Contingency, Collaboration and the Justification of the Humanities

In 2003 the adjunct faculty at Keene State College, where I work, reached a tentative agreement on their first contract that was subsequently approved by the college’s Board of Trustees and ratified by the union membership. The first contract, the result of many years of work, court cases and appeals in front of the labor relations board, offered an 18.8 percent retroactive salary increase. The new contract also established a process for arbitration of contract disputes, just cause for dismissal, appeal rights for non-reappointment or non-renewal of contracts, as well as other benefits and protections. Moreover, the organizing effort had the support of the full-time faculty union at Keene State College.

In my years as chair of one of the largest department at Keene State College I spent a good deal of time fretting over the challenges of working in a system that depends so heavily on contingent labor. Surely many of the privileges I enjoy as a tenured faculty member are entwined with the willingness of the administration to retain adjunct faculty at wages that are far below the minimum recommended salary by professional organizations. And I’ve worked closely to create new opportunities to collaborate with adjunct colleagues while recognizing that collaborations around courses and curriculum too often make available opportunities that only magnify the lack of compensation for such work. Too, a few years ago, I was a member and chair of the Modern Language Associations’ Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities (CAFPRR) when we began setting recommended minimum salary for adjunct faculty members on an annual basis. More recently I’ve been working with adjunct faculty colleagues in a new first-year writing program and in an American Studies program that draws on the expertise and experience of adjunct faculty.

And so I took special notice of a letter to the editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education by Philip E. Lewis, Vice President of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. Lewis’ missive, “Curing What Ails Liberal Education,” is a rejoinder to Andrew Delbanco’s response to the so-called crisis in the humanities, “A New Day for Intellectuals” (The Chronicle Review 13 February). In addition to calling into question Delbanco’s characterization of scholarship in the humanities-the “theory-driven decline thesis”-Lewis points to the value of seeking collaboration with colleagues across schools and divisions rather than merely making the standard humanistic argument that students need more humanities.

But his target is really the organized contradictions of the academic workplace. Earning the public trust-in other words, arguing persuasively for the necessity of humanistic reflection and inquiry-requires nothing less, argues Lewis, than generating “a principled understanding of the appointment of responsibilities among tenure-track faculty members and their less-privileged part-time or adjunct colleagues, coupled with a sharply upgraded status for that army of nontenure-track teachers” (B18). Lewis concludes that the current “relegation of adjuncts to second-class academic citizenship is a toxic structure far more disabling for the enterprise of the humanities than concessions to theory have ever been for humanistic scholarship.”

It would be helpful to think through more carefully how members of a profession like ours justify our work, especially today, when many of the high-minded defenses of the humanities no longer ring true in an academic system that is increasingly dependent upon radical inequities. How do intellectuals working in the humanities justify to the public-and to those people who represent the public, like boards of trustees or senior academic administrators-why we deserve the rights of control over our intellectual work different from the control that society and employers exercise over other occupations?

“Simplicity, Independence, Magnanimity, and Trust”

There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.

—Henry David Thoreau, Walden

As a doctor of philosophy and erstwhile scholar I’m thinking that Thoreau’s chain of terms to describe the dictates of wisdom–“simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust”–sound pretty darn good. But as with most of the things Thoreau tells me, I am looking for some purchase, some way of mapping such high-minded dictates onto the contours of this life.

Earlier this month I was asked to give a keynote address to faculty, students and their families at the annual Keene State College 2009 Academic Excellence Program. While I am skeptical of the discourse of excellence-as anyone who has read Bill Reading’s book or the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu should be-I am an enthusiastic supporter of the goals of the annual event: to give undergraduate students the opportunity to share their intellectual work with a broad audience and to work closely with students beyond the classroom. In any given year over 350 students and family members, faculty, staff, community members, area legislatures and university trustees attend the gathering.

