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.

Report from ASLE 2015: Building a Life and Career in the Environmental Humanities

Siperstein headshotBy Stephen Siperstein, University of Oregon

Wisdom is a gift. To receive it, a joy. Sometimes wisdom comes in the form of direct advice. Other times, in the form of stories. Such stories don’t always have clear messages or morals, yet in the simple act of sharing, much is passed on. For young scholars in the environmental humanities, especially those beginning or soon beginning the transition from the apprentice stage of their careers to the warrior stage of their careers (as I am), stories from the citizens and elders of the field can be especially valuable, and especially joyful. In particular, these stories can lead to new ideas or new visions of how to cultivate a convincing career and how to lead a meaningful life.

Academics cling to particular stories. Why is this? Because they are appealing? Because they are comfortable? Because they are what we are told in college or during the beginning years of graduate school? Because they are somewhow true? Here is my own take and simplified version of the story I’ve heard many times over: “Get a PhD, find a tenure track line, publish a book, teach well, pass the third or fourth year review, publish additional articles, receive tenure, publish another book…. walk off into the glowing twilight.” The protagonist as hero. The plot of success. The linear trajectory. Even when young scholars are told that this trajectory will be difficult to achieve—that there are no prospects, not enough jobs (or no jobs where we want them)—the appeal isn’t diminished. The dire warnings make such stories scarier, but still we cling to them. They are the organizing fictions of our schools, our departments, our fields, our careers, and (for some of us) our entire lives. Of course, for many individuals, such paths lead to convincing and meaningful lives. But, I imagine, rarely are the paths that these individuals actually take in practice so simple or so predictable. My point here is not that organizing fictions are bad or that we need to give them up. Rather, my point is that it is hard to construct other narratives, and young professionals might need help in doing so.

This past June, at the 2015 biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environmental (ASLE), I sought out such other narratives. And, as I often find at ASLE events, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by scholars and teachers and writers and editors and poets and environmental advocates and fellow students of life, all of whom were more than willing to offer up their time and their wisdom. This is one of the reasons why ASLE is such a supportive organization: knowledge and encouragement are passed freely between generations, and professionals from every career stage are welcomed and treated with respect. It is also one of the reasons why I love attending ASLE conferences.

I am currently serving a term as the ASLE graduate student liaison, and together with my co-GSL, Clare Echterling—and withEchterling headshot the help of John Tallmadge and Mark Long—we organized a session on career development outside the tenure-track model. The session was geared especially to graduate students and young professionals, though judging from the crowd (at one point I counted over fifty participants), ASLE members from every career stage attended and contributed. Throughout the hour and a half session, six panelists spoke about their own experiences and stories, audience participants brainstormed and wrote about their own values and career goals, and then panelists and participants collaborated in an open-ended discussion.

One motivation for organizing this session (and for organizing it in a way that engaged participants directly in career envisioning) was my own hunger for stories from individuals who have followed “alternative” career paths within the environmental humanities. However, while the session focused explicitly on options beyond the tenure track model, it also set out to think beyond the discourse of “alternatives,” and thus beyond that disempowering question “what else can I do?” Rather, session panelists—who, speaking from a diverse range of experiences and graciously donating their time and wisdom—focused instead on exploring more empowering questions such as, “What do I love to do?” “What do I want to do?” “What do I value?” “How do I live a convincing life and career?”

The organizing fiction of the tenure track trajectory is powerful, and it can be put to good use. But other stories are equally powerful. Thus, career thinking does not need to be about “alternatives” or about “beyond” tenure track. It does not need to be “either/or.” It does not even need to be “both/and” (As if the paths within academia are separate from the paths outside it. As if we had to choose to travel only in one of two different landscapes). Rather, as I listened to the panelists and audience participants offer their many stories, I realized that the environmental humanities (perhaps more than any other locus of fields) can include a myriad of pathways, or a network of desire paths branching through the forest. As Gary Snyder writes, “We need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them,” yet “off the trail” is “where we do our best work.”

