It will surprise no one familiar with her work that Naomi Schaefer Riley is not a fan of tenure. In recent years, the former writer and deputy Taste editor of the Wall Street Journal and author of the book God on the Quad has emphasized themes, both in writing and on panels, of what she sees as the damage that tenure can wreak.
Her composition students are writing literacy autobiographies, examining key events in their early dances with words. She writes along with them, starting out on task. She has composed three versions of her own literacy autobiography before, and her mind drifts to her career teaching these skills. How long she’s been at it depends on how she counts. She could start from graduate school in the early 1980s… or from re-entering teaching in 1990 after six years in university publications… or re-entering a second time, 1993, following the birth of a premature child. She could go back even further, to childhood dreams and peak experiences.
Her students are remembering as they write. And she remembers that she was writing before she could write, expressing herself with crayons on the dining room walls and sheets of notebook paper. When she got an easel blackboard, she opened a school in her basement. Even the neighborhood bully attended. Strategic recruitment, good retention, low overhead.
Today, viewed as “just an adjunct” by some, she feels that she is at the heart of the colleges she serves, not on the periphery. These days, the word “adjunct” pops up in the news more often. And “contingent.” She might not like the ring of those, but there they are: jagged and full of consonants. Most people off-campus would call her, politely though imprecisely, “professor.”
She sees herself as fluid, adaptable, and helpful to the institutions she serves.
She attempts a grace in what she does. And, like other girls, she admired Barbie.
So, put the memories together…
Her soon-to-apply-for-college son reels at this idea, almost making the splashy recruitment materials from all across the country spill onto the floor. He has kept up with academia through her eyes these past 17 years; he is shaping his own vision now.
But she needs to mix her metaphor, moving the lever of the time machine forward, way forward, like they did on episodes of "The Twilight Zone."
In 2010, Adjunct Barbie is teaching in difficult economic times. She is no longer playing school, nor serving as an academic secretary who observes the parallel lives of adjunct and full-time faculty, nor teaching as a graduate assistant, nor serving in other roles she enjoyed in academia — those that had benefits, step increases, and a clear path to promotion.
Some have written that she and others like her are migrant, marginalized, expendable, invisible. The Invisible Adjunct blog beamed through cyberspace for a time; Ghosts in the Classroom is a chilling anthology. These images startle, yet are not the whole picture. The harder the work, the more important it is to stay positive. In fields from English to history to theology, the roles of contingent faculty have been showcased.
Feeling for a moment invincible (that is not a typo), she is in the classroom at one campus, absorbed and focused on teaching. She balances curricular demands, the needs of students, her intuitions about how to reach them, and the best practices she has honed and studied. She readjusts this several times each week and even within the day; the work is never routine.
She needs to manage, as a writing teacher, her own motivation — and stimulate that of her students. She has to calm down into focused attention on grading papers after quite a few hours in performance mode. She rekindles deep breathing while seeking a parking place at another campus, the 24/7 of student contact now that everyone is plugged in all the time and the mounting bills stuffed in the glove compartment. In her region, expenses everywhere are far outpacing her earnings. She juggles different syllabuses, learners, textbooks and institutional cultures, while guiding parallel processes among campuses. Her work requires creativity as well as endurance.
Without both, she could not do it.
“You must be a good teacher. You teach at three schools.”
This comment, from an acquaintance with no ties to academia, is a vote of confidence. Most of the public and many people within academia have little understanding of the pedagogical complexity of adjunct life. There are impressionistic depictions of drive-by instruction: false, as she sees it. Barbie thinks adjuncts are sometimes typecast, and their differences, as well as common struggles, blurred.
Adjunct Barbie’s life is a function of market forces, a lifelong waltz with words, and personal circumstances and choices. Each teacher’s story is different, but in her case family responsibilities factored in heavily. And although for her, teaching is a call — to borrow a term from her friends in the ministry — not everyone sees her work in this light.
Some view her as a para-professional. And even if a vocation, that does not mean she can do it with scant support — of friends, fellow adjuncts, and others in the campus community. At one school, she has learned, adjunct faculty have gathered to talk on You Tube. In another state, a long-time adjunct advocate offers insights on avenues of state support.
It seems there are no easy answers.
“I know about the issues of adjuncts. They run from school to school and are not committed to just one institution.”
This recent comment from a friend over coffee stopped her in her tracks. The emphasis is wrong. Adjunct Barbie’s commitment is not to just one institution; currently, it is deeply and sincerely to three. She is the mother of one, but as — one would hope — a mother of three would protect all her children while giving each what is uniquely needed, so she does with her teaching. If the mother imagery is disturbing to anyone, or Adjunct Barbie, she has her Yang side, too.
