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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.

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Julius Scott and Me: The Costs of Contingency

One of us is a genius. Both of us have had our careers warped by contingency.

November 4, 2018
 
 

Perhaps you read this weekend the heartwarming story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Julius Scott, whose book, The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the age of the Haitian Revolution, an exploration of an underground communication network of the Carribean slave trade was published by Verso thirty years after Scott had completed the book as part of his PhD at Duke University. 

Though the book has only just been published, as reported by Tom Bartlett at the CHE, it has been an influential work of scholarship since even before Scott finished his dissertation, circulating like a kind of academic samizdat, first in photocopies, and later digital form. It has been cited hundreds of times, and was the central text in a conference at the University of Michigan, where Scott was a lecturer until chronic health problems forced him to stop three years ago.

Despite having interest from Oxford University Press (who wanted “significant revisions”), Scott set the manuscript aside, and it remained an “underground” text until University of Pittsburgh professor Marcus Rediker – a fan of the book from “when it was still a dissertation in progress” – championed the book to Verso, which just released the title in essentially the identical form as Scott’s dissertation.[1]

In the article, the delay is passed off on Scott being a “perfectionist.” Scott had something larger in mind for the project and to him his book “felt modest.”

The intended moral of the story, I suppose, is that we make sure to not let perfection be the enemy of the good, a sentiment reflected by Daniel Drezner who tweeted, “In my twenty-five years in this business, every junior scholar I’ve seen who sat on some groundbreaking research to eliminate all the flaws wound up not getting tenure at their first jobs. Every. Damn. One.” 

I have to say, that while I’m pleased for Julius Scott to see his work at last recognized between two covers, my heart was not warmed by the story. Something much colder and angrier stirred inside me.

Reading the article, I saw some systemic problems at work, some of which were captured by Tressie McMillan Cottom in tweets of her own, “In my very strong opinion it is not a story about how perfectionism ruins your path to tenure. Because were he a white dude, his networks would have overridden his perfectionism, his unpublished classic would have been someone's pet project long before now and his perfectionism would have been lauded as the quirky traits of working  genius.”

Amen.

I believe there may be an additional part of the story, or perhaps a related part of the story, however, a part of the story that is possibly being erased, the reality of Julius Scott as a contingent academic.

At the Amazon page for The Common Wind, Julius Scott is identified as a “professor of AfroAmerican and African Studies at the University of Michigan.” The same is true at the book’s page at Verso. 

But according to Bartlett, Scott was a “Lecturer” at the University of Michigan until health issues forced him to leave the job three years ago. A search of the Michigan website also only ever identifies Scott as a Lecturer. Without a doubt, his working years were spent as contingent, non-tenurable faculty, and equally without doubt, this status impacted the ability of a man who many seem to agree created a work of scholarly and literary genius to pursue the potential of his genius to its limits.

I am no genius – please refrain from rushing to agree – but in Julius Scott’s story I saw something of my own, and this is why I believe it is important to not erase Scott’s contingency from the narrative. Neither of us were ever "professors."

I want to put this plainly: Every moment I was employed as a contingent instructor in higher education (17 years total), what would be my version of scholarly work (my writing) was in direct competition as part of a zero sum game with my teaching work for time and resources. Every moment I spent on one came at the direct cost of the other.

Some of you are thinking, sure, that’s how it is for everyone, regardless of status, but no, it is not the same. While tenured folks are undoubtedly busy, all of their work counts underneath the umbrella of their position, even if different parts of that work take precedence at different times. Scholarship, teaching, service, mentorship, all accrue towards tenure and promotion, and if they’re fortunate, additional things like merit raises or status within their field. When tenurable or tenured, all of this work is inherently complementary.

The same is not true when contingent. That I was publishing books and stories and articles had no bearing on my status within the institution. I was ineligible for improvement in rank, regardless of how many accomplishments I might accrue. If I thought it important to properly mentor students, this came entirely out of my personal bottom line of time and energy, with no allowance from my employer.

Meanwhile, in order to make up for the low salary, I did outside work, and every time I wanted or needed to complete a new extramural project, I would have to quit something else to make the space. This pattern repeated itself at every stop along the way.

