The Chronicle of Higher Education is a great corporate-censoring arm, revered by American academics. "Arts & Letters," amongst other columns, is featured on its website and refuses to include The American Dissident next to other literary journals listed. Tran Huu Dung, managing editor, evidently judged The American Dissident to be insufficiently bourgeois (i.e., deferent). He wrote regarding the cartoon I'd sketched on him (see toon on right).
From: "Tran Huu Dung" <email@example.com>
To: "'George Slone'" <firstname.lastname@example.org>, email@example.com
Subject: RE: Cartoon of the Month
Date: Sat, 3 Jun 2006 10:56:52 -0400
Omigod! I’ve died and go to heavens!
An unbelievable honor! Many, many many many thanks!
Tran Huu Dung, Managing Editor, Arts & Letters Daily, http://www.aldaily.com
N.B.: I queried The Chronicle of Higher Education as to why some literary journals were permitted listing on the site, while others prohibited, and received a predictably lame answer from Jeanne Ferris, Senior Editor, The Chronicle Review, which, however, was actually surprising since I didn't expect a response at all:
"The Chronicle owns Arts & Letters Daily, but they are pretty much separate from The Chronicle of Higher Education, and completely separate from The Chronicle Review, the opinion section where I work, so I can't comment about Arts & Letters Daily."
And thus was how censorship (i.e., "moderation") operated at The Chronicle of Higher Education. On another note, the number of inane diversionary, court-jester-like articles (many under pseudonyms) published in the Chronicle of Higher Education by professors and academic administrators was alarming, to say the least. A certain number of the author-professors of those articles didn't even have the guts to sign their real names. Pseudonym was in vogue, at least in the cowardly world of higher education. Just try getting a tough, critical article on higher education published! In vain, I had tried... over and over and over. The childish Ms. Mentor column published week after week in The Chronicle, authored by Emily Toth (firstname.lastname@example.org), of the English department of Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, alone ought to provoke serious-minded, truth-concerned professors to stand up and shout BASTA! But where were those professors? Why didn't they speak out? Did they even exist? Self-professed "tenured radical" Cary Nelson had become president of the American Association of University Professors! Talk about Sixties Sellouts!!! One must wonder how much self-muzzling the tenured radical had to do to ascend to such a position. When I informed him that my comments regarding his article published in Inside Higher Ed had been censored, he simply chose to respond. For a sampling of some of those wishy-washy articles and Ms. Mentor columns, see sample articles below.Yes, one has to give him credit for posting it on his website... but did he even understand it?
Well, the editor of The American Dissident, for one, did exist, though he was currently an unemployed professor. I was dismissed from my online teaching position at Davenport University for speaking truthfully to students. Most professors, probably ninety-nine percent, spent their time, not truth telling, but rather building up the wall of fraud separating them from their students. Diversity had been a great smoke screen for higher education. It had conveniently replaced truth.
The following essays and letters were written, unless otherwise noted, by the editor of The American Dissident. My conclusions without fail supported the hypothesis that the First Amendment was barely tolerated, rarely if ever encouraged, in higher, as well as secondary, education.
Dear Editors, Chronicle of Higher Education:
If only you could see! If only you could see how you encourage academic cowardice by publishing academic cowards including "David Jones is the pseudonym of a director of annual giving at a liberal-arts college in the Midwest." It makes me want to vomit... that this character is so fearful that he needs to give himself a cowardly pseudonym. God help democracy!
BTW, check out my website: I have devoted a page to The Chronicle of Higher Education and its role as an integral part of the Academic/Literary Industrial Complex. The latter of course is helping to undermine democracy.
G. Tod Slone, editor of The American Dissident
The Chronicle of Higher Education enjoyed (until recently) a virtual monopoly on information in higher education. Now Inside Higher Ed also seems to have a good share. But it too engages in the censorship game. Over the past 15 years, both journals have systematically refused to publish anything the editor of The American Dissident had submitted as college professor, including letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, accounts of corruption, and caustic cartoon illustrations. The following rejected items cast light on the disturbing hypocrisy and inanity pervading many of the nation's colleges and universities. The Chronicle apparently prefered darkness to sunshine. Scroll down for the following:
1. Censored Letters to the Editor
2. Censored Op-ed Essays
A. Performing Experiments in Free Speech on Your Particular Campus, of course…
B. Phasing out Standardized Academic Careerists
1. Censored letters to the editor
Senior Editor Jeanne Ferris commented with regards an essay I'd submitted, naming names.
Subj: "The Cold Passion for Truth Hunts in No Pack"
Date: 11/5/03 10:13:10 AM Eastern Standard Time
I'm sorry to say that my colleagues didn't feel that your piece would work for us, and I can't encourge you to submit a shortened version. And I'm sorry to say, too, that because of the press of work on pieces that are appropriate for us, we can't take much time to discuss pieces that aren't right. I've already devoted more time to your manuscript than I typically do to those that we have to turn down.
Subj: "The Cold Passion for Truth Hunts in No Pack"
Date: 11/5/03 9:57:19 AM Eastern Standard Time
Dear Senior Editor:
Well, I'd gladly chop down "The Cold Passion for Truth Hunts in No Pack" and eliminate the exchange with the other editor just to get it published in the Chronicle. I'm quite open to editing. But is the message perhaps really too harsh? Is simply suggesting that maybe academic poets might consider becoming activist poets and RISK criticizing those in power, risk writing poetry in that sense, much too radical? I've just finished editing cahier special on Francois Villon who did name names in his poetry and thus dared commit lese-majesty and heresy at the RISK of his very life. It seems today that both lese-majesty and heresy still exist here in academe. I'm not suggesting that academic poets RISK their lives… but just something... and to do so by writing the rude truth. I'm currently reading Solzhenitsyn's The Oak and the Calf. Ponder what that Nobel prize winner RISKED in comparison, for example, with our Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon. Evidently, RISK would be a unique concept in academe, but how to get it into academe? How not to frighten the academics with such a bold concept? Thank you for your attention.
G. Tod Slone, Ed.
The American Dissident
Subj: "The Cold Passion for Truth Hunts in No Pack"
Date: 11/5/03 8:33:00 AM Eastern Standard Time
I'm sorry to report that your manuscript is not quite right for The Chronicle Review. It is too long for us, and some of the contents (e.g., your exchanges with the editor of another publication) wouldn't be appropriate.
Thank you, however, for thinking of The Chronicle.
The Chronicle Review
The Chronicle of Higher Education
1255 23rd St., NW
Washington, DC 20037
From Ms. Mentor, "Words of wisdom about academic culture" columnist for The Chronicle of Higher Education: Ms. Mentor advises readers that once you have a Ph.D., you are a certified expert in your field-whereupon the grading standards suddenly change. What separates [sic] the goats from the iguanas are people skills. Any unit can hire a competent teacher-scholar, but they also want a colleague who is pleasant to be around, shares the work cheerfully, and enhances their workdays. They can't use a bully, a pompous ass-or a mouse. 5/03
To Ms. Mentor: Regarding your "When to Remain Silent" editorial, no, baby, but the academic "units" (what a horrendous term!) can sure as hell use a coward, a pompous backslapper-or a sheep… that is, another like-minded see-no-evil-hear-none-either "iguana" with "people skills" who would be adverse to criticizing the hypocrisies and inanities proliferating in "units" across the nation. Ever attend one of those obligatory, imbecilic workshops? If not, try one on assessment. Baby, you seem to participate joyously in the fall of the Ivory Tower, that is, in its accelerating cooptation of the corporate model of authoritarianism, obedience, silence and grotesque conformity, not to mention the lingo and uncanny sameness of corporate modus operandi cancerously spreading in the belly of the beast academe. Have you ever wondered that maybe that "bully" might be speaking the truth, albeit the rude truth and that your iguanoid sheep clique might feel "bullied" because that rare department critic has actually dared-yes, it takes a goddamn hell of a lot of courage, something you and your sellout flock evidently lack-"to go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all its ways." How piteous that academics seem to loathe the "bully" who would dare go against the grain and make waves. And believe me, baby, you don't know academe at all if you think uncomfortable truths can be presented with "people skills" to PhD iguanoid sheep with ostrich necks firmly implanted in the buttocks of their Chairpersons. No, more often than not, the sledgehammer is the only way to shove egregious hypocrisy and inanity into their faces, forcing their noses to sniff, their eyes to see and their ears to hear. Nevertheless, I am in agreement with you that that will not resolve anything at all. However, for the sake of truth and to shake up the little complacent "unit" creatures, it must be done just the same. Finally, how piteous that you remain ever content that The Chronicle would never publish this letter.
To The Chronicle of Higher Education: Since The Chronicle constitutes the only weekly publication on matters related to higher education, I find myself reading your newspaper periodically. What else would I consult when searching for employment in Academe? Since I am ever curious, unlike most professors, I also tend to peruse your columns… with a critical eye. After reading Dr. Sellout Dean Stanley Fish this morning regarding email, I cannot help but voice my opinion once again on just how offensive both he and Dr. Sellout Professor Ms. Mentor regarding the embarrassing degree of 'cutesiness', if not downright childishness, in style and content. Why does it seem that only an infinitesimal number of academics in America, myself included, would rather read serious hardcore columnists interested in exposing the hardcore corruption rampant in Academe? Why does it seem that the large majority of academics would prefer reading the nonsense written by Fish and Mentoid? The banal and merry blather they tend to spew week after week is beneath the dignity of thinking men and women fully aware of the horrors existent in today's world. Why not a column by a hardcore critic of the ivory tower, one apt not to please, one apt to offend academics? Periodically over the past decade, I've asked you that very question… in vain of course. I suppose you'd think I would have learned by now just to accept the pervasive, happy-face nonsense… but I cannot seem to. Even today I receive an email from the chair of the department where I teach asking for my opinion on whether to rename Humanities a Department or keep the Programs designation. Indeed, does that concern not seem to sum up the frivolity rampant in Academe during these times of crisis? Evidently, you will not publish this letter, and that is fine with me, for indicative that I am where a writer ought… on the edge of what most would not publish. Indeed, most academics seem to have so easily poured into the Academe, Love It or Leave It mold. I just cannot seem to fit in. [No Response]
To The Chronicle of Higher Education: Contacting you is not the problem as in "how to contact us." The problem is getting an answer from you.
From Doug Lederman, Mgr. Ed., The Chronicle: I'm sorry-had we communicated before? I don't know anything about this issue you're raising, but I'd be more than happy to look into it.
To D. L., Mgr. Ed.: I believe this is our first communication. I have sent numerous letters, essays and even cartoons to The Chronicle... as blackballed professor. Never have I ever received a personal response. I'd sent a batch of cartoons, for example, after querying one of your assistants for a green light... six or seven months ago. She never responded. I'd also sent a highly critical essay on Critical Thinking courses and programs. No response. The Chronicle is making a big mistake by allowing its unwritten premise to rule: DON'T OFFEND THE READERSHIP.
From D. L., Mgr. Ed.: This just makes me wonder who you've been writing to all this time, and why it hasn't reached me. I wouldn't promise to publish anything of yours sight unseen, but I can say with certainty that "Don't offend the readership" is neither a written nor unwritten rule here. If your work is good and thoughtful and provocative, it should stand a reasonable chance of being published. I will be glad to pass materials on to the relevant people first-hand if you'd like to send it to me.
To D. L., Mgr. Ed.: I appreciate the response, but either you are unusually naive and suffering from unconscious denial, or simply bullshitting me. Of course, I doubt the latter. Let the following essay prove my assertion that you simply refuse to perceive the reality of The Chronicle as corporate voice for the Academic/Literary Industrial Complex that seeks to mutate Higher Learning into Corporate Learning. The Chronicle will never publish it, and you can provide a myriad of lame reasons why. It will prove that The Chronicle is not a tough, critical organ of the press, but one that seeks above all else not to offend its powerful readership (i.e., entrenched tenured professors and MBA college presidents and deans). Of course, I'd be tempted to change my mind after so many years of attempting to interest your newspaper in hardcore critique, if you out of the blue decided you might be interested. After all, anything is possible, and I remain ever open to changes in Chronicle management, though ever doubtful any significant changes will occur, thanks especially to the easily purchased and ever complacent, tenured professorate. [No Response]
Rejected Op-Ed Essays
A. Performing Experiments in Free Speech On Your Particular Campus, of course...
Unlike columnist Fremlin, “self-described 'white Canadian heathen' finds her niche teaching at a historically black university” (see “Where I Belong,” Chronicle 12/11/02), I have not as white, male American found my niche at an HBCU, not because of my race or gender, but rather because, unlike the bulk of college professors, black or white, female or male, American or foreign, I dare, in the words of Emerson, “to stand upright and speak the rude truth in all its ways.” Indeed, I criticize not behind closed doors, but openly. I operate as staunch individual, not as department team player and team thinker.
Is it not high time that college and university professors criticize their individual institutions openly, courageously, and vigorously? Is it not high time for them to stop brandishing the right-wing 60s slogan, perversely transformed into the present politically-correct Academe, Love It or Leave It? Is it not high time to thwart the trend of academe's corporate co-optation, which has included not only the “purchase” of faculty departments but also the spread of terminology and ideology? Department chairpersons should not be reduced to Unit Managers, nor students to clients, nor professors to marketers, nor presidents to fundraisers. The trend of corporate co-optation must be broken by newfound courage and individuality in the professorate. It must be replaced by a new trend of audacious questioning and challenging. Academe, HBCUs included, has been increasingly plagued by excess positivism and conformity. Whereas collegiality clearly benefits from this aberrant drift, truth, debate, and justice evidently must suffer.
My first year went quite smoothly at the historically black Methodist women's college in North Carolina because I kept my mouth shut. Is it not that simple in academe? Is it not that sad? My chair gave me a glowing faculty evaluation and, aware that I was seriously looking for another position, encouraged me to return for a second year. But two serious offers, interestingly both from HBCUs in less than desirable locations and paying equally unattractive salaries, had to be pondered. Because of my open decrying of corruption in Academe, I was being blackballed either directly or indirectly and had been forced on to the outer fringes of Academe, where some HBCUs. I decided against the offers. After all, I'd gotten along fine with my colleagues. So, why go from bad to bad? When I arrived at the college for my second year, this past August, the chair's friendly attitude towards me had radically changed. I'd missed the first several days of workshops and blablabla meetings because of a backache. As the weeks went by, it became evident the chair would never forgive me. Curiously, she would not even admit the existence of our new hostile rapport. I thus decided to end my low-key, closed-mouth professorial behavior and bring forth my high-key, unprofessorial, dissident poet behavior by performing a series of experiments in free speech in the form of departmental pamphlets and Op Eds. My first notable experiment was to publish “Wholesome Skepticism, Not Institutional Loyalty” (News & Record, 8/25/02), which criticized the bland, self-congratulatory discourses commonly made by college and university presidents, in particular, the statement made by UNCG Chancellor Sullivan this past fall: “Our people trust the university, and they believe in the university.” Indeed, how do we know the people trust the university? Why should they trust it? Shouldn't we question and challenge it, rather than blindly trust it? Have we not already heard CEOs blather: “Our stockholders trust the corporation, and they believe in the corporation”?
Not one colleague commented on the Op Ed. However, I did receive a letter of praise from a history professor at Elon University. Normally, the chair placed such articles authored by department members on the Humanities bulletin board. Yet my Op Ed remained conspicuously absent. I thus mentioned it to the chair, who gave me permission to hang it myself, which I did. Interestingly, my photo was soon cut out from it. I mentioned that to the chair, who admitted she'd done the cutting because somebody had defaced it. My next experiment was the posting of a pamphlet, “Idolatry or Verity?” on the Humanities bulletin board, containing a critical cartoon I'd drawn of guest speaker Coretta Scott King. Again, there was no response. Weeks later, I distributed a new pamphlet critical of the Humanities Mission statement during a Humanities Department meeting, the first I'd ever attended replete with fire and animus. Keep in mind I did not use foul language, nor shout during the meeting. The comments of three professors reflect perhaps the general reaction to “rude-truth” criticism in institutions of higher learning. The first called me “arrogant.” The second suggested in fine America-Love-It-or-Leave-It fashion: “If you don't like it here, maybe you should look for another job!” The third didn't beat around the bush at all, arguing to my amazement: “You're not part of the community. You take pleasure in being on the margins. You don't have a right to criticize the mission statement!”
A week after the meeting I distributed another pamphlet, “Notes from an Academic Cult,” to department members summarizing their reaction to my mission-statement critique and the implications thereof. Not one member responded. Clearly, I'd now become an official enemy of the Humanities Department, as in Ibsen's “An Enemy of the People.” My next two Op Eds, “Misguided Leadership, Donuts, and the First Amendment” (News & Record, 11/3/02) and “Drowning Healthy Dissent… with Deluge of Positivism: A Different View for the Sake of Diversity of Minds” (student newspaper, 12/02) would render me an official enemy of the entire college. The former included a satirical cartoon I'd drawn, rejected by the News & Record. After all, it depicted black women as obese, a taboo subject. But as poet, much more than professor, I am compelled to openly criticize such taboos, job security or not.
