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.

Tenure and the Profession at Large

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.

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?

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.

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.

The Adjunct and Part-time Challenge

Back when Jerry Brown was governor of California the first time, the state went into one of its periodic budget crises, and the good governor decided to freeze salaries throughout the state university system.  When the faculty objected, he told them they should be content with the “psychic dollars” they got from teaching.  Very well, they replied, then we’ll just pay our taxes in psychic dollars.  Unfortunately, market forces eventually triumphed over wit.

I thought of this exchange while reading the Chronicle’s big issue on adjunct faculty, which hit the stands two weeks ago.  Everyone knows that the tenured ranks are shrinking as people die or retire, and that their positions are not being replaced, but rather filled with part-timers and adjuncts who are paid starvation wages, receive no benefits, and enjoy few or none of the professional respect, standing, opportunities, or institutional support normally accorded to the so-called “regular” faculty.   In fact, over half of all undergraduate course hours are now taught by adjuncts or part-timers, so it is they who should be considered “regular.”  But they are not treated so by either the profession or the institution.

To paraphrase Mark Twain, everybody wrings their hands about the  adjunct situation, but nobody does anything about it.  At least that’s how it sometimes feels.  But in fact, a considerable movement has begun to unionize part-timers and adjuncts, and to advocate for better employment conditions. The Chronicle has run stories of organizing and successes on various campuses, where tangible gains have been made. And the feature issue just mentioned has shone a bright light, which, if not harsh or glaring enough (for this writer, at least), still has the merit of publicly acknowledging the problem and identifying some of the blind spots that infect both the profession and the institution.  It also raises the question of balance, which makes it especially pertinent to this series.

The Chronicle reporters surveyed hundreds of part-time faculty teaching in the Chicago area; they also looked closely at one school, Oakton Community College, whose president, as it happens, began her career as an adjunct. At Oakton, full-time faculty make around $86,000 a year on average, teaching five course per semester, whereas the most an adjunct can make for the same load is around $21,000.  This shocking disparity prompted diverse reactions.  Some part-timers claimed to be content with the tradeoff: no committees, flexible scheduling,  freedom to moonlight, and, of course, those priceless psychic dollars.  Others felt undervalued and exploited, bitter about receiving unequal pay for equal work, and resentful at being treated as second-class citizens when their credentials and skills were as good or better than those of the regular faculty.

When asked about these reactions, administrators and regular faculty gave familiar responses.  The president of Oakton said she had encouraged departments to include adjuncts in their meetings and mailings, and to involve them in curriculum and planning. The regular faculty claimed to be reaching out.  But neither the institution nor the regular faculty suggested equal rights or equal pay.  Administrators claimed that their adjunct pay scales fell within the norm; regular faculty claimed they had more responsibilities and worked longer hours than adjuncts.

In the one case, it is simply market forces.  As long as there are people willing to teach for $2100 a course, colleges will hire them.  It’s simple, convenient, and expedient  — as long as you operate under a factory model of education.  In the other case, you are merely rationalizing privilege.  No one can tell me that any college or university in this country (apart, perhaps from those where research is the sole mission) pays its regular faculty three times as much for their committee work and scholarship as it does for their teaching.  And it’s absurd to make such an argument for a community college, where teaching is supposedly the main thing.

Because adjuncting and part-time work have become ubiquitous in academe, we need to examine it from the standpoint of navigating and balancing a career. It’s one of the braided streams of academic life.  The “standard model” that we introduced at the beginning of this blog is hardly standard today.  More and more people are finding that after grad school the only doors open to them lead to part-time or adjunct positions. It is hard to awaken from the sleep of reason to discover how powerfully market forces and the profession’s jealousy of its own privileges can blunt, bend, or break an academic career.

In the posts to come, we’ll look at the adjunct and part-time path from the viewpoints of institution, profession, and person.  What are the benefits and costs to each, and how can we find a soul-sustaining balance under such conditions?

Grad School: the Institution

We’ve seen how grad school serves the student by providing apprentice training and serves the faculty by perpetuating the profession with its values, hierarchies, and myths.  But what about the institution?  Like fish in the sea, both students and faculty live, move, and breathe within the institution that supports and surrounds them, yet remain largely unconscious of how it operates.  It’s an environment that we take for granted.  But the economics and politics that govern the “real world” also govern the institution and through it the real lives of students and faculty alike.

Marc Bousquet, who blogs for the Chronicle on labor issues in academia, argues that one’s most employable years as an academician are the years of grad school, when there are plenty of teaching jobs to go around.  You would think, he says, that getting the degree would make you more employable, but the reverse is true. Once you get the degree, your chances of finding a job drop sharply, and the older you get, the less employable you are.  The reason?  Market forces.

Bousquet maintains that grad students provide cheap labor for the university to staff introductory courses that regular faculty don’t want to teach.  In addition, doctoral programs enhance the institution’s prestige, thus attracting star faculty as well as grant money.  Although the students obviously benefit from this arrangement – they gain knowledge, skills, and entry-level credentials – the profession and the institution benefit more.  The university does not take responsibility for the lack of employment opportunities once they have done their job of training.  Degree in hand, you are out the door and on your own.

When I went through grad school back in the 1970’s we got no training in how to teach and no professional coaching at all.  Happily, much has changed for the better in this regard.   At the University of Nevada-Reno, for example, grad students in the Literature and Environment Program receive many hours of instruction in professional skills such as networking, publication, conferencing, and applying for jobs, as well as in teaching, research, and scholarship; the faculty take an active interest in each student and provide intensive coaching.  As a result, their students fare comparatively well once they leave.  But no amount of such effort can erase the dismal job market figures or alleviate what Bousquet calls the “great depression” from which academia currently suffers, where two thirds of recent PhD’s will fail to secure full-time, tenure track jobs.

