Warriors, Citizens, and Elders: A Fairy Tale

The relations between these three major career phases are captured succinctly in a fairy tale that occurs in many versions across cultures.  The hero is a young prince who has been forced into exile, living hand to mouth and taking menial jobs in kitchens and stables.  Eventually he wanders into a neighboring country that has been ravaged by a cruel and powerful ogre.  The king has dispatched his best fighters, but all have come back dead or maimed.  The ogre seems to have magic powers that give him both strength and invulnerability.  In despair the king proclaims that whoever can defeat the ogre will receive half the kingdom and his daughter’s hand in marriage.

Well, the prince figures he has nothing to lose.  After all, he’s been working in kitchens and stables; his career is in free fall.  And the daughter, naturally, is both rich and beautiful; he’s already fallen in love with her.  So he sets out for the ogre’s castle.  After crossing the devastated countryside,  he enters a forest, where he wanders for days, increasingly depressed.  He may be a prince, but he has only a common sword and no magic powers at all.  What good is his Ivy League degree?  How will he ever defeat the ogre?

Then he hears someone moaning and groaning in the woods and turns aside from his path. He comes upon an old person in need of  help—in some versions it’s a dwarf whose long beard has gotten stuck in a cleft log, in others it’s an old woman with a hurt leg, hungry and tired, bowed under a heavy bundle.  The prince shares his bread, lends a hand, and when the job is done the grateful old woman asks why someone so young and handsome would look so sad.

The Prince Aids the Old Woman (by Howard Pyle)
The Prince Aids the Old Woman (by Howard Pyle)

He tells her his tale of woe: career in ruins, hopelessly in love, facing an impossible task.  The old woman laughs.  Is that all, she asks?  Well, that sword you’re carrying will never defeat the ogre, because he’s invulnerable.  And I’ll tell you why: it’s because his soul is not in his body.  To kill him you have to get your hands on his soul.

Oh great!  says the prince.  Capture his soul; just like that!  It must be very well defended.  The old woman nods.  The ogre keeps it hidden deep in his castle, she says.  To find it you have to wait until he goes out on one of his rampages.  Then you have to break into the castle after crossing the moat of fire and pacifying the lions guarding the gate. She recites a long list of perils and obstacles but gives him directions for meeting each one.  Finally, in the very center of the castle is a well; down in the well is a duck; inside the duck is an egg; and inside the egg is the ogre’s soul. Get your hands on that egg, she says, and you can make him do anything.

The prince thanks her and hurries off.  He finds the castle and waits in the shrubbery until the ogre goes out.  Then he crosses the fiery moat, tosses a  steak to the lions, and heads inside.  After surmounting all perils he arrives at the center, dives into the well, grabs the duck, and squeezes it until the egg drops into his hand.  At this moment the ogre returns, bellowing that he smells a thief.  After raging all through the castle he finds the prince leaning nonchalantly against the well.  He grins horribly, flashing a set of really  bad teeth, and raises a huge hairy arm to bash in the prince’s head.

The Prince and the Ogre (by Arthur Rackham)
The Prince and the Ogre (by Arthur Rackham)

But the prince just reaches into his pocket and holds up the egg.  He cocks an eyebrow; the ogre freezes, then deflates, groveling at the prince’s feet.  The prince makes him open his dungeons and treasury, free all his prisoners, restore all the gold that he’s stolen, and clean up the farms and villages he’s destroyed.  When it’s all done, the ogre wipes the stinking sweat from his brow and falls on his knees, begging forgiveness.  And what does the prince do?  He breaks the egg.  Because, after all, he’s read Machiavelli (in Western Civ), and besides, you can’t trust an ogre.

Back at court the king and the princess are waiting anxiously for news.  The prince returns bearing the ogre’s head.  Amid general rejoicing, the king grants him half the kingdom with an option on the other half as soon as he marries the princess.  Everyone celebrates and lives happy ever after.

What does this tale have to do with academic life?  You can see right away that its characters embody three career stages that we have been discussing: warrior, citizen, and elder.  Stay tuned for subsequent posts as we unpack this tale and explore its implications.

