Rethinking (Academic) Success 3

The most obvious problem with success in the academy is that it moves in one way: success, in its conventional academic sense, leads one from lower- to upper-division courses, undergraduates to graduate students, general education to specialization, classroom work to archival research, baccalaureate-granting colleges to the research university. Is there another way?

I have been arguing since graduate school that the trajectory that takes successful academics out of the classroom might be complemented by another trajectory that takes us back (successfully) to the classroom and to the students who may need us most. It surprises me how people appear mostly content with the individualistic and hierarchical model of academic success, even as it systematically devalues the relational work of teaching as well as service to our institutions.  This model of success routinely de-emphasizes heartfelt professional commitments—to students, the discipline, the department, the college, and the local or regional community. Success, ironically enough, isolates the activities of reading and writing from the intellectual communities in which we work.

One trajectory worth considering is the choice to leave an academic institution and position that does not reward teaching lower-division students to a position and institution in which working with undergraduate students is at the center of one’s professional life.  The past few years I’ve been fortunate to be working on a project with someone intimately familiar with the practices and values of a research-oriented institution, Kathleen McCormick, who deliberately moved from a research-intensive university to a baccalaureate college. In an essay published in the ADE Bulletin, Kathy encourages us to think beyond what seem to be “the more obvious advantages of working in a Research 1 institution and focus on what has the potential to get lost—for both faculty members and students—in working in an environment that does not see undergraduate education as its first priority.”

There are other stories, too. In the preface to a book I’m currently reviewing, Out of the Shadow: Ecopsychology, Story, and Encounters with the Land, Rinda West describes her choice in the late 1960s to leave the University of Chicago to teach at Oakton community college. She goes on to describe her “feeling humiliated in relation to colleagues at universities who patronized” her for her choices, as well as the pleasures of not being subject to small-minded department politics, competition and pressure—indeed, “the projection of shadow that characterizes academic life for many women. “Oakton was a wonderful place to work,” West concludes, “while raising two children, since the culture of the college supports the understanding that employees have lives as well as jobs.” Gathering these kinds of stories offers a way of rethinking success that, in the memorable words of Kathy, places “faith in our undergraduates and in our ability as teachers.”

John and I welcome stories of academic life that can help us rethink the many ways our professional lives work through or even transcend the restrictive definitions of success.

Rethinking Success 2

Emily Dickinson famously wrote that “success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed.”  But what about those who do?  No doubt victory is sweet, as is revenge, but only for a time, and not such a long time at that.  A recent study, reported in the Chronicle, sought to determine how free professors felt at various stages of their careers – free, that is, to speak up in meetings, express unpopular opinions, pursue controversial  lines of inquiry, or take positions contrary to those of administration.  Surprisingly, the award of tenure did not increase feelings of freedom; people began to loosen up and take risks only when they had achieved full professor.  It was not until then, apparently, that they ceased watching their back.

As Mark’s last post vividly describes, we academics are always looking about us, one eye on the competition and the other on career milestones like finishing the Ph.D., getting that tenure track job, achieving tenure, and gaining promotion.  Each step up the ladder constitutes a small victory; each publication or promotion adds another sprig of laurel to one’s crown. Our world thrives on judgment, prestige, and an exquisite sense of rank.  An informal yet rigid class system prevails: how else could one write a book entitled, Teaching at a Third Rate University?  In a culture that over-values security, it is not hard to see why hierarchy and exclusivity govern our mutual relations, infecting them with envy, bigotry, and pride.  People are always comparing, contrasting, looking you over, up, and down, but seldom straight in the eye.  They want to know where you teach, who you studied with, what you have published, what you are working on, all so that they can quickly calculate how seriously to take you.  No wonder we all get so tired.

What is success anyway?  It depends on who you talk to.  Every group has a definition that reflects its own interests, and therefore its own insecurities.  For academia, these include rank, prestige, and reputation, which are judgments, always made by others and frequently by oneself as well.  After years of immersion we internalize these judgments, believing we will never be happy without success.

But happiness and success are not the same thing.  Indeed, they are different kinds of things.  Happiness is not a judgment but a feeling. It comes from inward experience rather than external validation.  Think of what makes you happy: the list might include good health, intimacy with friends and loved ones, good times with your family, being in the presence of great beauty, a springtime walk in the park or the woods, a good meal, a nice hot bath, learning something, creating something.  Now think of how we measure success: accomplishing a chosen goal, making a lot of money, getting what you want, driving a fancy car or living in a big fancy house, having a high-ranking position, winning prizes, defeating your enemies.   Often, to gain the latter you must sacrifice the former. Thus do the gods we worship reveal themselves.

Balancing happiness and success is a crucial task for any ambitious person, especially in academe, where evaluation, critique, and comparative thinking rule.  When something is highly desired, it becomes very difficult to examine – which only makes the task more urgent.

Rethinking Success

I’ve been reading John’s four-part meditation on rethinking failure and thinking about success.  Like failure, success, is a judgment that is at its best transient, and at its worst corrosive.  I’ve just returned from the Modern Language Association’s annual convention where stories of success and failure, to paraphrase Blake, breed like reptiles of the mind.

