Threats to the academic profession obsess faculty members these days. As director of placement in the University of Iowa English Department, I pour over articles about the collapse of positions, the strategies of torpedoed graduate students and hiring committees, the tottering NEH and NEA. I’ve been worrying about the future of higher education writ large; commiserating long distance with others in my field; and chewing on bitter prospects during lunches with my Iowa colleagues and job candidates for our searches, which have survived budget cuts.
Even in the midst of these grave economic threats to professional life as I’ve known it, I kept taking casual, cordial relationships with colleagues across the hall and across the world for granted. Or so it seemed until I received the heart-stopping news of a colleague’s abrupt death. Over the years of late night e-mails, accumulated conference dinners, and musings about work-in-progress, a colleague had become first a friend and then an emotional fixture.
As an international community of 19th-century British literature scholars know, that fixture, Sally Ledger, died suddenly, shockingly at the age of 47. After helping build an exciting Victorian studies program at Birkbeck College in London and publishing an influential series of books and articles, she had just accepted a named chair at Royal Holloway University and launched greater, ever more global plans.
Sally had a unique constellation of gifts -- a gift for insightful, elegant academic writing; a gift for instigating collaborative efforts from conferences to collections of articles; a gift for inspiring others to join those collaborations; and a gift for being warmly, merrily magnetic. She shared these gifts unstintingly.
Small wonder that colleagues who memorialized her in The Guardian and on department Web sites managed to warm the chill formula of the obituary and soften all stiffness from their professional tributes. Sally was writing a book about sentimentality, but she would never have indulged excessively in it herself. “Right!” she would bark in that British way, punctuating the shift from pensive to practical. Then she would jolly you into forging ahead on the conference abstract you were co-writing or march you off to a pub where you could properly celebrate finishing it.
Some of us accomplish our goals through compartmentalization. Sally’s style was more on the order of integration. Her sharp intellect, capacious learning, lefty politics, pleasure in fashion and food, and immense love for her family were interwoven with shimmering threads of curiosity, kindness, and good cheer. If you shared in Sally’s wide professional network, you probably knew about her husband’s career and her son’s skateboarding prowess. From colleague to friend, from friend to fixture.
And so lately, I have been thinking of Sally as I offer advice to nervous students preparing for a first campus visit.
Departments teach students; they hire colleagues. The placement process requires blazing a trail from a temporary identity as student to a future identity as colleague. The very process of composing application letters and descriptions of books-to-be is a self-fashioning into the scholar, teacher, and department member one wants to become.
On the good days, I’ve felt I had sensible suggestions or at least provocative questions to nudge students toward their own visions of that future academic identity. That advice now seems woefully insufficient.
Focus on your scholarship, I want to say and need to say to these future faculty members. Hone your skills and build your repertoire as a teacher. Yet as I quietly vibrate with grief and gratitude and hear their echoes across a humming Internet conversation in which so many mourn this kind, joyful, generous colleague, I also want to say more, to tell them there is so much more.
Remember what a privilege and a joy it is to learn and to teach and to do so with others, I long to say. Steer clear of the selfishness and competitiveness that corrode collegiality — especially in tough economic times like these. Take your students and colleagues with you whether you’re traveling through new ideas, building new platforms on which to share those ideas, or creating networks to connect all who value ideas. Remember that the life of the mind needn’t be purchased by the death of joy or generosity. Keep your head and your heart open for unanticipated moments when the interests and values you share with a colleague beckon you across that threshold to friendship. Even when the winds of recession blow and career disappointments batter, that fixture will steadfastly remain.