No one questions the professional commitment of a doctor with multiple hospital affiliations or a writer whose work is syndicated. She has served two of her institutions for almost 17 years each, seeing administrators and full-time faculty come and go. She does not doubt their commitment, and she hopes others do not doubt hers. She added courses and institutions as she could manage them.
And yet ...
The carrying case of Adjunct Barbie’s childhood doll was sky blue, shiny, rectangular, and stored easily under the bed. It allowed Barbie to lie flat in the middle of the day. Some days, lying down midday sounds like a good idea. Especially Tuesdays, when she teaches at two schools and then tutors at another. Or Thursdays, when she teaches at two schools and then zigzags back to the first for three hours of night tutoring. She arranged this to try for writing time on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, when she teaches at just one institution, plus a dash to a writing center, midweek.
Her family could not afford the dream house or a real car for Barbie. So her doll “drove” one of her sister’s flat pumps, a sporty car in a child’s imagination. Today, she is not a freeway flyer — more like a cul-de-sac cruiser. No sudden movements, as the stacks of paper in the car might tip.
“If you don’t like the heat…”
AB has read that imperative, equivalent to “love it or leave it,” on blogs, and everyone is entitled to an opinion. Teaching without tenure is respectable work, even if it is not respected by all. Occasionally she will even see or hear the word “adjunct” used as a pejorative. That is unfair. But as colleges struggle with budgets, and families groan under the weight of tuition, the climate could not be any worse for adjuncts to speak up. So many in academia feel beleaguered: full-timers, administrators, presidents, students. Who is she to talk or write…she is, after all, just an adjunct.
She knows the importance of a college putting its best face forward, and she knows about morale. She worked in public relations and publications, wrote glossy promotional pieces like the ones that her son receives now, and contributed to speeches for an administrator, looking forward to the 21st century. Colleges don’t want to be “shamed” — who does?
“Secure your own oxygen mask first.”
One year ago, Adjunct Barbie had not yet heard of the New Faculty Majority (NFM), Coalition of Contingent Academic Labor (COCAL), and adj-l, a listserv for adjunct faculty. She has found commentators on adjunct life: P.D. Lesko… Jill Carroll… Keith Hoeller… Mark Bousquet… Joe Berry… Eileen Schell. Everyone seems to have something important to say, even when they disagree. And they often do, sometimes vehemently.
But can anyone else, really, speak for her?
Perhaps she was happier not knowing swirling acronyms, prospects and problems of organizing, and the “if you don’t like the conditions, get out” rhetoric thrust at adjuncts before she has uttered one word. Apparently, papers on this topic have been written for some time. Of late, she has also read what happens when adjuncts speak out critically, even constructively, or make mistakes as all people do. There can be fierce resistance.
Some studies publicized, like a recent American Federation of Teachers’ study, don’t ask the questions that she would like to answer — or have answered. What would help you do your job better? What do you think would help our students? Are you satisfied with your conditions? Do your institutions support professional development? Do you feel you have a mechanism for sharing what you do well with your peers? What courses would you design or teach, if you could? What ideas do you have to help your institutions — in lean times, in comfortable times? What do you do to promote recruiting and retention? What are your own best practices? If you could collaborate with anyone within your institutions, who would it be, for what purpose, and why?
She’ll stop at ten. By excluding adjuncts from many conversations, institutions lose potential input. And if there are various categories of adjuncts — not to mention discipline-specific differences — one might create different surveys.
Too many variables are confusing when gathering data. Early-career adjuncts may have common concerns; mid-career, others; those working full-time, others still. AB knows because she has been in all these categories. Some of her colleagues are retirees whose adjunct work is both giving back and staying active; their perspectives might be noted, too.
“Adjuncts count — can we do something?”
These words would cheer her, and different people are trying. The numbers of adjuncts nationwide are staggering and — if on the front lines with students — they have palpable impact on their lives.
She wonders if colleges might consider faculty — all faculty — in their rhetoric and recognition, conditions and contributions. She sometimes hears that “the business model” is at fault for the compensation and staffing issues, yet she has read paper after paper for business classes as a tutor in one writing center. There are many case studies of organizations that have successfully spearheaded change. Energy may flow from the grass roots up and the top down concurrently. Her garden shows her this, and spring is here.
“When in doubt, do what is at hand.”
Adjunct Barbie has papers to grade — including a set that is a call to action on a topic of a student’s own choice.
