Getting a Life in the Humanities

Greg Colón Semenza and Garrett A. Sullivan Jr. share some of the reflections in their new book about careers in academe -- notwithstanding all the negative stories.

June 8, 2015

A number of books have focused on the questions of getting a job, negotiating office politics and other work issues for academics. Far less attention has been paid to the issue of how to construct a life around whatever job you happen to have. We’ve recently tried to address this omission by publishing How to Build a Life in the Humanities: Meditations on the Academic Work-Life Balance.

Because no two academic lives are the same, we assembled almost 30 contributors from a range of different institutions (community colleges, liberal arts colleges and research universities) as well as institutional positions (graduate students, adjunct professors and tenure-line faculty of all ranks) and asked them to write first-person essays in the hope that their own experiences and reflections would resonate with a broad academic audience.

While planning the volume, we were concerned that, instead of providing the reader with the raw materials for her own DIY life-building project, our book might only offer anxious dispatches from the academic front lines. As Inside Higher Ed’s readers well know, 21st-century institutional realities -- increasing corporatization and administrative oversight, dwindling state support for higher education, decreasing employment opportunities for Ph.D.s, and so on -- have made academic life more vexing than ever, especially outside of STEM fields.

All of our contributors are clear-eyed about the difficulties of academic life, but we were struck by the fact that in spite of all the woes, many found ample reason to reaffirm their decisions to live an academic life. In fact, one of the recurring themes across the essays is the personal fulfillment that comes with learning to manage the most challenging aspects of our personal and professional lives.

In Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Stephanie Kerschbaum’s co-authored essay, “Disability,” for example, Brueggemann discusses how she transformed a formidable classroom challenge into a significant learning opportunity for both herself and her students:

“I use myself, and my ‘hearing loss,’ as a ‘deaf gain’ move that asks us all -- in collaboration -- to take shared ownership for discussion and listening in my classroom. For example, I rely heavily on small-group discussion (led usually by prepared prompts I give the students), then I encourage the small-group discussions to unfold into whole-class discussions, with one of the groups always taking the lead (assuming a co-teaching position beside me). Not only does this technique distribute the ownership of class conversation, but it takes all the discussion-hearing pressure off of me! Likewise, I often ask a couple of students to come to the front of the classroom and record the major points of the discussion (i.e., take notes), which are displayed at the front of the classroom on a projector screen. I ask them to do this in pairs (so they can help each other hear and type) and so, once again, the burden of listening can be shared. (And too, I am relieved of being ‘The Big Ear’ -- that organ that traditional classrooms tend to place on teachers as the conduit through which all the classroom voices must come and go.)

“One thing that happens always -- yes, always -- in my classrooms is that, through the use of real-time captioning (which I usually project on a second screen or a wall so that I can roam throughout the classroom and see it from any vantage point -- as can my students), my students soon notice how much they are learning through the ‘accommodation’ seemingly afforded only to me. We are all then immersed in deaf gain and disability insight.”

Karen Renner’s piece “Grading” considers how a bit of earned perspective on one of the most universally despised elements of academic life can remind us of its value as well as the rewards it brings:

“Like syllabi, essay prompts and handouts, our responses to students’ papers are largely invisible labor that goes unacknowledged and uncelebrated. I’m not saying that things can and should be different, only that we should recognize that a considerable portion of our written work is not recognized as writing or as work. It doesn’t help that teachers who do spend considerable time commenting on their students’ writing are implicitly told that they are wasting that time. Frequently, this message is packaged as advice given in the best interest of the instructor’s mental well-being: ‘You can’t do everything, you know. Spend more time on your own work.’

“The especially fortunate instructor is also let in on some time-saving tricks of the trade, such as 'Never spend more than 10-15 minutes per essay' (advice that never seems to adapt to the length of the assignment), or 'Do more peer review!' or (my personal favorite) 'Don’t put comments on final work because the students don’t read them anyway.' The last is often accompanied by the suggestion that students who want comments on their final essays provide a self-addressed, stamped envelope (although I’m not sure how this gambit still works in the age of email).

