On Mentoring in the Environmental Humanities

By Stephen Siperstein

I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

-Gary Snyder

For the past ten years I have counted myself lucky to be a member of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment (ASLE). Traveling to biennial ASLE conferences has always felt to me like coming home, and this year’s conference in Detroit, Michigan was no different. Attending an ASLE conference means building and sustaining meaningful relationships—at the registration desk and the opening reception, during the concurrent sessions and the plenary talks, through field trips and over drinks in the evenings. My wish, and why I continue to support ASLE, is for such experience to be commonplace and available to everyone in the Environmental Humanities (students, professors, independent scholars, creative writers, community organizers, secondary school teachers). My hope is that all who attend an ASLE conference leave feeling as I do: joyous, refreshed, energized. And ready to do the difficult work of teaching, service, and writing to protect our environment—work that in today’s political climate is more important than ever.

But while community has always been central to my understanding of ASLE’s purpose, this year something new hit home for me: at its roots what ASLE is really about is mentorship. ASLE has since its inception had a robust graduate student mentoring program. The program supports the ASLE community in many ways, and you can read more about its specific functions on the organization’s website. As a graduate student, in addition to the support of faculty at my own institutions, I found support and guidance through the ASLE mentoring program, and the unofficial relationships that grew organically at ASLE throughout the years.

Two years ago I contributed to this blog a post about how graduate students could imagine a multiplicity of career paths, including ones that are not pre-determined by the organizing narratives (or myths) of our fields. The post grew out of a roundtable session on “The Environmental Humanities Beyond the Tenure Track” that Clare Echterling, Mark Long, John Tallmadge, and I organized at the 2015 ASLE conference in Moscow, Idaho. We invited a range of panelists to speak about their various career paths. Their stories were dynamic and inspiring: stories about charting new directions, about the unexpected turns they took, about their failures and missteps, and about finding different forms of fulfillment and joy in their work. With guidance from the panelists, as well as the imaginative and interactive activities led by John, those present at the session began thinking of their futures in more empowering, and less passive, ways. The panel encapsulated Gary Snyder’s poem, The Trail is Not a Trail, in which he reminds us of the possibilities when we are “Out in the open / Everywhere to go.”

 

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Walking in the open on Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, Washington

After that panel I began to imagine many potential career opportunities. I imagined paths that were rarely straightforward, except maybe in retrospect. I imagined many futures for myself. It was exciting, but also disorienting. When we have “everywhere to go,” we need guides.

At the time, I was a PhD student about to enter the job market. The ASLE panel was a turning point in my career (I can see this now in retrospect). The insights I gained from it helped me both finish my dissertation and pursue multiple career paths, which led to my current position in the Department of English at Choate Rosemary Hall, an independent high school in Connecticut. As part of my job, I live at the school’s environmental immersion program; teach courses in Environmental Humanities, American literature, and expository writing; run the writing center; advise the literary magazine; and take part in all aspects of school life.

The position is challenging for many reasons. The roles I have to inhabit are many and shift constantly. The pace is demanding. The institution is facing some of its own difficulties. And lastly, taking a job like this was not what I was expecting when I was a graduate student. Indeed, though I gravitated to the idea of exploring multiple career possibilities (i.e. alt-ac), the reality was that for at least eight years (the time I was in graduate school), and perhaps even longer than that, I had a particular vision for the path my career would take. That vision was of a tenure-track position at a liberal arts college or research university. Even with all the goodness of my current position—especially the opportunity it affords me to work with students passionate about environmental justice—I have not been able to give up my original vision of what my career would be. It can be tough giving up a vision, a preconceived notion of what you’ll be doing or who you’ll be. However, with the ongoing guidance of mentors, both old and new, such “giving up” can been an opportunity for growth, and for me it has been a way for me to discover the dimensions of my work, and of my identity, that I value most.

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The Kohler Environmental Center, where I live and teach—an opportunity for which I am incredibly grateful, and grateful too for the mentorship that guided me here

At the more recent ASLE conference in Detroit I had the opportunity to contribute to a roundtable session on mentorship. Organized by the two current ASLE graduate student liaisons, Aubrey Street Krug and April Anson, the session featured three pairs of mentors-mentees speaking about diverse professional paths in the environmental humanities and their own mentoring relationships. I spoke alongside Stephanie LeMenager, who served as my adviser at the University of Oregon. When I was a PhD student, Stephanie encouraged me to be loyal to my own vision(s) for what the future—both my individual future and what I saw as a broader future for the environmental humanities—might look like.

“Students look to mentors,” William Deresiewicz writes, “to give them what [others] won’t or can’t: the permission to go their own way and the reassurance that their path is valid” (178). As a mentor, Stephanie gave me permission to go my own way while also steering me when I seemed a bit lost. I developed a hybrid dissertation form that fit my topic (on pedagogy in the environmental humanities), and with Shane Hall, a PhD student in the UO Environmental Studies Program, we three collaborated on a project that eventually became the volume Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities (an experience that helped me both develop “transferable skills” and more capaciously understand the field of environmental humanities). These experiences, among others, allowed me to cast a wide net during my job search and eventually to find my current position.      

