Our Office

When I arrived to my new academic post almost two years ago I was faced with a daunting task. The office I had been assigned was still inhabited by the possessions of my predecessor, a beloved professor called Bart Lewis who had suddenly and unexpectedly died five months before. The door was decorated with a mural of student signatures and messages on brown paper and the inside of the office still contained thousands of pieces of paper, some personal photographs and a library that had been picked over by the university librarians first, and then by faculty members and graduate students.

There were many books that remained on the shelves, but the space they took up was smaller than the empty gaps between their incomplete and uneven rows. The office, like those shelves, was like a bruised mouth with missing teeth. Bart’s answering machine contained a message from an unsuspecting friend or contact from Argentina who did not know he was dead. The message did not make any sense and the man did not leave a phone number for a call-back.

As I tentatively began to move in to the office during the summer, I was interrupted from time to time by visitors who did not seem to quite know how to react to my presence in their friend’s office. In their faces I saw sadness, surprise and friendly concern for my comfort in this sacred and alien space. I was frequently asked if I had met my predecessor, to which I responded that I had, during my job interview at the Modern Language Association meeting.

Then, the passersby usually told me an anecdote about Bart’s warmth, friendship and vibrancy, or their feelings for him. As you might imagine, all of this was a little bit unsettling, but I was determined to take command of this office. In those weeks of intermittent cleaning-up and moving-in, with our door closed, I spoke to Bart out loud on more than one ocassion. I don’t remember what I said, but I felt like his presence deserved acknowledgement. I probably said things like “Hey Bart, I’m here now and I’m sorry you’re not around.” “Hey Bart, how are you doing?” Or “Damn this is a good book, I can’t believe no one took it.” Mostly, however, I thought intensely about Bart as I explored filing cabinets, drawers and bookshelves.

I found barbells in a filing cabinet. Slides from Spain. Lecture notes. Meeting notes. Old binders from other universities. Old and stained copies of some his articles. Newspapers and magazines from South America and a famous New York Times Magazine issue with the writers of the Latin American Boom colorfully pictured on the cover. Most poignant, however, was a photograph of a younger Bart in another country, with his arm around a friend. As I looked into his eyes and kind face and noticed how the very curve of his shoulders seemed to communicate a receptive, humble nature, I could not help but think of my own mortality, and the day that some poor soul like me might have to go through the remnants of my professional life, and not really know who I was. I thought of the fragility of memory and remembering, and how quickly, relatively speaking, we all fade into the good night of forgetfulness.

I could not keep all of the books that remained, so I packed up the rest for a local second-hand bookstore that gave me practically nothing in return. I was glad for it too, because I didn’t want to make money off of Bart’s books. I stuffed vast reams of papers, old tests, exams and meeting notes and such, into plastic baskets that eventually made their way to my department chair. However, I was careful to save some of the syllabi and lecture notes: I did not want to banish those papers from my presence because I hoped that they might provide some kind continuity with my own teaching in the future. I also saved his articles, the separata and the journal issues, which I put on one of the bookshelves, where they sit now.

Throughout the process of cleaning the office, I felt myself having strange conversations with myself about the contingency and intimacy of the papers that academics produce in their professional lives. As fascinating as Bart’s lecture notes were to me, they were also quite opaque and mysterious. What was missing was his animating presence to give voice to what was between those bullet points and arrow points. I thought about the papers of my own that I was moving into our office and wondered if it would not be better for me to toss them in the trash and be over with it. Why subject someone else to the uncanny experience of looking through things that lose life when the hands that created them cease to move? Sometimes, in our office, I felt that I was surrounded by the bureaucracy of death. The illegible print of yesterday, waiting to claim all of my paraphernalia in some -- hopefully distant -- future.

My most dramatic act of possession took place when my partner and I moved all the furniture around. We changed the layout of everything. Then I put some of Bart’s books on the shelves, mixed in with mine, kept his articles out on the shelf, framed the New York Times Magazine cover on my wall, and put some of his lecture notes in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet for future reference, under his barbells. I reprogrammed his answering machine with my own voice and decisively deleted that last, cryptic message that Bart could only respond to from eternity. It was almost my office now. In time, I would grow into it more and more, and come to be associated with it. Some day in the future, people might think it had been my office forever. But I’m just passing through, like my departed friend and colleague.

Cleaning Bart’s office made me feel close to him, and I’ve always felt comfortable in his old office. But I think I learned some things about academe and the lifestyle that I had begun to seek on my own before arriving at my new post. One of the reasons I had left my previous job at Brown University for a tenured position in Texas was to lead a more settled down life with my partner.  After years in a commuting relationship, we found jobs together and ended our financially devastating and melodramatic airport farewells. As I drove across the country in a rented Cadillac with most of my possessions in the back seat and the trunk, I felt the personal and professional pressures of the last few years fall away from my life. I resolved to worry less about work and be happier.

Now, Bart’s papers and his sad, plundered library, with its uncertain, dispersed futures, challenged my attachment to work by making me aware of my own paper ephemera. I realized how unimportant my professional possessions were, not because they meant little to me (on the contrary, they still mean a lot to me), but because outside of the context of my work habits and thoughts, all of my papers cannot mean much to anyone else. They are truly mine and some day, truly no one’s.

Thanks to these thoughts it became a lot easier to recycle paper and worry less about my stuff. I want to live less on paper and more on life. If I’m lucky, my office will be bare by the time I’m gone, everything in it consumed by lived experience, gone with my spirit and my body. And if not, if I leave a bunch of stuff for someone else to get rid of after I’m gone, I want that person to know that it’s OK to move my stuff out. Welcome to your new office. Just erase my outgoing greeting and delete any messages that remain on Bart’s old answering machine. We’re all in this together.

Christopher Conway
Author's email: 

Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages and coordinator of the Spanish program at the University of Texas at Arlington.

Self-Assessment: Academe and Me

This past week the roof collapsed on my professional life. You’re tottering along, a bit woozy but still standing, minding your own business, dreaming of the summer which is right around the corner, there’s a lightening of the mood and the weather begins, gradually, ever so subtly, to turn, you decide to open your storm windows, you go for a walk in a “Fall” jacket, and then, in the words of the annoying cleaning commercial: KABOOM!

In short order, I woke up from my honey-colored dream of lazy summertime barbeques and short pants and sultry Big Eastern City days and nights with Mr. Gordo to discover several outstanding bill collectors on the phone: a conference paper due forthwith (like yesterday!), students clamoring for extra credit work because they bombed your midterm, the usual meetings and minute-taking, long-postponed paperwork rearing up, not to mention tax time and the suddenly desperate need to see your CPA before he himself is overwhelmed. But by far the most demanding task at hand has been the need to write my year-end report on activities for my dean, the time for which I severely underestimated because this is my first year at this particular college. So underestimated, in fact, I didn’t even know it was due, until I received (again, out of the blue), a polite note from my chair. I fear I am becoming the very model of the bumbling professor who forgets his car keys in the refrigerator.

In essence, my “book report” is a catalogue of my activities in the three well-known subject areas: research, teaching, and service. And there is a certain empirical quality to the task that is reassuring: Yes, Virginia, you are exhausted for a reason! Committees and meetings, abstracts and conferences, works-in-progress and works forthcoming, student evaluations and syllabi, e-mails and phone calls, lectures and events. I have been, um, busy this year, contrary to the stereotype of the academic as social parasite, so eloquently paraphrased by my girlfriend La Connaire tonight who said, “I thought the whole point of academia was not working hard,” followed by the sound of a stream of smoke blown into the telephone mouthpiece. As most academics would tell you, the stereotype bears little relationship to the reality of most tenure-line professors. However, this cataloguing of the minutiae of quotidian academic life has gotten me to think of the differentials in experience for faculty across the broad spectrums of race, gender, and sexuality.

As a professional, I obviously covered the unholy trinity with some aplomb, if not utter success in all three. Given what has been thrown at me this year in terms of workload, I feel I did very well, as undoubtedly will my dean, who has been nothing if not incredibly supportive. However, the differential I am thinking about here is the double duty that faculty of color, some women faculty, and some lesbian or gay faculty, perform in their role as symbolic capital for the profession. For we are not only meant to perform as scholars and teachers and colleagues, we also have to be role models and mentors and supportive persons, lifting as we climb, each one teaching one, until we reproduce ourselves like some sort of crazy neo-Fabergé Organics Shampoo commercial.

