Report from ASLE 2015: Building a Life and Career in the Environmental Humanities

Siperstein headshotBy Stephen Siperstein, University of Oregon

Wisdom is a gift. To receive it, a joy. Sometimes wisdom comes in the form of direct advice. Other times, in the form of stories. Such stories don’t always have clear messages or morals, yet in the simple act of sharing, much is passed on. For young scholars in the environmental humanities, especially those beginning or soon beginning the transition from the apprentice stage of their careers to the warrior stage of their careers (as I am), stories from the citizens and elders of the field can be especially valuable, and especially joyful. In particular, these stories can lead to new ideas or new visions of how to cultivate a convincing career and how to lead a meaningful life.

Academics cling to particular stories. Why is this? Because they are appealing? Because they are comfortable? Because they are what we are told in college or during the beginning years of graduate school? Because they are somewhow true? Here is my own take and simplified version of the story I’ve heard many times over: “Get a PhD, find a tenure track line, publish a book, teach well, pass the third or fourth year review, publish additional articles, receive tenure, publish another book…. walk off into the glowing twilight.” The protagonist as hero. The plot of success. The linear trajectory. Even when young scholars are told that this trajectory will be difficult to achieve—that there are no prospects, not enough jobs (or no jobs where we want them)—the appeal isn’t diminished. The dire warnings make such stories scarier, but still we cling to them. They are the organizing fictions of our schools, our departments, our fields, our careers, and (for some of us) our entire lives. Of course, for many individuals, such paths lead to convincing and meaningful lives. But, I imagine, rarely are the paths that these individuals actually take in practice so simple or so predictable. My point here is not that organizing fictions are bad or that we need to give them up. Rather, my point is that it is hard to construct other narratives, and young professionals might need help in doing so.

This past June, at the 2015 biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environmental (ASLE), I sought out such other narratives. And, as I often find at ASLE events, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by scholars and teachers and writers and editors and poets and environmental advocates and fellow students of life, all of whom were more than willing to offer up their time and their wisdom. This is one of the reasons why ASLE is such a supportive organization: knowledge and encouragement are passed freely between generations, and professionals from every career stage are welcomed and treated with respect. It is also one of the reasons why I love attending ASLE conferences.

I am currently serving a term as the ASLE graduate student liaison, and together with my co-GSL, Clare Echterling—and withEchterling headshot the help of John Tallmadge and Mark Long—we organized a session on career development outside the tenure-track model. The session was geared especially to graduate students and young professionals, though judging from the crowd (at one point I counted over fifty participants), ASLE members from every career stage attended and contributed. Throughout the hour and a half session, six panelists spoke about their own experiences and stories, audience participants brainstormed and wrote about their own values and career goals, and then panelists and participants collaborated in an open-ended discussion.

One motivation for organizing this session (and for organizing it in a way that engaged participants directly in career envisioning) was my own hunger for stories from individuals who have followed “alternative” career paths within the environmental humanities. However, while the session focused explicitly on options beyond the tenure track model, it also set out to think beyond the discourse of “alternatives,” and thus beyond that disempowering question “what else can I do?” Rather, session panelists—who, speaking from a diverse range of experiences and graciously donating their time and wisdom—focused instead on exploring more empowering questions such as, “What do I love to do?” “What do I want to do?” “What do I value?” “How do I live a convincing life and career?”

The organizing fiction of the tenure track trajectory is powerful, and it can be put to good use. But other stories are equally powerful. Thus, career thinking does not need to be about “alternatives” or about “beyond” tenure track. It does not need to be “either/or.” It does not even need to be “both/and” (As if the paths within academia are separate from the paths outside it. As if we had to choose to travel only in one of two different landscapes). Rather, as I listened to the panelists and audience participants offer their many stories, I realized that the environmental humanities (perhaps more than any other locus of fields) can include a myriad of pathways, or a network of desire paths branching through the forest. As Gary Snyder writes, “We need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them,” yet “off the trail” is “where we do our best work.”