Revising this reflection has taken time away from grading. She is tempted to delete this file, withdraw into her carrying case and ask someone to snap the lid shut. But just as she wants her students to think and to write, to explore and to research, to celebrate success and to advocate on matters close to their own hearts, she needs to practice what she preaches. She has gently advocated for literacy efforts, public health initiatives, and intergroup understanding to better her community. The campus is also her community, and the hardest thing, sometimes, is to speak up for oneself and for those who may come after.
Not long ago, she read with one of her night classes — a class she cherished for its heart and dedication — an American classic, “Rip van Winkle”; he is a dreamy man who falls asleep under a tree as the colonies face a tipping point. He awakens to find that almost everything has changed. Greeted by some villagers, he enters a new world.
Adjunct Barbie hopes that if she too awakens, after 20 years of consecutive teaching, she will not find herself circling the parking lot in search of a space, alone, at an ungodly hour.
Maria Shine Stewart teaches and writes in South Euclid, Ohio.
It was during my job interview here at Stovetop College that I first heard about the quirky little tradition that makes us unusual, and to be honest, it was a real selling point for me, being a populist kind of history professor looking for her first tenure-track job. As I walked across the Lawn, I was thinking about the conversation in which my soon-to-be-department chair had told me about it, three short years ago.
"Yes,” she said. “It’s an oddity. I believe we’re the only college in America, maybe the world, that tenures its food services workers.”
At first, I thought I hadn’t heard her correctly. But as she went on to explain the history of this arrangement, I found myself charmed by this small liberal arts college in the middle of nowhere.
As the story goes, she told me, we had an alumnus who, through some smart investing in a California tech firm, had accumulated an enormous fortune. But then, being in California and all, this fellow, whose name was Edgar H. Carson, converted to Buddhism and decided to give it all away. Since Stovetop was apparently near and dear to his heart, he offered a gift -- $75 million up front, and another million a year in perpetuity, to do whatever the college wanted. The endowment at the time was around $20 million, so this was pretty unbelievable.
Carson attached one string. It seems that when he was a student here in the ‘60s, he was keenly disappointed in one particular professor who often missed class, showed up drunk, and harassed the women in the class -- the whole nine yards. When Carson, who at the time was just a sophomore, approached the department chair to complain, he was told, “There’s really nothing I can do. He has tenure.”
So Carson vowed that, if given the chance, he would rid Stovetop of tenure and, in doing so, assure future students that such faculty would not be able to make them miserable.
Of course, in 1985, when he offered the gift with the stipulation that tenure be abolished, the president told him we could never do such a thing. But $75 million! Imagine turning that down! Carson offered a compromise, which the president, without a second thought as to the consequences, accepted: tenure food services employees in addition to faculty.
Why? It turned out Carson had worked in the dining hall for three years, and felt that our food services employees, of whom he had grown very fond, were treated quite badly by the institution. One particular dishwasher, an older woman who occasionally invited Carson to join her family for Sunday dinner, was fired in an effort to appease an unhappy student who also worked there -- itself a long story.
And so here was Stovetop College, with a beautiful rec center, state-of-the-art technology, well-paid faculty…and tenured and tenure-track food services employees.
I couldn’t possibly pass up an opportunity to work at such an innovative (and well-off) institution, and so I accepted Stovetop’s offer of employment without hesitation, imagining a career of teaching capable students in well-equipped classrooms at the heart of maybe the most egalitarian college community in America.
Or so I thought.
It was a rainy April afternoon as I made my way across campus to a meeting of the Food Services Tenure Review Committee (FSTRC). I had been appointed to the committee at the start of my second year at Stovetop, no doubt due to my effusive appreciation of the whole idea. I was thrilled then, but after two years on this committee, found myself counting the days until the end of my three-year term.
Let me put it this way. You know the saying about faculty infighting? “The knives are so sharp because the stakes are so low”? Well, on the FSTRC, “sharp knives” is not a metaphor.
One of the stipulations demanded by the committee that designed the entire process of awarding tenure to food services employees was that a faculty member would always serve on the FSTRC, ostensibly to assure some “academic” quality control, and that was why I took my seat at the conference room table.
I poured a cup of fresh-brewed shade-grown Costa Rican coffee from the carafe in front of me, and snatched some fresh-baked Danish almond anisette cookies off one of the platters in the center of the table (obviously, these meetings always had the best meeting snacks on campus, given that, as dictated in the Food Services Tenure Manual, the director of food services and three tenured food service employees -- a cook, a line server, and a dish engineer, among others -- sat on the committee).
“We’re all here,” the director, Steve, said. “Why don’t we get started on the agenda?” He passed out a summary of the career accomplishments of two food services workers: Roberta, a line server, and Albert, a cook. Both Roberta and Albert had been in their positions for six years, and their egg timers of tenure were about to ding.
I swallowed a bite of cookie and sighed deeply as the battle commenced.
