On May 18 this year, my union informed me that if negotiations with the government were to break down, I would be put on strike.
With that simple message, union leaders quickly pushed so many of my buttons that I felt like the keypad on a teenager's phone during a speed-texting competition.
The negotiations did break down and from May 24 until June 7, I was indeed on strike. I went to information meetings, listened to arguments, applauded rousing speeches and stood on the picket line in windy, snowy weather.
I'm a professor and a vice president at the University of Tromsø -- the world's northernmost university. My counterparts in the United States generally aren't members of unions. I was elected to my job by faculty, staff and students of university community and -- like most public employees in Norway -- I'm a member of a union. The union negotiates with our employer -- the federal government -- on behalf of its members and if the negotiations break down, the leadership of the union can decide to strike without an authorizing vote by the membership.
My experience on strike highlights issues that apply to academics everywhere. How do we balance individualism and solidarity? How do we weigh economic concerns against academic ones? What do we bring to the bargaining table in discussions with university leadership or our public owners?
I've been thinking about these questions as I've tried to name some of those buttons that got pushed and reflected on what it means to abide by the rules of the game. I've been pondering the experience of being part of the top leadership of my university one day and a worker on strike the next.
Life in the Gray Zone
Being told to go on strike, I've realized, feels deeply at odds with the daily activity of being a researcher in the humanities; it clashes with the very personality traits that led me to choose academic life. The daily grind of research is building arguments that give new insights. We try them out in seminars, we parade them in front of colleagues at conferences, we write them up and we listen to others criticize them.
Arguments can always be improved and conclusions can always be refined. Researchers live in a gray zone. We like it there. Arguing is our business.
But a strike doesn't happen in a gray zone. It happens in a place where everything is black or white. Strike meetings are not about embracing ambiguity; they're about keeping the strikers engaged, emphasizing how bad our condition is and smugly reporting how much harm we're causing our employer.
A strike leader speaks: The government says we earn as much as people in Group X. But that doesn't matter; we're not like Group X. We're like Group Y, and we insist on being compared to them. They say it's black. We say it's white.
My inner researcher moves towards gray: Well, I can see that. In some ways you're right; we are like Group Y. But in other ways, maybe we aren't so unlike Group X either. I wonder if we could imagine a hypothetical Group Z that would be an even better point of comparison.
The strike leader has more to say: Higher education must give high salaries. To assure quality in the public sector, compensation in government jobs has to equal compensation in the private sector.
I start brainstorming for the question period: What are you actually counting as compensation? Is it just salaries or do you also try to put numbers on things like pension plans or job security? Are market pressures the same in the public and private sectors? Should that be part of the equation?
I'm not doubting the story from the strike leaders. I see their position and I think I understand their arguments.
But my job as a researcher and teacher is to help colleagues and students refine their arguments by imagining alternative solutions and asking difficult questions. In fact, it's not just my job -- it's who I am. I became a researcher because I resist the idea that someone is right and someone else is wrong. My approach to life is to move discussions into the gray zone. That's where I thrive.
Theories can always be improved upon. Better data can always be collected. Things are never black and white. Ever.
Except when you're leading a strike. When you're in that situation, you don't have time for subtle debates, for hypothetical modifications or for answering complex questions. You have to mobilize your troops; you have to make your dissatisfaction felt. I understand that. It's difficult to embrace, but I understand it.
Life on the Picket Line
Being put on strike makes me feel like I've lost my freedom. I'm forced to participate without having any choice; there was, as noted, no opportunity to vote on the government's offer. I have to loyally support the strike. I can no longer say what I think or go where I like.
If I had a job that formally included time for research -- which my current vice president job doesn't -- it could be even worse. When striking, professors with research time can't do any research activity. They can't correspond with international colleagues, can't finish long-overdue journal reviews and can't keep working on grant applications. The job of a professor is to think, to read, to write. If I were to fail to turn those things off when the union is paying my salary, I'd be a scab and would suffer consequences.
For a guy whose life is built on the notion of academic freedom without fear of reprisals, this -- as Norwegians would say -- is almost too big of a camel to swallow.