John’s back-in-the-day Ivy-league stories are of interest to someone like me, who had no idea what college really was, or could be, until he was well into his twenties. When I finally arrived on a college campus full of enthusiasm, trepidation and hope, I was unpleasantly surprised when I was told that the choices I had made had not prepared me for what I wanted to do. In fact, the admissions office at an ivy-leaved campus in Ithaca, New York, seemed to have little idea what to do with a person who had never taken a standardized test, and whose high school grades were markers of what people in schools most often construe as failure. I had never really thought of my experiences in school as a failure, though they were mostly unsatisfying. But here I was a person whose hard work and success outside of school had little to no resonance in the halls of academia.

If there were a lesson in this strange doubleness—a successful person categorized a failure in the higher mind of the academy—I’m afraid I had noidea what it was at the time. I was old enough, and had cultivated enough presence of mind, to know that I was not a failure; and so I set out to do what I wanted to do: study physiology, biomechanics and nutrition. After mornings of academic work at Ithaca College I spent my afternoons training with students at Cornell—first as a fellow athlete and then as their coach. Once I gained admission to Ithaca College (Cornell, I found, was not interested in a second look) I felt the pressures of academic success creeping into my life. I’m still quite proud that I did not fail organic chemistry. But that course did help me to come to terms with my lack of preparation for the academic fields in which I was studying. Thankfully, I also found myself among readers and writers who took a interest in me–and what I had to say. These were people less interested in failure and success. Their singular and inspired commitment, in short, was encouraging students like me.

The dialectic of failure and success, I have learned, is a way of thinking that is unfortunately magnified in the high-stakes and competitive domain of school. How many students and faculty in the academy are driven by fear of failure or haunted by the often hollow afterglow of success? How many of us, trying to stay alive in the academic world, diminish ourselves and colleagues and students by selfishly building careers instead of selflessly contributing to a community? In thinking about success I find myself asking a question that might help me circle back to the impulse of the work John and I are undertaking here: When might a failure not be a failure? Now that I have found my way into a professional life in school—a tenured professor laboring at the challenges that face anyone who is genuinely serious about the intellectual work of teaching—I too often feel the pernicious dialectic of failure and success lurking around me. I too often encounter students and teachers whose lives are constrained by the difficult moments we name failures and those fragile and transient moments we define as success.

Might staying alive require us to move from these arbitrary moments where we are most challenged or most fulfilled?  The aspiration to stay alive in the academy might just demand the capacity to dwell less on judgments of failure and success and more on the capacity to move from where we are—or as Blake would have it, to alter our dogmatic opinions of ourselves and others by imagining a productive contrary to that confining opposition between failure and success.

Rethinking Failure 4

A few days into the new year, most of us have already begun to equivocate about our resolutions.  Already they seem overly ambitious, perhaps jut a bit unrealistic, or at any rate less important then we once thought.  It’s time to retreat,  retrench, and rationalize.  If we don’t reach the goal, we can always just lower our expectations.  Why do we go through this every year?  What causes us always to aim high and then, inevitably, fall short?  It seems like a built-in pattern, as if we had to set ourselves up.  What a desperate way to begin a new year, or a new decade!

Thoreau remarked, “It is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things.”  What wisdom, then, can we find in understanding failure, or rather our obsession with it and with its opposite, success?  In the context of plans and resolutions, failure means not attaining your goals.  It means you didn’t get what you wanted or do what someone thought you should.  Success mean the opposite, of course: you fulfilled expectations, accomplished the mission, made the grade, cleared the bar, came in first.  But failure means you didn’t medal; your reach exceeded your gasp; you fell short; you missed the boat; you blew it; you hit the wall; you tanked, caved, collapsed, ate it, bought the farm, shot and missed, took a bath.

We have, it seems, all sorts of vivid metaphors for failure, almost as many as we do for getting drunk or having sex.  But what about success?  The metaphors seem paler and less abundant.  We say that someone arrived, made it, scored, nailed it, but what else?  We brood on what we fear, and we certainly fear failure.  We don’t fear success nearly as much, though there are good reasons why we should.   Fat cats are not nimble.  Too much safety can make one slothful, complacent, and dull, which are hardly virtues in a world where one needs to be supple and alert.  The deeper the rut, the harder it is to change course.  The deeper the foxhole, the harder it is to climb out.

Success accustoms us to getting our own way and therefore breeds intolerance, impatience, self-righteousness, a sense of entitlement and a lack of compassion.  Greed and envy wait hungrily in the wings.  In this regard, success is the enemy of virtue.

Failure, in contrast, breeds self-confidence, because you must overcome shame and despair in order to go on.  You are thrown back upon inner resources.  You have to reinvent yourself.  You become aware of your own network of trusted friends and supporters, with their honesty and generosity.   You begin to realize what really counts in life, that tough love is the only durable kind.

Because failure accustoms you to letting go, it breeds resistance to addictions.  It forces you to deal with injustice and uncertainty and the loss of control.  Once you’ve lost a job, you don’t fear it so much the next time: it may still hurt, but at least you’ve been there before.  You know the way out.  God is not against suffering.  We should embrace our failures as opportunities to learn.  Pain is, or can be, a tonic to the imagination.  And yet how many of us, who claim to be teachers, really want to learn?  Maybe that’s why we are so desperately drawn by the sweet smell of success.