I used to believe that Edgar H. Carson had never really understood the ins and outs of higher education, academic life, “guaranteed lifetime employment,” and all the nuanced subterfuge of faculty politics, and that it was out of naiveté that he had offered his compromise.
But now I realize that Carson understood more than any of us exactly what a system of tenure could render in an otherwise humble organization like food services. I realize now that back in 1985, Carson still harbored a 20-year old grudge against a professor and the institution that was powerless to hold that instructor accountable, and that Carson’s very clever form of revenge was to subject us to more misery than any college, even a small, private, wealthy liberal arts college, deserves.
“Let’s start with Roberta,” Steve said, and pulled her thick tenure file from his briefcase. “You should have reviewed the material already. Solid recommendations from the other line servers. Student evals are stellar,” he continued, reading from the file. " ‘Roberta’s portions are always fair… she always greets me enthusiastically… she laughs at our jokes about mystery meat, unlike some line servers who get really defensive… she never lectures about eating vegetables, which I appreciate, because I hate lectures.’ ”
He went on. “Three solid letters from external reviewers that attest to the quality of her work. Apparently, she has a real knack for switching out food pans at the right moment, and when she presented a paper on this topic at a regional conference, it was standing-room-only and received rave reviews. She’s also written two articles, with one more in press, on plate presentation. This one, ‘Ratio, Proportion, Nutrition: A Postmodern Analysis of the Balanced Look/Balanced Meal Argument,’ was published in the American Food Services Personnel’s leading journal, which has only a nine percent acceptance rate.
“A recommendation from the head server concurs with all of this, with a special note that Roberta has always shown exceptional banquet leadership, taking on the difficult chafing dish role.
“Are there any concerns about Roberta at all? I mean, this is as solid a file as we get.”
“I have a question, Steve,” said Allison, Stovetop’s personnel director. “We’ve got five current tenured line servers, and two more come up next year. If we tenure Roberta, we’ll be looking at a department that’s 75 percent tenured with two more possibles next spring. Do you really want that a department that’s that heavily tenured?“
“Damn it, Allison!” It was Ned, the dish engineer rep. “We go through this every meeting! You can’t punish someone just because you’ve made bad decisions about others in the past. She deserves tenure! She’s not the problem. The problem is the wimps who served on this committee before us who capitulated and politicked and buckled under pressure and tenured two servers who should not have been.”
“It’s true,” I said. “And now we pay the price every day at lunch when our Tater Tots roll off our plates because they’re not well-placed and our green bean casserole juices run into our fish sticks.”
Allison shuddered and then glared at me. “Don’t go there, please. But you’re right, Ned. I understand that. It’s just that tenuring Roberta leaves little flexibility within the department to hire in the future, and I think that shifting enrollments might require us to hire more counter staff for the Taco Bell in the Student Union. And I’m not sure she’s willing to retool herself. She’s very committed to line serving, and that’s fast becoming too narrow a field. Sure, she goes deep. But we need broad.”
More discussion ensued, but after 45 minutes, Steve called for a vote. Roberta was awarded tenure by a 6-3 vote. Barring any unexpected interference from the provost (who, just last year, overturned us on a mealcard checker who had apparently lied on her C.V. -- who knew? The case is now in the courts), Roberta could look forward to a lifetime of serving students.
Now I was the one who shuddered. She would be working shoulder-to-shoulder with two tenured line servers who were miserable in their jobs but unable to get hired elsewhere, were woefully out-of-date on current food serving technique and research, and invested the majority of their energy in sabotaging the authority of both the head of serving and the Food Services director. They were a pathetic pair of institutional critics who, in faculty parlance, would be called “dead wood.” In food services, though, they’re known as “salad spinners.”
The discussion then turned to Albert. “Look,” said Ned, tearing open four packs of sugar and dumping them into his coffee, “this is a no-brainer. Albert’s a good guy, the students like him, we all like him. But he’s phyllo-dough thin in the research area, and like it or not, that matters here.”
“Oh come on!” yelled Ramon, the cook rep. “He’s doing some great things with four-cheese lasagna!”
“Four cheese?” countered Lou, the server rep who up until then had been silent. “Cooks at our peer institutions are offering up seven, sometimes eight cheese lasagnas, as well as alternative ravioli fillings -- portabello mushrooms, tofu, which Albert won’t touch -- ‘too trendy,’ he told me. Four cheese lasagna? That is so ‘90s.”
“Except that one of the cheeses is asiago,” defended Ramon. “No one else is working with asiago in institutional food services. Look, the thing you have to understand is that sometimes research needs time to gestate. I don’t think we can fully anticipate the impact that Albert’s work might have in five years … 10 years. Besides, he’s been incredibly loyal to this college. He comes to football games!”
