Some Thoughts on Identity and Integrity

I’ve always been interested in considering more fully the too often neglected relationship between the developing inner life of a teacher and the varied paths teachers’ lives actually take. A number of years ago I found in the writing of Parker Palmer a useful starting point. In Palmer’s terms, a professional identity is a “moving intersection” of a reflective inner life and the outward expression of that life in the integrity of one’s work. Palmer, an educator, adds that this kind of “inward integration” enables the “outward connections on which good teaching depends” (15). In his book The  Courage to Teach Palmer goes on to say that “a vocation that is not mine, no matter how externally valued, does violence to the self-in the precise sense that it violates my identity and integrity on behalf of some abstract norm” (30). For Palmer, the costs of this division between dominant professional narratives and individuals who adopt them are not incidental. For “When I violate myself,” he goes on to say, “I invariably end up violating the people I work with. How many teachers inflict their own pain on their students, the pain that comes from doing work that never was, or no longer is, their true work?” (30). For me, Palmer provides a way to see more clearly how professional identities are determined through acculturation and accommodation-to the values, politics, and persons, of particular institutions, as well to the often harsh realities of academic labor.

Identity,” as Parker Palmer defines it, “lies in the intersection of the diverse forces that make up my life, and integrity lies in relating to those forces in ways that bring me wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death” (13). But how do we seek such connections in the diverse and often exploitative conditions of the academe? How do we make the right choices in institutions that do not have out interests in mind? Colleges and universities are, after all,  businesses that consists  of workers, management, means of production, product, customers, stakeholders; that run on money and are  part of the economy; that produce a product called education; and that involves evaluation and sorting of individuals. How do we navigate the feudal organization of the academic institutions that are sustained by perpetuating calcified hierarchical structures complete with modern versions of nobility and serfs? How do we cultivate identity and integrity in institutions that operate with a reptilian brain, motivated only to survive and grow and that use individuals sustain the organism rather than as distinct persons with differing needs? How do we find alternative narratives that might allow us to break from the abstract norms of the profession, even if this means leaving higher education in the interests of wholeness and life rather than fragmentation and death?

Watersheds and Forks in the Road

A few years ago, when John and I began our conversations, we found in one another the words for a common vision: a life practice for academic people guided by the virtues of centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, imagination and collaboration.

Our thinking led immediately to the organizing fiction of academia-the career path that holds out the promise of a fulfilling life. This fiction begins with graduate school and proceeds through temporary and tenure-track jobs to the watershed of the tenure review, tenure, promotion, and retirement with honors. Careers do indeed unfold along this path. (My dossier for promotion to full professor is currently under review.) Others do not. (You can read John’s narrative of facing a fork in his own road in his essay “Meeting the Tree of Life.”) We have both been in and out of the academic world long enough to recognize the problems with this organizing fiction. Some of our colleagues and close friends have worked toward satisfying lives in academia; other colleagues and friends have struggled to stay alive in the academy–whether in the security of a tenured tenure-stream position or in the sometimes tenuous position of the adjunct. And for decades we have worked with lecturers, instructors, adjuncts, part-timers, and contingent faculty in our roles as faculty mentors and friends. If anything, we have learned that there are many pathways, watersheds, and destinations in this profession.

One of the primary motivations in our conversations has been to better understand the organizing fiction of academic life. We see the fiction of graduate school leading to a tenure-track position as potentially destructive precisely because it naturalizes professional success by aligning with the phases of a life path. However our experiences have led us to see our profession as more like a braided stream: people move back & forth between institutions, whether teaching full-or part-time; take up administrative positions or jobs outside of academics in business, journalism, writing, or publishing; government or non-profit work in museums or foundations, or go in to Independent work such as consulting.

The organizing fiction of an academic career also obscures the real situation. According to the 2006 AAUP Contingent Faculty Index, non-tenure-track positions now make up sixty-eight percent of all faculty at degree-granting institutions in the United States. Too many talented people with PhDs find themselves on the job market year after year; others take positions at institutions simply because they need a job; others sign on as contingent faculty and hold out the hope that their ship will come in; still others resign themselves to doing work they love in situations they loathe.

