Submitted by Alex Golub on February 19, 2007 - 4:00am
There is no way around it: I am a member of the Old Boy Network. I attended an elite private liberal arts college, went on to earn my Ph.D. from a famous university and wrote my dissertation with an even famouser professor. And there is no doubt about it: Membership has its privileges. I am now part of a network of colleagues, mentors and classmates-turned-professors whom I will keep in touch with for the rest of my career.
Or at least I thought I was, until one day I woke up and found that I couldn't get on to JSTOR with my old grad student password.
And not just JSTOR. EbscoHost, Academic Search Premier, Chadwyck PAO -- all were suddenly closed to me. My alma mater had finally gotten its act together, realized that I was no longer a graduate student there, and withheld from my Web browser its Magic Fulltext Access Cookie.
Now lest my earlier mention of the old boy network seem smug, I want to point out that there is nothing wrong with leaving The Big Time for some more "provincial" institution. Indeed, some of us would argue that this is an improvement. For instance, you might actually get to teach someone something instead of neurotically obsessing about whether your work is going to transform your discipline more than the guy with the NSF grant in the office down the hall. But no matter how disenchanted you are with the elitism of old boy academic politics, there is no questioning the fact that elite research universities have resources that state schools can only dream of. And this led me to wonder what exactly happens to the "old boy network" once it becomes, well, networked?
Back in the old days (so I am told) there were a variety of methods that professors used to keep in touch: telephone calls, mailing each other offprints of their articles, and of course recreating the collective effervescence of grad school by attending conferences where they all, temporarily, come under one roof again just like they did "back in grad school."
Technology has not changed much of how this works. There are conferences where we revert to type and talk, think, and drink with old friends just like we did in graduate school. We still call each other on the phone. Sure, the phones may not be plugged into the wall anymore, but the idea is still the same. Ditto with the demise of the genteel tradition of offprints and correspondence -- these days we are more likely to send a PDF of our work to our colleagues or just send them an e-mail. We can even check our old department's Web site and see what our professors have been publishing lately.
What I find interesting is that there are many technologies that allow old boys to network that they really haven't taken up. We don't really keep blogs, for instance. I mean sure, there are academic blogs. But the inherent publicness of this form means that our blogs tend to either be relentlessly careerist demonstrations of our knowledge of breaking news in the field, or else anonymous screeds about how much we hate our students. What we don't have is the sort of informal blogs filled with the "ohmygodmycatdidsomethingSOCUTE" kind of sentiment that -- admit it -- is typical of our correspondence with our friends and colleagues.
Social networking sites haven't -- to my knowledge -- taken off. I can use CiteULIke, del.icio.us, Friendster, FaceBook, MySpace, diigo, and so forth with the best of them. And sure, occasionally I'll check to see what my friends have added to their CiteULike bookmarks. But for better or worse, these sorts of tools haven't seemed to become a place where my real-life social networks come to get mediated.
The exception to this rule seems to be the e-mail listserv. Academics love listservs. They carve out exactly the right space between public and private that we need, and they use pre-existing technology that we understand. In the case of the lists that I subscribe to at least, there is plenty of proper academic discussion mixed in with decent helpings of gossip and joking.
It is not surprising, then, that since I have left graduate school and started as a professor I have come to value the way that the Internet keeps me connected to my alma mater through mailing lists. I still receive announcements about upcoming talks at my university and boy do I ever consider this to be a privilege. It keeps me in touch with who is doing what in my field and alerts me to new professors whose work I had not heard of before. There is no better way to vet the quality of a professor's work than to know that they have been invited to speak Someplace Important by faculty who not only share your tastes, but have actually had a hand in making them.
I also am on my old department lists for dissertation proposals and defenses, which keeps me informed of what graduate students in my (former) department are working on. Hell, I'm even on the mailing list to receive information about job openings, despite the fact that I already have a job. A major part of what it means to be an alum of my program (or any program, I reckon) is that you are now plugged into e-mail lists which lend a strange sort of cachet. Never mind the endless requests for cat sitters and sublettors that I delete -- I never want to be dropped from my department's student mailing list.
There is also the Magic Fulltext Access Cookie. This is a big deal. The publishing industry is bleeding the academy white. Public universities like mine cannot afford to keep up with the cost of getting access to electronic journals. And in their attempts to find the money to keep at least some subscriptions, they often end up cutting paper journals.
Now it is true that my current institution has access to specialist journals that my alma mater does not. This is mostly because of our strong research focus in the Asia-Pacific. But overall there is no question that having access to my alma mater's electronic subscriptions was an enormous convenience. And more than that -- being able to use their cookie to access back issues of Cultural Anthropology Methods filled me with a deep and abiding sense that I was still loved and that they would keep my room just the way I left it even though I was now on the tenure track.
It seems clear to me that there is an opportunity in here somewhere for alumni associations to help keep their library budgets afloat by offering some sort of alumni rate for full-text subscriptions. I know that many colleges have some sort of deal for offering continued e-mail services to alumni. Could this be expanded to include Web space or other access to other services like RefWorks subscriptions? It may be that I overestimate exactly how many people would be interested, but one thing is certain -- this is the sort of thing that I have in mind when I think about getting my old boy network network.
This also raises the issue of more formal alumni relations. I know that as a graduate student I have a different relationship to my alma mater than undergrads do, but the quarterly e-mails I receive from the dean of my former college about how much he needs my money strike me as flat-footed. I already gave them my money, and as far as I am concerned they can for more when I have paid off my student loans, thank you very much.
But more importantly: I am already creating and participating in my own digital alumni network. Like the other, analog one, it is growing organically out of my grad school experience in ways that no one, I think, really expected. Whether or not we will all start our own MySpace group is something that is still very much up in the air. But one thing is certain -- if my alma mater really wanted to show it still loved me, it would give me that magic cookie back.
Alex Golub is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who blogs at Savage Minds.