This notion of symbolic capital is one that is both forced upon us by institutions looking for the diversity fix, and nurtured within ourselves, by varying degrees of gratitude, guilt, regret, and sadness at the price of our success. We are the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop, those who struggled and worked, only to find ourselves marooned as tokens whose value is unclear, both to ourselves and the profession we serve. I am reminded of Toi Derricote’s story in The Black Notebooks, of meeting the “other” black woman professor  at the college were she taught, only to discover that this woman was as light-skinned (i.e. completely passable as white) as Derricote herself, and how this causes a crisis in her thinking about why they were hired, and what is the symbolic value of having two black faculty members who look white?

Ironically, tonight in my race class, upon discussing with my students Fanon’s The Fact of Blackness, my eyes fell on this quote:

It was always the Negro teacher, the Negro doctor; brittle as I was becoming, I shivered at the slightest pretext. I knew, for instance, that if the physician made a mistake it would be the end of him and of all those who came after him. What could one expect, after all, from a Negro physician? As long as everything went well, he was praised to the skies, but look out, no nonsense, under any conditions! The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. I tell you, I was walled in: No exception was made for my refined manners, or my knowledge of literature, or my understanding of the quantum theory.

To which all I have to say is: Ain’t it the truth? Faculty of color can never be sure how close we are to disgrace, to the knife-edge of outliving our usefulness, our symbolic capital. Seemingly, we can never be appreciated as intellectuals alone. We must always have some other value, some point to our presence, aside from simple qualification. We must be, in the truism, 200 percent good. And never, ever, make a mistake, for it's not just our personal mistake, but a mistake for every person of color, past present and future. If we simply think of this differential in terms of labor, then perhaps the contours will come more sharply in focus.

While I appreciate my white colleagues for the support they provide, they are not expected to “liaison” with Latina/o students and student organizations. They are not expected to be role models of appropriate behavior. They are not expected to be present at every little thing that might concern race, whether interesting or not. They are not expected to be experts at the drop of a hat, nor responsible to others of their same race who might have particular critiques of authenticity for which they have to answer. No, my beloved white colleagues get to be themselves, be individuals, and go home and sleep soundly. So for me, this is not only about the incredibly problematic racial dimensions of role modeling or each one teaching one. This shit is also about work, cause believe me, this is work.

As any faculty of color, nay person of color, could tell you in an unguarded moment, the illusory community fostered by 60s social movements is exactly that: fleeting and utopian. Academics of color in particular suffer from the vertiginous histories of racial trauma that are predicated on the unintelligibility of the subject of color: the very fact of our theoretical stupidity. Living in a post-race society means that we are finally, blissfully allowed to be ourselves, individuals in a society that prizes individualism. Needless to say, we aren’t there yet.

And then, as I am thinking about this and taking a break from writing this post and perusing the Internet while wolfing down a quesadilla, I come across this little ditty, which linked from here, both of which sadly and ironically prove my point. The most inflammatory quote from Michael A. Livingston’s post on race and law school faculty is a bombshell:

Because it is so costly to dip below the required minimum of diversity faculty, in practice almost anything has to and is done to ensure that they are happy. At my school, I have watched sadly as one after another of the unwritten faculty rules -- the level of publication expected, the expectation that one's work would be presented to the faculty before tenure, even the assumptions regarding physical presence at the law school -- were compromised or abandoned to accommodate female or minority candidates who the law school simply could not "afford to lose" under the new dynamic. Once these principles are given away, of course, the same concessions are demanded by other professors, so that the entire system of expectations that cements a faculty begins to come crashing quickly down.

Good grief! So not only are we not smart enough to be hired on “merit” (the odious false consciousness of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, apparently) but we also simultaneously threaten the very foundations of the institution. For as tenuous a hold as faculty of color have in the profession, we seem to wield an incredible amount of power in Livingston's analysis. While it is true I have known some "playas" (as in players, not beaches) who have worked out some pretty impressive deals on next to nothing, by far the vast majority of the professoriate of color (and professoriate in general) works, day in and day out.

In fact, faculty of color are incredibly vulnerable not only through the typical utilitarian nature in which they are hired (as tokens) but also to the risible racism and real disgust revealed in Livingston’s quote. If anything, Livingston’s critique reveals more about the unscrupulous ways in which institutions will go out of their way to hire "dummies of color" to avoid hiring contrary to racist type (e.g. with intelligence) than the general qualifications of a vastly diverse class of people, who after all have earned doctorates and J.D.s, right? If we trace Livingston’s critique to where it originates, this isn’t just a critique of hiring and retention practices, it is questioning the very ability of people of color to hold advanced intellectual and professional degrees. And people wonder why race is still important?

The evidence is writ before you in Livingston’s post. Race still matters, and not only for red state academics or conservatives, for liberals and leftists hold similar, if more holistic, views. The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. One wrong move, and you’re toast, baby!

Self-assessment is hard, this I know after struggling with it this past week. But it might be time for the profession to take a real self-assessment of its own. For instance, when, if ever, will faculty of color be real intellectual members of the community, and not just tokens of diversity and tolerance? When will the university and its faculty and administrators stop considering us as detriments to its intellectual mission? Why, if universities are so committed to "diversity," can't they sustain and support faculty of color in double or triple digits? When can we stop the fiction of pretending just because student X is “brown” and I’m “brown,” we automatically understand each other, like dolphins? When, in other words, will our years and years of labor be appreciated for what it is, hard and good and honorable work? When, in other words, shall we breathe the fresh, clean air of individualism, which includes the noble as well as banal? When can we be normal, neither Sydney Poitier nor Step ‘n’ Fetchit? Not, apparently, any time soon.

Oso Raro
Author's email: 

Oso Raro, who is writing under a pseudonym, teaches cultural studies, literature and film at a North American university. A version of this essay first appeared on Oso's blog, Slaves of Academe, which concerns itself with academe and racial and cultural politics.

The Tyranny of Citations

The analysis of citations -- examining what scholars and scientists publish for the purpose of assessing their productivity, impact, or prestige -- has become a cottage industry in higher education. And it is an endeavor that needs more scrutiny and skepticism. This approach has been taken to extremes both for the assessment of individuals and of the productivity and influence of entire universities or even academic systems. Pioneered in the 1950s in the United States, bibliometrics was invented as a tool for tracing research ideas, the progress of science, and the impact of scientific work. Developed for the hard sciences, it was expanded to the social sciences and humanities.

Citation analysis, relying mostly on the databases of the Institute for Scientific Information, is used worldwide. Increasingly sophisticated bibliometric methodologies permit ever more fine-grained analysis of the articles included in the ISI corpus of publications. The basic idea of bibliometrics is to examine the impact of scientific and scholarly work, not to measure quality. The somewhat questionable assumption is that if an article is widely cited, it has an impact, and also is of high quality. Quantity of publications is not the main criterion. A researcher may have one widely cited article and be considered influential, while another scholar with many uncited works is seen as less useful.

Bibliometrics plays a role in the sociology of science, revealing how research ideas are communicated, and how scientific discovery takes place. It can help to analyze how some ideas become accepted and others discarded. It can point to the most widely cited ideas and individuals, but the correlation between quality and citations is less clear.

The bibliometric system was invented to serve American science and scholarship. Although the citation system is now used by an international audience, it remains largely American in focus and orientation. It is exclusively in English -- due in part to the predominance of scientific journals in English and in part because American scholars communicate exclusively in English. Researchers have noted that Americans largely cite the work of other Americans in U.S.-based journals, while scholars in other parts of the world are more international in their research perspectives. American insularity further distorts the citation system in terms of both language and nationality.

The American orientation is not surprising. The United States dominates the world’s R&D budget -- around half of the world’s R&D funds are still spent in the United States, although other countries are catching up, and a large percentage of the world’s research universities are located in the United States. In the 2005 Times Higher Education Supplement ranking, 31 of the world’s top 100 (research-focused) universities were located in the United States. A large proportion of internationally circulated scientific journals are edited in the United States, because of the size and strength of the American academic market, the predominance of English, and the overall productivity of the academic system. This high U.S. profile enhances the academic and methodological norms of American academe in most scientific fields. While the hard sciences are probably less prone to an American orientation and are by their nature less insular, the social sciences and some other fields often demand that authors conform to the largely American methodological norms and orientations of journals in those fields.

