09 April 2006

See Ya Later, Gator!

The academic year is slowly, begrudgingly giving up the ghost, along with winter. Students appear in class overly tired, or drop class, suddenly disappearing, or sending emails indicating their reasons, usually their lack of a guaranteed B+ or higher. Seniors rush their projects, panicked about edits and desperate to meet with you (“finally,” you think). End of year paperwork looms, along with final grading and commencement and all the rituals that you discover, after attending years of commencements, are part of the job and very different from the ambivalent yet optimistic feelings at your own ceremonies. You realize that your rented regalia is not glamourous, but actually polyester. The mortarboard makes you look like a pinhead. Yet you loathe the other style of academic head gear: the puffy yet floppy hats that make dowdy professors look like ridiculous Shakespearians in some small, pathetic summer stock troupe. The whole get up is so hot that if your commencement day starts out warm you could indeed be risking passing out. You are secretly relieved the shutter-snapping grandparents, beaming fathers and mothers, and every other assorted familial groupies attending for free cheese and crackers afterwards can’t see your sweat-soaked back under your regulation black.

And worse, as a final hideous act, the procession of the students across the stage, both favourites and less-than-favourite, awkward or arrogant, happy or bewildered, grabbing their diplomas and then posing for an instashot from the school photographer. Some students you are sad to see go, but others: Good riddance to bad rubbish! Feeling punchy at my last commencement at Sadistic College, Professor Fussylicious, a co-conspirator, and I actually hissed (discreetly, natch, so that only the faculty could hear) the students we hated as they passed across the stage, those students who had been pointy in class or written us bad evals or just been slagging students, while my girl Skank Huore sat prostrate next to us, suffering from the aforementioned overheating syndrome and close to babbling Sapphic love poems of delirium to nearby tent poles, which she would argue in more lucid moments held more appeal than her usual “dates.” Afterwards, a new (first year) assistant professor with a na├»ve demeanour said, “Did you hear people hissing?” to which Fussylicious and I proudly proclaimed, “Honey, that was US!” Shameless is as shameless does!

Thankfully, we are not there just quite yet. Cold City still looks dormant, only some of the trees have a fuzzy halo of new buds, the grass remains patchy and brown in places. On our rainy days, it could be April or it could be October. But the sun is out, and rising higher in the sky day by day, and warmer as well. The heart quickens, one ponders the closet: what to wear today? Needless to say, I have either been underdressed or overdressed this past week, enthusiastic about a light, elegant raincoat that I will later regret choosing as the wind comes up or alternatively sweating in a cotton turtleneck. The locals tell me to keep the woolens out until the end of the month, but on days like today, spent outside in a brown park under the glorious sun and returning home with the buzz of a slight sunburn on my face, all I can think of is linen pants and the thinnest possible button down shirts, a healthy spritz of Clarins Eau Dynamisante, a full pack of cigarettes and a Djeep lighter in Harlow white and silver comfortably and reassuringly in the shirt pocket, and a dinner date with Mr. Gordo in hot humid Big Eastern City. But we’re not quite there yet either.

Where we seem to be at, on the institutional clock of the Shop, is Offer Time! The academic version of The Price is Right, with the lucky candidates running down the aisle, bellies straining in tucked in shirts or breasts jiggling in tube tops: "Come On Down!" A series of different moments have come together recently to push my thinking towards this annual moment. One is the fabulous news of La Lecturess’s gaining of an academic position. “Skoal! Good Work, Eve!” Any tenure-track job acquired is a victory over the process itself. Another is the strange paranoia of my Cold City colleagues, who throughout the month of March have been asking me, in hushed tones in hallways and the lift and over business lunches, “Are you on the market? Are you leaving? We so want you to stay. We’re so glad you’re here. What can we do to convince you to stay?” This has been a hard one for me to decipher. For one, no one, and I mean no one, at Sadistic College ever (ever, Mary!) said, “We so want you to stay.” Ever. (What they would say is, “We certainly hope you can stay,” or some other ridiculousness. As Prancilla would say, “Please, girl!”) Secondly, I just got off the merry-go-round of the market. Why would I want get back on that hideous ride so soon? My responses to these queries have been careful, but generous. I appreciate the support, so refreshing after four years of mind-numbing abuse. But, inside I am thinking, “If I was on the market you wouldn’t know about it.” Discretion is the better part of valour, after all, and departures must be negotiated much more carefully than arrivals.