“We don’t tenure on loyalty, Ramon!” insisted Steve. “That leads to mediocrity. You know what you call a college with loyal, but mediocre staff? Underenrolled!” No one said so, but we were all thinking of another school in our state, Aloe Vera College, a tiny Catholic college that had suffered a trichinosis outbreak due to careless kitchen techniques. That slippery slope led to AVC’s loss of accreditation three years later, and ultimately to their current enrollment crisis. It was a scenario we could all imagine happening if we were careless in our decisions.
The afternoon was late, and Steve ended up tabling the discussion of Albert’s file for the night, after we agreed to meet at 7 a.m. the next day. I silently cursed at the prospect of yet another meeting of this committee, an assignment that sucks up more time than my own research. And when my tenure decision comes, will this work matter to anyone on that committee? I have my doubts.
I grabbed one last cookie and made my way back across the Lawn. The sun had set below the ridge of Stovetop Mountain off to the west. Some students ambled by on their way to the dining hall. “Hi Professor!” they called out. I smiled at them, knowing that because of our battles in the FSTRC, or maybe in spite of them, a good dinner, well-served on clean plates, awaited them.
And I thought, too, of Edgar H. Carson. Carson died last summer, and I read in the college’s alumni magazine (Stovetop Stuffings -- not one of our best ideas) that Carson was known for his biting sense of humor and creative approach to seemingly intractable problems. No doubt about that, I said to myself.
Though we enjoyed the fruits of his generous gift, he had taken one of our most sacred institutions, tenure, and skewered it like lamb on a kabob. The joke, we all knew, but never admitted out loud, was on us.
Lee Burdette Williams is vice president for student affairs and dean of students at Wheaton College (Mass.), which is a very long distance from Stovetop College.
A friend was up for tenure last year. She was approved by her department. Next step was a vote by some larger faculty committee and then a vote by some smaller administrative council. The faculty
approved her. So did the administrators -- less one vote. That one negative vote so angered her it threatened to spoil the award of tenure by the time the requisite presidential letter arrived.
She felt certain the man who cast that vote was the same one who tried to embarrass her publicly when earlier in the year she had to explain a new course proposal. What struck me is how she loathes this man, with whom she'll have to contend during the rest of her time at the university. "If I passed him in an accident, I'd pour a can of gasoline on him."
What's the reason for the man's hostility to my friend? She doesn't know. It seems the two have scarcely spoken. It further seems nobody likes the man (except the president). At the university there appears to be a veritable society of people (including office workers and even one custodian) who are solely united by their detestation of a noxious administrator.
The interesting thing to me is that few of them are, properly speaking, colleagues, if we restrict the definition of the word to some formal relatedness at the disciplinary or departmental level. This
is what I would try to do myself, although I've never worked at a college as small as that of my friend, where in effect the entire work force is in position to be any one individual's "associate" in some way.
Similarly, I've never worked at an institution so large that virtually the entire work force outside one's own department is effectively excluded from any one individual's horizon of associations. Size matters, regarding colleagues. What may matter even more is that nothing, not even status hierarchy, necessarily excludes anyone at an institution from thinking about anyone else as a "colleague."
Admittedly, it would seem odd to have either the president or the custodian who regularly cleans out his or her office refer to the other as a "colleague." It is assumed that, in order to be colleagues in the first place, everybody is in a position of equality. This is the reason students can happily refer to each other as "colleagues." However, American students normally avoid this designation, perhaps because it sounds too work-coded.
How much does work in fact govern the colleague relation? In one sense, thoroughly; a colleague is not a friend, who can exist quite apart from the conditions of work. In another sense, loosely, if only because a colleague can become a friend, and shed an initial official circumstance (a proximate office, the same committee) like an unwanted skin. One could even say that colleagues, to be colleagues in the first place, must share the potential for becoming friends. Or at least for
becoming, rather paradoxically, more than colleagues.
What exactly would this last state entail? Nobody knows. Thus, for example, our current vexation about the meaning of "collegiality."ï¿½ To whom should we be collegial? Everybody? Only some? Our colleagues, so-called? But when to make the cut? Sometimes the term seems suitable
(or mandatory) for people who are strictly colleagues; sometimes it seems lamentable for colleagues whose relations (or feelings) are more akin to those of friends.
"Collegiality"ï¿½ attests to the baffled sociality so pervasive in academic life. We might all be better off if we knew precisely where to draw the line between being colleagues and being friends. Alas, though, we don't -- and this may be as it should be. Despite having become academics, we remain human. So our relations partake of such unhappy situations as those of my friend above; she seems to be entangled in a relation with an administrator who is even less likely to become her
friend than her colleague and yet who demonstrates with respect to her a degree of personal animus more akin to a close personal enemy than a distant college official.