Perhaps you should sit down before reading the next sentence, for it may shock you: Not everyone who begins the Ph.D. program in English -- or finishes it for that matter -- gets a job in academe. (No, seriously, there have been studies about this and everything.) In spite of the hard realities, it can be difficult for graduate students to imagine any alternative to that desired career path. But it seems like a judicious and responsible thing for graduate programs to bring up some of the alternatives, at least.
That’s what the Carnegie Mellon University Literary and Cultural Studies Colloquium did on Monday by hosting a program on higher education journalism. I spoke at it, alongside Liz McMillen, deputy editor of The Chronicle Review. The invitation was proffered a few months ago by Jeffrey Williams, a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon. It was an honor just to be asked. But as the date drew near, I wasn’t at all sure how to prepare for the event. It felt like any lessons to be drawn from my career would tend to take the form: “Well, I tried doing X, and that didn’t work. So don’t do X.”
Williams responded to my panicky e-mail expressing trepidation by explaining -- with patience, and sensibly enough -- what students really needed from the discussions. For one thing, it would be good for them to have some direct contact with people who cover university life and academic publishing for the mass media. They could hear about the routines, including the familiar problems, that go with doing such work. Grand statements or life lessons would count less than the experience of seeing, and asking questions of, someone who is involved with publishing on a day-to-day basis. Graduate students could take away from it a sense of this being a real option, not something undefined and mysterious.
Actually I still find the whole thing kind of mysterious myself, even at this late date. But not to worry: The students were sharp, and the discussion seldom flagged for very long. They asked good questions, many of which concerned the various changes wrought by the growing importance of digital media.
I said they were good questions, not that any brilliant answers sprang to mind. The best way of responding is probably to speak from personal experience -- while also being explicit about how much uncertainty is involved. Aspects of magazine and newspaper publication that took shape over the course of three centuries suddenly began changing, in a big way, over the past five. It's hard to talk about this without indulging in either apocalyptic or wishful thinking. Given the pace of recent changes, it is difficult to think about what things will be like in 2 years, let alone 5 or 10.
Is there an upside to this? To some degree, yes, for people in their 20s, anyway. Uncertainty means plasticity. When familiar patterns aren’t in place anymore, it’s not just possible to try something new, it's an imperative to do so. And the margin for creativity is greater among people who can take the qualities and the potentials of the new media for granted, as a given.
That doesn’t mean that the printed page will disappear. On the contrary, in conversations with several young writers, editors, and academics over the past year, I have noticed that they often show a strong interest in publishing -- as that word was understood before everything started to change. They sound intrigued by the prospect of creating books or journals that will be well-designed objects. They like the idea of the text existing as an artifact in the nondigital world.
The first time I listened to this fascination with publishing expressed, I considered it was just a personal interest of the speaker. But after hearing more or less the same thought articulated by half a dozen people (none of whom known each other, by the way), I have the impression something more is involved. It is a truism that young people consume a great deal of material online -- text included. But they also recognize that the experience of encountering words on the page is quite distinct from that of seeing them on a screen. Not better, necessarily; not worse; just different.
Some of the discussion I heard at Carnegie Mellon reinforced that impression. And a few of the students there already possess more qualifications for moving into the worlds of journalism or publishing than they perhaps realize – particularly since some of them have had the chance to work on a major literary and theoretical journal, The Minnesota Review.
Now, I have been reading MR since the early 1980s -- well before Jeffrey Williams took over as editor – and in all that time it has never actually been based in the state of Minnesota. (Go figure.) The journal is probably best known for its continuing series of thoughtful and extensive interviews with literary scholars, a selection of which appears in the volume Critics at Work (New York University Press, 2004).
MR’s announced schedule of two issues per year has often been honored only in the breach. There have been quite a few double issues, plus at least one triple issue. But thanks largely to the skill and effort of the graduate students involved in its production, the journal is becoming regular. Two issues came out in 2006, and two more are on track for this year. The term “deadline” now has some force behind it, as would-be contributors are learning.
It sounds like they are also being initiated into the deepest mystery of all: the art of editing prose. (Evidently this secret is kept from most academics.) One of his students told me that Williams once demonstrated how the 250-word opening paragraph of a seminar paper could be reduced to 75 words without any loss of meaning. A valuable lesson. I can think of several university presses that would benefit from hiring that student immediately.
Returning from Andrew Carnegie’s university to my hovel here on Grub Street, I’m reminded of an interesting development from an earlier story about a graduate student finding his way into the world of publishing.
Back in August 2005, "Intellectual Affairs" reported on Alfredo Perez, who at the time was a doctoral candidate in political theory at the New School. He had created an invaluable site called Political Theory Daily Review – an aggregation of links to recent articles and conference papers, along with tips about chapters of new books you could download from university presses. It's an intellectual omnivore’s smorgasbord.
Perez’s gift for finding smart, strange, and/or esoteric material online was phenomenal -- no doubt about it. But what has been in question, both for PTDR’s admirers and for Perez himself, was whether he could continue to keep the site running while keeping body and soul together.
Well, last year he entered discussion with a few print-based publications whose editors were interested in working PTDR into their “brand” (or vice versa). By early fall, he passed along some news that I had to keep quiet until the details were worked out. Today the Political Theory Daily Review site bears a small logo saying “sponsored by Bookforum.”
The latter publication (an offshoot of "Artforum" magazine) was mentioned yesterday by The Wall Street Journal as a happy exception to the tendency of review publications to lose ad revenue and shrink in size. Over the past few years, Bookforum has emerged as one of the most prominent critical journals in the United States, and one of the few showing a serious commitment to covering university-press titles regularly and in depth. Eric Banks, its editor, told me that acquiring PTDR is an important part of relaunching the magazine’s online presence – which he sees, in turn, as a prerequisite for the longer-term goal of increasing both the size and the circulation of the print edition.
For now, PTDR and Bookforum exist as separate entities online, but they will be merged in the near future. The rather minimalist design (to put it nicely) of PTDR will be replaced with something easier on the eyes.