Not one faculty member responded. However, students responded and almost decided to boycott my classes… because I'd dared state openly that student obesity was perhaps the most important problem on campus. A glimmer of intelligence from an unknown source kept them from doing so. Instead, they sent me a letter of invitation to a special forum held to “discuss three of the articles that you have written.” No such thing had ever occurred at the state college in Massachusetts where I'd taught five years. There, the student newspaper had systematically refused to publish anything I submitted, including an account of my sudden eviction from my office mid-semester. In fact, I couldn't interest any periodical in the entire state vis-à-vis the corruption I'd witnessed and fell victim to.
The audience included some 45 people, including professors, the president and VPAA. But the well-attended forum turned out to be nothing more than a tar and feathering. Sadly, the four student panelists, four of the finest students at the college, proved incapable of reading a text objectively and with intellectual independence. They were entirely indoctrinated to the extent that one panelist, class president, declared to an applauding audience that “obesity is not a problem” at the college, that black women were not obese because they were unfairly compared statistically to the body structures of white men. Wow! Is that what higher education has come to? Moreover, the four student panelists argued that self-censorship did not even exist in the professorate, reasoning that their other professors did not think as I did. If it did not exist, however, why was I the only professor at the college daring to criticize the student donut walk to a local Krispie Kreme franchise led by the college president accompanied by board member Maya Angelou, poet stepping out of limousine? Why was I the only professor willing to question the president's acceptance of a new car as gift from a local corporation? When logic fails, it is time to manifest profound concern! One of the student panelists embarked on a tirade on how wonderful it was to have defeated segregation, wildly extrapolating from my essays, which had nothing whatsoever to do with the subject. Yet, if eliminating segregation was an important deed, and it was, why was the panelist voluntarily and contentedly attending an entirely segregated college? At least, I had an excuse: I couldn't find a job anywhere else. Of course, it is impossible to convince captives of ideology with logic and reason alone. The college was shackling its students and professors in an unwritten policy of self-esteem über alles, including and especially the truth. Constant self-congratulatory remarks and backslapping were stifling higher education, converting it into something entirely perverse.
Finally, once again, I find myself hunting for a new job in Academe. Nevertheless, I shall continue my vocal protest against the diverse perversions witnessed at the HBCU where I continue teaching for a final semester. Some, if not most, would say I simply do not belong in the Academy. Yet, I would fervently disagree. Academe needs staunch individualists-not ideology-obedient sheep-willing to question and challenge overtly. At age 54, I am tired of hunting for work and increasingly disgusted with academe's rampant disregard for the law regarding age discrimination. Nevertheless, as poet on the edge, I would not have it any other way.
B. Back to Basics: Create First Principles Courses and Centers, Incorporating Modules of Real Critical Thinking And Phasing out Standardized Academic Careerists
Our country's schoolchildren need to be taught democratic principles in their historic context and present relevance, with practical civics experiences to develop their citizen skills and a desire to use them, and so they will be nurtured to serve as a major reservoir of future democracy.
-Ralph Nader, The Concord Principles, An Agenda for a New Democracy, #10 Feb 21, 2000
Focus on the truth must supplant all other points of concern currently being raised and “pushed” by education reformists if colleges and universities are to change significantly for the better. Reading and writing must be considered as “means” useful for the discovery and propagation of truth, rather than as “ends” unto themselves. Placing truth as the prime focal point in higher education would help create a new breed of citizen apt to question and challenge the state and its multitudinous institutions, rather than simply team play, network and fit in. Blind patriots rather than comprising the majority of the population would become a species on the verge of extinction.
Over the course of vicissitude, I've come to believe that civic responsibility ought not consist of mere casting of ballots once every four years, but rather standing upright and speaking the rude truth, and otherwise challenging corrupt institutions and leaders, no matter how small or insignificant. Dishonesty, especially in academe, opened my eyes. As a public college professor, it was astonishing to witness the extent of nepotism, cronyism, and fraud, regarding faculty evaluations, sexual harassment complaint procedures, suppression of free speech, 14th amendment violation, secrecy of records and a kept student press, not to mention the apathy of my colleagues. Just how widespread is the cancer? Seeking to reenter the ivory tower, but also seeking the truth, I included the following statement in my cover letters sent to prospective employers:
Might your department and institution constitute one of those very rare bastions in Academe focused on truth and justice and open to critical thinkers without Orwellian writer's taboos (e.g., don't criticize the hand that feeds)? Would you be willing to consider me as a viable candidate for the position opening given that I blew the whistle on intrinsic corruption at a state college and am creator and editor of a literary review, The American Dissident, devoted to improving America through free and open criticism of all American icons and institutions? If so, I would be honored to apply for the position.
Interestingly, the statement did irritate a certain number of Job Lords, including one who articulated what is perhaps, if not probably, the reigning mentality in Academe. The professor in question is the chairperson of a university department, whose name need not be revealed.
I also feel that surely someone who goes out and gets a Ph.D. knows what the academic game is all about, and if he/she doesn't want to play by those rules, then really he should play some other game, and I don't pretend that the rules are just or fair, but they probably are more just and more fair than those of most human games.
It is rare to hear the word 'corruption' in Academe, which prefers euphemisms, including “politics,” “mismanagement,” and “in-fighting.” These sweeter terms cover up the harsher realities of secret arbitration settlements, secret grievance hearings, corrupt professional harassment procedures, and blackballing. In simpler terms, that department chairperson was really stating: “Academe love it or leave it!” She was reflecting the mentality of the very large majority of the professors I've known during 15 years of tenure-track employment. That mentality needs to be examined, exposed, and terminated.
My proposal for a new, exploratory course-this essay serves as rough-draft outline-was sent to several institutions of higher learning because, well, they were actually seeking unique proposals for courses. For example, I sent it to Deep Springs College in Nevada, which “prepares a select group of 26 young men (avg. SAT 1500) for lives of service to humanity” and is “committed to a diversity of perspectives in education and welcomes applicants from all backgrounds.” I also sent it to Duke University, which was seeking Duke Fellows in Teaching Writing, and whose announcement underscored: “We are building an interdisciplinary faculty to teach a first-year course in Academic Writing linked to an innovative Writing-in-the-Disciplines program. Fellows draw on their disciplinary training and interests to design seminars introducing students to academic and intellectual writing.”
The proposal sought to initiate the very disarming of the ivory tower and thwart the continual bombardment against honesty, common sense and justice with business-as-usual educationist jargon, diversionary explosions of lesser concerns, and scud missiles of egregious apathy. Over the years, I have tried in vain to interest The Chronicle of Higher Education, Lingua Franca, Thought & Action (NEA), Adjunct Advocate, amongst others, in the issue of intrinsic academic corruption. Over the years, these periodicals have responded, not with interest, not with indignation, but rather with form rejection cards.
Unfortunately, whenever I find myself skimming The Chronicle's job lists, the inane, if not asinine, Ann Landers-type column penned by Ms. Mentor, chides me, first provoking a certain nausea, then outrage, because it fills up such valuable space with grotesque silliness and vacuity where that space could have been used to examine the “game.” Over the past year, I've sent several critical letters to Ms. Mentor, but in the name of positivism, civility and collegiality, she too has chosen silence.
It is evident that The Chronicle of Higher Education does not wish to promote visceral change in the Ivory Tower, for it has tapped into large sums of money, thanks to its general support, if not parroting, of the Nation's standardized academic careerists, professors and administrators alike. Perhaps, it is also time that The Chronicle, its board members, its connections with big business, the stories it quells, and the overall part it plays in the academic “profscam,” in the words of Charles J. Sykes, be profoundly vetted, if not exposed. The following is typical of the twaddle published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, week after week, by Ms. Mentor:
Question: I'm a young assistant professor in a very collegial department of 30 people. For my wedding next year, I'm wondering: Who from my department should I invite? Everybody? Nobody? Only the people I'm closest to? The issue is serious, and I don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, since these people will eventually be voting on me for tenure. I want my good friends there, but inviting everybody is a bit of a stretch. What to do?
Answer: (the response was much too long to reprint in this essay)
Question: I'm in a one-year job, and my boss-a mediocre researcher-recently called me into his office to tell me, "Don't compete with me." Since then he and our no-name colleagues have ignored or disparaged my publications and achievements. In this uneasy atmosphere, should I-without badmouthing my current co-workers-be looking for another job? Answer: Yes. (from “Are Academics Real People,” 1/07/00)
Instead of being outraged by the existence of Dr. Semicretino, mediocre researcher (second question), The Chronicle of Higher Education (Ms. Mentor) suggests the junior professor simply leave his job, as if jobs in academe were so easy to come by. Besides, what would that professor have to do to obtain a letter of recommendation from Dr. Semicretino if he were to resign? Without such a letter, his very career would quite possibly, if not probably, be terminated.
Ms. Mentor's smug advice outrages me week after week. How I fumed reading her column (8/18/00): “When to Tattle.” But then surely I must be quite different from the standardized academic careerist who would certainly concur with labeling whistleblowing against corrupt colleagues as childish “tattling.” I have had ample opportunity to observe the standardized academic careerist and his/her procedures. In the beginning of my bumpy career, I was quite astonished by the similar and disquieting personality traits possessed by a disturbing number of colleagues. Towards the end of it, I was, of course, no longer surprised, just disgusted. What traits seem to define the standardized academic careerist? The first and most dominant that come to mind include cowardice, not brilliance, but cowardice and grotesque sycophancy regarding those higher up on the authoritarian hierarchy, including chairpersons, deans, vice presidents, presidents, and chancellors.
At the state college where I taught five years, self-proclaimed and self-promoted as the “Leadership College,” which established a Leadership Academy, 99% of the professorate when confronted with blatant in-house corruption refused to “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all its ways.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, of course, wrote those famous words… and they are so powerful that each and every college and university in America ought replace their obscure and largely unread mission statements with them. Imagine all the trees conserved.
As a direct insult to Emerson's wisdom, all too many professors and administrators at that college and, no doubt, at many if not most other institutions of higher learning throughout the Nation, engage in an incredible amount of vacant jabbering. “Finally, I say, let the demagogues and world-redeemers babble their emptiness to empty ears,” had written the poet Robinson Jeffers. Even more significant, when, on those rare occasions, that institution was criticized, the office doors inevitably shut firmly with the hinges squeaking a spineless 'shhh.' Why such great fear to criticize the leaders of a public college, FBI's most wanted serial murderer Billy Bulger, brother of University of Massachusetts president William Bulger? In fact, why the great need for PR in higher education today? Why the need for lofty sobriquets such as the “Leadership College”? Why the secrecy of personnel files in academe? Why the cover-ups? Why did it take federal legislation to force colleges and universities to divulge crimes committed on their respective campuses? Evidently, accountability never comes from within.
Hopefully, some college and university deans and presidents in the country must surely encourage professors to follow Emerson's wisdom and be apt to hire professors with proven records of doing just that. Hopefully, but who and where are they? “Self-Reliance” could replace those lofty and at times arrogant mission statements that professors spend so much time enacting and so little time applying. “I am ashamed to think how easily we capitulate to badges and names, to large societies and dead institutions...” wrote Emerson. Badges, names and dead institutions? Professors ought stop calling each other Doctor. It's not only pretentious and embarrassing, but is also an integral part of that ivory wall of hocus pocus that needs to be razed. “Money is the price of life,” wrote Emerson. Many academics could benefit by contemplating that statement. Salaries, salaries, salaries, not truth, truth, truth has always been the war cry of the large majority of academics I've known. Even at this very writing, the state-college standardized academic careerists in Massachusetts are once again on the salary warpath. Indeed, they're now 'holding out' by not holding meetings, department or faculty. If somebody could only make those academics contemplate the salary I was earning, $850 per semester, at the local adult education center for teaching two evening courses. If somebody could only push their noses into inner-city poverty. Other traits that characterize the standardized academic careerist include the utter lack of compassion regarding terminated colleagues whose careers corrupt administrators systematically destroy. Apathy, sometimes parading as intellectual aloofness, especially regarding campus free speech, free expression, just procedures and evaluations, equality of treatment and other such issues that should be extremely important at institutions of higher learning, is also characteristic, as are lack of sharing regarding special programs, grant monies, extra-pay courses, etc., and deviousness regarding special favors. What is pitiful regarding these traits is that many professors will probably agree that their colleagues can be that way, but will rarely envisage themselves as standardized academic careerists. Nat Hentoff, ardent critic of higher education, posed the question: “What caused the ivory tower to become such a snakepit?” Well, Mr. Hentoff, the answer is quite simple: snakes and rats.
There is great urgency to redefine what a professor should be, certainly not a combination of the aforementioned traits. The perversion of process, secrecy of procedure, and rigid hierarchy result in the standardized academic careerist. To change the nature of the beast is absolutely crucial. If no change occurs, colleges and universities will continue on their merry paths producing technologically proficient, intellectually deficient, networking, and group-thinking blind patriots, rather than responsible citizens of democracy.
What needs to be done? First, replace the verbiage-packed mission statements that tend to be nothing but PR garbage with clear statements on the professor's responsibility to uphold and fight for truth and justice on his or her respective campus. Interestingly, the National Education Association devoted its December 2000 issue propaganda bulletin, Advocate, to “Academic Honesty.” Shamefully, though unsurprisingly, the entire emphasis was not on professor dishonesty, but rather on student dishonesty! Next, create on-going mandatory discussion workshops around the theme of the professor's responsibility. Preventing the Nation's various faculty union associations from fighting such a proposal tooth and nail, as they generally seem to do regarding any effort to viscerally reform the System, will not be easy. Is it not curious that professors never take such courses or workshops? Why do the Nation's teacher certification programs not include them? Something desperately needs to be done to stem the grotesque apathy of the large majority of the Nation's professors to truth and justice on their respective campuses.
While perusing the higher education want ads, I came across an ad for Christopher Newport University in Virginia, which boasted, “The University community abides by an honor code, and our students pledge not to lie, steal, or cheat.” Clearly, there must be a lot of lying, stealing and cheating, not only there, but everywhere to give birth to the idea of an “honor code.” Needless to say, I wrote Mr. Gallaer, Associate Vice President for Human Resources (I could not find email addresses for the university president or deans), asking the simple and logical question: “Do the faculty and administrators also take a pledge or would that be pushing it a bit?” Needless to say, Mr. Gallaer did not deign to respond.
What else needs to be done? Each college and university throughout the Nation must, in accord with the supposed universal mission of Academe, that is, veritas, establish a center and obligatory courses devoted to American First Principles, free speech, free expression, free press, the right to face ones accusers, etc. Free speech is of prime importance because it enables democracy to survive. The question is; of course, just how democratic really are the nation's colleges and universities and the Nation itself? How has the repression of free speech affected the state of the democracy?
Other areas of pertinence in dire need of free and open discussion include the cancerous pervasion of the ostrich mentality in academe and society in general. Silence or omertà is a Mafiosi principle, yet has taken over all spheres of American life, especially academe, police forces, government, and even literature with regards criticizing the entrenched Academic/Literary Industrial Complex. The politically correct mindset must be discussed in the context where it distorts reality and dictates when its conscripts should stand by the truth, speak out against corruption and when they should not. Political correctness has come to mean truth some of the time, rather than truth all of the time.
Another occurrence that has been perverting the truth and reality is celebrity, which affects all spheres of American life, even poetry and government, and has had a most profound affect upon the Nation's psyche. We need to study why celebrity exists, how it exists, who pushes it, who profits from it, and especially, what grand purpose it serves. We need to study the phenomenon in which successive waves of hysteria unfurl upon the Nation, brainwashing and controlling the populace. I have been victim of these waves myself. I have been suckered in just like everyone else, which is why I am able to formulate this as a prime problem area. Celebrity clearly has a corrupting influence on the truth.
In any case, each of these subjects must be discussed openly in the context of immediacy in both time and place. In other words, all readings and discussions ought, in the name of pertinence and learning, revert whenever possible to campus events, including the firing, hiring, censoring, and evicting of professors, sexual harassment complaints, and all of the behind-the-scenes corruption that has characterized academe perhaps since its very inception. Clearly, immediacy assists learning by making the subject pertinent.
The need for such centers and courses is clearly underscored by the findings of the Freedom Forum of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University whose poll indicated that 53 percent of those surveyed believe that the press has too much freedom, a little under 50% of those responding to the survey said they did not recall ever having had a class in the First Amendment, only four percent rated their education in the First Amendment as "excellent," while 63% had said it had been poor or "only fair." Personally, in all my years of classes, I do not recall ever having had such a course, nor can I recall one professor or teacher ever talking about the supreme importance of the First Amendment.