How’s this for irony? When I wanted to be able to write and publish my two forthcoming books concerning the teaching of writing, books which I think mark me as a serious voice in the field of writing pedagogy, I had to quit my job teaching writing in order to afford the time necessary to do the work. 

Yes, I had to quit teaching writing in order to write my books about teaching writing.

This wasn’t about rebalancing the ledger of work as a tenured faculty member must occasionally do. This was about raw trade-offs. One thing must go entirely, never to return in order to make way for something else.[2]

I suppose I could’ve attempted to increase my workload even further, but how? Between this blog and my weekly newspaper column and other projects, I was already publishing more than 200,000 words a year. Where would writing two books fit in with the blogging, the column, and the 12 hour per semester teaching load, exactly?

I could not move forward without ending the very thing I was now going to be paid to pontificate on.[3]

Occasionally, my rank has been misidentified by others, and sometimes I take it as a compliment – surely someone of his accomplishments is a “professor”! – but I also try to gently correct the mistakes because I do not want my contingency erased. My contingency is a significant factor in what I have and have not been able to produce as a thinker and writer.

When the CHE article about Julius Scott described how he set the manuscript “aside” after the initial interest didn’t pan out, I thought about all the things I’ve set aside – novels, essays, stories, other books – not by choice, but because there was simply no time or space available to address what they may need to come to fruition, and there was no reason to believe there would be time in the future.

At this moment I have two fully drafted novels that are quite good (I believe), but not yet good enough, and deep down, I’m reasonably certain I will die before I have the opportunity to revise them.

This is not because I am a perfectionist, but because I cannot afford to spend time on projects that do not have direct benefits to my economic bottom line. I can only spend time writing what I know I’m going to get paid for, especially now that I’m no longer teaching.

You know who doesn’t have to worry about that? Tenured faculty.

Lest this all sound too “woe is me,” let me recognize the privileges which allowed me to quit teaching and write these books, a well-employed spouse, and steady writing gigs (including this one) which I genuinely enjoy.

I can even acknowledge that following a more traditional path inside academia might’ve resulted in me writing and publishing less. I’ve been forced to hustle for whatever I’m worth. I certainly can’t imagine latching onto a blogging job for Inside Higher Ed had I been economically secure, a gig that led to those two books on teaching writing.

This too is part of the story of my own contingency. Not being beholden to pursuing tenure has required me to reinvent myself, sometimes in interesting ways, but never without costs.

It hasn’t so much been life giving me lemons and making me lemonade, but life giving me lemons, and then having to forage for some other kind of fruit because there wasn’t any lemonade to be made.

I mean, don't feel sorry for me, I’m good. I've had to leave some things that mattered deeply to me behind, but I’m okay. But in a field in which a majority of faculty are contingent, there are thousands and thousands who are not okay.

Consider that some of them, perhaps many of them are versions of Julius Scott, and how much we’ve lost because of contingency.

And now consider Julius Scott, how had he been properly recognized at the time of his debut would have had the resources to pursue his genius, and when he could no longer travel, how his status as an eminent scholar would afford help, perhaps assistants who could do the fieldwork for him - or who knows? - even possibly bringing the archives to him.

As Tressie McMillan Cottom says, if Scott had been a professor this whole time, that perfectionism which may have been a barrier to publishing would have been cherished and nurtured by an institution and field invested in his work.

Imagine him then not an ex-lecturer who can’t work, but an emeritus professor who works when he can, and can continue to work because of the support available to him.

Maybe this says something about me, but when I read the story of Julius Scott, all I see is what we’ve lost and it feels like an awful lot.

 

 

[1] Turns out Oxford University Press’s significant revisions weren’t necessary, go figure.

[2] During my time at Clemson to complete a publishable novel, I needed to quit working as editor of McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, the other full-time job I held in order to supplement my $25k/year full-time teaching salary.

[3] The visiting instructor position I’d held vanished upon my departure, reabsorbed into the budgetary bowels of the institution. There’s nothing waiting for me, even if I could afford to go back.

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