / professional field(s) through editorial and peer review, leadership and collaboration, etc.

Service is Productive

  • Get things done
  • Improve group process (e.g. action items, goal setting, deadlines)
  • Make meaningful contributions to the work
  • Resign from the committee that is not productive (or the committee to which you are not making meaningful contributions)

Service is a Part of the (Your) Whole

  • Be actively involved rather than overextended (there is always too much work to do but don’t do too much or you will not do your work well)
  • Say no to committees (or, don’t say yes to all committees)

 

Only Connect!

I thought I would follow up on my post-ASLE note with a reminder to check in with the Modern Language Association’s Connected Academics project.

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The project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation and will run through August of 2019. For many years I had the privilege of working with colleagues and with MLA staff on unsettling the enabling fictions and organized contradictions in our professional discourse. And it is exciting to see the project bloom. The web site is a useful portal to resources for doctoral students looking to imagine their humanistic training in spheres beyond the postsecondary faculty position.

The Question of the Opportunities: A Postscript to ASLE 2015

After two years on the job market I found myself thinking about whether I would find (or whether I really wanted) a job in the academic world. I had spent a decade outside of school. And so it was not difficult to imagine myself a PhD outside of a college or a university. Years of experience in challenging and interesting work helped me to see quite clearly the downsides and tradeoffs of an academic job.

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ASLE in Downtown Moscow, Idaho

A few months ago I came across a sentence written by Deborah Satz, in an MLA Task Force Report on Graduate Education that brought back this precarious moment in my professional life, now over twenty years ago. “Not all PhD students can find or ultimately want a career in higher education,” she writes. The sentence was also useful for thinking about academic work: it aligned the systemic (economics of the market) with the personal (the life, the career); it addressed a longstanding problem with graduate education (fewer tenure-stream jobs); and it questions the presumably universal desires that circulate in the professional bloodstreams of most graduate students and faculty.

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Near the highest point in Bonner County, Idaho

Early on in our planning for the session at ASLE 2015 Stephen mentioned Michael Berube’s commentary about graduate education and the state of the profession, “Abandon All Hope,” recently published in the English studies journal Pedagogy. The commentary helped focus our session on hope not as a corrective to the oddly persistent “crisis thinking” that circulates in conversations about academia and the job market in the humanities, but rather as the ground on which attendees might embrace their own strengths and passions and chart a career (and life) pathway based on those.

We wanted to talk about graduate study in the environmental humanities differently. What has stayed with me is the vocabulary Stephen generated for the challenges of self-fashioning in the academic bureaucracy we call graduate school. Instead of “alternatives,” or answering the question, “what else can I do?” we envisioned a session organized around a different set of questions: “what do I love to do,” “what do I want to do,” and “how can I do those things?”

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Looking West from the Summit of Scotchman’s Peak over the waters of Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille

Our conversation in Idaho was especially gratifying for me: someone whose first academic publication was a critique of the apprenticeship model of graduate school, and who has been organizing conversations about life and work over two decades of mentoring and academic conferencing. It is also delightful to watch this conversation come alive in our professional discourse. For those fortunate enough to be traveling to Austin next January for MLA 2016, to take one example, the Connected Academics Project will coordinate a range of useful sessions and activities. I also recommend an October 2011 column by the then President of the American Historical Association, Anthony Grafton, and the Executive Director of the AHA, James Grossman, “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.” The view from the graduate school has proved, in their modest proposal for reform, “achingly reluctant to see the world as it is.”

The center/periphery thinking of the professional graduate school has been remarkably resilient for reasons I spent years elaborating in the annual sessions at the annual Modern Language Association (MLA) conference on the small college department, and in a Special Issue of Pedagogy I guest edited that is dedicated to reshaping the discourse about the intellectual work in the small college department. Grafton and Grossman describe well the resiliency of this pernicious discourse:

For all the innovation in the subjects and methods of history, the goal of the training remains the same: to produce more professors; the unchanged language of supervisors and students reflects this. We tell students that there are “alternatives” to academic careers. We warn them to develop a “plan B” in case they do not find a teaching post. And the very words in which we couch this useful advice make clear how much we hope they will not have to follow it—and suggest, to many of them, that if they do have to settle for employment outside the academy, they should crawl off home and gnaw their arms off.

