A Disenchanted Academe

Too many people in academe are institutionalizing their melancholy, writes Douglas Dowland. They complain about what a university should be rather than seeing what it makes possible.

June 20, 2018
 
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I am a first-generation college student. When I was growing up near Flint, Mich., one went to college to become an engineer or a business manager or a high school teacher. There was always -- until recently -- General Motors and its suppliers, where good money could be made with a high school diploma. Aside from one orientation session in which I learned more about parking fines and the dangers of binge drinking than I did academic policy, I never stepped foot on a college campus until the first day of classes. But what I saw on that first day was immediately intoxicating.

I became an academic because of what I saw going on in the space of the university that first day: the activism, of stripes both right and left, outside the administration building; the professors’ excitement for their latest projects; the awesomeness of the library. I had never seen so many people, and so much energy, committed to knowledge, and to so many kinds of knowledge. On the walk back to my dormitory, I realized I was somewhere totally unique in this world. I had become, to put it simply, enchanted by academe.

The affect theorist Silvan Tomkins once wrote that the life of the mind is a life of enchantment. “The cloistered halls of the university, the alma mater,” he wrote, “provide an enveloping shelter which supports, nurtures, instructs and offers solace and salvation for the spirit.” But the word “enchantment” might make an academic cringe. We may recall Bruno Bettelheim’s classic -- and now controversial -- analysis of the world of fairy tales, The Uses of Enchantment. We may think that only children could ever be enchanted, or that enchantment only takes place in the world of myth. We aren’t supposed to be that naïve. Yet for each of us in higher education, there is an enchantment about academic life that we hold strongly to, an enchantment that sits at the core of ourselves.

But we haven’t a language to describe it. What we have instead is a language that conspires to avoid it.

These days, we more often hear from those whom Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon have recently termed “melancholy mandarins”: tenured, typically white, middle-aged, male humanities professors who write publicly of academe’s woes -- its top-heavy administration, its dim-witted, consumer-oriented students. Their stories of disenchantment are variations on a theme: college used to be where, with the help of patient yet eccentric professors, one discovered one’s self. For such mandarins, the soul-guiding purpose of education is incompatible with research-intensive environments or marketing-driven recruiting strategies. This is the source of their melancholy. To them, the contemporary university is not enchanting.

A less cynical analysis by these mandarins could shed light on the nature of academic enchantment. After all, enchantment is by no means consistent. Part of its intimacy comes from its spontaneity. It comes and goes in lulls and can be easily spoiled. The new colleague steps on our turf. The students lose their charm after the first assignment is graded. The time in which an administrator can be seen as a reformer lasts milliseconds.

And higher education has much that is truly disenchanting. At its worst, there’s the fundamental abuse of our enchantment -- the idea that our enchantment can replace a secure job and a living wage. As Miya Tokumitsu masterfully explores in her essay “In the Name of Love,” the promise of enchantment often “shunts aside the labor of others and disguises our own labor to ourselves.”

Such abuse shows no signs of abating. I found myself particularly rankled by a job announcement that sought “an orthogonal and counter-intuitive thinker, even a misfit within normal structures” -- someone “having an adventurous personality, boundless optimism, and desire to change the world.” Its jargon conceals a punch to the gut: the advertisement describes almost all of us, but the job will only go to one. Or take a recent call from another university that offers “zero-time,” three-year adjunct contracts to alumni with no salary at all, but instead a promise to “benefit from intellectual interactions with faculty in their respective units, as well as through collegial networking opportunities with other alumni adjuncts … to discuss best practices across campus.”

The baffling prose of such calls show what has happened to our profession: for far too many brilliant and hardworking academics -- those whom all of us in higher education should be standing in solidary with -- enchantment is the only thing that keeps us working a job that doesn’t pay the bills. So many people want to join a sector that actively refuses to make room for them. And so many have earned the pay and dignity that should come with an academic job yet never receive it. We have much to be disenchanted by in academe.

The mandarin has little to say about the economic realities of this profession, perhaps because he profits from them. As Reitter and Wellmon note, the irony of the mandarin’s position is that the university allows for the academic freedom that made the humanities worth studying of their own accord -- and it is the university that rewards these mandarins for publishing on the very melancholy that upsets them. What the mandarins perpetuate, ultimately, is a disenchantment that has become our lingua franca. The mandarins have succeeded at institutionalizing their melancholy. To me, their rhetoric is bitterness passing as a discourse. They complain about what a university should be rather than seeing what the university makes possible.

