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.

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Tenure: the Institutional View

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.

Why the Warrior?

Recently I visited an old friend from graduate school who has just retired after a long and distinguished career.  He had been a pacifist during the Viet Nam war and had taught at a small liberal arts college, inspiring generations of students to love poetry and protect the environment.  He was excited about our work with the Staying Alive Project but disturbed by our use of the Warrior as a key metaphor.  Why had we chosen a figure that evoked violence, aggression, and the crushing of one’s opponents?  Wasn’t there already enough conflict in academia?  After three decades of trying to make things work in his own department, where many of  the old guard had been hostile to new theory and felt threatened by dynamic younger faculty, he had concluded that peace was much better than war, compassion more honorable than judgment, and reconciliation preferable to outright victory.

As we traded stories, it became clear that he had actually fought in many battles, from which he still bore scars.  He had nurtured junior colleagues only to see them denied tenure; his scholarship had been publicly attacked by ideologues; he had arm-wrestled with deans for the resources needed to sustain a nascent environmental studies program that is now regarded as one of the best in the nation; he had been tempted by offers of high-ranking administrative positions that would have given him power at the expense of family, community, and teaching.  How had he managed to survive with both soul and career intact?

Our conversation rvealed that warrior skills are not just for war, but for life, and for peace as well.  In order to prevail in these conflicts, he had had to keep his balance, cleaving to his core values while listening to others and trying, always, to turn the conversation down a creative path.  I remember him saying how much he valued the moral support of his wife and friends in the community, and how he had drawn strength from poetry, nature writing, and religious practices such as Quaker meeting and Zen meditation.  Throughout it all he had clung to his faith in the best possibilities of human nature, forgiving as best he could those who had crossed or attacked him, recognizing their own suffering, inviting dialogue while standing his ground.  He never lost hope or aspiration.  He never became embittered or indifferent.  But it was not easy.  He suffered, and he sometimes lost.

My friend is a remarkable man, but his situation and skills are not.  He is a man of peace who had to become a warrior. For conflict is inescapable in human life, because we are different, and whenever we get close to one another, the differences rub and chafe.  Friction causes warmth at first, then a spark, and finally an explosion.  All that energy!  How can we use it for creativity, growth, or healing instead of blowing up the house or wounding each other?  Every conflict with others is also a struggle with ourselves, with our own ideas, identity, and limitations.  It’s always easier to push the other away than to entertain a threatening idea or listen without anxiety. And if attacked, we first react defensively, striking out or running away.  To stand our ground and listen takes a lot of work.  In the end, peace is not only nobler, but more challenging than war.  It takes more strength, balance, will power, and imagination.

Think about it.  Which is harder, overcoming the other, or overcoming yourself?

Rethinking Success 4

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.

Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Person

Those who work as adjuncts or part-timers give varying accounts of their situation.  For some, it works; for others it doesn’t.  But the basic facts remain pretty consistent: low pay, no job security, no benefits, and the lowest status in the profession.  How can you make such conditions work for you?  It depends on who you are and what you want out of life.

Until recently, most adjunct faculty were experts employed elsewhere, who were brought in for special knowledge and skills that the regular faculty lacked.  They were recruited for particular programs on an as-needed basis.  Because they were employed elsewhere, their pay was in the nature of an honorarium, and their work was considered largely pro bono.  People took adjunct gigs out of a sense of social or professional responsibility, for the opportunity to teach and in that way to give back some of what they had gained.  Teaching was a refreshing change from their normal work life.  They did not think of themselves as professional educators.

Part-time faculty also realized some benefits.  Frequently, they were people who had left the work force to raise children or take care of aging parents, or, as faculty spouses, found themselves stuck in place and had to take the best option available for maintaining some sort of professional life.  Some part-timers were eventually able to work their way into full-time positions; others found the freedom and flexibility preferable to the up-or-out demands and legendary stress of the tenure track.