Clearly, colleges and university administrators would rather not establish First Principles centers because such centers would serve to embolden and educate students and professors regarding basic and fundamental rights. Ignorance always serves the power structure, academic, corporate or whichever. An emboldened and educated student and professor population would inevitably threaten the power of administrators to dodge accountability and capriciously restrict basic rights on campus, which, according to Silvergate and Kors (The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses), is “the only major sector of civilian life in this country where not only is arbitrariness widespread, but where fair procedure and rational fact-finding mechanisms, with disturbing and surprising frequency, are actually precluded by regulations.”
Immediacy is important. We cannot continue to permit professors to teach courses on, for example, the Philosophy of Love when behind the scenes those very professors may be engaging in behavior that is anything but love. We cannot continue to permit colleges and universities to require readings such as Ibsen's "An Enemy of the People" when they refuse to acknowledge and discuss on-campus enemies of the people. We can no longer permit professors who cannot critically think regarding their immediate surroundings to teach courses in Critical Thinking. Academe's great failing has always been refusal to debate and refusal to reveal the festering corruption behind its own ivory towers. One of my evaluators had actually castigated me in his evaluation for bringing in-house corruption to the attention of students. He was wrong. College students are not children. College professors must stop treating them that way. They must stop 'protecting' them from the sordid aspects of the very institutions that have taken charge of their education. These matters are crucial to the salvation of higher education. College and university presidents, who make speeches stressing truth and justice, while behind the scenes stand for anything but truth and justice, must be challenged by a new breed of courageous professors. The college presidents I've known didn't give a damn about the truth and justice. Indeed, they were hired because of fund-raising prowess and political connections, not because of personal integrity.
Reading Hentoff's Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee, I discovered a wonderful document, the Woodward Report, which was issued by Yale University regarding speech on campus. This report, which reflects an extraordinary mentality on the part of some of Yale's professors, should be mandated in all institutions of higher learning. Unfortunately, most of the latter would never issue such a report, preferring instead reports or memorandums that might outline whole panoplies of free-speech restrictions under the grotesque banners of CIVILITY or COLLEGIALITY, lofty terms that conveniently conceal corruption.
America has taken a frightening deviation from the principles expounded in the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Corruption is on the increase in the Nation's prisons, police forces, corporations, government, colleges and universities. For this reason, courses on free speech, expression, liberty, justice, whistleblowing, the truth and reality need to be created, brought to the forefront, and made obligatory in all colleges, universities and perhaps even high schools. Courses on income taxes, basic legal rights, poverty, health care, and criminal justice should also form part of an essential core curriculum. The citizenry has become much too dependent on the services of money-hungry lawyers, income tax accountants and doctors.
Moreover, universities and colleges are in desperate need of enacting whistleblower legislation. Each needs to establish an Office of Independent Critic and Ombudsperson, who would receive complaints, make such complaints public and gather statistics regarding all grievances and arbitration hearings and make those statistics public, as well as all hiring and firing records. The academic code of silence needs to be destroyed, once and for all.
Professors and teachers, who teach such courses, should hold the truth and justice much higher than job security, grant monies, paid sabbaticals, early retirement, loyalty to power, collegiality, and civility. It will be difficult to find such individuals because college and university presidents, as well as high school principals, are adverse to hiring and tenuring them. This grave problem needs to be addressed and somehow resolved. The very criteria for hiring presidents and principals must be reviewed in this light. Fund-raising prowess must cease being the most important criteria. Intellectual integrity must replace it.
Let colleges and universities be poor and truthseeking, rather than rich and corrupt with mega-sized endowment funds. Resolving the problem of intellectually fraudulent administrators is the most crucial area confronting academe today, not remedial learning or multiculturalism. Yet it is not even being addressed and will only be addressed when the non-academic public becomes sufficiently angry and involved. Absolute obedience should cease constituting a prerequisite for employment and tenure in the Nation's institutions of higher learning.
The following list of essays, books, etc. might serve as a starting point for a course in American first principles and reality. They have confirmed my own experiences and thoughts. Many other works could surely be added. Underscore once again that professors of such courses must teach the works as fully relevant to the immediate surroundings, including the very institution. They must fully comprehend what Orwell meant when he wrote: “Even a single taboo [e.g., do not criticize the hand that feeds] can have an all-round crippling effect upon the mind, because there is always the danger that any thought which is freely followed up may lead to the forbidden thought.”
First Principles centers when created should be open to the general public and provide concrete ways in which students and others might actively help return the Nation to the ideals stressed by the Founding Fathers. Educators must help students (and students, who tend to be much less fearful of the power structure, must help educators) to focus on points of corruption and deterioration in American society, including academe, prisons, police, justice, soft money, etc. Voting alone will change nothing. Writing ones congressperson will do nothing either. I've tried that and received a thank-you-for-your-support form response.
Finally, the creation of First Principles centers and courses constitutes a radical idea, as radical as James Madison's Bill of Rights, because it will threaten, and in fact its very purpose should be to threaten, the academic/authoritarian establishment. During my 14 years as full-time college professor, I never heard anybody suggest such an idea. It is time to put an end to the rule of the standardized academic careerist. It is time to put an end to the self-serving saurian bureaucratic structures of the Nation's public universities and colleges. Let the following list of works serve as a core, alternative, Critical Thinking reader and, for that matter, let the following replace the myriad dull unchallenging, unquestioning literary anthologies currently being usedand pushed in the nation's colleges and universities, raking in millions of dollars for the Nation's corporate book publishers, part of the ruling elite in the Academic/Literary Industrial Complex.
Reality check in the ivory tower (and secondary education):
-Total Chaos: Behind the Scenes of a National Blue-Ribbon High School, G. Tod Slone
-How Teachers Colleges Have Destroyed Education in America: Education's Smoking Gun, Reginald Damerell
-Acceptance speech (New York City Teacher of the Year Award), 1/31/90, John Taylor Gatto
-“Teaching Self-Censorship at Columbia,” Nat Hentoff, Village Voice 2/21/01
-The Shadow University: The Betrayal of Liberty on America's Campuses, Kors and Silvergate
-“Tenured Weasels: Getting a Degree-But Not an Education-at Public Universities,” Patrick Moore (www.bus.lsu.edu/accounting/faculty/ lcrumbley/sfrtas.html)
-The Goose-Step: Study of American Education, Upton Sinclair
-The Graves of Academe, Richard Mitchell
-How Teachers Colleges Have Destroyed Education in America: Education's Smoking Gun, Reginald Damerell
-Yale University's Woodward Report
-Free Speech for Me, But Not for Thee, Nat Hentoff
-Imposters in the Temple, Martin Anderson
-Poisoning the Ivy, Michael Lewis
-The Fall of the Ivory Tower, George Roche
-Inside American Education, Thomas Sowell
-Scaling the Ivory Tower, Lionel Lewis
-Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education, Charles J. Sykes
-The Hollow Men: Politics and Corruption in Higher Education, Charles J. Sykes
-Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America, Page Smith
-Vamps and Tramps by Camille Paglia (especially “The Nursery School Campus: The Corrupting of the Humanities in the U.S”)
-Saints and Scamps: Ethics In Academia, S.M. Cahn.
-Academic Integrity and Student Development, W.L. Kibler et.al,
-“Academic Freedom, Tenure, and Student Evaluation of Faculty: Galloping Polls In The 21st Century,” Robert E. Haskell (200-page essay also on the Return to Academic Standards web site)
-The Conspiracy of Ignorance: the Failure of American Public Schools, Martin L. Gross
-Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen
-Dumbing Down Our Kids: Why American Children Feel Good about Themselves but Can't Read, Write, or Add, Charles J. Sykes
-American Education and Corporations: The Free Market Goes to School, Deron Boyles
-A Second Mencken Chrestomathy (e.g., “The Public-School,” “The War upon Intelligence,” and “The Golden Age of Pedagogy”), H. L. Mencken
2. Reality check: society, literature, the truth, justice, universe, etc.
-“Civil Disobedience,” Henry David Thoreau
-“Self-Reliance,” Ralph Waldo Emerson
-An Enemy of the People, Henrik Ibsen
-“Prevention of Literature,” George Orwell
-Voyage au Bout de la Nuit, Louis-Ferdinand Céline
-“What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?,” Frederick Douglass
-“1978 graduation ceremony address to Harvard University,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
-“The Case for Literature” (Nobel Lecture-1999), Gao Xingjian
-“First Principles" (Writing in Restaurants), David Mamet
-“The Concord Principles: An Agenda for a New Initiatory Democracy,” Ralph Nader
-Sinclair Lewis, “Letter to the Pulitzer Prize Committee” (The Man from Main Street)
-“The American Fear of Literature” (Nobel Lecture-1930), Sinclair Lewis
-“Propaganda, American-style,” Noam Chomsky
-American Holocaust, David Stannard
-“Patriotism, a Menace to Liberty,” Emma Goldman
-“Préface,” Léo Ferré (http://le-village.ifrance.com/tom/preface.htm)
-The Sane Society, Eric Fromm
-“Vamos a menos,” Juan Goytisolo
-“Words from an Outcast of the Fourth Estate” and “Capture Him, Beat Him, and Treat Him Like Dirt,” Mumia Abu-Jamal from All Things Censored
-“Hemos llegado al fin de una civilización,” José Saramago, El País, 11/19/00
-“Hacks watching the henhouse,” Howie Carr, Boston Herald 5/27/01
- “Never Anything About Obstruction of Justice-Clinton's Deal: Justice Denied” by Nat Hentoff
-A Mencken Chrestomathy (“Bearers of the Torch,” etc..) by H. L. Mencken
-Interdit aux autruches (collection of Quebec essays)
-Open Letters by Vaclav Havel (e.g., “Dear Dr. Husak”)
-Corporate Cults by Dave Arnott
-In the Belly of the Beast by John Abbott
-La Liberté n'est pas une marque de yaourt, Pierre Falardeau
-“Key to Presidential Pardon Is Access,” by Peter Slevin and George Lardner Jr., Washington Post, 1/22/01
-“A Cheap Violin: Eighteen rules of journalism, as violated by The News & Observer” by John Yewell, The Independent Weekly (http://www.indyweek.com/durham/current/triangles.html)
-“Coulda Shoulda Woulda” by Wanda Coleman (L. A. Times, 4/14/02)
3. Socio-politically engaged poetry
-“Question au clerc du guichet” (“Ballade de l'appel”), François Villon
-Selected Poems (e.g., “Quia Absurdum,” “Advice to Pilgrims,” and “New Years Dawn, 1947”), Robinson Jeffers
-Le Temps de Parler (e.g., “Folie,” “Le Pouvoir,”and “La Vie volée”) and “Les Porcs,” Raymond Lévesque
-“The True Prison,” Ken Saro-Wiwa
-“The Hollow Men,” T. S. Elliott
-“The Unknown Citizen,” W. H. Auden
-“Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night,” Dylan Thomas
-“We Wear the Mask,” Paul Laurence Dunbar
-“La poesía es un arma cargada de futuro,” Gabriel Celaya
-“Romance de la Guardia Civil Española,” Federico García Lorca
-“El Crimen fue en Granada,” Antonio Machado
-“The Replacements,” “Termites of the Page,” and “How to Get Rid of the Purists,” Charles Bukowski
-“No Te Salves” and “Contraofensiva,” Mario Benedetti
-The American Dissident, a journal of dissident writing in the spirit of the Founding Fathers
-The Thin Blue Line, directed by Errol Morris
-Free Speech for Sale, Bill Moyers
-Manufacturing Consent on Noam Chomsky
-“What's Happening to Free Speech?” John Stossel (ABC, 3/23/00)
5. Web sites of “alternative opinion”
-www.rwor.org (Revolutionary Workers-interviews and articles from a different perspective)
-http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/Goldman/ (Essays by Emma Goldman)
- (American Gulag)
Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle of Higher Education—Free Speech in Peril
This general fear of conflict and emphasis on consensus and accommodation is typical academic drivel. How do you ever arrive at consensus before you have conflict? In fact, of course, conflict is the vital core of an open society; if you were going to express democracy in a musical score, your major theme would be the harmony of dissonance.
Periodically, I read through the job ads in The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed, now and then also checking out the articles and always ending up with the feeling of being entirely out of that scene—totally disconnected from the Joe-average higher-education see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil professor. The following is just a sample of the type of articles favored by the editorial management of both The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside Higher Ed. They illustrate the type of inane drivel being written for money by the nation's English professors and others. Scroll down for the full articles. Some of them are signed with pseudonyms, often an indication of fear and cowardice. To highlight the inanity, cite the article appearing in Inside Higher Ed (1/26/10), written by University of Richmond Children's Literature expert Libby Gruner, regular "Mama PhD" columnist: “Mothering at Mid-Career: Startitis.” "After blogging at this site for well over a year, I start to fear that I'll repeat myself. And, sure enough, when I sat down to write a post about knitting, I discovered that I'd done it before..." Where the wisdom? Where the risk? Where the struggle to fight the machine? Far too many professors seem to have known nothing but the easy life of the academic cocoon. Surely, such professors would write and think so much better if they'd spent a year toiling at a job normally occupied by proles and/or a year unemployed, desperately hunting for a job. Pipedream, of course! Evidently, if these profs represent the Joe-average professor, then, man, I'm way the hell out of the scene. From the Sixties to this Suburban Crap Nonsense.
—"Mothering at Mid-Career: Startitis" by Libby Gruner
—"I'm OK, He's Sleazy" by Ms. Mentor http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/mama_phd/mothering_at_mid_career_startitis
—"An (Academic) Affair to Remember" by pseudonym
—"The Year of Dressing Formally" by pseudonym
—"The Meaning of Risk" by pseudonym
—"The Model Graduation Speaker," Jay Parini, English, professor at Middlebury College (My alma mater! Come on Breadloaf School, can't you do any better???), May 25, 2007
—"50 Columns Later," Thomas H. Benton (William Pannapacker, associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, MI)
Two unanswered emails sent to WP
—"The Secrets of Our Success?," Jane Cook (pseudonym of a gutless professor)
—"Hold Your Tongue, Part II," Jennifer S. Furlong and Julie Miller Vick (Are we all drooling in wait for part III?)
—"Managing Up," David D. Perlmutter, professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas
—"A Creature of Our Own Making," Gary A. Olson, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Illinois State University
Email Open Letter to Olson, "The Shepherd's Players" [unanswered... of course]
—"Ms. Dr. Prof. Amanda," Amanda I. Seligman
Mothering at Mid-Career: Startitis (Libby Gruner, January 25, 2010, Inside Higher Ed)
After blogging at this site for well over a year, I start to fear that I'll repeat myself. And, sure enough, when I sat down to write a post about knitting, I discovered that I'd done it before. That earlier post was a pep talk of sorts, a reminder to myself that I need to make time for things I love that aren't directly related to my work. Sometimes that can be hard, since one of my greatest pleasures, reading novels, is indeed directly related to my work and therefore hardly "counts" as a leisure activity.
But these days reminding myself to knit seems like less of an issue — what I need, it seems, is a reminder to finish what I start. Or, perhaps even better, to start what I can finish.
Let me explain. Among some knitters, I've occasionally heard the term "startitis" — the tendency to start, but not finish, many projects. I never really understood the problem. I mostly knit fairly small projects, things I could complete in a few weeks or a month, knitting on the couch during downtime. But suddenly I find myself with several unfinished projects lying around in various stages of completion — the shawl I started almost two years ago that is still a bit beyond my level of competence, for example. The scarf that I almost certainly can't complete without another ball of a yarn I bought in England and haven't yet tracked down here. The socks that I gave my husband for Christmas, still on the needles.
Well, of course, it's the socks that are the real problem. Sock knitting is fussy and precise — unlike shawls and scarves, socks need to fit — and, while I enjoy the precision of the architecture, it does involve a little more attentiveness on my part than some other projects. (Skilled sock knitters are now laughing into their double-pointed needles as I reveal my complete amateur status here.)
So the socks are going to take a while, and in the meantime I've started a couple of other projects that are, well, easier — more likely to be finished in the next couple of weeks. Project monogamy, I've found, is not for me.
And that actually is a lesson that carries over into my working life. A course takes fifteen weeks, and there's a certainty about the ending that comes with the rhythms of academic life — there will be papers to grade, presentations to evaluate, and then it will be done. But other projects — working on curricular revision, say, or embarking on a research project — are more amorphous, indefinite in their contours and their likelihood of completion. I enjoy the attention to detail that they require, the intricacies of construction (if I change this, what happens here?) — but some days I need to work on something more limited, something I can finish.
So I'm going to stop apologizing for my startitis and make sure I always have both kinds of projects on hand — some that are small and easily completed, others that may continue for months or even years but that offer larger challenges. And one day maybe my skills will be up to my ambitions, and I'll even finish that big shawl.
Ms. Mentor (June 2009), "I'm OK, He's Sleazy"
How should an untenured faculty member deal with the questionable overtures of her dean?