And yet another thread has been the deliciously satisfying news that the junior faculty of Sadistic College seem to be decamping for greener pastures before they can be dumped for no good reason. I know for a fact that my own case was educational in ways that the administration did not realize at the time. To wit, three junior faculty have resigned their positions this spring, one after the other, leaving for superior institutions or places where they are guaranteed a fairer shake. As one of the escapees tells me over email, “Incidentally, do you know that I am the third person to resign this semester? And possibly not the last...” My goodness! The giddiness over this implicit critique of the college is tempered by my knowledge that the administration of Sadistic College, sociopaths and thrill kill cultists that they are, has no capacity for introspection just as they have no soul, even if the senior faculty can clearly see the writing on the wall (and respond, as they always do, with depression instead of outrage). At any decent liberal-arts college, the loss of one junior faculty is regarded as a trauma; the loss of three in one semester (two faculty of colour and one gay man, natch) would be considered an institutional disaster! Still, it is a small pleasure, a reaffirmation of hard won knowledge, in the moment between brushing my teeth and applying moisturizer (Shiseido Hydrating Fluid for Men, if you’re curious), since I have had little time for anything else of late.

But the differences here between Sadistic College and Cold City U. are terribly instructive, both about faculty support, “fit,” the tensions and competitions in the profession over junior faculty, and an emergent politics of faculty desire. Cold City U. is a modest institution, which regards a hire as an investment in permanence, or in other words, when you are hired it is assumed, barring any egregious actions and the fulfillment of contractual obligations towards service, teaching, and research, that you will indeed be tenured. Cold City U. is a “hire to tenure” institution. Therefore, support can be offered unequivocally, as an honest gesture of collective institutional desire to reaffirm the decisions made by the extensive and exhausting hiring process. As a modest institution, Cold City U. also recognizes implicitly that the professoriate has options of movement that make collegial support (because it is free, and therefore an available resource) all that much more important. This thinking is sort of along the lines of, “We may not be able to give you money or an R1 library, but we can appreciate your contribution and presence.” This, as you soon discover, is nothing to cluck at.

Compared to Sadistic College’s hyper-inflated self-importance and egomania, the “You’ll Never Be Good Enough For Here” school of thought (with of course, accompanying dead wood faculty, deadly institutional politics, a surprising lack of any resources, and the stick of both R1 and Liberal Arts College life), my current perch is more than enough as a place to catch my breath, a querencia de experiencia. Querencia is a sophisticated Spanish word Mr. Gordo taught me, one I thought of a lot in the last, difficult year at Sadistic College. Literally, a querencia is the place where the bull goes to escape the arena. It is also translated as a den or a lair. But as a metaphor, it can be read as a homing instinct, as well as a sort of safe space to escape to. A querencia is what most junior faculty are looking for, and soon discover that to actually find it requires, in many cases, the wherewithal to actually go look for it.

The trick, of course, is to make it over the wall in the first place: once you have a position on the tenure-track, movement across the institutional spectrum becomes that much easier, even if such movement is lateral or up and down. However, a story in Inside Higher Ed this week got me to thinking over another angle to the annual comings and goings that typify the season. What if contemporary junior faculty want something more than what the Shop has traditionally offered for them, which is to say abjection, hard work, and sublimation, after which you’re not only tenured but also dead. It is an intriguing line of thinking.

The article in IHE discusses this transformation in desire on the part of junior faculty in terms of generations, specifically the Gen X professor, through the work of a Harvard think tank that has looked at generational differences in professional expectation, process, and outlooks. Some of the interesting observations of this work have been that younger (junior) professors value quality of life, transparency in hiring, tenure, and promotion, and multi-dimensional understandings of intellectual work, as opposed to more traditional professional models of privileging research and academic work over personal life, secrecy in promotional and institutional matters, and a singular model for academic evaluation (peer-review, monographs, etc.). IHE notes that,

Trower’s [one of the study researchers] generation gap work is an outgrowth of her work on the push from younger faculty members for policies that are more “family friendly” and the anger many younger scholars feel over the way tenure standards have gotten so much tougher in recent years — and are frequently presided over by senior scholars who couldn’t meet those standards today. While looking at what she called “a culture clash of generations” doesn’t make those issues go away, it helps explain some of those tensions.