I am grateful to Dave W. for responding to our outline of phases in an academic career. (His comment appears on the “Prospectus” page.) For his words offers me an occasion to elaborate a bit more about where John and I are starting from. (Something I’ve been wanting to do but have been too busy teaching.) Dave’s framing our point of view may also be useful as we launch this conversation. He says that assuming “a traditional path from grad student to tenured bliss reveals a lack of appreciation of the reality on the ground.” Indeed. But we are, in fact, deeply interested in that ground-the reality from which we are always starting from. We are interested in mapping the reality of academic lives in more subtle and meaningful ways. We are interested in the systemic contradictions in the expression of the privileged professor who says, “But we are scholars, not teachers.” We are interested in why (and how) humane people continue to labor in less than humane situations. And yes, we are interested in the ongoing and difficult work of constructing not comfortable but rather more virtuous and satisfying lives.

Publish or Perish: It’s Not What You Think

We all know that in academia, publication is the coin of the realm, no matter what they say about teaching. The old maxim “Publish or perish” nails this harsh truth to the door.  But there is more to it than meets the eye, as I learned years ago from my undergraduate mentor, who gave me my first lesson in staying alive.

I met Peter Bien as a freshman at Dartmouth.  He was recently tenured, renowned as a teacher, famous for packed lectures and demanding assignments.  I was a hotshot freshman, infatuated with all kinds of arcane knowledge from quantum physics to Finnegans Wake and eager for a career in teaching.  I took his freshman seminar, where we read Ulysses, and the next year he invited me to give a talk in his course on the modern novel.

At the time I thought Finnegans Wake was the coolest thing ever written, and lecturing in his class would be like playing basketball with Michael Jordan.  I spent weeks generating nifty ideas, choosing evocative quotes, and diagramming narrative structures and cosmogonic cycles. (This was the 1960’s, long before Powerpoint).  When the big day came, I arrived at the lecture hall laden with books and notes and lugging an overhead projector. The talk went smoothly and ended with a burst of applause.

Professor Bien and I walked back to his office, he silent, I flushed with excitement. I expected some sort of acknowledgement, at least a pat on the back, but he said nothing.  Finally, I mumbled something like, “Well, that went well.”  More silence.  Desperate, I added, “I hardly expected applause.”  He turned to me with a faint smile.  “Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t put too much stock in the adulation of undergraduates.”

Talk about a punch to the gut! This was my mentor and role model, a campus legend, and I was certainly one admiring undergraduate.  How could he say that?  Worse, how could he feel that?  He must have realized at once that I was way too young for this kind of truth offered straight up with no chaser.  He quickly added , “You must realize, and you will, if you get into this business, that your students are always coming in fresh and new, while you are always growing and learning.  It is important to subject your ideas to the scrutiny of your peers; otherwise you will never know if they are any good.  You need to publish in order to stay alive.”

Over the years this conversation has stood in my memory as a landmark.  Even then, Professor Bien led a very convincing life, balancing teaching and scholarship with fatherhood, citizenship, and spirituality. He respected his students too much to withhold the tough love that was intertwined with his passion for the material.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that scholarship is about more than making the grade or clearing the tenure hurdle.  It’s about feeding the fire of your curiosity and creativity to produce enough light and warmth to nurture your students, your community, and your own life as well.

The Trouble with Teaching and Scholarship

In 2007 the MLA Committee on Professional Employment published a Report on evaluating scholarship for tenure and promotion. The following year, Dana Ringuette observed that his institution had (for some time) been doing eighteen of the twenty recommendations. He concludes that the conversation about scholarship has been overdetermined by the PhD granting institutions and that research professors have not thought through “what it means to be primarily a teacher in a community of research, writing, and scholarly exchange” (“We Need to Talk“). The ambivalence and uncertainty about the relationship between scholarship and teaching, Ringuette goes on to say, suggests the need for a far reaching conversation about what we do.

Scholarship and teaching–reading and writing on the one hand, and teaching on the other–are difficult to sustain no matter where one happens to be. To some degree, academic institutions  expect those on the tenure-track faculty to engage in scholarship through the phases of their academic careers. And given the relatively high teaching loads and expectations for service to the college and community the same questions come up year after year. What is the between scholarship and teaching? How might we nurture our intellectual lives as both scholars and as teachers? The persistence of these questions suggests the need for new language to define the relationship between scholarship and teaching. We need to move beyond de-contextualized generalizations about the life of the mind and inspired manifestos about our humanistic commitments. And we need more than definitions of teaching as a form of scholarship. Instead we need stories that foreground our lives as teachers and that define our intellectual work around our primary function and teachers and educators.  In short, we need fewer complaints about intellectual lives out of step with the mission and values of our colleges and more examples of striving to take advantage of the less-then-ideal situations in which we find ourselves.

