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.


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.


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.

Tenure and the Profession at Large

How does tenure look from the viewpoint of the profession as a whole?  Some common features extend across disciplines, departments, and institutions.  Because merit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for approval, the tenured ranks resemble a guild or a club whose members cherish a sense of eliteness, exclusiveness, and privilege while, at the same time, believing that these are all natural, logical consequences of ability and performance.  No one who has received tenure feels it was undeserved.

To the profession at large, the tenure review performs a vital gate-keeping function.  It’s the final barrier to mediocrity, the last chance to weed out slackers and underachievers who have somehow managed to slip through.  It protects the profession by enforcing standards of rigor, brilliance, and hard work.  Call it a quality-control mechanism if you like.  But notice that the principle of peer review, which is commonly invoked in justification, embodies a fundamental contradiction.  For a peer is an equal, but here those doing the review are already tenured.  They may consider themselves peers to one another, but certainly not to the candidate.  In practice, the designation of peer simply means holding a Ph.D. in the same field; it obscures the power relations that really govern the situation.

The main justification for tenure given by the profession, via the AAUP first and foremost, is that it protects academic freedom.  No doubt this is true to an extent, as anyone who has worked at an institution without tenure (including myself) can attest.  But it is not only reason that tenure endures, nor, in my view, even the primary reason.  Academic freedom has the same oxymoronic, obscuring quality as peer review.  If your ideas threaten or contest those of a senior colleague, you had better keep them to yourself, or else they may put you at risk for tenure.  If your research challenges existing paradigms, you will find it hard to get a fellowship or a grant; just think for a moment about who gets to sit on the committees that review proposals and applications.  In short, academic freedom does not apply equally.  In practice, it’s a privilege largely reserved for the tenured.

From inside the club, tenure is also justified as a form of compensation.  We all know how fond academics are of complaining about their low salaries in comparison to those of other learned professions.  But in fact academic people seem to prefer privilege, status, and security to income.  If they wanted real money, they’d go into administration or business.  As one senior colleague admitted, “They pay me with tenure.”

Tenure, it seems, is both a meal ticket and an admission ticket.  Without it, you not only don’t eat, you don’t get to stay at the table.  From the inside, denial of tenure is viewed as  a terminal diagnosis, a death sentence.  Anyone who has looked for a job after tenure denial — or, for that matter, considered hiring such a one — knows how hard it is to overcome the stigma of damaged goods.  Some, it’s true, do manage to find other teaching jobs, but most will take a lateral arabesque into administration or leave academia altogether, becoming part of the gray, exiled, undocumented mass of the Disappeared.

Master Metaphors: A Newly-Minted Ph.D.


With this entry we begin a series of occasional posts on the organizing fictions of academic life.  Today let’s take a look at the connotations of “newly-minted Ph.D.”

In ancient times precious metals were originally valued by weight.  Adulterated shekels or talents might look and feel the same as the real thing while actually containing less silver or gold, the rest being copper, tin, lead, or other “base” metals.  For this reason,  mints were established to produce coins whose consistent content was verified by the image of the ruler stamped indelibly upon them.  This image was inseparable from their very substance as money.

To be minted, therefore, is to be verified as true, worthy, and authentic; your value is approved and advertised by having the image of authority — in this case, your doctoral institution — stamped indelibly upon you.  Without it, you are not bonafide; you’re worthless.

But that’s only half the story.  A newly-minted coin looks bright and shiny.  It hasn’t been tarnished by the handling of sweaty fingers or greasy palms, or by traveling from pocket to pocket (some deep, some not).  It hasn’t been worn down or worn smooth: all that will happen in due course.  Perhaps the coin won’t lose its intrinsic value, its inner worth, but it won’t look bright and shiny any more; it won’t catch anyone’s eye.  So there’s a cruel judgment hidden in this metaphor.  We’d all rather pocket a bright, shiny coin than a dull, well-worn one, despite the fact that both should be legal tender.  A dollar from Harvard or a dollar from Podunk U. should both buy the same amount of beer.

On a deeper level, the metaphor construes the whole situation under the aspect of economics.  What is your degree worth?  It depends on whose image you bear.  Are you hard currency or soft?  Would you rather be dollars or rubles?  If there was any idealism for teaching or the life of the mind, this dismal metaphor crushes it out, as if academia were not about life, growth, or unfolding, but merely a matter of desire (that shine!) or exchange.

I know that some will say this is too dark a view.  Surely a school’s reputation must count for something.  Thousands of grad students make the investment every year; surely they can’t all be wrong.  Even the most jaded of our colleagues will agree that some schools are better than others, with more demanding programs, more accomplished faculty, better labs, bigger libraries, and brighter students.  Surely not all PhDs are created equal, and what’s more, the job market demands it.  Judgments, after all, must be made, responsible judgments by knowledgeable people.  Rank matters.

