Follow-Up on Mid-Career Convergence

I had some really enjoyable feedback on my blog post from yesterday. Some of it considered the arguments that I was making in the blog, but much more of it took as a point of departure my status as a mid-career faculty member. Putting aside the arrogance of assuming that my career would continue for at least as long as it has (and recognizing that this is most uncertain in days of declining budgets and interest in the humanities), I was interested in the number of folks who expressed similar anxiety that their research had proliferated around divergent lines over the first half of their career, and they were struggling to pull them together into a unified whole.

I don’t mean this post to ask anyone “weep for tenured, mid-career faculty in the humanities,” but to explore some of the realities that readers of my blog expressed to me. This is the situation as I see it:

1. Diversified Portfolios. When I reflect the activities in which my colleagues and I are engaged, they are remarkably diverse. As we discussed on a recent podcast, it’s not unusual at all for a mid-career faculty member to have research in a number of different locations, different periods, and different topics. We diversify for a range of reasons. Some diversity is grounded in intellectual growth. Some diversity is grounded in the economic and professional realities of needing to cast the net wide to get publications, grant funding, and opportunities for advancement. Whatever the motivation, most of us are doing more than one thing at a time.

2. Skills over Substance. Part of the challenge that mid-career humanities scholars encounter is that the humanities at many universities are seen as a package of transferable skills. These could be broad and ambiguous – like the dreaded critical thinking or the condescending “advanced writing” – or could be specific and focused like GIS, particular languages, or computer coding. As a result, university culture often pushes mid-career humanities faculty to represent themselves as having particular skills, whereas disciplinary culture continues to privilege content expertise. Over time, this contributes to a fractured professional identity where what we know and what we can “do” tail off in seemingly divergent directions. For example, I am a content expert in the archaeology of Late Antique Greece and Cyprus, but I can “do” GIS, digital publishing, database management (of a very simple sort), and archaeological method.

3. Foggy Futures. When meeting with prospective majors, I tell them that a humanities education prepares them for jobs that “haven’t been invented yet” (which I always thought was a reference to a Darryl Dawkins quote about having “dunks that haven’t been invented yet” but I can’t seem to find that reference). I have no doubt that what I’m telling students is true, but as I move through the middle of my academic career I find the foggy future of academia and the humanities genuinely disconcerting. I have no idea if I will be valued for the skills that I have or the area knowledge or if I just show up on time, edutain students, and always wear pants. While I’m loath to let the whims of the university administration direct my career trajectory in its entirety, I’m not opposed to doing more to anticipate how to do my job well. The problem is, of course, no one knows what the future of the humanities holds in American universities. The devaluing of the humanities in the modern university is almost certainly a phase, but the future of the humanities is anything but clear.

Whatever one thinks of my view of convergence, the various comments that I got from colleagues across history has suggested mid-career faculty find themselves in a dynamic, if a bit confounding place in the academy. They have no lack of interests, expertise, and experience, but often find themselves bedeviled by a lack of professional direction at the very moment when they’re best poised to make a contribution to their field, their students, and their institutions. There are real efficiencies to be gained by working with mid-career faculty and helping them achieve, recognize, or just promote a kind of convergence in their work and their academic worlds. 

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