In her remarks during our session, Stephanie emphasized that at their best, mentors reflect their mentees’ gifts back to them. Mentors can be mirrors, showing us who we really are. But they also play an important role in helping their mentees build the courage and the capacity to fail, and the imaginative capacity to take risks. Or in other words, mentorship builds resilience. In the ecological and political times that we find ourselves in today, we all need such capacity for resilience, and thus we all need mentors, likely more than one. James Engell explains this kind of mentorship as follows: “Who, in this welter of activity, can act as a mentor? To this challenge confronting everyone who engages—from whatever angle—climate disruption, mitigation, and the need to lessen dependence on fossil fuels, this essay offers one answer: we must act as mutual, reciprocally subservient co-mentors. Multiple mentorship pays great benefits, and we need it” (25). As Engell points out and as Stephanie reiterated during her remarks, we must all be “co-mentors.”

Since leaving the University of Oregon, I have continued to turn to Stephanie for mentorship (and she has continued to offer it, always graciously, always thoughtfully), but I have also found other co-mentors. For example, Jason BreMiller, who teaches at Exeter and directs the Environmental Literature Institute, has helped me transition into the world of secondary education. And there have been other mentors too along the way: Allison Carruth, Bill Rossi, Mark Long, John Tallmadge, Lee Rumbarger, and Jason Schreiner, just to name a few. I hope too, along the way, that I have provided my fair share of mentorship to others.

Every time I left Stephanie’s office or the coffee shop where we often met to discuss the most recent chapter of my dissertation, I felt like I had been given a gift and all the energy that comes with a gift feeling flowed through me. I felt grateful, and as Robin Wall Kimmerer has eloquently argued, gratitude provides an opening for reciprocity. So I try to pass on the gift of mentorship to others: to my students, my department colleagues, my friends at ASLE. This is reciprocity, what Robin Wall Kimmerer explains as the “matter of keeping the gift in motion through self-perpetuating cycles of giving and receiving” (Kimmerer 165). Receiving the gift of mentorship always comes with a responsibility to use it for the benefit of many. When mentorship is in motion, it can last forever, finally taking root in our education institutions and academic organizations and flourishing into a culture of mentorship, in which everyone knows that the gift will “follow the circle of reciprocity and flow back to you again” (381).

Ultimately, this culture of mentorship requires a life’s practice, one undertaken in broader communities—both in our academic institutions and beyond them. When we step off the familiar paths and venture out into the open, we can still follow the circle, and the gifts of mentorship will flow back to us.

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With Mark Long, friend and mentor, during the 2017 Environmental Literature Institute at Phillips Exeter Academy

Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014.

Engell, James. “Climate disruption involves all disciplines: Who becomes a mentor?” Teaching Climate Change in the Humanities, edited by Stephen Siperstein, Stephanie LeMenager, and Shane Hall. New York: Routledge, 2016. 24-30.

Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Minneapolis, MN: Milkweed Editions, 2013.

 

Let it Go

By Michael P. Branch

When you’re an ambitious undergraduate, you work hard to earn acceptance into the best grad school you can crack. There, you labor under a range of stressors to finally complete your doctoral degree. After that epic undertaking you must gird yourself for battle in a highly competitive job market. If you succeed in landing a decent position, you hear the tenure clock ticking from day one. If the tenure gauntlet is survived you look ahead to promotion, and you fantasize that beyond that promotion exists a kind of academic’s Shangri-La, an arrival state of security, harmony, and comfort that will deliver you forever from the countless trials you have endured to reach it.

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It is an open secret that many senior faculty actually have a very different experience. It must be said, immediately, that the trials of this advanced career stage are much less perilous than those that precede it. But it is precisely the fact that many senior faculty have earned relative professional security that often prevents them—out of sheer gratefulness, and out of sensitivity for the uphill battles being fought by grad students and junior faculty—from discussing the challenges specific to this career stage.

At my university, faculty have had access to merit pay only one year of the past eight. For many of those years we were also under pay cuts, furlough, or both. Programs that we spent decades building—the kind of mission-driven work that is for many of us fundamental to our sense of identity and purpose—were slashed or erased almost overnight, as the financial crisis caused an implosion of the state’s system of higher education. Having lost so much of what we worked most of our careers to build, many senior faculty have struggled to clarify their focus in the diminished thing that has been professional life in the wake of the financial collapse. Conditions are improving now, and we are hopeful for the institution and for the younger faculty who will drive its future, but so much has been lost that for many of us this transition has required a substantial reorientation to our professional identities. We are no longer working to build and support our programs, because they have been cut. We are no longer working for promotions, because those are all behind us. We are no longer working to earn raises, because no performance, however excellent, garners any financial reward. A question we had never had to ask ourselves before now presented itself on a daily basis: Exactly what are we working for?

As we contemplated this core question, many of us had a haunting sense that we had spent our careers building beautiful things that had been thrown overboard in a storm. Nevertheless, having come through the narrow passage I now feel that this transition in my professional life, however dispiriting and frustrating, has also been immensely interesting and ultimately very fruitful. Although I wouldn’t dream of giving blanket advice—indeed, I am more in need of advice than I am prepared to dispense it—I thought it might be helpful to share the following five observations based on my own professional experiences during this tumultuous past decade. I certainly do not intend these suggestions to be either prescriptive or proscriptive, but I’ll be gratified if any part of this is helpful to a fellow teacher/scholar/writer who is struggling with similar challenges at this career stage.

