Grad School: Tools for Balance

What can we learn from these stories and reflections about finding balance in grad school?  Each group develops its own wisdom, but here are some tools we gleaned from the ASLE workshop last June.

1.  It’s not just about work.  No doubt work – making the grade, learning the ropes, designing and conducting research, writing, seminaring, conferencing – always comes first in people’s mind.  But there is more to life than learning and more to learning than books and talk.  The primary tool, then, is to keep the dream of balance alive, to make it part of your life practice.

2.  Mentor yourself.  Take time to explore options and study alternatives.  Remember that a PhD gives you many transferable skills, and that teaching is not the only path open to you.  Investigate other channels in the braided stream of an academic career: administration, foundation or nonprofit work, government, think tanks, research, industry, writing, journalism, even entrepreneurship.  Listen for what the Quakers call “leadings,” the inner voices, signs, or hints that point toward the path of your own soul’s growth.  Then find activities that shed more light down that path.

3. Learn from the community.   If you observe both your institutional community and the larger society in which it is embedded, you can learn much about the culture, personality types, and social drivers that govern the world you are preparing to enter.  This sort of knowledge can often prove of more than equal value to field expertise as you navigate the choppy waters of a career.  Try looking at your school, your professors, and your colleagues with the eyes of a novelist, and don’t neglect the folks behind the steam tables.

4.  Get involved with undergraduates. And not just as a TA.  These are the people you may soon be helping to educate.  They are the future.  Better yet, most of them will not become academicians; they will go out into the “real world.”  They are still experiencing education for the whole person, so their journey, which is also yours, can become mutually supportive, even inspiring.  Staying in touch with the undergraduates will help you stay in touch with your own growth process and balance the professional training emphasis of grad school.

5.  Network to build relationships. In grad school, everyone is pretty much equal, on the same level, in the same boat.  Soon enough, you will all begin to diverge.  Relationships formed and nurtured early on can pay handsome emotional and professional dividends in years to come.  Don’t just stick to your own department, but venture forth to other fields, student organizations, and colleagues from other institutions that you meet at conferences.

6. Choose work that feeds your spirit. There is no point in doing research that will “get you ahead” if it doesn’t speak to your soul.  Take time to find your own burning questions and build research that will address them.  That is how fields evolve, and how academic work leads to progressive social and intellectual change.

7.  Engage in self-nurturing activities such as hobbies, socializing, recreation, sports, or sharing your home culture with friends and colleagues.  Be sure to take good care of your body as well as your mind; remember the Sufi admonition to “be kind to your ass, for it bears you.”  Eat well, sleep well, work hard, play often.

Got tools? Please share them in a comment.

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

The Trouble with Teaching and Scholarship

In 2007 the MLA Committee on Professional Employment published a Report on evaluating scholarship for tenure and promotion. The following year, Dana Ringuette observed that his institution had (for some time) been doing eighteen of the twenty recommendations. He concludes that the conversation about scholarship has been overdetermined by the PhD granting institutions and that research professors have not thought through “what it means to be primarily a teacher in a community of research, writing, and scholarly exchange” (“We Need to Talk“). The ambivalence and uncertainty about the relationship between scholarship and teaching, Ringuette goes on to say, suggests the need for a far reaching conversation about what we do.

Scholarship and teaching–reading and writing on the one hand, and teaching on the other–are difficult to sustain no matter where one happens to be. To some degree, academic institutions  expect those on the tenure-track faculty to engage in scholarship through the phases of their academic careers. And given the relatively high teaching loads and expectations for service to the college and community the same questions come up year after year. What is the between scholarship and teaching? How might we nurture our intellectual lives as both scholars and as teachers? The persistence of these questions suggests the need for new language to define the relationship between scholarship and teaching. We need to move beyond de-contextualized generalizations about the life of the mind and inspired manifestos about our humanistic commitments. And we need more than definitions of teaching as a form of scholarship. Instead we need stories that foreground our lives as teachers and that define our intellectual work around our primary function and teachers and educators.  In short, we need fewer complaints about intellectual lives out of step with the mission and values of our colleges and more examples of striving to take advantage of the less-then-ideal situations in which we find ourselves.