So we must hold onto the organizing fictions. They are the trails that have been cut before us and that some of us still maintain. But there are other directions to take “off the trails,” ones that can be equally empowering and satisfying. Below are brief statements (I’d call them gifts) from four of our panelists—Kathryn Miles, Amy McIntyre, Simmons Buntin, and Karl Zuelke. The wisdom, stories, and suggestions that they offer are not exactly what they shared during the session itself, but I hope you find these reflections helpful, empowering, and nourishing. ASLE is an organization of gift giving and path-finding. May your own lives be filled with both.

Kathryn MilesKathryn Miles, writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College:

In thinking about what makes for a fulfilling career in the environmental humanities, I keep returning to Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be Of Use.” There, she writes lyrically of her appreciation for honest work: people “who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart / who pull like water buffalo” who “move in a common rhythm,” and who “jump into work head first / without dallying in the shallows.” That’s what I want, too. To be of use. To do good work. Probably, that’s what you want too. How do we get there?

I think the short answer is that we each have to determine how we can best make a contribution not only to the worlds of pedagogy and environmental studies, but also to a planet in crisis. That involves creative thinking, of looking for those unexpected moments of connection. Sometimes, it’s in a classroom. But not always. Some of my most rewarding work has been with care providers in a state veterans hospital or on the trail of a missing hiker. The important thing is that we feel like we’re doing honest work. The exciting thing is that, despite what the news cycle or the Chronicle of Higher Education will tell you, there are ever increasing ways to do just that, from freelance writing to experiential education. Believe it or not, graduate school is preparing you for a lot of these opportunities. And, if you’re really lucky, you might even get your hands dirty along the way.

Amy McIntyre, Managing Director ASLE:Amy Head shot

While I haven’t ever quite envisioned being a college professor, I have always been attracted by education, writing, and art and had the desire to incorporate them in some way into my work and career—and life, apparently, as I married an academic! As an undergraduate, I majored in History and minored in Art, and so, in that linear way of thinking that is typical at age 21, I found myself at Oberlin College in a MA program in Art History, with vague sights set on a museum curatorial career. For many reasons, that trajectory didn’t last, but my interest in education and core belief that the humanities prepared me to do any number of things well did persevere through some uninspiring post-college jobs.

And I DID end up working at a museum for several years—but it was a children’s museum instead of an art museum, and it was working with memberships and budgets instead of artwork! There I began to develop my skills and interest in nonprofit administration, which I continued to do as part of my next job at the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce University, funded by an IMLS grant. There I discovered that grant-funded positions, while not permanent, can be a great opportunity to gain knowledge, experience, and connections.

Prior to moving to NH and starting work at the museum, I had begun a MA program in counseling, to help me pursue a career path that did not include more of the aforementioned cruddy jobs. I did finish the degree, and I’m sure I use this training all the time in the broadest sense when parenting, interacting with professional contacts, etc. I never did start a counseling job! ASLE Managing Director was a position created as the organization grew, and it represented an opportunity to collaborate with the leadership to shape the job, because it was brand new and growing and changing in response to new demands and priorities. I would recommend considering a position that seems to provide such opportunities for growth and change, even if the original position is not your dream job. It may morph into that one day!

Simmons Buntin, editor-in-chief at Terrain.org:Simmons Buntin

Sometimes your work gets you into the industry of environmental humanities (whatever that may be) and sometimes the humanities get you into your work. In my case, it wasn’t my degree that landed me a job; it was the degree that spurred an idea that started as a hobby that remains a hobby but that also resulted in the skill set necessary to establish and maintain a career, one that allows me to keep up my hobby that now has grown well beyond just my hobby. Following?

In the mid-1990s I graduated with an urban planning master’s degree. A fellow graduate and I wanted to start a place-based magazine, but had neither the experience nor financial backing to start a print journal. So we started one online: Terrain.org. I learned basic HTML skills and later more web development because of Terrain.org and, coupled with my previous experience as a project manager with the U.S. Department of Energy, turned that into what has become a fast-paced career in web program management. My career in that industry is as old as the journal: 18 years. Not bad in this day and age, either for an online journal or a career.

