Category Archives: Careers

My Short, Tragic Career as an Independent Scholar

 

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Several months ago, I had what seemed like a fantastic idea: now that I was retired from teaching English at a community college, I could engage in critical research, something I’d missed during those years when I taught five or more classes a semester. I had managed to write a couple of critical articles in the last few years of my tenure at a small, rural two-year college in Northern Michigan, but it was difficult, not only because of the heavy demands of teaching, but also because I had very limited access to scholarly resources. Indeed, it is largely due to very generous former students who had moved on to major research institutions that I was able to engage in any kind of scholarly research, a situation which may seem ironic to some readers, but which is really just closing the loop of teacher and student in a fitting and natural way.

And so last fall, on the suggestion of a former student, I decided to throw my hat in the ring and apply to  a scholarly conference on Dickens, and my proposal was chosen. In time, I wrote my paper (on Dickens and Music– specifically on two downtrodden characters who play the flute and clarinet in David Copperfield and Little Dorrit, respectively) and prepared for my part in the conference.

It had been close to 25 years since I had read a paper at a conference, and so I was understandably nervous. Back then, there was no internet to search for information about conference presentations, but now I was able to do my homework, and thus I found a piece of advice that made a lot of sense: remember, the article emphasized, that a conference paper is an opportunity to test out ideas, to play with them in the presence of others, and to learn how other scholars respond to them, rather than a place to read a paper, an article, or a section of a book out loud before a bored audience. Having taught public speaking for over a decade, I could see that this made a lot of sense: scholarly articles and papers are not adapted to oral presentations, since they are composed of complex ideas buttressed by a great many references to support their assertions. To read such a work to an audience seemed to me, once I reflected on it, a ridiculous proposition, and would surely bore not only the audience, but any self-respecting speaker as well.

I wrote my paper accordingly. I kept it under the fifteen-minute limit that the moderator practically begged the panelists to adhere to in a pre-conference email. I made sure I had amusing anecdotes and witty bon mots. I concocted a clever PowerPoint presentation to go with the paper, just in case my audience got bored with the ideas I was trying out. I triple-spaced my copy of the essay, and I–the queen of eye contact, as my former speech students can attest–I practiced it just enough to become familiar with my own words, but not so much that I would become complacent with them and confuse myself by ad-libbing too freely. In short, I arrived at the conference with a bit of nervousness, but with the feeling that I had prepared myself for the ordeal, and that my paper would meet with amused interest and perhaps even some admiration.

It was not exactly a disaster, but it was certainly not a success.

To be honest, I consider it a failure.

It wasn’t that the paper was bad. In fact, I was satisfied with the way I presented it. But my audience didn’t know what to do with presentation. This might be because it was very short compared to all the other presentations (silly me, to think that academics would actually follow explicit directions!). Or it could be because it wasn’t quite as scholarly as the other papers. After all, my presentation hadn’t been published in a journal; it was, as C.S. Lewis might have called it, much more of a “supposal” than a fully-fledged argument. Perhaps as well there was something ironic in my stance, as if I somehow communicated my feeling that research in the humanities is a kind of glorified rabbit hunt that is fun while it lasts but that rarely leads to any tangible, life-changing moment of revelation.

Yet this is not to say that humanities research is useless. It isn’t. It develops and hones all sorts of wonderful talents that enrich the lives of those who engage in it and those who merely dip into it from time to time. I believe in the value of interpreting books and arguing about those interpretations; in fact, I believe that engaging in such discussions can draw human beings together as nothing else can, even at the very moments when we argue most fiercely about competing and contrasting interpretations. This is something, as Mark Slouka points out in his magnificent essay “Dehumanized,” that STEM fields cannot do, no matter how much adminstrators and government officials laud them, pandering to them with ever-increasing budgets at the expense of the humanities.