So we must hold onto the organizing fictions. They are the trails that have been cut before us and that some of us still maintain. But there are other directions to take “off the trails,” ones that can be equally empowering and satisfying. Below are brief statements (I’d call them gifts) from four of our panelists—Kathryn Miles, Amy McIntyre, Simmons Buntin, and Karl Zuelke. The wisdom, stories, and suggestions that they offer are not exactly what they shared during the session itself, but I hope you find these reflections helpful, empowering, and nourishing. ASLE is an organization of gift giving and path-finding. May your own lives be filled with both.

Kathryn MilesKathryn Miles, writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College:

In thinking about what makes for a fulfilling career in the environmental humanities, I keep returning to Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be Of Use.” There, she writes lyrically of her appreciation for honest work: people “who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart / who pull like water buffalo” who “move in a common rhythm,” and who “jump into work head first / without dallying in the shallows.” That’s what I want, too. To be of use. To do good work. Probably, that’s what you want too. How do we get there?

I think the short answer is that we each have to determine how we can best make a contribution not only to the worlds of pedagogy and environmental studies, but also to a planet in crisis. That involves creative thinking, of looking for those unexpected moments of connection. Sometimes, it’s in a classroom. But not always. Some of my most rewarding work has been with care providers in a state veterans hospital or on the trail of a missing hiker. The important thing is that we feel like we’re doing honest work. The exciting thing is that, despite what the news cycle or the Chronicle of Higher Education will tell you, there are ever increasing ways to do just that, from freelance writing to experiential education. Believe it or not, graduate school is preparing you for a lot of these opportunities. And, if you’re really lucky, you might even get your hands dirty along the way.

Amy McIntyre, Managing Director ASLE:Amy Head shot

While I haven’t ever quite envisioned being a college professor, I have always been attracted by education, writing, and art and had the desire to incorporate them in some way into my work and career—and life, apparently, as I married an academic! As an undergraduate, I majored in History and minored in Art, and so, in that linear way of thinking that is typical at age 21, I found myself at Oberlin College in a MA program in Art History, with vague sights set on a museum curatorial career. For many reasons, that trajectory didn’t last, but my interest in education and core belief that the humanities prepared me to do any number of things well did persevere through some uninspiring post-college jobs.

And I DID end up working at a museum for several years—but it was a children’s museum instead of an art museum, and it was working with memberships and budgets instead of artwork! There I began to develop my skills and interest in nonprofit administration, which I continued to do as part of my next job at the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce University, funded by an IMLS grant. There I discovered that grant-funded positions, while not permanent, can be a great opportunity to gain knowledge, experience, and connections.

Prior to moving to NH and starting work at the museum, I had begun a MA program in counseling, to help me pursue a career path that did not include more of the aforementioned cruddy jobs. I did finish the degree, and I’m sure I use this training all the time in the broadest sense when parenting, interacting with professional contacts, etc. I never did start a counseling job! ASLE Managing Director was a position created as the organization grew, and it represented an opportunity to collaborate with the leadership to shape the job, because it was brand new and growing and changing in response to new demands and priorities. I would recommend considering a position that seems to provide such opportunities for growth and change, even if the original position is not your dream job. It may morph into that one day!

Simmons Buntin, editor-in-chief at Terrain.org:Simmons Buntin

Sometimes your work gets you into the industry of environmental humanities (whatever that may be) and sometimes the humanities get you into your work. In my case, it wasn’t my degree that landed me a job; it was the degree that spurred an idea that started as a hobby that remains a hobby but that also resulted in the skill set necessary to establish and maintain a career, one that allows me to keep up my hobby that now has grown well beyond just my hobby. Following?

In the mid-1990s I graduated with an urban planning master’s degree. A fellow graduate and I wanted to start a place-based magazine, but had neither the experience nor financial backing to start a print journal. So we started one online: Terrain.org. I learned basic HTML skills and later more web development because of Terrain.org and, coupled with my previous experience as a project manager with the U.S. Department of Energy, turned that into what has become a fast-paced career in web program management. My career in that industry is as old as the journal: 18 years. Not bad in this day and age, either for an online journal or a career.

