Warriors, Citizens, and Elders: A Fairy Tale

The relations between these three major career phases are captured succinctly in a fairy tale that occurs in many versions across cultures.  The hero is a young prince who has been forced into exile, living hand to mouth and taking menial jobs in kitchens and stables.  Eventually he wanders into a neighboring country that has been ravaged by a cruel and powerful ogre.  The king has dispatched his best fighters, but all have come back dead or maimed.  The ogre seems to have magic powers that give him both strength and invulnerability.  In despair the king proclaims that whoever can defeat the ogre will receive half the kingdom and his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Well, the prince figures he has nothing to lose.  After all, he’s been working in kitchens and stables; his career is in free fall.  And the daughter, naturally, is both rich and beautiful; he’s already fallen in love with her.  So he sets out for the ogre’s castle.  After crossing the devastated countryside,  he enters a forest, where he wanders for days, increasingly depressed.  He may be a prince, but he has only a common sword and no magic powers at all.  What good is his Ivy League degree?  How will he ever defeat the ogre?

Then he hears someone moaning and groaning in the woods and turns aside from his path. He comes upon an old person in need of  help—in some versions it’s a dwarf whose long beard has gotten stuck in a cleft log, in others it’s an old woman with a hurt leg, hungry and tired, bowed under a heavy bundle.  The prince shares his bread, lends a hand, and when the job is done the grateful old woman asks why someone so young and handsome would look so sad.

The Prince Aids the Old Woman (by Howard Pyle)
The Prince Aids the Old Woman (by Howard Pyle)

He tells her his tale of woe: career in ruins, hopelessly in love, facing an impossible task.  The old woman laughs.  Is that all, she asks?  Well, that sword you’re carrying will never defeat the ogre, because he’s invulnerable.  And I’ll tell you why: it’s because his soul is not in his body.  To kill him you have to get your hands on his soul.

Oh great!  says the prince.  Capture his soul; just like that!  It must be very well defended.  The old woman nods.  The ogre keeps it hidden deep in his castle, she says.  To find it you have to wait until he goes out on one of his rampages.  Then you have to break into the castle after crossing the moat of fire and pacifying the lions guarding the gate. She recites a long list of perils and obstacles but gives him directions for meeting each one.  Finally, in the very center of the castle is a well; down in the well is a duck; inside the duck is an egg; and inside the egg is the ogre’s soul. Get your hands on that egg, she says, and you can make him do anything.

The prince thanks her and hurries off.  He finds the castle and waits in the shrubbery until the ogre goes out.  Then he crosses the fiery moat, tosses a  steak to the lions, and heads inside.  After surmounting all perils he arrives at the center, dives into the well, grabs the duck, and squeezes it until the egg drops into his hand.  At this moment the ogre returns, bellowing that he smells a thief.  After raging all through the castle he finds the prince leaning nonchalantly against the well.  He grins horribly, flashing a set of really  bad teeth, and raises a huge hairy arm to bash in the prince’s head.

The Prince and the Ogre (by Arthur Rackham)
The Prince and the Ogre (by Arthur Rackham)

But the prince just reaches into his pocket and holds up the egg.  He cocks an eyebrow; the ogre freezes, then deflates, groveling at the prince’s feet.  The prince makes him open his dungeons and treasury, free all his prisoners, restore all the gold that he’s stolen, and clean up the farms and villages he’s destroyed.  When it’s all done, the ogre wipes the stinking sweat from his brow and falls on his knees, begging forgiveness.  And what does the prince do?  He breaks the egg.  Because, after all, he’s read Machiavelli (in Western Civ), and besides, you can’t trust an ogre.

Back at court the king and the princess are waiting anxiously for news.  The prince returns bearing the ogre’s head.  Amid general rejoicing, the king grants him half the kingdom with an option on the other half as soon as he marries the princess.  Everyone celebrates and lives happy ever after.

What does this tale have to do with academic life?  You can see right away that its characters embody three career stages that we have been discussing: warrior, citizen, and elder.  Stay tuned for subsequent posts as we unpack this tale and explore its implications.

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:

What is Truth? Find Out with Memo Decoder®

Acheson’s Rule has proved a major stumbling block to thousands trying to navigate their way through organizations.  And universities can be  just as confusing as  any government, corporation, or church. That’s why conscientious professionals like you need this week’s killer app.  Click on the video for details:

Killer Apps to Boost your Career in the New Year

The R & D Team here at Staying Alive has been hard at work devising a suite of career security apps that we are pleased to release  just in time for the new year.  Those of you dreading an upcoming tenure review, grant deadline, or MLA convention need look no further for simple, hi-tech solutions!  They’re perfect gifts for any stressed-out professional.

Click on the video for a quick preview of our first app, MakeNice®:

 

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.

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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.

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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.

