Report from ASLE 2015: Building a Life and Career in the Environmental Humanities

Siperstein headshotBy Stephen Siperstein, University of Oregon

Wisdom is a gift. To receive it, a joy. Sometimes wisdom comes in the form of direct advice. Other times, in the form of stories. Such stories don’t always have clear messages or morals, yet in the simple act of sharing, much is passed on. For young scholars in the environmental humanities, especially those beginning or soon beginning the transition from the apprentice stage of their careers to the warrior stage of their careers (as I am), stories from the citizens and elders of the field can be especially valuable, and especially joyful. In particular, these stories can lead to new ideas or new visions of how to cultivate a convincing career and how to lead a meaningful life.

Academics cling to particular stories. Why is this? Because they are appealing? Because they are comfortable? Because they are what we are told in college or during the beginning years of graduate school? Because they are somewhow true? Here is my own take and simplified version of the story I’ve heard many times over: “Get a PhD, find a tenure track line, publish a book, teach well, pass the third or fourth year review, publish additional articles, receive tenure, publish another book…. walk off into the glowing twilight.” The protagonist as hero. The plot of success. The linear trajectory. Even when young scholars are told that this trajectory will be difficult to achieve—that there are no prospects, not enough jobs (or no jobs where we want them)—the appeal isn’t diminished. The dire warnings make such stories scarier, but still we cling to them. They are the organizing fictions of our schools, our departments, our fields, our careers, and (for some of us) our entire lives. Of course, for many individuals, such paths lead to convincing and meaningful lives. But, I imagine, rarely are the paths that these individuals actually take in practice so simple or so predictable. My point here is not that organizing fictions are bad or that we need to give them up. Rather, my point is that it is hard to construct other narratives, and young professionals might need help in doing so.

This past June, at the 2015 biennial conference of the Association for the Study of Literature and the Environmental (ASLE), I sought out such other narratives. And, as I often find at ASLE events, I was fortunate enough to be surrounded by scholars and teachers and writers and editors and poets and environmental advocates and fellow students of life, all of whom were more than willing to offer up their time and their wisdom. This is one of the reasons why ASLE is such a supportive organization: knowledge and encouragement are passed freely between generations, and professionals from every career stage are welcomed and treated with respect. It is also one of the reasons why I love attending ASLE conferences.

I am currently serving a term as the ASLE graduate student liaison, and together with my co-GSL, Clare Echterling—and withEchterling headshot the help of John Tallmadge and Mark Long—we organized a session on career development outside the tenure-track model. The session was geared especially to graduate students and young professionals, though judging from the crowd (at one point I counted over fifty participants), ASLE members from every career stage attended and contributed. Throughout the hour and a half session, six panelists spoke about their own experiences and stories, audience participants brainstormed and wrote about their own values and career goals, and then panelists and participants collaborated in an open-ended discussion.

One motivation for organizing this session (and for organizing it in a way that engaged participants directly in career envisioning) was my own hunger for stories from individuals who have followed “alternative” career paths within the environmental humanities. However, while the session focused explicitly on options beyond the tenure track model, it also set out to think beyond the discourse of “alternatives,” and thus beyond that disempowering question “what else can I do?” Rather, session panelists—who, speaking from a diverse range of experiences and graciously donating their time and wisdom—focused instead on exploring more empowering questions such as, “What do I love to do?” “What do I want to do?” “What do I value?” “How do I live a convincing life and career?”

The organizing fiction of the tenure track trajectory is powerful, and it can be put to good use. But other stories are equally powerful. Thus, career thinking does not need to be about “alternatives” or about “beyond” tenure track. It does not need to be “either/or.” It does not even need to be “both/and” (As if the paths within academia are separate from the paths outside it. As if we had to choose to travel only in one of two different landscapes). Rather, as I listened to the panelists and audience participants offer their many stories, I realized that the environmental humanities (perhaps more than any other locus of fields) can include a myriad of pathways, or a network of desire paths branching through the forest. As Gary Snyder writes, “We need paths and trails and will always be maintaining them,” yet “off the trail” is “where we do our best work.”

