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.

Counting What Counts

John and I welcome your thoughts on exploring the challenges of sustaining an emotionally, ethically, and spiritually healthy life in academia. We are grateful to our friend and colleague Michael P. Branch, professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada Reno, for his interest in the Staying Alive project. May his words inspire you to join the conversation.


I’ve enjoyed reading Mark’s and John’s thoughtful postings regarding concepts of success and failure in professional life, and I’m deeply grateful that their work in Staying Alive will reach and help so many folks who aspire to meaningful labor in the often vexing, boxes-within-boxes world of twenty-first century academic life.

I work in the humanities, in a large graduate program at a large research university, and—despairing comments about research universities notwithstanding—I find the work extremely meaningful and challenging. I especially value the lifelong professional friendships I develop with graduate students—people with whom I work very closely, and whose professional success is to my mind inseparable from my own. When I help a doctoral student succeed with a challenging dissertation project, or secure employment necessary to support their family, or find their way toward a productive feeling of comfort in the profession, I feel that I’ve succeeded with work that is truly meaningful. I also love research and writing, and so I appreciate the opportunity to labor in an institutional setting where that sort of work is valued.

That said, in recent years I have become increasingly troubled by what I view as a radical narrowing of institutional definitions of individual professional success. I refer not to my home institution specifically but rather to the profession at large—and especially, to the articulation of priorities within the research university. In considering this issue of how institutions define success and failure I’m often reminded of Einstein’s astute observation that “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” More so than in the past, I believe, institutionally sanctioned definitions of success are often stiflingly, perhaps dangerously, circumscribed. Here, for example, is a short list of some of the kinds of professional activities that are considered virtually meaningless within at least some research universities: 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. Indeed, it is often the case that faculty who engage in these activities are simply perceived as having made poor choices. Because they have not pursued what Mark accurately describes as “the individualistic and hierarchical model of academic success” that is prevalent in the profession, their failure is viewed as the inevitable result of their lack of judgment. That is, their failure is defined precisely by the incongruity of their activities with the institution’s circumscribed sense of what matters. Clearly, though, not everything that counts is being counted.

It might be argued that the narrowing I describe is an unavoidable consequence of an attempt to fulfill the mission of institutions for which the production of specialists—researchers who can achieve prominence, improve recruitment, generate grant money, and place graduate students—is precisely what constitutes success. But even bearing these institutional priorities in mind, I would argue that the extreme circumscription of what counts has harmful effects that are substantial and often unrecognized. First, the narrowing of what counts produces a more homogenous faculty and professional culture in which fewer points of view exist and thus fewer fresh ideas are likely to circulate. Second, when many different forms of professional activity are defined as irrelevant to success, the richness and range of our intellectual engagement is profoundly restricted. Third, narrow definitions of success deter risk taking among faculty, which is to say that the narrower is the definition of success, the fewer are the opportunities for meaningful professional growth. Fourth, definitions of professional success that devalue service to a community obviously promote corrosive forms of self interest. Finally, and to me most important, any valorization of expertise that results in the suppression of risk taking, intellectual growth, expansion of range, diversification of forms of engagement, genuine creativity, and the nurturing of an ethic of service necessarily provides our students a pernicious model of professional success—one that is unlikely to make them either more fulfilled as people or more effective in whatever profession they may ultimately enter.

I love my work and I strive to do it well, both for my own benefit and for the benefit of others. As a professional I am neither discontented nor cynical. I do not believe that the problem I’ve described is entirely new, or that it occurs only at research universities—or, indeed, that it is specific to the academy. 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. 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.