Choose Creativity over Productivity

As we come up in the profession, we are expected to produce, and we are judged primarily by our productivity. But any production economy has severe limits, and necessarily fails to measure a great deal of work that has genuine value. Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts. This is not a game of he who dies with the longest CV wins. Instead of imagining yourself as a machine whose existence can be justified only if it pumps out a certain number of academic widgets per unit of time, instead attempt to reckon how much energy you gain or lose as a result of the work you do. Consider a more organic metaphor, in which the growth of the tree that is your professional life can be measured in many ways other than the marketable tonnage of fruit it produces. Some trees do produce fruit, but others produce shade or windbreak, beauty or shelter for other beings. If the work you do feels creative, energizing, or morally significant, then it is meaningful work regardless of how the institution calculates or miscalculates its value. Truly creative work may or may not be viewed by your institution as measurable productivity, but if it gives you energy rather than damaging your morale and rendering you cynical, then it is inherently valuable.

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Seek Incentive over Reward

The distinction between these two terms is fine, so hang with me here. In the context of your professional life, a reward is the thing the institution gives you after your work is done to recognize the value of that work. Think pay raise or promotion. The problem, as many of us know all too well, is that for many academics no amount of good work will lead to substantial monetary reward. Perhaps there are no more promotions available to us, or perhaps we teach in a system where poor funding means that even excellent work does not result in pay increases. Many full professors at my university feel that if they achieve something important professionally—say, the publication of a book or the mounting of a major art exhibit—“it counts for nothing.” And that is certainly true, but only if the purpose of the project was to gain a reward that, after all, we already know the system is unwilling to provide. Incentive, by contrast, is the thing that makes you want to do the work in the first place. It is the up-front promise that draws us into things we do for reasons other than to achieve a final reward. If our incentive for taking on a project is that we anticipate enjoying the process, experiencing a stimulating immersion in its challenges and pleasures, then our work is not motivated primarily by an expectation of external reward. And in any system in which external reward is meager or absent, it is a dubious proposition to take on work that we have not ourselves incentivized through our own deep sense of what constitutes inherently meaningful work.

Distinguish between the Work and the Job

I often dislike my job, but I usually love my work. What this distinction means, in my own case, is that I love writing and teaching (just as I always have), and I dislike institutional politics and gossip, power plays and false promises, or corporate priorities that put football, fundraising, or unhelpful assessment exercises ahead of the welfare of students or the professional growth of faculty. I have genuine concerns about the increasing gap between rank-and-file university teachers and the increasingly specialized administrative class that often decides their fate. But think back to some of those less-than-ideal jobs we all had when we were younger. We called that work a job rather than a career, profession, or calling, because we didn’t expect it to be rosy, and we did the job primarily that we might be paid. Even when we do work we love—like teaching and writing—there will always be substantial parts of an academic career that are unpleasant. Those parts are the job, the part we do to earn a paycheck and not because it is inherently fulfilling. But within an academic life there is also the work—which Henry Thoreau called “morning work,” John Muir called “natural work,” and Gary Snyder calls “real work.” This is the work that matters most, that speaks directly to our ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual values. Within your academic career it is still possible for you to love your work even if you sometimes dislike your job. Try to avoid confusing one with the other.

Redefine Success

Early in your academic career, success tends to be judged by things like the acceptance of a book manuscript for publication, or the prestige of the journals in which your work appears. It might be benchmarked by well-defined milestones of professional accomplishment, like the earning of tenure. Later in your career, you may find that success has a way of becoming conceptually elusive. This is not to say that publishing books or articles is no longer meaningful later in your career. However, the external rewards of that work are much less well-defined. What, then, constitutes success for the mid- or late-career academic? Of course each of us must ask and attempt to answer this question for ourselves, but my point here is that although we really do need to ask this question, often we do not. What actually provides us a regenerative sense of accomplishment may shift substantially over time, and it is important to recognize those changes in order to calibrate our work to goals that we consider genuinely meaningful. For example, you might decide that you want to develop and teach a different kind of course, or attempt a new kind of writing, or participate in institutional life in ways that vary your usual patterns of engagement. If you can identify your desire for change and act on it, your work is more likely to result in a feeling of success. If you fail to identify the goals specific to this stage of your career and simply continue to do the things you’ve always done, you’re much more likely to feel the kind of deadening burnout or lack of inspiration that attends the repetition of any task.

Let It Go

Here’s the most difficult thing. No matter what you do, you’ll inevitably find that some aspects of the job leave you feeling disillusioned, under-appreciated, and exhausted. And the longer you function in any institutional context, the more clearly you’ll see how the sausage is actually made. I believe it is important to take responsibility for those negative feelings, especially if you have the power to change your way of working—or of thinking about your work—and yet don’t take steps to affect that change.

