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:
How does tenure appear from the point of view of the institution? We’ve discussed how the candidate sees it as a reward for past achievement and the department sees it as a marriage, but the institutional view is more complex. First and foremost, the institution sees tenure as an investment with a payback period of thirty-plus years. It’s a momentous decision with dramatic fiscal and political implications; hence it must be made with due diligence and care.
Faculty culture and union contracts have traditionally made tenure an obligation for institutions, part of the cost of doing business with faculty. Administrators have viewed it as annoying and inconvenient, an obstruction to the managerial discretion they feel is needed to solve problems. More enlightened leaders have recognized how it fosters institutional stability and brand identity, the “college family” so important to loyal alumni and, by extension, to fund-raising. Less commonly recognized is tenure’s long-term economic advantage: because it reduces mobility, institutions can keep salaries low compared to those in other learned professions. On balance, the economic benefits outweigh the costs, otherwise the tenure system would not persist.
For administration, which is tasked to operate and preserve the institution, economics is a big part of the picture, but not the only thing. Administrators tend to move around, because that is the only way they can move up, so their involvement with a given institution seldom exceeds ten years. During this relatively short time they have to do a good job, show progress, and exercise their creativity; appointments, tenure, and promotions offer one prominent means. Administrators prefer to grant tenure as little as possible in order to preserve flexibility, discretion, and opportunity; the candidate and the department must make a bomb-proof case, first to the college-wide review committee, and thence to administration, which holds the power to decide.
Thus, all kinds of factors come into play that have nothing to do with a candidate’s actual merit. Administrators pay close attention to the tides and breezes of politics, and tenure decisions can send strong messages to reward or punish key players, especially if there’s conflict over budget, curriculum, or institutional identity. Budget pressures, such as low enrollment or the high price of heating oil, can dry up a tenure slot that a candidate has been promised at hire and toward which he or she has been toiling in good faith. The institution’s public image may need polishing; racial, ethnic, gender or other criteria may enter in. (I know one up-and-coming university whose president has decreed that any new hires must be members of Phi Beta Kappa.) And if all this weren’t enough, there seems to be a kind of rhythm in institutional life whereby almost everyone gets tenure for several years, and then some people don’t, leading to widespread outcry and attempts at reform, after which the whole cycle repeats. The underlying reason seems simple enough: no dean or president looking to move up would want to appear soft on tenure; nor would any institution, for that matter.
In the end, the system can’t work unless some people are denied. Merit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Many are called but few are chosen; the others are cast out and left to fend for themselves. No one follows their stories. Those left inside close ranks and get back to business as usual. Indeed, it is very difficult to think of giving up hard-won privileges. But the fact is that tenure requires that the institution expel some deserving colleagues, who, in today’s depressed job market, can seldom find comparable jobs. Even if they do, they’ll have to go through the whole ordeal again.
The tenure system persists because it confers many benefits. But it also demands human sacrifice.
How does tenure look from the viewpoint of the profession as a whole? Some common features extend across disciplines, departments, and institutions. Because merit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for approval, the tenured ranks resemble a guild or a club whose members cherish a sense of eliteness, exclusiveness, and privilege while, at the same time, believing that these are all natural, logical consequences of ability and performance. No one who has received tenure feels it was undeserved.
To the profession at large, the tenure review performs a vital gate-keeping function. It’s the final barrier to mediocrity, the last chance to weed out slackers and underachievers who have somehow managed to slip through. It protects the profession by enforcing standards of rigor, brilliance, and hard work. Call it a quality-control mechanism if you like. But notice that the principle of peer review, which is commonly invoked in justification, embodies a fundamental contradiction. For a peer is an equal, but here those doing the review are already tenured. They may consider themselves peers to one another, but certainly not to the candidate. In practice, the designation of peer simply means holding a Ph.D. in the same field; it obscures the power relations that really govern the situation.
The main justification for tenure given by the profession, via the AAUP first and foremost, is that it protects academic freedom. No doubt this is true to an extent, as anyone who has worked at an institution without tenure (including myself) can attest. But it is not only reason that tenure endures, nor, in my view, even the primary reason. Academic freedom has the same oxymoronic, obscuring quality as peer review. If your ideas threaten or contest those of a senior colleague, you had better keep them to yourself, or else they may put you at risk for tenure. If your research challenges existing paradigms, you will find it hard to get a fellowship or a grant; just think for a moment about who gets to sit on the committees that review proposals and applications. In short, academic freedom does not apply equally. In practice, it’s a privilege largely reserved for the tenured.
