A new department chair discusses the banality of beards and academe (essay)

I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that not long after I became chair of my department, I grew a beard for the first time in my life. Those two moments should have had nothing to do with one another: facial hair and academic leadership do not have any intrinsic bond. Neither Animal House’s Professor Dave Jennings nor The Paper Chase’s Charles Kingsfield Jr., for example, had beards. Most faculty members I know do not have beards. Hipsters have beards. Deadheads have beards. Out of all the chairs I worked for at four different universities, none had a beard.

For the last 14 years, I shaved every day for work. Last December, I stopped. It was winter break, and I hate shaving. For some reason, when spring semester began, I kept the beard.

Beards have been described as breeding grounds for bacteria, fecal matter and even brewer’s yeast. Chairs, on the other hand, are assigned to four-year terms and usually get a nice office. While dissimilar, these two life instances intersect for me as some sort of important gesture.

Beards are symbolic of many cultural traditions, such as those associated with religion (Hasidim, Sufis, Sikhs), craft beer (brewers) or Southern rock (Gregg Allman’s tight, short beard vs. Hank Williams Jr.’s respectable beard). There are famous beards such as those grown by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons or the Lubavitcher rebbe. As with religion or popular culture, academic beards are hardly novel. There is a Facebook page devoted to the subject, a no longer active blog that featured academic beard profiles and a research project at the University of Exeter that studies the history of beards.

Beards are not new to academe, but a beard is new to me. My only other experience with a beard was when I was in the army and stationed in a remote outpost with one other soldier. The commander for our brigade arrived one day in a surprise inspection and quickly spotted my appearance. I hadn’t shaved for several days. He berated me for the stubble all over my face. “But the conditions,” I complained, indicating the lack of running water or porcelain basin among our poorly constructed tent. “Conditions!” he screamed and threw a water jug at my head.

Not many of the other chairs in our college have beards. No one else in our department has a beard. The dean has a mustache, but no beard. The university president is clean shaven. I could think of my beard as a privileged moment, where I, and other mid-40s men like myself who cannot grow hair on a small patch on the back of our heads can grow a lot of hair all over our faces and chin. My beard might be mistaken as a statement about authority, except chairs have little power other than what is imagined by the faculty members who are not chairs.

Until I became chair I assumed, as others do as well, that the chair is a formidable being with grand oversight and reach. Chairs are supposed to have “vision,” construct “four-year plans” or be able to follow a “strategic plan.” Don Wu’s The Department Chair Primer: What Chairs Need to Know and Do to Make a Difference outlines several criteria chairs should consider as worthy of emulation when imaging their ideal departments: governance, faculty compensation, faculty mix, workload and budget. He does not mention beards. So far, in my capacity as chair, I have nominated colleagues for election to the Faculty Senate without telling them I did so and authorized the purchase of a water cooler to be placed in our hallway.

Instead of projecting authority, my beard minimizes my ethos as representative of university power. For instance, I was invited to a recent meeting with the university audit team overseeing efficiency across the colleges. When I entered the room, the audit team took one look at my scraggly beard and large arm tattoo of a lion and rose and probably thought I was a biker in the wrong place or a hobo looking for a train. “Are you still growing that thing?” a colleague asked me the other day as I left the men’s room. Early in the semester, the director of a humanities program in our college confused me for someone else in the hallway. I have been mocked by junior faculty at departmental meetings for growing a beard.

My beard, in particular, has a large gray patch right in the middle of my chin. Does this gray mark me as distinguished? Does it classify me as scholarly the way the stereotypes of corduroy jacket patches or pipes once did for the cliché image of well-versed academic men?

The beard is mostly a banal feature of the face. Hair grows. You remove it, but it grows again. As department chair, my days involve a great deal of banality: writing letters of support, leading meetings, attending meetings, writing more letters of support, figuring out who dumped coffee in the men’s urinal, approving pizza orders for student club meetings.