That’s nice, of course, but the really good news is that Alfredo Perez will be able to continue exercising his distinctive knack. He's turned it into a job. The loss of one graduate student to the field of political theory is a gain to civilization, more broadly conceived.
Finally, a bulletin from the world of micro-media.... A few weeks ago, I started a blog called Quick Study, which is hosted by ArtsJournal.com. The latter is a well-established site with a sizable audience among people concerned with the fine arts. Most of the other folks blogging there are refined aesthetes who can identify which movement a passage from a Sibelius symphony occurs in, after hearing just three notes.
So my blog probably looks like a Hell’s Angels' clubhouse opening in a nice neighborhood. Quick Study is prone to some of the format's vices -- miscellany, impulsiveness, a certain amount of "well I thought this was interesting so here it is." It's a place where I can put up a notice about a bootleg translation of Alain Badiou’s writings on the philosophy of mathematics ... or discuss Maoism in Georgia during the 1970s....or provide a YouTube clip of the band X Ray Spex performing “Oh Bondage! Up Yours!”
People often ask me why I serve on so many committees. I usually tell them a story about my grandfather. When I was a young child, I often saw him in a T-shirt that read, “Don’t ask me, I’m not on a committee.” Beneath this motto was a trail of enigmatic paw prints. To my young eyes, the paw prints seemed to indicate a level of playfulness and mischief, but also perhaps an element of dehumanization. Even before I knew what a committee was, I made up my mind that I wouldn’t make the same mistake. I would be on a committee.
For most of my life, this thought remained dormant. All that changed, however, when I finished my M.A. at Chicago Theological Seminary, having submitted a translation and commentary on an essay Derrida added to the French edition of The Gift of Death, and made the decision to stay for my Ph.D. as well. Perhaps unexpectedly, given the connotations that a “seminary” calls to mind, my motive in staying there was the intellectual freedom provided by the interdisciplinary Ph.D. program, which would allow me to pursue my interest in contemporary continental philosophy and to seek out resources in the Christian tradition that would resonate with the interest in St. Paul shown by Badiou, Agamben, and others. (My interest has since shifted somewhat, but of course that is one of the benefits of intellectual freedom.)
Having made a significant commitment to the institution, I decided that I would become more involved. The easiest way to do that seemed to be to volunteer as a student representative to Academic Council. I was one of several student representatives, and though there was a place on the agenda for us to bring up matters of student concern, we most often had very little to contribute. I attended very faithfully, though, as a way of getting a feel for how faculty self-governance works in an independent seminary.
The following fall I signed up for a second term on Academic Council. Starting the previous spring and continuing into the fall, there was considerable controversy at the seminary about the decision to convert student housing into a commercial rental property, and I worked with some of my fellow students to attempt to put together an “open letter” from the student representatives to the Academic Council and the leaders of student groups to the Board of Trustees, expressing our concern about the situation. Due to my involvement, the dean named me as one of two student representatives to Academic and Student Affairs Committee of the Board of Trustees.
My service on Academic Council also made me eligible to serve on the search committee for an open faculty position in New Testament. That same year, I began a two-year term as the seminary’s student liaison to the American Academy of Religion, which required submitting various reports and -- of course -- serving on a committee at the national meeting, which that year largely served as an opportunity for us to ask a high-ranking administrator in the academy questions about the organization and its future.
As I reflect on the events of the last year, then, one thing seems pretty obvious: I’ve served on a lot of committees. Now that I am making the transition toward my comprehensive exams and dissertation, I am planning on retiring from student leadership (with the exception of serving the remainder of my term as student liaison), and this seems like an appropriate time to reflect on what I’ve done in the course of serving on these committees. First, I’ve become acquainted with some of the routine tasks of faculty self-governance and with the role of the board of trustees. I couldn’t have chosen a better time to be involved -- the seminary was in the process of adopting a new strategic plan and going through its periodic re-accreditation. I’ve also served my primary professional organization at the national level and seen a faculty search from the inside. The search committee in particular was truly a great opportunity for me. I got to look through applicants’ files, giving me a chance to see what kinds of qualifications applicants for a competitive position generally have, to assess what seemed to be effective cover letters, and to see what kinds of things recommenders say. Beyond that, I was able to sit in on a few informal interviews with our most promising candidates at the national meeting of the American Academy of Religion and the Society of Biblical Literature.
All of this was very valuable experience, and although it sounds like a lot of work, it really wasn’t. Much of the actual decision-making, for both the faculty and the board, took place in the closed executive sessions. Thus the responsibilities of students, and so also the expectations of outside preparation work, were limited: Our primary role was to allow student voices to be involved in the conversation. Even at the peak of my involvement, I was averaging under two hours a week, and most of the time it was considerably less. Since I was in my coursework stage, I was normally on campus anyway on the days when the committees met.
Several of my fellow student representatives complained that Academic Council seemed to be a waste of time because we never “did” anything, but I came to view it as a kind of informal apprenticeship, somewhat similar to the two teaching assistantships that I held that same year. Unlike at some institutions, where the TA is expected basically to teach the entire class, I served as a true assistant, taking care of grading and other clerical tasks and also attending all the class sessions. At first, I viewed the class sessions as a boring ordeal, but gradually my perspective changed and I realized that it was a great opportunity to shift my focus away from the course content and observe the professor’s teaching style -- what works, what doesn’t, what I’d want to adopt, what I’d do differently.
In addition to providing a service to the professor, then, the teaching assistantship helped me to shift gradually from the mindset of a student to that of a teacher. Most grad students are aware of the need for this process, but few seem to be very conscious of the fact that teaching and research are not the entirety of what an academic does -- the nuts and bolts of administration are a major factor as well. Certainly few pursue an academic career because they want to do committee work, but it is an integral part of what it means to be part of a self-governing faculty. Taking the opportunity to participate, by necessity largely as an observer, in the various administrative processes was a very helpful way of getting a realistic view of what the professional life of an academic is really like.
