Job, Career, Vocation, Life

December 13, 2013

The most pressing problem facing academics today is undoubtedly the emergence of a two-tier job market, in which those on the tenure track live alongside — some would say on top of — a vast pool of adjuncts who lack much in the way of job security, opportunities for professional development, and oftentimes simple academic respect.  What’s more, this economic crisis is part of a broader cultural assault on academic authority that needs confronting on our part.  (Call me paranoid, but I see Naomi Schaeffer Riley’s The Faculty Lounges, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli’s war on climate science, and the hoo-ha at my own U.Va. in the summer of 2012 as all of a piece, signifying a broad-based and intentional war on scholarship.) 

All in all, there are real worries that academia is being undermined from within and assaulted from without.  This problem is real, it is pressing, and it deserves careful scholarly attention and serious academic reflection. 

But critique is not enough.  While we condemn this situation and work to resist it, we also have to learn to live in this new academic era.  We need a language that brings our situation richly into view, in all its complexity in order that we may see more clearly the options available before us for moving forward.  Everyone, tenure-track and adjunct, needs this. 

All academics have a hard time, in the heat of the moment (or the heat of the semester), disentangling the various dimensions of our lives.  Many of those whom I know who fall roughly in the adjuncting world get caught up in the delights and passions of teaching—or find their sense of professional self-worth only rewarded in that arena; when that happens, they come subtly to reduce being an academic to being a teacher

And that is a huge mistake for them. In a different but analogously reductive way, many on the tenure track get caught up in the emoluments of the professoriate, identifying themselves with only one dimension of their lives -- typically “the field” or departmental politics (the latter is only superficially more demeaning, and soul-destroying, than the former).

But ironically the difficulty everyone faces seems, to me at least, interestingly similar: we all face an inability to distinguish between different dimensions of an academic vocation, and we do so for the same reason that so many of us find this vocation, considered abstractly, so profoundly satisfying: because those dimensions must be distinguished and teased apart subjectively, by our own individual intentional action.  We experience our lives without much internal differentiation imposed upon our lives by outside forces -- it’s all up to us to do. 

Now, this is one of the great blessings of an academic life, as well as its deepest challenge. For all the anxieties about the future of the academy in general and the professoriate in particular, academics still have the potential for more autonomy than most other workers in our world.  Especially tenure-track academics, but others as well, get to structure our time, decide what and how (and often when) we teach, to plan our research agenda, schedule our days, our weeks, our years. For this among other reasons, when it goes well, academics have a real chance at happiness, at a truly flourishing life, perhaps more than do many others; and that chance is profoundly affected by what we do.

As I have tried to say above, none of this is cause for smug complacency. Instead it should be an inducement for academics to be more fully aware of the enormous opportunities afforded by our professions, if we inhabit them with due deliberation. For though it is possible to live a flourishing life in academia, not everyone does, and all of us experience the opportunities of the academy not only as tantalizing possibilities, but also as taunting illusions, just out of reach, semester after semester, year after year.  We need help in learning to be more deliberate about what we would do.

We should distinguish, deliberately and explicitly, between four levels at which you should exercise some intentional reflectiveness about your actions and your life. They are your job, your career, your vocation, and your life.  Collectively they offer a fairly comprehensive vocabulary within which to think and talk about your existence — as an academic, and beyond.  Individually they identify discrete layers of a fully human life in academia today, and they specify a series of boundaries upon or across which a great many of the various tensions afflicting our lives may be located. This fourfold schema helps you think about how things are going — helps identify exactly what sort of problem you face, what tension you are feeling — and the schema puts the problem into context in a way that often makes it more manageable.

First, your job. You can have several different jobs in the same institution, even in the same department, depending on your tasks in each role. In tenure-track positions, being an “ordinary professor” is most likely how you start out; but maybe you become department chair or associate chair, or a faculty member in residence in a dorm, or a dean, or running a research center.  Adjuncts have a more brutally simple reality: your job is typically the courses you teach, though perhaps you also administer a program, or work in another part of the academic-industrial complex.  Each of these jobs is significantly different from the others, and the distribution of your labor in them should be designed to fulfill the obligations attached to the position.

Inevitably your job conflicts with other aspects of your life. It consumes personal time, family time, teaching and research time, among other things. You can grow to resent its endless demands. To escape its tyranny, you must learn to distinguish between your job and you. Furthermore, professionally, you must learn to distinguish between your job and your career as an academic. Too many people accept the immediate obligations of their position as exhaustive of their career obligations, and end up chasing the immediate, short-term approval of their institutional superiors. Thus they discount or defer establishing the sort of reputation that would allow them to “move up” into higher-status institutions, or into a different sort of post at your home institution. That is a large mistake. But it is a mistake best articulated in terms of your career.