"Never make friends with anybody in your own department."ï¿½ So quoth a professor many years ago to a group of my, er, colleagues, when we were all grad students. I don't think we understood why anybody would say this. Now I think I do: friendships easily proves threatening to a department, and departments just as easily prove threatening to friendships. Trouble is, now I want to protest: so what? Colleagues we are given. Friends we must make. With whom best to make them than with colleagues in our own department? To hell with the fact they may one day have to cast tenure votes against us.
And yet, and yet. Friends are not always or even necessarily to be preferred to colleagues. Years ago I spent the summer in a National Endowment for the Humanities program of postdoctoral study and got close to one of my fellows. We had common interests; more important, we had common sportive attitudes toward their -- and our -- academization. So it was painful to realize at some point that the qualities that made Ron so attractive as a friend might well make him less attractive -- even
unbearable -- as a colleague.
In her essay on Camus, Susan Sontag states the painful matter very succinctly while differentiating great writers on the basis of being husbands or lovers: "Some writers supply the solid virtues of a
husbands: reliability, intelligibility, generosity, decency. There are other writers in whom one prizes the qualities of a lover, gifts of temperament rather than of moral goodness."ï¿½ As Sontag adds, "it's a great pityï¿½ to have to choose between them. But academics don't have to choose -- as academics. Colleagues are what we expect ourselves as well as others to be in our official capacity. And colleagues are husbands, not lovers.
Lovers, it might be said, we choose at our peril (especially if we are married). This is precisely the case in academic life with friends, most certainly if they are members of your department. I've had a few myself, and, while the friendships lasted, they were some of the best of my life. One relationship moved outside the department, into our respective homes or on occasional trips. Another didn't. Each came to grief ultimately for the same reason: the friendship couldn't survive
the inevitable tensions of either the departmental structure or just the work itself.
Strange, because the friendships, however different, were the products of those tensions. The men and I were friends because of common enemies, common problems, common circumstances, all experienced anew each working day. Remove these circumstances, and it was as if the whole logic of intimacy collapsed. Bred by the position, it died with the position. How many other men and women have experienced this? Has the rise of e-mail changed anything? Could email enable more people now -- many scarcely meeting face-to-face -- to remain colleagues without suffering a fateful fall into friendship?
Of course most colleagues never suffer this fall. Perhaps most come to abide after a few years into a state about which our vocabulary is very poor -- something more than colleagues, something less than friends. ("Collegiality" is no help here at all.) And as always, the narrative you construct about colleagues will be governed by examples so highly individual as to elude almost successfully the terms of the discussion. This past year, for example, I chanced one day to meet a fellow teacher in my department, except that we were each adjuncts teaching at different locations. "The department"ï¿½ was a fiction that amused us both. We became friends, but only through e-mail, passing right by the condition of having first been, for lack of a better word, colleagues.
Now this woman is out of academic life. We remain in touch. But it probably would be better for the friendship if we had been colleagues for awhile longer, even though this supposition contradicts the logic I've been trying to trace. So it goes. Friendship is the stuff of classic essays (Montaigne, Emerson). Who wants to write an essay on collegiality? As a human essence, it lacks development, provocation, even definition. Colleagues? The relation is finally too superficial.
Colleagues? In any organizational structure, the most interesting examples of human behavior with respect to others may be enacted by people who are not in place to become colleagues at all. Indeed, the happiest formal relation in academic life may be that of teacher or mentor to student -- to judge anyway by the written record, full of testimonies by the one to the devotion or worth of the other. Humanity floods the relationship of mentors to students. In such contrast, humanity seems to recede from the relationship of colleagues to each other.
The finest fiction I know of this kind is Bernard Malamud's superb short story, "Rembrandt's Hat." (In the collection by that name.) It concerns two men who teach at a New York art school. Arkin, an art
historian, is a dozen years younger than Rubin, a sculptor. Arkin, we read, "was friendly with Rubin though they were not really friends." In other words, the men were colleagues. However, the relationship has apparently not been without its unstated or unexplored depths. These surface one day when Arkin chances one day to admiringly compare one of Rubin's many odd hats to a hat from a middle-aged self-portrait of Rembrandt.
After this Rubin ceases to wear the hat and appears to Arkin to be avoiding him. "I'll wait it out,"ï¿½ Arkin concludes. He doesn't think to ask Rubin about some possible offense; this is the sort of thing that friends do, or care to do, whereas colleagues adhere to a consensual surface. Months pass. One day Arkin enters Rubin's studio. There's really only one piece he likes. Another day, while showing some slides, he notices that the particular hat Rubin wore months earlier more
resembles that of a cook at a diner than Rembrandt's.
