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.

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®:

 

Warrior Tales: the Story of Dave

What if you don’t get a job?  We’ve all heard horror stories of people driving cabs, working at Starbuck’s, or hanging around campus doing odd jobs; some medicate with dangerous drugs, or, in the worst cases, attempt suicide.  No one keeps track of these lost souls; the information is all anecdotal.  We all want to live in hope yet can’t shake the creeping fear that failure may be contagious. Fortunately, there are plenty of hopeful stories out there, and we will lift up a few in the next series of posts.

When I arrived in my first (and only) tenure track job, I probed my colleagues delicately for their tenure history, not to betray too green an interest in my own fate.  Yes, they had used temporary faculty with some regularity, and no, not everyone had gained tenure, unfortunately. They sounded reassuringly apologetic but also a bit vague. There had been unusual circumstances, sometimes of a personal nature, or the fit wasn’t right, or it turned out to be a bad hire, or the person’s career had taken a new direction, that sort of thing.  Mostly, they did not know what had become of their former colleagues, although in one case the person had gone to work for Target and was now making pots of money; he had come down for a visit driving a big fancy car and was apparently putting his intellect and communication skills to good use, with few regrets about escaping from freshman comp and Intro to British lit. This story was conveyed in hushed tones that suggested an odd mix of pity and envy.  It gave me a whiff of hope for other possibilities should things not work out as planned.

Eight years later, amid the unplanned wreckage, I met David Cave.  He had done graduate work at Chicago and Indiana before taking a PhD in religion from a seminary down in Kentucky. Newly-minted and with his dissertation published by Oxford he looked to be in excellent shape for a tenure-track job.  He and his wife, an oncology nurse, had moved to Cincinnati to be near her family; he had obtained a temporary assistant professorship that had recently ended, and he was looking around.  Despite great credentials and active scholarship, he could find nothing in the way of a regular job.  He had spent several years adjuncting, networking with all the local colleges, and even doing regular commentaries for NPR.  He was determined to maintain an intellectual life and keep up his scholarship.

But economics began to catch up with him.  Their son was growing apace and the family needed money.  He finally took a development internship at one of the big hospitals; he learned the ropes and found that he liked the work of building relationships and helping people find meaning and purpose in supporting a charitable mission.  When the internship ended, he became development director for a very small Catholic college, and after five years there he moved over to the University of Cincinnati Foundation, where he worked raising money for the humanities.  And five years after that, he moved to the University of Michigan.

During all this time, Dave continued to read, think, teach, and publish.  He gave talks, wrote radio commentaries, kept a journal of ideas, and stayed in touch with colleagues in his field.  He also organized book groups and found other informal means to pursue the intellectual life.  He liked working with faculty and was received as a colleague because of his scholarship and devotion to teaching and education.  Now, at Michigan, he’s actively involved with the humanities, engaging individual graduates and friends of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts to support the priorities and ventures of departments, programs, and the college as a whole.  He and his wife live in wonderful Ann Arbor, where they host a popular literary salon.  His development work takes him to places like Washington, Atlanta, and Miami where he cultivates visions and ideas with smart, well-placed alumni.  And he continues to read and publish actively in his field.

Dave inspired me with his resourcefulness and devotion to a felt calling.  Initially, he was disappointed not to land a regular teaching job, but he found ways to stay alive intellectually and other venues in which to pursue both teaching and scholarship.  He found another way to make a living that proved surprisingly rewarding, not only for its intrinsic satisfactions and good income, but also for keeping him  connected to the university.  I was reminded how many poets, musicians, and artists have had other day jobs: think of Wallace Stevens or Charles Ives, both of whom sold insurance, James Joyce, who worked in a bank, or William Carlos Williams tending his patients.  The truth is that most of us have more than one passion, and there is always more than one way to use our skills.  A job can’t and shouldn’t provide everything.  Like Thoreau, we’d do better with a broad margin to our life, to keep a light hand on the tiller and take the widest possible view of our horizons.

