Academic Spring Cleaning

Scrubbing away the layers.

May 4, 2014

When someone says, “that’s academic,”  they mean it exists in theory, without practical application. Twice in the last two weeks, however, I confronted assumptions about academics that had unwitting but significant practical implications for day to day life. They reminded me not only of what academic institutions infer (frequently fallaciously) about their inhabitants, but also of my own responsibility to clear away the cobwebs of professional expectation with a bit of personal spring cleaning.

First came a reminder that the monastic stereotype of the solitary scholar secreted in self-sufficient study endures in the American academy. Our campus is in the midst of banishing automobiles to the outer perimeter. When questioned about the difficulties of parking under the new scheme, the standard reply suggests earlier arrival and embrace of walking’s bountiful benefits. Our president is set before us as an example. He no longer drives within city limits. His designated parking space no longer has his Prius to keep it company. Kudos, but note the assumption that university faculty and staff have full use of their limbs and have no one to worry about except themselves.  We are assumed to live lives parallel to the president’s; we do not. The president has no need for a wheelchair. The president’s wife does not work outside the home and takes responsibility for dispatching their school age child by bus or car to a private establishment in another suburb. Many of us cannot arrive at work earlier without shirking parental responsibilities. A change in schedule - no matter how nobly motivated - impacts many beyond the individual who draws a university paycheck.  Monks never packed lunches, attended parent-teacher conferences, or contributed to car-pools. A day rarely passes during which a working parent avoids such responsibilities. Add mobility issues to this schedule and you have an irremediable muddle.

Second, the inability to imagine scholarly engagement beyond the research university alighted at my feet. A department orchestrated a superb workshop on the publication process. The gathered graduate students garnered valuable input on the ways to polish their prose and time their progress - all conceived with a career as a tenured professor at an American research university in mind.  I sat along the wall with another academic administrator and wondered how to apply the good advice to use in my own life without sabbaticals and summers off to transform conference papers into essays ready for scholarly journals in the manner prescribed.  I also wondered how many of the starry-eyed young scholars would find themselves pondering these same questions - if not now, then five, ten, or fifteen years down the line.  Similarly, the advice to never publish more than 40% of your dissertation as articles to avoid rejections as a monograph might strike the scholars of Oxford or Cambridge as odd, and elsewhere, the American humanistic obsession with “the book” never took hold or has disappeared for the essay/journal driven model of the sciences.

As I began this piece and meditated upon my own erratic publishing plight, I began an oddly academic form of spring cleaning. I went through my computer files and mentally dusted off my manuscripts in various stages of composition. Where could I tidy them away as published products of my intellectual labor and how much effort would the task demand away from family, paid labor, and volunteer commitments such as UVenus?  As ever, I felt overwhelmed. The visiting editor made reassuring noises about times when life intervenes and revisions face delay. I defended my dissertation fourteen years ago.  That’s not a delay; that’s a professional death knell.

Thus, I need a spring cleaning of a deeper sort. I need to scrub away the lingering residue of careers I thought I might have and embrace the life I have chosen. When I first stepped off the tenure track, nearly every historian I met attempted to reassure me with the the tale of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, now a chaired Professor at Harvard. She had raised five children while she completed her dissertation and published her first book at the age that I am now. Whoops! I blew that one too!

Spring has sprung. New life pops up around me regardless of my parking or publication status. My daffodils don’t care a whit where, when, or how their predecessors or neighbors bloomed. Neither should I.


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