Later he returns to the sculptor's studio, congratulates him on the one fine piece, and apologizes for his remark months earlier. Rubin accepts the apology. But it provides no ground for some reassessment of their whole relationship. Instead, the two men (we are summarily told) remain no more than cordial to each other; "they stopped avoiding each other and spoke pleasantly when they met, which wasn't often." Once, Arkin spots Rubin regarding himself in the bathroom mirror in a white cap that now really does appear to resemble Rembrandt's hat.
But this final moment becomes yet another that goes unexplored, unacknowledged, and unsaid at the workplace of these two men, which constitutes their only lifeworld. In the end -- all violent resentments aside, from Arkin's part, and all fears of self-disclosure, from Rubin's part -- the men have only the relationship of colleagues with which they began. It is a triumph, of sorts; they could have remained enemies. Hats off to them. Most of us do what we can as colleagues, whether or not we secretly fancy ourselves Rembrandts. We try to make the best of it. Hats off to us all.
Terry Caesar's last column explored how academics avoid thinking of themselves as having or being bosses.
"I wasn't anybody's superior."
--Amélie, in Fear and Trembling
One way to characterize work in higher education: It has no bosses. The boss-ridden business world that strikes such glacial terror in the recent movie, The Devil Wears Prada or such giggly absurdity in the current television series, "The Office," is not our world. Miranda Priestly as a dean? No department chair (or provost) would tolerate her. Michael Scott as a department chair? The faculty would just watch him implode.
For us, the authority of The Boss, in contrast to business, is far too absolutist, not to say just plain absolute. An academic abides in "leadership positions" as part of a structure and his or her authority is to a considerable extent mediated though committees or modified by various official and unofficial protocols. The vocabulary of a "boss" is unacceptably blunt, unyielding, and crude for academic discourse, whose protocols are more subtle, indirect, and refined.
Put another way, "bosses" constitute an appropriate idiom for the staff who crunch numbers in human services, the secretaries who type memos in departments, and the custodians who empty waste baskets in all the rooms. The rest of us have committee heads or supervisors, chairs, assistant deans and so on up. We stand before them as, if not exactly equals, at least as fellow professionals. There is the presumption that everybody is on a first-name basis, however variously embedded in the institutional structure.
Therefore, how to explain why another recent [French] film, Fear and Trembling, proves to be so unsettling for an academic viewer? It should not be so. Set in a large Japanese corporation, the vocational structure is an inverse of academe: Authority is unquestioned at every remorselessly graded level. The president is likened to an emperor, and all below Him partake of His authority. The Belgian heroine, Amélie (who has decided to return to Japan, where she was born) must either obey the most inconsequential order of any superior or else quit. There are no other alternatives.
She strives to obey. The strangest thing is that although of course her obedience is easily available to psychological categories of understanding (in terms of masochism and sadism) to Amélie herself the experience becomes something profoundly spiritual. Told to check some numbers, and then recheck them, and recheck them once again, she eventually speaks, for example, of "invoice serenity." Eventually her one-year contract is up and she decides not to seek renewal. But not before achieving a felt state more akin to freedom than humiliation.
What makes this movie so resonant if you've never had a boss? I suspect the answer is simple: You do have a boss. We just choose not to see it this way, and instead emphasize what Fear and Trembling explores: the presence of inner freedom. Why do we choose not to recognize our bosses as such? We don't have to. They are already effaced, according to the logic of what Stanley Fish terms, in a notorious essay, "The Unbearable Ugliness of Volvos," our ceaseless translation of everything (ranging from the conditions of the job market to the consequences of tenure decisions) into the "language of higher motives."
The essay -- in his collection There's No Such Thing as Free Speech -- ought to be more notorious still. According to Fish, academics will do anything to distinguish themselves from "the realities of the marketplace." One of whose realities, I am suggesting here, is that bosses do exist in both realms. Perhaps we can't abide a vocabulary of bosses because the need to distinguish ourselves from the world of business is so crucial. Or, more interestingly, perhaps we already have enough oppression. "In the psychic economy of the academy," Fish explains, "oppression is the sign of virtue. The more victimized you are, the more subject to various forms of humiliation, the more you can tell yourself that you are in proper relation to the corrupted judgment of merely worldly eyes."