Happily, Terrain.org and my career in web management have grown together not only in years, but also in technology and lessons learned. They directly benefit each other. Terrain.org couldn’t be the dynamic website it is today without my web development knowledge, and my web management skills wouldn’t be as advanced as they are without the journal. In the last six years, particularly, Terrain.org has expanded to become a broad organization, and though I continue to play a key role (including website management), we have a core of genre editors and an international editorial board, as well as an expanding following. Where will that take my career and the journal next? Into nonprofit management from the looks of it, at least to some degree. Terrain.org doesn’t pay the bills — in fact, I spend well more than my allowance on it, as my wife reminds me — but by having a full-time career in web management, I am able to afford such an important hobby. And as we move into fiscal sponsorship and nonprofit status, well, maybe it will just pay for itself after all. Some day….

Head Shot Karl ZuelkeKarl Zuelke, Director of the Writing Center and the Math & Science Center, Mount St. Joseph University:

My career has unfolded from a number of opportunities that I could never have seen coming, yet it has grown into something extremely rewarding and satisfying. No one will ever duplicate my path exactly, but I think there may be some lessons to impart for the nervous grad student looking to forge a career in a very difficult job market.

My first piece of advice is to be alert for unexpected opportunities. I have an MFA in fiction from Indiana University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. They are both good programs. I expected to enter into the tenure-track path at some point, but things didn’t work out that way. What did happen was that while I was teaching as an adjunct at two different schools, an email announcement was forwarded to me from a friend. A small local Catholic liberal arts college needed a Writing Center director. I had no formal WC training, though I had worked a few hours as a writing tutor. I sent the college my vita anyway and was contacted the next day for an interview. During the interview, there were no questions about writing center theory or praxis at all. The head of the department simply wanted to get to know me, and I’m quite sure she was gauging my interpersonal skills. This was more than looking for a friendly colleague, though. Writing center work is highly dependent on mature, gentle, and empathetic interpersonal skills. Satisfied with that (I think!), she explained that the director position had been changed and would be filled with someone in-house, but they were willing to hire me at $25/hour for 6 hours a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to tutor in their writing center. It fit in my schedule, and I took it on.

While I was there, I made contacts and got to know people. This is my second piece of advice: Make friends. Be nice, be helpful, be witty when appropriate, go to meetings and speak up, have lunch with faculty and administrators in the dining hall. When the director that year moved on, I was asked to take over. It was offered as an adjunct position at first. I decided not to do it on that basis, and turned the position down after putting it off as long as I could. After I said no, I got a call back 45 minutes later, offering it as a ¾ time position with full benefits. That sounded better, and I accepted. The administrator who offered me the position made what to me was a telling comment: “You’re not afraid to talk and speak your mind, and you eat lunch with us in the dining hall every day. You’re the person we wanted in this position.”

I spent several years learning writing center theory on the fly and adapting it to my new college. It was difficult and all consuming at first. The approach I developed was successful, and I’m now the director of a thriving writing center that has earned the respect of both faculty and administration. It’s not a tenure-track position. It’s not even a faculty position. But the position includes teaching duties, and I love teaching, especially literature and environmental studies, which I feel make a difference in the lives and educations of my students. When the new Senior Core Capstone classes were developed, I was on the faculty learning community that developed them, and I taught the first two sections. Small liberal arts colleges and universities are less rigid in structure than larger institutions, and with the right contacts, all sorts of doors can open.

I feel very much a part of the university now, with my ideas and influence woven deeply through the academic fabric of the institution. I co-taught an environmental science course with a biology professor last year (I have an undergraduate degree in biology). I gave the keynote address at our Celebration of Teaching and Learning, and the topic, “A Sense of Place,” was subsequently included as a unit that all entering freshmen will take in a required core course. I serve on the Environmental Action Committee. When I noted that the university didn’t have a sustainability policy, I was invited to write one. Representing the EAC, I took it to the faculty, staff, and students, who approved it, and it is now undergoing the final approval process with the President’s Cabinet and the Board of Trustees. Next year, pending final approval, I’ll be co-teaching a French literature and history course, which will include a trip to Paris. I’m also planning on a visit to Ghana—to guest lecture at a university there with other members of our faculty.