Happily, Terrain.org and my career in web management have grown together not only in years, but also in technology and lessons learned. They directly benefit each other. Terrain.org couldn’t be the dynamic website it is today without my web development knowledge, and my web management skills wouldn’t be as advanced as they are without the journal. In the last six years, particularly, Terrain.org has expanded to become a broad organization, and though I continue to play a key role (including website management), we have a core of genre editors and an international editorial board, as well as an expanding following. Where will that take my career and the journal next? Into nonprofit management from the looks of it, at least to some degree. Terrain.org doesn’t pay the bills — in fact, I spend well more than my allowance on it, as my wife reminds me — but by having a full-time career in web management, I am able to afford such an important hobby. And as we move into fiscal sponsorship and nonprofit status, well, maybe it will just pay for itself after all. Some day….

Head Shot Karl ZuelkeKarl Zuelke, Director of the Writing Center and the Math & Science Center, Mount St. Joseph University:

My career has unfolded from a number of opportunities that I could never have seen coming, yet it has grown into something extremely rewarding and satisfying. No one will ever duplicate my path exactly, but I think there may be some lessons to impart for the nervous grad student looking to forge a career in a very difficult job market.

My first piece of advice is to be alert for unexpected opportunities. I have an MFA in fiction from Indiana University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. They are both good programs. I expected to enter into the tenure-track path at some point, but things didn’t work out that way. What did happen was that while I was teaching as an adjunct at two different schools, an email announcement was forwarded to me from a friend. A small local Catholic liberal arts college needed a Writing Center director. I had no formal WC training, though I had worked a few hours as a writing tutor. I sent the college my vita anyway and was contacted the next day for an interview. During the interview, there were no questions about writing center theory or praxis at all. The head of the department simply wanted to get to know me, and I’m quite sure she was gauging my interpersonal skills. This was more than looking for a friendly colleague, though. Writing center work is highly dependent on mature, gentle, and empathetic interpersonal skills. Satisfied with that (I think!), she explained that the director position had been changed and would be filled with someone in-house, but they were willing to hire me at $25/hour for 6 hours a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to tutor in their writing center. It fit in my schedule, and I took it on.

While I was there, I made contacts and got to know people. This is my second piece of advice: Make friends. Be nice, be helpful, be witty when appropriate, go to meetings and speak up, have lunch with faculty and administrators in the dining hall. When the director that year moved on, I was asked to take over. It was offered as an adjunct position at first. I decided not to do it on that basis, and turned the position down after putting it off as long as I could. After I said no, I got a call back 45 minutes later, offering it as a ¾ time position with full benefits. That sounded better, and I accepted. The administrator who offered me the position made what to me was a telling comment: “You’re not afraid to talk and speak your mind, and you eat lunch with us in the dining hall every day. You’re the person we wanted in this position.”

I spent several years learning writing center theory on the fly and adapting it to my new college. It was difficult and all consuming at first. The approach I developed was successful, and I’m now the director of a thriving writing center that has earned the respect of both faculty and administration. It’s not a tenure-track position. It’s not even a faculty position. But the position includes teaching duties, and I love teaching, especially literature and environmental studies, which I feel make a difference in the lives and educations of my students. When the new Senior Core Capstone classes were developed, I was on the faculty learning community that developed them, and I taught the first two sections. Small liberal arts colleges and universities are less rigid in structure than larger institutions, and with the right contacts, all sorts of doors can open.

I feel very much a part of the university now, with my ideas and influence woven deeply through the academic fabric of the institution. I co-taught an environmental science course with a biology professor last year (I have an undergraduate degree in biology). I gave the keynote address at our Celebration of Teaching and Learning, and the topic, “A Sense of Place,” was subsequently included as a unit that all entering freshmen will take in a required core course. I serve on the Environmental Action Committee. When I noted that the university didn’t have a sustainability policy, I was invited to write one. Representing the EAC, I took it to the faculty, staff, and students, who approved it, and it is now undergoing the final approval process with the President’s Cabinet and the Board of Trustees. Next year, pending final approval, I’ll be co-teaching a French literature and history course, which will include a trip to Paris. I’m also planning on a visit to Ghana—to guest lecture at a university there with other members of our faculty.