On my professional blog I talked a bit about how my address, The Trouble with Scholarship, came together as I thought about questions. But as I was thinking about where questions come from, why we take them up, how they move us from where we are to someplace new, I was also reading Wayne Booth’s essays in The Vocation of a Teacher. Booth got me thinking about the words “calling” and “vocation” and their uses in describing what college and university professors do with their valuable time. As I understand it, a calling is a summons of some kind, a motivation from on high, an invocation of purpose that appeals to transcendent purposes and values as a guide. A vocation, on the other hand, seems to be a kind of orientation to what one does, a way of talking about a calling but perhaps something that is more grounded in an internal motivation for one’s work. Avocation, surely, would be worth thinking about in relation to vocation. I’d like to quibble with the idea that a person’s avocation is a calling away-a minor occupation or hobby, a calling off, diverting, distracting, or interrupting.

If you are reading this post, and you are working in or around the college or university, might you take a few moments to make visible the person behind the more visible teaching persona, expertise and list of professional accomplishment? How does a vocation differ from a job or a career? What makes the kind of work many of us do with students every day meaningful and fulfilling? How does one sustain a sense of meaning and purpose in the current academic world where working conditions vary dramatically and where idealistic narratives predicated on notions of a “calling” or “vocation” might seem to be merely quaint if not obtuse? Where exactly do we find meaning and satisfaction in our work with students and/or in our scholarly preoccupations?

Scholarship and Competence in the Curiosities


A few summers ago I went out for an afternoon walk around Auke lake, near Juneau, Alaska, with another professor teaching with me in the Bread Loaf School of English summer session. Alison and I picked our way over large roots and ferns, past a stand of enormous Sitka spruce. Our meandering conversation was much like our walk, following turns and twists, stepping over muddy spots, and catching glimpses of the lake through the trees.

Over the past few weeks I have been writing a talk on scholarship that I have been asked to give at the annual Keene State College Academic Excellence Conference. Thinking about scholarship has me rereading the writing of Alison’s father, Wayne Booth, and I’ve been mulling over his insights about the profession of English, and enjoying his playful way of engaging with the ironies of our professional lives. In an essay he wrote for the book Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures, “The Scholar in Society,” republished in his collected essays The Vocation of a Teacher, Booth laments the rules of the game of scholarship. How, he asks, can we find our way to a new reward system that emphasizes inventive service to scholarship and society? He realizes that it is not a question to ask established scholars who are benefitting from the rules of the game as it is currently played. And he acknowledges that any young scholar who “does not succumb to ambition, mendacity, or cowardice, and produce instanter that book or article that should in fact have five more years of gestation,” will, of course, be asked to leave the game (62). So Booth turns from literal to allegorical thought and imagines a visitor from a strange land called “Eupaideia, a land that has miraculously ordered its scholarship according to a reasonable ideal.” In Eupaideia, as it happens, has organized its educational system around what they want: citizens who are curious about how to make life more humane. As the visitor explains, they have related scholarly inquiry, publication and reward in a different way.

tippyaukelake“Both college and school teachers are judged, for retention and promotion, mainly whether they can arouse the elected committee members’ curiosity about the subjects they teach. Each teacher whose fate is in the balance can choose any method for interesting the committee: published writing, unpublished essays or lectures, tapes, a prolonged group discussion. If curiosity is roused by where she will go next (that is, about what she may be able to teach next time around), she is hired, retained, or promoted. Every five years each teacher undergoes the same test, throughout her life, and those who fail are, regardless of their age, given a one-year sabbatical to allow for preparation for a second try; if after a year of free inquiry she still cannot arouse anyone’s curiosity, she is asked to seek employment in some line of work not centered on competence in the Curiosities. What this has meant for us is of course that nobody writes and publishes unless that route has for her proved the best way to learn. We were a bit surprised to find that the amount of writing did not go down markedly, while the amount of publication dropped by about seventy-five percent. Obviously most scholars find that trying to write a coherent statement is the best way to learn, yet most find the results of the try not ready for publication” (63).

As it turns out, the young scholars learn early a devotion to the task of discovering what is truly interesting about the world and to teaching the arts of such discovery. But, as Booth concludes with a brief commentary on his brief allegory (with a little help from William James and Max Weber), the Eupaideist’s scheme would hardly work in a fallen world.