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.

Warrior Tales: My First Job Search 3

After that conversation with Barb I pulled out of my depression.  Despondency was getting me nowhere.  I had financing for the rest of the year and a dissertation to complete.  That was the first order of business. Perhaps with degree in hand I would stand a better chance on the job market.  I resolved to stay in New Haven, finish up, and try again in the fall.  Meanwhile, I would look for stop-gap employment.  If worse came to worst, I could survive for another year on savings.  That would give me three shots at landing a teaching job.  Three strikes, and I would have to think about changing careers.

So I went forward with this plan, slogging ahead with the dissertation while exploring entry-level or temp jobs at Yale.  There were some possible admin or support positions, including sub-sub deanships, assistant program coordinators, and the like that would have kept me in bread but felt, at this point, like potboilers.  I thought about writing on the side, for self esteem as much as anything.  But in any event the positions wouldn’t come open until summer. There was nothing for it but to finish the diss, which seemed an increasingly hopeless chore.  What was it for?  Wouldn’t it just mean I would emerge overqualified for anything other than college teaching?

By the middle of March I had become inured, both to winter and to the general hopelessness of my prospects.  But then, unexpectedly, a call came from the department secretary.  They had heard of two temporary positions that might be attractive, “given your unusual interests.”  She meant, of course, mountains, wilderness, and nature in general.  Remember that this was the heyday of deconstruction; no one at Yale had heard of the nature writers, and ecocriticism was not even a blip on the horizon.  The positions  were at the universities of Montana and Utah, so of course she was right.  Both wanted a “utility infielder” to teach interdisciplinary humanities courses for the next three years, a perfect fit for a comparatist.

I applied right away and heard back within two weeks: a form rejection from Montana but from Utah an invitation to interview on campus. I remember stepping out of the plane to the uplifting sight of the snow-covered Wasatch Mountains towering eight thousand feet above Salt Lake City.  No doubt it was my enthusiasm as much as my degree that got me the job.  But after a winter of despair resided over by dismal numbers, it felt like a stroke of the purest luck. And three years seemed like all the time in the world.

What had I done to deserve this?  No more nor less than any of my grad student colleagues.  I was prepared for failure.  But I got lucky.  I got a start.  At the time it felt like a lottery, just like they were using for the draft.  It seemed a matter of chance rather than justice.  But all the same, before you can stay in the game, you have to get in.  And once you’re in, there’s a whole other set of issues to deal with.

But more on that later.  What did I learn from this experience?  First, you can do everything right and still not get hired. Qualifications are necessary but not sufficient; you also need luck and chemistry, both of which lie well outside your control.  Second, you need friends. Barb’s innocent comment shook me loose from paralysis, and I realized that no one would talk to me if all I did was mope and complain.  Third, you need a plan and you need to keep working.  Idleness only feeds depression, and almost any plan is better than none, as long as it gets you moving, and besides, you can always change it as things develop.  And finally, a bit of savings can make a huge emotional difference.  Knowing I could get by for a year gave me breathing room to imagine alternative futures.

These lessons paid off dramatically in the years ahead. I also saw them reflected in the experiences of colleagues and friends, both in  job searches and tenure reviews.

Warrior Tales: My First Job Search (2)

Back in school after the MLA convention I resumed my grad student routine, working at home in the morning and then trudging to the library in the afternoon.  Leafless New Haven was wrapped in what that old Connecticut Yankee Wallace Stevens had called a “wintry slime.”  The days were short, the wait was long.  Everything felt cheerless, dark, and deadly.  By the end of January it became clear that I would not be interviewing on any campus.  I had failed in the job search.  How could this have happened, when always before I had gotten top grades and succeeded with every application?  How was I going to live when my fellowship and GI bill ran out?  What was I going to do next year?

Having never imagined any career other than teaching—having, indeed, considered teaching a vocation rather than a job—I had no idea, no Plan B.  By early February I had become seriously and uncharacteristically depressed.  I could not concentrate on reading; I could hardly write, not even notes or sketches.  My guts hurt like a clenched fist.  I slept lightly and woke in a sweat from anxious dreams.  But by day I tried to keep up appearances, as if routine itself would somehow magically compensate for the disaster ahead.

One day as I walked in to campus past a row of stately mansions that the university had purchased for offices, a door opened and my friend Barbara came out of the anthro department.  She had been working on a dissertation in Old Norse when her advisor had suddenly died, and no one else in the English department had been willing to take her on.  Then her fellowship had expired.  Now she was trading water as a secretary.  She waved and smiled, “Hey JT, how’s it going?”

“Aw, Barb,” I said, “no interviews. I’m depressed.”

Her jaw dropped, “But you’re the blithe spirit!”

I shrugged, waved, and went on, thinking, “Shit, even my friends won’t let me be depressed.  This is the worst!”  But at the same time I realized the utter futility of it.  The feelings were real—the worry, the anger, the sense of injured merit—but they weren’t getting me anywhere.  Self-pity was not productive; there was no point in wallowing in it.  The thing was somehow to salvage my career and make a living. I had to figure something out.

Barb’s comment, so kindly meant, was really a whack on the side of the head.  I needed it.  It was a necessary, if not a sufficient, condition for moving on.  I would also need luck, and plenty of it.

Warrior Tales: My First Job Search (1)

In the fall of 1976 I was in my last year of grad school and two chapters away from a finished dissertation.  After five years in gritty New Haven, I longed for a job near wild country, preferably out west and close to the mountains, ideally at a small liberal arts college, but failing that, even a big state university would do.  In those days the job crunch was just coming on, and most universities offered little coaching or placement assistance beyond the requisite dossier file.  Your degree was expected to open doors and speak for itself. We all anticipated a soft landing right down the middle of the tenure track.