“Maybe some people have found ways to successfully put these suggestions into practice. If so, bravo. The only time I tried, it was a disaster. The quality of my relationships with students plummeted, and I enjoyed teaching less. What I realized is that I actually like grading when it involves more than grading. I don’t especially enjoy the time it takes up or the stress it causes, but when I feel a return from the students -- both that they benefited from and appreciated the feedback I gave -- it’s more than worth it. What I realized is that what makes me miserable is not so much the time I spend responding to student writing but rather feeling like a sap for doing it.”

In her essay “Academic Guilt,” Giuseppina Iacono Lobo explains the challenges of balancing work and the demands of motherhood. Ultimately, she concludes, we need to let life dictate how we work rather than allowing our work to dictate how we want to live:

“Being on the tenure track also raises more questions about the life-work balance than I ever experienced as a graduate student. I am constantly in the presence of colleagues who are tenured, have families, hobbies and/or pastimes that occupy their time outside of academia. As one of two untenured faculty members in my department, I still find myself wondering how many hours of work each day are enough. How much of a life is it okay to have? Another respondent to my poll shared that, while her department discussed tenure requirements at a recent meeting, her chair said that tenure-track faculty can only have a life after tenure. For tenure-track faculty, is it less about establishing a life-work balance and more about achieving a work-work balance?

“My quest for a work-life balance was reset last summer with the birth of my son. I suddenly have this wonderful and exceedingly demanding little person in my life who takes me away from work for hours or even days at a time. My department was supportive during my pregnancy, and even my dean insisted that no one expected me to work during my semester-long leave. Nonetheless, the prospect of putting work on hold for an entire semester seemed impossible. I churned out pages of my manuscript up until days before my son’s birth, and I wrote my annual update while in labor. During my leave, and often with a sleeping baby nestled into my shoulder, I revised an article for publication, averaging a sentence a day.

“I soon realized, however, that my son could not acquiesce to my hermit-like work-work lifestyle.”

Rob Jenkins, whose essay “Life in a Community College” offers detailed attention to a typical workday, serves as a final, fitting reminder of the satisfaction that can be derived from a life in the humanities:

“I just remembered that I’ve got a student stopping by at 12:30 to talk about her schedule next semester. She’s a nontraditional student who’s been taking five or six classes a year for the last three years. If she attends full time in the fall, she can finish up, graduate with her associate degree in December and transfer in January. Then again, she’s a single mother with two kids who works about 30 hours a week. So maybe she just needs to spread those courses out over two semesters and transfer in the fall. At the same time, she’s anxious to move on and finish her bachelor’s degree so she can ditch her dead-end job and make a better life for her family. I’m not sure what to tell her. I guess I’ll mostly just listen, try to give her a clear picture of her options, including pros and cons, and let her decide. That’s what I usually do with students in her situation -- and I see a lot of them.

“New students, now -- those are a different story. They usually need me to do more than just listen. Whether they recently graduated from high school or they’ve been out for 10 years, they show up in the late summer with no idea what going to college actually entails. No one has ever explained to them how it works; in many cases, they’re the first people in their family to attend college -- yes, even here in this affluent suburb. Even though they’re plenty smart enough to earn a degree, once they figure things out, I can’t imagine some of those folks going off to a large university, where they’d each likely be just another number, herded through a cattle-call registration process into lecture classes with 500 other people.

“No, what they need is what we offer them, here at their local community college: the personalized treatment, the small classes. Just enough hand-holding to get them walking on their own. That’s why we’re here. That’s why I’m here. That’s why, at the end of the day, after all the classes and all the grading and all the driving, I love my job.”


Greg Colón Semenza is an associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut. His most recent book is The History of British Literature on Film (with co-author Bob Hasenfratz). Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. is a professor of English at Penn State University. He is the author most recently of Sleep, Romance and Human Embodiment: Vitality from Spenser to Milton.

Semenza and Sullivan are co-editors of How to Build a Life in the Humanities: Meditations on the Academic Work-Life Balance.


Back to Top