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There will always be short-sighted administrators, frustrating service assignments, bitter feelings that the institution fails to adequately value what matters most. But provosts don’t lose sleep at night worrying about our feelings. It is we who pay the price for our anger or cynicism. It is our own lives, and the lives of our colleagues and students (and, sometimes, our families) that are impoverished by our pessimism. I don’t mean that we should become less passionate, devoted, or engaged. I do mean to say that the chief art of a professional life must be to distinguish between what matters and what does not. To the degree you can devote yourself to the former and reduce your exposure to the latter, you may move, however incrementally, toward ensuring that this stage of your career is as gratifying as you always hoped it might be.

Redefining Service

Our working definition of faculty service is less than useful. Service is in part defined by the reward system for many faculty that privileges scholarship over teaching and service; and yet, this reward system perpetuates an attitude toward service that renders this dimension of academic labor far less meaningful than it might be.

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In his most recent post, Mike Branch reminds us, “there will always be substantial parts of an academic career that are unpleasant. Those parts are the job, the part we do to earn a paycheck and not because it is inherently fulfilling.” Mike also makes an observation about the enormous privilege many of us have in academic institutions to pursue “the work—which Henry Thoreau called ‘morning work,’ John Muir called ‘natural work,’ and Gary Snyder calls ‘real work.’ This is the work that matters most,” Mike writes, “that speaks directly to our ethical, aesthetic, and intellectual values.”

But in a 2010 blog post “Counting What Counts” that Mike contributed to Stay ing Alive he cautions us to consider “the extreme circumscription of what counts” as faculty work and the “harmful effects” of this narrowing “that are substantial and often unrecognized.” Mike argues “definitions of professional success that devalue service to a community obviously promote corrosive forms of self interest.” He then calls on Emerson to help articulate a model of professional commitment that does not fall into the zero sum game of institutional life:

I maintain an Emersonian suspicion that most large institutions, often working under the banner of standards and assessment, ultimately tend toward real (if often benign) forms of control—that they tend toward a narrowing rather than an expansion of what counts—with the consequence that they become constraining, bureaucratized, or moribund. I don’t believe, as some do, that the problem is the solipsistic careerism of the professoriate, or that research universities are fundamentally ill-conceived. I do believe that, for a number of reasons that are considerably less compelling than they may at first appear, we have allowed our understanding of professional success in the academy to become far too limited. As Emerson wrote, it is “as if one looking at the ocean can remember only the price of fish.” We desperately need to nurture recognition that there are many different ways to think, write, teach, and serve, and that many varied forms of professional activity and achievement are meaningful, meritorious, and worthy of our respect and support.

I too rely on Emerson when it comes to institutions. At the same time, I have found profoundly useful a document published by the MLA over twenty years ago, a document that offered me a productive space to think more carefully about the professional life I was hoping to pursue. Reintepreting Professional Service made a case for intellectual work less confined to professional hierarchies and more sensitive to the need for generative faculty participation in that area of our jobs we call “service.”

IMG_1573A couple of years ago I pulled together some thoughts about what institutions call “service” for a group of new faculty at Keene State College. In sharing the document at a new faculty orientation, I explained that service should be a rewarding and productive part of our jobs and that it could also become a dimension of academic work. Might redefining service offer another way to stay alive in the academy?

Service is Personal and Professional Growth

  • Maximize personal strengths, draw on your expertise, enjoy the work you choose
  • Pursue a personal or professional goal that you find interesting
  • Do something completely new and potentially meaningful, if not transformative

Service is Building Relationships

  • Strengthen relationships with students by choosing committees that include students (e.g. advise student group or honor society)
  • Collaborate with students to sponsor campus events or organizing off-campus activities
  • Work on committees with staff to build your sense of institutional place and history from long-serving members of our community

Service is Building and Sustaining Community

  • Engage in campus-wide service
  • Collaborate with amazing colleagues and make new friends
  • Change the culture of College for the better
  • Partner with community and regional groups and initiatives
  • Pursue rewards of high-profile service that contribute to governance of the College, including administrative roles and leadership opportunities

Service is Teaching and Learning

  • Energize your teaching and learning (e.g. Faculty Development Committee, Student research Committee, IRB, Sabbatical Committee)
  • Imagine new opportunities for yourself and for others. What would you like to change to improve the conditions for your (and others’) teaching and learning?

Service is Scholarship

  • Relate, apply, extend your professional identity and expertise
  • Conduct service-learning and community-based research, or seek out and/or create opportunities for service as a public intellectual (local, regional, national, international)
  • Contribute to your intellectual / disciplinary / professional field(s) through editorial and peer review, leadership and collaboration, etc.

Service is Productive

  • Get things done
  • Improve group process (e.g. action items, goal setting, deadlines)
  • Make meaningful contributions to the work
  • Resign from the committee that is not productive (or the committee to which you are not making meaningful contributions)

Service is a Part of the (Your) Whole

  • Be actively involved rather than overextended (there is always too much work to do but don’t do too much or you will not do your work well)
  • Say no to committees (or, don’t say yes to all committees)

 

Only Connect!

I thought I would follow up on my post-ASLE note with a reminder to check in with the Modern Language Association’s Connected Academics project.

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The project is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation and will run through August of 2019. For many years I had the privilege of working with colleagues and with MLA staff on unsettling the enabling fictions and organized contradictions in our professional discourse. And it is exciting to see the project bloom. The web site is a useful portal to resources for doctoral students looking to imagine their humanistic training in spheres beyond the postsecondary faculty position.

