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Essay puts spotlight on uneasy relationships between faculty and adopted states

Culture Gap
December 19, 2011

Stephen Bloom is not a popular man in Iowa these days.

The University of Iowa journalism professor’s article in The Atlantic, which drew widespread criticism for its sweeping generalizations about the state and its people, saw Iowa President Sally Mason join the chorus with the publication of a rebuttal on the magazine’s website Thursday. She said Bloom did not speak for the university. (In his piece, Bloom referred to rural Iowans as “an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts.” In the same paragraph he mentioned lack of education, rotted teeth and pale skin. You get the picture.)

"As president of the University, I have the opportunity to travel far and wide across this great state frequently, and the Iowa I see is one of strong, hard-working and creative people," Mason said in her piece.

The article's widespread backlash inspired blog posts like one titled "12 idiotic statements about Iowa by Stephen G. Bloom." And while Bloom received some notes of support, he has also received threatening letters and furious rebuttals from many.

The Bloom vs. Iowa debate has put the spotlight once again on the sometimes uncomfortable relationships urbane faculty members from cosmopolitan areas of the country may have with the communities where they live, whether differences are political, cultural or just the griping that comes with being forced to buy groceries at a Piggly Wiggly instead of Whole Foods.

Go Native, Be Happy
Nate Kreuter writes about his frustrations with academics who look down on the communities where they teach. Read the essay here.

The issue is increasingly common for anyone who wants an academic job. An Ivy Ph.D. doesn't mean that someone who wants to be on the tenure track can rule out a red state or small town, so people who might have turned up their noses at such positions a generation ago are going after such jobs today. And of course the reality is that -- for as long as higher education has had its prestige hierarchies -- plenty of people from big-name universities have made their careers (many of them happy ones) in small towns off the academic fast track. And while there may be some adapting to do, anecdotal evidence and interviews with some professors at non-metropolitan American universities and colleges suggest that overall, academics carve out fulfilling work-life niches for themselves.

It's also the case, however, that some universities worry enough about cultural mismatch that they take extra steps to try to teach new faculty members about their new homes.

“The obvious reality of the academic job market is that most professors aren't going to wind up teaching and living in their first-choice locations,” said Neil Gross, a sociologist at the University of British Columbia who studies academic life.

Most academics adjust, and make a virtue out of necessity, he said. “Some end up being bitter about it, but most find pursuing the life of the mind to be worth the locational sacrifice, judging from the high percentage of academics who say on surveys that if they had to do it all over again, they'd still decide to follow an academic path,” Gross said. 

And for those intent on making the transition successful, they are plenty of older professors who have traversed a similar route and can help with any adjustment problem newcomers might have, Gross said.

Jonathan Beecher Field, an associate professor of American literature at Clemson University whose doctorate is from the University of Chicago, said most places a new Ph.D. will find a job are likely to be more conservative than wherever the young academic went to graduate school. Field added he was surprised that Bloom, after having lived in Iowa for so long, does not seem to have developed any sense of community.

“We are in the education business, but if we can’t win some hearts and minds, we should find another line of work,” he said.

The small pleasures of living in a smaller community are obvious: not being yelled at during your morning commute, stopping by the roadside to buy some produce or not having to plan two hours ahead to go see a movie.

But stereotypes exist and are often magnified, say some. "Some of the sort of narratives you hear about smaller towns, there might be a modicum of truth to that, but most often it is exaggerated,” said Andrew Hoberek, associate professor of English at the University of Missouri-Columbia.

One big difference, according to Hoberek: the politics of a red state. “But this is the way the political map works,” he said.

And besides, who can argue with a secure tenure-track job when there are fewer and fewer faculty jobs?

With the current job market, there is no difficulty getting good candidates to apply to universities in rural communities, but it is a challenge attracting minority scholars who may not gravitate there, said Victor Villanueva, the English department head at Auburn University, who recently moved to Alabama from Washington State. “Birmingham is just up the street,” he said.

Villanueva, who is Puerto Rican and originally from Brooklyn, N.Y., said he enjoys the unusual degree of courtesy in Alabama, something he might not encounter in a larger metropolitan area.

Universities are not, it seems, blind to the city lifestyles of many of the professors who join them. And flagship universities -- which depend on the political and tax support of their citizens -- take steps to help newcomers understand the local scene. Several universities have programs to ease the transition, such as state bus tours for new faculty members. Gene Younts, a former vice president of public service at the University of Georgia, said he started a bus tour at the university because he noted the gap in understanding between professors and other Georgians.

Younts, who wrote a book about his experiences called Back on the Bus: Twelve Hundred Miles Through Georgia, said sometimes it seemed the entire population of a small town would show up to greet the faculty members. “There were differences, but I do not think it bothered anyone,” he said.

Sheryl O’Donnell, a former head of the department of English at the University of North Dakota, said one way for faculty members to have more of a stake in local communities is to stress the importance of service in tenure-track jobs. “Service is counted as part of their assessment at our university,” she said.

As for Bloom, who was a guest at North Dakota's “Great Conversations” symposium some years ago, O’Donnell called his piece a “passionate observation.”

Bloom is a brilliant man, O’Donnell said, and she urged his critics to read Postville: A Clash of Cultures in Heartland America, his book about an Iowa slaughterhouse run by Hasidic Jews, to understand the depth of the professor’s passion about Iowa. (He also wrote pieces for Inside Higher Ed several years ago, which you may find here and here.)

O’Donnell, who was born in Decatur County, Iowa, mused that Bloom’s “tearing off the wallpaper” article might lead to more debate on and understanding of the state.

Was a movie like The Bridges of Madison County, she asked -- a treacly, often-mocked love story set in Iowa -- a better take on Iowa than Bloom's piece?

 

 

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