This differential in experience and expectation has been building since the 1970s, but as the academic job market crisis has become a permanent state, some junior faculty have responded by reordering the rules of the game. In other words, new faculty increasingly want flexibility, transparent accountability, and an appreciation of the nuances and complexities of lived experience (i.e. family life, child care, emotional states and identities beyond the Shop) as part of their professional experience. They do not want to be the bookish professor, infatuated with peer-review or institutional politics: they want to be people. They fit into what Richard Florida calls, in his two volumes, “The Creative Class”: professionals that desire satisfaction from work as well as connection and involvement with life outside of professionalism. And they’re willing to schlep to find this. As the IHE article observes,

Trower noted that another key quality about Gen Xers generally, including those in the academy, is that they don’t have the patience of their elders. Gen X faculty members are less likely to see inherent value in staying at one institution for a long time, or to give administrators lots of time to work on reforms. As a result, she said, senior faculty members and administrators can’t assume they will hold on to their Gen X talent — unless they start to rethink policies that make no sense to the members of that generation.

Hello, Sadistic College! Your phone is ringing! The comment thread on this story has been incredible, with some proclaiming the laziness of the young, others decrying the dulling effects of popular culture on work ethics and attention spans, and yet others attempting to think through what these changes in perspectives mean for our insular, self-assured profession, including the vast increase in work loads for junior faculty combined with job insecurity.

Centre of Gravitas has a funny yet chilling entry on the generational differences in his department, my reaction to which upon my first reading was, “Those historians!” but afterwards, connected in my mind to this conundrum of expectation that the IHE article, and its comment thread, examines, gave me pause. CoG’s white male historians are angry; they are pissed off at race, at gender. At change, in other words. And they have made it clear they will fight it out, their vision of academia and academic life. As CoG puts it:

On Friday, we had a meeting to discuss hiring our super-special-senior historian. In that time, the “traditional” historians seethed with anger and venom. They demanded the department hire another historian just like them. One senior “traditional” historian actually stated, “We have gone along with all of these ‘diversity’ hires. We allowed the department to offer courses in things that are irrelevant, like ‘Border Studies’ and ‘Women’s History.’ How many women historians do we need? Now it’s time to give back to the department’s real strengths: Traditional History.”

Ouch! This is where these abstract ideas about generation and expectation meet the hard realities of institutional life. This is also where the broad professional generalizations become intimate and personalised, because I would argue, as CoG implies, that indeed many of the “generational” differences are actually reflective of the institutional changes as they relate to race, gender, sexuality, and our idea of the scholar, as well as scholarship and scholarly life.

Calcified infrastructures of senior professors with agendas of ressentiment can prevent institutional growth and transformation, to the point where you could argue they threaten the very future of the profession (as one of many different aspects at play). Indeed, this is one way to evaluate what happened to me at Sadistic College: a senior black professor (historian, natch), whose whole way of academic understanding was threatened by new models and methodologies, refused the questions by eliminating the symbol of change (me), but not change itself (as evidenced by the presence of an army of similarly trained scholars behind me; her own obsolescence as an agent of stasis confronting her). The situation detailed at CoG seems in some ways even worse: a split department torn between old and new academic practitioners, locked in a death match that sometimes leads to receivership, sometimes to one side or another moving on (or retiring) and a pyrrhic victory, or most depressingly, a continued deadlock that eventually drags the department down into a morass of resentment, bitterness, and frustration.

A lot of these debates can also be found filed under interdisciplinarity, and the effect of different modalities of thought on parts of the professoriate that are committed to more traditional methodology (along with all its limitations, problems, and histories of racial and sexual bias). This mirroring of the professional (tensions between interdisciplinarity and disciplinarity) and the personal (racial, sexual, gendered, socio-political differences) can both illuminate and obscure. For how are these debates then written on the bodies of the new professoriate? Is it coincidental that those leaving Sadistic College all meet our definition of non-traditional (i.e. non-white str8 male) academics? What sacrifices in person and thought that, for instance, earlier generations of scholars of colour were willing to make for professional success are now no longer valid, or legitimate? What kind of resentments does this generate among and between the professoriate of colour, or among women scholars? Among the professoriate as a whole? Or rather, how do new scholars of all races and genders (with their fancy tools of interdisciplinarity, cultural studies, popular culture, et al.) embody and refuse (refute) other, older, positivist conceptions and representations of the professor and professorial practice? For that is what we are attempting to unravel in these "generational" debates, after all. And how does all this meet the deadly challenges to academic governance and academic freedom mounting as we speak in state legislatures and Capital Hill? For as we debate, on some level, the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin (and some of us try to survive this exquisite debate), Joe Q. Public, mirroring the racial and gendered ressentiment of CoG's senior colleagues and thinking the whole crock is bollocks, in classic American anti-intellectualism, is ready to call the whole thing off. We may not have the time it will take to work these issues out amongst ourselves, but will have to forge new visions while simultaenously struggling to preserve or save the most crucial aspects of our intellectualism, even if that may have to occur outside of the bounds of the university.