The journals included in the databases used for citation analysis are a tiny subset of the total number of scientific journals worldwide. They are, for the most part, the mainstream English-medium journals in the disciplines. The ISI was established to examine the sciences, and it is not surprising that the hard sciences are overrepresented and the social sciences and humanities less prominent. Further, scientists tend to cite more material, thus boosting the numbers of citations of scientific articles and presumably their impact.

The sciences produce some 350,000 new, cited references weekly, while the social sciences generate 50,000 and the humanities 15,000. This means that universities with strength in the hard sciences are deemed more influential and are seen to have a greater impact -- as are individuals who work in these fields. The biomedical fields are especially overrepresented because of the numbers of citations that they generate. All of this means that individuals and institutions in developing countries, where there is less strength in the hard sciences and less ability to build expensive laboratories and other facilities, are at a significant disadvantage.

It is important to remember that the citation system was invented mainly to understand how scientific discoveries and innovations are communicated and how research functions. It was not, initially, seen as a tool for the evaluation of individual scientists or entire universities or academic systems. The citation system is useful for tracking how scientific ideas in certain disciplines are circulated among researchers at top universities in the industrialized countries, as well as how ideas and individual scientists use and communicate research findings.

A system invented for quite limited functions is used to fulfill purposes for which it was not intended. Hiring authorities, promotion committees, and salary-review officials use citations as a central part of the evaluation process. This approach overemphasizes the work of scientists -- those with access to publishing in the key journals and those with the resources to do cutting-edge research in an increasingly expensive academic environment. Another problem is the overemphasis of academics in the hard sciences rather than those in the social sciences and, especially, the humanities. Academics in many countries are urged, or even forced, to publish their work in journals that are part of a citation system -- the major English-language journals published in the United States and a few other countries. This forces them into the norms and paradigms of these journals and may well keep them from conducting research and analysis of topics directly relevant to their own countries.

Citation analysis, along with other measures, is used prominently to assess the quality of departments and universities around the world and is also employed to rank institutions and systems. This practice, too, creates significant distortions. Again, the developing countries and small industrialized nations that do not use English as the language of higher education are at a disadvantage. Universities strong in the sciences have an advantage in the rankings, as are those where faculty members publish in journals within the citation systems.

The misuse of citation analysis distorts the original reasons for creating bibliometric systems. Inappropriately stretching bibliometrics is grossly unfair to those being evaluated and ranked. The “have-nots” in the world scientific system are put at a major disadvantage. Creative research in universities around the world is downplayed because of the control of the narrow paradigms of the citation analysis system. This system overemphasizes work written in English. The hard sciences are given too much attention, and the system is particularly hard on the humanities. Scholarship that might be published in “nonacademic” outlets, including books and popular journals, is ignored. Evaluators and rankers need go back to the drawing boards to think about a reliable system that can accurately measure the scientific and scholarly work of individuals and institutions. The unwieldy and inappropriate use of citation analysis and bibliometrics for evaluation and ranking does not serve higher education well -- and it entrenches existing inequalities.

Philip G. Altbach
Author's email: 

Philip G. Altbach is director of the Center for International Higher Education, at Boston College.

Rumor and Innuendo

Springtime in higher education heralds the faculty search extravaganza. As a newly minted Ph.D., I dove head first into the overflowing candidate pool. I was engaged with some short-term work at my graduate institution and had a strong desire to remain there. It is located in my home state, close to family and friends, and is a highly regarded national university. I also had a strong personal affinity for the institution and had developed strong personal and professional relationships, which I valued a great deal. I navigated my way through the process of creating a dissertation-length CV, the nerve-racking experience of being interviewed by my speakerphone (i.e. the dreaded first-round phone interview) and the endurance test of 8 to 10 hours of interviews and meals with people in positions I never knew existed.

I was fortunate to have reached the “I can taste the job it’s so close,” campus-visit stage in two searches at my institution. I felt fairly confident that I would emerge from this process with at least one offer. What I did not foresee was that my experience would force me to reflect on the role of trust  in higher education. My first foray, as a “full member,” into the academic universe would be a “teachable moment.”

During one of my campus visits, I knew that an intimate knowledge of and appreciation for diversity would be a trait required of the position. So in 3 different sessions with 12 different individuals, I chose to share that I am gay as a means to illustrate my ability to empathize with students, professors, and staff of diverse backgrounds. It was a strategic decision, which, after researching institutional policy, I believed would unfold in the context of a confidential faculty search.

Heretofore, I had not been open about my sexual orientation in my professional or educational life (while being so to family and close friends). My reasons are many and my own; yet, in my view, not terribly relevant to this particular situation. The decision to “be out,” in this part of my life, was mine alone to make.

Nineteen days after my interview, a colleague and personal friend, unaware of my sexual preference, called me at home that evening. She wanted to let me know that late in the day she had been approached by a colleague, uninvolved with the search, who stated “There is a rumor going around that Jim ‘came out’ during his interview.” My friend, never a gossip, asked the colleague how he had heard information revealed during a confidential search. My friend, feeling duty bound, contacted the chair of the search committee, 1 of the 12, to inform him  that information from a candidate interview was being shared outside the search process.

It has been five weeks since that evening telephone call and I have not heard anymore of it. I am not quite sure what, if anything, I should expect to hear. As I reflect on my experience, I circuitously analyze the issues it raises. It undoubtedly raises issues of professionalism. A case can be made that it raises ethical considerations. Perhaps, it crosses into the legal realm, but I leave that to the lawyers among you. That is of little interest to me.

It is the ethical implications that keep my mind stirring late past my bedtime. They are what keep sending me back to my computer to read, over and over, the institution’s policy on confidentiality in the search process. As I have already said, there were many reasons I chose not to “be out” in my professional life. However, after completing my Ph.D. and embarking on a new chapter in life, I was now prepared to travel down that road. Revealing my identity during a confidential search process, to a limited audience, was the first of many destinations on that journey.

I keep returning to two primary considerations. The first relates to diversity. My institution professes a strong commitment to and appreciation for diversity, almost to the point of overkill. Perhaps that is why it was that much more difficult to swallow that the information I shared was deemed, by an individual involved with the search, fodder for the rumor mill.

The far more salient issue to me is that of confidentiality, and more specifically trust.  Institutional policy dictates confidentiality in the search process.  Common decency demands it. The search process is an opportunity for the committee and potential colleagues to gain an intimate understanding of the candidate in a relatively brief period of time. To effectively evaluate what strengths and challenges a candidate would bring to the institution, he/she must be willing and permitted to be utterly candid and acutely honest.

At the same time, candidates should be able to have confidence that information shared during the interview process is privileged and confidential. Whether such information be a medical condition, unique family situation, special accommodation, or sexual orientation, it should be treated as internal knowledge to those involved in the search. When speaking of confidentiality in the selection process, Joan Rennekamp, a national commentator on personnel issues,  states: "It is sometimes helpful to think of information as you would think of a material object that has an owner.... No other employee has the right to communicate it to someone else unless some overriding concern arises, or unless the owner gives permission to do so."

Yes, Rennekamp is a lawyer (not that there’s anything wrong with that), but even lawyers have sage advice at times.

Trust, leadership, and moral conduct are professed institutional values at my college. Of course, as an educational institution, those values are most strongly inculcated in students. However, as educators, we have a responsibility to model proper, responsible, and ethical behavior to our students. If we fail to lead by example, then we fail to lead at all. If we are unable to maintain trust among colleagues, how can we develop trust with students, or teach them to develop trust in each other.

Lest I seem to be presenting myself as some type of moral elite, I must admit that I am all too experienced in losing the trust of those close to me. I will never forget the utter look of devastation on my mother’s face when she discovered I had lied to her as a teenager. More recently, I lost the trust of a supervisor who felt I had betrayed our professional relationship. Yet, in each of those instances I was able to make an honest, open, and sincere apology to the wronged individual. I have a strange feeling that no such apology will be forthcoming in my situation.

I suppose I never realized how important those three simple words -- I am sorry -- are to my value system. The fact that my sexual orientation is now part of the public domain is not what makes me continue to brood over my experience. The issue that forces my mind to wander is that one or more of those 12 individuals felt it their prerogative to decide how I “rolled out” my sexual identity to my professional colleagues. There were unique aspects of my own experience that I felt could be educational to faculty, staff, and students. For better or for worse, I am an educator. I had a “lesson plan” for sharing my experience with members of the campus community. That “lesson plan” was my own to execute.