On Balance: A Refresher

In the Staying Alive workshops that Mark and I offer at campuses and conferences, we use yoga postures as emblems for the phases of an academic career.  Balance works at the heart of yoga, which tones the whole body, cleanses the internal organs, and promotes both serenity and mindfulness.  In Ashtanga yoga, which I practice, every session includes balancing postures as well as the familiar sun salutations, standing poses (such as the Warrior sequence discussed in earlier blogs), bending poses, and seated poses along with twists and stretches.  When we talk about leading a balanced life over the course of  an academic career, we find that the yoga conception of balance helps people understand how to cope with the competing demands of person, profession, and institution without going nuts.

When I started, the balance poses really threw me for a loop.  The teacher looked so calm and graceful when she stretched up into the Tree Pose or lengthened horizontally into Dancer.  I have good natural balance, so I thought nothing of it, but when I tried, my legs began wobbling uncontrollably and I almost fell over.   I thought it was simply a matter of locking in to the right position.  But balance turned out to be a process rather than a state; it was something dynamic, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  It turned out to be a matter of core strength as well as focused attention.  Image

I soon learned that every balancing pose begins with a preparatory step, followed by a series of entry moves that culminate in the full pose, which is maintained for a period of time, generally at least five breaths, after which you must exit the pose through another series of moves that return you to a relaxed, standing position.  If you try to rush or short-circuit this process, you are likely to fall out and may even injure yourself.  It’s important to go step by step, feeling your way and maintaining a sense of control.

Take for example the Dancer Pose, which serves as our emblem for the Citizen Phase.  Remember how, in the Warrior poses, we discerned a four-way movement of energy along both vertical and horizontal axes.  Here the same geometry applies, but with a shift in configuration appropriate to the challenges and responsibilities of citizenship.  The vertical leg supports everything else, representing your foundational skills and values.  The forward arm extends outward, projecting energy into the community.  The rear leg, rather than being extended backward for support, reaches up to be grasped by the other arm, forming a circle that captures the heavenly light of creativity, passion, and aspiration and then amplifies it in a generative feedback loop that provides the energy to the forward arm.

To get into Dancer you must assume a relaxed standing position with your hands in prayer position, heart-center.  Choose your supporting leg, then roll forward onto the ball of the foot, spreading your toes and grounding the foot.  Flex your leg, feeling the muscles, and  begin to breathe evenly.  After two breaths, raise your opposite foot and bring it up behind your buttocks, grasping it with your hand.  Steady yourself for a moment, then touch finger to thumb of your opposite hand and, as you breathe in, raise your arm straight up above your head.  Now choose something in front of you that’s not going to move and focus on it as you begin to tilt forward from the waist, stretching forward as you push out and back with your opposite leg, still grasped by your opposite hand.  Maintain steady, even breathing as you open the circle formed by your leg, arm, and back.  After five or more breaths, begin to exit the pose by tilting backward into an upright position.  Release your opposite hand and lower your leg to the floor. As you breathe out, lower your extended arm,  Release your finger and thumb and come back into a relaxed standing position with your hands in prayer position, heart-center.

It is important to recognize that during the whole process you continue to breathe, ideally in a calm and measured way.  Breathing connects inner and outer, and yoga recognizes many different kinds of breath.  So, during the entry, holding, and exit from the pose, you are not only dealing with the circulation of energy within your body but also interacting with the environment. Maintaining this vital flow is an ecological and spiritual necessity. As you can see from the photo, Dancer is lovely to look at, and if you try it, you’ll realize that it also feels wonderful.  When you are holding the pose, you feel strong and radiant.  In life, as in yoga, balance manifests externally as grace and internally as health and happiness.  Balance may be thought of as a process of dynamic equilibrium characterized by energy, harmony, and beauty.  A person in balance appears to lead a convincing life.

As I practiced the Dancer pose, I soon came to realize that my body was always moving, even when stationary.  My muscles were always working; they were never at rest.  As I went through the entry, holding, and exit moves, I could sense my muscles communicate with each other, as if they were dancing.  I could feel the energy flowing and shifting at need. I could feel my breathing as a nourishing conversation between myself and the larger world that sustained me.  Balance, I realized, was not a state but a system, a process, a dance, a constant and ever changing improvisation.  And the key was managing energy flows.  That’s what Mark and I mean in these workshops by tools for balance: they are techniques for managing your resources and energies.  We derive them from stories of people who seem to be leading convincing lives.  Balance, therefore, is not something you attain once and then you’re done.  It’s a matter of attentive learning and lifelong practice.

(image source: http://thesoniashow.files.wordpress.com/2009/04/dancers-pose.jpg )

Citizen Tales: the Perils of Privilege

With membership come privileges and powers; that’s why it feels like success.  But these pose perils of their own.  If power corrupts, privilege can desensitize, and the process occurs so subtly and naturally that we may not even notice the loss of our capacity  for empathy and compassion.

I remember one EnglisImageh Department colleague who had a reputation for tough teaching.  He was blunt, even scornful of shoddy work, maintained a lofty magisterial air, and wielded a sharp, ironic wit in lectures and department meetings.  He always wore a tweed jacket, white shirt, and tie.  After department meetings he would serve sherry in his office and hold forth, making no secret of his belief that Jane Austen had been the last great writer in English. Everyone on campus, from the president on down, thought of him as the classic English professor. When the student paper profiled him, they photoshopped his head into a Roman bust.