The Question of the Opportunities: A Postscript to ASLE 2015

After two years on the job market I found myself thinking about whether I would find (or whether I really wanted) a job in the academic world. I had spent a decade outside of school. And so it was not difficult to imagine myself a PhD outside of a college or a university. Years of experience in challenging and interesting work helped me to see quite clearly the downsides and tradeoffs of an academic job.

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ASLE in Downtown Moscow, Idaho

A few months ago I came across a sentence written by Deborah Satz, in an MLA Task Force Report on Graduate Education that brought back this precarious moment in my professional life, now over twenty years ago. “Not all PhD students can find or ultimately want a career in higher education,” she writes. The sentence was also useful for thinking about academic work: it aligned the systemic (economics of the market) with the personal (the life, the career); it addressed a longstanding problem with graduate education (fewer tenure-stream jobs); and it questions the presumably universal desires that circulate in the professional bloodstreams of most graduate students and faculty.

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Near the highest point in Bonner County, Idaho

Early on in our planning for the session at ASLE 2015 Stephen mentioned Michael Berube’s commentary about graduate education and the state of the profession, “Abandon All Hope,” recently published in the English studies journal Pedagogy. The commentary helped focus our session on hope not as a corrective to the oddly persistent “crisis thinking” that circulates in conversations about academia and the job market in the humanities, but rather as the ground on which attendees might embrace their own strengths and passions and chart a career (and life) pathway based on those.

We wanted to talk about graduate study in the environmental humanities differently. What has stayed with me is the vocabulary Stephen generated for the challenges of self-fashioning in the academic bureaucracy we call graduate school. Instead of “alternatives,” or answering the question, “what else can I do?” we envisioned a session organized around a different set of questions: “what do I love to do,” “what do I want to do,” and “how can I do those things?”

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Looking West from the Summit of Scotchman’s Peak over the waters of Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille

Our conversation in Idaho was especially gratifying for me: someone whose first academic publication was a critique of the apprenticeship model of graduate school, and who has been organizing conversations about life and work over two decades of mentoring and academic conferencing. It is also delightful to watch this conversation come alive in our professional discourse. For those fortunate enough to be traveling to Austin next January for MLA 2016, to take one example, the Connected Academics Project will coordinate a range of useful sessions and activities. I also recommend an October 2011 column by the then President of the American Historical Association, Anthony Grafton, and the Executive Director of the AHA, James Grossman, “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.” The view from the graduate school has proved, in their modest proposal for reform, “achingly reluctant to see the world as it is.”

The center/periphery thinking of the professional graduate school has been remarkably resilient for reasons I spent years elaborating in the annual sessions at the annual Modern Language Association (MLA) conference on the small college department, and in a Special Issue of Pedagogy I guest edited that is dedicated to reshaping the discourse about the intellectual work in the small college department. Grafton and Grossman describe well the resiliency of this pernicious discourse:

For all the innovation in the subjects and methods of history, the goal of the training remains the same: to produce more professors; the unchanged language of supervisors and students reflects this. We tell students that there are “alternatives” to academic careers. We warn them to develop a “plan B” in case they do not find a teaching post. And the very words in which we couch this useful advice make clear how much we hope they will not have to follow it—and suggest, to many of them, that if they do have to settle for employment outside the academy, they should crawl off home and gnaw their arms off.

One of the primary points I wanted to make in my remarks in Idaho was that it is difficult not to internalize the limited horizon of the graduate school. For all of us who spend years in a graduate program can’t help but absorb expectations for intellectual specialization, a parochial view of professional life, a particular hierarchy of values, including a bias in favor of individual research over teaching and collaboration. Too often the intellectual values of the graduate school quietly diminish the intellectual work of teaching undergraduate students and the range of institutions dedicated to this work.

Grafton and Grossman point out that these attitudes and values diminish the idea that anything less than a tenure-track job is a failure at best. Grafton and Grossman put it this way:

We should not be surprised when students internalize our attitudes (implicit or explicit) and assume that the “best” students will be professors and that for everyone else… well, “there’s always public history.” Even those who happily accept jobs at secondary schools, for example, describe themselves as “leaving the academy” or “leaving the historical profession.” Even worse, many of our students who actually do leave the historical profession, and take what they’ve learned in graduate school to the business world, are seen as having crossed the line from the light of humanistic inquiry into the darkness of grubby capitalism—as if the life of scholarship were somehow exempt from impure motives and bitter competition.

I have called this outlook the standard model of the profession: the idea that you go to graduate school, find a job, get tenure and live, you know, more or less happily ever after. The corollary to this standard model for success is that anything else is a compromise, even a failure. And this indeed is a genuine problem if in fact we are committed to the idea that training in the environmental humanities might create positive changes in our endangered world.

