Rethinking Failure 3

The vividness and pungency of the images we apply to failure show how much it preoccupies us subconsciously.  Not so with success, which preoccupies us during the daylight hours.  School teaches and preaches success while keeping failure in the dark: out of sight, out of mind.  Failure represents the return of the repressed and threatens the governmentality of the academic system.

Notice how we treat people who “fail” as if they had a contagious disease, and how we cozy up to “successful” people, hoping that some of it might rub off.  Everyone wants to have their picture taken with a winner.  Everyone talks about Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals but nobody talks about the other swimmers who got to the finals and raced against him, only to “lose” by mere hundredths of a second.  One can split hairs down to the quantum level, all to maintain the fiction that if you don’t medal, you don’t count (and as far as the media are concerned, you don’t even exist).

I can’t imagine a more corrosive attitude.  As in science: if you don’t win the Nobel prize, you’re a failure.  As in authorship: if your book doesn’t make the best-seller list, it’s a failure, and you don’t count as a writer.  As in business: if you don’t rise to VP or CEO, you’re washed up.  As in education: if you don’t teach in the Ivy League or a top ten research university, you’re no better than second or third rate. Ditto if you’re not on the tenure track.  It is a heavy burden, always looking over one’s shoulder, envying this man’s art or that man’s scope, always calibrating one’s own position against that of one’s contemporaries, blaming the victims, ignoring Fortune and her wheel.  It makes a fertile ground for deadly sins, especially avarice, gluttony, or anger in addition to the inevitable, habitual envy.

I remember an English Department meeting where we discussed the disappointing annual raise.  A senior colleague wryly opined that we should all receive “injured merit raises.”  Despite the sardonic tone, he seemed quite comfortable in his tenure and his tweeds, though he did not publish and refused to teach anything more recent than Jane Austen.  He had harsh words for students who didn’t measure up to his expectations, some of whom, perversely, even expressed their gratitude “to Professor J.  for proving to me that I am not a writer.”  His teaching copies of texts were always carefully annotated, and the key passages underlined with a ruler.  Yet in relaxed moments, after dropping the mask of irony, his face had a weary and slightly haunted look.  I sometimes wondered what he was afraid of.

Rethinking Failure 2

When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth back in the mythical 1960’s, people were always looking over their shoulders.  The school had a rugged outdoorsman mentality (it was all-male in those days), which compensated rather actively for the intense class work and studying that went on all week. Weekends were devoted to blowing off steam via drinking, skiing, partying, or road trips.  The more studious and intellectual were always looking off wistfully at places like Harvard, thinking that’s where we should have gone, while the more rugged among us vigorously performed our ruggedness as if to prove that, in spite of our smarts, we actually were real men.  In short, you had to succeed both physically and intellectually.

It was little better in grad school.  At Yale there was no rugged outdoor ethos; instead, you had metropolitan envy.  People were always looking over their shoulders at New York, and a kind of star system prevailed.  Prematurely gray faculty with book-white skin plodded between the department and the library, their outsized reputations trailing behind them like stellar magnetic fields.  Between classes, at lectures, during social events you could watch graduate students circling into orbit.  Everyone was thinking about position, reputation, and success.

Either way – and not just in the Ivy League – school was all about success.  It was about meeting goals set by the institution and its agents, the faculty.  We were encouraged to internalize these goals and discipline ourselves to achieve them.  School rewarded us according to performance.  It functioned as what Foucault would call a “governmentality,” and I mean to lay some emphasis on the last four syllables.  As Thoreau observed, “It is bad to have a southern overseer … but worse if you are the slave driver of yourself.”  It no wonder that schools would not teach, nor want to teach, about failure.  The subject is taboo.  And yet it sits on everyone’s mind.

Note how we speak of “failing” a course.  It could be construed in the sense of letting down or breaking down, as in “I failed you” or “the equipment (link, chain, bolt, coupling, component, mechanism) failed.”  Notice here the connotations of betrayal, disintegration, or collapse counterposed to the expectation of integrity, reliability, or strength.  Also of interest is the vivid “flunk”, a word of obscure origin but with a sturdy Anglo-Saxon heft.  It has overtones, as well, of “flush”, “thunk”, or “sunk”.  The onomatopoeia suggests an inert object falling and hitting the floor or sinking into deep water. Inertia is key: the object has no more energy or life, no power of self-motivation.  You can say, “He flunked the course” or simply, “He flunked,” or more expansively, “He flunked out.”   Charles Livingston (American Speech 21:1, 16-18) connects it to “funk”, meaning “to shy away from, avoid, back out.”   This sounds plausible, but where did the “l” come from?  It also occurs in “flop” and “flub”, whose connotations resonate with those of “flunk.”  The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology says that “flop” is a variation of “flap.”  I suppose a flap would flop if it opened and hit the ground.  As for “flub” it, too, is an Americanism “of obscure origin,” arising circa 1920.  Since “flunk” (also an Americanism) first appears circa 1800, its “l” does not descend from either of these but may share a common ancestor.