Roland Barthes writes a great deal about banality, but at no point can I find him discussing growing a beard. In his pseudo-autobiography Roland Barthes, Barthes classifies the self through an alphabetical organizational scheme. At one point, Barthes discusses classification of the self by a beard-related passage: “Like Harpo Marx losing his artificial beard in the glass of water he is drinking out of, you are no longer classifiable, not out of an excess of personality, but on the contrary because you pass through all the fringes of the phantom.” Barthes’s point is not just that the self is divided, but that it loses itself -- it loses its sense of classification and categorization -- often via contradictions, often via a lack of place in the world. Chairs, despite our imagined power, might relate to that feeling of lack or contradiction of categorical place.

A chair is someone who might find him or herself without a place in the world, even if firmly established within an academic hierarchy of responsibility and rank. Who are we among a set of organizational binaries that frame academe? Colleague/not colleague, manger/faculty member, friend/boss, teacher/administrator? In our college, the Faculty Senate debates whether or not chairs are faculty. Chairs oversee budgets, hiring, petty differences, relationships with other departments, initiatives, recruitment of students. We do this work knowing that one day we will leave the large office we occupy and return to a small concrete-block office hidden away down the hallway, possibly across from the men’s bathroom. What I am today, I will no longer be tomorrow. Beard or no beard, the chair does pass through the fringes of the phantom at some point. All of this so-called authority, we should tell ourselves often, will, at some point, end; it will vanish like a phantom image.

An academic beard evokes the cliché such as the distinguished professor or the hipster graduate student. Even with a beard, I am too short to be mistaken for a hipster, too poorly dressed to be thought of as distinguished. With a beard, I think of the pompous and drunk professor Michael Caine plays in Educating Rita or the Charleston Southern University professor Paul Roof, who lost his job after an image of his wild beard appeared on a Holy City Brewing beer label. I wonder if I am beginning to resemble my mentor and dissertation director, whose large white beard serves as an emblem of his academic presence in rhetorical and digital studies.

“The discourse that comes to him,” Barthes declares, “is banal, and it is only by struggling against that original banality that, gradually, he writes.” I am the opposite. The discourse that comes to me, I might counter, is banal, and in that banality, when discussing beards or being chair, I write. Within academe, we concern ourselves too often with issues of power and struggle -- representational power of the text or political power of daily life; those who yield power or those who do not have power -- but seldom with the banal.

With this fairly new administrative role, I want to leave aside grand issues, such as power, in favor of banal issues such as beards. Such banal moments allow me, for a moment, a banality I can appreciate -- unlike constantly writing letters of support or planning meeting agendas -- a banality that slows down my passing through the fringes of the phantom by giving me a moment of classification. I have a beard. I am department chair. As I soon conclude the first year of a four-year term, my other written moment of banality might be the knowledge of the fragility of perceived power in general: at some point, I tell myself, beard and chair position, too, will end.

Jeff Rice is Martha B. Reynolds Professor in Writing, Rhetoric and Digital Studies at the University of Kentucky.

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The author and his beard.

Cal State Faculty Union Calls Off Planned Strike

California Faculty Association, the faculty union for the California State University System, on Thursday postponed indefinitely its five-day strike planned to begin April 13, after negotiators for both parties reached a tentative salary agreement. Terms of agreement have not yet been released, but the union was pushing for a 5 percent pay increase while the university proposed an initial 2 percent bump. Once ratified by the union, the agreement will be voted on by the university system’s Board of Trustees in May. California Faculty Association, affiliated with the American Association of University Professors, the National Education Association and Service Employees International Union, represents 26,000 tenure-line and non-tenure-track faculty, librarians, counselors and coaches across CSU's 23 campuses.

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New book critiques campus censorship movement and pushes for marketplace of ideas

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New book argues that students involved in campus protests over controversial speakers or ideas should instead support a marketplace of ideas in which all notions are heard and the best rise to the top.

Two Union Wins for Non-Tenure-Track Instructors

Service Employees International Union got two big wins this week, at Boston University and the University of Southern California. In Boston, full-time, non-tenure-track faculty members voted 135 to 36 (out of 275 eligible instructors) to form a union affiliated with SEIU; the union already represents 800 adjunct professors on campus.