The problem is that this organizing fiction makes it difficult to talk about the layered stories and complex career trajectories people actually live. Again, Grafton and Grossman:

This narrow perspective does our students a disservice. Why not tell our students, from the beginning, that a PhD in history opens a broad range of doors? As historians, let’s begin with some facts. Holders of doctorates in history occupy, or have recently occupied, a dizzying array of positions outside the academy: historical adviser to the Chief of Staff of the Army, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chief of Staff to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, museum curators, archivists, historians in national parks, investment bankers, international business consultants, high school teachers, community college teachers, foundation officers, editors, journalists, policy analysts at think tanks (yes, an entry-level position). The skills that these historians mastered as graduate students—doing research; conceptualizing relationships between structure, agency, and culture; combining research and analysis to present arguments with clarity and economy; knowing how to plan and carry out long-term projects—remain vital in their daily work. In many organizations outside the academy, a doctorate is a vital asset for those who want to rise above the entry level.

The problem (and the irony in this case) is that this kind of plain and sensible talk is lost in the ahistorical ways institutions, and the people who inhabit them, lose sight of the everpresent question of the opportunities:

The idea that a doctorate in history prepares one only, or primarily, to teach in a college or university is as contingent as any other, not only historically but also geographically. In Germany—the country that gave us the research university—doctorates in history and similar fields have traditionally been considered appropriate preparation for jobs in publishing, media, business, and politics. A first step towards adjusting graduate education to occupational realities would be to change our attitudes and our language, to make clear to students entering programs in history that we are offering them education that we believe in, not just as reproductions of ourselves, but also as contributors to public culture and even the private sector.

Making clear the question of the opportunities is work that all of us, as educators, are obligated to do. Happily, there are many first steps being taken as the traditions and values of academic institutions change in response to the way the world actually is. In addition to the MLA project, there are exciting initiatives and projects underway, such as McGill University’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI) that hosted a Future Humanities conference in Montreal this summer featuring a talk by the career consultant Anne Krook that is well worth reading, “From Being to Doing: Mobilizing the Humanities.”

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Right of Way

I am grateful to have been involved in planning and participating in the session at ASLE “Building a Career and Life in the Environmental Humanities.” I am especially grateful to Stephen and Clare for carrying this discussion forward in the ASLE community.

Continuing the Conversation

The Staying Alive Project is an ongoing conversation about the difficult work of sustaining an emotionally, ethically, and spiritually healthy life in academia. We are interested in stories that explore the challenges, betrayals, resignations, and disillusionments of our professional lives. Our vision is to sustain a life practice guided by the virtues of centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, imagination and collaboration—no matter what happens.

We have been inspired by the stories and experiences of friends and colleagues—their thoughtful reflections and commitment to exploring the complications of the academic world. We are  interested in sharing these stories, broadening our conversation, by drawing on particular institutional perspectives; as well as the experiences of graduate students, temporary and tenure-track faculty, full professors, deans and provosts and presidents, and those who have retired from the profession.

How can we deepen our understanding of the narratives that structure our professional lives and that we use to make sense of our worlds? Last year, our friend Mike Branch contributed his thoughts on expectations for publication and the reward system in his post “Counting What Counts.” In the coming months, we will feature new voices, and visions, for a life practice to sustain ourselves, the institutions that support our work and the students who are rewarded with faculty whose lives are defined by the virtues we believe should remain at the center of our common enterprise. If you are interested in writing for the blog, we welcome your interest and look forward to hearing from you.

Niether For Nor Against: Notes on the Institution

Working as a department chair for seven out of the past ten years I have heard my share of faculty who appear to think that the administration is an “other” and that the only viable position to take as a member of the faculty is to oppose what “those people” are doing.

Last night, sitting with a group of students working our way through Walt Whitman’s “Calamus” sequence, one of them called attention to the poem, “I Hear It was Charged Against Me.” We had spent the good part of the past week working through Whitman’s late (and great) essay “Democratic Vistas,” and we had talked about his approach to social and cultural change. “I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,” Whitman begins his poem. “But really I am neither for nor against them.”

Might Whitman’s response to the charges against him– neither for nor against–be a useful position from which to think about the institution and the positions we occupy within them? In fact, the institution (and our relationship to them) was among the most engaging to John and me when we began talking about these issues seriously. And clarifying just what we are talking about when we talk about institutions (and our relationship to them) has proved to be among the most useful for participants in our Staying Alive workshops.

Here is how John and I describe the academic institution:

1) as a business

  • Consists of workers, management, means of production, product, customers, stakeholders
  • Runs on money, part of the economy
  • Produces education, evaluation/sorting, and research
  • A feudal organization (hierarchical, not a democracy, nobility vs. serfs)

2) as conservative, immobile

  • A reptilian brain
  • Motivated only to survive & grow
  • To it you are skilled labor, a function not a person
  • Does not care about your personal growth

We can talk about humane values and community until its time to harvest the garlic and potatoes and cabbage. And we should all be deeply engaged in those day-to-day acts that can make our work more humane–in good part by recognizing and valuing every member of the institution. But as we go about our days, we should remember the nature of institutions. That is, when we are working as members of an institution (“both in and out of the game”) we must have a much more informed sense of where we are (“and watching and wondering at it”).

Such was my point in arguing for shared governance: taking part in improving the condition of the institution but not proceeding as if the institution has your (or anyone’s) best interests in mind.