So we must hold onto the organizing fictions. They are the trails that have been cut before us and that some of us still maintain. But there are other directions to take “off the trails,” ones that can be equally empowering and satisfying. Below are brief statements (I’d call them gifts) from four of our panelists—Kathryn Miles, Amy McIntyre, Simmons Buntin, and Karl Zuelke. The wisdom, stories, and suggestions that they offer are not exactly what they shared during the session itself, but I hope you find these reflections helpful, empowering, and nourishing. ASLE is an organization of gift giving and path-finding. May your own lives be filled with both.

Kathryn MilesKathryn Miles, writer-in-residence at Green Mountain College:

In thinking about what makes for a fulfilling career in the environmental humanities, I keep returning to Marge Piercy’s poem, “To Be Of Use.” There, she writes lyrically of her appreciation for honest work: people “who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart / who pull like water buffalo” who “move in a common rhythm,” and who “jump into work head first / without dallying in the shallows.” That’s what I want, too. To be of use. To do good work. Probably, that’s what you want too. How do we get there?

I think the short answer is that we each have to determine how we can best make a contribution not only to the worlds of pedagogy and environmental studies, but also to a planet in crisis. That involves creative thinking, of looking for those unexpected moments of connection. Sometimes, it’s in a classroom. But not always. Some of my most rewarding work has been with care providers in a state veterans hospital or on the trail of a missing hiker. The important thing is that we feel like we’re doing honest work. The exciting thing is that, despite what the news cycle or the Chronicle of Higher Education will tell you, there are ever increasing ways to do just that, from freelance writing to experiential education. Believe it or not, graduate school is preparing you for a lot of these opportunities. And, if you’re really lucky, you might even get your hands dirty along the way.

Amy McIntyre, Managing Director ASLE:Amy Head shot

While I haven’t ever quite envisioned being a college professor, I have always been attracted by education, writing, and art and had the desire to incorporate them in some way into my work and career—and life, apparently, as I married an academic! As an undergraduate, I majored in History and minored in Art, and so, in that linear way of thinking that is typical at age 21, I found myself at Oberlin College in a MA program in Art History, with vague sights set on a museum curatorial career. For many reasons, that trajectory didn’t last, but my interest in education and core belief that the humanities prepared me to do any number of things well did persevere through some uninspiring post-college jobs.

And I DID end up working at a museum for several years—but it was a children’s museum instead of an art museum, and it was working with memberships and budgets instead of artwork! There I began to develop my skills and interest in nonprofit administration, which I continued to do as part of my next job at the Monadnock Institute of Nature, Place and Culture at Franklin Pierce University, funded by an IMLS grant. There I discovered that grant-funded positions, while not permanent, can be a great opportunity to gain knowledge, experience, and connections.

Prior to moving to NH and starting work at the museum, I had begun a MA program in counseling, to help me pursue a career path that did not include more of the aforementioned cruddy jobs. I did finish the degree, and I’m sure I use this training all the time in the broadest sense when parenting, interacting with professional contacts, etc. I never did start a counseling job! ASLE Managing Director was a position created as the organization grew, and it represented an opportunity to collaborate with the leadership to shape the job, because it was brand new and growing and changing in response to new demands and priorities. I would recommend considering a position that seems to provide such opportunities for growth and change, even if the original position is not your dream job. It may morph into that one day!

Simmons Buntin, editor-in-chief at Terrain.org:Simmons Buntin

Sometimes your work gets you into the industry of environmental humanities (whatever that may be) and sometimes the humanities get you into your work. In my case, it wasn’t my degree that landed me a job; it was the degree that spurred an idea that started as a hobby that remains a hobby but that also resulted in the skill set necessary to establish and maintain a career, one that allows me to keep up my hobby that now has grown well beyond just my hobby. Following?

