Some Thoughts on Identity and Integrity

I’ve always been interested in considering more fully the too often neglected relationship between the developing inner life of a teacher and the varied paths teachers’ lives actually take. A number of years ago I found in the writing of Parker Palmer a useful starting point. In Palmer’s terms, a professional identity is a “moving intersection” of a reflective inner life and the outward expression of that life in the integrity of one’s work. Palmer, an educator, adds that this kind of “inward integration” enables the “outward connections on which good teaching depends” (15). In his book The  Courage to Teach Palmer goes on to say that “a vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued, does violence to the self-in the precise sense that it violates my identity and integrity on behalf of some abstract norm” (30). For Palmer, the costs of this division between dominant professional narratives and individuals who adopt them are not incidental. For “When I violate myself,” he goes on to say, “I invariably end up violating the people I work with. How many teachers inflict their own pain on their students, the pain that comes from doing work that never was, or no longer is, their true work?” (30). For me, Palmer provides a way to see more clearly how professional identities are determined through acculturation and accommodation-to the values, politics, and persons, of particular institutions, as well to the often harsh realities of academic labor.

Identity,” as Parker Palmer defines it, “lies in the intersection of the diverse forces that make up my life, and integrity lies in relating to those forces in ways that bring me wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death” (13). But how do we seek such connections in the diverse and often exploitative conditions of the academe? How do we make the right choices in institutions that do not have out interests in mind? Colleges and universities are, after all,  businesses that consists  of workers, management, means of production, product, customers, stakeholders; that run on money and are  part of the economy; that produce a product called education; and that involves evaluation and sorting of individuals. How do we navigate the feudal organization of the academic institutions that are sustained by perpetuating calcified hierarchical structures complete with modern versions of nobility and serfs? How do we cultivate identity and integrity in institutions that operate with a reptilian brain, motivated only to survive and grow and that use individuals sustain the organism rather than as distinct persons with differing needs? How do we find alternative narratives that might allow us to break from the abstract norms of the profession, even if this means leaving higher education in the interests of wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death?

Watersheds and Forks in the Road

A few years ago, when John and I began our conversations, we found in one another the words for a common vision: a life practice for academic people guided by the virtues of centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, imagination and collaboration.

Our thinking led immediately to the organizing fiction of academia-the career path that holds out the promise of a fulfilling life. This fiction begins with graduate school and proceeds through temporary and tenure-track jobs to the watershed of the tenure review, tenure, promotion, and retirement with honors. Careers do indeed unfold along this path. (My dossier for promotion to full professor is currently under review.) Others do not. (You can read John’s narrative of facing a fork in his own road in his essay “Meeting the Tree of Life.”) We have both been in and out of the academic world long enough to recognize the problems with this organizing fiction. Some of our colleagues and close friends have worked toward satisfying lives in academia; other colleagues and friends have struggled to stay alive in the academy–whether in the security of a tenured tenure-stream position or in the sometimes tenuous position of the adjunct. And for decades we have worked with lecturers, instructors, adjuncts, part-timers, and contingent faculty in our roles as faculty mentors and friends. If anything, we have learned that there are many pathways, watersheds, and destinations in this profession.

One of the primary motivations in our conversations has been to better understand the organizing fiction of academic life. We see the fiction of graduate school leading to a tenure-track position as potentially destructive precisely because it naturalizes professional success by aligning with the phases of a life path. However our experiences have led us to see our profession as more like a braided stream: people move back & forth between institutions, whether teaching full-or part-time; take up administrative positions or jobs outside of academics in business, journalism, writing, or publishing; government or non-profit work in museums or foundations, or go in to Independent work such as consulting.

The organizing fiction of an academic career also obscures the real situation. According to the 2006 AAUP Contingent Faculty Index, non-tenure-track positions now make up sixty-eight percent of all faculty at degree-granting institutions in the United States. Too many talented people with PhDs find themselves on the job market year after year; others take positions at institutions simply because they need a job; others sign on as contingent faculty and hold out the hope that their ship will come in; still others resign themselves to doing work they love in situations they loathe.

