The Question of the Opportunities: A Postscript to ASLE 2015

After two years on the job market I found myself thinking about whether I would find (or whether I really wanted) a job in the academic world. I had spent a decade outside of school. And so it was not difficult to imagine myself a PhD outside of a college or a university. Years of experience in challenging and interesting work helped me to see quite clearly the downsides and tradeoffs of an academic job.

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ASLE in Downtown Moscow, Idaho

A few months ago I came across a sentence written by Deborah Satz, in an MLA Task Force Report on Graduate Education that brought back this precarious moment in my professional life, now over twenty years ago. “Not all PhD students can find or ultimately want a career in higher education,” she writes. The sentence was also useful for thinking about academic work: it aligned the systemic (economics of the market) with the personal (the life, the career); it addressed a longstanding problem with graduate education (fewer tenure-stream jobs); and it questions the presumably universal desires that circulate in the professional bloodstreams of most graduate students and faculty.

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Near the highest point in Bonner County, Idaho

Early on in our planning for the session at ASLE 2015 Stephen mentioned Michael Berube’s commentary about graduate education and the state of the profession, “Abandon All Hope,” recently published in the English studies journal Pedagogy. The commentary helped focus our session on hope not as a corrective to the oddly persistent “crisis thinking” that circulates in conversations about academia and the job market in the humanities, but rather as the ground on which attendees might embrace their own strengths and passions and chart a career (and life) pathway based on those.

We wanted to talk about graduate study in the environmental humanities differently. What has stayed with me is the vocabulary Stephen generated for the challenges of self-fashioning in the academic bureaucracy we call graduate school. Instead of “alternatives,” or answering the question, “what else can I do?” we envisioned a session organized around a different set of questions: “what do I love to do,” “what do I want to do,” and “how can I do those things?”

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Looking West from the Summit of Scotchman’s Peak over the waters of Idaho’s Lake Pend Oreille

Our conversation in Idaho was especially gratifying for me: someone whose first academic publication was a critique of the apprenticeship model of graduate school, and who has been organizing conversations about life and work over two decades of mentoring and academic conferencing. It is also delightful to watch this conversation come alive in our professional discourse. For those fortunate enough to be traveling to Austin next January for MLA 2016, to take one example, the Connected Academics Project will coordinate a range of useful sessions and activities. I also recommend an October 2011 column by the then President of the American Historical Association, Anthony Grafton, and the Executive Director of the AHA, James Grossman, “No More Plan B: A Very Modest Proposal for Graduate Programs in History.” The view from the graduate school has proved, in their modest proposal for reform, “achingly reluctant to see the world as it is.”

The center/periphery thinking of the professional graduate school has been remarkably resilient for reasons I spent years elaborating in the annual sessions at the annual Modern Language Association (MLA) conference on the small college department, and in a Special Issue of Pedagogy I guest edited that is dedicated to reshaping the discourse about the intellectual work in the small college department. Grafton and Grossman describe well the resiliency of this pernicious discourse:

For all the innovation in the subjects and methods of history, the goal of the training remains the same: to produce more professors; the unchanged language of supervisors and students reflects this. We tell students that there are “alternatives” to academic careers. We warn them to develop a “plan B” in case they do not find a teaching post. And the very words in which we couch this useful advice make clear how much we hope they will not have to follow it—and suggest, to many of them, that if they do have to settle for employment outside the academy, they should crawl off home and gnaw their arms off.

One of the primary points I wanted to make in my remarks in Idaho was that it is difficult not to internalize the limited horizon of the graduate school. For all of us who spend years in a graduate program can’t help but absorb expectations for intellectual specialization, a parochial view of professional life, a particular hierarchy of values, including a bias in favor of individual research over teaching and collaboration. Too often the intellectual values of the graduate school quietly diminish the intellectual work of teaching undergraduate students and the range of institutions dedicated to this work.

Grafton and Grossman point out that these attitudes and values diminish the idea that anything less than a tenure-track job is a failure at best. Grafton and Grossman put it this way:

We should not be surprised when students internalize our attitudes (implicit or explicit) and assume that the “best” students will be professors and that for everyone else… well, “there’s always public history.” Even those who happily accept jobs at secondary schools, for example, describe themselves as “leaving the academy” or “leaving the historical profession.” Even worse, many of our students who actually do leave the historical profession, and take what they’ve learned in graduate school to the business world, are seen as having crossed the line from the light of humanistic inquiry into the darkness of grubby capitalism—as if the life of scholarship were somehow exempt from impure motives and bitter competition.

I have called this outlook the standard model of the profession: the idea that you go to graduate school, find a job, get tenure and live, you know, more or less happily ever after. The corollary to this standard model for success is that anything else is a compromise, even a failure. And this indeed is a genuine problem if in fact we are committed to the idea that training in the environmental humanities might create positive changes in our endangered world.

The problem is that this organizing fiction makes it difficult to talk about the layered stories and complex career trajectories people actually live. Again, Grafton and Grossman:

This narrow perspective does our students a disservice. Why not tell our students, from the beginning, that a PhD in history opens a broad range of doors? As historians, let’s begin with some facts. Holders of doctorates in history occupy, or have recently occupied, a dizzying array of positions outside the academy: historical adviser to the Chief of Staff of the Army, Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Chief of Staff to the Speaker of the House of Representatives, museum curators, archivists, historians in national parks, investment bankers, international business consultants, high school teachers, community college teachers, foundation officers, editors, journalists, policy analysts at think tanks (yes, an entry-level position). The skills that these historians mastered as graduate students—doing research; conceptualizing relationships between structure, agency, and culture; combining research and analysis to present arguments with clarity and economy; knowing how to plan and carry out long-term projects—remain vital in their daily work. In many organizations outside the academy, a doctorate is a vital asset for those who want to rise above the entry level.

The problem (and the irony in this case) is that this kind of plain and sensible talk is lost in the ahistorical ways institutions, and the people who inhabit them, lose sight of the everpresent question of the opportunities:

The idea that a doctorate in history prepares one only, or primarily, to teach in a college or university is as contingent as any other, not only historically but also geographically. In Germany—the country that gave us the research university—doctorates in history and similar fields have traditionally been considered appropriate preparation for jobs in publishing, media, business, and politics. A first step towards adjusting graduate education to occupational realities would be to change our attitudes and our language, to make clear to students entering programs in history that we are offering them education that we believe in, not just as reproductions of ourselves, but also as contributors to public culture and even the private sector.

Making clear the question of the opportunities is work that all of us, as educators, are obligated to do. Happily, there are many first steps being taken as the traditions and values of academic institutions change in response to the way the world actually is. In addition to the MLA project, there are exciting initiatives and projects underway, such as McGill University’s Institute for the Public Life of Arts and Ideas (IPLAI) that hosted a Future Humanities conference in Montreal this summer featuring a talk by the career consultant Anne Krook that is well worth reading, “From Being to Doing: Mobilizing the Humanities.”

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Right of Way

I am grateful to have been involved in planning and participating in the session at ASLE “Building a Career and Life in the Environmental Humanities.” I am especially grateful to Stephen and Clare for carrying this discussion forward in the ASLE community.

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.

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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.

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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.