It Gets Better—and Other Enabling Fictions

In the summer of 2001, I received word that I had been  appointed to the Modern Language Association’s Committee on Academic Freedom and Professional Rights and Responsibilities (CAFPRR). Our work over my three-year term of service included establishing for the first time Recommendations for Entry-Level Full-time and Part-time Faculty Members that have been published annually by the MLA since 2003. Currently, the MLA recommendations are set at $6,800 per course for members off of the tenure track. When we established these recommendations, we knew that faculty and chairs and deans would use these numbers in arguments for per course pay commensurate with the demands of the work; those of us who are employed as faculty, however, were under no illusions that the baseline numbers were aspirational, and that the reality on the ground would be different.

 

More recently, in his President’s Column “Non-Tenure Track Faculty Members and the MLA: a Crowdsourcing Project,” Michael Bérubé calls attention to the MLA guidelines for adjunct salaries we developed over a decade ago. He also mentions Josh Boldt’s The Adjunct Project. What turned out to be most interesting to me, though, was a link on Boldt’s site that led me to other thoughts on adjunct faculty. “All thinking is analogizing, and it is the use of life to learn metonymy,” I thought, recalling Emerson’s comment in “Poetry and Imagination.”

I first discovered, on Boldt’s blog,  a “reblog,” “Just Not That Into You,” that originally appeared on the blog “Music for Deckchairs” by Kate Bowles. (There is a list of links at the end of her posting that offers a further chain of associations.) “When is it time,” Bowles asks, “for adjuncts to walk away/stay/lobby for change?” Then I found myself reading Amanda Krauss, at The Worst Professor Ever, commenting frankly, in an engaging and edgy voice, on the paradoxes of academic life, from the perspective of someone who decided that the life of a college or university professor is rife with more enabling fictions and illusions than a sane person can bear. (For a sample, have a look at “I Don’t Need your Stinking Tenure.”) In Krauss, a reader finds an irreverent if occasional pursuit of central themes in the Staying Alive Project.

Krauss’ voice also appears on yet another blog, The Professor is In, by Karen Kelsky, (a former tenured professor and Department Head with years of experience teaching at the University of Oregon and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). “Be careful What You Wish For” echoes the quiet desperation we often hear from faculty. Krauss comments,

most tenure-trackers I know are medicated, lonely/estranged, and barely holding their overworked lives together. My tenured acquaintances aren’t much better off; a recently-tenured friend suggested that there should be a tenure PSA playing off the ‘It Gets Better’ campaign — except that the point of these ads would be that it doesn’t get better after tenure.

Perhaps she needs to find new friends. But she has a point: academics are often motivated by arbitrary external rewards and “going places,” as she ironically puts it, on the way to overcoming that “last” obstacle, “before everything got super awesome.” She goes on to say that “surveying what I saw, I determined that academia systemically didn’t allow, let alone reward, any sort of work/life balance. Quite the opposite: narcissistic assholes thrived because they were most willing to do whatever it took to win.” And she concludes,

Even if you’re a perfectly lovely person, it’s no fun to be in an environment that fetishizes external validation. I’ve seen folks so wrapped up in other people’s visions of success, they literally can’t articulate what they, as an individual, want. I’ve seen people get tenure, only to discover that it’s the only thing they have — and that, instead of providing any joy, it continues to interfere with finding meaningful relationships.

Finally, there is also mention of a piece by Penelope Trunk called “My Financial History and Stop Whining About Your Job” that is followed by an impassioned string of commentary about institutions and the market that are instructive and, once again, intersecting with concerns we are seeking to make visible here. What one finds at these blogs are people  engaged in an ongoing conversation about life and work that we will continue to cultivate.

Contingency, Irony, Solidarity

Since I began pursing a PhD in 1990 there has been astonishing growth in the hiring of college and university faculty. According the Department of Education (DOE), between 1995 and 2009 the academic workforce has grown by fifty percent. However, ninety percent of those positions were non-tenure-track faculty. As a result, in this fourteen-year period, the percentage of tenure-track faculty has dropped from eighty to under fifty percent. This erosion of tenure-track positions raises a number of challenging questions about higher education, the system of tenure, and the nature of faculty work. For someone like myself, a department chair at a medium-sized public college, the erosion of tenure-track faculty in postsecondary institutions raises other issues as well.

At a recent campus forum that was called to address concerns about the College reductions in the number of courses taught by adjunct faculty, we were asked what we thought the fundamental issues affecting community relations at the College. Forum participants called attention to problems with communication, a lack of respect across staff and faculty groups, and a culture that exploits adjunct faculty. While these things may be true, my response—and some people, I learned later, were surprised by what I said—was to call attention to the failure to understand (and take part in) a culture of shared governance.

My point was that the decisions the institution had made over the past ten or more years were designed to reduce our reliance on adjunct faculty. Contrary to what many claim, however, these decisions were based, at the same time, on valuing the many contributions of adjunct faculty. But the value these contributions were running up against the work we were doing to increase the number of tenure-track lines. In making my case, I reminded my colleagues why active participation in the life of the College is so essential to the work we do to create better working conditions for faculty and learning conditions for students. For everyone who participated in our College’s embrace of a 4-credit course curriculum knew that the change would result in fewer course sections—in fact, the number of course sections would drop by about 25%, or 500 sections each year. Department chairs and other faculty who choose to attend faculty meetings knew that the Provost had made a commitment to hiring a certain number of tenure-track faculty each year, too. In fact, the President had published a letter to the campus that outlined this initiative that would place us among our public liberal arts college peers with at least 2/3 of courses taught by tenure-track faculty. (The initiative from the President’s office was in part a response to a NEASC recommendation following the College’s Self-Study.) From 2006 to the present, in fact, we added 43 new positions—from 181 to 224 tenure-track faculty. This is a trajectory that goes against national trends, and I am hopeful that the new administration can sustain these gains.