Springtime is change. Easter, coming soon, promises rebirth, renewal, optimism and hope. For a lucky few, this theme is found in this time of their first contract, their first job. For others, more seasoned hands, in the possibilities of the next job. I would like to think that new academics, in their desire for community, for personal and professional satisfaction, for querencia, represent positive changes in our profession. But as the birds fly from the warren of horror that is Sadistic College and other unsatisfying institutional situations, I know that for many of us the search will continue. But the thing to focus on here is not the defeat of change, but the very possibility of flight itself.

Or as Soul II Soul put it in the eighties, Keep on Movin'.


La Lecturess said...

Or to paraphrase Woody Allen (badly): "Your professional identity is like a shark. If it doesn't keep moving, it dies."

Thanks for the shout-out and, as always, for your wise reflections on the profession--God bless the blogosphere and those who use it to tell it like it is.

P.S. Ooh, Clarins! Next time you're in My City, check out the new Clarins *store* they've opened up. I'll meet you in front of the eyeliner.

GayProf said...

As always, Oso, you have so much great stuff in this post that it is hard to just comment on one thing.

I will say that I always regretted not buying my “authentic” Ph.D. regalia. My grad school demanded the best for their robes (I think the velvet might have been made from real bunnies). At the time, the price tag seemed way too steep (about $1500). Alas, the rented polyester robes just never quite seem the same after that.

Let’s face it, as a gay boy, I love playing dress-up. Plus, some heteros pay that much for a wedding dress they wear ONCE. We wear the garb at least once a year. I also have a suspicion that I would probably also wear it around the house. You know, when I am vacuuming and such.

The first time I sat for commencement at my current institution, nobody told me that all the other faculty would be bringing books that they discreetly slid between a program. Damn them! I had nothing to do but actually listen to the proceedings.

Finally, thanks for the shout-out. Alas, I may have made the generational divide a bit too stark. One of the other things that concerns me about my department is that the older generation of “traditional” historians has won some battles on junior hires, creating a whole new generation of “traditional” historians to follow in their wake.

Where did I put that Xanax?

Dr. Mon said...

Great post. As a barely Gen X'er, the questions you raise really resonate with me. Particularly: What sacrifices in person and thought that, for instance, earlier generations of scholars of colour were willing to make for professional success are now no longer valid, or legitimate? What kind of resentments does this generate among and between the professoriate of colour, or among women scholars?

Your post helps me further understand the cold shoulder I have gotten from more seasoned women scholars ("mentors") upon my decision to forego taking a position at an R1.

jack (aka angrybrownbutch) said...

Great read here. Enlightening stuff - I've only experienced academia as a college student, so this is a nice look at the other side of things. A side I nearly experienced myself - during my senior year, I was fast-tracking it towards grad school and an eventual academic career until I suddenly realized I just couldn't do it, at least not right then. Now, with no concrete plans to go back to school other than the occasional wistful longing for the Academy that I always saw myself participating in (and major pangs of guilt about having stopped at a BA when it seems like all of my friends have or are returning to school for their Masters, PhDs, JDs and/or MDs), it's interesting to read about what might have been.

WM said...

You are strumming my life with your fingers etc. I too inhabit this dubiously surreal world, but I've never seen it so wonderfully taken apart and analysed before. Fanks, mate!

Professor Zero said...

Glad you escaped Sadistic College, Oso!
I worked for one of those too, way back when. People who haven't worked for such places tend not to get it. But I swear, everywhere I have worked since, no matter how odd or deficient, has been infinitely superior.