I mention all this to support a suggestion: small institutions rock! They have their own sets of issues and challenges to be sure, but for someone who is engaged, talented, friendly, and hard working, the opportunities for the blossoming of varied and exciting careers are there once you get your foot in the door. And—there are jobs out there for writing center directors. Be as broad as possible in your academic preparation, be friendly and make contacts and forge alliances, and keep your eyes open for opportunities you might not expect.

Elder Tales: the Old Woman and the Dynamics of Widsom

Now we come to the old woman, who holds the key. In this tale, the prince initiates and drives the action, but the old woman’s advice enables him to complete it. She’s the catalyst: without her, he’d get nowhere. The tale spotlights the dynamic between warriors and elders that leads to social change. In the process, both achieve meaning and success. The old woman helps save the realm, and the prince goes on to marry the princess and govern. Since the tale is called “The Prince and the Ogre,” we suppose it must be about him, that is, a warrior tale. But really it’s just as much about her.

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The Old Woman (photo by Vaggelis Fragiadakis)

The most salient fact about the old woman is that she’s old, but that’s not all: she’s also a woman, and she’s poor. She’s been living in the forest, scraping by (since the king has privatized her social security and the ogre’s rampages have crashed the value of her cottage and wiped out her 401k). She’s socially marginalized in multiple ways, so no one thinks to ask for her help. What does she know? She’s no expert; she doesn’t have an advanced degree or teach at a tier 1 university. And of course she’s not going to come forward and offer her services; she’ll just let them all suffer, because it’s what they deserve.

Interestingly, the old woman’s special power arises from her marginalized circumstances. We normally don’t think of abjection, poverty, and age as opportunities, but here they prove instrumental. The old woman has been around a long time and has noticed a lot of things. She knows how the world works. She understands magic and knows that power always comes with vulnerabilities that the powerful go to great lengths to hide and protect. Her marginal status means she’s overlooked or ignored; virtually invisible, she has had freedom to watch and observe. Because the powerful don’t see her, they don’t realize she’s looking at them; they forget how much their behavior can reveal to a seeing eye.

Of course, the old woman’s knowledge can’t help her directly, because she lacks the strength to act on it. But the prince has strength, and his generosity and compassion draw her out. Her resentment thaws; she gives him the wisdom he needs. Combined, they make a winning team. The old woman understands that administration is always an exercise in character; she judges, correctly, that the prince would make a good king. It’s in her interest to foster civil order and good government. After all, she’s been living in the forest. She knows the king and the ogre represent two sides of the same coin, taking all the gold and power for themselves at the expense of the people. They’re the ruling class. But the prince and the old woman, together, can take them on.

From this perspective we can see that both the king and the ogre are looking to the past. They’re determined to protect the status quo and carry on with business as usual, which includes not only dominating the country but competing with each other. Every ruler needs an enemy in order to justify clinging to power. Focusing on an external threat distracts the masses from your own failures and depredations. The old woman knows this, and that’s another reason she helps the prince. She’s investing in the future, banking on social change.

This tale illustrates the dynamics of wisdom as it plays out across the stages of a career. Young warriors must gain wisdom or perish, and, since they lack a depth of experience, they must receive it from elders. Mature citizens must use wisdom or fail in their duties; since they have authority and responsibility, they must activity seek wisdom as lifelong learners and put it into action. And elders, who have moved on from positions of strength and responsibility, must pass on their wisdom to warriors and citizens, or else they will wither; they’ll turn into bitter curmudgeons or hungry ghosts. Keeping wisdom for yourself is like keeping gold too long in the vault or food too long in the fridge. It does no good and soon goes bad. It only works when you take it out and pass it along.

