Monday, September 10, 2007

"Supposed To"

Oso and Bitch have posts up addressing, in different ways, the whys and wherefores of using your degree in ways you're not “supposed to.”

As a graduate of a Snooty Liberal Arts College with a Phud from an R1 Flagship, who is working in administration at a community college, I'll just say I have a more-than-passing interest in this issue.

From the perspective of my graduate program, I have failed. They count full-time faculty placements, with extra credit for tenure-track and/or high prestige locales. By their measures, I've fallen off the radar. (This was even true in my faculty days, since Proprietary U didn't have tenure, so it didn't have a tenure track. I was permanent full-time faculty, but I wasn't tenure-track, so I didn't count.) I don't feel like I've failed – honestly, I think I've done a pretty good job of “lemons into lemonade” -- but by the measures used in grad school, and which most of us internalized to one degree or another, there it is.

(It doesn't stop in grad school, either. For the administrators out there – do you get sick of faculty assuming that administrators are failed faculty? Me, too!)

Oso confesses to Googling former colleagues to see whose career is where. He has a little more faith than I do in the fairness of long-term outcomes, but he notices too that, even just a few years out, some of the early 'stars' turned out to be flashes in the pan. Sometimes the rules for what you're 'supposed to' do change abruptly, leaving the stars of an earlier period stranded someplace nobody wants to go. When what looked like the future becomes a tired fad, some very hardworking people are bound to look pretty silly.

The people I admire, both in and outside of academia, are frequently the ones who followed their own senses of what they should do.

Faddism in academia bothers me more than it does in many other industries because, unlike in many other industries, it defeats our reason to exist. To my mind, part of the point of academia is to be the place to try off-the-beaten-path ideas. This is where you can ask “what if...” and actually work on providing an answer. If the answer is already given – whether by a fad-driven job market, a theology, a political platform, groupthink, or popular opinion – then I don't see what value we add.

That freedom of inquiry is premised on boringly solid institutional backing. If you're reasonably sure that hard and honest inquiry will be supported, regardless of where it leads, then you're free to inquire. (There's a difference between 'reasonably sure' and 'tenured,' but I'll leave it at that.) The current academic job market in most disciplines simply does not offer that kind of assurance. Grad students are routinely advised (I know I was) to pick a dissertation topic based on its marketability. The same is true in getting articles published – you want to pick something 'hot,' so the 'right' journals take your stuff. Marketability can mean faddism, or demographic specificity (the whole 'embody what you teach' part of identity politics strikes me as immoral in the extreme), or outright intellectual dishonesty.

I'm much more impressed by the folks who blow off the market demands and just do – assiduously – what they think is right. Part of my ongoing fascination with the blogosphere is that it's still evolving; the rules haven't calcified yet. This is not true in the rest of academe. At my academic discipline's annual conference, the 'community college' name on my nametag precludes me from being taken seriously. I was treated much more respectfully when I went as a grad student, since I had the R1 name on the tag back then. (The last time I went, I saw the facial expressions as people read my nametag. I would have been more politely received had it read “inmate” or “unhinged loner.”) In the blog world, some folks trade on already-established star credentials, but some have developed their own street cred through nothing more than their writing. Pity that the mainstream of the profession isn't like that.

It's supposed to be.

What I think I share with Bitch and Oso, even granting our obvious differences, is a strong sense that the traditional rules just don't work anymore. Unfortunately, the folks at the top of the pecking order are the ones most vested in those traditional rules, and therefore most blind to their failures. The “opinion leaders” are far behind reality.

My words of wisdom, such as they are: go ahead and break the rules. There isn't much payoff in playing by them anymore, and they certainly don't make sense intrinsically. Cross disciplinary boundaries; blog; select topics that are interesting to you; have a kid; have a life; move into and out of administration; contradict or ignore your advisor when he's wrong. The old rules about what you're supposed to do were developed in a world that doesn't exist anymore, and that isn't coming back.

My quest is to help rewrite the rules from the inside to make it possible for folks with passion and independent thought to find a real home in the academy. Progress is glacial – almost imperceptibly slow, but drastic over time – but that's okay. Like Oso, I'm not in this for the hit single. I'm in this for the duration. That may not be what I was supposed to do, but it's what I'm doing.