The situation is almost more perverse than paradoxical. We academics continue to lament the need for more points of contact between ourselves and the rest of society in part because we continue to withhold from consideration one point of contact that could not be more urgent: the fact that people have direct power over us, on the basis of which we could all lose our jobs. Instead, we maintain that in academic life it's not this simple. Therefore one result, according to Fish, is that our own precious oppression remains, if not exactly worse, at least more complex, more superior, or at least more, ah, refined.
An example. The other day a friend, an adjunct, told me he had to make a special trip across town to copy his syllabus at the department because the chair insisted each page contain the college letterhead. Humiliating? Sure. But my friend doesn't see it quite this way, or only does as a minor instance of the systematic oppression of adjuncts that constitutes academic business-as-usual. I think he would be more emphatic that he does indeed have a most specific boss; another person, say, might not be so insistent about the logo. And yet he would have to admit that there is, again, a system in place, and so the boss-chair is even in this instance merely an expression of the system.
We all, in turn, will perhaps be more eager to maintain a whole host of additional exceptions and qualifications. For instance, the chair's insistence would seem less like the action of a boss if its object were an associate professor. (In a very real sense, all adjuncts have bosses, or are "in position" to have them. Tenured faculty are not in the same position.) Or, the chair himself may well be groaning under the authority of the dean, who is in fact more like a boss to him than he to the adjunct. And so on. And we haven't even mentioned higher motives, beginning with the importance of uniform institutional policies.
Nevertheless, to see Fear and Trembling is to realize that the task required (it's not clear if was ordered) of my friend is exactly the sort of trivial, pointless task Amélie has to perform so ceaselessly, until she comes to accept it as a species of spiritual discipline. Just so, I believe, we academics come to accept such things because they are good for us, since, as Fish explains, oppression is a source of virtue. However, we might not agree with his most extreme statement on this point: "Academics like to eat shit, and in a pinch they don't care whose shit they eat."
Wait a minute. We do care! One example: no bosses. Or rather, no comprehension of "shit" in such an idiom, lest the ground of our distinction from the vulgar marketplace be cut from under us, and our oppression revealed to be, in the end, pretty much the same as that of any other workers, whose jobs depend upon fulfilling demands made by particular individuals who have direct power over us. No, we are to be distinguished from others. The man who enters the "cyber parlor" of the movie Minority Report and announces, "I want to kill my boss" -- He's not one of us. We would throw him out, just like the management of the parlor does.
And there is a final reason for our unease with this talk of bosses: Our professional identity is compromised. Much of it is founded on the fact that we don't need bosses. Maybe everyone else does. (Certainly Amélie does; herein lies the difference between her workplace and ours.) But not us. Our work is self-driven, self-sponsored. (Again, though, adjuncts must leave the room.) Indeed, so self-actualized are we -- as teachers, as scholars -- that we can afford to ignore how continually we are, well, bossed around, by committees, chairs, deans, and rules. How often in the experience of each of us does one or more of these categories of authority materialize into the hard, implacable
form of single individual who is too much like a boss to be less than a boss? Often enough. But again, we don't prefer to see it this way, even while we effectively groan under another's yoke as much as any office worker.
Nobody is a better guide into the heart of such mysteries than Fish. I don't wish to endorse every philosophical position he takes (and one secretly yearns to read the reflections of somebody under him during one of his late administrative adventures). I do wish to praise the provocation by which he lays down certain uncomfortable truths about, say, abiding under a regime of what is ultimately ideological control. There is no escaping such a regime, no standing apart from it. In another essay, "Force"--this can be found in another collection, Doing What Comes Naturally --Fish puts the matter thus: "There is always a gun to your head." If not an actual weapon, the gun is a reason, a desire, a need, or a name -- some form of "coercion" that we have already internalized, which is mistakenly conceived as somehow exterior to us.
Or to put it another way: Not only is there always a gun to your head; the gun at your head is your head. This doesn't explain everything about authority amid the ideological peculiarities of academic life. For one thing, all are not equally coerced. Not only is a lesser caliber of ammunition given to adjuncts; they also need more gun training in the first place. (Workshops in collaborative learning comprise an excellent current form.) But Fish's point suffices, I hope, to explain why as academics we don't presume ourselves to have bosses. We are our own bosses. This is a happy truth given to us by our ideology.
Therefore, as we trudge down to the copy machine in order to finish copying the syllabus -- to take a random example -- what matter whether or not the chair explicitly ordered us, the dean reminded the chair, or what the hell, the president actually spoke about the matter to the dean? In our syllabus ultimately lies our freedom, not our oppression -- and so it goes in pretty much all things (the next twist of the tenure screw, the last diversity directive) even while we may choose to complain about every single one. Nobody actually ordered us to do anything. At least we don't have bosses.
Terry Caesar's last column was on the importance of having places to read.