Warriors, Citizens, and Elders: A Fairy Tale

The relations between these three major career phases are captured succinctly in a fairy tale that occurs in many versions across cultures.  The hero is a young prince who has been forced into exile, living hand to mouth and taking menial jobs in kitchens and stables.  Eventually he wanders into a neighboring country that has been ravaged by a cruel and powerful ogre.  The king has dispatched his best fighters, but all have come back dead or maimed.  The ogre seems to have magic powers that give him both strength and invulnerability.  In despair the king proclaims that whoever can defeat the ogre will receive half the kingdom and his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Well, the prince figures he has nothing to lose.  After all, he’s been working in kitchens and stables; his career is in free fall.  And the daughter, naturally, is both rich and beautiful; he’s already fallen in love with her.  So he sets out for the ogre’s castle.  After crossing the devastated countryside,  he enters a forest, where he wanders for days, increasingly depressed.  He may be a prince, but he has only a common sword and no magic powers at all.  What good is his Ivy League degree?  How will he ever defeat the ogre?

Then he hears someone moaning and groaning in the woods and turns aside from his path. He comes upon an old person in need of  help—in some versions it’s a dwarf whose long beard has gotten stuck in a cleft log, in others it’s an old woman with a hurt leg, hungry and tired, bowed under a heavy bundle.  The prince shares his bread, lends a hand, and when the job is done the grateful old woman asks why someone so young and handsome would look so sad.

The Prince Aids the Old Woman (by Howard Pyle)
The Prince Aids the Old Woman (by Howard Pyle)

He tells her his tale of woe: career in ruins, hopelessly in love, facing an impossible task.  The old woman laughs.  Is that all, she asks?  Well, that sword you’re carrying will never defeat the ogre, because he’s invulnerable.  And I’ll tell you why: it’s because his soul is not in his body.  To kill him you have to get your hands on his soul.

Oh great!  says the prince.  Capture his soul; just like that!  It must be very well defended.  The old woman nods.  The ogre keeps it hidden deep in his castle, she says.  To find it you have to wait until he goes out on one of his rampages.  Then you have to break into the castle after crossing the moat of fire and pacifying the lions guarding the gate. She recites a long list of perils and obstacles but gives him directions for meeting each one.  Finally, in the very center of the castle is a well; down in the well is a duck; inside the duck is an egg; and inside the egg is the ogre’s soul. Get your hands on that egg, she says, and you can make him do anything.

The prince thanks her and hurries off.  He finds the castle and waits in the shrubbery until the ogre goes out.  Then he crosses the fiery moat, tosses a  steak to the lions, and heads inside.  After surmounting all perils he arrives at the center, dives into the well, grabs the duck, and squeezes it until the egg drops into his hand.  At this moment the ogre returns, bellowing that he smells a thief.  After raging all through the castle he finds the prince leaning nonchalantly against the well.  He grins horribly, flashing a set of really  bad teeth, and raises a huge hairy arm to bash in the prince’s head.

The Prince and the Ogre (by Arthur Rackham)
The Prince and the Ogre (by Arthur Rackham)

But the prince just reaches into his pocket and holds up the egg.  He cocks an eyebrow; the ogre freezes, then deflates, groveling at the prince’s feet.  The prince makes him open his dungeons and treasury, free all his prisoners, restore all the gold that he’s stolen, and clean up the farms and villages he’s destroyed.  When it’s all done, the ogre wipes the stinking sweat from his brow and falls on his knees, begging forgiveness.  And what does the prince do?  He breaks the egg.  Because, after all, he’s read Machiavelli (in Western Civ), and besides, you can’t trust an ogre.

Back at court the king and the princess are waiting anxiously for news.  The prince returns bearing the ogre’s head.  Amid general rejoicing, the king grants him half the kingdom with an option on the other half as soon as he marries the princess.  Everyone celebrates and lives happy ever after.

What does this tale have to do with academic life?  You can see right away that its characters embody three career stages that we have been discussing: warrior, citizen, and elder.  Stay tuned for subsequent posts as we unpack this tale and explore its implications.

