I spent the day with rubrics and spreadsheets. This is not exactly the life I envisioned when I began my graduate work — at the time I think I imagined long conversations with colleagues about books, interesting classes filled with eager students hanging on my every word, and maybe a nice office where I could keep all those great books.
As it happens, I have pretty much fulfilled that vision. Perhaps my students don't hang on my every word, but they are a terrific group this semester, full of great ideas and occasionally even willing to laugh at my jokes. I heard the first round of seminar presentations this past Friday and I spent the weekend telling everyone who would listen how well they had done. As for the office and the colleagues, those are looking just fine.
But the rubrics and the spreadsheets happen to be part of the job too, right now, and I'm learning to embrace them. The rubrics, after all, will help us to evaluate the job we're doing in the new program I'm helping to build. If we don't write them well, they're just busy work, but if we really think through them carefully we might learn something from them. (Yes, I still retain some of that youthful naïveté!) The spreadsheets are simply the easiest way I know to organize and compare the data my program is collecting — about courses, about workshops offered and taken, about summer training plans. They're not lovely, nor can I make them do everything I want them to (yet), but they are a useful tool.
Professing, it turns out, is constantly changing. My uninformed image (closer to what I'd seen in movies than I'd observed in my own professors' offices, no doubt) was not wrong, precisely, but it was limited. And my fear for our profession right now is that many of us maintain these limited pictures, and that we are failing to respond to our changing conditions. Over the weekend I got involved in a facebook conversation with colleagues around the country about the piece in Sunday's New York Times about the grim prospects for graduate students in the humanities. It's old news to most of us, of course, but as our conversation continued we went beyond the platitudes to think a little harder about what's really changed and what our response should be, especially to the students we advise. We all agreed that we love our jobs, but we need to be clear-sighted about what they are — which is a far cry, some days, from what we'd imagined, and probably a further cry from what our students imagine when they wonder out loud about whether they, too, might follow our lead.
I often sit in my book-lined office wondering whether my job will exist in 20 years. I still hope to be in it, of course, but what will it look like? And will the person who sits in my office next have a profile anything like mine? Or will she or he be someone who completed a PhD in four years, not the seven it took me; who wrote a dissertation about new media or pedagogy or something I haven't even imagined yet, not about obscure novels by long-dead writers; who grew up with rubrics and spreadsheets and finds them, frankly, old news? Some of my students are already there, flexibly combining their love of literature with an analytical intelligence that will take them far no matter what they pursue. Their success may not be measured by awards won and articles published — but I'm confident that they'll be prepared to meet the future.
I still retain an affection for my long-dead writers, of course — and, even more than an affection, a conviction that their words still matter, that we still have plenty to learn from them. But I'm not so hubristic as to think I know the only way to teach them, or to think that what I study is the only thing of value. On my worst days, I feel like the harness-maker after the automobile has already come in — anachronistic but untrained for anything else. On my better days, I note that harnesses still come in handy, and that, after all, I do understand quite a bit about transportation (to extend my analogy) even if my training was in an older mode. Rubrics and spreadsheets are my way, I suppose, of retraining, of keeping fresh. The books and the students and the colleagues are still there, too, and they're not going away any time soon.