One of the primary points I wanted to make in my remarks in Idaho was that it is difficult not to internalize the limited horizon of the graduate school. For all of us who spend years in a graduate program can’t help but absorb expectations for intellectual specialization, a parochial view of professional life, a particular hierarchy of values, including a bias in favor of individual research over teaching and collaboration. Too often the intellectual values of the graduate school quietly diminish the intellectual work of teaching undergraduate students and the range of institutions dedicated to this work.

Grafton and Grossman point out that these attitudes and values diminish the idea that anything less than a tenure-track job is a failure at best. Grafton and Grossman put it this way:

We should not be surprised when students internalize our attitudes (implicit or explicit) and assume that the “best” students will be professors and that for everyone else… well, “there’s always public history.” Even those who happily accept jobs at secondary schools, for example, describe themselves as “leaving the academy” or “leaving the historical profession.” Even worse, many of our students who actually do leave the historical profession, and take what they’ve learned in graduate school to the business world, are seen as having crossed the line from the light of humanistic inquiry into the darkness of grubby capitalism—as if the life of scholarship were somehow exempt from impure motives and bitter competition.

I have called this outlook the standard model of the profession: the idea that you go to graduate school, find a job, get tenure and live, you know, more or less happily ever after. The corollary to this standard model for success is that anything else is a compromise, even a failure. And this indeed is a genuine problem if in fact we are committed to the idea that training in the environmental humanities might create positive changes in our endangered world.

The problem is that this organizing fiction makes it difficult to talk about the layered stories and complex career trajectories people actually live. Again, Grafton and Grossman:

This narrow perspective does our students a disservice. Why not tell our students, from the beginning, that a PhD in history opens a broad range of doors? As historians, let’s begin with some facts. Holders of doctorates in history occupy, or have recently occupied, a dizzying array of positions outside the academy: historical adviser to the Chief of Staff of the Army, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chief of Staff to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, museum curators, archivists, historians in national parks, investment bankers, international business consultants, high school teachers, community college teachers, foundation officers, editors, journalists, policy analysts at think tanks (yes, an entry-level position). The skills that these historians mastered as graduate students—doing research; conceptualizing relationships between structure, agency, and culture; combining research and analysis to present arguments with clarity and economy; knowing how to plan and carry out long-term projects—remain vital in their daily work. In many organizations outside the academy, a doctorate is a vital asset for those who want to rise above the entry level.

The problem (and the irony in this case) is that this kind of plain and sensible talk is lost in the ahistorical ways institutions, and the people who inhabit them, lose sight of the everpresent question of the opportunities:

The idea that a doctorate in history prepares one only, or primarily, to teach in a college or university is as contingent as any other, not only historically but also geographically. In Germany—the country that gave us the research university—doctorates in history and similar fields have traditionally been considered appropriate preparation for jobs in publishing, media, business, and politics. A first step towards adjusting graduate education to occupational realities would be to change our attitudes and our language, to make clear to students entering programs in history that we are offering them education that we believe in, not just as reproductions of ourselves, but also as contributors to public culture and even the private sector.

Making clear the question of the opportunities is work that all of us, as educators, are obligated to do. Happily, there are many first steps being taken as the traditions and values of academic institutions change in response to the way the world actually is. In addition to the MLA project, there are exciting initiatives and projects underway, such as McGill University’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI) that hosted a Future Humanities conference in Montreal this summer featuring a talk by the career consultant Anne Krook that is well worth reading, “From Being to Doing: Mobilizing the Humanities.”

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Right of Way

I am grateful to have been involved in planning and participating in the session at ASLE “Building a Career and Life in the Environmental Humanities.” I am especially grateful to Stephen and Clare for carrying this discussion forward in the ASLE community.

