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.

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