Forever Young: the gods, the damned, and Dorian Gray

As I drove home from the party where I had met the two young attorneys and asked my more elderly friends whether they would choose to live for 200 years in a young body, I found myself reaching back into literature for examples. If we try to imagine what it would be like to be forever young, the Greek gods leap to mind. They have power, beauty, strength, and everlasting good looks, and mostly they get to do whatever they want. What’s not to like? Indeed, the gods seem to have much in common with the paragons of success we have just mentioned—the movie stars, tycoons, and generalissimos propped up by makeovers, money, and medals—except that to them it comes naturally rather than by effort and design. The gods have it all. And they don’t even have to work for it. Plus, they’re immortal. Who wouldn’t want to be just like them?

Sebastiano Ricci, Zeus & Semele
Zeus & Semele, by Sebastiano Ricci

But this picture loses some luster when we look more closely at the actual life of the gods. Certainly they don’t lack for drama; they’re deeply involved in human life with all its passion and intrigue. But oddly, they don’t seem to learn anything from their experiences; they just keep doing the same things over and over. Zeus keeps seducing nymphs and mortals, getting them pregnant and then vanishing into the ether; he never matures into fatherhood, as if he were stuck in late adolescence—not unlike the tycoon with the sports car. Ares can’t stop waging war; he’s an old soldier who never dies but can’t fade away. Aphrodite can’t stop primping and having affairs, a Miss Havisham who never loses her looks (think how scary that would be!). Nothing that happens ever seems to register with the gods; you would think they’d get bored. And what is worse, they seem overly dependent on the adulation and rites of their worshippers, as if they needed constant reassurance.

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Paolo & Francesca, by Gustav Doré

Perpetual youth begins to look even less attractive when we fast forward to the Christian era. In Dante’s Inferno we meet Paolo and Francesca, the murdered lovers whirled and battered by the hurricane of their deathless passion. They still have their looks and their love; they have each other. But they’re not having fun: they’re just going around in circles, suffering without learning. They can’t escape each other—hell, they don’t even talk to each other. Francesca ignores Paolo completely while spinning a heart-wrenching, self-serving tale of glamor, romance, and betrayal. Her attention is fixed on Date and Virgil. As for Paolo, all he can do is weep. This does not look like a very fulfilling relationship. Like everyone else in Hell, Paolo and Francesca are living in the past, obsessed with their earthly life and careers. Francesca talks and acts like a princess out of chivalric romance, idolized and irresistible, an icon of feminine charm. It’s this power that she worships, explaining to Dante that Love is an irresistible force that compels any one loved to love in return. She’s in love with Love, instead of with God. “It wasn’t our fault,” she complains. “Love made us do it. Why should we suffer for how we were made?” But the creepy thing about Francesca is that she doesn’t want to give up this adolescent feeling of power; she doesn’t want to grow out of it; she doesn’t believe there could be anything better. She can’t imagine—doesn’t want to imagine— what it might be like to be Beatrice.

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Farinata, by Gustav Doré

As Dante and Virgil go deeper into Hell, they meet more and more people who are still obsessed with their careers. Farinata, a famous general and statesman damned for denying the immortality of the soul, only wants to know Dante’s ancestry and party affiliation, as if these mattered any more; if he had any sense, he’d ask Dante what he’s doing in Hell, and whether he can help him get out—especially given the fact that he, Farinata, is burning, in blatant refutation of his earlier beliefs. But like everyone else in Hell, he doesn’t learn from experience. It’s the same for Brunetto Latini, Dante’s old professor, who’s amazed to see his ex-pupil favored with a guided tour but attributes it to political talent rather than divine grace. He, too, doesn’t ask for release, but instead urges Dante to remember his book—as if, given the circumstances, that would be a reliable guide to truth!

It isn’t until Dante gets to Purgatory that he meets people who have moved on from worldly accomplishment to embrace the challenge of spiritual growth. And what a change it is! People don’t want to dwell on the past but instead on the climb ahead; kings and rulers who might have waged war now comfort and encourage each other; Oderisi, famous for his illuminations, now cedes the future to painting and the glory to Giotto. Instead of claustrophobic darkness and torments we have clean air and sweeping views, with sunshine by day, starlight by night, and loving companions all the way. What could be better?