Indeed, we all know how exquisitely sensitive academic people are to matters of reputation and prestige. A covert but meticulously calibrated pecking order can be observed at any conference or search committee meeting: people want to know where you studied or teach, and the same for your references.  If you land a position at a reputable school, it can feel almost as good as an above-average salary.  Prestige is a kind of emotional currency, like Jerry Brown’s “psychic dollars.”  It provides a warm glow of satisfaction that you have done better than your peers.  Of course, that won’t pay the bills, and you may be tempted to identify too closely with the institution.  But at the beginning of a career, this can feel pretty good.  It’s almost as if you were made of money.

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?

Rethinking Success 2

Emily Dickinson famously wrote that “success is counted sweetest by those who ne’er succeed.”  But what about those who do?  No doubt victory is sweet, as is revenge, but only for a time, and not such a long time at that.  A recent study, reported in the Chronicle, sought to determine how free professors felt at various stages of their careers – free, that is, to speak up in meetings, express unpopular opinions, pursue controversial  lines of inquiry, or take positions contrary to those of administration.  Surprisingly, the award of tenure did not increase feelings of freedom; people began to loosen up and take risks only when they had achieved full professor.  It was not until then, apparently, that they ceased watching their back.

As Mark’s last post vividly describes, we academics are always looking about us, one eye on the competition and the other on career milestones like finishing the Ph.D., getting that tenure track job, achieving tenure, and gaining promotion.  Each step up the ladder constitutes a small victory; each publication or promotion adds another sprig of laurel to one’s crown. Our world thrives on judgment, prestige, and an exquisite sense of rank.  An informal yet rigid class system prevails: how else could one write a book entitled, Teaching at a Third Rate University?  In a culture that over-values security, it is not hard to see why hierarchy and exclusivity govern our mutual relations, infecting them with envy, bigotry, and pride.  People are always comparing, contrasting, looking you over, up, and down, but seldom straight in the eye.  They want to know where you teach, who you studied with, what you have published, what you are working on, all so that they can quickly calculate how seriously to take you.  No wonder we all get so tired.

What is success anyway?  It depends on who you talk to.  Every group has a definition that reflects its own interests, and therefore its own insecurities.  For academia, these include rank, prestige, and reputation, which are judgments, always made by others and frequently by oneself as well.  After years of immersion we internalize these judgments, believing we will never be happy without success.

But happiness and success are not the same thing.  Indeed, they are different kinds of things.  Happiness is not a judgment but a feeling. It comes from inward experience rather than external validation.  Think of what makes you happy: the list might include good health, intimacy with friends and loved ones, good times with your family, being in the presence of great beauty, a springtime walk in the park or the woods, a good meal, a nice hot bath, learning something, creating something.  Now think of how we measure success: accomplishing a chosen goal, making a lot of money, getting what you want, driving a fancy car or living in a big fancy house, having a high-ranking position, winning prizes, defeating your enemies.   Often, to gain the latter you must sacrifice the former. Thus do the gods we worship reveal themselves.

Balancing happiness and success is a crucial task for any ambitious person, especially in academe, where evaluation, critique, and comparative thinking rule.  When something is highly desired, it becomes very difficult to examine – which only makes the task more urgent.

Rethinking Failure 3

The vividness and pungency of the images we apply to failure show how much it preoccupies us subconsciously.  Not so with success, which preoccupies us during the daylight hours.  School teaches and preaches success while keeping failure in the dark: out of sight, out of mind.  Failure represents the return of the repressed and threatens the governmentality of the academic system.

Notice how we treat people who “fail” as if they had a contagious disease, and how we cozy up to “successful” people, hoping that some of it might rub off.  Everyone wants to have their picture taken with a winner.  Everyone talks about Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals but nobody talks about the other swimmers who got to the finals and raced against him, only to “lose” by mere hundredths of a second.  One can split hairs down to the quantum level, all to maintain the fiction that if you don’t medal, you don’t count (and as far as the media are concerned, you don’t even exist).

I can’t imagine a more corrosive attitude.  As in science: if you don’t win the Nobel prize, you’re a failure.  As in authorship: if your book doesn’t make the best-seller list, it’s a failure, and you don’t count as a writer.  As in business: if you don’t rise to VP or CEO, you’re washed up.  As in education: if you don’t teach in the Ivy League or a top ten research university, you’re no better than second or third rate. Ditto if you’re not on the tenure track.  It is a heavy burden, always looking over one’s shoulder, envying this man’s art or that man’s scope, always calibrating one’s own position against that of one’s contemporaries, blaming the victims, ignoring Fortune and her wheel.  It makes a fertile ground for deadly sins, especially avarice, gluttony, or anger in addition to the inevitable, habitual envy.

I remember an English Department meeting where we discussed the disappointing annual raise.  A senior colleague wryly opined that we should all receive “injured merit raises.”  Despite the sardonic tone, he seemed quite comfortable in his tenure and his tweeds, though he did not publish and refused to teach anything more recent than Jane Austen.  He had harsh words for students who didn’t measure up to his expectations, some of whom, perversely, even expressed their gratitude “to Professor J.  for proving to me that I am not a writer.”  His teaching copies of texts were always carefully annotated, and the key passages underlined with a ruler.  Yet in relaxed moments, after dropping the mask of irony, his face had a weary and slightly haunted look.  I sometimes wondered what he was afraid of.