Yet a friend, who happens to be an adjunct faculty member at the College, noted that hiring more tenure-track faculty would not necessarily improve the College. While I agreed that there is little data to support the institutional initiative to increase the percentage of tenure-track faculty, I disagreed with him that we should be arguing for temporary and non-benefitted positions. Though in disagreeing I found my way to the question I was facing as tenured member of the faculty and a department chair: can one value adjunct faculty at the same time one is working to diminish the number of adjuncts at the College?

Perhaps the best answer is yes and no. One the one hand, increasing the number of tenure-track faculty is important for a number of reasons: 1) we end up advocating with the administration for more stable positions with competitive salaries and benefits; 2) we endorse the mutually constitutive relations between scholarship and teaching by making scholarly work a contractural obligation for faculty on the tenure track; and 3) we hire faculty from a national pool of applicants with a terminal degree and with different expectations for teaching and advising, scholarship, and service. On the other hand, in making decisions to cut adjunct lines, and reduce long-serving adjunct faculty from full- to part-time positions, we are actors in a system that offers little employment stability to those who do not have a tenure-track position and who have chosen to take a job as an adjunct.

Increasing the number of tenure-track faculty is important. Our collective bargaining agreement specifies that tenure-track faculty will generally teach 24 credit hours per academic year and may be assigned a maximum of 21 advisees; engage in ongoing study and professional development, participation in professional organizations, work with campus committees; spend hours spent mentoring students as well as evaluating their work; undertake activities supporting quality teaching that may include setting up and breaking down labs, ordering and inventorying supplies, maintaining equipment, supervising student assistants, and coordinating multi-section courses and other dimensions of academic programs. We need people do do this work so that we can do this work well.

From the standpoint of shared governance, a higher percentage of tenure-track positions allows us to move beyond a stakeholder model of governance to an actual model in which the faculty accept both the authority and the primary responsibility to reach decisions in our areas of expertise, including the shape of the curriculum, our subject matter and our methods of instruction, the nature of our research, and the dimensions of student life that intersect with the educational process. Instead of functioning as employees of the institution, then, the faculty is recognized as a body of professionals with specialized training and knowledge who are in turn uniquely qualified to exercise decision-making authority. In identifying the understanding of roles faculty must assume in a genuine system of shared governance I was also making a case that many of my adjunct faculty colleagues are not prepared to make: an argument based on participation in and understanding of the structures and  systems in particular educational institutions; and an argument based on an understanding of the kinds of decisions that involve the implementation of long-term institutional goals.

I’ll continue to do my best to make with these decisions in a transparent, compassionate and respectful way. Yet it is neither simple nor easy when I am sharing difficult news with an adjunct faculty member in my own department whose work has for many years benefited our students and whose professional competence I deeply respect.

It Don’t Come Easy: Thoughts on the Citizen Phase of Academic Life

This past academic year we worked through the effects of state funding decisions, demographic changes and longer-term institutional decisions that have had a direct effect on faculty numbers and the positions of professional and operating staff at Keene State College. As a department chair, I had been working hard with my dean and other chairs to adjust long-term staffing patterns with the realities of changes to the institution. My job included talking with adjunct faculty who we were unable to keep at full time.

 

And then, in the spring, a letter to the editor in the student newspaper appeared, an impassioned and mostly incoherent response to changes from a member of the adjunct faculty. The attractive justification of “plain human decency,” as the outraged letter from the adjunct put it, was running up against a number of staffing and curriculum changes that aligned with strategic goals of the institution. Students took the brunt of the budget contraction at the College (we lost 45% of our appropriation) that reduced our operating budget. Tuition increases made up 29% of the 6.4 million. The remaining cuts of 4,540,000 broke out into operating cuts, unfunded initiatives and use of reserves (52%), budgeted positions and benefit reductions and deferred salary increases (39%) and cuts to the adjunct faculty budget (9%).  Difficult decisions all around, very real decisions, with consequences for friends and colleagues.

 

For over a decade I have been involved in professional conversations about staffing and adjunct faculty in the MLA. As someone who pays attention to the national conversations about higher education, then, these decisions and consequences were not unexpected. It was also the case that the meaning of adjunct faculty (and the demeaning of the definition of faculty that is embedded in the fact of contingency) became very, very real.

So I thought that I would begin a thread here as a tenured full professor and department chair negotiating the challenges of working with colleagues (faculty and administration) to make decisions that don’t come easy. Those of us who are actively participating in the life of the institution, experiencing changes that benefit students and the long-term viability of public education, might share stories about what we call the Citizen Phase of Academic Life–with the hopes of offering a humane and decent approach to living with challenges and change.