I mention all this to support a suggestion: small institutions rock! They have their own sets of issues and challenges to be sure, but for someone who is engaged, talented, friendly, and hard working, the opportunities for the blossoming of varied and exciting careers are there once you get your foot in the door. And—there are jobs out there for writing center directors. Be as broad as possible in your academic preparation, be friendly and make contacts and forge alliances, and keep your eyes open for opportunities you might not expect.

Elder Tales: the Old Woman and the Dynamics of Widsom

Now we come to the old woman, who holds the key. In this tale, the prince initiates and drives the action, but the old woman’s advice enables him to complete it. She’s the catalyst: without her, he’d get nowhere. The tale spotlights the dynamic between warriors and elders that leads to social change. In the process, both achieve meaning and success. The old woman helps save the realm, and the prince goes on to marry the princess and govern. Since the tale is called “The Prince and the Ogre,” we suppose it must be about him, that is, a warrior tale. But really it’s just as much about her.

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The Old Woman (photo by Vaggelis Fragiadakis)

The most salient fact about the old woman is that she’s old, but that’s not all: she’s also a woman, and she’s poor. She’s been living in the forest, scraping by (since the king has privatized her social security and the ogre’s rampages have crashed the value of her cottage and wiped out her 401k). She’s socially marginalized in multiple ways, so no one thinks to ask for her help. What does she know? She’s no expert; she doesn’t have an advanced degree or teach at a tier 1 university. And of course she’s not going to come forward and offer her services; she’ll just let them all suffer, because it’s what they deserve.

Interestingly, the old woman’s special power arises from her marginalized circumstances. We normally don’t think of abjection, poverty, and age as opportunities, but here they prove instrumental. The old woman has been around a long time and has noticed a lot of things. She knows how the world works. She understands magic and knows that power always comes with vulnerabilities that the powerful go to great lengths to hide and protect. Her marginal status means she’s overlooked or ignored; virtually invisible, she has had freedom to watch and observe. Because the powerful don’t see her, they don’t realize she’s looking at them; they forget how much their behavior can reveal to a seeing eye.

Of course, the old woman’s knowledge can’t help her directly, because she lacks the strength to act on it. But the prince has strength, and his generosity and compassion draw her out. Her resentment thaws; she gives him the wisdom he needs. Combined, they make a winning team. The old woman understands that administration is always an exercise in character; she judges, correctly, that the prince would make a good king. It’s in her interest to foster civil order and good government. After all, she’s been living in the forest. She knows the king and the ogre represent two sides of the same coin, taking all the gold and power for themselves at the expense of the people. They’re the ruling class. But the prince and the old woman, together, can take them on.

From this perspective we can see that both the king and the ogre are looking to the past. They’re determined to protect the status quo and carry on with business as usual, which includes not only dominating the country but competing with each other. Every ruler needs an enemy in order to justify clinging to power. Focusing on an external threat distracts the masses from your own failures and depredations. The old woman knows this, and that’s another reason she helps the prince. She’s investing in the future, banking on social change.

This tale illustrates the dynamics of wisdom as it plays out across the stages of a career. Young warriors must gain wisdom or perish, and, since they lack a depth of experience, they must receive it from elders. Mature citizens must use wisdom or fail in their duties; since they have authority and responsibility, they must activity seek wisdom as lifelong learners and put it into action. And elders, who have moved on from positions of strength and responsibility, must pass on their wisdom to warriors and citizens, or else they will wither; they’ll turn into bitter curmudgeons or hungry ghosts. Keeping wisdom for yourself is like keeping gold too long in the vault or food too long in the fridge. It does no good and soon goes bad. It only works when you take it out and pass it along.