Yet beyond my own experience, what do such actions say about trust among members of the campus community. Higher education is, admittedly, a gossip factory on overdrive. How often have each of us heard information that was not intended for anyone but those involved with the search process? How often have the personal issues or misfortunes of our colleagues been whispered throughout the classrooms, laboratories, and conference rooms of academe? How desensitized have we become to the whirlwind of rumor and innuendo? Knowing the character of the collegiate workplace, I perhaps should have known better. Yet, based on an explicit, written statement of confidentiality, I chose to begin this particular personal journey during the search process. In hindsight, it was a poor choice.

As in any situation, I look for the lessons learned. For good to emerge from a bad experience, I always look for the “take away.” In no particular order, and limited to the clarity of my thinking on this issue, are some thoughts for institutions, candidates, and myself.

For the institution:

  • What is the institutional policy on confidentiality? Is it a policy that is iterated not only to search committee members, but also to other faculty, staff, and students whothat may interview a candidate? Does the institution also communicate the seriousness of the policy and that it exists for reasons other than mere formality? Are processes in place to handle a breach of confidentiality?
  • Do attempts to include a breadth of constituencies in the selection process sacrifice the integrity of the process? I wrote 26 “Thank You” notes for the campus visit alone. Can confidentiality be maintained in such an open and inclusive environment? Should only the search committee interview be subject to confidentiality? Should an explicit notice of when confidentiality applies be provided to candidates?
  • Are there implications for student confidentiality when candidate confidentiality cannot be maintained? Do professionals with access to student records have a sufficient understanding of federal and state privacy laws? Are professionals required to undergo training on legally protected data and information? Are we modeling professional, ethical, and legal behavior for our students when it comes to matters of trust and proper conduct?

For the candidate:

  • Be clear about  institutional policy concerning confidentiality. Research the policy with human resources and/or the equal opportunity office. At a minimum, be aware of the written policy. Be confident that information shared is privileged information. As Ronald Reagan said, “Trust, but verify.”
  • Be even clearer about your expectations should you choose to share a personal or private experience. For example, during the interview process, you may choose to share information about a current or former supervisor, co-worker, or subordinate. If such information reflects a negative experience, you should preface the information by asking that such information remain internal to the search process. Some candidates may want to share information about a medical condition -- and should be very clear about expectations.
  • For internal candidates, be aware that professional responsibility and personal friendship make strange bedfellows. Knowing the actors in a particular search makes the issue of trust and confidentiality that much more critical. Should irregularities arise in the search process, the actors have a professional responsibility to the institution. That responsibility will, more often than not, take precedence over duty to personal friends.    

For myself...

I do my best to approach my experience as a professional, letting reason guide my analysis. But, emotions do enter the scene. Hurt, anger, and disappointment inevitably play a role. While it is difficult to lose respect for and trust in the colleague who divulged the information, it has been far more difficult to question the status of personal friendships I have developed with others involved in the search process and hiring department. Their lack of communication leaves me to assume indifference to the issue.

I would like to say I have not become a less trusting person. But, I would be lying. However, with no one from whom to hear those three magic words, I am left to lose a little bit of trust in the institution as a whole. That is a very hard pill to swallow when you have a passion for your institutionschool. I am still processing that aspect of this whole experience.

And for those interested, I was not offered this particular position. I accepted another position at the same institution, which has greater responsibility, offers a higher salary, and is a new field for me within higher education. Had I been offered the position in question, my adverse experience during the search process and the subsequent administrative silence would have been a rocky start, to say the least. So, I am optimistic about what lies ahead, yet uncertain as to how I feel about the personal and professional relationships I leave not so far behind.

As for my “lesson plan,” I guess that is on hold for now. I need to retool it given new realities on the ground. Of more immediate concern is the 500-pound gorilla in the room. More specifically, the great majority of individuals who are aware of my sexual orientation are also aware of how the information came to be shared (and most of them did not learn of it during the search process). It is a uniquely interesting experience to be meeting or dining with a colleague and have the proverbial “family secret” lurking under the table. In two days, I have a meeting with the individual who mistakenly gossiped to my friend and started this chain of events. We have not seen each other since this whole episode started. For some odd reason, I chuckle to myself when I think about the encounter.

My hope is that after writing this piece, I will feel a sense of closure. Since I am not privy as to whether there has been any administrative action on the issue, I cannot gain the satisfaction that some good or value came out of my experience. For myself, I suppose the good comes in that I think far more about what is and what is not appropriate information to share. I think far more about trust. I am more cognizant of my own behavior and how it positively and/or negatively affects others.

We all receive an enormous amount of information each and every day. Being able to differentiate between routine, need-to-know, and confidential information is a critical skill, and more importantly personal and professional value, for administrators, faculty, staff, and students. Trust is the foundation on which any vibrant community, academic or otherwise, is built. No community can survive without it.

Democritus said, “Do not trust all men, but trust men of worth; the former course is silly, the latter a mark of prudence.” I honestly do not know how I feel about that statement. I have always been an openly trusting person. What I do know is that I have a newfound appreciation for those individuals who I trust implicitly and who have not given me reason to doubt that trust after many years of friendship. I have a new respect for those closest to me who are “men [and women] of worth.”

James Pierpont
Author's email: 

James Pierpont is the pseudonym an administrator at a research university.

Affirmative Inaction

Universities all over the country have been struggling in recent years to develop diversity plans and hiring doctrines to improve the position of minorities on campuses. I am most familiar with the plan recently issued in draft form by the University of Oregon, which has been working on the latest version of its diversity plan for a couple of years now. A 40-page comment draft has been issued. The plan, which discusses a wide variety of issues related to how non-white people fit into the largely paleface community of the university I know best, is surely similar to plans underway or issued at institutions all over the United States.

These plans don’t make much difference. The problem is less a lack of good will than a lack of connection to facts on the ground. Universities cannot remake the fundamental culture in which they exist, and that is a culture in which the availability of minority faculty and, to some extent, minority students, is decided years before a particular college or university can affect the situation by internal policies.

Diversity has become a word that must be spoken; those who don’t speak it in the right slightly breathless tone while looking both sorrowful and committed are unemployable. Because everyone speaks the word and almost no one does (or can) produce results, we are at risk, if I may use another phrase that used up its oxygen long ago, of seeing diversity mean as little as do Affirmative Action and Equal Opportunity.

What does affirmative action mean today in faculty recruitment? A leaden process controlled not by departments but by human resources bureaucrats, with little discernible result. Universities need to stop treating diversity as an internal, mechanical process and start looking at the larger communities they serve for ways to improve academic opportunities for young people.

How many minority people earn Ph.D.s? Not many, and they are heavily concentrated in certain fields. In 2004, 36 percent of doctorates issued to African Americans were in education. Nationally, 15 percent of U.S. doctorates were in education. Another 20 percent of doctorates issued to African Americans were in fields in which the University of Oregon has no programs, such as agriculture, theology and engineering. Thus 56 percent of all African Americans who earn doctorates are not in Oregon's applicant pool no matter what the university does, except for the rare vacancy in education.  The same is true at other institutions without these fields -- that is, most institutions.

What about fields that most universities do have? How many blacks earned Ph.D.s in mathematics in the U.S. in 2004? Ten, in the entire country. In physics? Thirteen. Although some fields have a higher number of doctoral graduates, with such minuscule numbers coming out of the academic pipeline, no mid-level institution can compete with wealthier, more prestigious institutions whose diversity goals are similar. That doesn’t even take into account those graduates who might enter private industry from fields such as physics, chemistry or engineering.

In order to maintain their reputation, good universities hire Ph.D.s who earned their doctorates at the best programs in the U.S. (and the world, when possible). In most fields, this means a chunk of the Ivy League plus other top-rank universities such as Michigan, Chicago, Stanford, Wisconsin or Minnesota; maybe 20 to 30 schools all told.  For the most part, these freshly-printed Ph.D.s don’t want to work at mid-level schools, they want to work at one of the top 30 schools where they came from, but they need a job.

What happens when a mid-rank institution such as Oregon, Kansas State or Rice succeeds against the odds in hiring a new-minted Ph.D. of color? In many cases those earnest young assistant professors are in a parking orbit until they can try for what they really want: to go back to a top-tier institution where they get more pay, nicer offices, better toys, better students and more opportunity to honk their own horns. This is not wicked, it is simply human nature. When there are only a dozen new ones in some fields available each year to start with, let us cease pretending that all colleges should have one and that a college that doesn’t is doing something wrong.

