Citizen Metaphors: Dead Wood

Let’s say you get tenure after all the stress and agony of the review.  What then?  Party down, take a holiday, reward yourself, bestow thanks and blessings upon your significant others.  Then take a deep breath and gaze out upon the landscape stretching before you inside the gated walls of academe.  Most likely, this is where you’ll be living for the next thirty-five years.  And the question is: what kind of life will you have?

I have traveled a good deal in academia—for almost forty years, truth be told—and I’ve been amazed to encounter so many unhappy people.  Not all, certainly, but enough to wring your heart.  Who made them serfs of the soil?  You would think that job security, a good income, and relative prestige would make anyone happy, but experience shows that tenure is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. Indeed, many associate or even full professors seem to run out of steam, content to teach their classes and draw their salaries without publishing or even taking an active role in governance.  Many desk chairs seem padded with fading laurels.  No wonder so many on the outside view tenured faculty as coddled and privileged, shielded from the political and economic perils that torment the rest of us.  Those who seem to be reaping permanent benefits without doing much work are scornfully referred to as “dead wood,” another master metaphor that, like “peer review” and “academic freedom,” speaks volumes about our condition.


Dead wood.  It’s pronounced with a sneer by junior faculty, with a sigh by administration, and with a shudder by tenured professors.  The young resent the palpable double standard as their elders hog resources and privileges while resisting evaluation and sending the scut work downhill.  Administrators, frustrated by sloth, obstructionism, and truculence, gnash their teeth as deadlines press and decisions pile up.  The tenured, meanwhile, cling to a fragile sense of entitlement, acutely aware of critical glances and whiffs of suppressed contempt.  No wonder so many begin to suffer from low self-esteem and a creeping fear that they, too, may have passed their peak, may already have begun to rot invisibly from within.

In the spirit of inquiry, then, let’s gently unpack this metaphor.  Dead wood is rigid, barren, and heavy.  The tree supports it, but it does nothing to feed or nurture the tree.  It puts forth no blossoms or leaves; it bears no fruit; in short, it does no useful work.  Moreover, it’s not growing; it’s not green but brown or gray, weathered and naked to the wind, no more than a “bare ruined choir where late the sweet birds sang.”  It’s a lost cause, a hopeless wreck, a relic of the past.  Each term of the metaphor carries its own pejorative charge.  “Dead” suggests fixity, inertia, hopelessness, a bitter end: no second chances here.  “Wood” suggests rigidity, stolidity, even idiocy, making a strong contrast to elasticity and grace: think “dumb as a post” or “a wooden expression.”  No wonder calling someone “dead wood” feels like a cruel, if not unusual, punishment.

Now consider the opposite case: living wood.  Interestingly, academe offers no catchy metaphor for staying alive. Living wood puts forth green leaves and fruit.  But when applied to people, “green” often connotes inexperience, clumsiness, or ineptitude, all of which we frown on here in the ivory tower.  Think “greenhorn,” for example: it’s an image from the frontier, from the world of hard physical work in the outdoors.  Plus, it’s a manly term, gender-inflected.  (Strike two!)  Nevertheless, if we think of living wood as green, the shadow of dead wood so to speak, then more hopeful possibilities emerge.


In the botanic world green suggests life, growth, change that branches out in all directions, adaptation, exploration, and discovery; we all know how trees and other plants grow toward the light.  Orchardists speak of “bearing wood,” meaning branches that produce blossoms and fruit.  Those on my apple trees, for example, begin to bear after three years; properly tended and pruned, they can produce for decades.  In contrast, unpruned limbs put forth suckers and sprouts in all directions and bear only small gnarly fruits.  After a few years, most of these shoots begin to die off; the limb grows leggy and tangled.  Eventually, a disease like fire blight enters through a dead twig and migrates through the sapwood, killing the limb and eventually, if not cut away, the entire tree.

A well-pruned fruit tree looks good: flourishing, symmetrical, green all over.  It appears to be leading a healthy and balanced life.  Pruning channels sap to the bearing wood and controls rankness by eliminating suckers; the limbs stay short and sturdy while the fruit grows  larger and more abundant.   A well-tended tree has no dead wood and lots of bearing wood.  It reflects good husbandry  (memo to chairs and deans!).  This is what we mean by those who appear to lead a convincing life:  you will know them by their fruits.

“Dead wood” may be a cruel metaphor for a depressing condition. But it does not have to be our fate.

Citizen Tales: the Perils of Privilege

With membership come privileges and powers; that’s why it feels like success.  But these pose perils of their own.  If power corrupts, privilege can desensitize, and the process occurs so subtly and naturally that we may not even notice the loss of our capacity  for empathy and compassion.