In the mid-1990s I graduated with an urban planning master’s degree. A fellow graduate and I wanted to start a place-based magazine, but had neither the experience nor financial backing to start a print journal. So we started one online: Terrain.org. I learned basic HTML skills and later more web development because of Terrain.org and, coupled with my previous experience as a project manager with the U.S. Department of Energy, turned that into what has become a fast-paced career in web program management. My career in that industry is as old as the journal: 18 years. Not bad in this day and age, either for an online journal or a career.

Happily, Terrain.org and my career in web management have grown together not only in years, but also in technology and lessons learned. They directly benefit each other. Terrain.org couldn’t be the dynamic website it is today without my web development knowledge, and my web management skills wouldn’t be as advanced as they are without the journal. In the last six years, particularly, Terrain.org has expanded to become a broad organization, and though I continue to play a key role (including website management), we have a core of genre editors and an international editorial board, as well as an expanding following. Where will that take my career and the journal next? Into nonprofit management from the looks of it, at least to some degree. Terrain.org doesn’t pay the bills — in fact, I spend well more than my allowance on it, as my wife reminds me — but by having a full-time career in web management, I am able to afford such an important hobby. And as we move into fiscal sponsorship and nonprofit status, well, maybe it will just pay for itself after all. Some day….

Head Shot Karl ZuelkeKarl Zuelke, Director of the Writing Center and the Math & Science Center, Mount St. Joseph University:

My career has unfolded from a number of opportunities that I could never have seen coming, yet it has grown into something extremely rewarding and satisfying. No one will ever duplicate my path exactly, but I think there may be some lessons to impart for the nervous grad student looking to forge a career in a very difficult job market.

My first piece of advice is to be alert for unexpected opportunities. I have an MFA in fiction from Indiana University and a Ph.D. from the University of Cincinnati. They are both good programs. I expected to enter into the tenure-track path at some point, but things didn’t work out that way. What did happen was that while I was teaching as an adjunct at two different schools, an email announcement was forwarded to me from a friend. A small local Catholic liberal arts college needed a Writing Center director. I had no formal WC training, though I had worked a few hours as a writing tutor. I sent the college my vita anyway and was contacted the next day for an interview. During the interview, there were no questions about writing center theory or praxis at all. The head of the department simply wanted to get to know me, and I’m quite sure she was gauging my interpersonal skills. This was more than looking for a friendly colleague, though. Writing center work is highly dependent on mature, gentle, and empathetic interpersonal skills. Satisfied with that (I think!), she explained that the director position had been changed and would be filled with someone in-house, but they were willing to hire me at $25/hour for 6 hours a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, to tutor in their writing center. It fit in my schedule, and I took it on.

While I was there, I made contacts and got to know people. This is my second piece of advice: Make friends. Be nice, be helpful, be witty when appropriate, go to meetings and speak up, have lunch with faculty and administrators in the dining hall. When the director that year moved on, I was asked to take over. It was offered as an adjunct position at first. I decided not to do it on that basis, and turned the position down after putting it off as long as I could. After I said no, I got a call back 45 minutes later, offering it as a ¾ time position with full benefits. That sounded better, and I accepted. The administrator who offered me the position made what to me was a telling comment: “You’re not afraid to talk and speak your mind, and you eat lunch with us in the dining hall every day. You’re the person we wanted in this position.”

I spent several years learning writing center theory on the fly and adapting it to my new college. It was difficult and all consuming at first. The approach I developed was successful, and I’m now the director of a thriving writing center that has earned the respect of both faculty and administration. It’s not a tenure-track position. It’s not even a faculty position. But the position includes teaching duties, and I love teaching, especially literature and environmental studies, which I feel make a difference in the lives and educations of my students. When the new Senior Core Capstone classes were developed, I was on the faculty learning community that developed them, and I taught the first two sections. Small liberal arts colleges and universities are less rigid in structure than larger institutions, and with the right contacts, all sorts of doors can open.