Citizen Failures: the King and the Ogre

When the prince begins his quest, things look pretty hopeless. The kingdom is devastated, the government paralyzed. The ogre burns and pillages at will; his magical power, cruelty, and greed represent an alternative to the “legitimate” order. Like the king, the ogre has a castle, treasure, and lands; he’s set up on his own, and he’s making a go of it. He may be horrible, but he has a certain charisma; the king seems bland and faceless by comparison. Their conflict amounts to a civil war, in which the people on both sides come out losers. The whole situation, we might say, represents a failure of the adult world—the world of citizenship—to fulfill its responsibilities for protecting and nurturing the community.

sad_king.-WS
The Downcast King (by Randall Smith)

Look first at the king. He’s not getting good advice. His NSA can’t figure out the ogre or his magic. His Defense Department can’t protect the realm. Not only that, but he’s desperate enough to put his daughter up for sale. What kind of a father does that? No wonder he’s depressed. Still, he does try to rule and it’s to his credit that he has a daughter in the first place. He may be an ineffectual king, but he does have a trace of humanity.

Basically, the king fails to understand the relation between power and authority. He has come by his office through inheritance, which may make him legitimate but cannot deliver obedience or order in the realm. Believing that right makes might, he has failed to learn the lessons of King Lear and Machiavelli (unlike the Prince, he does not seem to have taken World Civ). The king believes that authority confers power, whereas in fact power is something that is granted by the people he governs; it represents a gift from the general will. That’s why newly minted second lieutenants or deans so often run into trouble with their constituents. “Pulling rank” only reveals their desperation and lack of leadership. To gain power and exert leadership, you have to convince the people that you have their best interests at heart and possess the skills necessary to protect and deliver. Administration is all about dealing with people.

Quakeone,ogre01
The Ogre (by QuakeOne)

Now consider the ogre. In many respects he seems the opposite of the king. He has no family; he’s greedy and cruel, a real bully. Moreover, he’s gained his power by separating his soul from his body. The motif of the external soul occurs frequently in heroic tales across cultures; it makes one invincible, but at the price of one’s humanity. Modern-day versions include the pact Faust makes with the Devil in Goethe’s drama or Mann’s novel, Sauron’s Ring of Power in Tolkien’s epic fantasy, or the horcruxes of Voldemort, the evil wizard in the Harry Potter books, who tries to escape mortality by splitting his soul and encasing the pieces in various objects. Each of these antagonists gain demonic, single-minded power but have to give up the ability to change, grow, love, or learn. These desperate individuals all embrace the “fixed mind” of Milton’s Satan. Like him they care more about their career than anything else, and they always choose power over love.

Like the king, the ogre is a failed citizen, because he cares more about himself than anyone else. He can’t govern; he can only terrorize. He can’t run a kingdom, he can only destroy one. Believing that might makes right, he focuses entirely on strengthening his own position: taking prisoners, amassing wealth, defending his fortress, and pursuing his goal with demonic single-mindedness. But if you split off your soul from your self and encase it in some object of desire, such as a talisman or a career, then you can’t adapt to changing circumstances, you lose your nimbleness and flexibility, and above all you cut yourself off from other people and the information or wisdom they might provide. When the Wheel of Fortune begins to turn, no one will come to your aid. But of course the ogre has had so much initial success that he has forgotten all about Fortune. He believes that he’s invincible, that the usual rules no longer apply. And so, like the Dark Lord Sauron, he fails to imagine that someone small and inconspicuous could penetrate his defenses and seize hold of his precious soul.

Of course, neither the king nor the ogre even notices the old woman or dreams that she might hold the key.

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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.

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 Institutional View

How does tenure appear from the point of view of the institution?  We’ve discussed how the candidate sees it as a reward for past achievement and the department sees it as a marriage, but the institutional view is more complex.  First and foremost, the institution sees tenure as an investment with a payback period of thirty-plus years.  It’s a momentous decision with dramatic fiscal and political implications; hence it must be made with due diligence and care.

Faculty culture and union contracts have traditionally made tenure an obligation for institutions, part of the cost of doing business with faculty.  Administrators have viewed it as annoying and inconvenient, an obstruction to the managerial discretion they feel is needed to solve problems.  More enlightened leaders have  recognized how it fosters institutional stability and brand identity, the “college family” so important to loyal alumni and, by extension, to fund-raising. Less commonly recognized is tenure’s long-term economic advantage: because it reduces mobility, institutions can keep salaries low compared to those in other learned professions.  On balance, the economic benefits outweigh the costs, otherwise the tenure system would not persist.