Dorian Gray woodcut
Dorian Gray, by Non-Factor

Moving toward our own day, whose worship of youth and vigor provide countless opportunities for decadence, we encounter Dorian Gray, Oscar Wilde’s famous antihero who retains his youthful good looks even as his portrait grows older and uglier. Dorian soon discovers this miracle, but, rather than learn from it, he decides to exploit it. He hides the portrait away while using his charm for power and pleasure. A friend introduces him to J.K. Huysmans’ sensational novel À Rebours (“Against Nature”), whose wealthy protagonist embarks on a quest to explore every sensory pleasure while sequestered in his artfully engineered estate. Dorian takes that as his bible and before long has outdone its hero, Des Esseintes, in both depravity and excess. As the noose tightens around him, Dorian begins to hate the portrait, which exposes his true self.   Fearful that it might be discovered, he decides to destroy it, but when he slashes it, he mortally wounds himself.

These examples all show the danger of not moving on, which amounts to a kind of self-seduction. For youth is something to live through, not to cling to. It gives us strengths and opportunities to use for growth, not to clutch in despair. Learning of any kind depends on relinquishment; the new knowledge and understanding have to displace the old. For scholars this may be bitter medicine. We all hope that our work will last. But doesn’t the ongoing conversation of scholarship depend on both our work and our careers becoming obsolete?

Resistance to Elderhood

To contemplate the late stage of one’s career may seem as inviting as a root canal. What’s there to look forward to but pain, weakness, irrelevance, and decrepitude? Meanwhile, the culture bastes us relentlessly with images of youthful prosperity and vigor. “Forever young” has become the mantra of success. So it’s no wonder that we feel resistance to elderhood from both without and within.

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Leonardo

Recently, the New York Times Magazine reported an informal poll that asked subscribers, “If offered the chance to live for 200 years in a youthful body, would you accept?” The results were intriguing: about a third said yes, a third said no, and a third said they would have to think about it. I wondered what would make someone choose one or the other, so I began to ask around. My mother, who just turned 100, said she would certainly not want to live that long, and at 70 I felt the same way myself, no question; so did my oldest friend from grad school, whom I have always considered exceptionally wise. My daughter, at 29, initially said yes but then demurred, reflecting that she did not want to be alive when America and the planet went down in flames. At a party where most of the guests were seniors, people expressed mixed, shifting opinions. Two stylish young attorneys said they had no doubt that living 200 years in a 28-year old body would be great; a middle-aged carpenter said he would have to think about it; a barber in his 70’s said he had had a good life and would welcome whatever came next, although he was not enjoying the slow creep of infirmity; a retired college president, active in foundation work despite a recent heart attack, said it was an attractive idea. A university librarian, nearing retirement, said no way.

I left the party with more light but less clarity. Apparently, the question reveals more about the individual than about the population at large. And, on reflection, it’s purely academic. We know that every species has an allotted span: if you want to live, you have to die; you have to walk that lonesome valley by yourself.   But we can still dream, and what does our dream of being forever young have to teach? What can we learn from such an imaginary journey?

hefner
Hefner

I had asked the attorneys what they thought it would be like to have a young person’s body but an old person’s mind or, conversely, what it would feel like to date someone who looked young but felt old. When would they start to feel the disconnect? When would it give them the creeps? I couldn’t shake their confidence that living two centuries in a young body would be enviable and fulfilling. Of course, right now they were doing great both socially and professionally. Why wouldn’t they just want more of the same?

Castro w flag
Castro

And, to be fair, think of what culture serves up as role models for elderhood: silver-haired executives flaunting their sportscars and trophy wives, movie stars freezing their glamor with make-up, personal trainers, and plastic surgery, tycoons still chasing billion-dollar deals, bemedaled generals in palaces or gray-haired dictators in guerilla fatigues. We’re encouraged to believe that a successful life means reaching the top of your game and staying there forever. As if success really could work as a hedge against death.

But life and literature both offer alternative models along with abundant cautionary tales…

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.

earth snail
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.