I remember one EnglisImageh Department colleague who had a reputation for tough teaching.  He was blunt, even scornful of shoddy work, maintained a lofty magisterial air, and wielded a sharp, ironic wit in lectures and department meetings.  He always wore a tweed jacket, white shirt, and tie.  After department meetings he would serve sherry in his office and hold forth, making no secret of his belief that Jane Austen had been the last great writer in English. Everyone on campus, from the president on down, thought of him as the classic English professor. When the student paper profiled him, they photoshopped his head into a Roman bust.

His students feared and adored him.  “I’m so grateful to Professor J___,” one gushed to me. “He convinced me I would never be able to write.  It was so freeing! Now I’m a geo major.”  Another, who became an English professor herself, told me about taking his class.  She was terrified, like everyone else, but she appreciated his passion and depth of learning.  She worked hard to finish her final paper on time, but when he called for them in class, she was the only one ready.  He raised a fierce eyebrow, “Anyone else?”  When no one spoke, he scrawled an A on the title page and handed it back.  She was flustered, delighted, embarrassed, confused.  A precious A!  But he hadn’t even read it.  Finally, she screwed up her courage and went to see him.  “I suppose you want comments?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.  He later returned the paper with comments and a grade of B+.  “It was as close as he came to apologizing,” she said ruefully.  This was thirty years later.

In department meetings, he would sit with arms folded, scowling amusedly.  Most of our ideas had already been tried and found wanting back in the 60s or 70s.  The students were so much smarter then, and better prepared.  The profession cared more about quality and good taste; admin listened to the faculty;  the department had a reputation.  Now we were sliding into mediocrity.  One year, when we were discussing merit and promotion, he quipped that they should give us all “injured merit” raises.  It was a great line, straight out of  Paradise Lost.  But think of who speaks it there!

Over the years I’ve come to suspect that Professor J____ must have been damaged in some way.  He loved his material, his department, and his students but could not show it in the usual ways. He did not know how to spare the rod.   He took refuge in irony.  He never published or went to meetings, and so missed out on the fellowship of his peers.  Inside, I sensed a temperament that was proud, sensitive and even shy.  He may have felt crippled by his own high standards, fearing that his own work could never measure up.  Why take the risk?  How much easier and safer to wrap oneself in the cloak of an elite institution and the cocooning comfort of the classroom, where one could set one’s own standards and dispense salutary judgments at will.

Professor J____ was a fixture at the college, even a sort of legend.  No one doubted that he was a man of principle. But was he a good citizen?

Rethinking Failure 3

The vividness and pungency of the images we apply to failure show how much it preoccupies us subconsciously.  Not so with success, which preoccupies us during the daylight hours.  School teaches and preaches success while keeping failure in the dark: out of sight, out of mind.  Failure represents the return of the repressed and threatens the governmentality of the academic system.

Notice how we treat people who “fail” as if they had a contagious disease, and how we cozy up to “successful” people, hoping that some of it might rub off.  Everyone wants to have their picture taken with a winner.  Everyone talks about Michael Phelps and his eight gold medals but nobody talks about the other swimmers who got to the finals and raced against him, only to “lose” by mere hundredths of a second.  One can split hairs down to the quantum level, all to maintain the fiction that if you don’t medal, you don’t count (and as far as the media are concerned, you don’t even exist).

I can’t imagine a more corrosive attitude.  As in science: if you don’t win the Nobel prize, you’re a failure.  As in authorship: if your book doesn’t make the best-seller list, it’s a failure, and you don’t count as a writer.  As in business: if you don’t rise to VP or CEO, you’re washed up.  As in education: if you don’t teach in the Ivy League or a top ten research university, you’re no better than second or third rate. Ditto if you’re not on the tenure track.  It is a heavy burden, always looking over one’s shoulder, envying this man’s art or that man’s scope, always calibrating one’s own position against that of one’s contemporaries, blaming the victims, ignoring Fortune and her wheel.  It makes a fertile ground for deadly sins, especially avarice, gluttony, or anger in addition to the inevitable, habitual envy.

I remember an English Department meeting where we discussed the disappointing annual raise.  A senior colleague wryly opined that we should all receive “injured merit raises.”  Despite the sardonic tone, he seemed quite comfortable in his tenure and his tweeds, though he did not publish and refused to teach anything more recent than Jane Austen.  He had harsh words for students who didn’t measure up to his expectations, some of whom, perversely, even expressed their gratitude “to Professor J.  for proving to me that I am not a writer.”  His teaching copies of texts were always carefully annotated, and the key passages underlined with a ruler.  Yet in relaxed moments, after dropping the mask of irony, his face had a weary and slightly haunted look.  I sometimes wondered what he was afraid of.

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

Scholarship and Competence in the Curiosities


A few summers ago I went out for an afternoon walk around Auke lake, near Juneau, Alaska, with another professor teaching with me in the Bread Loaf School of English summer session. Alison and I picked our way over large roots and ferns, past a stand of enormous Sitka spruce. Our meandering conversation was much like our walk, following turns and twists, stepping over muddy spots, and catching glimpses of the lake through the trees.