While I haven't previously found camel meat tempting, I've decided I now have to taste it. I've convinced myself that it's important and good for me to participate as my union expects me to and here's why.
Like most employees in the public sector in Norway, I made a decision to join a union. I knew when I joined that striking is one of the tools a union has; I could have studied the rules of the game better, so that the loss of freedom was less of a surprise. But I didn't and participation in the strike now is the only way to honestly accept the consequences of my earlier decision.
Participation in the strike has also given me an important leadership lesson. People who work in teams occasionally have to carry out decisions they don't understand or don't agree with. As I participate in the strike, that's what I'm doing, too. This experience will give me greater empathy and understanding when I'm back at work; it will make me a better team player. Finding useful lessons from striking has given me a new understanding of groups, collective decisions and solidarity.
I've now found one more way to reconcile my academic personality with going on strike. I'm writing. This piece has taken many days to think through and write, and it's one of my main contributions to the cause.
The buttons on my keyboard are the ones I want pushed and I want to do it myself. When I touch them, when a good sentence comes out, maybe even a good paragraph, then I feel great! That's how the strike becomes an interesting and important experience for a professor. That's how I discover the value in participating.
And when the strike is over, who knows what will happen? I might even get a publication out of it.
Curt Rice is the pro rector for research and development at the University of Tromsø. He blogs at Inside Higher Ed's University of Venus andon his own site about university leadership.
Long gone are the days when academic humanists could sit like dragons astride their hoards of high culture. Today, we have become contrarians, for better or worse, battling adversity from without and uncertainty within. And yet, what we have to offer is needed now more than ever.
Today’s undergraduates are the first generation raised on the Internet and social media. Connected from early childhood to vast streams of information and entertainment, they flit freely among them and expect their technologies, mobile and omnipresent, to answer every question. They access a vast and exponentially increasing sea of "information," a term that seems to encompass anything and everything that can be expressed in words or images, true or false, momentous or momentary. Everything in their world seems to encourage speed, multitasking and perpetual connectivity. The vast proliferation of data only a click away invites surfing rather than digging deep, cutting and pasting rather than reflecting and evaluating.
My experience of more than 40 years in the humanities classroom tells me that many of even today’s brightest students are less prepared and willing than students a generation ago to wrestle with material that does not yield easy or immediate answers. It sounds like the widespread complaint about shortened attention spans, but I think something else is going on as well. We are bucking a zeitgeist that makes speed of the essence, makes focusing on one thing at a time seem lazy, and doing only one task for an extended period feel like wasting time. Students are eager to get to the "bottom line" and then go on to the next thing. Humanities education offers the opportunity to slow down, to savor, to feast the mind at leisure, but fewer young men and women want to take us up on it.
It is not easy today to imagine a role for the humanities that does not involve it becoming something else -- something faster, sexier, and more clearly connected to the perceived demands of the day. Indeed, much of the humanities curriculum has been moving in those directions. I would argue, however, that we stand to lose our claim to a central place in the curriculum if our only response is an attempt to catch up to our students’ speed or vie with them in coolness. Instead, we need to reassert more passionately and more effectively the principles and practices that distinguish humanistic teaching and learning.
In recent years, I have become more direct in explaining the goals and values of the kind of learning we undertake in my classes, and more explicit in explaining the choice of texts we are reading. Many students, even at a place like Duke, where I teach, have surprisingly slight acquaintance with cultures other than the ones in which they grew up, and need to be convinced of the value to them of learning about those cultures.
Their lack of familiarity with this material is not altogether a bad thing, however. For students with little or no prior knowledge, classes in the humanities offer the chance not merely to encounter but rather to live with texts, ideas and works of art. Close reading, creative reflection, cogent response, spoken and written: these are skills the humanities foster and our students need, even if they do not recognize it yet. Students in successful humanities classes learn not only to examine in detail the workings of a novel, painting, piece of music or film, but also to step back and frame that work in its cultural context and ask how it intersects with our own.
If we can just get them into our classrooms.