In California, a hearing officer for the National Labor Relations Board ruled that an earlier, failed union election involving non-tenure-track faculty members in the Dornsife College of Arts and Letters must be held again, due to significant administrative interference. Hearing officer Yaneth Palencia found that “Provost [Michael] Quick engaged in conduct that was so aggravated as to create a general atmosphere of fear making a free election impossible,” such as by allegedly suggesting that joining a union would make faculty members ineligible for various forms of shared governance.

A spokesperson for Boston said the vote was an “unfortunate outcome, but we will negotiate in good faith once today's election results are officially certified.” Quick said via email on Thursday that the Dornsife election "was free and fair. The USC faculty knows I am a strong supporter of faculty governance and never threatened it. Further, our efforts to remain compliant with state employment law can not be interpreted as anything other than being required by law."

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U Wisconsin Madison professors losing hope of preserving traditional tenure in campus policy

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When the Wisconsin Legislature took tenure out of state statute, faculty members at the University of Wisconsin at Madison hoped they could preserve the status quo in a campus policy. But that hope is fading amid new proposals on a policy for layoffs of professors.

NLRB Rejects Tufts Medical Faculty Union Bid

A regional office of the National Labor Relations Board dismissed on Tuesday a petition from a group of tenure-line basic science faculty members at the Tufts University School of Medicine to hold a union election. The decision was based largely on a set of tests to assess faculty members’ managerial status established by a major 2014 NLRB decision concerning an adjunct faculty union bid at Pacific Lutheran University. The NLRB regional office said the members of Tufts’ proposed unit were in fact managers under those guidelines and therefore ineligible to form a union. Additionally, science faculty members with labs and direct reports are supervisors, according to the decision.

Siobhan Gallagher, a Tufts spokesperson, said in a statement that the university is pleased the NLRB office “recognizes the significant authority that our faculty members have in critical areas of the school’s management. We look forward to continuing dialogue and collaboration with our faculty.”

Jason Stephany, a spokesman for Service Employees International Union, with which the proposed unit is affiliated, said the NLRB decision "validates faculty concerns over the definition of tenure at the School of Medicine. … Tufts faculty disagree with several key points that form the basis of the regional director's overall ruling, and we will review our options for a potential appeal in the coming days."

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Why universities hire two deans to lead their law schools

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Over the last few years, universities started appointing two deans to lead their law schools temporarily. Now, a few are going that route with permanent appointments.

The advantages of doing research in teams (essay)

Such teamwork can be difficult but quite productive, writes Ben Shneiderman, and the most successful teams share certain key characteristics.

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The New ABCs of Research: Achieving Breakthrough Collaborations, by Ben Shneiderman
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The value of crossover scholarship for academics (essay)

When I started my dissertation in the late 1990s, I knew I wanted to speak to a broader public, but I didn’t know how to do it. People around me thought I was nuts. Fast-forward to 2016, and academics are increasingly moving more readily between scholarly circles and public ones. Public intellectuals like Neil deGrasse Tyson, Noam Chomsky, Susan Sontag, bell hooks and Parker J. Palmer have written for multiple audiences and made an impact.

Such crossover scholarship moves outside academic publishing and scholarly communities to speak to a mass audience. It can be a book; an op-ed article; TV, film and radio appearances; a blog post or other kind of public writing or performance. Inside Higher Ed columnist Scott McLemee says that crossover books are defined by academic presses as “the titles they hope will appeal to a wider audience than the niche that exists for most monographs.”

Yet many people in higher education are still skeptical of the value of crossover scholarship. So how do we talk about it in academic circles to give it the legitimacy it deserves?

I want to argue for a new term: crossover ecology. That’s because we need to stop conceiving of crossover scholarship in a one-way direction: us to them. This paradigm solidifies the false divide between academe and the public, and everyone loses. When we recently hosted the wonderful national OpEd Project, I heard through the grapevine that a colleague said to an untenured faculty member at my institution, “Op-eds won’t get you tenure.” While that is technically true, it misconceives crossover scholarship as uni-directional rather than multidirectional. The latter produces interesting scholarship, and the former is bad career advice.

What Crossover Ecology Gives You

When I was in graduate school, it was clear that most people couldn’t write anything that might appeal beyond the ivory tower until at least their second book. The reading public “out there” seemed to be fluffy, a compromise, and other than making more than a few dollars on book royalties, it was hard to see any benefits. But today we are in a different historical and technological moment that has not only meant a democratization of public voices and news due to technological access but also that the public can have a different impact on academic scholarship.