Report from ASLE 2015: Building a Life and Career in the Environmental Humanities

Siperstein headshotBy Stephen Siperstein, University of Oregon

Wisdom is a gift. To receive it, a joy. Sometimes wisdom comes in the form of direct advice. Other times, in the form of stories. Such stories don’t always have clear messages or morals, yet in the simple act of sharing, much is passed on. For young scholars in the environmental humanities, especially those beginning or soon beginning the transition from the apprentice stage of their careers to the warrior stage of their careers (as I am), stories from the citizens and elders of the field can be especially valuable, and especially joyful. In particular, these stories can lead to new ideas or new visions of how to cultivate a convincing career and how to lead a meaningful life.

Academics cling to particular stories. Why is this? Because they are appealing? Because they are comfortable? Because they are what we are told in college or during the beginning years of graduate school? Because they are somewhow true? Here is my own take and simplified version of the story I’ve heard many times over: “Get a PhD, find a tenure track line, publish a book, teach well, pass the third or fourth year review, publish additional articles, receive tenure, publish another book…. walk off into the glowing twilight.” The protagonist as hero. The plot of success. The linear trajectory. Even when young scholars are told that this trajectory will be difficult to achieve—that there are no prospects, not enough jobs (or no jobs where we want them)—the appeal isn’t diminished. The dire warnings make such stories scarier, but still we cling to them. They are the organizing fictions of our schools, our departments, our fields, our careers, and (for some of us) our entire lives. Of course, for many individuals, such paths lead to convincing and meaningful lives. But, I imagine, rarely are the paths that these individuals actually take in practice so simple or so predictable. My point here is not that organizing fictions are bad or that we need to give them up. Rather, my point is that it is hard to construct other narratives, and young professionals might need help in doing so.

This past June, at the 2015 biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environmental (ASLE), I sought out such other narratives. And, as I often find at ASLE events, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by scholars and teachers and writers and editors and poets and environmental advocates and fellow students of life, all of whom were more than willing to offer up their time and their wisdom. This is one of the reasons why ASLE is such a supportive organization: knowledge and encouragement are passed freely between generations, and professionals from every career stage are welcomed and treated with respect. It is also one of the reasons why I love attending ASLE conferences.

I am currently serving a term as the ASLE graduate student liaison, and together with my co-GSL, Clare Echterling—and withEchterling headshot the help of John Tallmadge and Mark Long—we organized a session on career development outside the tenure-track model. The session was geared especially to graduate students and young professionals, though judging from the crowd (at one point I counted over fifty participants), ASLE members from every career stage attended and contributed. Throughout the hour and a half session, six panelists spoke about their own experiences and stories, audience participants brainstormed and wrote about their own values and career goals, and then panelists and participants collaborated in an open-ended discussion.

One motivation for organizing this session (and for organizing it in a way that engaged participants directly in career envisioning) was my own hunger for stories from individuals who have followed “alternative” career paths within the environmental humanities. However, while the session focused explicitly on options beyond the tenure track model, it also set out to think beyond the discourse of “alternatives,” and thus beyond that disempowering question “what else can I do?” Rather, session panelists—who, speaking from a diverse range of experiences and graciously donating their time and wisdom—focused instead on exploring more empowering questions such as, “What do I love to do?” “What do I want to do?” “What do I value?” “How do I live a convincing life and career?”

The organizing fiction of the tenure track trajectory is powerful, and it can be put to good use. But other stories are equally powerful. Thus, career thinking does not need to be about “alternatives” or about “beyond” tenure track. It does not need to be “either/or.” It does not even need to be “both/and” (As if the paths within academia are separate from the paths outside it. As if we had to choose to travel only in one of two different landscapes). Rather, as I listened to the panelists and audience participants offer their many stories, I realized that the environmental humanities (perhaps more than any other locus of fields) can include a myriad of pathways, or a network of desire paths branching through the forest. As Gary Snyder writes, “We need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them,” yet “off the trail” is “where we do our best work.”

