Retirement as Challenge

By John Knott

To a professor retirement can feel like an open-ended sabbatical, offering the luxury of time to write and travel unconstrained by an academic calendar. At first it was natural and easy to stick to familiar ways, researching, writing, and continuing to teach a course I had recently developed. When the director of The Nature Conservancy in Michigan proposed that I edit a book on the Conservancy’s Michigan preserves, I agreed, after persuading her that it should include essays by writers as well as photographs. This project complemented a book in progress (Imagining the Forest, on the evolution of cultural attitudes toward the forests of the upper Midwest) and gave me insights into the working of the Conservancy and the opportunity to go into the field with biologists and writers. It presented new challenges, including appealing to a general audience and respecting the norms of a large NGO accustomed to working with big business and government as well as scientists, that left no doubt that I had gotten outside the academic bubble.

Into the Forest with a Seeing Eye (Photo by John Knott)

Working on the Conservancy project, as well as on a book that took me into areas including environmental history and restoration ecology, convinced me that reorienting myself could be more energizing and enjoyable than doing more of what I had in pursuing an academic career. A half dozen years into retirement I was looking for other kinds of challenges and found them mainly in writing personal essays and fragments of a memoir, with the support of an established writing group that provided structure and an audience, and in taking workshops in nature photography. My ultimate audience for writing of the sort I have been doing lately is family, chiefly children and grandchildren, and friends who might appreciate particular essays. I’ve tried to shake off old habits of academic writing and develop a different kind of voice. I’ve learned from my colleagues in the writing group, few of whom have had academic careers, and put together a body of work that my children actually seem to enjoy reading. I’m still learning to be reflective about my experience and to find effective ways of representing it, recognizing that imagination plays with memory as we invent our versions of the truth.

Photography workshops, in my case weeklong affairs run by professionals in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula or the Smokies, have brought greater challenges. Imagine a group of amateur photographers, some of them highly skilled, roused before dawn each morning to take advantage of the early light and expected to produce several images that can be critiqued by the instructor and the group later that day or the next. You are under pressure to find and compose promising shots, some of which you will process and submit for critiquing. It’s like being a freshman all over again, having to scramble and hoping that your work stands up to scrutiny. With a skilled instructor and supportive fellow students you tend to learn fast. You may even begin to produce images that you are pleased to share and preserve.

I value my connections with my university and with former colleagues and enjoy continuing to do a little teaching, but what really keeps me going is finding new ways of challenging myself. If not now, when?

John Knott

John Knott is Professor of English, Emeritus, at the University of Michigan.  An ecocritic and long-time member of ASLE, he retired in 2006.



Counting What Counts

John and I welcome your thoughts on exploring the challenges of sustaining an emotionally, ethically, and spiritually healthy life in academia. We are grateful to our friend and colleague Michael P. Branch, professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada Reno, for his interest in the Staying Alive project. May his words inspire you to join the conversation.

I’ve enjoyed reading Mark’s and John’s thoughtful postings regarding concepts of success and failure in professional life, and I’m deeply grateful that their work in Staying Alive will reach and help so many folks who aspire to meaningful labor in the often vexing, boxes-within-boxes world of twenty-first century academic life.

I work in the humanities, in a large graduate program at a large research university, and—despairing comments about research universities notwithstanding—I find the work extremely meaningful and challenging. I especially value the lifelong professional friendships I develop with graduate students—people with whom I work very closely, and whose professional success is to my mind inseparable from my own. When I help a doctoral student succeed with a challenging dissertation project, or secure employment necessary to support their family, or find their way toward a productive feeling of comfort in the profession, I feel that I’ve succeeded with work that is truly meaningful. I also love research and writing, and so I appreciate the opportunity to labor in an institutional setting where that sort of work is valued.

That said, in recent years I have become increasingly troubled by what I view as a radical narrowing of institutional definitions of individual professional success. I refer not to my home institution specifically but rather to the profession at large—and especially, to the articulation of priorities within the research university. In considering this issue of how institutions define success and failure I’m often reminded of Einstein’s astute observation that “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” More so than in the past, I believe, institutionally sanctioned definitions of success are often stiflingly, perhaps dangerously, circumscribed. Here, for example, is a short list of some of the kinds of professional activities that are considered virtually meaningless within at least some research universities: publishing in non-peer-reviewed venues; publishing edited collections; book review publishing or editing; editing special issues of journals; collaborative writing and editing; writing for general or popular audiences; scholarship that focuses on pedagogy; research that is out of one’s supposed area of expertise; mentoring junior faculty or students; service learning; contributing to professional development forums such as Staying Alive; and, most tellingly, community service of any kind whatsoever. Indeed, it is often the case that faculty who engage in these activities are simply perceived as having made poor choices. Because they have not pursued what Mark accurately describes as “the individualistic and hierarchical model of academic success” that is prevalent in the profession, their failure is viewed as the inevitable result of their lack of judgment. That is, their failure is defined precisely by the incongruity of their activities with the institution’s circumscribed sense of what matters. Clearly, though, not everything that counts is being counted.

It might be argued that the narrowing I describe is an unavoidable consequence of an attempt to fulfill the mission of institutions for which the production of specialists—researchers who can achieve prominence, improve recruitment, generate grant money, and place graduate students—is precisely what constitutes success. But even bearing these institutional priorities in mind, I would argue that the extreme circumscription of what counts has harmful effects that are substantial and often unrecognized. First, the narrowing of what counts produces a more homogenous faculty and professional culture in which fewer points of view exist and thus fewer fresh ideas are likely to circulate. Second, when many different forms of professional activity are defined as irrelevant to success, the richness and range of our intellectual engagement is profoundly restricted. Third, narrow definitions of success deter risk taking among faculty, which is to say that the narrower is the definition of success, the fewer are the opportunities for meaningful professional growth. Fourth, definitions of professional success that devalue service to a community obviously promote corrosive forms of self interest. Finally, and to me most important, any valorization of expertise that results in the suppression of risk taking, intellectual growth, expansion of range, diversification of forms of engagement, genuine creativity, and the nurturing of an ethic of service necessarily provides our students a pernicious model of professional success—one that is unlikely to make them either more fulfilled as people or more effective in whatever profession they may ultimately enter.

I love my work and I strive to do it well, both for my own benefit and for the benefit of others. As a professional I am neither discontented nor cynical. I do not believe that the problem I’ve described is entirely new, or that it occurs only at research universities—or, indeed, that it is specific to the academy. I maintain an Emersonian suspicion that most large institutions, often working under the banner of standards and assessment, ultimately tend toward real (if often benign) forms of control—that they tend toward a narrowing rather than an expansion of what counts—with the consequence that they become constraining, bureaucratized, or moribund. I don’t believe, as some do, that the problem is the solipsistic careerism of the professoriate, or that research universities are fundamentally ill-conceived. I do believe that, for a number of reasons that are considerably less compelling than they may at first appear, we have allowed our understanding of professional success in the academy to become far too limited. As Emerson wrote, it is “as if one looking at the ocean can remember only the price of fish.” We desperately need to nurture recognition that there are many different ways to think, write, teach, and serve, and that many varied forms of professional activity and achievement are meaningful, meritorious, and worthy of our respect and support. We need to encourage our academic institutions to do a better job of counting what counts, and when they are incapable of doing so we need to have the courage to do what counts even, and perhaps especially, when we know that it will not be counted.