Question: I'm a young, female, untenured faculty member with multiple disabilities, but they're not visible and don't affect the quality of my work. The accommodations I need are minor, but my colleagues' attitudes are an issue. I don't have the behavioral patterns or paraphernalia that people associate with my disabilities, so I don't "act disabled," and it's rumored that I'm a lazy liar.
But once people know about my health situation, many of them reduce their expectations and go into the "oh, poor you" routine. I vehemently do not want pity, and I'm getting fake empathy from a dean who's also a famous skirt chaser, although so far he's made no such advances to me. Still, I'm afraid that those who observe his overcourteous, borderline-sleazy behavior to me will jump to the most gossipworthy explanation, hurting my career. What do I do?
Answer: Ms. Mentor is charmed and mystified by your letter, which seems to her a triumphal account rather than a cry for help. You've vanquished most of the monsters whiffling through the tulgey wood; the only dragon remaining with eyes of flame is the dean.
Ms. Mentor at first expected you to cite the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires accommodations. But you've handled that.
Ms. Mentor could tell you that academics, like other mortals, sometimes harbor prejudices against people with disabilities. "They'll cost more in insurance" is one claim, but more often there's vague muttering about "bad fit," meaning that hirers don't want to come right out and admit they're more comfy with people like themselves — white, young, straight, able-bodied.
But you haven't asked Ms. Mentor about that, either — nor about coping with those who consider you a lazy liar for having a handicapped-parking sticker, or saying you have to be in bed by 8 p.m., or awkwardly declining to go to lunch.
You can't control what others say, but you can often control what they see and how they see it. You can admit to "a couple of minor medical conditions" and needing "more rest to keep up with the high standards of this department. Everyone is incredibly accomplished." (When you flatter people, they often forget about you. They're too busy preening.)
Or sometimes they're being patronizing. "How brave you are" is cloying and annoying. So are the distraught sympathizers who make you comfort them ("My tumor isn't a death sentence. Really, it isn't. It doesn't interfere with my teaching. Stop crying.")
But you haven't asked about that, either.
And advice givers — according to the secret oath they all take — are supposed to answer only the question that they're actually asked.
You, poor dear, ask so little of Ms. Mentor. Just a small, mundane, universal worry. What if you are sexually pursued by — oh, no — an administrator? Many professors do see themselves as righteous defenders of their academic prerogatives against the vile encroachment of administrators, who are routinely defined as the enemy. (Are people who hated their fathers especially drawn to academe? Ms. Mentor wonders.)
Joining the administration is often called "going over to the dark side," as anyone who becomes a department chair finds out quickly. You're suddenly a villain who must be watched: What's to keep you from hoodwinking your faculty or frittering away resources? If you're a female chair, you're suddenly expected to be a listener-mom, and if you dare say no, according to one horrified leader at a Midwestern college: "They acted like I was denying them the breast."
Deans are even more defined as the enemy because they were never on your team in the first place. They're almost certainly from some other department, some other field of knowledge. They can't know how important your work is, nor how unappreciated you are.
But in these troubled times, many deans are actually heroic manipulators of figures and budgets. As middle managers, cruelly squeezed between demands of departments and declarations from higher-ups (provosts, chancellors), they may be the most stressed administrators in academe. Ms. Mentor is not surprised that so many colleges now have "acting deans," filling the slots of those who said, "I'm outta here," with the usual official story that Dean X "resigned in order to spend more time on research and teaching." Who wouldn't?
Yet your dean has somehow managed to find time to be sleazy. What if he decides that patting you on the head is not enough?
The fundamental rules apply. Don't take rides or bonbons from strangers, don't dress provocatively on the job, don't make flirtatious eye contact, and don't be alone with him." Ms. Mentor, feeling Victorian, wonders if she should also add, "Make sure a chaperone is always present, lest your virtuous reputation be threatened."
But what you've written about is, in fact, a matter of virtuous reputation. You're still developing your reputation as a teacher and scholar — not as someone's lackey or love bunny. The dean may be warm for you, but you must be cool.
In days of yore, an aloof air or a nun's habit had a cooling effect. Nowadays even aggressive would-be romancers avoid women who are taller or older, more muscular or more powerful than they are. "Hot for Provost" isn't a popular campus song, and there's no category called "Chancellors I'd Like To, Um, Make Sweet Love To."
Ms. Mentor supposes you could, eventually, dispose of all potential lechers by being the chancellor. But first you need to get tenure, and the dean will have a say. Be kind to him, but exceedingly professional. Keep a written record, at home, of any unprofessional overtures, with dates and details.
If he says, as a notorious New England professor once did, "You have the most marvelous lips," Ms. Mentor gives you permission not to hear him ("Could you let me know when the grant application is due?") or pretend to misunderstand ("I'm sorry, I don't know anything about ships"). Be mildly apologetic, say "thank you" a lot, talk about how busy you are, with the intricacies of teaching, the minutiae of scholarship, and the step-by-step details of every committee meeting you attend.
Insipid prattle is often a great deterrent to would-be skirt chasers. You're not a zesty challenge. You're simply too boring.
In the larger academic world, a different kind of boring (being marinated in jargon) is sometimes mistaken for intellectual sophistication. But Ms. Mentor considers that a serious disability. It keeps students from learning. It's much too visible, and it should be shunned in favor of people like Ms. Mentor's correspondent: clear, bright, nimble, and mobile.
Question: I unthinkingly took my now ex-husband's last name (call it "Merlin") years ago, published a lot and made the name famous, and now he's dumped me for an undergrad. Should I (a) dump his name, or (b) keep it proudly as mine, leaving him to explain constantly that he's not the renowned "Merlin" but the other one, the nobody?
An (Academic) Affair to Remember
By Laura Mercer (pseudonym of a cowardly professor)
Given a chance to explore an old passion, an assistant professor learns the rules and realities of a conference romance
On a beautiful spring day several years ago, the e-mail message came. I should have expected it, but it still knocked me for a loop. It said, in part, "I really think we should just be friends and not have a romance."
Feeling like old times. We had become reacquainted at an academic conference where it was warm and sunny in the winter, miles and miles from my home. We hadn't seen each other for about 15 years. I had had a tremendous crush on him back in graduate school, but each of us was committed to someone else at the time. When we left to go to different parts of the country with our respective significant others, I literally cried for hours, and I think he shed a few tears, too. Eventually we lost touch.
So here we were, many years later. A few kids, one marriage apiece, and a couple of job changes later. Oh, and some hair color, contact lenses, fashion sense, and money in the bank. Like many in our generation, we had grown up and spruced up. I recognized Dr. X immediately — the sparkling eyes, the smooth voice.
He asked me to lunch, where I was so excited to see him I could barely eat. We chatted amiably about our lives back home. He was flirtatious and funny, and between my heady memories and the reality of seeing him in the present, it was easy to fall in love all over again.
As lunch ended, he asked me to meet later at one of those conference receptions that seems to recreate dorm life: parties in rooms that are too small for the many people crammed into them, plenty of alcohol, and no parents — or in this case, no spouses or children to observe one's behavior.
I found Dr. X about 10 p.m., in a crowded suite with little plastic wineglasses sitting everywhere, standing with the room phone in hand. I walked up to touch his arm. "I was just calling your room," he said. The party was packed. There was a lot of hugging of old acquaintances, and loud laughter.
While others were discussing doctoral candidates and faculty recruiting, I was watching my companion, just amazed to be in the same room. But I was also jet-lagged and exhausted. After an hour or so, I decided it was time for me to go back to my room. As we left the social scene, he put an arm tightly around me. Whatever regular life I had back home seemed a whole lot less important.
We each had a roommate at the hotel, and I had to leave on an early flight. We said our goodbyes with an embrace outside my room. I said, "I really like you!" (What an idiot! I thought later.) Dr. X held my gaze for a moment and said, "We should keep in touch this time." His lips brushed mine as we said goodnight, and he walked quickly away.
The correspondence. That might have been all there was to our little reunion, except for one thing: e-mail. Nowadays a long-distance relationship is all too easy to promote and prolong.
I wrote first, but he responded promptly. I wrote more, but he kept answering. We flirted with flirting. I did him a small professional favor, and a couple weeks later, a box arrived for me with a beautiful polished mineral inside. "Thanks for your help," the note said. "It seemed appropriate to send you this specimen that is millions of years old." Of course, that sealed it.
I checked my e-mail constantly, for nearly a year, till we met again.
A conference affair. David Lodge's wonderful 1984 novel, Small World, paints a picture of the academic-conference scene in broad strokes that are simultaneously hilarious and poignant. His protagonist, a male English professor named Philip Swallow, watches his fellow academics at conferences all over the world become involved and uninvolved in affairs of the heart, mind, and, of course, corporeal being.
Toward the end, Philip meets the woman he has dreamed of for years, who he actually thought had died. Her name is Joy, and the two engage in a passionate conference-based affair that brings him the kind of sexual fulfillment and happiness (a.k.a. "joy") that he never thought possible … until — because the book is basically a comedy and a morality tale of sorts — he becomes seriously ill in a foreign country. He begs his wife to fly from England to look after him, thus ending the affair with Joy and returning to his normal life.
In my real-life story, there were several conferences, and, yes, there was some joy. At the first conference following our months of e-mailing, we met at the hotel bar in midafternoon for a drink. Revealing both my nerves and my nerve, I was the first to suggest he should come to my room.
Once we were there, my new paramour delivered a little talk. He said I should know that he wasn't planning to leave his marriage. Each experience, as he put it, was something separate to be enjoyed, but I shouldn't assume it would necessarily happen again. As he took my hand in his, he said he worried I might get hurt.
Well, what could I say? It seemed a little late to back out. So, thus cautioned, I took the plunge. At the time, I felt no guilt and no regrets, intoxicated as I was, not from the one glass of wine, but from a sort of daydream come true.
Harsh realities had to intervene soon. Two important rules of the conference affair came to light during those first two days together: No overnights in the same room. And keep public interaction to a minimum.
I'd been fantasizing about romantic getaways in which we could spend a lot of time together, but I soon realized what a good compartmentalizer my partner was. He thought of our affair more as a series of opportunities for a little excitement in an otherwise "conference-as-usual" atmosphere.
Throughout those conferences, over many months, I'm afraid I became more and more like a lovesick teenybopper in the halls at school — scanning the crowd for the object of my crush, observing him from afar, trying to catch his eye. Intellectually I understood the limits of our situation, but emotionally I was a wreck.
It dawned on me that I had strong feelings for a man who was basically interested in casual encounters — on his terms. Back home in between, in the lonely hours with my computer, I sank into obsession. Like Philip Swallow, there were moments I really wanted to leave my marriage and follow my heart. But there was a problem: My love object was married, too, and didn't want me to follow my heart anywhere within 1,000 miles of his cozy suburban home.
The denouement. So that's how I ended up with a "just be friends" message on that spring day. I'd gone a bit overboard, I admit. I had mentioned wanting to see him sometime between conferences. I had broken the "no expectations" rule, and Dr. X got nervous.
After the breakup note, instead of just letting him go, I put a lot of store in that word, "friends," and continued to write and even phone him occasionally. I wanted to define our now platonic friendship as something special. I pictured a kind of Will and Grace relationship in which Will wasn't gay. I pictured a friendly affection tinged with sexual allure, a soul mate to share funny stories and frustrations about work, someone to whom I could confess my fears, dreams, and negative student evaluations.
But it was hard to achieve that. I was too attached, and Dr. X was understandably wary. I realized that the situation was an unhealthy distraction and that I needed to move on. But it was difficult.
For a long period, self-help books graced my bedside table. The hardest part was seeing my "friend" again at a conference after our breakup. He was nice enough, but we both seemed a little sad and awkward.
In the overall equation, I did get hurt. I was misled, not by Dr. X, but by my own feelings. Over time, however, the sting has faded, along with my obsession.
What does it all mean? We academics flock in droves to conferences in luxury hotels, sometimes in lovely, exotic surroundings. Many of us could attend three, four, or more a year if we were so inclined. And the combination of stress and tedium that is the academic conference may encourage pleasure-seeking that we can't have at home.
Out of our daily routine and responsibilities, away from the sight or the scrutiny of the youthful students on our campuses, we may feel freer to be ourselves, and possibly to turn back to an earlier, idealized self from the era of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, possibly a self we never got a chance to try out.
The late Shirley P. Glass, in her 2003 book NOT "Just Friends", writes, "My research and the research of others point to opportunity as a primary factor in the occurrence of extramarital infidelity. … Clearly extramarital involvement is facilitated by careers that offer greater autonomy and freedom from constraint. … At the high end of opportunity, some professions require out-of-town meetings and conferences. … Finding yourself in a hotel, away from home with plenty to eat and drink and no curfew, makes it easy to advance a collegial relationship to a deeper level."
Life goes on. The freedoms and passions that are part of academic life can extend to conference friendships that we look forward to renewing each year, or into the emotionally dangerous territory of conference affairs. Poor Philip Swallow and I each had the chance to explore an old passion, and, in the process, we learned a few things about ourselves, and about what a midlife affair can and cannot do for one.
I have taken the affair as a sign to look at my life and work for what's been missing. Psychotherapy has helped. I've been making time to re-engage in some of my interests outside of academe, developing new, supportive friendships, and trying to focus on the work projects I find most rewarding.
At the inevitable out-of-town conferences, I now try to plan my social time carefully, so I don't end up feeling adrift in strange hotels. And, fortunately, I'm still married and have recommitted to my kindhearted and generous spouse.
I don't get the stomach butterflies of a teenager anymore. Once in a while, I think of my former lover for a few extra moments and lapse into wishing things could be different. Like a recovering alcoholic, I sometimes miss the stuff.
The Year of Dressing Formally
By Thomas H. Benton
An Academic in America
"Thomas H. Benton," an associate professor of English, offers his take on academic work and life.
I am approaching the one-year anniversary of a dramatic change in my personal style as an English professor at a liberal-arts college in the rural Midwest.
It started after a post-tenure sabbatical during which I lost more than 40 pounds (see my 2004 column, "On Being a Fat Professor"). Apart from shoes and accessories, I no longer had any clothes that fit properly. I also realized that, for the past seven years -- while I was keeping my untenured backside glued to an office chair -- I had, more or less, started to dress like I worked in a bait-and-tackle shop. Nearly all of my clothes came from L. L. Bean and the Tractor Supply Company. Sometimes I would buy my shoes at the local supermarket, along with some beef jerky and a case of Budweiser.
Male professors do tend to dress casually at my college. And it was my plan, you see, to assimilate -- at least until I received tenure.
Dear reader, you must know that I have since trimmed my mullet, shaved my mutton chops, and donated my Carhardtt duck-billed overalls to Goodwill. In the evenings, when our kids are in bed, my wife and I watch Tim Gunn's Guide to Style on cable. We drink Cosmopolitans and make snarky comments about Gunn's penchant for trench coats and foundation garments, while the professor in me adores his gentle mentoring of the pitiably fashion-challenged: "Oh, you are now so lovely, so perfect, and I am so moved. Look: tears of joy."
Of course, like most academics, I have not limited my research to TV programs; I have also searched the Internet. There I discovered a fabulous blog: "The Fashionable Academic: Where One Academic Wages War Against Frump." It was she -- I assume she -- who introduced me to Dolce & Gabbana, riding boots, and the inevitable revival of an icon of Orientalist leisure wear: the fez. The Web site also directs readers to sales that place fashionable clothes within range of an academic budget.
Eventually I did consult a number of books on the subject of men's clothing. I began with Colin McDowell's The Man of Fashion: Peacock Males and Perfect Gentlemen (Thames and Hudson, 1997), which details the origin and development of the codpiece and the zoot suit and provides mini-biographies of such masculine exemplars as Beau Brummell, Comte d'Orsay, Oscar Wilde, and Liberace.
McDowell shows how, in one century, men dressed as Puritan ministers and, in the next, were transformed into Versailles courtiers, complete with rouge, applied moles, and cascades of powdered wiggery. The apotheosis of style in The Man of Fashion seems to be form-fitting black hose surmounted by a Renaissance doublet encrusted with 10,000 pearls, which is sure to get one attention at the local farm bureau.
Like any regular American guy, I respect Thoreau's warning against enterprises that require new clothes, and my sartorial tastes were mainly set in childhood. I went to parochial schools, where I wore a jacket and tie from the age of 6 to 18. And after that -- when I temporarily aspired to a career in advertising -- I based my work style on John T. Molloy's Dress for Success (P.H. Wyden, 1975), in which he advised men to combine dark, three-piece suits with red ties if they wanted to look both sexy and professional. He denounced pocket squares as old-fashioned and affected; bearded men, he thought, seemed unkempt and possibly subversive.
That was in the days when women wore enormous shoulder pads, like linebackers, to complement their Aqua Net encrusted, leonine hairdos.
Even with some caution, I suppose we are all doomed to be embarrassed by the fashion debacles of previous decades. There was a time when I tried very hard to mimic -- ironically, I now tell myself -- the spiky hair of Billy Idol (see my high school yearbook, for more information). And I think I still own a pair of parachute pants. But, dear reader, please withhold judgment; as William Blake said, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom," at which I hope I have now arrived.