Faculty at the great majority of schools are not really interested in color-coding their potential co-workers on a sepia-index wall chart anyway; they are interested in whether those co-workers are any good. Their departments don’t care that Carl Phillips, Yusef Komunyakaa or Reginald Shepherd are black; their co-workers care that they are three of the best poets writing in the U.S. today. I hope that nobody at Old Dominion thinks of Adolphus Hailstork as “the black composer in our music department;” they undoubtedly think of him as the composer who wrote “Sonata da Chiesa,” one of the best pieces by any composer in a hundred years.

Anyone who tried to recruit these people away on behalf of another school would, I trust, be discreetly shunted off in another direction and told to stop poaching. This is not because they are of color, it is because they are of quality. It is not faculty of color that are such an important example to students of all shades, it is good faculty of color. And there are not enough of them being made. We must stop whacking our colleges for failing to hire people who do not exist.

Anyone interested in actual improvement of the presence of good nonwhite faculty in our universities needs to take certain steps at their schools. Do not allow the hiring of more bureaucrats to gasp in predictable horror at the way things are. No more Assistant Vice-hand-holders in the bower of ethnic unhappiness. Forget all the false storefronts and unseemly fawnings that are the usual pewter trade beads of minority recruiting.

Start the laborious process of dragging recruitment out of the clinging vines of the H.R. people and back into the hands of departments. Accept the possibility that an imperfect process can lead to a perfect result. College leaders need the ability to go outside the standard hiring process to support and attract the best faculty, including minority faculty. They should also have the flexibility to flag potential scholars early in life and use university resources to assist them in their long-term goal of joining the professoriate.

Plan ahead a generation. Work ahead a generation. Figure out who of color in your local schools has the potential to be a good professor. Get rid of your highly paid and symbolic chief diversity officers. We all know that they accomplish little. This is not their fault; their jobs are inherently impossible. Respect can’t be legislated, it must be earned. Use that money to hire a brace of heat-seeking twenty-somethings to systematically find the most academically promising minority 10-year-olds in likely and unlikely places, and track and support them for a decade or more, as your university’s scholars-in-waiting. Consider advance long-term contracts with the best doctoral students. Be bold.

Let the word diversity lie fallow until something meaningful can grow from its good soil. Let the words affirmative action not be spoken until they mean action that is affirmative again.

Alan L. Contreras
Author's email: 

Alan L. Contreras has been administrator of the Oregon Office of Degree Authorization, a unit of the Oregon Student Assistance Commission, since 1999. His views do not necessarily represent those of the commission. A shorter version of this essay appeared earlier in the Eugene, Ore., Register-Guard.

The Constant Temporary Employee

After teaching summer school, I was left with five long, dull weeks before fall started. So I rewrote my CV into a
résumé, contacted two local temporary employment agencies, went through a barrage of tests, and came out the other side as a competent office worker. For my first position, I was asked to replace a receptionist at a local firm for three weeks.

One day, when I tried to log on to the company account online to send an overnight package, I realized that the
password I had been given wasn't working. A co-worker then told me that she had replaced all the computer passwords. Her reason, she said, was that an ex-employee had been suspected of fraud. As I sat with an overnight envelope in my hands, she leaned over and signed on, allowing me access to the online shipping program. Smiling, she said, "Just call me if you need to ship anything. I'll be glad to help." Surprised, I realized that I was not going to be trusted with the new password. After all, I was just a temp.

That afternoon, I started to reflect on another time that I found myself feeling like "the outsider." Before I landed a
full-time contract teaching position, I supported myself by working as an adjunct for six years at a total of eight
different college campuses. Although it was the best formative teaching experience I have ever had, there were
lessons to be learned:

People may judge you based on "snapshots." As an office temp, I often feel that not only am I being watched, but also that those watching judge me based on what they see in one moment. The co-worker who passes by my desk as I make the one personal call I will make that day may think I am a slacker. In the same way, I often felt I was being examined while adjuncting. The colleague who watched me accidentally jam an original with a paperclip in the copier's automatic feeder may have walked away thinking that I was "challenged" when it came to office equipment. And I was scared to ask my department chair for a particular schedule one semester. Why? I sensed that administrators would see me as a troublemaker for the remainder of the time I worked there. Ridiculous? Probably. But realizing that one moment could create an impression that might last a long time, I couldn't help but try to be on my best behavior at all times. Unfortunately, this left me feeling disconnected from my co-workers and exhausted at the end of a teaching day.

The person you replace may resent you. At my temporary position, the receptionist is training me as she prepares to be on special assignment upstairs. She is surprisingly cool toward me, sometimes criticizing me for spending too much time trying to assist callers rather than simply dumping calls into voicemail. I suspect that she resents me.

In the same way, adjuncts are often asked to replace instructors who are specialists in their discipline. Whether
it is an attempt to lessen costs, or "un-stick" a course that has gotten stale, those being rotated out or those new
Ph.D.'s who often can't score a position because jobs aren't being created for them often resent the new adjunct. At one community college, the department chair assured me that the past professor would be very helpful in getting me up to speed. He also told me that class materials and curriculum for this course were not proprietary, but developed with more than one instructor over the course of many semesters.

Oddly, the professor who had taught this course for years never returned my calls or e-mail messages begging for help. It was only when the department chair demanded action that the professor dropped a computer disk in my campus mail slot without comment. I had to remake the course according to vague departmental guidelines. Incoming students experienced a "drop out" in information flow because there was no communication between instructors and I felt frustrated. I have heard this is not always the situation. Often, instructors are happy to prepare the new worker to deliver information well. But as a hard-working adjunct, I realized it was smart to be prepared for the worst when taking over a course that another professor has taught.

You will subjugate your needs. Knowing that I am only there for a short time, I'm willing to put up with a lot of
nonsense on any job. At my current temporary position, I sit between a young woman who has a heater under her desk and a blanket on her legs and a woman who wears short sleeves and has a fan under her desk. The younger woman often plays post-Seattle angst rock on her radio, but complains if the other woman plays country music. If this were my permanent job, I'd feel as if I were in hell. As it is, I know this is a short-term problem. I just think about the long-term and try not to get anxious about my circumstances.

The same often applies for adjuncting. If I know I am simply padding my CV with a semester or two's worth of teaching experience, I don't make waves. I ask few questions and do all I can to keep the status quo. At one private university, the list of approved textbooks was two levels below what was appropriate for that level. If I followed my department chair's advice, I would be teaching 10th grade English composition to freshman university students. Although I was shocked, I realized the alternative was even worse. Making a stink with administration would do nothing but get me fired and leave me without an income for four months. So I went on to teach three very "soft" sections of composition, knowing that students there would not be prepared to do anything other than fill out a simple application after graduation. I prayed that the academic universe would forgive me.

Although adjuncts are often criticized for having "short-timer's attitude," the administration and senior faculty
often do not help these part-timers see the context that surrounds their work. Many colleges do provide orientations and training sessions for adjuncts -- but these are not always scheduled at a time when part-timers can attend. And a refusal to financially compensate adjuncts for attending often results in a poor turnout, which perpetuates a cycle of detachment and disinformation.

Don't feel surprised if you isolate. Although co-workers at my temporary assignment offered me a beer at closing time last Friday, I turned it down. I really felt like an outsider, so socializing with people I was going to know for three weeks didn't sound very relaxing. In the same way, I may have sometimes been a bit standoffish as an adjunct. First, I was only on campus for hours rather than days. I physically did not have time to cultivate contacts and network. Next, I had no way to know where to place my trust. Should I soft-soap the departmental secretary with whom I had very limited contact? How about the tenured colleague who was always pulling out of the parking lot as I pulled in? Should I throw in my lot with the other adjunct who eats lunch alone in the cafeteria? I had no background on other instructors; without knowing their capabilities and history, I often couldn't tell who might make a good "adjunct buddy." And as a part-timer, I had very little insight into my department. I had no way to know where the political splits were, if there were any, and if my alignment with any one individual would "taint" my association with the campus administration. With all these roadblocks, I often felt it was safer to stay to myself.

Unfortunately many adjuncts feel the same way. To combat this, my current university not only invites adjuncts to
departmental meetings, but also holds faculty events where adjuncts are encouraged to participate. Free food may be the call that fills the room, but lounging with other instructors (full- or part-time) becomes an important way for adjuncts to collect information and navigate departments. Other campuses I have worked at have a formal instructor-mentorship program to give adjuncts direction and help them form academic partnerships.