When a Sense of Place is a Sense of Motion

I’ve been thinking a lot about staying alive by thinking about place.  One of the common situations for those of us that pursue intellectual work is finding one’s way into a life, as Wallace Stegner once put it, where a sense of place is a sense of motion.  I’m interested, then, in the consequences of mobility–the ways we respond to the risk of departures, the enigmas of arrivals, the ongoing challenges of coming to terms with a place-among those of us whose intellectual lives take us (whether by circumstance or by choice) in unexpected directions.

John has written eloquently about the challenges of mobility in “The Road of Exile,” the first chapter in his book The Cincinnati Arch. My own path back and forth across the country-from the oceans and mountains of the West to the fields and forests and rivers of New England-has kept me off kilter as well. A few years ago I wrote a commentary on some of the problems that many of us face as we undertake the move from graduate school to (if we are fortunate) to another college. “Where do you Teach?” questions the commonplace story of graduate students, trained in university-based programs, seeking the few coveted positions but mostly (and unfortunately) settling for jobs at second- or third-tier schools. As the story goes, there are desirable jobs, with course releases, research funding, upper-level seminars, and smart students; and there are less desirable jobs, with barely tolerable teaching loads, lower-level courses, and less-talented students. The myth is as pernicious as it is destructive. As I say in my commentary, “With the values and practices of the research university accepted as the profession-wide standard, we devote fewer of our intellectual energies to teaching, as well as to the ever more important engagements with public audiences who benefit from our work; we diminish the commitments of faculty whose intellectual work is organized around teaching undergraduate students, and whose reading and writing often arises from that work; and we disadvantage new PhDs struggling to imagine rewarding careers in English programs located outside the doctorate-granting institution.”

A few weeks ago, the subject of staying alive by thinking through place emrged in a commentary by the philosopher Gregory Pence in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In “”How to be Happy in Academe,” Spence makes the case that to be happy in the academic world you need a job. He argues that while difficult to come by, academic  jobs require you to “work hard at the three things we are expected to do: teach students who want to learn, publish about things you care about, and be a good academic citizen through service to your institution and field.” I guess Spence is mostly on the mark-at least as far as he goes. For in fact there is something very agreeable in the in the idea that we need to develop a sense of purpose and meaning right where we are.

But I really don’t think he goes far enough. My experiences tell me that the pragmatic advice in his “How to” essay neglects, even plays into, the seductions and betrayals of our professional lives. And my hope is that we might discuss further the ways our migratory patterns intersect with our struggles to build and sustain meaningful professional lives.

Dimensions of Academic Life

When Dante comes to himself in the dark wood, he has no idea where he is.  Somehow, he realizes, he has strayed from the right path.  He feels disoriented and confused.  It is only after Virgil appears that he begins to get a sense of where he is and how he might get back on track.  And Virgil’s teaching takes the form of both ideas and stories: ideas that orient, and stories that guide.

In the journey of academic life, it is important to get a sense of where you are.  We find it useful to think of three fundamental dimensions: the person, the profession, and the institution.  At every moment, our experience is configured by some constellation or alignment of these three.  And each of them has both a general and a particular aspect.

Think, for example, about your colleagues.  Each of them shares certain characteristics of temperament and behavior with other academicians, but each also manifests distinctive elements of personality, character, and individual history.  Think about academia: it has the general features of all professions, but these are inflected by distinctive values, practices, and taboos such as academic freedom, peer review, or tenure.  Think about your college or university: it operates the way all institutions do but in a style that reflects its particular history, character, and composition.

Much confusion arises, we believe, from ignoring one or more of these dimensions as we deal with our academic experience.  So, let’s take a closer look.

Where We Are Coming From

Dante’s Divine Comedy begins with the protagonist coming to himself in a dark wood, astray from the right path, lost and depressed. He feels abandoned and alone; he can’t think straight; he’s easily intimidated by phantoms.  Fear clouds his reason and rules his imagination.  The poem tells us that he’s at the middle of the life journey, ripe for crisis.  Fortunately, he finds a guide in Virgil, who combines reason with imagination to show him the way out.  Virgil begins by telling his own story, then guides him through Hell with a combination of story and interpretation.  In the process, Dante the pilgrim gathers the experience and wisdom he needs to become a story teller himself, and eventually, after climbing the mountain of Purgatory and ascending through the heavenly spheres, he is able to write the Comedy—not for angels or saints, but for people like us.

We identify with the Dante of the dark wood.  How many times in the course of our careers have we felt confused, challenged by phantoms, betrayed by our colleagues or even by our own naiveté.  And at the same time, how often have we been helped unexpectedly, buoyed by the generosity or wisdom of friends and colleagues, gifted with moments of healing insight, supported by the unaffected love of our spouses and children, or inspired—yet again—by the excitement of our students after a good class.