I am turning 40 this year. I haven't lost my hair, but I am getting a few strands of gray. More and more, I embrace my age. I don't want to be like the high-school guidance counselor who wears Converse high tops; nor do I want to be the choral director who covers the classic works of the Red Hot Chili Peppers. I admire the sober suits of the Hasidim and elderly librarians with eyeglass chains. I am no longer in solidarity with the young; I want my students to grow up. And what better way to achieve that than by seeming to grow up myself?
So my current project -- now that I am a "respectable, middle-aged professional" -- is to learn how to build a classic wardrobe that will last for decades with simple upkeep and minor updates, one that won't embarrass me 20 years from now. To that end, once again, I turned to the books.
I liked the no-nonsense title of a small, black volume called A Gentleman Gets Dressed Up, by Bryan Curtis and John Bridges (Rutledge Hill Press, 2003), but it contained no pictures and little more than a sequence of pseudo-proper tips such as "A gentleman does not fill his pants with unnecessary paraphernalia" (define unnecessary, one wag might ask), along with a few useful diagrams like "Five Ways to Fold a Pocket Square."
On the other ostrich-gloved hand, Carson Kressley's chapter in Queer Eye for the Straight Guy (Clarkson/Potter, 2004) seemed mainly intended for the guy who is too macho for grooming, who cannot use a battery-powered nose clipper unless it's called a "power tool."
The Metrosexual Guide to Style: A Handbook for the Modern Man (Da Capo, 2003), by Michael Flocker, is a marginally better book, somewhat less condescending, with lots of basic information for the semi-clueless. His most important advice about clothing is to "avoid ridicule" and "dress your age." Unlike the flamboyant Cressley, there's nothing particularly "metro" about Flocker's advice; I would expect to get the same guidance from a young John Wayne.
Gentleman: A Timeless Fashion (Koneman, 2004), by Bernhard Roetzel, is well-illustrated, with hundreds of color photos. It focuses less on grooming than on well-made, luxurious clothing, along with interesting detours such as the history of the electric shaver. Wholly Eurocentric, and mostly Anglophile, in outlook, Roetzel shows one how to tie a cravat, where to shop on Saville Row, and where to purchase the finest umbrella (Swaine, Adeney, Brigg). He has some arbitrary and fussy rules, like Ms. Manners without the irony: "Knitted and woolen neckties do not form part of the English gentleman's wardrobe." It's a gorgeous coffee-table tome, perhaps better browsed than read.
The best book I found on men's clothing is Alan J. Flusser's Dressing the Man: Mastering the Art of Permanent Fashion (HarperCollins, 2002). Another sumptuously illustrated volume, complete with gatefolds on suit fabrics and detailed chapters on every element of the wardrobe, Dressing the Man is also worth reading for balanced advice that takes its primary cue from the classic era of Hollywood. Flusser's heroes are Gary Cooper, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant (though he also nods to the English aristocrats with amiable postcolonial bemusement).
Among other things, Mr. Flusser has led me to discover the value of the male garter for holding up slouchy socks, but, most significantly, he emphasizes that a lasting style must complement one's physique and complexion; fit and proportion come before everything else.
I regret that I found most of those books -- particularly the last one -- late in the year of my self-refashioning. I made some mistakes, particularly regarding the matter of contextual propriety. I progressed rapidly from sport coats to suits and ties. I even experimented for a time with French cuffs and pocket squares.
The apex of that trajectory was an absurd moment when I came to an administrative meeting more formally dressed than our provost, a matter on which he commented with some humor.
If one dresses too formally at my college -- or most colleges -- one might be mistaken for an administrator, which is a clear violation of the unwritten sumptuary laws. One might be given inappropriate deference by the unknowing. And I did find more students holding doors for me and calling me "sir" as if I were a person of importance.
Such gestures embarrassed me a little, but they also made me feel more confident and capable. I began to think I could exert some pressure on my institution to raise the bar of formality a little by raising it a lot for myself.
In the process, I probably irritated some of my colleagues, a few of whom are aggressively informal on principle: denim, work boots, sandals -- anything goes but formality. The situation is not unique to my home institution. Professors (in the humanities, at least) don't make much money relative to other professionals, so we press our sour grapes into the sweeter wine of smugness: "We are too important to pay attention to such trivial, privileged matters as clothing."
One day you put on a tie, the next day you are driving a Hummer and voting Republican.
There is some truth to that criticism. After a while, the dramatic change in my clothing began to make larger demands for a complete change in my lifestyle. How could I possibly live on a farm? And drive a 10-year-old Jeep Cherokee? I started to covet glass and steel urban loft apartments, and I began visiting the Web sites of Volvo and Mercedes. If I pursued this course to its logical end, I would need to get an entirely new life, when I am mostly happy with the one I have.
Although it got out of hand, I think my year of dressing formally was a worthwhile experiment. In general, professors at liberal-art colleges are encouraged to be nurturing. But I found that a higher level of formality improved my students' learning. My larger classes ran more smoothly. I had fewer disruptions, less chatter, more note-taking. I had fewer grade appeals, even though I graded more rigorously and made larger demands. I saw fewer bare feet, boxer shorts, bed hair, and pajama pants in my classrooms. E-mail messages to me almost invariably began with "Dear Professor" instead of "Hey."
And, in a weird way, being formal in the classroom made my less formal, sweater-clad self more effective in one-on-one meetings. The unexpected softness of my appearance in my office seemed to cause students to open up and speak more honestly of their difficulties and aspirations.
In the end, as nearly every writer on the subject advised with varying degrees of emphasis, the most important thing about clothing is contextual appropriateness, in addition to quality and fit. In an academic context, clothes are a complex negotiation -- a means of communication -- among students, faculty members, administrators, and staff. You want to find the mot juste without being too highfalutin.
Over the course of a year, I straightened the bent stick of my personal appearance by bending it in the other direction. And now I have come to rest somewhere between business casual and business formal: I have fewer clothes but the ones I do have are of higher quality, with better tailoring. Above all, when I dress, I pay careful attention to context, including my age, rank, and the nature of the task at hand, even if that means adjusting my clothes in the middle of the day -- like superman in a phone booth -- as I change from professor to counselor to administrator and back again.
Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at email@example.com
The Meaning of Risk by Isabelle Rogers, a pseudonym... but of course!
Academics share their personal experiences
When I became a tenure-track professor I gave up motorcycling because it no longer brought me joy.
Back when I was a graduate student, academe -- with its manicured quads, polite receptions, and rational conclusions -- seemed to be a world that extinguished risk-taking. So I started riding scooters, embracing risk as a mode of rebellion.
Gradually I progressed from scooters to motocycles. My history in academe can be charted through the kind of bike I drove and the way those bikes expressed my difficult adaptation to academic life, a life so different from that my family had imagined for me.
The Motor Scooter and the Preliminary Exams
In graduate school, you learn how to live on a shoestring. Driving a cheap motor scooter became part of my survival strategy.
Everyone in my family drove four-wheel-drive SUVs and pickup trucks, so the scooter became an instrument of rebellion against my family's beliefs about the American Way of Life. Yes, I was a vegetarian; no, vegetarians don't eat chicken; no, they don't eat meatballs either; no, I don't want kids; yes, I am living with that artist guy with the long hair. Those were heady days of freedom from my working-class family's views.
On the scooter, it was still possible to believe that I had special powers, that I could take risks and emerge unscathed. Those feelings of uniqueness did not survive my first scooter accident.
A week before my preliminary exams, I drove home from the library with my backpack resting on the platform beneath my feet. When a car cut me off, my backpack, containing my precious notes, fell onto the street. I pulled the scooter over and, just as I was running toward the backpack, it was sucked up into the undercarriage of a large, gray Buick.
For a moment, I could still see the Buick as it drove away into the sunset, but the license plate was too far away for me to read.
I did get most of my notes back eventually, after the Buick's owner took it to a mechanic wondering what that knocking sound was under the car. In retrospect I wonder if that experience was a message from the universe urging me to understand that it was OK to let go and improvise, to creatively rework what I had learned.
I wasn't yet ready to take real risks with my work or in my everyday life, but I did taste risk by driving the motor scooter. Driving it assured me that, even though I was spending all my time in a library carrel, I was like Pinky Tuscadero, Fonzie's sexy ex-girlfriend on Happy Days. (OK, I was actually more like an academic version of Penny Marshall's character Laverne DeFazio on Laverne & Shirley.)
The Motorcycle and the Dissertation
I managed the terrifying challenge of creating a book-length project from scratch by graduating from a motor scooter to a motorcycle. My scooter was so light that a thief could lift it into a pickup truck and drive away; that happened three times. For all the money I spent on the scooters and on the motorcycle, I could have purchased a car.
Instead, I financed a small motorcycle, a "chick bike." Metallic blue with shiny chrome, it was just the right size, and I was strong enough to pick it up if it tipped (an important consideration). The bike could reach speeds of more than 80 miles per hour as I found out when I took it out on the highway.
One night, I was coming home from the library, where I had been writing my dissertation proposal. Waiting at a red light, I scanned the rear-view mirrors. The driver of the car coming behind me had not seen the red light in time and was skidding toward me, desperately trying to stop her car. I quickly moved into the center lane just as she screeched past. She stopped her car in time to catch the light, and looked over at me to mouth the word, "Sorry."
Such close calls -- and there were many -- left me feeling how vulnerable any motorcycle rider is to the carelessness of other drivers. At the same time, I was feeling how vulnerable I had become to the risks that any graduate student faces: Would I be able to write the dissertation? Would I be able to get a job? Would I be able to pay off the student loan?
I did finish, thanks to a wonderful dissertation adviser and graduate program, and I was hired as an assistant professor at a university in Faraway City. The motorcycle would make the cross-country move with me and my husband.
The Economy Car and the Professorship
From the beginning, accepting the tenure-track job forced me to admit my lack of special powers. My husband and I packed and drove the moving truck ourselves. We rolled the motorcycle up a bookshelf into the back of the truck, tied it with a rope, and moved it along with the lamps and the futons. We would use it for transportation in Faraway City until we could save enough for a downpayment on a car.
The driving culture in Faraway City, where people tailgate and manueuver at high speeds, was distinctly motorcycle-unfriendly. At work I attempted to project an image of security, although each aspect of my life -- including getting to work -- seemed full of risk. The only path to stability was to keep my mouth shut and publish.
One morning I took a break from my research to ride the motorcycle to the grocery store. Just as I pulled out of the store's parking lot into the center lane, a man in an Oldsmobile came out of the driveway across the street and sped toward me, looking the other way.
The steel gray grille of his car came on like a great-white shark that would swallow me whole. I jumped off the bike but didn't make it all the way off. I shouldn't have been thrown clear of that car but I was. I should be dead right now, and I don't understand why I'm not.
Instead, I woke up, lips on pavement in the center lane. An audience had gathered. The ambulance arrived. All my arms, hands, legs, and feet were still attached. My helmet was cracked in two. My beautiful motorcycle was underneath the front wheels of the Oldsmobile, a mangled wad of blue metal and black rubber. I walked away.
The motorcycle collision insurance paid me enough to get an economy car, more appropriate transportation for an assistant professor anyway. I taught with a concussion and covered the massive black and eggplant bruises with long-sleeved sweaters and long pants. I sought to disguise my injuries as well as the fact that I had been traumatized, but my co-workers probably understood more than I gave them credit for.
As a graduate student, the motorcycle gave me a feeling of power at a time when I had none. That illusion was repeatedly deconstructed until I had to think about the nature of risk: What kind of risks can I take in my academic work? In what ways can my very expensive education make a difference in the lives of others? Working within a system that can seem to discourage risk-taking, what kind of real risks can improve my work?
Sometimes it takes a decade of graduate study, thousands of dollars, and a near-death experience to be able to ask honest questions.
Recently I was driving home when I saw a line of motorcycles stretched into the horizon inwhat must have been a funeral procession for a motorcyclist. It had caused gridlock, so I pulled over and got out of the car to watch, flashing the peace sign to the passing riders. As they drove by, I wished -- for just a minute -- that I could go back to being the graduate student "chick biker" who felt the hot wind on her face and the movement under her boots as the gears caught.
Isabelle Rogers is the pseudonym of an assistant professor in the humanities at a state university.
The Model Graduation Speaker by Jay Parini, English professor at Middlebury College (My alma mater! Come on Breadloaf School, can't you do any better???), May 25, 2007
I tend to cry at weddings and graduations, though rarely at funerals. There is something so final about funerals that emptiness itself seems the only place to occupy. Weddings and graduations, on the other hand, mark beginnings, and usually hopeful ones; they move me powerfully. I like to see young people (and older ones, too) take a step forward, putting behind them a certain discrete period in their lives, moving with the world all before them.
Graduation is not a ceremony that, as a faculty member, I ever want to miss. I look forward on this day to marking an array of changes. There is saying goodbye to older faculty members who are taking the bold step into retirement; they will possibly return at future graduations, but only in the role of an emeritus professor — an ambiguous honor, at best, as many of them seem a bit lost on the campus, knowing few of the younger faculty members and probably none of the students about to graduate. I like seeing those who have made tenure congratulated at graduation and welcomed into the community on a permanent basis. Yet there is often a double edge, as I think of those who have not gotten tenure (a situation I was once in myself, so I have a visceral sense of the pain involved). A faculty has a way of reshaping itself, always shifting, always adding and subtracting. And then there are the students: waves of them, breaking on the shores of adult life. They love this day, as do their parents behind them.
I know the deal only too well, with three sons of my own, two currently in college. Graduation is, for every family, a time to celebrate the conclusion of a massive joint effort that has taken many years. One recalls the nights of horrendous homework assignments, the research projects, the school plays and games, the examinations taken well or badly, the financial anxieties. For many in the audience, this day marks the turning of a huge aircraft carrier, and such maneuvers do not happen easily.
At the center of the ceremony, for most, is the speech. This is one of the few occasions in life when speeches really matter. Everyone sits up, hopeful. I am always quite certain that my life will be changed. In that, I'm a fairly typical American, in the mold of Ben Franklin: always eager to improve myself, to take instruction, to shift my way of looking at the world in a manner that will benefit me and those around me. I really want the graduation speaker to do a bang-up job — to inspire and challenge me in unexpected ways — and when he or she doesn't, the disappointment hollows me out.
I've attended more than 30 graduations as a member of a faculty, and so I've heard quite a range of speeches (and given several myself). In too many cases, I can't recall who gave the speeches, which cannot be a good thing. A forgettable speech is by definition a poor one. One can recite the bare outline, as it rarely varies: How nice to see you on this important and beautiful day. Here is a little joke my uncle told me when I graduated. The future lies ahead of you. You should take note of how accomplished I am, which may inspire you to become accomplished yourself. Go forward, not backward. Congratulations to you all. You look so happy and handsome. Do I really have to stay to lunch? Is the plane on the runway? Where is my next stop?
Sometimes a famous name is enough to carry the day. This year, at Middlebury College, we have Bill Clinton lined up, and everyone is thrilled. We know exactly what the speech will sound and look like, right down to the puffed-out lip and the wincing aside. That he will say anything especially moving is unlikely, and it doesn't really matter. (I saw him give a graduation speech at the University of Oxford when he was still in office, and it was a splendid occasion, with the presidential helicopter landing beforehand in Christ Church meadows. The sheer spectacle of a president, even when he's become a former president, carries the day.) Were Bill Clinton to cancel suddenly, there would be no joy in Middlebury.
For the most part, however, politicians are the worst graduation speakers. I have a vivid image of the former senator Bill Bradley in my head. I like Bradley, mind you. I'd vote for him in a minute. But he was terrible. He had those strange semi-invisible prompters before him, and he read his boring speech as though he were speaking a foreign language, sounding out the words by phonetics, and doing a bad job of it. Rudy Giuliani, whom I would never vote for, at least made an effort to connect to the crowd and showed some life. But it's a bad idea to invite politicians to graduations for the simple reason that they are partisan by definition. Politics of an obviously partisan character should be put aside on this sacred day. It's a time to think deeper, about issues that really matter. It's a time to think structurally, wondering what is right or wrong about the system. It's a time to ask what our duties to our neighbors really are, and how the young people about to graduate should begin to think about their purpose in life. Is it all about the money? Does fame matter? Do spiritual values obtain? What are those values anyway?
My favorite speaker was Mr. Rogers, the pioneer in television for children. He came to the campus only a year or two before he died and was as modest and kind as you would expect. I can't think how many mornings as a young parent I had sat before the television and watched that skinny, awkward fellow singing so movingly in his awful voice. I loved to watch him put on his sweater, button it up slowly, and welcome us to his neighborhood. I felt included, as did my children. His values were obviously based on a genuine sense of community. He didn't have to say much. Everyone knew him and what he represented. He only had to speak softly, as he did. His presence called us back to what Abe Lincoln famously termed the "better angels of our nature." I really did break into tears when he came to the podium and invited the audience to sing the neighborhood song, and everyone in the audience sang. Community itself became real, concrete, and deeply loved.