I am grateful to Dave W. for responding to our outline of phases in an academic career. (His comment appears on the “Prospectus” page.) For his words offers me an occasion to elaborate a bit more about where John and I are starting from. (Something I’ve been wanting to do but have been too busy teaching.) Dave’s framing our point of view may also be useful as we launch this conversation. He says that assuming “a traditional path from grad student to tenured bliss reveals a lack of appreciation of the reality on the ground.” Indeed. But we are, in fact, deeply interested in that ground-the reality from which we are always starting from. We are interested in mapping the reality of academic lives in more subtle and meaningful ways. We are interested in the systemic contradictions in the expression of the privileged professor who says, “But we are scholars, not teachers.” We are interested in why (and how) humane people continue to labor in less than humane situations. And yes, we are interested in the ongoing and difficult work of constructing not comfortable but rather more virtuous and satisfying lives.

Publish or Perish: It’s Not What You Think

We all know that in academia, publication is the coin of the realm, no matter what they say about teaching. The old maxim “Publish or perish” nails this harsh truth to the door.  But there is more to it than meets the eye, as I learned years ago from my undergraduate mentor, who gave me my first lesson in staying alive.

I met Peter Bien as a freshman at Dartmouth.  He was recently tenured, renowned as a teacher, famous for packed lectures and demanding assignments.  I was a hotshot freshman, infatuated with all kinds of arcane knowledge from quantum physics to Finnegans Wake and eager for a career in teaching.  I took his freshman seminar, where we read Ulysses, and the next year he invited me to give a talk in his course on the modern novel.

At the time I thought Finnegans Wake was the coolest thing ever written, and lecturing in his class would be like playing basketball with Michael Jordan.  I spent weeks generating nifty ideas, choosing evocative quotes, and diagramming narrative structures and cosmogonic cycles. (This was the 1960’s, long before Powerpoint).  When the big day came, I arrived at the lecture hall laden with books and notes and lugging an overhead projector. The talk went smoothly and ended with a burst of applause.

Professor Bien and I walked back to his office, he silent, I flushed with excitement. I expected some sort of acknowledgement, at least a pat on the back, but he said nothing.  Finally, I mumbled something like, “Well, that went well.”  More silence.  Desperate, I added, “I hardly expected applause.”  He turned to me with a faint smile.  “Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t put too much stock in the adulation of undergraduates.”

Talk about a punch to the gut! This was my mentor and role model, a campus legend, and I was certainly one admiring undergraduate.  How could he say that?  Worse, how could he feel that?  He must have realized at once that I was way too young for this kind of truth offered straight up with no chaser.  He quickly added , “You must realize, and you will, if you get into this business, that your students are always coming in fresh and new, while you are always growing and learning.  It is important to subject your ideas to the scrutiny of your peers; otherwise you will never know if they are any good.  You need to publish in order to stay alive.”

Over the years this conversation has stood in my memory as a landmark.  Even then, Professor Bien led a very convincing life, balancing teaching and scholarship with fatherhood, citizenship, and spirituality. He respected his students too much to withhold the tough love that was intertwined with his passion for the material.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that scholarship is about more than making the grade or clearing the tenure hurdle.  It’s about feeding the fire of your curiosity and creativity to produce enough light and warmth to nurture your students, your community, and your own life as well.

The Trouble with Teaching and Scholarship

In 2007 the MLA Committee on Professional Employment published a Report on evaluating scholarship for tenure and promotion. The following year, Dana Ringuette observed that his institution had (for some time) been doing eighteen of the twenty recommendations. He concludes that the conversation about scholarship has been overdetermined by the PhD granting institutions and that research professors have not thought through “what it means to be primarily a teacher in a community of research, writing, and scholarly exchange” (“We Need to Talk“). The ambivalence and uncertainty about the relationship between scholarship and teaching, Ringuette goes on to say, suggests the need for a far reaching conversation about what we do.

Scholarship and teaching–reading and writing on the one hand, and teaching on the other–are difficult to sustain no matter where one happens to be. To some degree, academic institutions  expect those on the tenure-track faculty to engage in scholarship through the phases of their academic careers. And given the relatively high teaching loads and expectations for service to the college and community the same questions come up year after year. What is the between scholarship and teaching? How might we nurture our intellectual lives as both scholars and as teachers? The persistence of these questions suggests the need for new language to define the relationship between scholarship and teaching. We need to move beyond de-contextualized generalizations about the life of the mind and inspired manifestos about our humanistic commitments. And we need more than definitions of teaching as a form of scholarship. Instead we need stories that foreground our lives as teachers and that define our intellectual work around our primary function and teachers and educators.  In short, we need fewer complaints about intellectual lives out of step with the mission and values of our colleges and more examples of striving to take advantage of the less-then-ideal situations in which we find ourselves.