Rethinking Failure 2

When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth back in the mythical 1960’s, people were always looking over their shoulders.  The school had a rugged outdoorsman mentality (it was all-male in those days), which compensated rather actively for the intense class work and studying that went on all week. Weekends were devoted to blowing off steam via drinking, skiing, partying, or road trips.  The more studious and intellectual were always looking off wistfully at places like Harvard, thinking that’s where we should have gone, while the more rugged among us vigorously performed our ruggedness as if to prove that, in spite of our smarts, we actually were real men.  In short, you had to succeed both physically and intellectually.

It was little better in grad school.  At Yale there was no rugged outdoor ethos; instead, you had metropolitan envy.  People were always looking over their shoulders at New York, and a kind of star system prevailed.  Prematurely gray faculty with book-white skin plodded between the department and the library, their outsized reputations trailing behind them like stellar magnetic fields.  Between classes, at lectures, during social events you could watch graduate students circling into orbit.  Everyone was thinking about position, reputation, and success.

Either way – and not just in the Ivy League – school was all about success.  It was about meeting goals set by the institution and its agents, the faculty.  We were encouraged to internalize these goals and discipline ourselves to achieve them.  School rewarded us according to performance.  It functioned as what Foucault would call a “governmentality,” and I mean to lay some emphasis on the last four syllables.  As Thoreau observed, “It is bad to have a southern overseer … but worse if you are the slave driver of yourself.”  It no wonder that schools would not teach, nor want to teach, about failure.  The subject is taboo.  And yet it sits on everyone’s mind.

Note how we speak of “failing” a course.  It could be construed in the sense of letting down or breaking down, as in “I failed you” or “the equipment (link, chain, bolt, coupling, component, mechanism) failed.”  Notice here the connotations of betrayal, disintegration, or collapse counterposed to the expectation of integrity, reliability, or strength.  Also of interest is the vivid “flunk”, a word of obscure origin but with a sturdy Anglo-Saxon heft.  It has overtones, as well, of “flush”, “thunk”, or “sunk”.  The onomatopoeia suggests an inert object falling and hitting the floor or sinking into deep water. Inertia is key: the object has no more energy or life, no power of self-motivation.  You can say, “He flunked the course” or simply, “He flunked,” or more expansively, “He flunked out.”   Charles Livingston (American Speech 21:1, 16-18) connects it to “funk”, meaning “to shy away from, avoid, back out.”   This sounds plausible, but where did the “l” come from?  It also occurs in “flop” and “flub”, whose connotations resonate with those of “flunk.”  The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology says that “flop” is a variation of “flap.”  I suppose a flap would flop if it opened and hit the ground.  As for “flub” it, too, is an Americanism “of obscure origin,” arising circa 1920.  Since “flunk” (also an Americanism) first appears circa 1800, its “l” does not descend from either of these but may share a common ancestor.

So, if you flubbed your exam and flunked the course, or worse, flunked out, it would certainly create a flap at home!

But we digress …

Rethinking Failure

Ever since grad school I’ve been intrigued by the idea of failure, which sat like an incubus on everybody’s mind.  It was feared but never openly discussed.  At Yale they talked only of success, for which we supposedly were being groomed.  Higher education trades in and promises success; that is its main selling point to the hopeful masses.  And yet, arguably, it’s our failures that stimulate us to learn and grow.

What do we mean by failure?  If you fail a course, it means you didn’t complete the work to the teacher’s satisfaction.  To fail in business means to go out of business, to stop operating; when a business stops making money, it fails.  A “failed writer” is one who never writes or publishes very much, whose production lags behind expectations (his or her own, or another’s).  Failure in this case means a considerable gap between desire and performance.

Failure is therefore a judgment made by others or by oneself.  It can become a feeling, which is to say an inner message repeated to the point of instinct.  One can feel like a failure despite outward circumstances or the facts of the situation.  No one wants to feel like a failure, but almost everyone does at some time or other.  Feelings of failure breed shame, depression, and addictions.  They are bound up with what matters to us, entwined with our values and our sense of identity.

During my first year in grad school I grew increasingly anxious and neurotic comparing myself to other students, all of whom seemed more intelligent, clever, disciplined, and accomplished.  One had read Heidegger in the original; another could quote long passages from Virgil; still another could sling the jargon of deconstruction as deftly as an Italian chef twirling  a pizza.  Fortunately, the draft came calling just in time.  In the world of the Army none of that stuff mattered.  The lifer NCO’s I worked for could have cared less about literary theory or the various versions of Wordsworth’s Prelude. Yet their organization controlled nearly half the federal budget, so who was more important?

After a year of this other life, I realized that everyone in grad school had been  intimidated by everyone else  It wasn’t just me. They might have read Heidegger  and Derrida, but I had read ­Finnegans Wake, and who was more important, really?  When I got back to Yale, it was much easier to step back and view the whole value system from the side.  That helped me separate real learning from the neurosis of failure.  It was, I now realize, the first step on the long journey of staying alive.