I argue that crossover ecology -- where public and academic work build on one another in a cycle -- produces better work for all communities. In particular, crossover ecology affects four things:

  • Voice. It forces scholars to write with verve, clarity and purpose to communicate broadly.
  • Impact. It can build a large audience that ultimately translates to cultural influence.
  • Agency. It shortens the time from thought to publication; ideas don’t languish.
  • Quality. It fosters collaborative and communal thinking not in isolation and feeds scholarship rather than detracts from it.

Crossover Ecology at Work

My colleague Ryan Martin is associate professor and chair of the department of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Green Bay. An anger researcher, he started a blog called “All the Rage: Commentary and Resources on the Science of Anger and Violence.” Collecting all things related to anger, he reviews anger research and writes book reviews and updates on student research. As he said to me, “I wanted the blog to be easy-to-read research on anger and violence from someone who knows what they’re talking about.”

Several years ago, Martin published an academic article, “Anger on the Internet: The Perceived Value of Rant-Sites” in Cyberpsychology, Behavior, and Social Networking. In July 2014, The New York Times picked up the article, cited him and wrote, “Clicking Their Way to Outrage: On Social Media, Some Are Susceptible to Internet Outrage.” At which point, Martin’s work went viral.

What happened next to Martin? News media outlets came to him. He was invited to submit book chapters for academic collections. Psychology Today asked him to be a blogger, and he now writes short pieces like “5 Ways to Deal With Angry People.” Martin has kept sending people to his blog, which in turn has led to more requests. He currently does roughly one media interview a week. Note that his research is not suddenly watered down. Rather, both academic and popular outlets continue to seek him out.

Then there is my colleague Heidi R. Lewis, an assistant professor of feminist and gender studies at Colorado College. She says that her dissertation dabbled in popular culture but mostly focused on literature because “I was still under the impression that I had to appendage myself and my work to ‘legible’ disciplines like English.” She landed a job in women’s studies that, as an interdisciplinary field, allowed her to be more expansive in her writing.

What happened next is that Lewis entered a blog contest through the online publication Feministing. She submitted a piece on hip-hop artist Lil Wayne. She also shared that piece with Mark Anthony Neal, professor of black popular culture at Duke University, who was “so excited about it that he asked if he could publish it on his website,” NewBlackMan (in Exile). Lewis said yes and “the rest is history.”

As she describes it: “He wrote to me six hours after the piece was published to let me know that it’d already gotten 1,300 hits. A week later, it’d gotten over 4,000 hits. Around December, it’d gotten over 6,600. My professional life literally changed. People that I admire were sharing the piece like crazy over social media -- it had gone viral. I knew then that I had a knack for writing for the folks and wanted to make it my business to keep doing that as much as possible.”

Soon after, Lewis became a member of the editorial collective The Feminist Wire, a prominent feminist blog, where she had further outlets for crossover work. Though she had heard that her piece on Lil Wayne was being assigned in classes, she wanted to circulate a more in-depth version, so she submitted it to The Journal of Popular Culture, where it is forthcoming.

Lewis notes that the president of her institution congratulated her publicly on her crossover scholarship. She says, “I think it’s important that academia recognize all of our intellectual work -- not just the work with which some of those in administration are most familiar. All of my traditional scholarly work examines popular culture. All of my public work does, too.” Lewis is now expanding a short piece on Rihanna’s “Pour It Up” that first came out in The Feminist Wire. Why? Because an academic journal is hungry for it.

These are just a few examples of the benefits of crossover scholarship. The moment that academics stop imagining crossover scholarship as a one-way street to pabulum and start seeing it as ecology that inspires voice, generates impact, propels agency and infuses quality, a much-needed paradigm shift in public scholarship will occur.

Karlyn Crowley is professor of English and gender studies at St. Norbert College, where she directs the Cassandra Voss Center, a nationally recognized gender center.

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Advice for building confidence and strengthening your image in job interviews (essay)


Kristy J. Sherrer gives advice on how to build confidence and strengthen your image, allowing interviewers to see your many qualifications.

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