Escape Workplace Hell with Erasogram®

Jean-Paul Sartre famously declared that “Hell is other people.”  And Dante constructed his Inferno by wedging like-minded souls into very close quarters.  You don’t have to attend the MLA Convention to see this principle in operation today.  Just think for a moment about your own department, or classroom, or campus.  No wonder some administrators dream of an ideal university that has neither faculty nor students.  Fortunately, there’s no need to look to another world for solutions.  Just punch up our latest, most revolutionary app:

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Acheson’s Rule has proved a major stumbling block to thousands trying to navigate their way through organizations.  And universities can be  just as confusing as  any government, corporation, or church. That’s why conscientious professionals like you need this week’s killer app.  Click on the video for details:

Citizen Metaphors: Dead Wood

Let’s say you get tenure after all the stress and agony of the review.  What then?  Party down, take a holiday, reward yourself, bestow thanks and blessings upon your significant others.  Then take a deep breath and gaze out upon the landscape stretching before you inside the gated walls of academe.  Most likely, this is where you’ll be living for the next thirty-five years.  And the question is: what kind of life will you have?

I have traveled a good deal in academia—for almost forty years, truth be told—and I’ve been amazed to encounter so many unhappy people.  Not all, certainly, but enough to wring your heart.  Who made them serfs of the soil?  You would think that job security, a good income, and relative prestige would make anyone happy, but experience shows that tenure is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. Indeed, many associate or even full professors seem to run out of steam, content to teach their classes and draw their salaries without publishing or even taking an active role in governance.  Many desk chairs seem padded with fading laurels.  No wonder so many on the outside view tenured faculty as coddled and privileged, shielded from the political and economic perils that torment the rest of us.  Those who seem to be reaping permanent benefits without doing much work are scornfully referred to as “dead wood,” another master metaphor that, like “peer review” and “academic freedom,” speaks volumes about our condition.

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Dead wood.  It’s pronounced with a sneer by junior faculty, with a sigh by administration, and with a shudder by tenured professors.  The young resent the palpable double standard as their elders hog resources and privileges while resisting evaluation and sending the scut work downhill.  Administrators, frustrated by sloth, obstructionism, and truculence, gnash their teeth as deadlines press and decisions pile up.  The tenured, meanwhile, cling to a fragile sense of entitlement, acutely aware of critical glances and whiffs of suppressed contempt.  No wonder so many begin to suffer from low self-esteem and a creeping fear that they, too, may have passed their peak, may already have begun to rot invisibly from within.

In the spirit of inquiry, then, let’s gently unpack this metaphor.  Dead wood is rigid, barren, and heavy.  The tree supports it, but it does nothing to feed or nurture the tree.  It puts forth no blossoms or leaves; it bears no fruit; in short, it does no useful work.  Moreover, it’s not growing; it’s not green but brown or gray, weathered and naked to the wind, no more than a “bare ruined choir where late the sweet birds sang.”  It’s a lost cause, a hopeless wreck, a relic of the past.  Each term of the metaphor carries its own pejorative charge.  “Dead” suggests fixity, inertia, hopelessness, a bitter end: no second chances here.  “Wood” suggests rigidity, stolidity, even idiocy, making a strong contrast to elasticity and grace: think “dumb as a post” or “a wooden expression.”  No wonder calling someone “dead wood” feels like a cruel, if not unusual, punishment.

Now consider the opposite case: living wood.  Interestingly, academe offers no catchy metaphor for staying alive. Living wood puts forth green leaves and fruit.  But when applied to people, “green” often connotes inexperience, clumsiness, or ineptitude, all of which we frown on here in the ivory tower.  Think “greenhorn,” for example: it’s an image from the frontier, from the world of hard physical work in the outdoors.  Plus, it’s a manly term, gender-inflected.  (Strike two!)  Nevertheless, if we think of living wood as green, the shadow of dead wood so to speak, then more hopeful possibilities emerge.

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In the botanic world green suggests life, growth, change that branches out in all directions, adaptation, exploration, and discovery; we all know how trees and other plants grow toward the light.  Orchardists speak of “bearing wood,” meaning branches that produce blossoms and fruit.  Those on my apple trees, for example, begin to bear after three years; properly tended and pruned, they can produce for decades.  In contrast, unpruned limbs put forth suckers and sprouts in all directions and bear only small gnarly fruits.  After a few years, most of these shoots begin to die off; the limb grows leggy and tangled.  Eventually, a disease like fire blight enters through a dead twig and migrates through the sapwood, killing the limb and eventually, if not cut away, the entire tree.