Rethinking Failure

Ever since grad school I’ve been intrigued by the idea of failure, which sat like an incubus on everybody’s mind.  It was feared but never openly discussed.  At Yale they talked only of success, for which we supposedly were being groomed.  Higher education trades in and promises success; that is its main selling point to the hopeful masses.  And yet, arguably, it’s our failures that stimulate us to learn and grow.

What do we mean by failure?  If you fail a course, it means you didn’t complete the work to the teacher’s satisfaction.  To fail in business means to go out of business, to stop operating; when a business stops making money, it fails.  A “failed writer” is one who never writes or publishes very much, whose production lags behind expectations (his or her own, or another’s).  Failure in this case means a considerable gap between desire and performance.

Failure is therefore a judgment made by others or by oneself.  It can become a feeling, which is to say an inner message repeated to the point of instinct.  One can feel like a failure despite outward circumstances or the facts of the situation.  No one wants to feel like a failure, but almost everyone does at some time or other.  Feelings of failure breed shame, depression, and addictions.  They are bound up with what matters to us, entwined with our values and our sense of identity.

During my first year in grad school I grew increasingly anxious and neurotic comparing myself to other students, all of whom seemed more intelligent, clever, disciplined, and accomplished.  One had read Heidegger in the original; another could quote long passages from Virgil; still another could sling the jargon of deconstruction as deftly as an Italian chef twirling  a pizza.  Fortunately, the draft came calling just in time.  In the world of the Army none of that stuff mattered.  The lifer NCO’s I worked for could have cared less about literary theory or the various versions of Wordsworth’s Prelude. Yet their organization controlled nearly half the federal budget, so who was more important?

After a year of this other life, I realized that everyone in grad school had been  intimidated by everyone else  It wasn’t just me. They might have read Heidegger  and Derrida, but I had read ­Finnegans Wake, and who was more important, really?  When I got back to Yale, it was much easier to step back and view the whole value system from the side.  That helped me separate real learning from the neurosis of failure.  It was, I now realize, the first step on the long journey of staying alive.

Grad School: Tools for Balance

What can we learn from these stories and reflections about finding balance in grad school?  Each group develops its own wisdom, but here are some tools we gleaned from the ASLE workshop last June.

1.  It’s not just about work.  No doubt work – making the grade, learning the ropes, designing and conducting research, writing, seminaring, conferencing – always comes first in people’s mind.  But there is more to life than learning and more to learning than books and talk.  The primary tool, then, is to keep the dream of balance alive, to make it part of your life practice.

2.  Mentor yourself.  Take time to explore options and study alternatives.  Remember that a PhD gives you many transferable skills, and that teaching is not the only path open to you.  Investigate other channels in the braided stream of an academic career: administration, foundation or nonprofit work, government, think tanks, research, industry, writing, journalism, even entrepreneurship.  Listen for what the Quakers call “leadings,” the inner voices, signs, or hints that point toward the path of your own soul’s growth.  Then find activities that shed more light down that path.

3. Learn from the community.   If you observe both your institutional community and the larger society in which it is embedded, you can learn much about the culture, personality types, and social drivers that govern the world you are preparing to enter.  This sort of knowledge can often prove of more than equal value to field expertise as you navigate the choppy waters of a career.  Try looking at your school, your professors, and your colleagues with the eyes of a novelist, and don’t neglect the folks behind the steam tables.

4.  Get involved with undergraduates. And not just as a TA.  These are the people you may soon be helping to educate.  They are the future.  Better yet, most of them will not become academicians; they will go out into the “real world.”  They are still experiencing education for the whole person, so their journey, which is also yours, can become mutually supportive, even inspiring.  Staying in touch with the undergraduates will help you stay in touch with your own growth process and balance the professional training emphasis of grad school.