And this is, ultimately, why I left the conference depressed and disappointed. I had created, in the years since I’d left academia, an idealized image of it that was inclusive, one that recognized its own innate absurdity. In other words, sometime in the last two decades, I had recognized that research in the humanities was valuable not because it produced any particular thing, but because it produced a way of looking at the world we inhabit with a critical acuity that makes us better thinkers and ultimately better citizens. The world of research, for me, is simply a playground in which we all can exercise our critical and creative faculties. Yet the conference I attended seemed to be focused on research as object: indeed, as an object of exchange, a widget to be documented, tallied, and added to a spreadsheet that measures worth.

Perhaps its unfair of me to characterize it in this way. After all, most of the people attending the conference were, unlike me, still very much a part of an academic marketplace, one in which important decisions like tenure, admission to graduate programs, promotions, and departmental budgets are decided, at least in part, by things like conference attendance and presentations. It is unfair of me to judge them when I am no longer engaged in that particular game.

But the very fact that I am not in the game allows me to see it with some degree of clarity, and what I see is depressing. One cannot fight the dehumanization of academia, with its insistent mirroring of capitalism, by replicating that capitalism inside the ivy tower; one cannot expect the humanities to maintain any kind of serious effect on our culture when those charged with propagating the study of humanities are complicit in reducing humanities research to mere line items on a curriculum vitae or research-laden objects of exchange.

I can theorize no solution to this problem beyond inculcating a revolution of ideas within the academy in an effort to fight the now ubiquitous goal of bankrupting the study of arts and humanities, a sordid goal which now seems to characterize the age we live in. And I have no idea how to bring about such a revolution. But I do know this: I will return to my own study with the knowledge that even my small, inconsequential, and isolated critical inquiries are minute revolutions in and of themselves. As we say in English studies, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination. And in the end, I feel confident that it will take far more than one awkward presentation at a conference to stop me from pursuing my own idiosyncratic path of research and inquiry into the literature I love.

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Filed under Careers, clarinet, Criticism, Education, Literary theory, Literature, Music, Reading, Retirement, Teaching, The Arts, Writing

Postscript to Previous Post

Image from Wikipedia

Image from Wikipedia

Tolkien, the story goes, wrote the first words of The Hobbit in the pages of a student examination blue book. He had been grading examinations as a form of part-time work, and, exhausted by the monotony of the task, he celebrated his discovery of a blank page in the book, untouched by the student’s ink, by writing the words “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”

I am far luckier than Tolkien. I received the following essay from a student (who gave me permission to post it here) as a final exam. It is a lovely way to end my final semester at the community college where I teach. Thank you, Cari Griffin, for summing up my attitude towards the study of literature in such a humorous and appropriate way. Indeed, I am a very lucky teacher. After all, a doctor is only as good as his or her companions.

 

 

27 April 2015

“Doctor” Shumway:

For nearly two years, I have been your companion as we have traveled through space and time. Your Tardis is not a blue Police box; it is your classroom, and you are “The Doctor”; a madwoman with a YouTube account. Though there was never a fez involved, exploring foreign lands, examining history, and best of all, discussing literature has allowed for, myself, at least, great understanding of the space-time continuum as it pertains to the literary world.

There can be no question that our travels, having begun in September of 2013, frequently took us to England. I think we can both agree, it is our favorite stop. Whether it has been a visit with the Anglo-Saxons, an exploration of medieval England, several visits with our favorite playwright, William Shakespeare, or an extensive amount of time spent in 19th century Great Britain, each visit afforded us an opportunity to see British history and its inhabitants in a new way. We lacked only our tea while we observed an Abbey, paid a visit to Thornfield Hall, or grasped the devastation of World War I.

We were not always in England. We’ve been to France with a philosopher, to Spain within American, and Germany to witness the beginning of the Romantic Movement. We saw 17th century Turkey through the eyes of an English woman, visited Japan at the turn of the 20th century, and briefly stopped in Imperial Russia. The authors we have covered acted as conductors, providing the means for us to travel. Their voices allowed us to see into their worlds, to spend time in their society, to have a momentary glimpse of a fixed point in time. We have seen revolutions, oppression, and inequality in many of the places we have visited, but always, the voices of those authors who have guided us cried out for equality, rallied for peace, and asked us to question, alongside them, our purpose within our community, our country, and our society, just as they did the same in theirs. Together, on our journey, we have celebrated the individual, applauded the growth of the female author, recognized brilliance, and felt the influence of those long ago voices within our modern society.