His students feared and adored him.  “I’m so grateful to Professor J___,” one gushed to me. “He convinced me I would never be able to write.  It was so freeing! Now I’m a geo major.”  Another, who became an English professor herself, told me about taking his class.  She was terrified, like everyone else, but she appreciated his passion and depth of learning.  She worked hard to finish her final paper on time, but when he called for them in class, she was the only one ready.  He raised a fierce eyebrow, “Anyone else?”  When no one spoke, he scrawled an A on the title page and handed it back.  She was flustered, delighted, embarrassed, confused.  A precious A!  But he hadn’t even read it.  Finally, she screwed up her courage and went to see him.  “I suppose you want comments?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.  He later returned the paper with comments and a grade of B+.  “It was as close as he came to apologizing,” she said ruefully.  This was thirty years later.

In department meetings, he would sit with arms folded, scowling amusedly.  Most of our ideas had already been tried and found wanting back in the 60s or 70s.  The students were so much smarter then, and better prepared.  The profession cared more about quality and good taste; admin listened to the faculty;  the department had a reputation.  Now we were sliding into mediocrity.  One year, when we were discussing merit and promotion, he quipped that they should give us all “injured merit” raises.  It was a great line, straight out of  Paradise Lost.  But think of who speaks it there!

Over the years I’ve come to suspect that Professor J____ must have been damaged in some way.  He loved his material, his department, and his students but could not show it in the usual ways. He did not know how to spare the rod.   He took refuge in irony.  He never published or went to meetings, and so missed out on the fellowship of his peers.  Inside, I sensed a temperament that was proud, sensitive and even shy.  He may have felt crippled by his own high standards, fearing that his own work could never measure up.  Why take the risk?  How much easier and safer to wrap oneself in the cloak of an elite institution and the cocooning comfort of the classroom, where one could set one’s own standards and dispense salutary judgments at will.

Professor J____ was a fixture at the college, even a sort of legend.  No one doubted that he was a man of principle. But was he a good citizen?

Tenure: the Road Most Taken

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Robert Frost came to a fork and then chose the road not taken, although he did confess that both looked to have been worn about the same. Both had been taken, though he would have preferred to think otherwise, because it would have made for a better story.   Frost looked down one road as far as he could before the view was blocked by undergrowth.  He couldn’t see far enough to tell how things would turn out.

So it is with tenure.  If you get it, things don’t necessarily get easier, nor, if you don’t, do they get harder.  They just get different. Either way, the path holds challenges.  Once tenured, you still face the fundamental problem of staying alive and leading a balanced life.

No doubt you’re asking yourself, “What can he possibly mean?  Doesn’t getting tenure mean success?  Doesn’t it mean a job for life along with the freedom, at last, to do what I want, pursue my own work, set my own priorities?  Doesn’t it mean I can finally relax?  After all, I get to belong at last, a permanent and bonafide member of the profession, with an institutional home and community to support my values and work.” Yes, that’s true, but it’s not the whole truth. Tenure does confer many privileges and opportunities, but with them come a host of challenges and temptations.  To get in and stay in, you have to buy in; that’s the deal.

Now that you are an insider, the club counts on you to keep it going.  You must now uphold the values, administer the organization, master the ceremonies, and keep the secrets.   After seven to ten years of aspiration and struggle, most of us don’t find this so hard to imagine.  But it’s not a one time thing; you have to keep doing it for the next thirty years. I remember a minister friend, a spiritual and balanced person who worked with the homeless and whose wife taught English at the college next door.  She was up for tenure and they had both gone into therapy.  When I asked how it was going, he just rolled his eyes. “The counselor says we have to break out of our workaholic mindset, but the college says she has to work harder to keep her job!”

So the question of balance comes first and foremost.  And the demands don’t stop.  Now the institution expects a return on its thirty year investment, and it starts piling on the committee work.  You dreamed about feeding your spirit, but instead you’re feeding the beast.  Moreover, you’re stuck with the same colleagues, the same students, the same campus, and the same issues.  Sartre was right to declare that “Hell is other people.”  It may not be long before you begin to sense a narrowing of options within the institution, where there is only so much pie to go around.  You have to make agonizing decisions about colleagues who apply for grants, go up for promotion, or stand for admin jobs, which, more often than not, go to outside candidates anyway.

Yet, despite all this bad news about tenure, we can hardly imagine anyone turning it down.  True, occasional reports do drift in from some superstar who has left for more glamorous opportunities, but for most of us that is the stuff of legend.  For most of us, tenure is the road taken, the only route to citizenship in both the institution and the profession.  To be denied tenure is like being banished or struck with a terminal illness.  It feels like receiving a death sentence.

But neither does getting tenure remove the fundamental challenge of staying alive.  Our profession would collapse if thousands of conscientious and devoted colleagues had not grappled with and solved this problem.  Despite the temptations and pitfalls that tenure brings, they seem to be leading a convincing life.  What can we learn from them?

Image source: http://kacabiru.wordpress.com/2010/08/24/the-road-not-taken/