5.  Network to build relationships. In grad school, everyone is pretty much equal, on the same level, in the same boat.  Soon enough, you will all begin to diverge.  Relationships formed and nurtured early on can pay handsome emotional and professional dividends in years to come.  Don’t just stick to your own department, but venture forth to other fields, student organizations, and colleagues from other institutions that you meet at conferences.

6. Choose work that feeds your spirit. There is no point in doing research that will “get you ahead” if it doesn’t speak to your soul.  Take time to find your own burning questions and build research that will address them.  That is how fields evolve, and how academic work leads to progressive social and intellectual change.

7.  Engage in self-nurturing activities such as hobbies, socializing, recreation, sports, or sharing your home culture with friends and colleagues.  Be sure to take good care of your body as well as your mind; remember the Sufi admonition to “be kind to your ass, for it bears you.”  Eat well, sleep well, work hard, play often.

Got tools? Please share them in a comment.

Grad School: the Institution

We’ve seen how grad school serves the student by providing apprentice training and serves the faculty by perpetuating the profession with its values, hierarchies, and myths.  But what about the institution?  Like fish in the sea, both students and faculty live, move, and breathe within the institution that supports and surrounds them, yet remain largely unconscious of how it operates.  It’s an environment that we take for granted.  But the economics and politics that govern the “real world” also govern the institution and through it the real lives of students and faculty alike.

Marc Bousquet, who blogs for the Chronicle on labor issues in academia, argues that one’s most employable years as an academician are the years of grad school, when there are plenty of teaching jobs to go around.  You would think, he says, that getting the degree would make you more employable, but the reverse is true. Once you get the degree, your chances of finding a job drop sharply, and the older you get, the less employable you are.  The reason?  Market forces.

Bousquet maintains that grad students provide cheap labor for the university to staff introductory courses that regular faculty don’t want to teach.  In addition, doctoral programs enhance the institution’s prestige, thus attracting star faculty as well as grant money.  Although the students obviously benefit from this arrangement – they gain knowledge, skills, and entry-level credentials – the profession and the institution benefit more.  The university does not take responsibility for the lack of employment opportunities once they have done their job of training.  Degree in hand, you are out the door and on your own.

When I went through grad school back in the 1970’s we got no training in how to teach and no professional coaching at all.  Happily, much has changed for the better in this regard.   At the University of Nevada-Reno, for example, grad students in the Literature and Environment Program receive many hours of instruction in professional skills such as networking, publication, conferencing, and applying for jobs, as well as in teaching, research, and scholarship; the faculty take an active interest in each student and provide intensive coaching.  As a result, their students fare comparatively well once they leave.  But no amount of such effort can erase the dismal job market figures or alleviate what Bousquet calls the “great depression” from which academia currently suffers, where two thirds of recent PhD’s will fail to secure full-time, tenure track jobs.

Under such conditions, many will settle for part-time or adjunct positions, which do not pay a living wage, others will sidestep into administration, while others may quit the profession entirely and reinvent themselves in some other line of work, anything from law to business to driving a cab.  This may well happen to you.  But for now, while you are in grad school, the question is how to live a balanced life under the exploitive tradeoffs of apprenticeship.  How can you make it work for you?  How can you feed your spirit while feeding the rat?

(For more on the ideas and writings of Marc Bousquet, visit his video blog site.)

Grad School: Training for the Profession

During my first year in graduate school, I was amazed at the low grades I got on papers.  After routinely receiving A’s for original thought and dynamic writing, I was now getting B’s with brief, discouraging comments.  Back in college we had been encouraged to do our own thinking first and look at the criticism only later, if at all.  I had always felt gratified and affirmed when some critic’s interpretation matched my own, and my professors had apparently felt so too.  But all that changed when I got to grad school, and the reasons remained maddeningly obscure. On the surface, everything looked the same, but underneath, something else had to be going on, because it all felt different. I spent most of an increasingly neurotic year before stumbling upon the truth.