A big part of that for me was simply observing how much time faculty had to devote to meetings and to preparing for them, particularly during the re-accreditation process. Perhaps more important, though, was the kind of informal “ethnography” of committees that I developed over time -- the politics of what is said and what remains unsaid, the role of the moderator in keeping the meeting moving and setting the tone, and a whole variety of other factors that an observer is able to pick up on in a way that someone suddenly thrown into the midst as a more active participant might not be able to.
Above all, I became convinced that patience and a sense of humor are the most important qualities to have in committee work. Patience allows one to see the value in the function of periodic meetings as a way of checking in and making sure that even matters that might be taken for granted are explicitly addressed -- that is, to appreciate the role of regular committees as helping to make sure that things continue to function smoothly and the way that not having to “do” anything can often be a positive sign. A sense of humor works to help maintain that level of patience by keeping what can easily become a tedious process from becoming too burdensome.
For my part, I often found humor in observing the small details of what was going on -- the way that certain seemingly simple decisions could be indefinitely deferred, the people who seemed to enjoy the sound of their own voice and the people who made it their goal to say as little as possible in each meeting, the occasional surreptitious piece of reading material smuggled into the meeting. Much of the time, these small observations served only as an occasion to chuckle to myself, but on rare occasions, I have experienced moments that approach the sublime.
The best such moment came in the course of the meeting of the student liaisons at the AAR. The administrator who had come to our meeting was discussing concerns about how certain institutions were conducting their interview processes, including meeting in inappropriate settings, asking inappropriate questions (particularly about sexual orientation), and basically engaging in a wide panoply of inappropriate behaviors. He assured us all that the AAR was doing everything possible to crack down on such behavior among the users of its job listing service, and speaking on behalf of the AAR more generally, he said, “We are committed to being appropriate.”
“We are committed to being appropriate” -- it is a line I have treasured in my heart and meditated upon ever since. Perhaps I should make a T-shirt.
I recently received a draft of one of my dissertation chapters back from my advisor. As always, he provided copious comments -- advice on improving the coherence of my argument, smoothing out some ungainly syntax, and choosing more appropriate words. My advisor is scrupulous, perhaps excessively so. I have learned a great deal about how to think and write from his comments.
But my advisor is also a tough reader, and I find that after all these years of being a student I am still learning how to take criticism. To wit: in my recent draft, written in bold, red ink is one word that succinctly represents what he thinks of the passage -- “drivel.” I quickly forgot all of the good things he had said about my argument as I focused on this one word, brutally penned in the margin. My incisive points, my elegantly constructed sentences, all reduced to a one-word judgment.
I knew that drivel meant nonsense, but shame prompted me to consult a dictionary. I learned that its meaning was a metaphorical extension of its more literal definition: to let saliva dribble from the mouth. Nothing more vividly represents brazen stupidity than the image of someone drooling. There is something intrinsically repulsive about the act of drooling and as I thought about how that metaphor might apply to my writing, I literally gave a small shudder. Ouch! Was my prose the equivalent of drivel? Analogous to an unconscious trickle of spit?
Yes. My advisor was right. What I had written was drivel. The passage didn’t meaningfully contribute to the argument. In fact, it didn’t seem to be saying much of anything. When I looked at the passage more closely, I saw that it was largely comprised of a loosely stitched together sequence of conventional phrases: “it is the fact that,” “of course,” “indeed, he goes on to argue,” and “on the one hand,” “on the other hand.” It was the utter conventionality of the writing that made it drivel. The passage represented writing on auto-pilot, requiring little to no consciousness on my part. I might as well have been slobbering onto the page. Somewhere behind all the nonsense, I had an idea, but what it was I could not say. Responding to the simple, severe remark felt something like going through the stages of grief. I moved from denial (“surely it’s not that bad”) through anger (“what nerve!”) and toward acceptance (“yup, it’s bad”).
I thought about this experience in the context of my own work. I teach writing and literature at Salt Lake Community College, and every semester I comment on student papers. I identify flaws in their reasoning, give advice on style and punctuation, and even point out when they’ve made an original point or turned a neat phrase. I have never written the word drivel in the margin of one of my student’s papers, but I have been tempted to do so on more than one occasion. I believe almost every writing teacher has felt the impulse to heap ferocious criticism on students. Those who haven’t are far more saintly than I.
I suppose after I achieved acceptance came a feeling of admiration. By God, I wish I had the guts to write the word drivel in the margin of a student paper! Of course, I don’t include these temptations in the class of my finer instincts. The temptation is more on par, I think, with the cheap thrill I get when an action-hero utters a powerful one-liner. Sometimes I just want to be the Arnold Schwarzenegger of writing teachers. But I am not Arnold, nor was meant to be.
The experience prompted me to entertain some more serious lessons about how my experience as a graduate student may translate into my work as a teacher. As a teacher of writing, it’s good to be put in the position of student writer, to experience all of the fear, anxiety, and hopefulness that goes into producing a piece of writing that will be judged by an authority figure. It is both humbling and instructive to be told that you are wanting, that what you’ve produced isn’t up to par. Being both a student and a teacher has made me more sympathetic to my students. I know what it feels like to be criticized and I am more likely to consider the consequences of harsh feedback. In other words, it’s a way of inoculating myself against my adolescent, writing-teacher-as-action-hero fantasies. My experience speaks to the benefit of occasionally subjecting ourselves to the rituals of performance and assessment that we ask our students to perform. We do this, of course, with conferences and papers. Becoming an active participant in disciplinary conversations not only helps me build on my knowledge in the field, it makes me feel like a student all over again.
Yet I am reminded that criticism is a form of praise. My advisor cares enough to call my writing drivel when he sees it, not because he thinks I’m stupid but rather because he believes I am capable of producing something better than drivel. I did not ultimately wilt at the word. I do not believe that I possess a special inner strength that makes me uniquely capable of withstanding severe criticism. Perhaps, then, we are not harsh enough with our students, that in our well-meaning effort to encourage them we end by being less than honest with them.