And the university makes so much possible. Even at the small rural college in northwestern Ohio where I teach, a place geographically close and still similar to Sherwood Anderson’s excoriating short-story cycle Winesburg, Ohio, we have as many student groups as the more cosmopolitan campuses. It’s not unusual to see the Habitat for Humanity crowd learning how to prepare curry at the Indian Food Fair. There are the petitions to make the cafeteria more ecofriendly or to rein in the power of campus security, the push for courses on controversial contemporary issues, the students who ask for additional reading lists. In fact, students, more than I ever expected, have stopped by just to get an intellectual’s perspective on a personal matter. And I guide them as best as I can, as my professors guided me.

Yet academe’s lingua franca of disenchantment makes it easy to forget that they are as committed as any generation of students to the discovery of themselves. Everything the melancholy mandarins insist has gone away is still there and is emerging in new, refreshing ways. It is that disenchantment does not allow the mandarin to see.

Disenchantment, like any other low-grade toxicity, spreads and accumulates. It grips to us like barnacles as we move through our day. It encourages us to retreat from the spaces we find vital and nourishing. (As Tomkins brilliantly wrote, “Disenchantment is for intimacy what repetition is for humor.”)

Disenchantment tells us to stop seeking the intimacies that brought us to academe in the first place: the curiosities that drive our research, the passions that drive our teaching, the desire for a better world that urges us back to campus after a long day to meet with a graduate student, a feminist reading group or an honors society. The pedagogue Parker Palmer found that most of our teaching anxieties boil down to our need for “communion with the young” -- our desire to not only bring students into our fold, but our desire to stay engaged with contemporary mores and issues that in turn keep us engaged with an ever-changing world. The search for knowledge, Palmer writes, “is a human way to seek relationship.”

I fear that everything I just described sounds like puffery to the disenchanted. But where the melancholy mandarins have succeeded most is in their ability to deny us the legitimacy of our enchantments. In this way they are just as manipulative as the administrators who work to deny us the wages we have earned alongside our enchantments. As Christopher Castiglia has noted in his recent book The Practices of Hope, disenchantment discourages attachment in moments when “detachment is dangerous.” In a time of rampant precarity and a U.S. presidential administration that sees higher education as a threat, our detachment is surely dangerous. And so what we need is a language, as complex as our most despairing theories, as robust as the latest critical insight -- a language that describes our sincere and heartfelt enchantments with academe.

Some might find that jejune. Let them. For there is something truly radical in being enchanted by today’s university, something far more radical than the rote disenchantment of melancholy mandarins.

When we find ourselves in academe’s dark wood, enchantment is what makes it bearable. Each of us has an enchantment, and each of us makes academe -- regardless of our status, rank or output -- a space of enchantments. Our challenge is to craft a new lingua franca that articulates those spaces. For some, it might be the thrill of the laboratory or excavation site. It might be the seminar room. Or it might be in the spaces between.

On that first day, it was the walk across campus on a mild afternoon, my first trek from the library to my dormitory. The air is dry and smells of tannins. Between those places is Morrill Hall, a squat red sandstone building -- long gone -- whose only outward sign of eccentricity is on the center of its second floor: Professor Whallon’s window shade is pulled down, and on it he painted a brilliant, two-foot-tall bantam rooster.

I think of my peers going from one site of learning to another. I think of the student sitting on a portico, reading a textbook and doing her homework while getting the last bit of sun before the inevitable autumn chill. I think of the professors in their offices, building their thoughts, and in their classrooms, building their students. And when I think of myself today, walking into the classroom, picking up the latest trove from the library, listening to a colleague at a conference, I feel that I am still my younger self as much as I am a member of the faculty. The world feels malleable. In this place I have agency. I feel the possibilities of the life ahead of me.

Bio

Douglas Dowland is assistant professor of English at Ohio Northern University, where he was named 2018 Professor of the Year by its Getty College of Arts and Sciences. His book, Weak Nationalisms, will be published by the University of Nebraska Press in the fall of 2019. He can be found on twitter at @profdgd.

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