From inside the club, tenure is also justified as a form of compensation. We all know how fond academics are of complaining about their low salaries in comparison to those of other learned professions. But in fact academic people seem to prefer privilege, status, and security to income. If they wanted real money, they’d go into administration or business. As one senior colleague admitted, “They pay me with tenure.”
Tenure, it seems, is both a meal ticket and an admission ticket. Without it, you not only don’t eat, you don’t get to stay at the table. From the inside, denial of tenure is viewed as a terminal diagnosis, a death sentence. Anyone who has looked for a job after tenure denial — or, for that matter, considered hiring such a one — knows how hard it is to overcome the stigma of damaged goods. Some, it’s true, do manage to find other teaching jobs, but most will take a lateral arabesque into administration or leave academia altogether, becoming part of the gray, exiled, undocumented mass of the Disappeared.
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.
My best race at the national championships, during the 1980s, and in the 1984 Olympic trials, was the fifty kilometer marathon. At the time I was training six hundred hours a year. To use John’s words, these were indeed years of feeling “trained, toned, stoked, pumped, psyched.”
Watching the Olympics, for me, is coming back to a former self. I recall the focus and dedication—and the feelings of success and achievement when winning a race, setting a course record, or placing among the top finishers in a national field of competitors. Too, I remember the gradual recognition that I could not sustain the ever-narrowing focus that comes with success as a nationally competitive athlete. The closer I reached the elite ranks of an activity I loved, the more I found myself narrowing my focus in training, if not in life.
Reading Mike’s “Counting What Counts” has me thinking about the full engagement of the warrior phase. The image of a warrior on Liberty Bell (an elegant spire in the North Cascades I’ve had the good fortune to climb!) embodies the strength, flexibility, and centeredness that only develops through years of conscious activity. The metaphor that aligns the life of the body and the life of the mind is helpful for me, in particular, as someone who was climbing mountains and backcountry skiing when not sitting in a seminar room, or working in the Suzzallo library, at the University of Washington.
Staying alive through the Warrior Phase, at least for me, involved translating the practice of strength, flexibility, and centeredness in my activities out of doors to the personal, professional, and institutional self I was discovering in school. But of course translation can be difficult, especially in a university culture that limits the range of intellectual activities graduate students and faculty members are able to pursue. For too often we restrict, as Mike says, the full range and capacity of intellectual growth of our faculty. For those of us who love our work (Mike and I are kindred spirits, it seems), I would ask that we speak more authentically about what we do: the real work that we think should be valued. As full, tenured professors we have a special obligation to cultivate our suspicion of institutions at the same time that we throw ourselves into the ongoing and never-ending labor of making them more humane. For those who find less satisfaction or opportunity in the intellectual culture of the academy, I would ask a similar authentic way of speaking about how strength, flexibility, and centeredness have helped them stay alive despite the challenges and inequities that are endemic to any domain of labor. As Mike attests, “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.”
At one time, I imagined working in a large graduate program at a large research university. And Mike’s posting reminds me of the satisfactions I experienced as a graduate student and during my years as a postdoctoral instructor at a research school. I am confident that had my work of reading, writing and teaching taken root in this kind of institution, I would have thrived on precisely those human connections and possibilities to pursue my love of research and writing, activities to which Mike so eloquently attests. However, the trajectory of intellectual work, as Mike suggests, can be “stiflingly, perhaps dangerously, circumscribed,” opening up a rift between the personal and professional dimensions of our lives. Mike’s litany of professional activities considered virtually meaningless within at least some research universities should give anyone pause: 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. How can we devalue these intellectual commitments? How might we cultivate strength, flexibility, and centeredness in institutions that have no intrinsic interest in these significant relational activities?
I admit, recent posts have been pretty hard on success. No doubt some of you will be asking, why should we not aspire? Are we to shun ambition and go live in the sun? Everyone admires the discipline, effort, and drive that push the limits of human thought and performance. Why shouldn’t we take inspiration from the Michael Phelpses, Lance Armstrongs, or Reinhold Messners of this world? If, as Blake said, exuberance is beauty, how much more beautiful it is when someone throws their whole soul into some endeavor. Why begrudge an Olympic gold medal or Nobel prize under the guise of a more exalted philosophy? Even the I-Ching says that perseverance furthers.