So we must hold onto the organizing fictions. They are the trails that have been cut before us and that some of us still maintain. But there are other directions to take “off the trails,” ones that can be equally empowering and satisfying. Below are brief statements (I’d call them gifts) from four of our panelists—Kathryn Miles, Amy McIntyre, Simmons Buntin, and Karl Zuelke. The wisdom, stories, and suggestions that they offer are not exactly what they shared during the session itself, but I hope you find these reflections helpful, empowering, and nourishing. ASLE is an organization of gift giving and path-finding. May your own lives be filled with both.

Kathryn MilesKathryn Miles, writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College:

In thinking about what makes for a fulfilling career in the environmental humanities, I keep returning to Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be Of Use.” There, she writes lyrically of her appreciation for honest work: people “who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart / who pull like water buffalo” who “move in a common rhythm,” and who “jump into work head first / without dallying in the shallows.” That’s what I want, too. To be of use. To do good work. Probably, that’s what you want too. How do we get there?

I think the short answer is that we each have to determine how we can best make a contribution not only to the worlds of pedagogy and environmental studies, but also to a planet in crisis. That involves creative thinking, of looking for those unexpected moments of connection. Sometimes, it’s in a classroom. But not always. Some of my most rewarding work has been with care providers in a state veterans hospital or on the trail of a missing hiker. The important thing is that we feel like we’re doing honest work. The exciting thing is that, despite what the news cycle or the Chronicle of Higher Education will tell you, there are ever increasing ways to do just that, from freelance writing to experiential education. Believe it or not, graduate school is preparing you for a lot of these opportunities. And, if you’re really lucky, you might even get your hands dirty along the way.

Amy McIntyre, Managing Director ASLE:Amy Head shot

While I haven’t ever quite envisioned being a college professor, I have always been attracted by education, writing, and art and had the desire to incorporate them in some way into my work and career—and life, apparently, as I married an academic! As an undergraduate, I majored in History and minored in Art, and so, in that linear way of thinking that is typical at age 21, I found myself at Oberlin College in a MA program in Art History, with vague sights set on a museum curatorial career. For many reasons, that trajectory didn’t last, but my interest in education and core belief that the humanities prepared me to do any number of things well did persevere through some uninspiring post-college jobs.

And I DID end up working at a museum for several years—but it was a children’s museum instead of an art museum, and it was working with memberships and budgets instead of artwork! There I began to develop my skills and interest in nonprofit administration, which I continued to do as part of my next job at the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce University, funded by an IMLS grant. There I discovered that grant-funded positions, while not permanent, can be a great opportunity to gain knowledge, experience, and connections.

Prior to moving to NH and starting work at the museum, I had begun a MA program in counseling, to help me pursue a career path that did not include more of the aforementioned cruddy jobs. I did finish the degree, and I’m sure I use this training all the time in the broadest sense when parenting, interacting with professional contacts, etc. I never did start a counseling job! ASLE Managing Director was a position created as the organization grew, and it represented an opportunity to collaborate with the leadership to shape the job, because it was brand new and growing and changing in response to new demands and priorities. I would recommend considering a position that seems to provide such opportunities for growth and change, even if the original position is not your dream job. It may morph into that one day!

Simmons Buntin, editor-in-chief at Terrain.org:Simmons Buntin

Sometimes your work gets you into the industry of environmental humanities (whatever that may be) and sometimes the humanities get you into your work. In my case, it wasn’t my degree that landed me a job; it was the degree that spurred an idea that started as a hobby that remains a hobby but that also resulted in the skill set necessary to establish and maintain a career, one that allows me to keep up my hobby that now has grown well beyond just my hobby. Following?

In the mid-1990s I graduated with an urban planning master’s degree. A fellow graduate and I wanted to start a place-based magazine, but had neither the experience nor financial backing to start a print journal. So we started one online: Terrain.org. I learned basic HTML skills and later more web development because of Terrain.org and, coupled with my previous experience as a project manager with the U.S. Department of Energy, turned that into what has become a fast-paced career in web program management. My career in that industry is as old as the journal: 18 years. Not bad in this day and age, either for an online journal or a career.