Every workplace is different. Not surprisingly, co-workers at my current temporary job are not interested in how we did business at my last office. They don't care about the sizes of envelopes that we used in the mailroom, or what kind of copy paper we purchased. What they care about is that I am working for them now. They are not interested in any suggestions I may have to "improve" workflow at their company. I am simply a pair of eyes and hands to them.

Being an adjunct is different in that I am being hired for my specialty -- teaching. I have some autonomy in how I
achieve a department's course goals. But it is the same in that I need to follow their procedures while working and use their curriculum in drawing up a course. One campus will suggest certain textbooks; another will approve a completely different list. As an adjunct, I feel compelled to follow protocol established at that campus. And although my past teaching experience has always made me a better instructor, I sense that each campus I work at does not want to hear in detail about my experiences on my last campus. It's a bit like dating someone who describes their last dating experience in detail -- you can't help but wonder where your new date has been -- and why he or she has chosen to go out with you.

You will find what you are made of. The good news about temping is that it can be a defining experience. I sense that working as a receptionist in this small industrial office will give me a better inside view of the people in
this town. I am stepping outside of my "academic mind" to remember what it's like to work a 40-hour a week job that may demand less intellectually, but is tiring all the same. I hope it will help me visualize my students' struggles as they balance their load. After all, many are working part- or full-time. Here, more than 80 percent are first generation college students with working parents.

The good news about adjuncting is that these years really helped me to find out what I could endure -- and focused my teaching. I started to see how different student populations responded and what I could do to engage them. My idealized view of what a classroom "should" be like started to fade. And my teaching improved a great deal. I started to find what worked -- and what didn't. It wasn't as if I couldn't push my students. I could and did. But I also got to experience a range of responses and came to be more prepared, and less sensitive, when faced with my own internal constructive criticism.

For me, working at two or three campuses was demanding. During that time, though, I learned to focus on teaching three different student populations. Not only did I gear my lessons to fit those three groups, but I also learned to switch methods to teach more effectively. In a short six years, I would like to have said that I had seen everything -- though I'm sure I hadn't. At one large urban campus, two mental patients got into a fistfight in the hallway just outside of my class. I called campus security and waited patiently by the classroom door. At the time, I did not feel nervous. I felt confident, though irritated at the loss of class time. That was when I started to realize that all this experience -- all these crazy individual experiences, really, were shaping me to become more tolerant. And, I might add, better at troubleshooting.

For two semesters, I taught at an urban community college three days a week, a suburban community college one day a week, and a suburban university three counties away for another two days a week. I was constantly exhausted. Every mile I put on my tired 11-year-old subcompact was etched into my tailbone. I knew every mile of asphalt, every gas station that took ATM cards, and every drive-through restaurant within a hundred-mile radius. I can't say that I did a stellar job teaching five courses that year -- but I prepped for four different courses, read three new textbooks, and put together some fresh assignments for every one of these classes. Tired as I was, I felt proud. I was not going to give in and go back to private industry to escape the pressures and demands of the academic life. I would survive and take all I could from it to become a better instructor.

After a grueling summer, I was able to cobble together enough work to move closer to the highest paying part-time positions and drop the most troublesome assignments. But having to go to such lengths to stay in the business and support myself as a college instructor showed me how much I loved the craft. Feeling insecure about one's abilities, dealing with politics and personalities, and putting one's career above all things -- these can be draining. Yet they can also be the experiences that show us what we are really capable of doing. By the time I gave notice to my three part-time teaching jobs and planned my move across the United States, two-thirds of my adjunct colleagues had gone on to full-time teaching careers. One has told me that he finally feels as if he's "landed." Two have gone on to do research they had dreamed about for years. One has married her high school sweetheart and bought a small home. Another has started to publish. It's a rewarding future. For all of us -- adjuncts and full-timers alike.

Shari Wilson
Author's email: 

Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.

Stepping Onto the Tenure Track

The letter said: "The College of Social Sciences has embarked upon a mission to foster a vibrant academic climate for our faculty and provide an excellent education for our students. The coming years should be stimulating and creative ones as we continue to translate the mission into academic plans and programs. The Department of Anthropology wishes to invite you to join us in our quest for excellence in the college."

It was an offer letter.

An offer letter. For a tenure-track position. At a large state research university with an international reputation for research in my area of expertise. Where my wife also has a tenure-track job. I have been unbelievably lucky this month to have made the transition from adjuncthood to a tenure-track position just four months after earning my Ph.D.

Of course, it wasn't only luck. I did manage to marry a brilliant scholar whom my university wants to keep around, and I spent the last two years feverishly writing articles and presenting papers at conferences. My wife and I were lucky to have good personal "fit" with our two departments' interests and personalities, and both of our chairs were supportive and encouraging and had clout. And so on and so forth.... There's no doubt that any hire relies on the good will of many people and a concatenation of fortuitous events. But these days in the academy it seems conditions both necessary and sufficient must be accompanied by the correct alignment of stars and a bit of pixie dust if things are ever going to come to fruition.

Taking one's first steps on the tenure track can be a little strange. The result for me has been a strange sense of dislocation and culture shock. It is not that I am unfamiliar with universities, of course. On the contrary, my choice of profession seems far more preordained than my actually being hired. My father is a professor, my mother is a professor, my wife is a professor -- it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see where I was headed. But it is in fact exactly the fact that I've spent my whole life at universities that makes coming to work for one seem so strange.

My appointment at a large state university is, if anything, a strange sort of recapitulation. After going to a picturesque liberal arts college and a graduate school complete with Gothic quads, I find myself being confronted with a campus redolent with the smells and textures of my childhood. I have no idea how much time I actually spent on my father's campus when I was a child, but memories of it still loom large in my mind, however fragmentary they may be. Now, surrounded by the realia of my job, I keep on finding them wafting slowly up into my consciousness. The unimaginative concrete modernism of the buildings, cool tiles floors, the industrial heaviness of the doors, the brute utilitarianism of the massive metal filing cabinets and cinder block walls -- all of these things remind me of the dark, silent halls I would explore when my father went into his own department during the weekend and bought me along.

There are other, less nostalgic dislocations as well. For instance, the other day a student worker moved some bookshelves around in my new office. The strange thing about the experience, of course, was that I wasn't the student worker.

Oh yes the office -- did I mention that when you become a professor they actually give you an office? This is the first time in my entire life I have actually had an office. The experience is, frankly, breathtaking -- and not just because I finally have a place to hang up all the videogame posters my wife has vetoed off the walls of our apartment. An office means you actually have a door, and have to make the critical choice that you spend hours pondering while waiting outside your advisor's office for office hours -- am I going to be one of those people who tapes up New Yorker cartoons outside their office and prominently displays postcards from remote locations sent by colleagues and students? Such are the things that a career in academia is made out of.

Actually to be honest I did not like my office at first. Being a grad student sucks in an extremely large number of ways, and about the only solace you can take in the experience is the assurance that you are living in some sort of incredible authentic hard-core life of the mind that few others have the integrity to endure. As a result my initial reaction to having an office was a Holden Caulfiedesque sense that I was somehow turning into a phony because my living space and working space were now separate -- as if not having to search amongst the waffle iron and muffin tins for my copy of The Nuer somehow meant that I had sold out. This sense pretty quickly evaporated, however, when I realized the incredible convenience of having an office where your library at your fingertips instead of in your bedroom.

The flip side of this is something that I never anticipated about professordom -- your inability to nap. As a graduate student I understood that once I became a professor I would no longer be able to do my job unshaved and in my bathrobe the way I could when "my job" was rolling out of bed and working on my dissertation. But last week when I was totally exhausted from teaching, I experienced the rude shock of realizing that I could not just get up, leave my office, walk into the next room, lay down in my bed and take a nap. Partially this was because the next room is no longer my bedroom, but a colleague's office. But mostly this is because I can't just get up in the middle of the afternoon and go home whenever I feel like it. I am expected to be in my office during working hours, desire to nap or no. Perhaps this changes after one gets tenure? It certainly explains the high cost of coffee on campus.

But overall this month has been an incredible one for me -- an opportunity for which I'll forever be grateful to my university and my department. Even the vertigo of being hired cannot replace the incredible sense of opportunity that comes from becoming, at last, a professor.

