Report from ASLE Victoria

We offered an updated version of our “Staying Alive” workshop at the biennial conference of ASLE in Victoria BC earlier this month.  About twenty faculty attended, representing every career stage and variety of institution.  We piloted an enhanced format and a new series of ideas.  It was great fun and encouraged us to think about taking our show on the road.  For those of you who attended, we hope you’ll keep reading this blog and use it to carry on the conversation.  For those who missed it, here’s a brief report.

We began with a circle and introductions.  Mark then read our “recently discovered fragment of a draft of “Walden,” which supposedly details Thoreau’s disenchantment with academe.  Knowing smiles did not begin to break out until he was about halfway through, and he laughingly explained that, when he read it as part of his acceptance speech for a teaching award back home at Keene State, no one got the joke until he had finished and remarked, “Of course this is only a parody.”

We then spent a half hour presenting basic concepts, some of which have appeared in these blogs: the dimensions of person, profession, and institution, the challenge of leading a balanced life, and the necessity of pursuing your own personal growth.  We used yoga balancing postures as the master metaphor, explaining that balance is a process of entering and sustaining dynamic equilibrium.

Dancer Pose
Dancer Pose

It is effortful, requiring both strength and coordination, and it manifests internally as aliveness or pleasure while manifesting externally as beauty. There is typically a single axis or center, about which the other limbs configure, so that there are always four “points” in play.  In our model these are the person, the profession, the institution, and the phase of life or career.  We offer tools for balancing, which can be thought of as ways of organizing energy flows.

The four phases of an academic career we correlate to Erik Erikson’s stages of adult life, but also to the traditional Indian model, in which a man (sic) is first a student or apprentice, then a warrior, then a householder, and finally a sadhu or yogi practicing in the forest.  For academic people, the apprentice phase is graduate school, where we are all learning the ropes (age 22-28).  The comes the warrior phase, where one struggles to find a place in the world (28-38).  Next comes the settler/householder phase (38-55), where one exercises leadership and achieves productivity and honor in the community.  And finally comes the elder phase (55+), when one becomes a wisdom carrier and story-teller.  (Mentoring and faculty coaching programs typically target the first two phases and neglect the latter two, but we feel that all are important and worth addressing.)

After this introduction, we moved on to discussions of each individual phase, a half-hour each.  We asked everyone to do a short free-writing on someone they knew who had led a convincing life during that phase.  Then we shared and discussed these impressions, looking for tools we could identify and use.  These discussions proved extremely rich and exciting, no doubt because people seldom have such an opportunity to explore their deepest feelings and personal history in a professional setting free of competition. By the end of our three-hour session we had developed quite a few tools and were able to wrap up with a synthesis of principles and strategies for balanced living.

We’ll elaborate on some of these ideas and tools in subsequent posts.  Please send us your views and let us know if your colleagues might benefit from a workshop like this.

Note:  institutions represented at the Victoria workshop included Lafayette College, Salisbury University, University of Northern BC,  University of Gothenburg (Sweden), Middlebury College, University of Dayton, Mount Holyoke College,  South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, University of Minnesota – Morris, Penn State University – Altoona, and the University of Connecticut.

(picture source: http://www.yogagardennh.com/)

The Bureaucratization of the Imaginative

Among the most pernicious paradoxes of academic scholarship in the humanities is that the demand for publication is most acute in the earliest stages of an academic career when a scholar’s knowledge of a field of study is less developed and the timeline for a writing a book more compressed. As a result of linking publication with the promise of further employment, the stakes are high, and the bureaucratic demand for the publication of books before tenure often produces lesser scholarship—indeed books that are less useful and less interesting to read.

What to do? As John Guillory points out in his most recent essay on scholarship and publication, “How Scholars Read,” the paradox becomes visible as early as graduate school. For graduate faculty know that “the conceptualization of a dissertation project is constrained not by the imagination of the student but by the requisites of a job market that ruthlessly rejects scholarship that does not conform to current models of organization and address current topics.” It is no wonder, then, that many people find themselves doing increasingly specialized work and producing writing that very few people will find reason to read. The costs of doing such work are interesting to consider across the career of a scholar. It would be helpful, for example, to understand how people feel about writing books under duress and without the requisite knowledge and perspective that comes from reading more widely over a longer duration. Unfortunately, I am not able to speak to this condition, as I explicitly made the case to my colleagues in my pre-tenure self-evaluations that I had chosen not to write the book that my dissertation might pretend to be—and that I had chosen not to write one of the possible books that lurked in my dissertation chapters. As my graduate advisor Leroy Searle once generously pointed out, my dissertation pointed to a lifetime of intellectual work. And he was right. For in explicitly rejecting the false expediency that comes out of equating scholarly engagement with publication, I’ve been able to write (and publish) consistently and with pleasure across the first ten years of my career as a tenure-track faculty member. Looking back over the thinking I’ve done that has found its way into print I recall the challenges and pleasures of working to make a scholarly argument. I also see how the thinking I was doing in no way called for a book that I (and others) might very likely have looked back on with far less interest or enjoyment.

Guillory’s “How Scholars Read” makes visible the kinds of reading scholars do of one another’s work. As he points out, the proliferation of unread or casually read scholarship in the humanities no longer serves the function of what we might call progress, the discoveries and new arguments and innovative methods we associate with genuine intellectual work. More importantly, such proliferation of monographs, and the system of academic advancement that drives such publication, diminishes the value of teaching. “Would it be healthier in some ways if we scholars taught more and wrote less?” Guillory asks. “When I have tended this modest proposal to colleagues,” he goes on to say, “I have been greeted with the stunned silence reserved for the most intolerable social impropriety. Such discomfort,” he concludes, “betrays what we have repressed so successfully, the origin of the current system of academic publication and advancement. . .that redistributed labor time from teaching to research.”

The stunned silence of colleagues, I will presume, is the silence of those who are most invested in what Kenneth Burke once called the bureaucratization of the imaginative or, to make my case more directly, those most invested in retaining a particular distribution of work in a university job. While this may seem impertinent, I am increasingly convinced that these investments in the status quo cut to the heart of the relationship between success and happiness in the current academe. I think Guillory’s word “healthier” can be read in more than one way. For me, as someone who teaches in a college that values teaching in its promotion and tenure process, an alternative model for scholarly production need not be antithetical to genuine inquiry and the time it takes to do meaningful scholarly work. In fact I have argued for (and will continue to argue for) retaining a rigorous standard for scholar-teachers and for ongoing and meaningful inquiry across all phases of an academic career. I’ve made this case on my campus, in the context of discussions around standards for tenure and promotion, and I’ve published essays that make visible alternative intellectual trajectories. This is why, perhaps, Guillory’s essay resonates for me. Surely it is time for those who are charged with structuring and implementing graduate education in the humanities to move through their stunned silence and join Guillory—and those of us who have been given the gift of shaping the trajectory of our intellectual lives in a system that values both scholarship and teaching—as we work together to move away from the perpetuation of a unsustainable bureaucratic system that diminishes our scholarly commitments to the humanities