Fair enough. But what’s really at issue is not success per se, but rather the worship of success, which D.H. Lawrence famously called “the bitch goddess.” We all need some success in order to maintain self-esteem, stay in the game, and put food on the table. A moderate level of success can nourish both body and soul. Beyond that, three serious problems arise.
First, consider the how the world rewards endeavor. Success means you get to do more of the same. If you teach well, they give you tenure. If your book sells, your publisher wants another. If you do well at your job, you get promoted. You become known for what you are good at. Opportunities come your way, and the more you take advantage of them, the more come knocking at the door. Success feeds on itself; that’s why we say that “nothing succeeds like success.” Because everyone loves a winner.
With the world’s rewards coming thick and fast, and even faster as time goes on, it becomes very difficult to step aside. But that is often what your growth requires. Growth, by definition, means change, development, new things, new ventures, stretching yourself, taking risks, discovery, maturation, uncertainty, even anxiety, perhaps even pain. But it also means vitality, health, and a sense of unfolding. We feel most alive when we are learning and growing; we feel happy and young. From this point of view, success can appear as a hindrance. Too much can limit our vision and even our desire for growth. We can settle into the comfort of our competencies. But, as the wise person said, if you are sitting on your laurels, it means you are wearing them in the wrong place.
Second, consider how many of your most memorable experiences, the ones from which you learned the most, did not come by choice but by chance, or from your enemies, or through some catastrophe in the outside world. Do you really think you are the best judge of what’s good for you? What does your life tell you in this regard? Has it always been good for you to write your own ticket? Certainly, that’s one way the world rewards success, and we commonly think of it as a good thing. But is it? Getting one’s way may feel affirming at first, but a well-worn path soon deepens into a rut, and thence into a ravine from which it becomes increasingly difficult to see beyond the rim.
How much worse, then, when we internalize ambition and achievement so that they become bound up with our own sense of self. Not only institutions, but people become addicted to success. “How,” asked Thoreau, “can he remember well his ignorance—which his growth requires—who has so often to use his knowledge?” As academicians, how admiringly we regard those who are “disciplined” and “productive”, forgetting that these are also characteristic of machines.
And this brings us to the third problem with success, which is that it’s not inevitable. It depends on luck and circumstances as well as on ability, effort, or qualifications. We all want to feel in control of our lives, as so we study hard, work hard, and try to do all the right things. And still we may not get the job, we may be denied tenure, our true love may fall for someone else, our book deal may blow up, our institution may implode, our prudent investment may evaporate overnight. Because, as medieval sages knew, Fortune will turn her wheel. The Black Swan will appear. Shit happens.
To loosen the hold of success on your imagination, always do what brings you joy, feeds your spirit, and feels worth doing for its own sake. Learn from everything, no matter how painful, for if you are in a learning mode, you can’t lose.
And with that, we turn to the Warrior Phase.
In a lunch conversation with a job candidate yesterday we found our way to the subject of student engagement. We were talking about developing what John McPhee memorably called in his book-length profile of Bill Bradley, a sense of where you are. We touched on the struggles young people have as they weigh the experience of college, sort through the often conflicting impulses to focus on means or ends, and imagine a meaningful relationship between their academic experiences and the results of those experiences beyond school.
The challenges of our academic lives, it seems to me, revolve around similarly conflicting impulses. On the one hand, we are where we are, and the opportunities of our professional lives take place in the day-to-day labor of reading, writing and teaching. On the other hand, we frequently lose that place as we seek to move from where we are to someplace else. I’ve already written here on what seems to me the necessity of movement in academic life. But what about learning to embrace the work we are privileged to find ourselves doing? What about making the most of it? What about living in the present, the place we have constructed through the choices we have made as well as by the conditions that have shaped our choices?
My conversations with John have helped me to think more productively across the phases of an academic career. These conversations have intersected with the little reading and thinking I have done on life stages: Erik Erikson’s stages of adult life, Robert Keegan’s evolving self, Carl Jung’s process of individuation and Parker Palmer’s more recent explorations of identity and integrity. And I have sketched the map of development that identifies the student or apprentice, the warrior, the householder, and the sadhu.