With the erosion of regular faculty positions and the abundance of available Ph.D.’s, adjunct and part-time work has now become the norm.  We now have thousands of adjuncts and part-timers making a career out of it.  These include many with terminal degrees and extensive publications.  But it is difficult to see how one can live on $21,000 a year, which is the average going rate for teaching ten courses.  And that emolument does not include the “psychic dollars” one gains from a regular position, with its sense of institutional citizenship and all the supports that go with it.

On September 5 of this year, Marc Bousquet posted a blog in the Chronicle’s “Brainstorm” section called “Meet Maria.”  Maria holds a Ph.D. in anthropology and suffers from mental illness.  She held and lost several tenure-track jobs before being reduced to adjuncting, which left her destitute and on the brink of homelessness.  She is now training to be  nursing assistant, which is a dirty and dangerous job that pays around $12 an hour, but at least, she says, you can find a position.

Maria’s testimony is heartbreaking, lucid and full of self-awareness.  She accepts responsibility for her situation, and she’s trying to make lemonade out of lemons by organizing a research project on health care workers.  Her goal, she says, is to keep from becoming homeless, and she has plenty to say about the trials of adjunct life.

As I read this story, it occurred to me that adjuncting and part-timing can feel like a kind of professional homelessness.  You lack a “home institution”, an “institutional home,” a place where you belong.  This is a pregnant metaphor – and we’ll examine more  in the weeks ahead – that tells us about the values and beliefs that underlie behavior.  We all want a home; we all want to feel at home; we all want and need to belong.  But we also judge people by where they belong – by their houses, their neighborhoods, their institutions.  Poverty and homelessness make us uncomfortable – they might be contagious!  In the eyes of regular faculty, adjuncts are tainted by failure, which is assumed to be their own fault.  As Maria observes, “Who wants to spend time with a loser?”

The issue, for those who adjunct or part-time, is how to turn the situation to advantage.  How can you thrive in a state of professional homelessness?  Thoreau, who advocated not owning a farm, liked the freedom to wander throughout the town and enjoy the best part of the landscape, which always yielded an “instant and immeasurable” crop without any labor on his part.  He also conducted an active literary and intellectual life without any connection to a university.  “Let not to get a living be thy trade, but thy sport,” he declared.  Nevertheless, we have to remember that he did frequently avail himself of Mrs. Emerson’s apple pies.

The good people of Concord thought of Thoreau as a loser, but he didn’t think of himself that way.  Nor did Maria.  That is at least half the battle.  If you have no home, you can be at home everywhere.  Perhaps it is time to rethink the uses of failure.

Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Profession

A recent study reported in the Chronicle demonstrates that tenured and tenure-track faculty do not seem altogether opposed to the increasing reliance on adjuncts and part-timers.  You would think that all professors would care enough about the erosion of their profession to defend its cherished structures and practices, including full-time status and tenure.  But it turns out that, while they are willing to defend for themselves, they are unwilling to do so for others.

Indeed, there seems to be a kind of Faustian pact between the regular faculty and the institution where adjuncts and part-timers are concerned.  The latter teach mainly introductory courses or discussion sections, freeing the former for upper-division and graduate courses.  Institutions have long recognized that faculty are willing to be paid in security and prestige as much as in cash. These, in fact, account for a good portion of the “psychic dollars” made famous by Governor Brown, and, best of all, they don’t show up on the books.  But in order to maintain prestige, you must have a pecking order, and job security across the board creates management headaches.  The solution?  Prestige and job security for the few, the proud, the privileged; hard work with scant reward for the rest.

The regular faculty buy into this arrangement, some cheerfully, some with misgivings, but they all accept it and some even defend it. Thus, they become part of the problem.

I have observed that faculty tend to be politically liberal.  They vote democratic, support environmental reform, advocate equal rights, champion the oppressed, decry financial abuse and corporate greed, all that sort of thing.  Professionally, however, they tend to be ultraconservative.  Just take a mild swipe at tenure, academic freedom, peer review, or the prestige of someone’s institution and watch what happens.  I once asked a senior colleague, who acknowledged the usual catalog of inequities, whether he would be willing to give up tenure if it led to a fairer and more just system.  He blanched. “They pay me with tenure,” he said.