Under such conditions, many will settle for part-time or adjunct positions, which do not pay a living wage, others will sidestep into administration, while others may quit the profession entirely and reinvent themselves in some other line of work, anything from law to business to driving a cab.  This may well happen to you.  But for now, while you are in grad school, the question is how to live a balanced life under the exploitive tradeoffs of apprenticeship.  How can you make it work for you?  How can you feed your spirit while feeding the rat?

(For more on the ideas and writings of Marc Bousquet, visit his video blog site.)

Grad School: Training for the Profession

During my first year in graduate school, I was amazed at the low grades I got on papers.  After routinely receiving A’s for original thought and dynamic writing, I was now getting B’s with brief, discouraging comments.  Back in college we had been encouraged to do our own thinking first and look at the criticism only later, if at all.  I had always felt gratified and affirmed when some critic’s interpretation matched my own, and my professors had apparently felt so too.  But all that changed when I got to grad school, and the reasons remained maddeningly obscure. On the surface, everything looked the same, but underneath, something else had to be going on, because it all felt different. I spent most of an increasingly neurotic year before stumbling upon the truth.

That spring, in a seminar on Renaissance literature, I was assigned a paper on John Skelton’s “The Tunning of Elinour Rumminge.”  Skelton was Henry VIII’s court poet and wrote bawdy doggerel that must have pleased his sovereign but sounded, to my twentieth century ear, like something out of Monty Python, minus the wit. “The Tunning of Elinour Rumminge” describes with relish how three hags disgrace themselves after getting drunk in a tavern. I am no prude, but I had to gag it down, and after cudgeling my brain could come up with absolutely nothing worthwhile to say.  That’s when criticism came to the rescue.  In despair, I searched out the three extant articles, summarized their contents, did a simple comparison/contrast, and reported the results.  Imagine my surprise when the paper received an A with the comment, “This is the most mature work of yours that I’ve seen.”

That’s when I realized that grad school and college had very different goals, even though they employed similar means. College aimed to educate and develop the whole person toward a life of responsible citizenship, whereas grad school aimed to train professional scholars.  College served society; grad school served the profession.  That’s why the professors cared more about our mastery of the secondary literature than about our appreciation of the wisdom and beauty of the poetry itself.

Every profession needs rites and symbols of initiation to perpetuate itself. Grad school takes naïve lovers of the arts and sciences and turns them into serious professionals, well-versed in the lore, the lingo, and the rules of their chosen game.  It takes people and makes them into players.  In the process, it provides high-status jobs for the elite and low-status, low-paid labor for the institution.  As for the students, how they play once they graduate, and how they fare in the game, is up to them.

To achieve and sustain balance under such circumstances takes deliberate imagination.  Stay tuned the institutional perspective, followed by more tools and lessons from the ASLE workshop.

Teaching as Vocation, Profession, and Job

Mark Twain once memorably remarked, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The same could be said of teaching. It’s what we do, it’s part of our identity, it’s what we get paid for. But do we really understand it? Do we really want to think about it? Above all, do we really want to look closely at our own practice and try to improve it?

My own experience suggest we do not. As a young assistant professor at an avowedly teaching institution, I was put on the “teaching methods committee”, which sounded like a great assignment until our first meeting. After about half an hour it became clear that everyone around the table thought of themselves as good teachers, were comfortable with their own methods, and were reluctant to engage in any surveys, interviews, observations, or discussions that might lead to questioning or challenging the methods of their colleagues. I could feel the resistance build, thicken, and congeal; by the end, it was stiff and opaque as wax. No change or knowledge would be coming from this committee.

What was going on? I liked my colleagues; they were all devoted teachers, well-read and empathic toward students; they were good citizens in the campus community. Why would they resist learning and self-improvement? Why would they not want to engage their colleagues in dialogue about our essential work?

In my own case, the resistance seemed easy to understand. I was young, untenured, and under the gun. It was an anxious state, but I was used to it. Everyone expected people like me to be earnest, motivated, and nervous. But what about the others? Something else must account for their resistance.

In reflecting on this meeting, and many situations like it over the years, I’ve found it helpful to think about teaching across the three dimensions of persona, profession, and institution. As a vocation, teaching is something that many of us love to do for its own sake. It comes naturally, draws on our native ability to empathize and communicate, feeds our spirits with the satisfaction of nurturing our students’ growth. To pursue your calling is to follow your bliss, to feel the joy that comes when your work and your identity move into phase.

Teaching at its most satisfying and effective always rests on a personal transaction between the teacher and the student, where the teacher’s passion and excitement sparks a kindred interest. That is why most learning actually occurs outside of class, and why teaching is so hard to evaluate. What works for one student may not work for another, and the results may not be apparent for years. True teaching arises out of relation, as Martin Buber observed, and how can you measure a relationship?

Evaluation is of most concern to the profession and the institution. The profession consists of one’s (mostly senior) colleagues, who function like a club or a guild: to get in you must qualify and must also be chosen. In practice the boundary between these criteria tends to blur. Much time and effort go into rationalizing decisions about the merits of someone’s work that have been made quite subjectively. And “peer review” is simply another name for professional privilege, besides being a contradiction in terms: how can the parties be considered equal when one has the power to judge the other? All professions work to secure their own existence; they assiduously protect their identity, status, and privileges, and academia is no exception. When you are on the inside, tenured and all, one of your privileges is not having to be evaluated; that’s one reason, I think, that my senior colleagues on the teaching methods committee did not want to investigate. They did not want to rock the boat by challenging, even implicitly, the privilege of their colleagues. That’s how they all got along.

The institution also comes into play. In this context, teaching is merely a job. More on that next time.