Jean-Paul Sartre famously declared that “Hell is other people.” And Dante constructed his Inferno by wedging like-minded souls into very close quarters. You don’t have to attend the MLA Convention to see this principle in operation today. Just think for a moment about your own department, or classroom, or campus. No wonder some administrators dream of an ideal university that has neither faculty nor students. Fortunately, there’s no need to look to another world for solutions. Just punch up our latest, most revolutionary app:
When Dante comes to himself in the dark wood, he has no idea where he is. Somehow, he realizes, he has strayed from the right path. He feels disoriented and confused. It is only after Virgil appears that he begins to get a sense of where he is and how he might get back on track. And Virgil’s teaching takes the form of both ideas and stories: ideas that orient, and stories that guide.
In the journey of academic life, it is important to get a sense of where you are. We find it useful to think of three fundamental dimensions: the person, the profession, and the institution. At every moment, our experience is configured by some constellation or alignment of these three. And each of them has both a general and a particular aspect.
Think, for example, about your colleagues. Each of them shares certain characteristics of temperament and behavior with other academicians, but each also manifests distinctive elements of personality, character, and individual history. Think about academia: it has the general features of all professions, but these are inflected by distinctive values, practices, and taboos such as academic freedom, peer review, or tenure. Think about your college or university: it operates the way all institutions do but in a style that reflects its particular history, character, and composition.
Much confusion arises, we believe, from ignoring one or more of these dimensions as we deal with our academic experience. So, let’s take a closer look.
Dante’s Divine Comedy begins with the protagonist coming to himself in a dark wood, astray from the right path, lost and depressed. He feels abandoned and alone; he can’t think straight; he’s easily intimidated by phantoms. Fear clouds his reason and rules his imagination. The poem tells us that he’s at the middle of the life journey, ripe for crisis. Fortunately, he finds a guide in Virgil, who combines reason with imagination to show him the way out. Virgil begins by telling his own story, then guides him through Hell with a combination of story and interpretation. In the process, Dante the pilgrim gathers the experience and wisdom he needs to become a story teller himself, and eventually, after climbing the mountain of Purgatory and ascending through the heavenly spheres, he is able to write the Comedy—not for angels or saints, but for people like us.
We identify with the Dante of the dark wood. How many times in the course of our careers have we felt confused, challenged by phantoms, betrayed by our colleagues or even by our own naiveté. And at the same time, how often have we been helped unexpectedly, buoyed by the generosity or wisdom of friends and colleagues, gifted with moments of healing insight, supported by the unaffected love of our spouses and children, or inspired—yet again—by the excitement of our students after a good class.
We are both at advanced stages of rather unusual careers. Mark put off college for more than a decade while he worked as a professional skier and mountaineer in the High Sierra. Then he married and went all the way through for a PhD in English, eventually landing at Keene State College in New Hampshire, where he achieved tenure and became chair of the English Department. Now, with two preteen-aged kids, he strives to balance work and family with professional ventures such as the ASLE mentoring program. John spent ten years as a regular professor before going over to the “dark side” as a dean and then resuming teaching as a mentor to adult learners in a nontraditional university, which eventually laid off its best faculty in response to a fiscal crisis. He has run a doctoral program but never held tenure, published books and articles but had only one sabbatical, and seen ecocriticism evolve from a dubious venture to a mainstream field of study.
Along the way both of us have learned the importance of community, family, networking, and balancing. Wisdom is as important as knowledge, even though the latter is mostly rewarded. Relationships count for as much as productivity, though they don’t pay as well. Balance fosters mental and emotional health, although institutions seldom factor it into their planning. In the end, we must take responsibility for our own happiness, which should not be confused with success. Mark’s and John’s complimentary but somewhat divergent histories will, we hope, give this blog a stereoscopic view of academic life.
And, if all goes well, our views will be deepened and enriched by yours. In the end, we all aspire to journey, as Dante did, from suffering through learning toward felicity. We all aspire, and need, to become story tellers. As Barry Lopez reminds us, sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.