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.

What is Truth? Find Out with Memo Decoder®

Acheson’s Rule has proved a major stumbling block to thousands trying to navigate their way through organizations.  And universities can be  just as confusing as  any government, corporation, or church. That’s why conscientious professionals like you need this week’s killer app.  Click on the video for details:

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.

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.

Tenure Talk: Thinking Again

“What are the implications of the decline of tenure?” A recent forum in the New York Times began with this question and generated an extended blog conversation. Responses ranged from defenses of tenure to reductive critiques of a so-called academic “system” to theories about the labor market. A tenured professor, I found myself rallying around arguments for tenure as well as wondering about the opportunities that might be emerging given the decline of tenure. More importantly, the forum led me to think again about the relationship between a system of promotion organized around the desire for tenure—and the relative economic security and professional acceptance— and the personal costs of that desire.

Just what tenure is—its definition(s) and its value—is elusive in the forum postings. Yet the personal costs of the normative timeline for tenure, the practice of working toward tenure, and the granting of tenure (or not), is clearly problematic for a number of participants. Here is one example:

In my experience, tenure does not provide, or secure, freedom to do anything. How does a person who successfully endures tenure retain any personal integrity whatsoever? Tenure is, in fact, granted only after a professor is successfully indoctrinated into a particular institution, and department. How can professors submit to such pressure to conform and then proceed to “be free” to teach students? After six years of frantic publishing and pleasing those in power is it possible to remember who we are, and what drove us to teach in the first place? Are we able, after tenure, to go back to who we really are, or is that person lost to us after six years of conformity? After tenure are we transformed, instead, into a kind of Stepford Professor that fits nicely into a particular institution, or department? Or worse, are we so damaged by what we have endured to achieve tenure that unknowingly we transfer similar abuse to the new crop of tenure seeking assistant professors?

This comment succinctly summarizes the pressure to conform (“pleasing those in power”), the loss of integrity that comes from conforming to external motives (“frantic publishing”) and the resulting neglect of one’s students and, more importantly, one’s self.   To earn tenure, in such a system, faculty members are encouraged to force intellectual projects into a fixed timeline; they are drawn to low-risk committee work rather than pursuing a more risky department or campus project or initiative; and they spend the minimum amount of time on campus and with students as they chase the gold standard of professional success: publication.

Experiences of the tenure and promotion process vary widely across institutions, for sure. In my experience, the process of tenure invites conformity and too many tenured faculty are content with the idea that untenured faculty members’ careers are in danger from their tenured colleagues to fester. Too often there are smart and well-intentioned junior colleagues showing restraint and caution and senior colleagues perpetuating a system that promotes the kind of intellectual and personal growth we purportedly value.

Changing the system would require senior faculty to promote the idea that working toward tenure, and the awarding of tenure, should involve taking intellectual risks. Quantitative measures of scholarly production may work in some institutional settings; however, a more flexible qualitative measure of a teacher and scholar’s work, as it relates to the mission of the institution and the department or program, would ask junior and senior colleagues to create conditions for innovation and creativity rather than perpetuating a six year period of professional life a junior professor must “endure.” In my experience, the tenure process can promote a professional life with purpose and integrity. The trajectory of intellectual work should not be constrained by a six year period but rather should demonstrate unambiguously a professional life marked by a clear sense of purpose and significant growth. (The best proposal for faculty promotion I know is by the former professor of English at the University of Chicago, Wayne Booth, that I wrote about last year in the posting titled “Scholarship and Competence in the Curiosities.”)

I would argue that we need tenure to assure the freedom of faculty to teach and design curriculum unfettered by prevalent assumptions and ahistorical motives that are all too often reductively imposed upon people trying to do their work well. The alternative (that would retain tenure, and for good reason) would be tenured professors working together to rebuild a system to promote professional integrity and a commitment to meaningful contributions among those who aspire to receive tenure. We would all need to work, institution by institution, to dispel the lore that inevitably breeds fear and restraint. We would create the conditions for fresh intellectual ventures, challenging discussions and vibrant classrooms where professional integrity is cultivated and rewarded as the sine qua non.

If this all sounds too idealistic or naïve, we can continue to let the system move in the direction it has been moving for the past thirty or more years. Gradually and inexorably, tenure is going away, and it is up to the tenured faculty to make a better defense of this powerful and transformative idea.

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.

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.

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 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?