'Black Earth and Ivory Tower'

"From lecturing on the French Revolution to hauling manure in the spring, my life is agricultural and academic, inseparable and intertwined," writes Jeffrey A. Kaufmann, a professor of history at Muscatine Community College who has lived since birth on a 270-acre farm.

November 3, 2005

"From lecturing on the French Revolution to hauling manure in the spring, my life is agricultural and academic, inseparable and intertwined," writes Jeffrey A. Kaufmann, a professor of history at Muscatine Community College who has lived since birth on a 270-acre farm.

Those dual identities are the subject of Kaufmann's essay and a series of others in Black Earth and Ivory Tower, recently published by the University of South Carolina Press. (One essay, "Reading and Writing the Land," is available here.) Authors explore their farm roots, how students from farms are treated in college, and the way academic and agricultural values influence one another. Zachary Michael Jack, editor of the volume, grew up on a farm in Iowa and is an assistant professor of English at North Central College, in Illinois. In an interview, he discussed the themes of the book.

Q: What prompted you to create this book? How does this relate to your family's experience?

A: The true moment of nativity for Black Earth and Ivory Tower proved to be a conversation with a visiting colleague over a Coke and a fried egg and cheese sandwich at the lunch counter of a place called Tipton’s Café. At the time, I was teaching at a small college growing precociously to stay competitive. Its rate of growth seemed preternatural to me, and, in the uneasiness I felt about it, I was forced to determine where some of my beliefs about sustainable growth originated. And that line of self-questioning took me right back to the farm. On the advice of the colleague, I decided that my resistance, in and of itself, was a subject of merit, and that I ought somehow to reach out and straw poll academics to determine how many thought as I did on the subject of corporate practices in academe. I felt a powerful desire to know how many farm-grounded academics across the nation were, even at that moment, troubling over the very same issues at greasy spoons like Tipton’s.

Q: The most obvious intersection of farm and academe is at the country's land grant universities, but many of your authors appear to be based at liberal arts colleges. Were you surprised by that? Why do you think that was the case?

A: Actually, well over half of the contributors to Black Earth and Ivory Tower are past or present professors at large, state-funded and/or public colleges and universities. I think, in some ways, the increasingly corporate modus operandi of state-run institutions may account for their majority representation in Black Earth and Ivory Tower. After all, when farm-grounded academics sometimes find themselves working at institutions 20 times as populous as their entire hometowns, the juxtaposition -- the shock of numbers and bodies seemingly in excess of even a good teacher’s ability to nourish and steward them -- can cause an agrarian academic to pull back, wonder what they have gotten themselves into, and whether or not the ways of the farms of their youth are compatible with the ways of today’s university. Of course, professors who land at small liberal arts colleges often find there an intimate tradition that, on its surface, seems an extension of their own background, though one finds in these smaller academic communities as many pleasant and unpleasant surprises as one finds at a large university. Ultimately, the farmer-academics’ process of dynamic accommodation -- between the Agrarian and the Institutional Man or Woman he or she is asked to become -- plays out throughout Black Earth and Ivory Tower in a dizzying variety of combinations.

Q: Were there themes that surprised you in the essays?

A: In terms of themes, I found myself most enlightened and delighted by the contributors’ real sense of ethos, of character in writing. The essays are filled with genuine soul-searching -- the stuff of farmer-teachers and farmer-administrators seeking to put their most authentic selves forward. And what comes through is, I think, refreshing in its candor and its thoughtfulness. I appreciate the sense I have from these folks that they are truly alive and witnessing. I was most surprised by how many contributors grew up on a farm that they dreamed of one day escaping. My experience was quite the opposite. Perhaps it’s because our farm was strictly a grain farm and thus lacked the sometimes visceral sights, smell and sounds of animals, but I never really wanted to leave the farm, and one of the most profound pleasures of my adulthood has been finding ways to return.

Q: How do you think academics who do not have a farm background treat those who do?

A: I think too often academics without farm backgrounds misinterpret a farm-grounded academics’ pride and resourcefulness as cultivated aloofness and stubborn independence. Duane Acker, former president of Kansas State University, and former assistant secretary of agriculture, points out in his foreword to Black Earth and Ivory Tower that farm-grounded academics often make unusually capable teachers and administrators and his claim is supported by the unusually high number of award-winning teachers anthologized in Black Earth. Still, in today’s climate, where many if not most academics come from city and suburban backgrounds of some privilege, farmer-academics, I suspect, often seem strangely dogmatic and purist in their thinking -- worry warts or contrarians; in either case, anachronisms. And yet I think the farm-grounded academics’ contrarianism and independence is the very thing that makes him or her most irreplaceable. In its hiring and promotion practices, higher education has finally succeeded in partially educating itself about race and gender, among other important and long overdue considerations, but it seems to have made almost no progress in honoring other minority perspectives, like those of farmers and farm families, who exist as a less than 2 percent national minority and often preserve threatened folkways and workways that are purposefully pre-industrial.

Q: Your book appears on the 75th anniversary of "I'll Take My Stand," another intellectual take on agrarian life. The authors in that book defended not just agrarian values, but Southern values, while your essays don't have as regional a focus. Do you see your authors transcending region?

A: I believe wholeheartedly in regionalism, both as an aesthetic and as a philosophy. I support the notion that we grow best where we were planted. It’s the modern world’s constant undermining of this notion that puts so many farm-grounded academics of my generation in an unenviable, damned-if-you-do and damned-if-you-don’t space. Having said that, in the book’s introduction I quote agrarian Alan Tate’s idea that the farmer can represent a modern-day equivalent of the “besieged ... medieval clerk,” offering hope for redemption. In that important sense and in others, the essays in Black Earth and Ivory Tower transcend regionalism. It’s also important to note that, while I’ll Take My Stand is sometimes considered a defense of explicitly Southern agrarian values, it’s really an indictment, as Louis Rubin Jr. points out in his introduction to I’ll Take My Stand, of “the forces of industrialization and the uncritical worship of material progress as an end in itself.” To my mind, there’s nothing more universal, and less narrowly regional, than that.

Q: Anti-intellectuals portray professors as people who never get their hands dirty or work an honest day. Can professors who grew up getting their hands quite dirty help the image of academe?

A: Truth be told, I’ve often fantasized about chartering a small college where professors and students do manual labor together as well as learn in concert with one another to counteract the Ivory Tower stereotype. In a limited sense, places like this, places like Tusculum College, where I began my career, already exist under the umbrella of the “civic arts” or “experiential learning,” but I think we can and should go further. Two summers ago, I founded a school in my home state of Iowa called the School of Lost Arts whose mission weds the poetical with the practical, agrarian arts: the hands with the brain. No four-year college or university I am aware of truly infuses its curriculum in this way, and I do believe that, if agrarian academics had their way, such would exist.

Many farm-grounded academics innovate on a smaller but no less progressive scale in their own classrooms -- passing along farm adages and stories from their youth, getting to know students of character as well as academic talent, helping students in service to larger communities. In the end, the “anti-intellectuals” you refer to in your question -- those who think anyone working in the Ivory Tower is useless and pampered -- need only remember the one-room country schoolhouse. There, the teacher’s days were bookended by the business and the art of farming, and to move between the world of the classroom and the world of the farm was expected rather than suspected. In some ways, the working of this middle ground shaped our national identity, so it’s been a relief to me to learn in the process of putting together Black Earth and Ivory Tower that some of the best and brightest still cultivate these dual habits of mind.


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