A well-pruned fruit tree looks good: flourishing, symmetrical, green all over.  It appears to be leading a healthy and balanced life.  Pruning channels sap to the bearing wood and controls rankness by eliminating suckers; the limbs stay short and sturdy while the fruit grows  larger and more abundant.   A well-tended tree has no dead wood and lots of bearing wood.  It reflects good husbandry  (memo to chairs and deans!).  This is what we mean by those who appear to lead a convincing life:  you will know them by their fruits.

“Dead wood” may be a cruel metaphor for a depressing condition. But it does not have to be our fate.

On Balance: A Refresher

In the Staying Alive workshops that Mark and I offer at campuses and conferences, we use yoga postures as emblems for the phases of an academic career.  Balance works at the heart of yoga, which tones the whole body, cleanses the internal organs, and promotes both serenity and mindfulness.  In Ashtanga yoga, which I practice, every session includes balancing postures as well as the familiar sun salutations, standing poses (such as the Warrior sequence discussed in earlier blogs), bending poses, and seated poses along with twists and stretches.  When we talk about leading a balanced life over the course of  an academic career, we find that the yoga conception of balance helps people understand how to cope with the competing demands of person, profession, and institution without going nuts.

When I started, the balance poses really threw me for a loop.  The teacher looked so calm and graceful when she stretched up into the Tree Pose or lengthened horizontally into Dancer.  I have good natural balance, so I thought nothing of it, but when I tried, my legs began wobbling uncontrollably and I almost fell over.   I thought it was simply a matter of locking in to the right position.  But balance turned out to be a process rather than a state; it was something dynamic, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It turned out to be a matter of core strength as well as focused attention.  Image

I soon learned that every balancing pose begins with a preparatory step, followed by a series of entry moves that culminate in the full pose, which is maintained for a period of time, generally at least five breaths, after which you must exit the pose through another series of moves that return you to a relaxed, standing position.  If you try to rush or short-circuit this process, you are likely to fall out and may even injure yourself.  It’s important to go step by step, feeling your way and maintaining a sense of control.

Take for example the Dancer Pose, which serves as our emblem for the Citizen Phase.  Remember how, in the Warrior poses, we discerned a four-way movement of energy along both vertical and horizontal axes.  Here the same geometry applies, but with a shift in configuration appropriate to the challenges and responsibilities of citizenship.  The vertical leg supports everything else, representing your foundational skills and values.  The forward arm extends outward, projecting energy into the community.  The rear leg, rather than being extended backward for support, reaches up to be grasped by the other arm, forming a circle that captures the heavenly light of creativity, passion, and aspiration and then amplifies it in a generative feedback loop that provides the energy to the forward arm.

To get into Dancer you must assume a relaxed standing position with your hands in prayer position, heart-center.  Choose your supporting leg, then roll forward onto the ball of the foot, spreading your toes and grounding the foot.  Flex your leg, feeling the muscles, and  begin to breathe evenly.  After two breaths, raise your opposite foot and bring it up behind your buttocks, grasping it with your hand.  Steady yourself for a moment, then touch finger to thumb of your opposite hand and, as you breathe in, raise your arm straight up above your head.  Now choose something in front of you that’s not going to move and focus on it as you begin to tilt forward from the waist, stretching forward as you push out and back with your opposite leg, still grasped by your opposite hand.  Maintain steady, even breathing as you open the circle formed by your leg, arm, and back.  After five or more breaths, begin to exit the pose by tilting backward into an upright position.  Release your opposite hand and lower your leg to the floor. As you breathe out, lower your extended arm,  Release your finger and thumb and come back into a relaxed standing position with your hands in prayer position, heart-center.