But maybe there are no life lessons to be drawn from drivel. Drivel is irredeemable. One can’t turn around and reclaim drivel. Never, we can hope, will there be an endowed chair of Drivel Studies. And I don’t believe that drivel is one of those terms that one can, with a bit of vernacular judo, turn on its head. Can I imagine my son saying in his teenage years, “That’s so drivel! It’s wicked drivel!”
There is finally no way around drivel. I find that I am refreshed by the honesty of the term. It reminds me of the uncomfortable fact that my interaction with students will always be structured around criticism, though we sometimes attempt to disguise this basic fact. I think students sometimes understand this better than we do.
Jason Pickavance is an assistant professor of English at Salt Lake Community College and a graduate student in American studies at the University of Utah. Despite his occasional lapses into drivel, he plans on defending his dissertation this year.
In the blogging circles in which I run, one of my many claims to fame is the extent to which I am tired of blogging. I am the author of several pieces on the drawbacks of academic blogging in particular (see, for instance, “On Academic Blogging: A Diagnosis”), and I seize upon any evidence of momentary fatigue or frustration in other academic bloggers as proof of my prescience and insight.
What has caused me to become so cynical at such a tender age? Certainly I can’t deny that I have benefited from blogging -- I’ve met some interesting people and even gotten a couple publications (albeit non-peer-reviewed) out of it. I also can’t deny that I was once among those I now berate as “blog triumphalists.” For approximately two years after I graduated college, my blog was a lifeline for me, and my circle of blogging friends at the time started a fairly ambitious series of reading groups under the Derridean title of “The University Without Condition.” Our first discussion, of Walter Benjamin’s “Critique of Violence,” was enthusiastic and productive, but things gradually tapered off. Since that time, blog-based conversations have nearly always been disappointing to me.
So one way of investigating the origin of my negative attitude is to look at what might have gone wrong with the University Without Condition. First of all, the initial discussions took place over a widely-dispersed network of blogs, which produced an open-ended effect. I hosted a central clearing-house post on my own personal blog, but in theory, anyone could participate in the discussion, either through their own blog, through the comments on someone else’s post, or through some combination thereof. The result was a conversation that was free-wheeling and often difficult to follow, especially for those who were not comfortable with blogging technology. However, when we eventually decided to pool our efforts in a group blog for the sake of convenience, we found the new setting to be stultifying. Why the change?
I have come to the conclusion that what was so good about the original disorganized format of the University Without Condition conversations was precisely that it was so decentralized. This feature allowed it to escape one of the major pitfalls of conversations based in blog comments -- the inherently hierarchical nature of the format. In blog comments, someone has written out a thoughtful post in what they will often regard as their own personal space. They have an established community of commenters who are, for the most part, sympathetic to the author’s point of view. Thus, when someone comes along and starts criticizing the original post, there is naturally a temptation toward “circling the wagons.” Additionally, comment forms are generally cumbersome and difficult to use for in-depth conversation -- with the paradoxical result that one will either dash off a quick comment that by definition cannot match the rigor of the original post, or else an overly long comment that people will experience as an imposition. Having various people responding on their own personal blogs rather than in comments gets around all these problems -- the conversation is decentered, not localized to anyone’s “turf,” and people are more likely to write lengthier, more thoughtful responses if they are producing it for the sake of their own blog instead of writing something that will be hidden away in some obscure corner of someone else’s comment sections.
Unfortunately, the trend in my corner of the academic blogosphere has been toward assembling group blogs with some particular mission or outlook. For a time, a particularly toxic relationship developed between two academic blogs, Long Sunday and The Valve. Long Sunday was originally formed with the ambitious goal of providing an alternative to the (still) dominant academic group blog, Crooked Timber. The contributors all shared a strong interest in continental philosophy and literary theory. The Valve, by contrast, had a strong skepticism about literary theory and in fact featured many posts critiquing the entire enterprise -- together with a book event surrounding an anthology called Theory’s Empire, which positioned itself as “dissenting” from the hegemony of Theory in literary studies. (At the time, I was an occasional contributor to Long Sunday, and my particular loyalties were broadly in line with Long Sunday’s.) Broadly speaking, the dynamic in the various debates between The Valve and Long Sunday was that Long Sunday tended to read The Valve as attacking the entire enterprise of continental philosophy in favor of a more Anglo-American approach, whereas The Valve consistently viewed Long Sunday as failing to provide any definite idea of where The Valve had gone wrong or even what they understood The Valve to be about. As time went on, this dynamic became a negative feedback loop that predecided every argument in advance -- to the point that two years later, certain parties (including me) still periodically argue about the exact stakes of those disputes.
It seems to me that there was a kind of short circuit in these conversations -- a minority tendency in literary studies (The Valve) was coming up against a minority tendency in American philosophy departments (Long Sunday), resulting in a kind of missed encounter where the stakes revolved more around institutional insecurities rather than the supposed "substance" of whatever we were talking about. I believe that this effect was exacerbated by the quasi-“institutional” nature of the two respective blogs. The various debates may still have been just as heated if the various group loyalty issues were not in play, but they probably would have been more intellectually productive. There are enough institutional turf wars in academe – if blogs are to play a productive role in academic discourse, they should not gratuitously recreate those same dynamics, and for me that means moving away from having quasi-institutional group blogs with stated missions and back toward conversations dispersed among many blogs.
More than formatting issues, however, I think that everyone needs to realize that having a productive conversation in an online format is very hard work, which is why it happens so rarely. Many bloggers can point out online conversations in which they were pushed to think in a new direction or got genuinely valuable feedback on a question, but as with all human endeavors, there is a high percentage of dross to go along with the occasional gold. Policing comments is a difficult job, and efforts to keep conversations on-topic or ensure that contributors have some substantial knowledge to share will often cause resentment in light of the “democratic” leanings of online communities. All this is on top of the obvious problems with online interaction as opposed to in-person conversations.