Alex Golub
Author's email: 

Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds. His last column was about how students and professors have different experiences of summer.

Sit in My Chair

Six weeks ago, President Ronald D. Liebowitz of Middlebury College announced the establishment of a William H. Rehnquist Chair in American History and Culture. The announcement stirred considerable controversy on the campus. Some students and faculty members claimed that honoring the late Chief Justice Rehnquist by naming an endowed chair for him was an act of "symbolic violence" that betrayed the college's commitment to diversity.

Endowed chairs have a long tradition in Anglo-American higher education. In England, they go back to 1502, when Lady Margaret Beaufort, the mother of Henry VII, established the Lady Margaret Professorship of Divinity at the University of Cambridge. In America, they predate the Revolution, going back to 1721, when the Hollis Professorship of Divinity was established at Harvard University. But this has been an unusually troubled year for endowed chairs in American higher education.

The collapse of Enron several years ago, followed by the conviction on conspiracy and securities fraud charges, and the death in July of Enron's chief executive officer, Kenneth L. Lay, set four institutions to reviewing named chairs. At the University of   Nebraska, Omaha, Mark Wohar was the "Distinguished Enron Professor of Economics" until July, when he became the "Distinguished UNO CBA Professor of Economics." That's Distinguished University of Nebraska, Omaha, College of Business Administration Professor of Economics. Since it was endowed in 1999, the University of Missouri at Columbia, has tried to fill the Kenneth L. Lay Chair in Economics. During that time, three candidates declined the university's offer of the chair, which is said to pay between $150,000 and $200,000 annually. The university resisted Lay's requests that it redirect his gift of $1 million in Enron stock, which it had sold before the corporate collapse, either to Katrina relief or his own legal defense.

Despite calls for a redefinition of the purpose of the endowed fund, indications are that the search to fill the chair continues this fall when several guest lecturers are being considered for offers. What it will be named remains to be seen. At the University of Houston, Bent Sorensen is the Lay Professor of Economics, but Keith T. Poole, who was the Kenneth L. Lay Professor of Political Science, has left for the University of California at San Diego. At neighboring Rice University, Simon Grant holds the Lay Family Chair in Economics, but plans for two Enron chairs in Rice's Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Management and a Ken Lay Center for the Study of Markets in Transition collapsed when the corporation went into bankruptcy.

The controversy at Middlebury is one of several recent echoes of the culture wars, closely monitored by higher education's critics, left and right. If naming Middlebury's new chair for Rehnquist is controversial, the Enron/Lay chairs and other endowed chairs elsewhere might be more obvious targets of criticism. There has been a "Richard M. Nixon Chair in Public Policy" at his alma mater, California's Whittier College, since the 1970s. According to the college catalogue, it honors a "distinguished public servant." The Nixon chair has never been more than a one year, visiting appointment and, in more recent years, its endowment has subsidized guest lecturers.

At Southern institutions, schools and endowed chairs memorialize many defenders of the old order. The Harry F. Byrd School of Business at Virginia's Shenandoah University is named for the Old Dominion's architect of massive resistance. The name of his distant cousin, Senator Robert C. Byrd, the former Ku Klux Klan member and porkmeister supreme, seems to be on everything in West Virginia. In August, a blogger in Huntington, noted that Senator Byrd was to dedicate the Robert C. Byrd Institute of Biotechnology at Marshall University. It gave him a vision of the future. "In the morning, I would drive along the Robert Byrd Blvd. to work, pass the Robert Byrd bridge, drop off my kids at the Robert Byrd Elementary School, stop by the Robert Byrd Nestle Café for a cup of coffee, then I would head towards the Robert Byrd Center of Instructional Technology," he wrote.

He continued: "I will then schedule a meeting with the Robert Byrd Professor from the Robert Byrd Department of English. After work, I will go to the Robert Byrd Square to watch 'Everybody loves Robert Byrd' with a big basket of Robert Byrd popcorn. If I happen to see someone who asks for directions for a particular institute, I would ask him to close his eyes and walk in any direction. He is sure to see a Robert Byrd Institute when he opens his eyes at the first wall he bumps into."

So, yes, of course, the University of West Virginia has Robert C. Byrd Professors. These are endowed chairs on the cheap, however. Over a period of 16 years, 16 professors will hold four year appointments as Robert C. Byrd Professor and receive $5,000 annual salary supplements.

Further south, Alabama has community colleges named for George Wallace and his first wife, Lurleen, with locations in Andalusia, Dothan, Eufala, Fort Rucker, Greenville, Luverne, MacArthur, and Selma. Apart from the racism, for which he's most commonly remembered elsewhere, Alabama dots the countryside with memorials to his populism. Elsewhere, North Carolina's Wingate University has a Jesse Helms Center, which houses the former senator's papers and sponsors conferences sympathetic to his perspectives. The University of South Carolina has a Strom Thurmond Chair in History or Political Science at its branch campus in Aiken and an underfunded Strom Thurmond Chair of Law at its main campus in Columbia. At the University of Georgia, Edward J. Larson holds chairs named -- not for one -- but for two of the state's most powerful 20th century racists. He is the Richard B. Russell Professor of American History and the Herman Talmadge Professor of Law.

It's almost enough to make you wonder if the name of any chair would cause a self-respecting person to refuse to sit in it. Discussions of the Lay Chair at Missouri led a wagging lawblogger to ask "which endowed Chairs (if any) would law professors refuse? The Martha Stewart Chair in Business Ethics? The Fred Phelps Chair in Family Law? The Roger Taney Chair in Law and History? Would [someone] take the Michael Hayden Chair in Privacy Law? What if it came with a fat salary, no teaching requirements, and a guarantee to increase blogger readership ten fold?"

Jesting aside, however, distinguished work can bring honor to dubiously named chairs. Larson's is an example of that. In 1998, his Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America's Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion won the Pulitzer Prize in History. That recognition came after two prior books, Trial and Error: The American Controversy Over Creation and Evolution and Sex, Race, and Science: Eugenics in the Deep South; and it has been followed by a half dozen additional books, on subjects ranging from a narrative history of the constitutional convention based on the notes of James Madison to a casebook in property law. His many dozens of articles and reviews have appeared in important newspapers and historical, legal, and scientific journals, both in the United States and Britain. By any measure Larson's professional work has been exemplary.

In September, John J. Miller's article, "Sounding Taps," for National Review launched a widespread discussion. Ten years ago, Miller pointed out, the historian Stephen Ambrose donated $250,000 to endow a chair at his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin. The chair in American military history was to be named for his mentor, William B. Hesseltine. Subsequently, Ambrose urged others to contribute to the chair's endowment and, before his death in 2002, he contributed another $250,000. Ultimately, the chair was renamed the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair and it is endowed at over $1 million. Yet, charged Miller, the University of Wisconsin's history department has dragged its feet in conducting a search to fill it. That story, he said, demonstrated the hostility of historians, generally, to the field of military history and contributes to its general decline in American colleges and universities.

Ohio State's Mark Grimsley charged Miller with crying "Crocodile Tears" over military history's grave. Miller was primarily interested in scoring points in the culture wars, said Grimsley, and the field is more robustly healthy than Miller allowed. His own department, for example, will fill two newly endowed chairs in military history in the next five years. Grimsley's reply to Miller touched off further discussions in the blogosphere, with theaters   at Grimsley's Blog Them Out of the Stone Age, the historians' group blog, Cliopatria, National Review's  Phi Beta Cons, Eric Alterman's Altercation, and The New Republic's Open University. Those discussions of military history and the academy extended beyond Miller and Grimsley to include many others. The fate of the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair at the University of Wisconsin was largely lost in the broader discussion of military history in academe, but the discussion may have prompted its fate. In response to Miller's questions, a spokesman for Wisconsin's history department admitted that some of his colleagues were still less than enthusiastic about filling the chair, but denied that there was any hesitation about filling it because of the charges of plagiarism in Stephen Ambrose's work. The department, he said, was committed to filling the chair in the future.

Missouri's experience with the Lay Chair and Wisconsin's with the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair are comparable. They are comparably endowed; and the names of both chairs carry some stigma. While Missouri had aggressively sought to fill the Lay Chair, however, Wisconsin had been slow to fill the Ambrose-Hesseltine Chair. Miller's article and the subsequent widespread discussion of military history and academe may have prompted the issue in Madison. Last month, Wisconsin's history department began advertising its search to fill its endowed chair in American military history.