Escape Workplace Hell with Erasogram®

Jean-Paul Sartre famously declared that “Hell is other people.”  And Dante constructed his Inferno by wedging like-minded souls into very close quarters.  You don’t have to attend the MLA Convention to see this principle in operation today.  Just think for a moment about your own department, or classroom, or campus.  No wonder some administrators dream of an ideal university that has neither faculty nor students.  Fortunately, there’s no need to look to another world for solutions.  Just punch up our latest, most revolutionary app:

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:

Killer Apps to Boost your Career in the New Year

The R & D Team here at Staying Alive has been hard at work devising a suite of career security apps that we are pleased to release  just in time for the new year.  Those of you dreading an upcoming tenure review, grant deadline, or MLA convention need look no further for simple, hi-tech solutions!  They’re perfect gifts for any stressed-out professional.

Click on the video for a quick preview of our first app, MakeNice®:

 

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.

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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.

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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.

Tenure: A Fork in the Road

yogi-berra-quotes-13People have debated the tenure system for years, parsing its costs and benefits and proposing alternate models that generally stick in the craw.  Maybe it’s like what Winston Churchill said of democracy: it’s a lousy system but better than the alternative.  Whatever the case, it’s not going away any time soon, so those of us who aspire to make our living in academe must learn to deal with it.  Until universities start paying adjuncts and part-timers a living, professional wage—which they won’t until forced by collective bargaining—tenure remains the name of the game.  And the tenure review marks a fateful turning point in one’s teaching career.

Yogi Berra famously advised, “If you come to a fork in the road, take it!”  Indeed.  But in fact this is easier said than done.  Most of the time we don’t take it at all, don’t choose or act with deliberation; we slide into it or let ourselves be drawn in with only the dimmest notions of where were going or what may await us around the bend. Mostly we don’t want to hear travelers’ tales of dragons or wizards up ahead.  We still like to think we’re the exception.  So in fact when we come to a fork, we don’t take it; it takes us.  But this is no way to live.

The tenure review can have only one of two outcomes: up and in, or down and out.  A true warrior must be prepared for both, so that when the path opens, he or she can take it and adventure upon life now.  We commonly think that a “successful” review leads to tenure, but “success”, as we’ve discussed in previous blogs, is a slippery and deceptive thing;  it means you get to do more of the same, which may not be conducive to your own personal growth.  In fact, not getting tenure may turn out to be better for you in the long run.  But of course you can’t know this at the time.  All you can do is take the path that opens and make the best use of it that you can.

The review itself resembles nothing so much as a trial.  Months, nay years, go into building the case: research, discovery, assembling witnesses.  Eventually, the court convenes.  You, the candidate, sit in the dock, silent, powerless, and apprehensive, facing a jury of your “peers”  while administration presides from above.  The good news here is that, by this point, the whole thing is out of your control.  You can’t affect the outcome, but you can affect what comes after.  So in the next few blogs we’ll talk about doing the math, the after-math.  How do you go on, how do you stay alive no matter what happens?

 

 

Warrior Tales: the Story of Dave

What if you don’t get a job?  We’ve all heard horror stories of people driving cabs, working at Starbuck’s, or hanging around campus doing odd jobs; some medicate with dangerous drugs, or, in the worst cases, attempt suicide.  No one keeps track of these lost souls; the information is all anecdotal.  We all want to live in hope yet can’t shake the creeping fear that failure may be contagious. Fortunately, there are plenty of hopeful stories out there, and we will lift up a few in the next series of posts.

When I arrived in my first (and only) tenure track job, I probed my colleagues delicately for their tenure history, not to betray too green an interest in my own fate.  Yes, they had used temporary faculty with some regularity, and no, not everyone had gained tenure, unfortunately. They sounded reassuringly apologetic but also a bit vague. There had been unusual circumstances, sometimes of a personal nature, or the fit wasn’t right, or it turned out to be a bad hire, or the person’s career had taken a new direction, that sort of thing.  Mostly, they did not know what had become of their former colleagues, although in one case the person had gone to work for Target and was now making pots of money; he had come down for a visit driving a big fancy car and was apparently putting his intellect and communication skills to good use, with few regrets about escaping from freshman comp and Intro to British lit. This story was conveyed in hushed tones that suggested an odd mix of pity and envy.  It gave me a whiff of hope for other possibilities should things not work out as planned.