Comments like these remind me of Dr. Paul Farmer’s wistful remark about the rich liberals who extol his medical  projects in Haiti:  “They want to save the world at no cost to themselves.”

As for prestige, everyone knows that reputation counts for a great deal in academia.  Almost the first thing people want to know is where you teach.  Once they pry it out of you, you can read instant judgment in their faces.  They have pegged, labeled, and filed you, like a card in the hand, or in a catalog.  Forget about your story.  Forget about what they might learn by listening or asking.  It is very hard to escape this sort of thinking, no matter which side you are on.  Internalized shame is as common as outward humiliation in our world.

Indeed, hierarchy and prestige seem to have grown naturally from the rich soil of privilege and comparative judgments, which may begin with the simple and inescapable fact that professors have to grade students almost every day.  We acquire the habit of judgment and discrimination so early that it becomes instinctual, even unconscious.

If I were to give you a random list of institutions, you could easily rank them by reputation and influence.  I would bet that a random sample of your colleagues would rank them pretty much the same way.  At the top would be research institutions with no students at all, such as the Institute for Advanced Study, followed by doctoral universities, and on down through master’s institutions, baccalaureate institutions, and two-year colleges all the way to community colleges and technical schools.  With some exceptions for antiquity and elitism, colleges rank below universities.  It’s clear that our profession considers teaching less prestigious than research, and basic courses less desirable than advanced courses.

All this suggests that the profession itself supports the adjunct and part-time system because it, in turn, upholds the system of hierarchy and prestige.  When strapped for cash, they can still pay you off with privilege.  If it works for you, it works for them.  It just doesn’t work for the people at the bottom.

Adjuncts and Part-Timers: Role of the Institution

The Chronicle issue on adjuncts and part-timers quotes a number of people who have reconciled themselves to life with a heavy but uncertain teaching load, low pay, no job security, no benefits, and the lowest level of status that you can occupy and still be called a professional.  Some of these folks appear resigned, some seem embittered, some seem content with the tradeoffs, and some even appear to enjoy the life or at least see its advantages.  Those who accept the life seem to choose it for the freedom to come and go, maintain a flexible schedule, and continue to work with students, which they love and which provides meaning and purpose; these benefits, to them, outweigh the inequities and insecurity.  For them, apparently, it all comes down to balance.

I applaud everyone who aspires to a balanced life and chooses accordingly, but at the same time it’s hard to stomach the inequities and injustices perpetrated by the adjunct and part-time system.  And I’m not talking just about faculty, but about students and their parents as well.  Ask me, a  parent of college students, what sort of people I want teaching my daughters, and I will say smart, empathic scholars of good character who embody the virtues of creativity, knowledge, wisdom, and intellect, who teach with love and care about their students.  I want people who will care about my daughters, who will nurture their development as whole persons; I want people my daughters can get to know and who will inspire them to learn.  I want to entrust their education to institutions that devote themselves to promoting and nurturing such values.

What am I to think of a university that staffs two thirds of its undergrad credit hours with adjuncts and part-timers?  No doubt many, perhaps even all, of these people are dedicated and competent teachers, but what is the institution telling me when it pays them so miserably and gives them no stake in the institution?  It tells me just what it thinks their work is worth, which is 75% less than that of the regular faculty.  It tells me, further, that it is perfectly willing to exploit them but does not want to be held accountable for their performance.  If they don’t do a good job, they can simply be fired – for that matter, they can be fired for any reason at all – and that’s the end of it as far as the institution is concerned.  But what about the students who have taken their courses?  You guessed it: they are on their own; we wash our hands of them.

No institution can afford to admit that it exploits its own students or, more accurately, their parents and the state taxpayers, who are the actual customers.  Yet they charge the same tuition regardless of who does the teaching.  How many administrators or trustees would want their own kids to attend a school that takes no ongoing responsibility for its faculty, where teachers come and go, where most feel no sense of belonging or ownership of either the program or the community?  Sadly, these economic and professional realities undercut the institution’s claims to put students  first.  Too often, it seems, the business of the university is not education, but simiply staying in business.