As for Middlebury, it announced that the first person to hold the William H. Rehnquist Chair in American History and Culture would be James R. Ralph Jr. Already a member of the history department at the college, Ralph is an expert in the history of the American civil rights movement. He is the author of Northern Protest: Martin Luther King, Jr., Chicago, and the Civil Rights Movement, a well-received monograph on the subject. We've come a long way since 1964, when William Rehnquist began his   career in public life by challenging the rights of ethnic minorities to vote in Arizona.

It's unlikely that any American institution will ever have to decide whether to create the Adolph Hitler Chair in Holocaust Studies and even more unlikely that it ever would. Far short of that, institutions ought to hesitate about creating endowed chairs or institutes with money that has too many strings attached. Having said that, few institutions have the luxury of choosing their benefactors or their benefactors' wishes. Endowed chairs can create the conditions for the University of Georgia to keep an Edward J. Larson or Middlebury to retain a James R. Ralph Jr., on their faculties. If their chairs are named for William Rehnquist, Richard B. Russell, or Herman Talmadge, it seems a small price to pay for that institutional capacity. I wouldn't say, "Take the money and run." I would say, "Take the money and put it to good work."


Ralph E. Luker
Author's email: 

Ralph E. Luker is an Atlanta historian and a blogger at Cliopatria.

Double Haiku on MLA Interviewing

Drinking half moon night
Career candidates awake
Morning thwap, thwap, thwap

Twinkling here and there
Helicopters fly like stars
Of English commerce

Will Hochman
Author's email: 

Will Hochman is associate professor of English at Southern Connecticut State University.

So ... What Do You Study?

"So ... what do you study?"

This question has become harder for me to answer now that I am a professor.

Graduate students on the job market must know how to answer this question. There are a lot of graduate students out there, and not a lot of jobs. As a result, convincing a department that you are a good "fit" with them is vital. When it comes to fit, what you study is important. But even more important may be how you tell people you study it. Are you the kind of person who can describe their work quickly and succinctly? Are you aware of how much "stretch" is built into your project but unwilling to profess to be an expert in whatever it is a department is interested in? Are you the flame, or the moth?

As a graduate student I had an answer to the question of "what do you study?" Several, in fact. In professionalization seminars and over beer at parties, my fellow students and I practiced the art of "telescoping." We carefully honed our intellectual lives into one-sentence sound bites. (Mine was "I study mining and indigenous people in Papua New Guinea.") I have entire paragraphs -- both academic and for "regular people" -- ready to go on autopilot in case people wanted to know more.

We had other versions as well: the one-page cover letter we sent out for job applications. The 10-page summary that served as the base for our grant applications. The 45-minute talk that was meant to be delivered on a campus visit. But the most extended, un-telescoped answer to the "what do you study" question was, of course, the dissertation itself.

The dissertation is the holy grail of "what do you study." However, none of us are Sir Percival. Writing the perfect dissertation is not the process of obtaining the unobtainable. It is the process of learning to settle for the dissertation you've got instead of That Big Dissertation In The Sky. Remember the scene in Indiana Jones And The Holy Grail where Indy is on the edge of a chasm reaching backwards to the grail just out of his reach, but is gently persuaded by his father, Sean Connery, to let it go? Writing a dissertation is like that.

An intensely narcissistic document, the "what do you study" of the dissertation offers a psychological knot that can never be particularly untied. Isn't what I'm saying obvious? Is it possible for me to say anything new or interesting? Is there an article out there I've missed that has already explained all this? Is my work any good at all?

Now, it's true that some of the old grad student tricks still apply. No one on my dissertation committee coddled me, but none of them were so insane that they revealed to me the heart-breaking truth: The dissertation is actually just the rough draft for your first book. So when asked "what you've been up to" as a young faculty member, you always have the option to just tell people "I'm working on my manuscript."

However, if the life of the mind is a peanut M&M, then the dissertation is undoubtedly the nut. Now that I am a professor, however, I find my intellectual interests have been coated in a thick coating of rich, delicious chocolate. Whereas people once cared about my specialty, they are now much more interested in all of the extra stuff I learned along the way.

The role of the student, I'm learning, is to produce specialized knowledge, while the role of the professor is to pass on general information. People used to ask me what my dissertation was about, but now they want to know how broadly I can stretch in my teaching and advising.

There are many reasons that people are interested in the periphery, rather than the core, of a new professor's stock of knowledge. The first is the inevitable responsibility of all newly-hired profs: teaching intro courses. After five years of extremely dedicated research I find myself teaching intro courses in which I am explaining stuff I last thought about when I was 19. Being thrown back to anthropology 101 is not a bad experience, but it is disconcerting to have to zoom all the way out to the big picture after so many years of illuminating one particular corner of it.

Other teaching responsibilities, while close to the "nut" of what I study, are still definitely in the "chocolate" realm. As a result of my dissertation work I think I could reasonably pass myself of as an "expert" in one or even two ethnic groups adjacent to the one I wrote on. But as a professor, people look to you to teach more general courses. No one wants a course on "Comparative Ethnography of Enga Province." They want courses on "peoples of the Pacific" or "political anthropology" or even "ethnicity". How does living for two years in Papua New Guinea license me to teach a class on a concept that began in archaic Greece and now includes phenomenon as diverse as the Harlem Renaissance and Borat? I feel competent? No. Having focused for so long on the hard center of what I study I have trouble teaching in "my chocolate zone."

I'm not complaining -- I realize that this is just a hang-up that new professors have to Get Over. The ironic thing about the situation is that even as new professors learn to feel comfortable venturing into their "chocolate zone" they must also find its limit. For indeed, every professor must eventually admit that there is a hard, sugary shell beyond which their knowledge does not reach. This is the strange dilemma of being a new professor -- you are simultaneously mindful of the limits of your knowledge and yet always tempted to move beyond it.

People give professors respect. It's amazing. As a graduate student you get no respect. People consider you locked in a state of arrested development, a sort of career limbo. There are many reasons for this, the foremost being, of course, that graduate students are locked in a state of arrested development that forms a sort of career limbo. Moving from this lowly state to that of a professor can be mind-blowing.

Professors are respected and -- most amazingly -- believed. They can opine on topics about which they know absolutely nothing and people will believe it hook, line, or sinker. Or at least they will appear to, since the other feelings associated with professors are fear and boredom. The first inclines students to please professors who have control of their grades, while the second leads everyone to avoid disagreement that may force them to extend a conversation they would prefer to skip.

The intoxicating feeling of being taken seriously is something that the new professor has to take into account. It takes a lot of self-discipline to be modest in one's claims after years and years of not being taken seriously. Are we ever successful? Probably not. And yet it seems to me that we can't do anything else but try.

Beyond teaching there are other situations that force us to find the hard candy shell of our knowledge. Advising graduate students is a good example. By definition, none of your grad students are ever going to write on the topic of your dissertation. They may study topics similar to yours, but not often. Even when they do, advising students requires you to stretch the limits of your knowledge and imagination. What is the role of biomedicine in Brazilian favelas? What forms of subjectivity does obsession with your credit rating generate? Helping students answer these questions requires a willingness to venture outside your area of expertise.

Sometimes you end up working with students for a reason. Since joining my department, for instance, I've been told by a couple of people that one of my areas of expertise might be "youth culture and identity." The reason, I gather, is that I am the faculty member who most recently identified as "young." I thought this pigeon-holing a bit unfair until a female professor reminded me that female social scientists have been labeled as "gender" experts from time immemorial (because "they have it") and if she could take it so could I.

While advising students who don't study "what you study" was weird for me at first, I quickly came to appreciate how much advisors learn from their students. If the transition from graduate student to professor is one from specialized to generalized work, then there may be no better way to increase your general stock of knowledge than to advise others who are writing dissertations. As you learn more about their own specialized projects, your own knowledge grows. Suddenly you know a little about early 20th-century shopping malls in Korea, conservation projects in Kalimantan, and medieval heresies in France.

Moving outside the "nut" of your own area of expertise can be disconcerting. But having some sense of the entirety of your knowledge of the entirety of that M&M of knowledge in your head can also be a welcome relief after years of working on the dissertation. It's a transition that all faculty go through, I suppose, and one that, in some sense, you never complete. Is the answer to "what do you study?" one of these 'journey and not the destination' sort of things? Let me know what you think.

Alex Golub
Author's email: 

Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds.


Subscribe to RSS - Hiring
Back to Top