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:

Warrior Tales: the Story of Dave

What if you don’t get a job?  We’ve all heard horror stories of people driving cabs, working at Starbuck’s, or hanging around campus doing odd jobs; some medicate with dangerous drugs, or, in the worst cases, attempt suicide.  No one keeps track of these lost souls; the information is all anecdotal.  We all want to live in hope yet can’t shake the creeping fear that failure may be contagious. Fortunately, there are plenty of hopeful stories out there, and we will lift up a few in the next series of posts.

When I arrived in my first (and only) tenure track job, I probed my colleagues delicately for their tenure history, not to betray too green an interest in my own fate.  Yes, they had used temporary faculty with some regularity, and no, not everyone had gained tenure, unfortunately. They sounded reassuringly apologetic but also a bit vague. There had been unusual circumstances, sometimes of a personal nature, or the fit wasn’t right, or it turned out to be a bad hire, or the person’s career had taken a new direction, that sort of thing.  Mostly, they did not know what had become of their former colleagues, although in one case the person had gone to work for Target and was now making pots of money; he had come down for a visit driving a big fancy car and was apparently putting his intellect and communication skills to good use, with few regrets about escaping from freshman comp and Intro to British lit. This story was conveyed in hushed tones that suggested an odd mix of pity and envy.  It gave me a whiff of hope for other possibilities should things not work out as planned.

Eight years later, amid the unplanned wreckage, I met David Cave.  He had done graduate work at Chicago and Indiana before taking a PhD in religion from a seminary down in Kentucky. Newly-minted and with his dissertation published by Oxford he looked to be in excellent shape for a tenure-track job.  He and his wife, an oncology nurse, had moved to Cincinnati to be near her family; he had obtained a temporary assistant professorship that had recently ended, and he was looking around.  Despite great credentials and active scholarship, he could find nothing in the way of a regular job.  He had spent several years adjuncting, networking with all the local colleges, and even doing regular commentaries for NPR.  He was determined to maintain an intellectual life and keep up his scholarship.

But economics began to catch up with him.  Their son was growing apace and the family needed money.  He finally took a development internship at one of the big hospitals; he learned the ropes and found that he liked the work of building relationships and helping people find meaning and purpose in supporting a charitable mission.  When the internship ended, he became development director for a very small Catholic college, and after five years there he moved over to the University of Cincinnati Foundation, where he worked raising money for the humanities.  And five years after that, he moved to the University of Michigan.

During all this time, Dave continued to read, think, teach, and publish.  He gave talks, wrote radio commentaries, kept a journal of ideas, and stayed in touch with colleagues in his field.  He also organized book groups and found other informal means to pursue the intellectual life.  He liked working with faculty and was received as a colleague because of his scholarship and devotion to teaching and education.  Now, at Michigan, he’s actively involved with the humanities, engaging individual graduates and friends of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts to support the priorities and ventures of departments, programs, and the college as a whole.  He and his wife live in wonderful Ann Arbor, where they host a popular literary salon.  His development work takes him to places like Washington, Atlanta, and Miami where he cultivates visions and ideas with smart, well-placed alumni.  And he continues to read and publish actively in his field.

Dave inspired me with his resourcefulness and devotion to a felt calling.  Initially, he was disappointed not to land a regular teaching job, but he found ways to stay alive intellectually and other venues in which to pursue both teaching and scholarship.  He found another way to make a living that proved surprisingly rewarding, not only for its intrinsic satisfactions and good income, but also for keeping him  connected to the university.  I was reminded how many poets, musicians, and artists have had other day jobs: think of Wallace Stevens or Charles Ives, both of whom sold insurance, James Joyce, who worked in a bank, or William Carlos Williams tending his patients.  The truth is that most of us have more than one passion, and there is always more than one way to use our skills.  A job can’t and shouldn’t provide everything.  Like Thoreau, we’d do better with a broad margin to our life, to keep a light hand on the tiller and take the widest possible view of our horizons.

Rethinking (Academic) Success 3

The most obvious problem with success in the academy is that it moves in one way: success, in its conventional academic sense, leads one from lower- to upper-division courses, undergraduates to graduate students, general education to specialization, classroom work to archival research, baccalaureate-granting colleges to the research university. Is there another way?

I have been arguing since graduate school that the trajectory that takes successful academics out of the classroom might be complemented by another trajectory that takes us back (successfully) to the classroom and to the students who may need us most. It surprises me how people appear mostly content with the individualistic and hierarchical model of academic success, even as it systematically devalues the relational work of teaching as well as service to our institutions.  This model of success routinely de-emphasizes heartfelt professional commitments—to students, the discipline, the department, the college, and the local or regional community. Success, ironically enough, isolates the activities of reading and writing from the intellectual communities in which we work.

One trajectory worth considering is the choice to leave an academic institution and position that does not reward teaching lower-division students to a position and institution in which working with undergraduate students is at the center of one’s professional life.  The past few years I’ve been fortunate to be working on a project with someone intimately familiar with the practices and values of a research-oriented institution, Kathleen McCormick, who deliberately moved from a research-intensive university to a baccalaureate college. In an essay published in the ADE Bulletin, Kathy encourages us to think beyond what seem to be “the more obvious advantages of working in a Research 1 institution and focus on what has the potential to get lost—for both faculty members and students—in working in an environment that does not see undergraduate education as its first priority.”

There are other stories, too. In the preface to a book I’m currently reviewing, Out of the Shadow: Ecopsychology, Story, and Encounters with the Land, Rinda West describes her choice in the late 1960s to leave the University of Chicago to teach at Oakton community college. She goes on to describe her “feeling humiliated in relation to colleagues at universities who patronized” her for her choices, as well as the pleasures of not being subject to small-minded department politics, competition and pressure—indeed, “the projection of shadow that characterizes academic life for many women. “Oakton was a wonderful place to work,” West concludes, “while raising two children, since the culture of the college supports the understanding that employees have lives as well as jobs.” Gathering these kinds of stories offers a way of rethinking success that, in the memorable words of Kathy, places “faith in our undergraduates and in our ability as teachers.”

John and I welcome stories of academic life that can help us rethink the many ways our professional lives work through or even transcend the restrictive definitions of success.

A Writing Prompt

Write for five minutes about one person who you believe lives a convincing life in the academy.

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I’m grateful for John’s recent summary of our workshop in Victoria. I thought I would follow with this specific writing prompt for those of you interested in the conversation about staying alive. As John mentions in his post, the most illuminating part of our workshop was listening to one another describe people we knew who live convincing lives in the academy. If you take this up, you might consider writing about someone in one of the four phases of academic life we identify: 1) graduate school, or apprenticing (immersed in culture; involvement and engagement; observing culture and persons; learning and growing; choosing work you love; investing in the self; 2) the warrior phase (creating Place, in the tenure stream, outside tenure stream, administration, nonacademic; looking to colonize structures and spaces; diversifying options; keeping moving; 3) the settler and householder phase (inhabiting places, or degrees of permanence; thinking within and beyond institution; learning and growing with students; cultivating a beginner’s mind); and 4) the eldering phase (sharing experience, story, wisdom; modeling health, growth, vitality; giving back to the community though mentoring).

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The stories we shared in Victoria corresponded well to what we believe are seven virtues for living a fulfilling life in academics: centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity; imagination; and collaboration. Do you have a story to share?