For administration, which is tasked to operate and preserve the institution, economics is a big part of the picture, but not the only thing.  Administrators tend to move around, because that is the only way they can move up, so their involvement with a given institution seldom exceeds ten years.  During this relatively short time they have to do a good job, show progress, and exercise their creativity; appointments, tenure, and promotions offer one prominent means.  Administrators prefer to grant tenure as little as possible in order to preserve flexibility, discretion, and opportunity; the candidate and the department must make a bomb-proof case, first to the college-wide review committee, and thence to administration, which holds the power to decide.

Thus, all kinds of factors come into play that have nothing to do with a candidate’s actual merit.  Administrators pay close attention to the tides and breezes of politics, and tenure decisions can send strong messages to reward or punish key players, especially if there’s conflict over budget, curriculum, or institutional identity.  Budget pressures, such as low enrollment or the high price of heating oil, can dry up a tenure slot that a candidate has been promised at hire and toward which he or she has been toiling in good faith.  The institution’s public image may need polishing; racial, ethnic, gender or other criteria may enter in. (I know one up-and-coming university whose president has decreed that any new hires must be members of Phi Beta Kappa.)  And if all this weren’t enough, there seems to be a kind of rhythm in institutional life whereby almost everyone gets tenure for several years, and then some people don’t, leading to widespread outcry and attempts at reform, after which the whole cycle repeats.  The underlying reason seems simple enough: no dean or president looking to move up would want to appear soft on tenure; nor would any institution, for that matter.

In the end, the system can’t work unless some people are denied.  Merit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition.  Many are called but few are chosen; the others are cast out and left to fend for themselves.  No one follows their stories.  Those left inside close ranks and get back to business as usual.  Indeed, it is very difficult to think of giving up hard-won privileges.  But the fact is that tenure requires that the institution expel some deserving colleagues, who, in today’s depressed job market, can seldom find comparable jobs.  Even if they do, they’ll have to go through the whole ordeal again.

The tenure system persists because it confers many benefits.  But it also demands human sacrifice.

Niether For Nor Against: Notes on the Institution

Working as a department chair for seven out of the past ten years I have heard my share of faculty who appear to think that the administration is an “other” and that the only viable position to take as a member of the faculty is to oppose what “those people” are doing.

Last night, sitting with a group of students working our way through Walt Whitman’s “Calamus” sequence, one of them called attention to the poem, “I Hear It was Charged Against Me.” We had spent the good part of the past week working through Whitman’s late (and great) essay “Democratic Vistas,” and we had talked about his approach to social and cultural change. “I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,” Whitman begins his poem. “But really I am neither for nor against them.”

Might Whitman’s response to the charges against him– neither for nor against–be a useful position from which to think about the institution and the positions we occupy within them? In fact, the institution (and our relationship to them) was among the most engaging to John and me when we began talking about these issues seriously. And clarifying just what we are talking about when we talk about institutions (and our relationship to them) has proved to be among the most useful for participants in our Staying Alive workshops.

Here is how John and I describe the academic institution:

1) as a business

  • Consists of workers, management, means of production, product, customers, stakeholders
  • Runs on money, part of the economy
  • Produces education, evaluation/sorting, and research
  • A feudal organization (hierarchical, not a democracy, nobility vs. serfs)

2) as conservative, immobile

  • A reptilian brain
  • Motivated only to survive & grow
  • To it you are skilled labor, a function not a person
  • Does not care about your personal growth

We can talk about humane values and community until its time to harvest the garlic and potatoes and cabbage. And we should all be deeply engaged in those day-to-day acts that can make our work more humane–in good part by recognizing and valuing every member of the institution. But as we go about our days, we should remember the nature of institutions. That is, when we are working as members of an institution (“both in and out of the game”) we must have a much more informed sense of where we are (“and watching and wondering at it”).

Such was my point in arguing for shared governance: taking part in improving the condition of the institution but not proceeding as if the institution has your (or anyone’s) best interests in mind.