Eight years later, amid the unplanned wreckage, I met David Cave.  He had done graduate work at Chicago and Indiana before taking a PhD in religion from a seminary down in Kentucky. Newly-minted and with his dissertation published by Oxford he looked to be in excellent shape for a tenure-track job.  He and his wife, an oncology nurse, had moved to Cincinnati to be near her family; he had obtained a temporary assistant professorship that had recently ended, and he was looking around.  Despite great credentials and active scholarship, he could find nothing in the way of a regular job.  He had spent several years adjuncting, networking with all the local colleges, and even doing regular commentaries for NPR.  He was determined to maintain an intellectual life and keep up his scholarship.

But economics began to catch up with him.  Their son was growing apace and the family needed money.  He finally took a development internship at one of the big hospitals; he learned the ropes and found that he liked the work of building relationships and helping people find meaning and purpose in supporting a charitable mission.  When the internship ended, he became development director for a very small Catholic college, and after five years there he moved over to the University of Cincinnati Foundation, where he worked raising money for the humanities.  And five years after that, he moved to the University of Michigan.

During all this time, Dave continued to read, think, teach, and publish.  He gave talks, wrote radio commentaries, kept a journal of ideas, and stayed in touch with colleagues in his field.  He also organized book groups and found other informal means to pursue the intellectual life.  He liked working with faculty and was received as a colleague because of his scholarship and devotion to teaching and education.  Now, at Michigan, he’s actively involved with the humanities, engaging individual graduates and friends of the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts to support the priorities and ventures of departments, programs, and the college as a whole.  He and his wife live in wonderful Ann Arbor, where they host a popular literary salon.  His development work takes him to places like Washington, Atlanta, and Miami where he cultivates visions and ideas with smart, well-placed alumni.  And he continues to read and publish actively in his field.

Dave inspired me with his resourcefulness and devotion to a felt calling.  Initially, he was disappointed not to land a regular teaching job, but he found ways to stay alive intellectually and other venues in which to pursue both teaching and scholarship.  He found another way to make a living that proved surprisingly rewarding, not only for its intrinsic satisfactions and good income, but also for keeping him  connected to the university.  I was reminded how many poets, musicians, and artists have had other day jobs: think of Wallace Stevens or Charles Ives, both of whom sold insurance, James Joyce, who worked in a bank, or William Carlos Williams tending his patients.  The truth is that most of us have more than one passion, and there is always more than one way to use our skills.  A job can’t and shouldn’t provide everything.  Like Thoreau, we’d do better with a broad margin to our life, to keep a light hand on the tiller and take the widest possible view of our horizons.

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?

Season of the Warrior

It’s fall, when the job lists come out and tenure reviews begin.  Everyone is watching the ads, assembling dossiers, writing letters, reading applications, or visiting classes taught by their younger colleagues.  In one way or another, everyone is watching everyone else, generally with a high degree of discomfort.  No one likes what is going on, but no one does anything about it.  It’s the way things are.  The question is, how to deal or, in a larger sense, how to survive.  For the job hunters and tenure seekers, this is the season of the warrior.

Consider the odds.  Of those holding “newly minted” Ph.D.s, no more than a third are likely to secure tenure-track jobs.  The rest will choose the best option they have at the time, perhaps taking contingent or temporary jobs as adjuncts or visiting assistant professors, or veering into one of the many collateral paths open to people with research credentials, such as work in administration, foundations, think tanks, government, or business.  The profession no longer follows the “standard model” of a single, deep-flowing river, but rather a braided stream of postmodern, globalized, nomadic, and even entrepreneurial endeavor.

For those who remain in academia, the game  – to shift metaphors – can often feel like musical chairs.  Imagine thirty players in a room with twenty seats.  On the first round, ten are eliminated; they are the ones squeezed out of teaching altogether.  On the second round, ten chairs are removed; ten more players exit the game, having failed to secure tenure-track jobs; they disappear from the historical record.  On the third round, there are only six chairs, because universities are reducing tenurable positions and also denying tenure to some candidates. In the end, only a fifth of those emerging from grad school in this cohort have achieved tenure; the rest have likewise vanished from view.  It is hardly surprising that, by this time, those still in the game may feel an unsettling mixture of gratification, entitlement, and survivor guilt.  No matter what happens, it’s a challenge.

Navigating these shifting, treacherous pathways requires the warrior skills of strength, flexibility, and centeredness.  In forthcoming posts we’ll look at the job search and the tenure review through the lenses of warrior stories told by survivors who can offer object lessons in staying alive no matter what happens.