A famous professor from Harvard University gave the speech that most disappointed me. I liked writing that phrase: a famous professor. He was famous to me, at least, and many members of the faculty had read his books and essays. I won't say his name, in part because he is dead, and in part because he was so terrible as a graduation speaker — perhaps as a consequence of his final illness. He was making notes for the speech on the back of an envelope on his lap before he stood up, at which point it became utterly apparent that he had forgotten to prepare a speech of any kind. He rambled, hemmed and hawed, misquoted a few famous lines. There was a huge relief everywhere when, after a mercifully short spell of perhaps 10 minutes, he sat down in bewilderment, to tepid applause. I saw him standing by himself after the graduation, as if wondering where he was. In a moment of fellow feeling, I approached him, my hand out to shake his. "I have liked your books so much," I said, and meant it. He gave me a wan smile, bowed, and withdrew into the shadows.
For the most part, I think it's good when scholars — or "public intellectuals" — give the graduation speech. Scholarship and the acquisition of knowledge are the point of academic villages. We should celebrate those who have lived their lives accordingly, putting aside the pursuit of great wealth or power. A graduation speaker is, implicitly, a model for the students to emulate, admire, acknowledge as good. If the speaker has done nothing but accumulate wealth at the expense of the community or become a "personality" in the media, that is not enough. I always find it discouraging when well-known people who mirror the worst values in society are given honorary degrees. There should be honor in honorary degrees. And the person chosen to speak to graduates should understand that he or she has 15 or 20 minutes to talk frankly about life as he or she sees it, asking important questions. What are lessons in the art of life? What does the effort to acquire an education mean? What obligations and responsibilities come with that amazing privilege — one that so many in the audience will take for granted, but which most people in the world will never experience?
Ah, Bill Clinton has his work cut out for him.
50 Columns Later by Thomas H. Benton (William Pannapacker, associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, MI)
An Academic in America"Thomas H. Benton," an associate professor of English, offers his take on academic work and life.
I am often asked why I chose "Thomas H. Benton" as a pen name. I didn't give the name a lot of thought. I didn't think the series would last more than a few columns. But I've been writing as "Benton" now for more than five years, and this is my 50th column.
I chose the name because I had just seen the Ken Burns documentary, Thomas Hart Benton (1988). Benton was a leading spokesman for Regionalism, a style of painting -- "Okie Baroque" -- that celebrated the Midwest and American folk culture. There was a lot of Know Nothing jingoism in the movement. Benton was given to posturing against snobby New Yorkers and Europhiles -- the high theorists of his generation -- and, in particular, the dominance of abstract expressionism over more accessible styles of painting.
I didn't agree with the nastier elements of Benton's chauvinism (I didn't know all that much about him at the time), but I liked his feistiness. I thought most of my generation of would-be academics was too deferential to the pieties of the boomer elders who, for all their radical posturing, fiddled while the profession burned. I thought adopting Benton's personality in the columns would give me some much-needed backbone after 10 years as an insecure graduate student and desperate job seeker.
I thought Benton also offered some useful biographical parallels and cultural resonances. Benton was someone who had spent time in the elite artistic circles of the East Coast, but he turned against that world and went to live in Missouri. I was making the transition from an Ivy League graduate school to my first real job at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest. The parallels seemed to multiply with time like a self-fulfilling prophecy, and I eventually chose "An Academic in America" as the title of my series because An Artist in America was the title of Benton's autobiography, which was first published in 1937.
When I started my series I was already notorious in a small way for making a fuss about the state of the academic job market, and I liked the pro-labor memories associated with Benton and the other muralists of his era. Benton seemed to offer a model of populism and multiracial labor solidarity untainted by Stalinist orthodoxy -- something like Whitman's vision of American democracy -- long before those cultural energies were co-opted and used to destroy labor unions and the dream of being able to own a small home and support a family on one salary.
More than anything else, when I first began the series, I wanted people to know that graduate school in the humanities has become comparable to a pyramid scheme with cultlike dimensions.
I never thought of myself as a conservative, even though that's how some readers have come to think of me. I do have deep-rooted affections for traditional things: I am a Roman Catholic, and fond of old books, libraries, secondhand bookstores, historic sites, museums, and the rituals of academic life -- all of which I've written about. (To read Benton's earliest columns, click here.)
I don't believe in mandatory gender roles, but I desire -- as does my spouse -- to have a more-or-less traditional family life. We even home-school our three daughters, not because we are fundamentalists but because we enjoy learning with our children, and I have seen enough of the public schools to want my daughters to be spared the experience.
I might also be regarded as conservative because I regard "Theory," despite its radical claims, as an elitist enterprise that does nothing to help the kind of people it purports to care about (as opposed to "theory," which constitutes the tools that are necessary for scholarly work).
I enjoy traditional scholarly research and value reference books more than books by academic celebrities, but I also believe in using new technologies for learning. I don't insist that everyone share my beliefs or preferences, but I also see no reason to apologize for expressing them in my own column.
Apart from advocating larger, structural reforms for the profession, I have argued that individual professors should attempt to restore the seriousness of the teacher-student relationship, even when it jeopardizes their job security within the new customer-service model of higher education.
Perhaps the larger question is why I chose to be pseudonymous in the first place. I had been a graduate-student diarist for The Chronicle's Careers section before, using my real name. At that time, I was strongly cautioned by my advisers against that kind of writing. They warned me that popular writing -- particularly anything critical of the profession -- would harm my viability in a tight job market.
My advisers were right. I am sure the columns I wrote under my own name were regarded by most employers as a red flag that my academic accomplishments were not strong enough to overshadow.
When I started the Benton columns, I was still recovering from my experiences on the job market. My spouse and I were expecting a new baby. We also had a new mortgage, and I was our sole means of support. I was not yet sure of my institution's commitment to academic freedom or respect for popular writing of this kind. I hadn't even passed my third-year review yet.
And there was, no doubt, a satirical reality-TV dimension to First Person column writing that was unusual in the era just before the blog became the universal public confessional. It just seemed safer to be anonymous if I was going to write about my struggle with my weight, my procrastination, my anxieties about advising students, and my desire for a bigger paycheck.
I owe a lot to my current employer. If the college hadn't taken a chance on me, I might be delivering pizzas now in Northeast Philadelphia. I am grateful that the college continues to stand behind me, even when I express controversial opinions that it, by no means, always endorses.
It was a reflection of trust in my employer that, two years after I started the series, I decided to quietly "out" myself on my department's Web site. Some people had already guessed that I was Benton from the accumulation of clues, and I decided that I didn't want the revelation to come up in the middle of my tenure decision. What else could I be concealing, my colleagues might wonder: tawdry romance novels, a secret life as a blogger?
I wanted to be tenured without anything to hide, and -- though I didn't know it yet -- I wanted a career that included all kinds of writing in addition to the usual output of scholarly books and articles.
People often complain that using a pseudonym detracts from one's credibility. Letter writers who have taken the trouble to Google me sometimes ask why I don't just sign my columns now that my identity is not really a secret and I have tenure. But I don't really see any point in doing so. Benton has become a known persona in a small subculture, and he has developed -- like all autobiographical personae -- in ways that don't exactly reflect the more circumspect views I might express under the name I use for scholarly writing. Like an actor, I get a lot of creative energy from a mask, even if people can easily discover who is behind it.
And, besides, why should anybody care who I am? I am not a name that anyone would recognize. I don't have any special claims on the public's attention. If there's any reason to read my columns, it is because of the content, not the author; it doesn't matter who is speaking. You read a pseudonymous column in a different way than you read one by an established scholar writing on his or her area of expertise. I think there are lots of ways of being a writer, just as there are lots of ways of being a reader.
In any case, my relationship with Benton is a continuing negotiation: He rants on general topics that animate me on some level, without too much reflection about complexities or consequences. Sometimes that might lead him into seemingly reactionary views, sentimentality, or self-pity. In general, I see Benton as someone who was shaped by traditional institutions, who maintained a belief in his exceptionality (notwithstanding contrary evidence), and who experienced a deep sense of humiliation at not being able to succeed at an elite level. Institutional biases exist, but sometimes people do not rise to the top because they are mediocrities in the larger scheme of things. In the end, Benton is a loser who is trying to redeem himself.
It's pointless to deny that I possess some of those qualities. But I work harder in my real life to hide and overcome them. My alter ego is a caricature of who I am, if only because of my limitations as a writer.
I don't make any big claims for column writing. A column is something people read while they are eating breakfast; it's something they use to spark a conversation. A column is not poetry; it's not the Great American Novel; it's not a research project with footnotes. A column should have short paragraphs and conversational prose; it should not be written in precise jargon for members of an academic subculture. Columns are exploratory and impressionistic; the detail work is left to abler hands. The result is that sometimes columnists make big generalizations that are supported with little more than personal anecdotes.
Someone once said that the most important quality in a columnist is to be outrageously wrong. The columnist who tries to be scrupulously correct -- however laudable that might be -- provokes little more than a shrug of affirmation. A columnist who is wrong -- and maybe even a little warped -- gives readers the pleasure of showing how right and sane they are by comparison.
A column is an eccentric little dance; it's a shtick, and it can get tedious if you prefer novelty. An established column -- like a comic strip -- can linger for many years, while readers return, again and again, hoping for a flash of whatever it was they once liked about the series, while the author tries to make the old new again. Sometimes the persona degenerates into repetition and self-parody, but -- with good will on both sides -- the author-reader relationship can continue, like the conversations of longtime colleagues.
On the other hand, it may be that something new and exciting is always coming next month, forced into print by an unforeseen experience.
Thank you for reading, for your generosity in so many letters, and for your patience. I feel deeply privileged -- and very lucky -- to have the chance to write this column.
Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture and welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at firstname.lastname@example.org
Dear William Pannapacker, assn’t prof at Hope College:
So, pseudo-Benton was actually Pannapacker! Was I surprised? Not at all. Lame articles, one after the next, each lacking in balls, each crying for promotion and fit-in insertion, each very careful not to offend, each lacking in fundamental harsh rude truths about the situation in higher education… just what the college deans and presidents ordered. Perhaps Hope College needs to change its name to Civility University… and dub you a dean. Ask yourself one simple question: Why would the Chronicle of Higher Education want you to author 50 columns and not permit one single column to a professor who dares speak truth? Hint: the answer is in this email.
Sincerely, G. Tod Slone, Founding editor, The American Dissident [No response]
Date: Thu, 5 Apr 2007 13:17:32 -0700 (PDT)
From: "George Slone" <email@example.com> Add to Address Book Add Mobile Alert
Subject: William Pannapacker is American Dissident cartoon of the month...
You have been designated "Lit Rogue of the Month of April" for The American Dissident. You may view the cartoon using the link below.
G. Tod Slone, founding editor
The American Dissident
The Secrets of Our Success? by Jane Cook
How to find a balance between work and family
Well, we did it. My spouse and I are now tenured associate professors at the same public university.
Coming out of our second-tier graduate programs in the late 90s and faced with absolutely terrifying job prospects in our disciplines of literature and philosophy, we nevertheless got married, promising to love, honor, and never live apart -- no matter how great the job offer.
Numerous friends and colleagues started out just as we did. For most of them, something had to be abandoned along the way: either the relationship itself, the promise to live together, or one partner's (guess which? hint: the decision usually postdates the arrival of the first child) pursuit of a tenure-track job.
Yet here I am with a fine job teaching philosophy in a place I want to live, with good-natured colleagues, a cohabitational marriage that is entering its second decade, and no complaints about any of it.
Still, ever since we were tenured, a lyric from the Talking Heads song "Once in a Lifetime" keeps popping into my head: "And you may ask yourself -- Well, how did I get here?"
Inquiring minds seem to want to know. I often get e-mail messages from grad students at my alma mater asking for advice on negotiating the "two-body problem" in their job searches. And colleagues will sometimes direct new hires and their "trailing" partners to my office to discover the secrets of our success.
The thing is, there are none.
I got the idea for writing this essay while reading one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books with my son. I had devoured them as a child and was delighted to find them back in print. For the uninitiated, the books are multiple-choice narratives in which you are the main character. Depending on your choices, dozens of different scenarios will play out, with endings that range from dreadful to supremely satisfying.
Returning to those books as an adult, I found myself frustrated with having to make choices under conditions of extreme uncertainty, not to mention the arbitrary way in which one event followed another. (Read: I got killed a lot.)
Then it hit me: Getting to the end of one of those books felt a lot like the last nine years of my life.
When I chat with new faculty members, I find myself talking about "what happened" rather than "what we did," or, in philosophical terms, about "events" rather than "actions." And while our few identifiable choices turned out eventually to be good ones, we made them with fear and trepidation.
Our first job hunt out of the gate was mine, and I had two offers on the table, both from state universities. One, from a Northern university, boasted a great location but a heavy teaching load in a shrinking department. The other, from a university in the West, was basically the inverse.
Of the first offer, my adviser wrote, "Unless you have twice my energy, this will be your first and last academic position."
Hmm, every ounce of my energy would fit neatly into her multitasking pinkie finger. "But what about the distance from our loved ones?" I asked.
Ever the hand-holder, she replied: "This is what airplanes and telephones are for."
Eventually I went for the position out West because that university was more likely to find a job for my spouse. Almost immediately, of course, the governor of the Northern state announced a plan to pump large sums of money, and several new hires, into the departments that we coulda, shoulda, woulda -- if only we had known -- called home.
Still, the Western university seemed promising. It was growing rapidly and had a lot of junior faculty members as well as a department that, improbably, combined our two disciplines. The department offered my partner a full-time visiting position in English, and then things fell apart. Not my marriage. The department.
Midyear, the department had an acrimonious split. I would have been truly entertained at the Khrushchev-like vehemence with which one apoplectic professor pounded her fist on the table demanding the "independence" of her 16-member English unit from our apparently tyrannical five-member philosophy group if I hadn't seen our dream of two secure jobs dispersing like so much dust.
That same year, my spouse went on the market with no luck -- by which I mean he wasn't offered any jobs he wanted. You could say we were arrogant, or stupid, for turning down the offers he did get. But I prefer to say that we always viewed academic employment as one part of a good life, and we weren't willing to sacrifice all of the other parts in its pursuit.
I embarked on a stationary job search, as I was heavily pregnant at the time, and managed to get an offer. (My other telephone interview didn't pan out. I'm thinking it was my attempt to conduct it while my son was about to be ritually circumcised in the next room. Tip: Sometimes it really is a good idea to say "no" when the head of a search committee asks, "Is this a good time?")
The job was marginally superior to the one I had but was in a more desirable location, with better, although not assured, prospects for my spouse.
A few short months later, we moved to the other side of the country for job No. 2. At a cocktail hour for new hires, I sidled over and warmly introduced myself to a fellow female newcomer in the sociology department. Smiling back at me, she put her hand on the arm of the man next to her and asked, "Have you met my partner, John? He's in the English department -- just a visitor this year but we're keeping our fingers crossed."
You don't say.
Seven years later, my husband and I are still here, newly tenured and promoted.
How, exactly, did my partner manage to get on the tenure track? Well, it happened in the spring of our first year on the campus and it required about 4,927 serendipitously converging events (not an exact count), the top four of which I shall enumerate here:
· I was the only woman in a department that had lost two women in recent years to the two-body problem.
· A senior English professor split midyear for greener pastures, leaving the chair nervously guarding an unclaimed salary against a covetous dean.
· The ghosts of nonreplaced faculty members attended every department meeting, serving as constant reminders that an "opportunity hire" in the hand was worth more than an IOU for a national search next year.
· And, not least, my dear spouse secured an offer from a better institution, to which I, with much sighing and hand-wringing straight out of the Myrna Loy playbook, faxed my CV. Nothing like your spouse getting a job offer elsewhere to get your university to pony up.
OK, but what did we, as academics, contribute to our university? Well, to use my students' lingo, we didn't suck. But we weren't exactly stars either. Most of our friends and colleagues who haven't gotten two tenure-track jobs within spitting distance of one another are as good or better than we are.
(And, heck, maybe we haven't really succeeded either. According to the most widely read blog in my discipline, a job like mine, with a 3-3 teaching load and no graduate courses, at a mediocre public university, is the job-search equivalent of one of those dreaded outcomes in a Choose Your Own Adventure book.)
The academic couples we know who didn't "succeed" were also hemmed in by circumstances, and made decisions, based on incomplete information, that seemed like the best idea at the time. They can no more be blamed for the outcome of their choices than we can be praised for ours.
I've been reading columns like this one for years, so I'm aware that I need to conclude with a "take home" message. I'm not sure what lesson can be distilled from my own topsy-turvy experience, except maybe an endorsement of equanimity.