Complicating my own personal and professional arc has been that my initiation into the apprentice phase happened much later in life (I decided to go to college when I entered my twenty-eighth year). In fact, the first piece of writing I published in an academic journal, a collaboratively written essay, sought to complicate the phase of apprenticeship in an academic life. For me, the warrior phase was mostly played out in athletic competition—through years of national-level Nordic ski racing or through the inwardly focused challenges of mountaineering. I now see that my successes in graduate school may have had much to do with having already entered into a transitional phase, as a “nontraditional student,” where struggling and settling in were unfolding in a mutually constitutive way. Looking back, in fact, my intellectual interest in methods of inquiry that preoccupied me during graduate school may have been working through the complicated intersections of personal and professional development precisely where I was.
More recently I had the good fortune to have been granted and, perhaps more importantly, to have returned from a sabbatical leave. This hard-earned moment helped me to see the rewards of what we have been calling here the settler/householder phase, where scholarly commitments and productivity are deeply entwined with commitments to leadership and community. This has been the most apparent gift of my academic life. For I am fortunate to be a member of an academic institution that genuinely values forms of intellectual work beyond the more solitary activities of reading and writing. I cannot imagine any more a life without this solitude (as I once could not imagine a life without days, even weeks, in the mountains). But as I look at where my energies are focused these days I can see how deeply invested I really am in trying to honor the communities of people in which I work.
My sense of where I am includes an awareness of transition and movement. Carrying forms of wisdom and cultivating the significance of story in our lives—what we are calling here the elder phase—seems to me to be associated with the phase of life and profession named in that strange metaphor of the full professor, a title I now find myself carrying. Come to think of it, part of what I have been doing these past few years is listening to those elders I most admire, allowing their words and actions to infuse the possible ways I might move through the ongoing succession of moments that will make up the coming years of this academic life.
We need more of what Bradley brings to all of what he has done in his life—in his case, that preternatural presence on the hardwood floor, that intellectual ability to move without the ball and the awareness that one’s life unfolds across a life’s path that we really have more power to live in than our past (and future) experiences might suggest.
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.
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.
There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden
As a doctor of philosophy and erstwhile scholar I’m thinking that Thoreau’s chain of terms to describe the dictates of wisdom–“simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust”–sound pretty darn good. But as with most of the things Thoreau tells me, I am looking for some purchase, some way of mapping such high-minded dictates onto the contours of this life.
Earlier this month I was asked to give a keynote address to faculty, students and their families at the annual Keene State College 2009 Academic Excellence Program. While I am skeptical of the discourse of excellence-as anyone who has read Bill Reading’s book or the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu should be-I am an enthusiastic supporter of the goals of the annual event: to give undergraduate students the opportunity to share their intellectual work with a broad audience and to work closely with students beyond the classroom. In any given year over 350 students and family members, faculty, staff, community members, area legislatures and university trustees attend the gathering.
On my professional blog I talked a bit about how my address, The Trouble with Scholarship, came together as I thought about questions. But as I was thinking about where questions come from, why we take them up, how they move us from where we are to someplace new, I was also reading Wayne Booth’s essays in The Vocation of a Teacher. Booth got me thinking about the words “calling” and “vocation” and their uses in describing what college and university professors do with their valuable time. As I understand it, a calling is a summons of some kind, a motivation from on high, an invocation of purpose that appeals to transcendent purposes and values as a guide. A vocation, on the other hand, seems to be a kind of orientation to what one does, a way of talking about a calling but perhaps something that is more grounded in an internal motivation for one’s work. Avocation, surely, would be worth thinking about in relation to vocation. I’d like to quibble with the idea that a person’s avocation is a calling away-a minor occupation or hobby, a calling off, diverting, distracting, or interrupting.
If you are reading this post, and you are working in or around the college or university, might you take a few moments to make visible the person behind the more visible teaching persona, expertise and list of professional accomplishment? How does a vocation differ from a job or a career? What makes the kind of work many of us do with students every day meaningful and fulfilling? How does one sustain a sense of meaning and purpose in the current academic world where working conditions vary dramatically and where idealistic narratives predicated on notions of a “calling” or “vocation” might seem to be merely quaint if not obtuse? Where exactly do we find meaning and satisfaction in our work with students and/or in our scholarly preoccupations?