Happily, Terrain.org and my career in web management have grown together not only in years, but also in technology and lessons learned. They directly benefit each other. Terrain.org couldn’t be the dynamic website it is today without my web development knowledge, and my web management skills wouldn’t be as advanced as they are without the journal. In the last six years, particularly, Terrain.org has expanded to become a broad organization, and though I continue to play a key role (including website management), we have a core of genre editors and an international editorial board, as well as an expanding following. Where will that take my career and the journal next? Into nonprofit management from the looks of it, at least to some degree. Terrain.org doesn’t pay the bills — in fact, I spend well more than my allowance on it, as my wife reminds me — but by having a full-time career in web management, I am able to afford such an important hobby. And as we move into fiscal sponsorship and nonprofit status, well, maybe it will just pay for itself after all. Some day….

Head Shot Karl ZuelkeKarl Zuelke, Director of the Writing Center and the Math & Science Center, Mount St. Joseph University:

My career has unfolded from a number of opportunities that I could never have seen coming, yet it has grown into something extremely rewarding and satisfying. No one will ever duplicate my path exactly, but I think there may be some lessons to impart for the nervous grad student looking to forge a career in a very difficult job market.

My first piece of advice is to be alert for unexpected opportunities. I have an MFA in fiction from Indiana University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. They are both good programs. I expected to enter into the tenure-track path at some point, but things didn’t work out that way. What did happen was that while I was teaching as an adjunct at two different schools, an email announcement was forwarded to me from a friend. A small local Catholic liberal arts college needed a Writing Center director. I had no formal WC training, though I had worked a few hours as a writing tutor. I sent the college my vita anyway and was contacted the next day for an interview. During the interview, there were no questions about writing center theory or praxis at all. The head of the department simply wanted to get to know me, and I’m quite sure she was gauging my interpersonal skills. This was more than looking for a friendly colleague, though. Writing center work is highly dependent on mature, gentle, and empathetic interpersonal skills. Satisfied with that (I think!), she explained that the director position had been changed and would be filled with someone in-house, but they were willing to hire me at $25/hour for 6 hours a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to tutor in their writing center. It fit in my schedule, and I took it on.

While I was there, I made contacts and got to know people. This is my second piece of advice: Make friends. Be nice, be helpful, be witty when appropriate, go to meetings and speak up, have lunch with faculty and administrators in the dining hall. When the director that year moved on, I was asked to take over. It was offered as an adjunct position at first. I decided not to do it on that basis, and turned the position down after putting it off as long as I could. After I said no, I got a call back 45 minutes later, offering it as a ¾ time position with full benefits. That sounded better, and I accepted. The administrator who offered me the position made what to me was a telling comment: “You’re not afraid to talk and speak your mind, and you eat lunch with us in the dining hall every day. You’re the person we wanted in this position.”

I spent several years learning writing center theory on the fly and adapting it to my new college. It was difficult and all consuming at first. The approach I developed was successful, and I’m now the director of a thriving writing center that has earned the respect of both faculty and administration. It’s not a tenure-track position. It’s not even a faculty position. But the position includes teaching duties, and I love teaching, especially literature and environmental studies, which I feel make a difference in the lives and educations of my students. When the new Senior Core Capstone classes were developed, I was on the faculty learning community that developed them, and I taught the first two sections. Small liberal arts colleges and universities are less rigid in structure than larger institutions, and with the right contacts, all sorts of doors can open.

I feel very much a part of the university now, with my ideas and influence woven deeply through the academic fabric of the institution. I co-taught an environmental science course with a biology professor last year (I have an undergraduate degree in biology). I gave the keynote address at our Celebration of Teaching and Learning, and the topic, “A Sense of Place,” was subsequently included as a unit that all entering freshmen will take in a required core course. I serve on the Environmental Action Committee. When I noted that the university didn’t have a sustainability policy, I was invited to write one. Representing the EAC, I took it to the faculty, staff, and students, who approved it, and it is now undergoing the final approval process with the President’s Cabinet and the Board of Trustees. Next year, pending final approval, I’ll be co-teaching a French literature and history course, which will include a trip to Paris. I’m also planning on a visit to Ghana—to guest lecture at a university there with other members of our faculty.