I feel very much a part of the university now, with my ideas and influence woven deeply through the academic fabric of the institution. I co-taught an environmental science course with a biology professor last year (I have an undergraduate degree in biology). I gave the keynote address at our Celebration of Teaching and Learning, and the topic, “A Sense of Place,” was subsequently included as a unit that all entering freshmen will take in a required core course. I serve on the Environmental Action Committee. When I noted that the university didn’t have a sustainability policy, I was invited to write one. Representing the EAC, I took it to the faculty, staff, and students, who approved it, and it is now undergoing the final approval process with the President’s Cabinet and the Board of Trustees. Next year, pending final approval, I’ll be co-teaching a French literature and history course, which will include a trip to Paris. I’m also planning on a visit to Ghana—to guest lecture at a university there with other members of our faculty.

I mention all this to support a suggestion: small institutions rock! They have their own sets of issues and challenges to be sure, but for someone who is engaged, talented, friendly, and hard working, the opportunities for the blossoming of varied and exciting careers are there once you get your foot in the door. And—there are jobs out there for writing center directors. Be as broad as possible in your academic preparation, be friendly and make contacts and forge alliances, and keep your eyes open for opportunities you might not expect.

Tenure 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.

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

Watersheds and Forks in the Road

A few years ago, when John and I began our conversations, we found in one another the words for a common vision: a life practice for academic people guided by the virtues of centeredness, wholeness, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, imagination and collaboration.

Our thinking led immediately to the organizing fiction of academia-the career path that holds out the promise of a fulfilling life. This fiction begins with graduate school and proceeds through temporary and tenure-track jobs to the watershed of the tenure review, tenure, promotion, and retirement with honors. Careers do indeed unfold along this path. (My dossier for promotion to full professor is currently under review.) Others do not. (You can read John’s narrative of facing a fork in his own road in his essay “Meeting the Tree of Life.”) We have both been in and out of the academic world long enough to recognize the problems with this organizing fiction. Some of our colleagues and close friends have worked toward satisfying lives in academia; other colleagues and friends have struggled to stay alive in the academy–whether in the security of a tenured tenure-stream position or in the sometimes tenuous position of the adjunct. And for decades we have worked with lecturers, instructors, adjuncts, part-timers, and contingent faculty in our roles as faculty mentors and friends. If anything, we have learned that there are many pathways, watersheds, and destinations in this profession.

One of the primary motivations in our conversations has been to better understand the organizing fiction of academic life. We see the fiction of graduate school leading to a tenure-track position as potentially destructive precisely because it naturalizes professional success by aligning with the phases of a life path. However our experiences have led us to see our profession as more like a braided stream: people move back & forth between institutions, whether teaching full-or part-time; take up administrative positions or jobs outside of academics in business, journalism, writing, or publishing; government or non-profit work in museums or foundations, or go in to Independent work such as consulting.

The organizing fiction of an academic career also obscures the real situation. According to the 2006 AAUP Contingent Faculty Index, non-tenure-track positions now make up sixty-eight percent of all faculty at degree-granting institutions in the United States. Too many talented people with PhDs find themselves on the job market year after year; others take positions at institutions simply because they need a job; others sign on as contingent faculty and hold out the hope that their ship will come in; still others resign themselves to doing work they love in situations they loathe.

I am grateful to Dave W. for responding to our outline of phases in an academic career. (His comment appears on the “Prospectus” page.) For his words offers me an occasion to elaborate a bit more about where John and I are starting from. (Something I’ve been wanting to do but have been too busy teaching.) Dave’s framing our point of view may also be useful as we launch this conversation. He says that assuming “a traditional path from grad student to tenured bliss reveals a lack of appreciation of the reality on the ground.” Indeed. But we are, in fact, deeply interested in that ground-the reality from which we are always starting from. We are interested in mapping the reality of academic lives in more subtle and meaningful ways. We are interested in the systemic contradictions in the expression of the privileged professor who says, “But we are scholars, not teachers.” We are interested in why (and how) humane people continue to labor in less than humane situations. And yes, we are interested in the ongoing and difficult work of constructing not comfortable but rather more virtuous and satisfying lives.