It was not just the authors that we met. We examined the world around them. We studied the era in which they lived: we viewed their art, heard their music, and, ultimately, questioned the validity of their place within the literary canon. Perhaps we did not always embrace them as friends, but we did not leave as foes. No. Our relationship with these authors, however brief, brought us a little closer to our fellow man, allowed us see into his or her own world through their eyes, and, to realize they are very much like us, though they lived in a far different world than the one we inhabit now.

As our journey nears its end, you ask, “why?” I interpret this as, “why take the journey? “My answer is quite simply this: we must. For anything less than a madman in a blue box landing in our backyard, we have no other way to reach across time and space, to look at a moment in man’s history, and have an opportunity to see that moment through a different set of eyes. Yes, Doctor Shumway, literature is our Tardis through space and time. We have an obligation to not only understand our place within our own culture, in history, but our fellow man’s place and his culture as well. After all, “We’re all stories, in the end” (The Eleventh Doctor).

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The End of Something

My career as a full-time teacher is drawing to a close, and I’m having some trouble getting used to the idea.

Several weeks ago, I decided to take advantage of an early retirement program at my college, so I will be leaving at the end of this semester. Of course, I’m really excited about the prospect of having free time to read whatever I want, in whatever order I want to read it; to focus on my writing, music and knitting; and, most of all, to do a bit of traveling. Teaching, as I told one of my colleagues, was getting in the way of my own learning, and so I’m grateful to be able to step back from a career that, despite its frustrations, has been a central and valued part of my life. I have learned more about teaching in the dozen or so years I’ve spent at this small community college in rural Northern Michigan than I ever thought possible, which is part of the reason I have mixed feelings about leaving.

In some ways, I feel I’m at the top of my game as a teacher. I don’t have to take a lot of time to prepare for each class, and most classroom situations don’t really throw me. (Of course, there are a few that were pretty funny, and, once I retire, I look forward to sharing these stories, like the one about the time a speech student tried to bring a goat to class.) Grading papers, of course, is still a tremendous burden, and like most writing instructors, I greatly resent it. But it turns out that grading is not as heavy a burden for me as the human burden. By this, I mean that I try to see each of my students as an individual; everyone, I told myself as I began my teaching career, is someone’s child. I asked myself, how would I want my child treated by their professors? The answer was clear.  So I have always tried to be open, inviting, and encouraging with my students, and it’s made for some great moments as a teacher. But it’s also made it possible for me to see the real pain in my students’ lives. From the student who schleps her infant to class, no matter subzero temperatures, to the student whose grip on religion is ironclad because he’s found no other outlet or support, to the student who suffers from a laundry list of health problems as a result of serving in Afghanistan–each of these students has a claim on me, because I have always felt it’s more important to be a human being first and a professor second.

It’s a noble idea, but now, as I move towards my last days of teaching (at least full-time), I can see its flaws. In essence, teaching as a human being is like “hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heartbeat,” in the famous words of George Eliot in Middlemarch (Chapter 20), whose narrator predicts that those who can attend to such emotional minutiae are likely to “die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.” I am not in danger of dying from being exposed to that roar, but I am pained by my work these days. I’m stricken by the sadness of seeing the eccentric student who has no friends, sitting alone in the cafeteria; I’m depressed by the difficulties facing young mothers and fathers as they try to gain an education to make life better for their children; and I’m overwhelmed by the challenges, and, yes, the tragedies, that lie behind the eyes of many of my students who stare up at me as I try to dish out some wisdom to help them in their journey through life.