So, if you flubbed your exam and flunked the course, or worse, flunked out, it would certainly create a flap at home!

But we digress …

Rethinking Failure

Ever since grad school I’ve been intrigued by the idea of failure, which sat like an incubus on everybody’s mind.  It was feared but never openly discussed.  At Yale they talked only of success, for which we supposedly were being groomed.  Higher education trades in and promises success; that is its main selling point to the hopeful masses.  And yet, arguably, it’s our failures that stimulate us to learn and grow.

What do we mean by failure?  If you fail a course, it means you didn’t complete the work to the teacher’s satisfaction.  To fail in business means to go out of business, to stop operating; when a business stops making money, it fails.  A “failed writer” is one who never writes or publishes very much, whose production lags behind expectations (his or her own, or another’s).  Failure in this case means a considerable gap between desire and performance.

Failure is therefore a judgment made by others or by oneself.  It can become a feeling, which is to say an inner message repeated to the point of instinct.  One can feel like a failure despite outward circumstances or the facts of the situation.  No one wants to feel like a failure, but almost everyone does at some time or other.  Feelings of failure breed shame, depression, and addictions.  They are bound up with what matters to us, entwined with our values and our sense of identity.

During my first year in grad school I grew increasingly anxious and neurotic comparing myself to other students, all of whom seemed more intelligent, clever, disciplined, and accomplished.  One had read Heidegger in the original; another could quote long passages from Virgil; still another could sling the jargon of deconstruction as deftly as an Italian chef twirling  a pizza.  Fortunately, the draft came calling just in time.  In the world of the Army none of that stuff mattered.  The lifer NCO’s I worked for could have cared less about literary theory or the various versions of Wordsworth’s Prelude. Yet their organization controlled nearly half the federal budget, so who was more important?

After a year of this other life, I realized that everyone in grad school had been  intimidated by everyone else  It wasn’t just me. They might have read Heidegger  and Derrida, but I had read ­Finnegans Wake, and who was more important, really?  When I got back to Yale, it was much easier to step back and view the whole value system from the side.  That helped me separate real learning from the neurosis of failure.  It was, I now realize, the first step on the long journey of staying alive.

Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Person

Those who work as adjuncts or part-timers give varying accounts of their situation.  For some, it works; for others it doesn’t.  But the basic facts remain pretty consistent: low pay, no job security, no benefits, and the lowest status in the profession.  How can you make such conditions work for you?  It depends on who you are and what you want out of life.

Until recently, most adjunct faculty were experts employed elsewhere, who were brought in for special knowledge and skills that the regular faculty lacked.  They were recruited for particular programs on an as-needed basis.  Because they were employed elsewhere, their pay was in the nature of an honorarium, and their work was considered largely pro bono.  People took adjunct gigs out of a sense of social or professional responsibility, for the opportunity to teach and in that way to give back some of what they had gained.  Teaching was a refreshing change from their normal work life.  They did not think of themselves as professional educators.

Part-time faculty also realized some benefits.  Frequently, they were people who had left the work force to raise children or take care of aging parents, or, as faculty spouses, found themselves stuck in place and had to take the best option available for maintaining some sort of professional life.  Some part-timers were eventually able to work their way into full-time positions; others found the freedom and flexibility preferable to the up-or-out demands and legendary stress of the tenure track.

With the erosion of regular faculty positions and the abundance of available Ph.D.’s, adjunct and part-time work has now become the norm.  We now have thousands of adjuncts and part-timers making a career out of it.  These include many with terminal degrees and extensive publications.  But it is difficult to see how one can live on $21,000 a year, which is the average going rate for teaching ten courses.  And that emolument does not include the “psychic dollars” one gains from a regular position, with its sense of institutional citizenship and all the supports that go with it.

On September 5 of this year, Marc Bousquet posted a blog in the Chronicle’s “Brainstorm” section called “Meet Maria.”  Maria holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and suffers from mental illness.  She held and lost several tenure-track jobs before being reduced to adjuncting, which left her destitute and on the brink of homelessness.  She is now training to be  nursing assistant, which is a dirty and dangerous job that pays around $12 an hour, but at least, she says, you can find a position.

Maria’s testimony is heartbreaking, lucid and full of self-awareness.  She accepts responsibility for her situation, and she’s trying to make lemonade out of lemons by organizing a research project on health care workers.  Her goal, she says, is to keep from becoming homeless, and she has plenty to say about the trials of adjunct life.