As more and more academic resources become available online, hopefully academic blogs will begin to fill a role analogous to the political blogs that link to and comment on particular news stories -- that is, bringing new scholarly research to the attention of an interdisciplinary audience. I hope that events like this will help to push more journals toward open-access electronic formats. Failing that, however, academic blogs seem to me to be best-suited as a social outlet for academics who would otherwise feel isolated, creating camaraderie and supplementing the social aspects of disciplinary conferences. I know that my interest in blogs peaked when I was living in the rural town where my undergraduate institution was located. I was fortunate enough to find a vibrant intellectual community in Chicago, so that I frankly don’t need blogs as much as I once did. If I were asked why I don’t just quit blogging if I’m so tired of it, I would have to say that the answer is finally that I recognize that I may not always be so lucky: I may need blogging again.
Adam Kotsko is a doctoral student at the Chicago Theological Seminary. He blogs at The Weblog and An und fÃ¼r sich. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave last month at the annual meeting of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.
Adam may not need blogging right now, but even he admits that the community he has as a graduate student is transitory -- contingent upon a certain group of students sharing an institutional affiliation in a particular historical moment -- and perhaps all the more vibrant for being so.
I have a similar community in Irvine: I speak regularly with Joseph Kugelmass, another contributor to The Valve, and our conversations as frequently turn to things we’ve read and written online as they do formal professional matters. Our conversations straddle two mediums; but someday soon, when he’s sporting tenure at an Ivy and I’m adjuncting my way up and down the California coast, we’ll still be able to keep half our current dynamic intact. I’m not talking about pointless Facebook update -- there may be a benefit to knowing that a Simpsons rerun left a fellow Americanist craving Cherry Garcia, but I doubt it’s intellectual. I’m talking about a regular engagement with each other’s intellectual concerns -- everything from the pains of preparing for the job market to the theoretical implications of an interpretive move you’re not sure you should’ve made -- all communicated in a medium able to accommodate everything from idle chatter to earnest manifesto.
Over the past three years, I’ve learned what it’s like to write in a way most academics never have: namely, for an audience. If this seems like a simple point, that’s because it is. Nor is it one of those profoundly simple points, either: it’s straight simple. When a blogger sits down to slave on her dissertation, article, or book, she doesn’t turn her back on the public sphere. Because in the end, the public sphere is us.
I’m talking about the communities we currently have, only five years in the future, when we’re scattered around the country, unable to communicate face-to-face, but still connected, still intellectually intimate, because we’ll still regularly be engaged with each other’s thoughts. But I’m not only talking about us. There’s no reason our community needs to consist solely of people we knew in grad school. Why not write for people who don’t already how you think about everything? Why not force yourself to articulate your points in such a way that strangers could come to know your thought as intimately as your friends from grad school do?
The informal publishing mechanisms available online can facilitate such communication so long as bloggers write for an audience informally. Senior faculty might continue to orient their scholarly production to the four people whose scholarly journals don’t pile up in the corner of the living room, slowly buried beneath unpaid bills and unread New Yorkers. Whether they know it or not, bloggers write for an audience larger than the search committees we hope to impress. They have already started eye-balling the rest of the world, asking themselves how they can communicate with it without seeming to pander to it. By and large, this approach works. To draw from my own recent experience:
In the first week of October, I presented at the American Literature Association’s Symposium on Naturalism. My talk went well enough, but the conference itself was surreal: two tenured faculty members -- both of whom wrote books I wish I’d written at institutions that would never consider hiring me -- two tenured faculty members independently introduced themselves to me and acknowledged that they’ve read my blog, Acephalous, for quite some time. Flattering, but hardly surreal. However, they then told me that they almost didn’t introduce themselves because they were, and I quote, “intimidated.”
Tenured faculty intimidated by a graduate student. These professors obviously put some weight into what I’ve written on Acephalous and The Valve. So I turned to my audience for feedback, and one of my commenters made the obvious point: I have commenters. Most scholars don’t. They have people they need to impress and tenure files to fill; but I have sustained intellectual engagement with hundreds of people. As one member of it wrote: “In the land of the people who work on things only three people will ever read, the schlub with a somewhat popular blog is king.”
Perhaps, but I don’t want to sound like one of Adam’s blog triumphalists, because I consider the power of blogs to be supplementary and concrete: they provide atomized intellectuals a way to meet and remain in contact with fellow sufferers and their ideas. More importantly, they ensure you’re not forgotten.
Scott Eric Kaufman
Scott Eric Kaufman is a Ph.D. candidate in English at the University of California at Irvine and blogs at Acephalous. This essay is adapted from a talk he gave last month at the annual meeting of the Association of Literary Scholars and Critics.
The 20-plus-year job crisis in the foreign language and English professoriate has persisted beyond the shelf-life of “crisis.” Simply put, the increasing reliance on adjunct labor, the creation of compromise full-time non-tenure-track positions, and the continued overproduction of Ph.D.’s fall more neatly under the term “reality” than they do “crisis.”
Wandering the halls of the Modern Language Association convention in San Francisco last month brought to mind the two years I attended MLA conventions, waited in drafty hotel hallways for interviews to begin, and, looking back, participated, sadly enough, in an academic ritual Dante could not have imagined in his visions of hell.
And my baptism by fire led to no job prospects.
After considering applying for a paid training program to obtain a bus driver’s license in Ohio rather than work for less money as an adjunct instructor of English, I concomitantly considered applying to the spring two-year college market. Although this is changing somewhat, community colleges’ budget cycles often mean their faculty positions are advertised and filled in the spring. I received four interviews and three job offers, the best of which I took, and the benefit of which placed me at the front of a classroom rather than behind the wheel of a bus.
All this is to say, do not despair. The four-year job market may pass you by, the MLA may be a memory now, and the coveted research-intensive universities may find others for 2/2 teaching loads, but you can pursue a life of the mind in other settings that may not be utopian.