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.)

The Bureaucratization of the Imaginative

Among the most pernicious paradoxes of academic scholarship in the humanities is that the demand for publication is most acute in the earliest stages of an academic career when a scholar’s knowledge of a field of study is less developed and the timeline for a writing a book more compressed. As a result of linking publication with the promise of further employment, the stakes are high, and the bureaucratic demand for the publication of books before tenure often produces lesser scholarship—indeed books that are less useful and less interesting to read.

What to do? As John Guillory points out in his most recent essay on scholarship and publication, “How Scholars Read,” the paradox becomes visible as early as graduate school. For graduate faculty know that “the conceptualization of a dissertation project is constrained not by the imagination of the student but by the requisites of a job market that ruthlessly rejects scholarship that does not conform to current models of organization and address current topics.” It is no wonder, then, that many people find themselves doing increasingly specialized work and producing writing that very few people will find reason to read. The costs of doing such work are interesting to consider across the career of a scholar. It would be helpful, for example, to understand how people feel about writing books under duress and without the requisite knowledge and perspective that comes from reading more widely over a longer duration. Unfortunately, I am not able to speak to this condition, as I explicitly made the case to my colleagues in my pre-tenure self-evaluations that I had chosen not to write the book that my dissertation might pretend to be—and that I had chosen not to write one of the possible books that lurked in my dissertation chapters. As my graduate advisor Leroy Searle once generously pointed out, my dissertation pointed to a lifetime of intellectual work. And he was right. For in explicitly rejecting the false expediency that comes out of equating scholarly engagement with publication, I’ve been able to write (and publish) consistently and with pleasure across the first ten years of my career as a tenure-track faculty member. Looking back over the thinking I’ve done that has found its way into print I recall the challenges and pleasures of working to make a scholarly argument. I also see how the thinking I was doing in no way called for a book that I (and others) might very likely have looked back on with far less interest or enjoyment.

Guillory’s “How Scholars Read” makes visible the kinds of reading scholars do of one another’s work. As he points out, the proliferation of unread or casually read scholarship in the humanities no longer serves the function of what we might call progress, the discoveries and new arguments and innovative methods we associate with genuine intellectual work. More importantly, such proliferation of monographs, and the system of academic advancement that drives such publication, diminishes the value of teaching. “Would it be healthier in some ways if we scholars taught more and wrote less?” Guillory asks. “When I have tended this modest proposal to colleagues,” he goes on to say, “I have been greeted with the stunned silence reserved for the most intolerable social impropriety. Such discomfort,” he concludes, “betrays what we have repressed so successfully, the origin of the current system of academic publication and advancement. . .that redistributed labor time from teaching to research.”

The stunned silence of colleagues, I will presume, is the silence of those who are most invested in what Kenneth Burke once called the bureaucratization of the imaginative or, to make my case more directly, those most invested in retaining a particular distribution of work in a university job. While this may seem impertinent, I am increasingly convinced that these investments in the status quo cut to the heart of the relationship between success and happiness in the current academe. I think Guillory’s word “healthier” can be read in more than one way. For me, as someone who teaches in a college that values teaching in its promotion and tenure process, an alternative model for scholarly production need not be antithetical to genuine inquiry and the time it takes to do meaningful scholarly work. In fact I have argued for (and will continue to argue for) retaining a rigorous standard for scholar-teachers and for ongoing and meaningful inquiry across all phases of an academic career. I’ve made this case on my campus, in the context of discussions around standards for tenure and promotion, and I’ve published essays that make visible alternative intellectual trajectories. This is why, perhaps, Guillory’s essay resonates for me. Surely it is time for those who are charged with structuring and implementing graduate education in the humanities to move through their stunned silence and join Guillory—and those of us who have been given the gift of shaping the trajectory of our intellectual lives in a system that values both scholarship and teaching—as we work together to move away from the perpetuation of a unsustainable bureaucratic system that diminishes our scholarly commitments to the humanities