I mention all this to support a suggestion: small institutions rock! They have their own sets of issues and challenges to be sure, but for someone who is engaged, talented, friendly, and hard working, the opportunities for the blossoming of varied and exciting careers are there once you get your foot in the door. And—there are jobs out there for writing center directors. Be as broad as possible in your academic preparation, be friendly and make contacts and forge alliances, and keep your eyes open for opportunities you might not expect.

Elder Tales: the Old Woman and the Dynamics of Widsom

Now we come to the old woman, who holds the key. In this tale, the prince initiates and drives the action, but the old woman’s advice enables him to complete it. She’s the catalyst: without her, he’d get nowhere. The tale spotlights the dynamic between warriors and elders that leads to social change. In the process, both achieve meaning and success. The old woman helps save the realm, and the prince goes on to marry the princess and govern. Since the tale is called “The Prince and the Ogre,” we suppose it must be about him, that is, a warrior tale. But really it’s just as much about her.

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The Old Woman (photo by Vaggelis Fragiadakis)

The most salient fact about the old woman is that she’s old, but that’s not all: she’s also a woman, and she’s poor. She’s been living in the forest, scraping by (since the king has privatized her social security and the ogre’s rampages have crashed the value of her cottage and wiped out her 401k). She’s socially marginalized in multiple ways, so no one thinks to ask for her help. What does she know? She’s no expert; she doesn’t have an advanced degree or teach at a tier 1 university. And of course she’s not going to come forward and offer her services; she’ll just let them all suffer, because it’s what they deserve.

Interestingly, the old woman’s special power arises from her marginalized circumstances. We normally don’t think of abjection, poverty, and age as opportunities, but here they prove instrumental. The old woman has been around a long time and has noticed a lot of things. She knows how the world works. She understands magic and knows that power always comes with vulnerabilities that the powerful go to great lengths to hide and protect. Her marginal status means she’s overlooked or ignored; virtually invisible, she has had freedom to watch and observe. Because the powerful don’t see her, they don’t realize she’s looking at them; they forget how much their behavior can reveal to a seeing eye.

Of course, the old woman’s knowledge can’t help her directly, because she lacks the strength to act on it. But the prince has strength, and his generosity and compassion draw her out. Her resentment thaws; she gives him the wisdom he needs. Combined, they make a winning team. The old woman understands that administration is always an exercise in character; she judges, correctly, that the prince would make a good king. It’s in her interest to foster civil order and good government. After all, she’s been living in the forest. She knows the king and the ogre represent two sides of the same coin, taking all the gold and power for themselves at the expense of the people. They’re the ruling class. But the prince and the old woman, together, can take them on.

From this perspective we can see that both the king and the ogre are looking to the past. They’re determined to protect the status quo and carry on with business as usual, which includes not only dominating the country but competing with each other. Every ruler needs an enemy in order to justify clinging to power. Focusing on an external threat distracts the masses from your own failures and depredations. The old woman knows this, and that’s another reason she helps the prince. She’s investing in the future, banking on social change.

This tale illustrates the dynamics of wisdom as it plays out across the stages of a career. Young warriors must gain wisdom or perish, and, since they lack a depth of experience, they must receive it from elders. Mature citizens must use wisdom or fail in their duties; since they have authority and responsibility, they must activity seek wisdom as lifelong learners and put it into action. And elders, who have moved on from positions of strength and responsibility, must pass on their wisdom to warriors and citizens, or else they will wither; they’ll turn into bitter curmudgeons or hungry ghosts. Keeping wisdom for yourself is like keeping gold too long in the vault or food too long in the fridge. It does no good and soon goes bad. It only works when you take it out and pass it along.