In October the MLA Job List arrived with about a hundred positions in American or Comparative Lit, a third of them in tempting locations.  I pulled out my Hermes manual typewriter and set to work.  This was long before word processors, flash drives, or email.  Each letter had to be composed and typed by hand, with a carbon copy for reference.  Rereading those letters now, after thirty years on both sides of the desk, I’m struck by their wooden formality and self-conscious posturing, both natural and logical consequences of following the MLA’s bad advice: their template for job letters guaranteed that readers would learn as much about the candidate as they would from a dissertation abstract.  But who knew?  We did what we were told.

I typed and mailed thirty-five letters, then sat waiting for replies, as nervous as a teenager hovering by the phone two weeks before prom.  A few places acknowledged my application, seven requested my dossier, and two invited me to interview at the MLA convention in New York.  Two out of thirty-five seemed like pretty tough odds, but at least I was doing better than some of my colleagues.

I remember standing on the sidewalk outside the Hotel Americana in Manhattan, wondering what my first MLA convention would feel like.  Inside were over two thousand English professors of every rank and station.  When Dante envisioned Hell, he simply crowded like-minded people into small, overheated places where they all talk past one another and nobody listens.  Such was the scene that I encountered inside.  Senior professors, fat with privilege, sailed through the press of job- and tenure-seekers like forty-foot yachts riding a light chop. The rest of us, lean and hungry, ranged about looking for sessions or interviews.

I arrived for my first interview at noon and was promptly offered a drink.  I noticed that the shades were drawn and the air smelled of whiskey.  After fumbling through the preliminaries, my host asked how I would teach Henry James, something that neither the job ad nor my dossier had mentioned.  It soon became clear that he had no idea who I was nor, indeed, what job he was trying to fill.  At my second interview, two hours later, a team of eight professors sat in a semi-circle firing questions as if I were a duck in a shooting gallery.  I must have held my own well enough, for they invited me to a departmental reception that evening, during which I was cornered by several grad students and regaled with horror stories about junior faculty life.

All in all, this hardly seemed like an auspicious start.  Nevertheless, I returned to New Haven undeterred and modestly hopeful.  After all, I had made the second cut and was still in the game.  I might still be called for campus interviews.  And both places were located in California, a stone’s throw from the glorious Sierra Nevada.

Rethinking Failure 2

When I was an undergraduate at Dartmouth back in the mythical 1960’s, people were always looking over their shoulders.  The school had a rugged outdoorsman mentality (it was all-male in those days), which compensated rather actively for the intense class work and studying that went on all week. Weekends were devoted to blowing off steam via drinking, skiing, partying, or road trips.  The more studious and intellectual were always looking off wistfully at places like Harvard, thinking that’s where we should have gone, while the more rugged among us vigorously performed our ruggedness as if to prove that, in spite of our smarts, we actually were real men.  In short, you had to succeed both physically and intellectually.

It was little better in grad school.  At Yale there was no rugged outdoor ethos; instead, you had metropolitan envy.  People were always looking over their shoulders at New York, and a kind of star system prevailed.  Prematurely gray faculty with book-white skin plodded between the department and the library, their outsized reputations trailing behind them like stellar magnetic fields.  Between classes, at lectures, during social events you could watch graduate students circling into orbit.  Everyone was thinking about position, reputation, and success.

Either way – and not just in the Ivy League – school was all about success.  It was about meeting goals set by the institution and its agents, the faculty.  We were encouraged to internalize these goals and discipline ourselves to achieve them.  School rewarded us according to performance.  It functioned as what Foucault would call a “governmentality,” and I mean to lay some emphasis on the last four syllables.  As Thoreau observed, “It is bad to have a southern overseer … but worse if you are the slave driver of yourself.”  It no wonder that schools would not teach, nor want to teach, about failure.  The subject is taboo.  And yet it sits on everyone’s mind.

Note how we speak of “failing” a course.  It could be construed in the sense of letting down or breaking down, as in “I failed you” or “the equipment (link, chain, bolt, coupling, component, mechanism) failed.”  Notice here the connotations of betrayal, disintegration, or collapse counterposed to the expectation of integrity, reliability, or strength.  Also of interest is the vivid “flunk”, a word of obscure origin but with a sturdy Anglo-Saxon heft.  It has overtones, as well, of “flush”, “thunk”, or “sunk”.  The onomatopoeia suggests an inert object falling and hitting the floor or sinking into deep water. Inertia is key: the object has no more energy or life, no power of self-motivation.  You can say, “He flunked the course” or simply, “He flunked,” or more expansively, “He flunked out.”   Charles Livingston (American Speech 21:1, 16-18) connects it to “funk”, meaning “to shy away from, avoid, back out.”   This sounds plausible, but where did the “l” come from?  It also occurs in “flop” and “flub”, whose connotations resonate with those of “flunk.”  The Oxford Dictionary of Etymology says that “flop” is a variation of “flap.”  I suppose a flap would flop if it opened and hit the ground.  As for “flub” it, too, is an Americanism “of obscure origin,” arising circa 1920.  Since “flunk” (also an Americanism) first appears circa 1800, its “l” does not descend from either of these but may share a common ancestor.

So, if you flubbed your exam and flunked the course, or worse, flunked out, it would certainly create a flap at home!

But we digress …

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.