The Staying Alive Project began in the spring of 2006 with a series of extended conversations about the promises and perils of academic life. Our conversations led to a workshop for academic professionals at the Biennial Conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment in Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the summer of 2007, and in Victoria, British Columbia, in the summer of 2009. John and Mark continue their conversations about the challenges of academic life with colleagues at colleges and universities across the country.

Like other learned professions, academia offers a model career path that holds out the promise of a fulfilling life. This organizing fiction begins with graduate school and proceeds through temporary and tenure-track jobs to the watershed of the tenure review, and thence to tenure, promotion, and retirement with honors. While many careers do indeed unfold along this path, many others diverge to a greater or lesser degree. But at every point along the way, one’s experience reflects the interplay of three fundamental factors: the person, the profession, and the institution. And much quiet desperation arises from ignorance of their nature and influence. We are interested in a conversation about these factors and how they operate across the phases of an academic career.

Drawing inspiration from Eric Erickson’s life stages, we define three major phases of academic life across three dimensions of experience.  Each of these phases—graduate school, junior faculty, and senior faculty—offers payoffs that are also challenges or costs. At each stage, people experience seduction followed by betrayal-or, in more benign circumstances, disillusionment. Our vision is to cultivate a life practice for academic people guided by the virtues of centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, imagination and collaboration.

4 Replies to “Prospectus”

  1. Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire indulged in the vanity of choosing which era of Rome he would have preferred to live, assuming without question that he, of course, would be among the elite and not a slave or one of the impoverished masses. Secure in that assumption, he was able to imagine a life not unlike the academic utopia suggested by your posts. That, for instance, your categories assume a traditional path from grad student to tenured bliss reveals a lack of appreciation of the reality on the ground. Very few actually live this life. Most of the people teaching in colleges and universities are some variety of adjunct or one year “visitors.” I myself have been “visiting” at my university for over 20 such one year slots, not because I haven’t published but because I do not fit into the narrow confines of a hegemonic paradigm. The entire tenure system is an archaic vestige of a long abandoned aristocracy. Reading your posts, I can’t help but recall my favorite explanation of such systems, offered by Bruce Catton and found in many composition handbooks:
    “Lee was tidewater Virginia, and in his background were family, culture, and tradition . . . the age of chivalry transplanted to a New World which was making its own legends and its own myths. He embodied a way of life that had come down through the age of knighthood and the English country squire. America was a land that was beginning all over again, dedicated to nothing much more complicated than the rather hazy belief that all men had equal rights and should have an equal chance in the world. In such a land Lee stood for the feeling that it was somehow of advantage to human society to have a pronounced inequality in the social structure. There should be a leisure class, backed by ownership of land; in turn, society itself should be keyed to the land as the chief source of wealth and influence. It would bring forth (according to this ideal) a class of men with a strong sense of obligation to the community; men who lived not to gain advantage for themselves, but to meet the solemn obligations which had been laid on them by the very fact that they were privileged. From them the country would get its leadership; to them it could look for higher values – of thought, of conduct, or personal deportment – to give it strength and virtue.

    Substitute adjuncts for slaves, add a discourse on “place,” and the argument is similar. Many tenured professors, though they would not use this language, nevertheless, defend their status with similar appeals to the need for a leisure class of scholars who will show the nation the way. In my department, when asked to share more of the incoming Freshman composition workload, one tenured Professor, an avowed “utopian Marxist,” declared, “But we are scholars, not teachers.”

    Do you really want to construct a comfortable place in such a world? More than a touch of quietism colors your conversation. I for one find it quite disturbing.

  2. The category of leisure class sure does not describe faculty work where I teach, a public liberal arts college. Day after day, faculty work really hard teaching undergraduate students and those of us on the tenure-track are always scrambling to complete all the other tasks at the college associated with our job descriptions.

    About ten years ago, in my third year on the job market, I vowed that I would move on from the promise of being a professor were I not able to find a permanent position in a college or a university. But I was fortunate. So, I’m interested: why do you continue to work with avowed utopian Marxists like the one you describe? Why don’t you walk away if indeed you do not fit into the “narrow confines of a hegemonic paradigm?”

  3. Perhaps because it is not that simple. In my own case, I adjunct because there is no other work available for a person with my credentials and particular background in my community. (Believe me, I’ve tried – but this is an economically depressed area and everyone has a hard time obtaining work.)

    The assumption that academics – even part-time ones – have choice in their employment is one of the biggest fallacies of academic life.

    1. Hi, Rana, Thank you for your post. Indeed it is not simple. We are painfully aware of the economic conditions and unemployment and job availability. If there are no jobs, there are no jobs. This can be a brutal social and economic fact.

      But part of staying alive has to do with making choices. I would maintain that academics do have choices, even as those choices are always made within a context of limitations (economic, regional, personal, familial and so on). And even if those choices are not good ones.

      One of the fallacies of academic life that I internalized as a graduate student, and that I encounter a lot among those of us who spent five or more years completing advanced degrees, is that a graduate degree in the humanities only prepares one for work in the academy. While this line of work may be the desired goal (we have called it here the standard model), indeed the ideal line of work for much of the training one receives in graduate school, it is also true that many people’s professional lives are far more complicated and messy. Others have moved on from associating their intellectual and working life with the secondary school, the college or the university. Others (I include myself, making this choice more than once before finding college an option in my late 20s) are forced to relocate to a new town or region to find work.

      Dave’s initial post pointed to the fiction of “the traditional path from grad student to tenured bliss” as “a lack of appreciation of the reality on the ground.” We are motivated to keep the conversation alive about the reality on the ground so that people will have a place to share the challenges associated with academic experience. For me these realities are immediate and painful as our college faces huge budget shortfalls as our state legislature further reduces its state appropriation to the university system.

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