The student body’s current view of the humanities isn’t the only force contributing to uneasiness within the halls of academe. Liberal arts education is still buffeted by the winds of the economic crash that focused the attention of students and their parents ever more firmly on what might help one to land a job after college. Support of higher education at the state level has shrunk so dramatically that "elite" undergraduate education, long a major force in ensuring social mobility, not least through the great state universities and in an earlier generation through the GI Bill, is increasingly affordable only for young people from the financial and social elite. More students thus have to borrow more, and the amount Americans owe on their student loans has now outstripped credit card debt. How is reading Shakespeare or studying Chinese art going to help with that?
Add to all this attacks on the humanities from within higher education — like the recent threat of shutdown for “obscure departments” in classics and German at the University of Virginia — and it feels like the perfect storm. How to weather it? The humanistic answer, I suppose, is that humanists must be true to themselves while making the case for our centrality in higher education patiently, persistently, and more effectively.
We will not prosper in the long run by saying we offer better job training, though indeed many of the skills one can learn in the humanities classroom (clear writing, careful analysis, cogent argumentation) are crucial to success in the world outside. Nor can we claim to offer solutions to the world’s problems, though we can say they will hardly be solved without the help of the sort of critical, open-minded and open-hearted thought that the humanities uniquely promotes.
What we must do is insist — loudly and repeatedly — that liberal education aspires to make people not merely successful but also fulfilled, not merely autonomous thinkers but also contributing citizens, engaged and creative participants in the community. We must show how grounding in the humanities can put political and social issues into perspective and provide new perspectives on our values and beliefs.
Humanities can play a particularly important role today in countering certain strains of presentism and provincialism in American society by exploring other ways of understanding what it means to be human and alive in the cosmos. This can add particular value to the study of works that are chronologically or culturally remote from us, such as the epics and dramas of Mediterranean antiquity that have been at the center of my own activities as a teacher and scholar.
These works are examples of what my friend Robert Connor, a great humanist and a wonderful teacher, refers to as “extreme literature” because they deal with extreme situations and emotions. Such works puzzle and repel, fascinate and excite all at once, precisely because we can recognize the common human struggles and desires represented in them, and yet find the way they are represented, understood, and acted upon strange, uncanny, perverse, marvelous, repugnant, or any combination of such things.
To take but one example: the students with whom I have read Homer’s Iliad many times over the years tend initially to find the extreme emotions and destructive behavior of its hero, Achilles, repellent and hardly heroic. As they read on and take the measure of the world the poem portrays, they see that Achilles himself is struggling against the limitations of the value system that underlies the conventions of epic. They rethink the meaning of the whole poem when they reach the final, unexpected movement of the plot, where Achilles reconciles, not with the world of battle and heroic self-assertion, but with an acceptance of the bonds of common humanity. Priam has come to the Greek camp to beg for the release of his son’s corpse, the remains of Achilles’ great enemy Hector, whom he slew and whose body he desecrated in his wrath. Priam’s grief cuts through that rage, and Achilles, who knows his death will follow soon, grieves in turn for his own dead father.
In the final book of Homer’s Iliad, the circle of human connections is completed, and brings us to a new place from which to reflect on solidarity, forgiveness and love. Homer’s world, so different from our own, provides an experience of surprisingly intense emotion, of intellectual challenge, and even of self-recognition in ways we could hardly have expected. What might it mean to confront the premises by which you have learned to live and find them wanting? And who might you then become?
These are the kinds of questions that the study of humanities asks us to confront, and allows us to ponder and to answer for ourselves in our own ways. Getting to that point, however, requires exactly the kind of patient opening to the experience of the text that students today often seem unprepared and less than eager for. It is admittedly not an easy task: it involves a paradoxical combination of precision and imagination, analysis and empathy. The reward for making this effort is real, however, and substantial. It goes beyond the appreciation of a particular text, object, historical moment or culture. Students who engage seriously with works like the Iliad can expand their sensibilities and deepen their understanding of passions and aspirations that belong to all of us but are expressed in ways we could hardly have imagined. And that in turn can lead us to reflect on our own self-understanding, our ways of feeling, knowing and confronting the unknown.
Peter Burian is a professor of classical studies and dean of the humanities at Duke University.
As the Supreme Court gets ready to review the consideration of race in admissions policies, instructors need to think about how to manage discussions of the issue -- both those that are planned and those that are unplanned.