It is important to recognize that during the whole process you continue to breathe, ideally in a calm and measured way.  Breathing connects inner and outer, and yoga recognizes many different kinds of breath.  So, during the entry, holding, and exit from the pose, you are not only dealing with the circulation of energy within your body but also interacting with the environment. Maintaining this vital flow is an ecological and spiritual necessity. As you can see from the photo, Dancer is lovely to look at, and if you try it, you’ll realize that it also feels wonderful.  When you are holding the pose, you feel strong and radiant.  In life, as in yoga, balance manifests externally as grace and internally as health and happiness.  Balance may be thought of as a process of dynamic equilibrium characterized by energy, harmony, and beauty.  A person in balance appears to lead a convincing life.

As I practiced the Dancer pose, I soon came to realize that my body was always moving, even when stationary.  My muscles were always working; they were never at rest.  As I went through the entry, holding, and exit moves, I could sense my muscles communicate with each other, as if they were dancing.  I could feel the energy flowing and shifting at need. I could feel my breathing as a nourishing conversation between myself and the larger world that sustained me.  Balance, I realized, was not a state but a system, a process, a dance, a constant and ever changing improvisation.  And the key was managing energy flows.  That’s what Mark and I mean in these workshops by tools for balance: they are techniques for managing your resources and energies.  We derive them from stories of people who seem to be leading convincing lives.  Balance, therefore, is not something you attain once and then you’re done.  It’s a matter of attentive learning and lifelong practice.

(image source: http://thesoniashow.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/dancers-pose.jpg )

Citizen Tales: the Perils of Privilege

With membership come privileges and powers; that’s why it feels like success.  But these pose perils of their own.  If power corrupts, privilege can desensitize, and the process occurs so subtly and naturally that we may not even notice the loss of our capacity  for empathy and compassion.

I remember one EnglisImageh Department colleague who had a reputation for tough teaching.  He was blunt, even scornful of shoddy work, maintained a lofty magisterial air, and wielded a sharp, ironic wit in lectures and department meetings.  He always wore a tweed jacket, white shirt, and tie.  After department meetings he would serve sherry in his office and hold forth, making no secret of his belief that Jane Austen had been the last great writer in English. Everyone on campus, from the president on down, thought of him as the classic English professor. When the student paper profiled him, they photoshopped his head into a Roman bust.

His students feared and adored him.  “I’m so grateful to Professor J___,” one gushed to me. “He convinced me I would never be able to write.  It was so freeing! Now I’m a geo major.”  Another, who became an English professor herself, told me about taking his class.  She was terrified, like everyone else, but she appreciated his passion and depth of learning.  She worked hard to finish her final paper on time, but when he called for them in class, she was the only one ready.  He raised a fierce eyebrow, “Anyone else?”  When no one spoke, he scrawled an A on the title page and handed it back.  She was flustered, delighted, embarrassed, confused.  A precious A!  But he hadn’t even read it.  Finally, she screwed up her courage and went to see him.  “I suppose you want comments?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.  He later returned the paper with comments and a grade of B+.  “It was as close as he came to apologizing,” she said ruefully.  This was thirty years later.

In department meetings, he would sit with arms folded, scowling amusedly.  Most of our ideas had already been tried and found wanting back in the 60s or 70s.  The students were so much smarter then, and better prepared.  The profession cared more about quality and good taste; admin listened to the faculty;  the department had a reputation.  Now we were sliding into mediocrity.  One year, when we were discussing merit and promotion, he quipped that they should give us all “injured merit” raises.  It was a great line, straight out of  Paradise Lost.  But think of who speaks it there!

Over the years I’ve come to suspect that Professor J____ must have been damaged in some way.  He loved his material, his department, and his students but could not show it in the usual ways. He did not know how to spare the rod.   He took refuge in irony.  He never published or went to meetings, and so missed out on the fellowship of his peers.  Inside, I sensed a temperament that was proud, sensitive and even shy.  He may have felt crippled by his own high standards, fearing that his own work could never measure up.  Why take the risk?  How much easier and safer to wrap oneself in the cloak of an elite institution and the cocooning comfort of the classroom, where one could set one’s own standards and dispense salutary judgments at will.

Professor J____ was a fixture at the college, even a sort of legend.  No one doubted that he was a man of principle. But was he a good citizen?