Over the past few weeks I have been writing a talk on scholarship that I have been asked to give at the annual Keene State College Academic Excellence Conference. Thinking about scholarship has me rereading the writing of Alison’s father, Wayne Booth, and I’ve been mulling over his insights about the profession of English, and enjoying his playful way of engaging with the ironies of our professional lives. In an essay he wrote for the book Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures, “The Scholar in Society,” republished in his collected essays The Vocation of a Teacher, Booth laments the rules of the game of scholarship. How, he asks, can we find our way to a new reward system that emphasizes inventive service to scholarship and society? He realizes that it is not a question to ask established scholars who are benefitting from the rules of the game as it is currently played. And he acknowledges that any young scholar who “does not succumb to ambition, mendacity, or cowardice, and produce instanter that book or article that should in fact have five more years of gestation,” will, of course, be asked to leave the game (62). So Booth turns from literal to allegorical thought and imagines a visitor from a strange land called “Eupaideia, a land that has miraculously ordered its scholarship according to a reasonable ideal.” In Eupaideia, as it happens, has organized its educational system around what they want: citizens who are curious about how to make life more humane. As the visitor explains, they have related scholarly inquiry, publication and reward in a different way.

tippyaukelake“Both college and school teachers are judged, for retention and promotion, mainly whether they can arouse the elected committee members’ curiosity about the subjects they teach. Each teacher whose fate is in the balance can choose any method for interesting the committee: published writing, unpublished essays or lectures, tapes, a prolonged group discussion. If curiosity is roused by where she will go next (that is, about what she may be able to teach next time around), she is hired, retained, or promoted. Every five years each teacher undergoes the same test, throughout her life, and those who fail are, regardless of their age, given a one-year sabbatical to allow for preparation for a second try; if after a year of free inquiry she still cannot arouse anyone’s curiosity, she is asked to seek employment in some line of work not centered on competence in the Curiosities. What this has meant for us is of course that nobody writes and publishes unless that route has for her proved the best way to learn. We were a bit surprised to find that the amount of writing did not go down markedly, while the amount of publication dropped by about seventy-five percent. Obviously most scholars find that trying to write a coherent statement is the best way to learn, yet most find the results of the try not ready for publication” (63).

As it turns out, the young scholars learn early a devotion to the task of discovering what is truly interesting about the world and to teaching the arts of such discovery. But, as Booth concludes with a brief commentary on his brief allegory (with a little help from William James and Max Weber), the Eupaideist’s scheme would hardly work in a fallen world.

Publish or Perish: It’s Not What You Think

We all know that in academia, publication is the coin of the realm, no matter what they say about teaching. The old maxim “Publish or perish” nails this harsh truth to the door.  But there is more to it than meets the eye, as I learned years ago from my undergraduate mentor, who gave me my first lesson in staying alive.

I met Peter Bien as a freshman at Dartmouth.  He was recently tenured, renowned as a teacher, famous for packed lectures and demanding assignments.  I was a hotshot freshman, infatuated with all kinds of arcane knowledge from quantum physics to Finnegans Wake and eager for a career in teaching.  I took his freshman seminar, where we read Ulysses, and the next year he invited me to give a talk in his course on the modern novel.

At the time I thought Finnegans Wake was the coolest thing ever written, and lecturing in his class would be like playing basketball with Michael Jordan.  I spent weeks generating nifty ideas, choosing evocative quotes, and diagramming narrative structures and cosmogonic cycles. (This was the 1960’s, long before Powerpoint).  When the big day came, I arrived at the lecture hall laden with books and notes and lugging an overhead projector. The talk went smoothly and ended with a burst of applause.

Professor Bien and I walked back to his office, he silent, I flushed with excitement. I expected some sort of acknowledgement, at least a pat on the back, but he said nothing.  Finally, I mumbled something like, “Well, that went well.”  More silence.  Desperate, I added, “I hardly expected applause.”  He turned to me with a faint smile.  “Well,” he said, “I wouldn’t put too much stock in the adulation of undergraduates.”

Talk about a punch to the gut! This was my mentor and role model, a campus legend, and I was certainly one admiring undergraduate.  How could he say that?  Worse, how could he feel that?  He must have realized at once that I was way too young for this kind of truth offered straight up with no chaser.  He quickly added , “You must realize, and you will, if you get into this business, that your students are always coming in fresh and new, while you are always growing and learning.  It is important to subject your ideas to the scrutiny of your peers; otherwise you will never know if they are any good.  You need to publish in order to stay alive.”

Over the years this conversation has stood in my memory as a landmark.  Even then, Professor Bien led a very convincing life, balancing teaching and scholarship with fatherhood, citizenship, and spirituality. He respected his students too much to withhold the tough love that was intertwined with his passion for the material.  I realized then, and have known ever since, that scholarship is about more than making the grade or clearing the tenure hurdle.  It’s about feeding the fire of your curiosity and creativity to produce enough light and warmth to nurture your students, your community, and your own life as well.