Let’s first look at the landscape of higher education before I discuss the promises and pitfalls of community college faculty life. According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching’s classifications, 4,391 colleges and universities serve over 17,000,000 students. Only 283 of 4,391 institutions are classified as research universities (very high or high research activity), and/or doctoral/research universities. To their credit, these 283 universities enroll 28 percent of students, according to the 2004 IPEDS fall enrollment figures. By contrast, some 1,814 associate’s colleges -- including an additional 32 tribal colleges, which generally offer two-year degrees -- enroll 39 percent of American postsecondary students
In terms of faculty characteristics, full-time faculty degree attainment at the community college level remains heavily tilted toward the master’s, with 71 percent holding terminal master’s degrees while 13 percent hold doctorates. For the adjuncts who teach over two-thirds of community college courses, a definite pitfall of the system, only 5 percent hold doctorates.
Although statistics tend to bore humanists, I offer an overview of higher education to highlight points of interest to the Ph.D.’s in foreign languages and English who imagine themselves laboring only in the academic culture in which they took their doctorate. This spring, 1,814 two-year colleges and 32 tribal colleges may well need your expertise.
I have heard people lament, “As a humanist, I am not trained to teach five courses per semester to the under-prepared introductory student, thereby crowding out time for research.”
My response: “Think.”
To cite myself as an example, the state of New York paid for my master’s and the state of Ohio paid for my Ph.D. My training as a humanist helped me become a public intellectual whose politics and personal ethics demand that I give back to and reform the very system that helped me reach this stage in my career. Higher education is so diverse, two-year colleges themselves so diverse, that I cannot possibly speak in sweeping terms about any of them.
I can say that many of my colleagues are brilliant. I can also say that, as Emily Toth/Ms. Mentor writes, everyone who moves from graduate school to academic positions will have moments where they think, “I am surrounded by idiots.” Usually such moments represent the newly hired faculty member's overreaction to some errant words from the mouths of department misfits, committee losers, or administrative malcontents. Knowing that teaching is a messy prospect, I look for perfection neither from teachers nor students, and, I assure you, I am at my college for the students rather than for the misfits, losers, and malcontents. Proudly under-educated and provincial faculty give higher education a bad name.
My students motivate my research in unexpected ways, leading me to create a nationally recognized preparing future faculty program, to securing a spot at a week-long seminar at the United States Institute of Peace, to publish two books, to take students on grant-funded field trips, and much more.
To be sure, the high attrition of students at my community college demoralizes me. Then again, the ability of students to reach a high bar inspires me. Each semester represents a personal emotional roller coaster, at turns terrifying and fun. The fun should be restored to students’ intellectual lives, as well. Many have experienced schools as sites of degradation, yet they persist. Maybe you can relate.
But myths die hard deaths, and some myths about the community college sector contain kernels of truth. Faculty do teach a great deal. Graduate students may find the prospect of a 5/5 (or higher) load unthinkable. Sometimes I still do. However, I have taught a variety of courses during my tenure -- Critical Thinking, Introduction to Humanities, British Literature I and II, as well as many, many composition courses, online and face-to-face. Dabbling once into a basic skills course gave me enough pause to leave that work to my more talented colleagues. In short, thinking of course topics, of themed composition courses (our faculty regularly offer advertised composition classes in the graphic novel, gender and sexuality, protest literature, banned books, writing for education majors, and the like), rather than of course load mitigates some of the trepidation faculty experience in the face of a 5/5 teaching assignment. Learning communities, team teaching, and special projects may well reduce one's course load, depending upon local administrative policies, as may union contracts that weight composition classes as 4 credits rather than 3 because of the grading required of instructors in writing courses.
Teaching as much as we do can be intellectually stultifying. Community colleges pride themselves on innovation and responsiveness, excellence in education at an affordable price, but even the architecture of many two-year colleges speaks more to utilitarianism than to fostering a life of the mind. Bucking a full-time position in an academic setting for part-time work in a university setting may well be more intellectually stultifying.
Consider, too, the facts of salary, tenure, and benefits when looking beyond myths of the two-year college, one of which holds that faculty do not earn wages comparable to the four-year sector. Given the community college movement's early alliances with high schools, many have graduated pay scales or step systems based upon education and years of experience. I move up a step on the pay scale each year, enjoy adequate health care fully funded by the college, earn 15 sick days and receive 2 special emergency days per year. By law, tenure in Illinois runs on a three-year clock, and the peer-review process is formative rather than evaluative, leaving a pre-tenure candidate feeling more nurtured in her/his classroom practice than harassed. Combine all of this with a generous retirement package, and one invariably concludes: I work a lot and I'm paid for the work.
The adjunct path often leads to the work, sans the pay and benefits. To take concrete examples, of two-year colleges with ranks, the AAUP faculty salary survey for 2007-8 lists assistant professor pay ranging from a high point of $85,000 (Westchester Community College, New York) to a low point of $34,500 (Lackawanna College, Pennsylvania).
Myths aside, I encourage an empowered faculty role in the life of a college. The same should hold true of one's own career path. If the college at which I work has given all it can to me, and if I have contributed all I can to the college, I have no reservations parting ways. Should administration seem like the sector within which I can most impact students, I will pursue administrative jobs -- either at my current college or elsewhere. Tenure involves a college's commitment to employing me for life. I make no such commitment to stay employed at one school for life. More philosophically speaking, I tell my students that education always opens doors, and I believe the same of my Ph.D.
The Ph.D. confers upon a holder a certain cultural cachet. Whether to use this cachet in service of community college students, many of who will be first-generation and working-class, is not a decision to be made lightly. But if said students are to move along to four-year colleges and universities, should they so choose, they need professors with deep capacities for instructional flexibility, critical thinking, political savvy, and communitarian values. That might be you.
Again, do not despair about the dearth of university jobs with 2/2 loads, and, more importantly, do not fall prey to contempt prior to investigation — the surest road to ignorance. Visit community colleges, visit their classrooms, discuss career options with two-year college professors, and let go of the notion that 6,795,850 students gather in America’s two-year colleges to waste faculty members’ time, to dawdle, or to fail.