It’s a tough job, and I’ve given it what I could over the years. One consolation I’ve always had, however, is that if I do a poor job one semester, I could always improve the next time around. This semester is different, though. There is no next time. Does that mean I’ll finally get it right and teach well this term? The answer has become clear over the past few weeks. This semester will be like all the other semesters I’ve had: some successes in the classroom, but many more failures. I’m satisfied that I’ve made the right decision, though. It’s time for someone else to step up and try their hand at this job. I’m ready to take my ball and go home, even if that means that I leave a career I love.

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On the Limits of Education and the Meaning of Work

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From the opening scenes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rich and Strange (1931) from http://filmtravers.com/reviews/FT_Rich_and_Strange_1931.html

A couple of weeks ago, I told my freshman composition class that they needed to think hard about whether they should be in college. This flies in the face of what community college professors are supposed to say. We’re programmed, in one way or another, to tell students that getting a college degree is important to their success, that it can help them to a good, stable job, and that it will improve their lives–all of which are excellent things. There’s only one problem.

I no longer believe it will.

I won’t go into the fact that my students, like most community college students, live on the edge. It takes little to derail them: an illness, a sick parent or child, pregnancy, a missed payment on their house or car, a pink slip. Granted, these are not the kind of people who are movers and shakers, who are watching TED talks on how to make their work meaningful as well as rewarding (a sample of which you can find here). Yet these very students are among the most ambitious I’ve ever encountered in my 25 + years in higher education, and all they want is the lowest degree possible after high school: an associate’s degree, which may not be worth the paper it’s written on.

I won’t even go into the argument alluded to above: that the value of associate degrees is not guaranteed (although articles like this one in the October 3, 2013, issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education make that sobering point). My point was quite different, and it’s one I wish more people would consider.

It stems from the fact that most of us–99% of us, in fact–have to work to feed, clothe, and sustain ourselves. Of course, humans have always had to work for sustenance, and for much of our history, this work wasn’t too engaging. How interesting is it, for example, to gather berries or tend livestock? It may be satisfying, to a certain degree, but it isn’t mentally stimulating–at least, not in the same way that studying philosophy, or working on a multi-national marketing project, can be. Some time in the last fifty years or so, it seems that Americans have added several requirements to any job that we consider for a career: it must be lucrative, it must be meaningful (whatever that means), and it must be intellectually engaging. Any truly desirable job must exercise our minds and feed our souls as well as fill our pockets.

And because of this expectation–that our jobs will exercise and use our minds–we have given up the responsibility to do so ourselves. What this means is that when we take a job that is not intellectually challenging, as some of us must, we tend to give up on seeking out ways to enrich our minds through work. We succumb to the lure of popular culture, with its insipid siren call to watch pointless television shows; we anesthetize ourselves with a partying culture that emphasizes drinking, drug use, and sex as a means of escape from an existence of drudgery. Once thoroughly anesthetized, we are seduced into accepting the status quo without questioning if it is, after all, the best way to live.

It doesn’t have to be this way, however. What I told my students is that they need to find out what’s important to them and make that their Work–with a capital “W.” This Work, I said, is what will get them through all the crummy jobs–and there will be many of those–they’ll be forced to take. For example, maybe their Work is writing short stories, or playing jazz guitar, or spinning wool and knitting sweaters: the actual Work they do doesn’t matter. Rather, it’s the devotion they bring to it, their dedication to it, that will enrich them and allow them to deal with having to take work that doesn’t allow them to find life meaningful. Be a barista if you have to, I told them; but make sure you have Work to make your work worth doing.

Those of us who live in capitalist countries, whose work is appropriated by others for profit, have the greatest need to find our own Work, so that we make our lives count for something other than a ledger sheet of profit and loss. If we must labor to live, and if only a few of us can find work that exercises all–or even a majority–of our faculties, then it is up to each one of us to find the Work that makes us human. This is what I was urging my students to do when I told them to think about whether they should be in college: do not let college prevent you from finding your Work and dedicating yourself to it. Don’t expect to find a job that will line up perfectly with your Work (although some people are lucky enough to do that). Instead, I said, get a job to help support that Work and make your life possible; your Work will make it meaningful.

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