We are both at advanced stages of rather unusual careers.  Mark put off college for more than a decade while he worked as a professional skier and mountaineer in the High Sierra.  Then he married and went all the way through for a PhD in English, eventually landing at Keene State College in New Hampshire, where he achieved tenure and became chair of the English Department. Now, with two preteen-aged kids, he strives to balance work and family with professional ventures such as the ASLE mentoring program.  John spent ten years as a regular professor before going over to the “dark side” as a dean and then resuming teaching as a mentor to adult learners in a nontraditional university, which eventually laid off its best faculty in response to a fiscal crisis.  He has run a doctoral program but never held tenure, published books and articles but had only one sabbatical, and seen ecocriticism evolve from a dubious venture to a mainstream field of study.

Along the way both of us have learned the importance of community, family, networking, and balancing.  Wisdom is as important as knowledge, even though the latter is mostly rewarded.  Relationships count for as much as productivity, though they don’t pay as well.  Balance fosters mental and emotional health, although institutions seldom factor it into their planning.  In the end, we must take responsibility for our own happiness, which should not be confused with success.  Mark’s and John’s complimentary but somewhat divergent histories will, we hope, give this blog a stereoscopic view of academic life.

And, if all goes well, our views will be deepened and enriched by yours.  In the end, we all aspire to journey, as Dante did, from suffering through learning toward felicity.  We all aspire, and need, to become story tellers.  As Barry Lopez reminds us, sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.

An Invitation

“Quiet desperation” was Thoreau’s term for the malaise he observed in his home town of Concord.   He attributed it to people’s habit of focusing on the wrong things, on the superficial cares and duties of daily work instead of the true necessities of life.  He retired to Walden to find out what really mattered, so that, when he came to die, he would not be mortified to discover that he had not lived.

Indeed, it is always much easier to keep on working than to practice living, for work always has an element of routine, but living requires growth, change, creativity, and personal transformation.  Work is a part of living, but only one part, and how easily we confuse the two.  A minister friend, whose wife was coming up for tenure, confessed that they had gone into counseling. “It’s tough,” he said. “The counselor tells us to cut back, relax, devote less time to work, but the college tells you that you must be a workaholic to keep your job.”

We regard living a healthy, balanced life as the fundamental challenge for any person trying to navigate an academic career.  To us it seems far more important than surviving grad school, achieving tenure, gaining promotion, or making it to retirement.  These may be worthy goals, but what does it profit to gain the whole world if you have to pay for it with your soul?  We have seen lots of books, blogs, and syndicated columns about playing the game; they abound in strategies and tactics for achieving success.  But they don’t deal very much with staying alive.

Scott Peck wrote, “Life consists of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them?  Do we want to teach our children to solve them?”  We offer this blog as a forum for exchanging ideas and stories about staying alive, in the academy and beyond.  Please join in.

Point of Departure

I would fain say something, not so much concerning the practitioners of law, medicine, finance, or entertainment, as to you who read these pages, who are said to live in Academia, something about your condition, especially your inward condition and circumstances in this world, in this profession, what it is, whether it is necessary that it be as bad as it is, whether it cannot be improved as well as not. I have traveled a good deal in Academia; and everywhere, in departments, on campuses, and out in the fields of study, the inhabitants have appeared to me to be doing penance in a thousand remarkable ways. I see young men and women, my colleagues, whose misfortune it is to have acquired full-time jobs, with committees, advisees, advanced courses, chairmanships, and even tenure or even endowed chairs; for these are more easily acquired than got rid of. Better if they had gone out into the world direct from school, adventuring upon life, that they might have seen then with clearer eyes what field they would be called to labor in. Who made them serfs of the soil? How many a poor immortal soul have I seen well nigh crushed and smothered under its load of term papers, exams, committee work, and faculty meetings, creeping down the road of life! Some of you, we all know, are poor, find it hard to live, are sometimes, as it were, gasping for breath. It is very evident to me what mean and sneaking lives many of you lead, always worrying, always complaining about the dean, trying to get into print and out of work, a very ancient slough called by the Latins proferte aut perebitis, publish or perish, for many did indeed perish along the way. Public opinion is a weak tyrant compared with our own private opinion of ourselves. Think of the junior faculty of the land hurrying home to churn out just one more article, not to betray too green an interest in their fates. As if you could win the rat race without feeding the rat!

A newly discovered fragment from an early draft of “Walden,” probably composed during Henry Thoreau’s stint as a classroom teacher.