That spring, in a seminar on Renaissance literature, I was assigned a paper on John Skelton’s “The Tunning of Elinour Rumminge.”  Skelton was Henry VIII’s court poet and wrote bawdy doggerel that must have pleased his sovereign but sounded, to my twentieth century ear, like something out of Monty Python, minus the wit. “The Tunning of Elinour Rumminge” describes with relish how three hags disgrace themselves after getting drunk in a tavern. I am no prude, but I had to gag it down, and after cudgeling my brain could come up with absolutely nothing worthwhile to say.  That’s when criticism came to the rescue.  In despair, I searched out the three extant articles, summarized their contents, did a simple comparison/contrast, and reported the results.  Imagine my surprise when the paper received an A with the comment, “This is the most mature work of yours that I’ve seen.”

That’s when I realized that grad school and college had very different goals, even though they employed similar means. College aimed to educate and develop the whole person toward a life of responsible citizenship, whereas grad school aimed to train professional scholars.  College served society; grad school served the profession.  That’s why the professors cared more about our mastery of the secondary literature than about our appreciation of the wisdom and beauty of the poetry itself.

Every profession needs rites and symbols of initiation to perpetuate itself. Grad school takes naïve lovers of the arts and sciences and turns them into serious professionals, well-versed in the lore, the lingo, and the rules of their chosen game.  It takes people and makes them into players.  In the process, it provides high-status jobs for the elite and low-status, low-paid labor for the institution.  As for the students, how they play once they graduate, and how they fare in the game, is up to them.

To achieve and sustain balance under such circumstances takes deliberate imagination.  Stay tuned the institutional perspective, followed by more tools and lessons from the ASLE workshop.

Balance in Grad School: Challenges

Balancing in grad school require, first, recognition and naming of the extraordinary challenges one must face.  Grad school looks like college but does not feel like college.  You go to classes, take seminars, write papers, and work with professors, just as you did before and with great success.  After all, it was high grades and glowing recommendations that got you into grad school.  It was supposed to be more of the same only bigger, better, and more prestigious. What happened?  Why all this anxiety and confusion? Why is it suddenly so hard to write those papers and speak up in class with confidence?  Why does life feel as if it’s narrowing instead of opening out?  Maybe if we just work harder …

Grad school has an undeniable allure.  First, there’s the dream of a university position, both now and later on.  A teaching or research fellowship does constitute a paid position, even if you are still an apprentice and therefore, by definition, exploited.  You can still wrap your ego in the cloak of a prestigious research institution and nurse the hope that a regular, similar position will magically follow once you finish your dissertation, despite the terrible numbers reported on the job market.  Grad work allows you to stay in school, insulated from the economy and postponing the cold bath that comes with entry into the “real world.”  Moreover, there are tangible payoffs in terms of the work itself, which you love: you get to read, conduct experiments, write and publish papers, teach, all of which feed your spirit while buffing your vita.  What’s not to like?

It’s not long before reality begins to intrude.  After only a few weeks, you may begin to awaken from this sleep of reason.  The professors, who in undergraduate school basted you with interest, encouragement, and constructive criticism, now seem critical, skeptical, and demanding.  They often seem more impressed with your mastery of the secondary literature, which too often seems clogged with second-rate ideas, than with original thinking.  After dreaming of studying with the greats, you now despair of finding a mentor.  It’s baffling, bewildering.

Consider, however, that if brilliance and originality got you into grad school, they are  also what got your professors to the top of their field.  What are the chances that your brilliance and originality will coincide with theirs?  To gain and maintain the big-league reputations so vital to the continuance of their programs, grad professors must constantly generate and publish cutting-edge research.  The care and feeding of stardom is a more than full time job. There are only twenty four hours in a day, and grad professors are only human.  Few of them have the inner security or ego strength to set aside their own agendas and enter with wholeheartedness into the growth of their students.  Especially when they know, deep down, that these students’ work will eventually make their own obsolete.  They have the unenviable job of training the competition.  Talk about a double bind!