Luckily -- and this point is likely to irritate some folks, inviting as it does accusations of a kind of indifference that only smug tenureds can enjoy -- not all that much seems to hang on the outcome. Viewed from outside the academic bubble, there's very little difference between our lives and the lives of our friends who did not solve the two-body problem the way we did. They had kids, traveled (often to academic conferences), studied tai chi, bought fixer-uppers, painted still lifes, served as hospice volunteers or Big Sisters, protested the war in Iraq, taught and did research in their disciplines, ran 5Ks, attended too many committee meetings, and wasted too much time online.
Would it be better to do all of that with the imprimatur and potential security of two tenure-track jobs? Yes, of course.
I just wish I could tell you how.
Jane Cook is the pseudonym of an associate professor of philosophy at a state university in the East
Hold Your Tongue, Part II by Jennifer S. Furlong and Julie Miller Vick
Career TalkPractical guidance for academic job seekers from professional career counselors
We received a lot of letters about our October column, "Hold Your Tongue," on changing jobs. So we thought we would revisit the topic of how to gracefully explain to potential employers why you're on the market again.
In the October column, we interviewed faculty members who had successfully moved to new jobs. They advised job candidates to keep quiet about their real reasons for leaving their old jobs. One professor we talked to said that in the few interviews where she had told a search committee about her troubled former department, it had been "a huge mistake." Instead, she advised, candidates should focus on the positives of what they like about the new opportunity.
Some readers, however, were surprised by that advice. Shouldn't job candidates be more forthright?, they wondered. "Won't so much close-mouthedness lead search committees to be suspicious of any assistant professor seeking a job?"
Keep in mind that different search committees have different priorities. Some interviewers will be terribly curious to know why you want to leave your old job, especially if your department or institution is famous for squabbles and strife. Other interviewers might focus their line of questioning on your credentials rather than your current situation. In that case, if your recommenders have discussed in their letters your reasons for leaving, the search committee's questions may have been already answered.
Still, while you should focus on showing your enthusiasm for the position you are seeking, you need to be prepared to explain why you want out of the position you are leaving. One reader summarized that dilemma nicely: "The challenge is that the question 'Why are you interested in coming here?' is a different question from 'Why were you looking in the first place?'"
Try to answer the latter question by offering an "objective" reason for your departure, such as the location or the type of institution. If pressed, you may have to discuss the more "intangible" reasons. Rather than casting aspersions about your department, which might leave the search committee with a bad feeling about you, respond in a way that focuses the panel's attention on you as a job seeker. You might say something like:
"I didn't feel there was as good a fit as I had hoped."
"The priorities of the department (or the university) were different from my own."
If you are pressed further, you should simply cite, in a calm manner, the actual facts, such as:
"In the last 10 years, more than half the faculty has left the department."
"A majority of new faculty members have had significant difficulty getting tenure."
Those facts can be offered without complaint or judgment. You do not want to be perceived as someone who speaks negatively about colleagues or has trouble functioning within an organization.
It is also important to be prepared to answer questions about specific people in your department. You may be interviewed by people who know (and like) colleagues you hope to leave behind. Difficult people tend to get a reputation as difficult, and you may be asked about a current or former colleague with whom you did not have the best relationship. Again, it's best not to sound judgmental or angry. Instead, focus on how your styles were different or some other objective reason.
Anyone embarking on a job search should have a strategy for dealing with the problem people in their world. That might be a difficult adviser, or it might be a colleague who disagrees with your methodology, has a very different working style, or is simply known to be a curmudgeon. If you are worried about being asked about a problem person, practice talking about your relationship with that person in terms that are as neutral as possible.
Another issue we touched on in the October column also brought in letters. We had interviewed a professor in the sciences about the challenges of moving a laboratory from one institution to another. Some readers were concerned that we had made it sound a lot simpler than it was.
One researcher who wrote in described how he had once transferred his lab from a research institution to a research hospital. While it was a smooth transition, he said, he was "amazed and surprised" by the level of bureaucracy involved, and dismayed to learn he was not the owner of resources and intellectual property in his lab that he had thought belonged to him. Instead, he discovered, they belonged to the institution.
Since then, this researcher, who is now a scientist at the National Institutes of Health, said he had witnessed several transitions that were draining for all involved. He asked us to issue this reminder: Junior faculty members should be aware that NIH (and a number of other granting agencies), for the most part, award grants to the research institute or the university, not to the individual scientist. Equipment and supplies purchased from that grant are legally the property of the institution, as are scientific notebooks and primary data.
Frequently, academic scientists who move to a different institute are able to obtain permission to move their equipment and supplies. That negotiation would presumably be more difficult if the investigator is leaving on bad terms. Every grant-making agency has its own policies, and someone in the sponsored-research office at your institution could probably give you a detailed overview on how to move a lab.
Changing institutions can be complicated for scientists. We strongly caution readers to be cognizant of ownership issues with respect to lab equipment and supplies as well as ideas. Anyone in the sciences or engineering who is contemplating a possible move needs to do some homework about those ownership issues well before starting to look for a new position.
Finally, a reader pointed out that some academics leave their jobs purely to seek a better opportunity. Maybe they want to improve their salary or work at a higher-ranked college. That reader wondered why we hadn't discussed those issues.
Certainly, seeking an opportunity that provides better remuneration and benefits is a good reason to move. If you went on the market at a moment when jobs in your field were tight, you may feel that having had few (or no) other offers at the time lessened your negotiating power. Or maybe your research has been well received, and you would now like to seek a position in a more prestigious or supportive department.
If either your market or your record have markedly improved, feel free to test the waters and to tell search committees your reasoning.
Raising the money issue too early on, however, can be risky. One of our readers, an academic in a business discipline, said it is more common for candidates in business-related disciplines to speak openly about seeking better compensation and prestige than those in other fields. And we concur.
Anyone who has successfully changed institutions will have a distinct story to tell. Some job candidates will negotiate the transition with ease. For others, it will be a challenge. Some will be pressed to explain what they disliked about their current employer; others will skate easily around the question. Because of that, job candidates may feel they are receiving conflicting advice. Well, you probably are.
We strongly suggest that you seek out mentors, colleagues, and friends who have gone through similar transitions and whose advice is trustworthy. If you can, try to find a candid adviser in your current department or institution who will be willing to guide you through your transition and speak on your behalf. Evaluate that person's advice carefully, consider your own needs and priorities, and then make a decision that seems best for you.
Managing Up by David D. Perlmutter, is a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas (January 5, 2007)
First PersonPersonal experiences on the job market
There comes a time when every assistant professor, if he or she is to survive in academe, must learn how to "manage up." By that, I mean learning how to negotiate the intricacies of a relationship with a dean or department head.
That skill seems to come naturally to some new Ph.D.'s; for others, like myself, not so much.
I recall that a few years into my first teaching job a student wrote to my dean to criticize my classroom conduct. The dean sent me a note asking to see me. I refused, replying that he should simply dismiss the student complaint and "take my side." The dean again requested to see me, explaining that he could not reject a student petition without investigation. After further (and increasingly terse) memo exchanges, there came a confrontation in the hallway. Voices were raised, tempers spiked, and one shocked secretary told me later that she thought that a fistfight was about to erupt.
I backed down, grudgingly, described my side of the student dispute, and, even though the dean decided in my favor, drove home later in a fury. But sometime that evening it occurred to me that I was angry at my supervisor for doing his job, which was both unfair to him and shortsighted of me, since I had fantasies of one day being in his position.
No one teaches you "managing up" in graduate school. So it is no surprise that one of the leading complaints I hear about junior faculty members, across fields, is that they don't know how to deal with authority.
Shouldn't we all know better?
Certainly, for a good deal of our apprenticeship, we are students beholden to advisers, committee members, and -- probably somewhat more distantly -- administrators. But drawing from observations offered in these pages, and from the experiences of friends and colleagues, it seems quite easy to sail through the graduate-student years and not comprehend what it means to have a "boss."
Many of us approach our academic careers with a certain amount of idealism and even elitism. Isn't the professoriate "different," in that we are granted autonomy in our work and have little in common with those poor cubicle dwellers of the vulgar trades?
The answers to such questions lie in individual experience. Being an assistant professor in a department of French at the University of Pennsylvania, for example, is indeed a different experience from being a sales associate at a midrange paper supply company in Scranton. In no profession, however, are immune to the need to learn how to navigate the organization so that our achievements will produce the benefits they deserve. Getting along with an academic boss, then, involves a set of basic strategies that probably make sense in any workplace.
Before I proceed, let me offer this caveat: If your chair reminds you of the regional manager in the television series The Office or of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, your only recourse is keep smiling and look for a job elsewhere.
But if you are dealing with rational human behavior among reasonable folk, here are some things you need to know as you learn how to manage your relationship with your bosses:
It's Not All About You. You work at an institution with many layers of managers who each have their own goals and aspirations. Luckily, your interests often coincide with theirs. If you publish enough, teach competently, and stay out of trouble, you and they both look good. But it is vital to be aware of the benchmarks that are particularly attractive to the leadership of your institution.
I recently attended a managerial workshop in which a senior university official urged us to "know the mission," meaning that we should familiarize ourselves with the master plan and mission statement of the university. The advice seemed self-evident until I realized that I had never read my university's plan or statement.
Likewise, each unit itself has (or should have) a mission statement and a five-year plan. Read them. Ponder them. Talk to senior professors and your department head about ways in which you can contribute to both.
That you would do so in the first place will be noteworthy: Most of a department head's meetings with junior faculty members begin with the latter asking for something. One dean told me about an assistant professor who began every exchange -- no matter the occasion or subject -- with "I want." Occasionally, you need to ask what you can do for your department.
Pick Your Whines. Gaining a reputation as a malcontent will not enhance your career. Certainly you may take legitimate grievances to the boss: a leaking office roof, a lazy teaching assistant, a need for more lab money. But it is all too easy, when you are the suffering party, to get tunnel vision about the relative importance of such problems and amnesia about the frequency with which you raise them.
One tip on maintaining a macro-perspective is to keep a diary of your interactions with authority figures: How many times have you made requests, and for how much? Were they issues that were truly "deanworthy," or could you have handled the problem yourself?
As important as the frequency of your complaints are the tone and style. Do you present your petitions as reasonable queries or as petulant demands? A simple rule: Never approach a boss with a problem without having investigated two or three practical solutions.
Don't Make Threats. It is often said that power in academe is not as clearly defined as in most other realms. A professor can outrank a provost in some matters; alternately, according to human-resources rules, a staff assistant might be nearly unfireable. It is tempting for a junior faculty member, overly flattered about his or her own achievements, to try to play the power game. But assuming that you have more power than you actually possess will most likely lead to embarrassment and disaster.
It is certainly possible to get what you want by threatening to resign, for example, and some life-or-death issues may warrant such a threat. But that weapon can only be used once and leaves a trace of acrid smoke in the department ever afterward.
No matter how valuable a junior faculty member is, people who have a reputation for all-or-nothing antagonism, a tendency toward the dramatic, or a habit of dropping hints about accepting another job elsewhere will eventually compromise their value.
I know of junior faculty members who announced they would accept job offers elsewhere unless they got what they wanted. In two cases, the bosses said, "Fine. Do it." In one of those cases, the unfortunate assistant professor, it turned out, was bluffing and had to plead momentary insanity as an excuse.
The lesson: While there are full professors out there who seem to be getting away with murder, those on the tenure track are probably only indulged a few misdemeanors.
Don't Dodge the Grunt Work. Show up for meetings. Answer your e-mail. Attend your office hours. Every profession, every job, entails activities that are unromantic and seemingly lacking in value for the individual. Academe is full of pointless committee assignments, problem-student advising, and reports that no one will read.
It would be criminal for a supervisor to load up junior faculty members with such tasks to the point that they couldn't focus on their primary goals of research and teaching. On the other hand, no assistant professor should think that personal gratification -- teaching only the courses you like, advising only the students who intrigue you, and doing only the committee work directly related to your research -- is possible or politically acceptable.
Ralph Izard, a professor emeritus of mass communication at Ohio University, advises junior professors to have an honest conversation with their supervisors about time management and at some point feel free to say, "I can do that. What would you like me to give up for it?" The key to making that argument is that you be perceived as already fully booked.
Avoid Bad Blood. Only after you start a new job do you discover the factional fissures and intradepartmental rivalries. Senior professors may try to involve you in their fights or ask you to take a side. You should state clearly, if asked, "I think while I'm on the tenure track I should just concentrate on my work and not get into a battle with anyone." Only the most churlish senior professor will, at that point, keep pushing you to join in his crusade.
Then there is the allure of joining in when others -- the tenured class -- are belittling the administrators. It is oh-so-tempting to take part in the fun, and oh-so-fatal when a supervisor later hears about your witticism made at her expense.
It seems obvious but apparently needs to be said: Don't publicly deride anyone who is going to vote on your future or decide your salary. Remember also, when you trash-talk someone, other people might be laughing but they're also thinking, "What does he say about me when I'm not in the room?"
Dissent Is Fine; Discord Is Not. One chairman told me of a new assistant professor who argued about almost every subject the department faced. "In some cases he was right," the chairman said. "But in all cases, he was tedious and alarming. Even people who agreed with him on a point were thinking, 'Whoa, do we really want this guy around for 30 years?'"
Obviously, you need to strike a balance here. There is no reason to become a toady, but your "no's" should never take on the appearance of personal attack or vendetta.
Finally, Learn to Acknowledge Defeat. Faculties vote, bosses make decisions, and you will be judged not only by the quality of your opposition but by how graciously you accept that it did not carry the day. Every good employer appreciates an employee with this philosophy: "I'll tell you what I think even if you don't want to hear it, but at the end of the day, if we go in another direction, I'll do my best to make it happen."
Following these guidelines will not convert you into a vocational mouse, nor will you be groveling before your "betters." Academe is indeed all about mutual respect. But for the newly minted Ph.D., respect must be earned, slowly, over time, by your efforts in research, teaching, and service. Integral to success in all three categories is managing your manager.
David D. Perlmutter is a professor and associate dean for graduate studies and research at the William Allen White School of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of Kansas.
Date: Wed, 10 Jan 2007 08:50:42 -0800 (PST)
From: "George Slone" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: The Perlmutter article
Dear Chronicle of Higher Education:
Yet another lame, vacuous article authored by David D. Perlmutter! Is it really possible? Is he slated to become Mr. Mentor, that is, when Ms. Mentor finally retires? Why has that flatulent fellow been given the podium? Is it because his articles are in fact lame, thus do not upset anybody, that is, anybody but thinking individuals unbridled by the gods of collegiality and the do-not-offend-politically-correct ideology bridling all higher-ed careerists? What is wrong with the Chronicle of Higher Education management… or should I rather ask, what is wrong with the university professorate and administrator herd spread across the nation, like thousands of job-secure cows and sheep, who would actually think Perlmutter’s pap interesting, passionate, challenging, or worse yet, even tweed-suit witty? Yes, as higher education continues on its merry way to full corporate co-optation and the democracy becomes less recognizable as a democracy, let’s write and publish yet another article on collegial kowtowing, but we’ll give it a smarter name like “managing up.”
Question: When will we ever see an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on why it is so crucially important for America that professors, both tenured and not tenured, distinguished and less distinguished, “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson) and to let their lives “be a counterfriction to stop the machine” (Thoreau) even at the risk of their All-Mighty Careers?
Why? Ask Bush. He knows.
Professor G. Tod Slone
Dept. of Humanities and Foreign Languages
Grambling State University
P.O. Box 4235
Grambling, LA 71245
A Creature of Our Own Making by Gary A. Olson is dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Illinois State University and can be contacted at email@example.com
Heads UpWhat to expect when you become a department chair
At this time of year, most institutions are completing their annual tenure and promotion cycles. Assistant professors are receiving letters congratulating them or, in some cases, informing them that they have to start looking for a new job. Undoubtedly, a collective sigh of relief will resound as another faculty cohort finally emerges from the dark years of anxiety on the track toward tenure.
Those six or seven probationary years seem fraught with worry. Untenured professors, regardless of their accomplishments, seem uniformly terrified until they hold in their hands that official letter conferring tenure. I have even known colleagues who had received congratulatory letters from both the provost and president but who refused to stop living in dread until they had received confirmation of their appointment from their university's trustees.
The pretenure years should be a time of excitement, growth, and professional maturation -- not anxiety, stress, and fear. Faculty members deserve a culture of support, not neglect, during those crucial formative years, and institutions bear much of the responsibility for creating one.
It's not enough just to articulate and disseminate the university's tenure requirements, although that's a good first step. Institutions should establish programs for junior faculty members that demystify the process and midprobationary tenure reviews that provide a comprehensive assessment of an individual's progress. They should also reassess the entire process periodically.
In fact, many institutions are examining their tenure processes and standards in light of a growing realization that the traditional tenure system is unnecessarily rigid:
Some colleges are making policy changes to accommodate dual-career families raising children during the peak of their pretenure years, or single parents attempting to balance family life and progress toward tenure.
