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.

IMG_1594

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.

cropped-cropped-ConnectedAcademics-1line1-e1444397245995

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.

IMG_0283
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.

IMG_0268
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?”

IMG_0275
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.”

IMG_0249
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.

Tenure Talk: Thinking Again

“What are the implications of the decline of tenure?” A recent forum in the New York Times began with this question and generated an extended blog conversation. Responses ranged from defenses of tenure to reductive critiques of a so-called academic “system” to theories about the labor market. A tenured professor, I found myself rallying around arguments for tenure as well as wondering about the opportunities that might be emerging given the decline of tenure. More importantly, the forum led me to think again about the relationship between a system of promotion organized around the desire for tenure—and the relative economic security and professional acceptance— and the personal costs of that desire.

Just what tenure is—its definition(s) and its value—is elusive in the forum postings. Yet the personal costs of the normative timeline for tenure, the practice of working toward tenure, and the granting of tenure (or not), is clearly problematic for a number of participants. Here is one example:

In my experience, tenure does not provide, or secure, freedom to do anything. How does a person who successfully endures tenure retain any personal integrity whatsoever? Tenure is, in fact, granted only after a professor is successfully indoctrinated into a particular institution, and department. How can professors submit to such pressure to conform and then proceed to “be free” to teach students? After six years of frantic publishing and pleasing those in power is it possible to remember who we are, and what drove us to teach in the first place? Are we able, after tenure, to go back to who we really are, or is that person lost to us after six years of conformity? After tenure are we transformed, instead, into a kind of Stepford Professor that fits nicely into a particular institution, or department? Or worse, are we so damaged by what we have endured to achieve tenure that unknowingly we transfer similar abuse to the new crop of tenure seeking assistant professors?

This comment succinctly summarizes the pressure to conform (“pleasing those in power”), the loss of integrity that comes from conforming to external motives (“frantic publishing”) and the resulting neglect of one’s students and, more importantly, one’s self.   To earn tenure, in such a system, faculty members are encouraged to force intellectual projects into a fixed timeline; they are drawn to low-risk committee work rather than pursuing a more risky department or campus project or initiative; and they spend the minimum amount of time on campus and with students as they chase the gold standard of professional success: publication.

Experiences of the tenure and promotion process vary widely across institutions, for sure. In my experience, the process of tenure invites conformity and too many tenured faculty are content with the idea that untenured faculty members’ careers are in danger from their tenured colleagues to fester. Too often there are smart and well-intentioned junior colleagues showing restraint and caution and senior colleagues perpetuating a system that promotes the kind of intellectual and personal growth we purportedly value.

Changing the system would require senior faculty to promote the idea that working toward tenure, and the awarding of tenure, should involve taking intellectual risks. Quantitative measures of scholarly production may work in some institutional settings; however, a more flexible qualitative measure of a teacher and scholar’s work, as it relates to the mission of the institution and the department or program, would ask junior and senior colleagues to create conditions for innovation and creativity rather than perpetuating a six year period of professional life a junior professor must “endure.” In my experience, the tenure process can promote a professional life with purpose and integrity. The trajectory of intellectual work should not be constrained by a six year period but rather should demonstrate unambiguously a professional life marked by a clear sense of purpose and significant growth. (The best proposal for faculty promotion I know is by the former professor of English at the University of Chicago, Wayne Booth, that I wrote about last year in the posting titled “Scholarship and Competence in the Curiosities.”)

I would argue that we need tenure to assure the freedom of faculty to teach and design curriculum unfettered by prevalent assumptions and ahistorical motives that are all too often reductively imposed upon people trying to do their work well. The alternative (that would retain tenure, and for good reason) would be tenured professors working together to rebuild a system to promote professional integrity and a commitment to meaningful contributions among those who aspire to receive tenure. We would all need to work, institution by institution, to dispel the lore that inevitably breeds fear and restraint. We would create the conditions for fresh intellectual ventures, challenging discussions and vibrant classrooms where professional integrity is cultivated and rewarded as the sine qua non.

If this all sounds too idealistic or naïve, we can continue to let the system move in the direction it has been moving for the past thirty or more years. Gradually and inexorably, tenure is going away, and it is up to the tenured faculty to make a better defense of this powerful and transformative idea.

The Warrior Phase

My best race at the national championships, during the 1980s, and in the 1984 Olympic trials, was the fifty kilometer marathon. At the time I was training six hundred hours a year. To use John’s words, these were indeed years of feeling “trained, toned, stoked, pumped, psyched.”

Watching the Olympics, for me, is coming back to a former self. I recall the focus and dedication—and the feelings of success and achievement when winning a race, setting a course record, or placing among the top finishers in a national field of competitors. Too, I remember the gradual recognition that I could not sustain the ever-narrowing focus that comes with success as a nationally competitive athlete. The closer I reached the elite ranks of an activity I loved, the more I found myself narrowing my focus in training, if not in life.

Reading Mike’s “Counting What Counts” has me thinking about the full engagement of the warrior phase. The image of a warrior on Liberty Bell (an elegant spire in the North Cascades I’ve had the good fortune to climb!) embodies the strength, flexibility, and centeredness that only develops through years of conscious activity. The metaphor that aligns the life of the body and the life of the mind is helpful for me, in particular, as someone who was climbing mountains and backcountry skiing when not sitting in a seminar room, or working in the Suzzallo library, at the University of Washington.

Staying alive through the Warrior Phase, at least for me, involved translating the practice of strength, flexibility, and centeredness in my activities out of doors to the personal, professional, and institutional self I was discovering in school. But of course translation can be difficult, especially in a university culture that limits the range of intellectual activities graduate students and faculty members are able to pursue. For too often we restrict, as Mike says, the full range and capacity of intellectual growth of our faculty. For those of us who love our work (Mike and I are kindred spirits, it seems), I would ask that we speak more authentically about what we do: the real work that we think should be valued. As full, tenured professors we have a special obligation to cultivate our suspicion of institutions at the same time that we throw ourselves into the ongoing and never-ending labor of making them more humane.  For those who find less satisfaction or opportunity in the intellectual culture of the academy, I would ask a similar authentic way of speaking about how strength, flexibility, and centeredness have helped them stay alive despite the challenges and inequities that are endemic to any domain of labor. As Mike attests, “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. We need to encourage our academic institutions to do a better job of counting what counts, and when they are incapable of doing so we need to have the courage to do what counts even, and perhaps especially, when we know that it will not be counted.”

*

At one time, I imagined working in a large graduate program at a large research university. And Mike’s posting reminds me of the satisfactions I experienced as a graduate student and during my years as a postdoctoral instructor at a research school. I am confident that had my work of reading, writing and teaching taken root in this kind of institution, I would have thrived on precisely those human connections and possibilities to pursue my love of research and writing, activities to which Mike so eloquently attests. However, the trajectory of intellectual work, as Mike suggests, can be “stiflingly, perhaps dangerously, circumscribed,” opening up a rift between the personal and professional dimensions of our lives. Mike’s litany of professional activities considered virtually meaningless within at least some research universities should give anyone pause: publishing in non-peer-reviewed venues; publishing edited collections; book review publishing or editing; editing special issues of journals; collaborative writing and editing; writing for general or popular audiences; scholarship that focuses on pedagogy; research that is out of one’s supposed area of expertise; mentoring junior faculty or students; service learning; contributing to professional development forums such as Staying Alive; and, most tellingly, community service of any kind whatsoever. How can we devalue these intellectual commitments? How might we cultivate strength, flexibility, and centeredness in institutions that have no intrinsic interest in these significant relational activities?