So, second, your career. What did you imagine your professional life to be? Not many imagine the spinal column of their lives as administrators; few academics dream of being “Chair” (and you should avoid such people if you can); most want to be a professor. But the minutiae of your job expectations at your college or university may mean you engage in compromises with the work that is valued by your “field”— by which I mean the broadest academic community in which you are a specialist member. If you stay in this business, and get a tenure-stream job, probably you have 30 or 40 years in your career; how will you spend them?

If you focus too rigorously on what your employer considers success at your job, it may damage your career. Typically the currency of the realm in a field — and thus the criteria of success in your career — has nothing to do with the minutiae of your daily labor; it has more to do with teaching students, with your presence at conferences and with your published research in your field. A too-narrow focus on meeting your institution’s expectations may mean that your status as a member of the field atrophies as well.

Of course, the time may come — it probably will come — when you grow tired of the rat race of career accomplishment and field status. As you see senior colleagues achieve respect, and then decline into last year’s Bright New Things, you see some of them achieve a different sort of satisfaction, one untethered from how they are spoken of in their field’s journals, or at their field’s conferences; and you see others of your senior colleagues still chasing the next citation, the next publication, still competing for the field’s attention.  When it is your turn, you want to be the former kind of senior colleague, not the latter.  And this is where vocation comes in.

Thus, third, your vocation. There is always some real distance between what your field (indeed, academia as a whole) presents as success, and what actually is success. We live in a “Fordist” knowledge economy, in which value is attached to productivity, and productivity means publications — it matters substantially less that the publications be good than that they be there

But sometimes good work takes time, the kind of time that career criteria do not, perhaps cannot, recognize. Immanuel Kant was appointed professor of philosophy at Königsberg in 1770, aged 45, and with a nice collection of publications to warrant the post; but then he spent 11 years in solitary and uncommunicated work, taking apart all he had done and reconstructing it in a radically different way.  His colleagues thought they were mistaken in giving him the chair.  Even when the Critique of Pure Reason was published in 1781, it was found bewildering by reviewers, and it took the better part of a decade more for Kant to begin to be appreciated. Given the over two decades of obscurity after his appointment, how many deans today would consider such an appointment a “successful” one?

So pursuing the goods of your field, for the sake of your career, can be just as distorting, in the long run, as pursuing the goods of your job. Focusing on your career can vex your pursuit of your vocation — by which I mean your deepest, most basic, in some ways most romantic vision of what it is you really do. Yes, you’re a professor — but are you a teacher? Or a writer? An intellectual? A scholar? A researcher? Some combination of all these things, complicatedly ranked?  Under the canopy categories of “academic” or “professor” lie a thousand different ideals, individually defined; and being a successful college professor doesn't always neatly fit that ideal. Indeed they can stand quite diametrically at odds with one another. You owe it to yourself to come to understand just who you are, or who you want to be, and to try to be that person.

But even there, even once you’ve got clear about your vocation, you still can discover that that vocation conflicts, in interesting ways, with your widest, deepest context — namely, your life. (I recognize that traditionally one’s vocation was the determinate moral and spiritual shape given to one’s life; but I think that today we effectively distinguish between the two. There’s a lot of argument to be had there, but that’s another matter.)  We expect to be fulfilled in our lives not just in terms of a profession — as thinkers, readers, teachers and learners, say — but also as human beings — as men and women, mothers and fathers, husbands, wives, daughters and sons. And all these various modes of existence can come into conflict with one another for us. These tensions only rarely come to the surface; but when they do, the conflict can be profound. 

All these levels interact in complicated ways with each other, and they can conflict in complicated ways, too. One's job is not only in tension with one's career, obviously.  You need to go back to campus for an evening event, and that conflicts with reading bedtime stories to your kids, or having a quiet glass of wine with your husband or wife, or a night out with a dear friend. Career ambition has led people to neglect the mundane duties of their jobs, has distorted their vision of their ideals, and has certainly ruined many a marriage. And there are people whose self-understanding as "public intellectuals" leads them to be lousy colleagues, failed scholars, poor teachers, and awful partners, friends and parents; that is to say, your sense of vocation, however you define it, can overwhelm your career, elbow out attention to your job, and suffocate your life. Conversely, obligations or a tremendously enriching situation in one's home life may mean one loses interest in one's career or even one's job — or it may be that home situations require sacrificing professional or vocational goods for the sake of one's family. The conflicts are not all one-way.

We all feel all these pressures, in different ways and to varying degrees at different times; but it helps me now to think about disaggregating them in this way. It also may help me think more intentionally and deliberately about what I want my life to be. Maybe it can help you too.


Charles Mathewes is the Carolyn M. Barbour Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.


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