Some institutions are offering alternative tenure clocks rather than forcing all faculty members through the same inflexible system.
Others are providing opportunities to choose different ratios of teaching to research on which they will be evaluated.
Not only has the Modern Language Association recommended a major overhaul of tenure standards, but even Yale University -- that perennial bastion of high standards -- is considering liberalizing its notoriously rigid system.
Institutions themselves can be a major cause of pretenure anxiety when they get bogged down in the specifics and lose sight of the big picture. Too often, a tenure committee will be so preoccupied with counting -- numbers of published pages, publications, citations, and so on -- that it forgets to ask the larger questions.
I've witnessed, for example, several departments' attempts to devise rankings of academic journals and university presses so as to introduce some measure of certainty and consistency to the decision-making process. Such attempts invariably fail because rarely will a given group of faculty members be able to arrive at a consensus over such ratings except, perhaps, of the most and least prestigious venues.
Whatever the institution's specific criteria, the tenure process is really about (or should be) making an assessment of the extent and quality of an individual's contribution to the institution and discipline, and the likelihood that that contribution will continue or even increase.
Certainly, numbers and rankings should play a role, but committees and administrators should also be making a holistic assessment of the candidate. Is the person a "good citizen" of both the department and the larger institution? Has the candidate demonstrated a consistent record of excellent teaching? Are both of those records likely to continue?
Critically important: Is the candidate "a player" in the discipline? Does he or she contribute regularly to the intellectual life of the discipline through research and service? Will the candidate continue to contribute and thereby bring distinction to the institution? (I suppose the ideal would be to have a faculty in which everyone is an award winner: Nobel Prizes, Pulitzers, Fields Medals, and the like.)
But more important than raw numbers is the record as a whole. And the profile of an "active contributor" will differ from discipline to discipline. Tenure candidates in audiology will look quite different from ones in chemistry. Audiologists would be expected to invest a substantial amount of time in clinical practice and supervision but not to produce the quantity of published research of the chemists, not to mention the number of external grants. So while numbers do tell us something, they are relative and paint a partial picture.
Administrators -- especially deans and department heads -- bear the greatest share of the burden in creating a culture of support.
First, we need to accept responsibility for keeping all faculty members well informed about tenure requirements and expectations. We need to guide young scholars, providing them with concrete strategies for satisfying those requirements and expectations, and monitoring their progress on an annual basis.
Perhaps as important, department heads themselves often need to be guided. I have witnessed numerous instances in which chairs ignored pretenured faculty members until right before they were set to apply for tenure. I've seen other chairs allow weak cases to go forward when they could have requested a one-year extension to give the candidate more time to strengthen the case.
In both scenarios, the department heads were negligent. Their role is to shepherd untenured faculty members through the entire process -- not to wait on the sidelines as a detached observer.
That being said, they also need to exercise leadership. Recently, a fellow dean of arts and sciences complained to me about one of her department heads who had failed to make a hard decision in a tenure case. Although the candidate's record was appallingly deficient, the chairman wrote a glowing letter of support.
"He had absolutely no backbone," she told me. "He simply avoided all responsibility and sent the case forward to me and to the college tenure committee so that we would relieve him of the discomfort of making a hard decision. That's not leadership; it's cowardice!"
Leadership involves making every effort to help new scholars become successful, but it also entails exercising the courage to withdraw that support if, at the end of the day, a faculty member has not met the grade. Supporting an unworthy case erodes the department's credibility with the dean, the college committee, and the provost, thereby jeopardizing future cases.
Most important, it is manifestly unfair to those faculty members who worked hard, played by the rules, and produced a record consistent with institutional expectations.
I want to make it clear: I believe that numbers do matter. They provide a sense of accountability as well as consistency from case to case. But the enumeration of specific accomplishments should be balanced with a more general assessment of the candidate's contribution. We need both types of assessment.
The tenure system is a creature of our own making. It can be flexible, supple, and responsive to the diverse needs and life situations of faculty members, or it can be rigid, uncompromising, and so focused on the trees that it cannot see the forest.
The pretenure years need not be a time of high anxiety, but for that to happen, institutions will need to make structural changes in the tenure system. We will need to learn to ask of every tenure candidate, "Are you a player?"
Date: Sat, 14 Apr 2007 09:05:20 -0700 (PDT)
From: "George Slone" <firstname.lastname@example.org> Add to Address Book Add Mobile Alert
Subject: The Shepherd’s Players (Open Letter to a State College Dean)
The Shepherd’s Players (Open Letter to a State College Dean)
For some odd reason, the general innocuousness of the articles published in The Chronicle of Higher Education never ceases to amaze me. “Somewhere down the line someone is going to point out that goons in academic robes are still goons after all,” noted Cary Nelson in his Manifesto of a Tenured Radical. Well, perhaps I’m that someone…
“A Creature of Our Own Making” by Gary Olson, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences at Illinois State University , is yet another example of how to write a seemingly intelligent article on a superficial subject, or at best on one rendered superficial. “Tenure corrupts, enervates, and dulls higher education,” wrote Charles J. Sykes in Profscam. But there is not mention of even that possibility in Olson’s article. “It is, moreover, the academic culture’s ultimate control mechanism to weed out the idiosyncratic, the creative, the nonconformist,” wrote Sykes. But for Olson, it is as if that thought were not even an option.
The shallowness of “A Creature of Our Own Making” is frightening because its substance, or rather lack thereof, is reflective of our times and, in particular, higher education. It is distressing to realize the nation’s universities are likely stocked to the gills with professors and administrators in tune with Olson, whose statements are curiously interesting… in an aberrant way. “We will need to learn to ask of every tenure candidate, ‘Are you a player?’” It has been a while since I’ve read such an egregiously true statement, though evidently not meant in the sense the critical mind will likely perceive it. Indeed, how not to think of the term “player” as stage actor? Perhaps we need to replace the term “professor” altogether with “player.” At least then truth would shine… on the surface.
“Is the person a ‘good citizen’ of both the department and the larger institution?” suggests Olson as a pertinent question to be posed by tenure committees. But that question needs to be taken one intelligent step further: Can the person be a “bad citizen” of the nation, while a “good citizen” of the institution? Most definitely! And there constitutes the crux of the problem confronting today’s purported institutions of higher learning. In other words, a “good citizen” of the institution is a person who dares not—in the name of collegiality and civility—make waves or otherwise question and challenge the leaders (and colleagues) of the institution (and department), whereas a “good citizen” of the nation is precisely somebody who does dare.
“A tenure system does not select for boldness,” noted Judge Larry J. McKinney in a higher education appeal’s case. “Unfortunately, tenure has led to the ossification of American education,” argued Camille Paglia. “The hiring, promotion, and tenure system has institutionalized sycophancy toward those in power.” Unfortunately, Olson doesn’t seem to believe that to be an option. Yet we need to contemplate sycophancy and tenure… regarding democracy.
“Has the candidate demonstrated a consistent record of excellent teaching?” suggests Olson as another pertinent question. But excellent according to whom? Garp? Clearly, the dean of an institution shall define excellence in a way that suits the dean, not the student. The lack of objectivity regarding excellence simply accords the dean power to define the term as the dean wishes. “Little precise information about the teaching of individual faculty is secured,” noted Lionel Lewis in Scaling the Ivory Tower. “To the contrary, there is evidence that what is known about someone’s classroom performance is fabricated from gossip, rumor, ex parte evidence, and other random and unreliable means of intelligence.” “In most cases, what little the senior colleagues hear about the junior professor’s teaching is in the form of second-hand reports, often little more than gossip and hearsay,” noted Sykes.
“Administrators—especially deans and department heads—bear the greatest share of the burden in creating a culture of support,” observes Olson. But the term “culture” in that context is suggestive of mould, while “support” no doubt is only accorded to the person in the Petri dish who dares not “go upright and vital, and speak the rude truth in all ways” (Emerson).
“Their [department chairs’] role is to shepherd untenured faculty members through the entire process—not to wait on the sidelines as a detached observer,” argues Olson. But what a sad term or rather reality: “shepherd.” It says it all, doesn’t it? Need I spell it out? Shepherds tend sheep!
"’He [a department chair] had absolutely no backbone,’ she told me,” relates Olson. “‘[…] That's not leadership; it's cowardice!’” Welcome to the real world of dubious titles, black gowns, and chevroned sleeves!
“Most important, it is manifestly unfair to those faculty members who worked hard, played by the rules, and produced a record consistent with institutional expectations,” laments Olson. Yes, and that does indeed open the possibilities for the initials KKK: KOWTOW, KOWTOW, KOWTOW—in a nut-shell, the very modus operandi of desirable “players.”
Finally, tenure is simply unnecessary because most (perhaps 99%) faculty and administrators proudly choose to make dubious Faustian pacts and stick to them… like mould: Truth for Careerism; Human Dignity for Tenure; and Free Speech for Mo’ Money. Oh, if only they could see. But how can they? Comfort, stipend, prestige, and the ivory tower’s great protective walls (against outside criticism) have fashioned for each “player” a pair of formidable blinders.
For more critique on this subject, don’t consult The Chronicle of Higher Education. Try instead the website of The American Dissident (www.theamericandissident.org). Now, how to find a job in an English department? Hell, I could certainly add a little dissident spice to the moldy academic cake of collegial fit-ins cultivated by the nation’s deans behind the great ivory-tower walls. Pipe dream? You bet! How about this for a dictum: “Silence is the weapon of choice of those in power (of those with voice), whereas reason is the weapon of choice of those who don’t give a damn about power!”
G. Tod Slone, Founding Editor
The American Dissident,
A Literary Journal of Critical Thinking
In the Samizdat Tradition of Writing against the Machine
1837 Main St.
Concord, MA 01742
From: "Review" <email@example.com> Add to Address Book Add Mobile Alert
To: "'George Slone'" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: RE: The Shepherd's Players (Open Letter to a State College Dean)
Date: Wed, 18 Apr 2007 11:01:40 -0400
We appreciate your submitting an article to The Chronicle and regret that we are unable to publish it. Because we commission most of the articles that we publish, we have room for only a few of the hundreds of manuscripts--many of them very good--that are submitted each year. We are always pleased to review new submissions, however, and we thank you for thinking of us.
Ms. Dr. Prof. Amanda
By Amanda I. Seligman
Personal experiences on the job market
From time to time, I become obsessed with names and titles. My first big research project as an undergraduate was about name magic in the fairy tale "Rumpelstiltskin." As an assistant professor, I learned about the scholarly field of toponymy when I wrote an article about a 19-year legal battle over the name of a Chicago street.
I avidly read articles, advice columns, and Internet discussions about married women's choices for their names and college instructors' preferences for how they want to be addressed by students.
A conversation with my grandfather in my early 20s had a profound effect on my thinking about names and titles. In my family, we always called my grandparents "Fred and Norma." When I finally asked Fred about the origins of that unusual practice, he explained that they wanted us to respect them for what they offered us in our lives, not for their status as grandparents (as it turned out, my grandmother was not on board with this decision, and my younger cousin learned to refer to "Fred and Grandma").
Fred's comments spilled directly over into my teaching. I wanted students to respect me for what I could teach them, not because I was in a formal position of authority or had more degrees than they had.
I was also influenced by my mother, who had attended Bryn Mawr College where, as is the case at many elite institutions, the professors all had Ph.D.'s but were always called "Miss" or "Mr.," never "Dr." Decades later, my mother still refers to the Greek professor after whom I was named as "Miss Lang."
From those familial influences, I concluded that the only people who really needed courtesy titles other than Mr. and Ms. were those who worked in life-or-death situations: medical professionals and members of the military. I could see nothing in academic life that demanded the instant recognition of the teacher's authority via a title.
With that combination of small "d" democracy and academic reverse snobbery in my background, I resolved that I would always invite my students to call me Amanda or, if they did not want to be on a first-name basis, Ms. Seligman. Under no circumstances should they need to call me Professor Seligman or Doctor Seligman. In the spirit of symmetry, of course, I would call my students by their first names.
In all of my teaching -- from my first stint as a teaching assistant through my first few years as a tenured associate professor -- I followed through on that resolution.
And it worked fine while I was a teaching assistant. Even when I taught as an adjunct, my relative youthfulness stimulated the students to address me as Amanda (or sometimes by no name at all). You might think that was a risky move for a young female scholar. But I did not notice any adverse consequences. For reasons that elude me, students rarely challenge my authority directly or write whiny, disrespectful evaluations at the end of the semester.
Now that I am an associate professor, however, it has become harder and harder for me to win my students' cooperation in building my ideal egalitarian classroom. Few undergraduates or graduate students seem comfortable calling me Amanda. Most ignore my invitation, and opt to call me "Professor" or "Doctor Seligman." I once choked on a pretzel when a graduate student walked into the lunchroom and greeted me with a cheery, "Good afternoon, Doctor!"
I teach at an urban public university with a mix of students who, no doubt, have varied reasons for feeling uncomfortable with my informality. Some of my students come from cultural backgrounds that make it unthinkably rude to address a professor informally, even at her request. I am sure that others regard my invitation as irreconcilable with my apparently intimidating classroom mien. Perhaps for some of the graduate students, my stated preference undermines their own aspirations to the title of doctor.
And, of course, I am only getting older than my traditional college-aged students. As I reach the point at which I could be their mother, I seem less and less like someone they would ever call by a first name.
Then there are the many students who are older than I am; old enough, in fact, to be my parents, people whom I would normally address by a courtesy title and their last names, rather than their first names.
In reading various articles and online discussions about academic titles, I also discovered how unusual my preferences were among my peers. Some Ph.D.'s insist that their years of hard work and tuition bills have earned them the title of doctor, and that students who ignore that status are rude. Others take the position that anyone who teaches in a college is a professor and deserves the title, even if their rank is adjunct or instructor.
Female faculty members seem especially sensitive about titles, noticing the disrespect that seems implied when they are called Ms. (or even worse, Miss or Mrs.), while the same students address male professors as Doctor or Professor.
Shouldn't I show solidarity with my colleagues, especially those who are not as advantageously situated as I am?
But the real breaking point for me lay in the fact that students mostly address me formally -- whatever I call them and whatever I ask them to call me.
Given that reality, it seemed imbalanced to continue to address them by their first names. So starting last fall, I changed my practice. Instead of inviting undergraduates to call me by my first name, I simply addressed them all by their last names, with "Ms." or "Mr." attached, and without specifying my own preferences.
That resulted in some humorous teaching moments. Once I accidentally called a student by her first name in class, and, without thinking, apologized to her for that. Another student sitting nearby asked incredulously, "Did you just apologize for calling her by her first name?" I had, and I'm still not sure why.
Students often start an e-mail message to me by writing, "This is Jane Smith, in your history-methods class. ..." But this year, I received an e-mail message that began, "This is Ms. Smith, or Jane Smith, from your history-methods class."
I have also noticed some more serious effects, ones that make me question whether my change in practice is a good idea. At our largely commuter campus, students have little opportunity to really get to know one another. I worry they may feel even more disconnected when they follow my example and address one another formally (which they have to do, because I have not dropped their first names into class discussion).
Two of my students reported the awkwardness (and humor) of running into each other at a Milwaukee Admirals' hockey game and stumbling over their mutual greeting. Could it be that they are less friendly outside of class because they do not know one another's first names?
In class, when I asked for their opinion, my students expressed mixed responses to my experiment. A young man asserted adamantly that he valued being treated as a professional in the classroom and was more motivated to participate. But a young woman expressed her discomfort that my formality made her feel more like an adult than she was ready to be. Two of the 15 course evaluations responded to the question of "How could the professor improve this course?" with a plea for me to call them by their first names.
After that discussion, I was touched that a few students began to call me Amanda and invited me to call them by their first names.
My own feelings about students seem to have changed, too, since I started treating my relationships more formally. At the beginning of the semester, I've noticed, it takes me longer to learn their names. And at the end of the semester, their names disappear from my memory more quickly than they used to, an unsettling consequence for a name-conscious person.
Just recently, I was thinking about my most talkative student from a fall-semester class, a young woman whom I must have called on about five times every class period for months -- always by her last name. But for the life of me I could not remember either her first or last name until I looked it up in my grade book.
And I suspect that fewer students who talk to me in my office hours are mentioning personal problems or other aspects of their lives that make them seem to me more fully human, people whom I care about rather than simply students whom I teach.
When I next enter a classroom of new faces, I am not sure what I will call the students. Despite my proclivities, the growing gap between our ages and status suggests that my success in persuading them to call me Amanda will only decrease. Will I accept the asymmetry of our relationships but encourage myself to recognize the students as memorable people by calling them by their first names, or will I continue to act as though our relationships are only temporary and public?
None of the students questioned my right to set the terms for how I would be addressed -- no matter how I tried to level the field. Perhaps I should just make peace with my authority.
Amanda I. Seligman is an associate professor of history at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, where she also teaches in the urban-studies program.