Think for a moment about the professors you knew in grad school.  How many seemed to be leading convincing lives?  How many were balanced themselves?  You may have known a few, either personally or by reputation.  Some had learned to be true mentors, mastering the arts of tough love and empowerment, guiding without directing, able to let go at the right time.  It’s an extraordinary sacrifice.

Meanwhile, most of us have to navigate grad school without true mentors.  We have to find our own way, working toward balance as best we can.  The good news is that this struggle, pursued with deliberate imagination, can become an invaluable part of our education.  It can make us strong and graceful.

Grad School: An Example of Balance

Here is a detailed example of balance in grad school that was presented at the June ASLE workshop, reprinted here with the author’s permission.

“I remember grad school as competitive and neurotic, with everyone obsessing about their work and generally bent to the task.  In this unwholesome environment, Tom H. stood out.  He was physically healthy, smart, good looking, and seemed remarkably sane.  He climbed mountains, played hockey, lived in a neat and tasteful apartment, grew basil and tomatoes in a backyard garden, and studied hard but not too hard. He never complained or put anybody down in conversation.  Intellectually, he engaged issues vigorously but could also be convinced: he was that rare thing, a truly rational person.  He focused on mainstream literature of the Renaissance and seemed generally skeptical of literary theory, although he was well-informed.  Overall, he struck me as very well-balanced and emotionally secure, something that I myself certainly was not.  He had a good sense of humor and a diverse and loyal circle of friends; I believe that he inaugurated the tradition of dinner parties where each guest would bring an offering to the evening’s entertainment, perhaps a poem to read or an instrument to play.  He got involved with one of the undergraduate colleges, coaching intramural hockey and organizing faculty-student get-togethers.  Later, when he was denied tenure despite prize-winning publications, he reinvented himself, first as a dean and then as a lawyer.”

In discussion the group derived several key tools from this story: pay attention to your bodily health, cultivate diverse friendships, get involved with undergraduate life, make room for self-nurturing activities such as gardening, cooking, or entertaining, and above all treat your career with a light but sensitive touch.

Next up:  More tools from the ASLE workshop

Balance in Grad School: Examples from the ASLE Workshop

We asked participants at our June 2009 workshop to think about people they had known in grad school who were leading convincing lives.  They had to scratch their heads for a moment.  Most of us remember grad school as a period of anxiety and stress, when we are all bound up with ourselves, studying for exams, trying to finish our dissertations, and arming ourselves to face the hopeless odds of the job search.  Among survivors, grad school is hardly remembered as a time of fun, fulfillment, or healthy relationships.

Our yoga balance posture for grad school is the Eagle  PoseeagleforblogWhen you are all wrapped up in yourself, how can you stay on your feet, and even stretch upward, without toppling over?  How can your energy be oriented around the emerging self without strangling it or flying outward in all directions?  It is not easy, but it can be done.

One person remembered a colleague who worked on building a canoe in his spare time.  Another recalled a friend who spent time socializing, often at a local watering hole where he played darts. Another had a friend who liked to act.  Another maintained “two identities,” doing research and playing sports.   Still another, a woman in her 40’s, seemed to “glow” even though her free-thinking put her at odds with prevailing intellectual fashions; she was stressed but not up tight, and she seemed happy amid the “creative chaos” of her life and work.

In discussion the group decided that convincing lives in grad school seemed to “radiate outward.”  These people did their work but also connected to something else.  Some brought family or regional traditions with them, such as the fellow from the South who held “bream cookouts” for his colleagues.  Another described one friend who took a menial stocking job at Target and would bring back  “really refreshing” stories. “These kinds of things buoyed us,” she said.  Reaching beyond your work, connecting to a larger community, and self-nurturing activities seemed to be key tools for balance here.

Up next: a detailed case

(picture source: full-well.blogspot.com/2008/09/yoga-finally.htm)