As I read this story, it occurred to me that adjuncting and part-timing can feel like a kind of professional homelessness.  You lack a “home institution”, an “institutional home,” a place where you belong.  This is a pregnant metaphor – and we’ll examine more  in the weeks ahead – that tells us about the values and beliefs that underlie behavior.  We all want a home; we all want to feel at home; we all want and need to belong.  But we also judge people by where they belong – by their houses, their neighborhoods, their institutions.  Poverty and homelessness make us uncomfortable – they might be contagious!  In the eyes of regular faculty, adjuncts are tainted by failure, which is assumed to be their own fault.  As Maria observes, “Who wants to spend time with a loser?”

The issue, for those who adjunct or part-time, is how to turn the situation to advantage.  How can you thrive in a state of professional homelessness?  Thoreau, who advocated not owning a farm, liked the freedom to wander throughout the town and enjoy the best part of the landscape, which always yielded an “instant and immeasurable” crop without any labor on his part.  He also conducted an active literary and intellectual life without any connection to a university.  “Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport,” he declared.  Nevertheless, we have to remember that he did frequently avail himself of Mrs. Emerson’s apple pies.

The good people of Concord thought of Thoreau as a loser, but he didn’t think of himself that way.  Nor did Maria.  That is at least half the battle.  If you have no home, you can be at home everywhere.  Perhaps it is time to rethink the uses of failure.

Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Profession

A recent study reported in the Chronicle demonstrates that tenured and tenure-track faculty do not seem altogether opposed to the increasing reliance on adjuncts and part-timers.  You would think that all professors would care enough about the erosion of their profession to defend its cherished structures and practices, including full-time status and tenure.  But it turns out that, while they are willing to defend for themselves, they are unwilling to do so for others.

Indeed, there seems to be a kind of Faustian pact between the regular faculty and the institution where adjuncts and part-timers are concerned.  The latter teach mainly introductory courses or discussion sections, freeing the former for upper-division and graduate courses.  Institutions have long recognized that faculty are willing to be paid in security and prestige as much as in cash. These, in fact, account for a good portion of the “psychic dollars” made famous by Governor Brown, and, best of all, they don’t show up on the books.  But in order to maintain prestige, you must have a pecking order, and job security across the board creates management headaches.  The solution?  Prestige and job security for the few, the proud, the privileged; hard work with scant reward for the rest.

The regular faculty buy into this arrangement, some cheerfully, some with misgivings, but they all accept it and some even defend it. Thus, they become part of the problem.

I have observed that faculty tend to be politically liberal.  They vote democratic, support environmental reform, advocate equal rights, champion the oppressed, decry financial abuse and corporate greed, all that sort of thing.  Professionally, however, they tend to be ultraconservative.  Just take a mild swipe at tenure, academic freedom, peer review, or the prestige of someone’s institution and watch what happens.  I once asked a senior colleague, who acknowledged the usual catalog of inequities, whether he would be willing to give up tenure if it led to a fairer and more just system.  He blanched. “They pay me with tenure,” he said.

Comments like these remind me of Dr. Paul Farmer’s wistful remark about the rich liberals who extol his medical  projects in Haiti:  “They want to save the world at no cost to themselves.”

As for prestige, everyone knows that reputation counts for a great deal in academia.  Almost the first thing people want to know is where you teach.  Once they pry it out of you, you can read instant judgment in their faces.  They have pegged, labeled, and filed you, like a card in the hand, or in a catalog.  Forget about your story.  Forget about what they might learn by listening or asking.  It is very hard to escape this sort of thinking, no matter which side you are on.  Internalized shame is as common as outward humiliation in our world.

Indeed, hierarchy and prestige seem to have grown naturally from the rich soil of privilege and comparative judgments, which may begin with the simple and inescapable fact that professors have to grade students almost every day.  We acquire the habit of judgment and discrimination so early that it becomes instinctual, even unconscious.

If I were to give you a random list of institutions, you could easily rank them by reputation and influence.  I would bet that a random sample of your colleagues would rank them pretty much the same way.  At the top would be research institutions with no students at all, such as the Institute for Advanced Study, followed by doctoral universities, and on down through master’s institutions, baccalaureate institutions, and two-year colleges all the way to community colleges and technical schools.  With some exceptions for antiquity and elitism, colleges rank below universities.  It’s clear that our profession considers teaching less prestigious than research, and basic courses less desirable than advanced courses.

All this suggests that the profession itself supports the adjunct and part-time system because it, in turn, upholds the system of hierarchy and prestige.  When strapped for cash, they can still pay you off with privilege.  If it works for you, it works for them.  It just doesn’t work for the people at the bottom.