My faculty position is not utopian, but I defy anyone to tell me I would have traveled the world to academic conferences on subjects ranging from James Joyce to online teaching, encountered 3,600 students over 10 years, gained insight into the ways people’s minds work, contributed to a community, and have a stake in higher education were I in that bus or on an adjunct track, waiting year after year for a university position that may never materialize.
Sean P. Murphy
Sean P. Murphy is professor of English and humanities at the College of Lake County.
After Sidonie Smith, president of the Modern Language Association, took on the herculean task of asking the profession to rethink the shape of the dissertation, Arnold Pan at Post Academic took up the MLA’s call to respond. Among his suggestions was “legitimating non-academic options for Ph.D. students, beyond the more practical advice offered by the campus job center.” Much attention has also been devoted lately to what Bethany Nowviskie calls “#alt-ac,” the alternative academic track for humanities scholars.
But humanities education needs to do more than change the shape of the dissertation, legitimate non-academic jobs, or validate academic jobs that are not tenure-track teaching posts. The crisis in academic humanities, brought on by years of focus on nothing but turning out professor-wannabes, has to be addressed long before the job-placement stage. Long before the dissertation stage. We need to train Ph.D. students differently from the first day of graduate school.
If we value the humanities enough to teach them at the undergraduate level, if we believe that humanities education produces thoughtful, critical, self-aware global citizens, then we need to recognize that advanced training in the humanities cannot be simply the province of aspiring tenure-track faculty members. If there’s no prospect of a tenure-track job in the humanities, and humanities graduate programs train students for nothing but tenure-track jobs, how long can these programs be sustainable?
The current job crisis may be just the impetus graduate humanities education needs in order to recognize that what it has to offer is essential to this democracy, and essential to training leaders in a whole range of fields, far beyond academics.
As Pan, Nowviskie, and others point out, if most graduate programs devote a thought to "non-academic" careers for their Ph.D.s, they make very clear that there are indeed only two categories — academic and undesirable, i.e., everything else in the entire world. It’s that everything else we should be addressing, though.
Among my own friends I count a director of a state humanities council, a director of a university women's center, and a director of a state Center for the Book. Graduate work in the humanities has been absolutely essential to each of those professionals, in the sense that they learned writing, research, and analytical skills that they use every day. They discussed values, ethics, and aesthetics, and they applied abstract theory to concrete texts. They learned to develop complex arguments, to balance competing claims, to present clear positions. Yet in none of their graduate careers did any of them get any acknowledgment that such preparation might be of good use in any number of professional contexts. And in none of their graduate careers were any of them offered any coursework or workshops that focused on anything other than their academic disciplines.
What would a humanities Ph.D. program look like if it saw itself as preparing professional humanists rather than simply humanities professors? Courses from outside our departments could complement our intensive training in a chosen area of specialization. Deep work in a specialized area is most valuable, teaching us organization, research, writing, and often collaboration skills that are necessary in any humanities field. But how many of us, even in academic positions, would have benefited from a graduate course in organizational structures? In grant writing? In state and federal government? In arts administration?
A doctoral program that allows such courses to count toward the degree would be the stronger for it, I believe. If programs allowed two or three of these pre-professional courses in three years' of coursework, the loss of discipline-based courses would be more than made up for by the benefits of increased job prospects. Students who didn't want the courses needn't be force-marched into them, but the humanities departments would need to endorse the new approach. That will be the tough part -- getting faculty who might be unaware of these humanities-based professional careers to steer students in this new direction.
And it’s not just coursework that should change. Graduate student employment would need a shift in emphasis as well. Most grad student work in the humanities is teaching and research assistantships, of course. These jobs are not designed to prepare graduate students for careers as faculty members, though; they’re designed to teach the undergraduates at a very low rate of pay. But there are other jobs at the university, jobs that are equally designed to exploit graduate student labor but that offer training in a bigger variety of skills. When I was in grad school, I did survey research in the school of education and taught outside my department, in both the journalism school and the business school. I had friends who worked in administrative offices in women’s studies and African American studies. A guy in my department worked in the university’s foundation office and eventually went there full-time.
The one thing that all those jobs had in common, however, was that my home department neither placed us in the jobs nor recognized that the jobs offered anything of value to a humanities degree. Imagine a humanities department that assembled a list of jobs from all over campus and asked graduate students to consider what they might learn from each. Or, even better, a department that asked its graduate students to compile an electronic portfolio that collected work from both humanities courses and graduate employment. The portfolio could include an essay in which the student reflected on the skills and knowledge he or she was acquiring and the ways those things might be useful after the degree. It wouldn’t have to be a job portfolio, but it would have to ask the student to think about what he or she was learning, beyond the theory and content in the discipline.
A humanities department that really saw the value in placing thoughtful, well-trained humanists in government, nonprofit associations, and even business or the military, could shape a graduate experience around the idea of the humanist at large. Such a direction need not, and indeed should not, be a separate track. These wider opportunities and broader coursework should be available to all humanities graduate students. How much better would academics be in our committee work or as department chairs or in national organizations if we had been prepared in our graduate programs for those parts of our jobs that did not revolve around research or teaching?
We are beginning to acknowledge that the graduate training we offer in the humanities is simply not fair to our students, the vast majority of whom will never get tenure-track jobs in their disciplines. But the worth of humanities graduate education need not depend on the number of tenure-track humanists it produces. Graduate education in the humanities is an excellent preparation for many, many careers. But our students should not have to find those careers on their own, and they should not have to think of those careers as “non-academic” careers—the jobs we take when we can’t get the jobs we’ve been trained for. Humanities education needs to take itself seriously. We believe that undergraduate humanities programs produce thoughtful, informed, global citizens. Now we need to decide what we really want graduate humanities programs to produce.
Paula Krebs is professor of English at Wheaton College, in Massachusetts. She serves on the board of the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities.