Redefining Academic Work and Academic Knowledge

Yesterday Sarah Bond and Kevin Gannon wrote a reply to a widely circulated piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Manya Whitaker. Whitaker’s piece suggested that early career scholars should avoid writing for public audiences because these types of publications tend not to chart a clear path to tenure. This is undoubtedly true, particularly at mid- and higher- tier research institutions that continue to see conventional peer review as the gold standard for evaluating faculty development. I can say this with a bit of confidence because my university (and the universities where many of my friends and colleagues work) fits into this category. 

Bond and Gannon argue, as you might expect if you’re familiar with their work, that programs should not only support public outreach, but it should be encouraged early in a scholar’s career and baked into evaluation rubrics perhaps using the well-known Boyer Model for assessing scholarly work. The Boyer Model recognizes a wider range of scholarly outputs as valuable and defines them around four categories: discovery, integration, application, and teaching and argues that this expanded definition of scholarly work provides a more dynamic and diverse foundation for rewarding faculty work. The Boyer Model celebrates its 30th birthday next year and despite its popularity as an idea and a talking point, it is still a rather marginal model for evaluating scholarly work.  

The reasons for this, as Bond and Gannon recognize, is that the professionalization projects particularly in the humanities has been closely tied to peer reviewed, scholarly, publishing. Some of this dates to the late 19th century and the rise of the PhD as a professional research degree grounded first in preparation of a dissertation and then in the rise of the peer reviewed journal and monograph. Professional standards followed the rise of the university in the U.S. and abroad and the growing ability for professional researchers to monetize their work as faculty. As academia diversified, particularly after the WW2, efforts to evaluate scholarly accomplishments remained in lockstep with the changing professionalization project. Double blind peer review, in particular, became a key approach to undermining long-standing racial, gender, and institutional biases and to create, at least in theory, a more level playing field grounded in the merits of work.

In contrast, public scholarship, particularly in the humanities, became associated with older forms of scholarship rooted in elite or even aristocratic values (consider, for example, George Bancroft’s History of the United States). In fact, the tension between professional values and public outreach led to the famous turn of the century split in the American Historical Association, where scholars engaged more deeply in the public project found themselves marginalized for the professional discipline.

Times have changed, of course, but the structure of academia has persisted and public oriented scholarship has often been seen as bonus work or less significant than scholarship oriented toward a more professional audience. Today, this trajectory has encountered challenges from within academia, from the general public who have embraced certain strains of anti-intellectualism, and from the increasingly populist political leaders who have sought cut funding to higher education on the grounds that its out of touch with the general public. As Bonds and Gannon note, for many smaller, regional, teaching-oriented, and tuition-dependent small liberal arts colleges, promoting public outreach may necessary to stave off a looming demographic and economic crisis. There is a real urgency today in efforts to convince a public regularly stoked by anti-intellectualism and a kind of virulent populism that higher education especially in the humanities has value.

At the same time, establishing authority in the public sphere s a difficult task. It involves, on the one hand, establishing claims to expertise and these claims remain grounded in the traditional academic discourse. Traditional, peer-reviewed academic work is intensive, time consuming, and process driven, and it often leaves little time for more public oriented scholarship that nevertheless will leverage a scholar’s status as a professional expert.    

More than this, evaluating the quality, importance, and impact of public oriented scholarship remains a challenge that may cut to the core of the larger academic project. The structures of peer review, academic publication, and the larger scholarly process formed the key element to a professionalization process that is widely seen as ongoing.

Public scholarship, in the other hand, remains more murky not only in how it should be evaluated, but also in relation to the structure through which recognizable outreach can and should occur. In theory, any scholar can prepare an article for peer review publication provided it meets the recognized professional standards of a particular journal or publisher. Getting a work of public scholarship to an audience is often a far more complicated and variable process. On the one hand, you could submit it to one of the hundreds of little magazines that publish non-fiction and essays. These range from Harper’s to smaller publications like North Dakota Quarterly (which is accepting submissions for non-fiction for two more weeks!) or my personal favorite N+1. Many of these publications read professionally, but few have the same “double blind” procedures as academic publications. They also reflect a wide range of audiences that may not entirely be clear for an academic who is not already an avid reader of these little magazines. 

Alternately, you might get lucky and have the connections necessary to publish from time to time in places like the Chronicle of Higher EducationThe Atlantic, or any other more mainstream publications that feature academic work. The pathways to these opportunities, however, tend to be more about invitations, connections, and contacts (if not pure chance) and less professionally transparent. Writing for the wider public often introduces the vagaries of the commercial market – page views, bounce rates, marketing plans, and the like – to academic work and shape how scholar can connect to an audience. In many cases, commercial pressures, for example, exert a greater influence on a work intended for public consumption than an academic project. This isn’t to suggest that these works are somehow compromised by this, but calls for outreach and public scholarship aren’t just about making what we already do more visible and accessible, but are also about doing more accessible scholarship. 

Issues of audience and activism also play a role in how we understand the place of public scholarship in academic career advancement. There’s a tendency to see the public as somehow fundamentally different from an academic audience. There might be less of a difference between a targeted “public audience” and a targeted professional one in terms of numbers and even impact. We tend to think of specialized work primarily of interest to other scholars, but there are any number of activist communities who appreciate more accessible scholarly work that supports their missions. This work overlaps between academic and public audiences because scholar activists tend to move easily between groups as well. Such ambiguities between the role of scholar and the public are not fatal to any effort to evaluate the work of public oriented scholars, but demonstrate that these categories are relatively loosely defined. 

Finally, there is the sticky issue of identity and the public. Authority and expertise are undoubtedly performative. Looking, speaking, and acting the part of the expert goes a long way to establishing public trust. At the same time, many academics would eschew outward expressions of expertise and the conventionalizing elements that the public associates with academic knowledge. We tend to equivocate and avoid both dogma and doctrine in our approach to defining what we know. On a personal level, I can say that I’m a far LESS confident scholar now than I was 15 years ago when I started at my job. It’s not just that academia has beaten me down, but also that I recognize that academia is a process and only chumps make statements unbound by disclaimers. The tension between academic knowledge and public expectations, of course, can be productive and serve to shift public perceptions of professional scholars, but, at the same time, there continues to be no lack of tweed-clad, middle-aged, white-guy professors pontificating on the hourly documentaries that appear on television (for example). Balancing between public expectations and the academic realities of scholarly appearance and behavior without compromising the integrity of the academic undertaking is something that public oriented scholars understand, but it’s not easy or simple to execute in practice. 

These comments are not meant in any way to undermine or even challenge Bond and Gannon’s piece. It’s important and good because it implies these more complicated moves that may well reshape academic culture in the coming decades. This isn’t about recognizing public scholarship, but about creating an intellectual space for public scholarship to develop as part of the larger professionalizing trajectory of contemporary higher education.  

My University is Dying

This past week my colleague and friend Sheila Liming published an intriguing column in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled “My University is Dying.” The piece is provocative. It speaks directly to her experience as the only candidate for tenure in our college of over 200 faculty members this year. The article is intensely genuine.

I thought I write a little response to it, not because I think it’s lacking or inadequate in any way, but as a gesture of support for my courageous colleague. I want to engage it.

There is one thing that I tend to think about when I think about “austerity.” It has little to do with the lack of resources or even budget cuts. I actually don’t think much about the shrinking number of faculty on campus (although I do worry about our increasing dependence on adjunct, contract, and visiting faculty). I don’t even really worry about its impact on my own commitments – like North Dakota Quarterly – although I am deeply saddened that budget cuts have caused individuals to lose their jobs (including my wife).  At a place like UND, the writing is more or less on the walls. The number of high school and middle school students in our traditional catchment area is declining and the larger national trend is similar. We will be a smaller campus with fewer students, staff, and faculty in the future. It’s also likely that our budget will be relatively smaller and our mission will probably change. I can be optimistic and imagine that funding will remain stable, though, and a smaller campus can actually provide a higher quality educational experience (and even more interesting and stimulating campus culture for faculty). 

What bothers me the most is that austerity on UND’s campus is not just economic, it’s ideological. It is grounded in four interrelated policy positions among legislators not just in the North Dakota or the U.S., but globally: (1) a distaste for channeling funds from the market into public institutions, (2) a belief that public institutions are inherently inefficient, (3) a pathway to greater efficiency at public institutions (and hence less funding) is by simulating competition, and (4) the primary goal of public institutions is the support the market. On our campus, budget cuts occurred at the same time that a failed prioritization project took place, we installed a new system for allocating resources on campus, and a new crop of administrators arrived including two successive presidents from the business world.

In other words, austerity was not just fewer resources and colleagues, but also a major shift in campus culture. A smaller university isn’t a bad thing and while transitions are never easy, we can accept that change is inevitable. 

The problem with austerity is not simply the decrease in funding or smaller faculty, but the concomitant expectation that we will have to compete with other divisions on campus for students, for faculty lines, and for resources moving forward through incentivized resource allocation. This has turned trusted colleagues and collaborators into potential rivals. Moreover, the flaws in the system of resource allocation has set into high relief the way in which the execution of austerity practices on campus is biased against the arts and humanities. 

In the abstract, a system where resources flowed to divisions on campus most in need makes sense. In fact, a system that rewards a certain efficiency in practice seems wise in any institution entrusted with public resources. Unfortunately, this is not really what happens. The humanities and the arts, for example, have suffered not because they’re inefficient in their practices, but because we appear to be less useful than our colleagues in the applied sciences and professional fields. As a result, the administration has its thumb on the scale established by incentivized resource allocation and this benefits some programs more than others. A very efficient program whose faculty teach many students might not be allowed to hire more faculty not because their program didn’t follow incentivized practices, but because incentivized practices fit awkwardly with the larger rhetoric and ideology of austerity which sees public institutions as existing solely to support the market. If a field does not clearly support the state’s economy – narrowly defined as the demands of employers in the immediate present – then the administration subverts the incentivized resource allocation process. In some cases this is random, but in most cases this follows loosely a series of documents that range from the relatively benign “Strategic Plan” to the vaguely authoritarian “Grand Challenges.” 

In other words, austerity on our campus isn’t just about declining resources, it’s about the implementation of a rigged game.

I’m not naive, of course, and I recognize that higher education has always been and continues to be rigged (after all, I’m a white, male, tenured faculty member, if I could ever do anything to deserve the position that I have, I probably wouldn’t survive the ordeal). At the same time, what makes the latest round of austerity on UND’s campus so painful is that the rhetoric of the administration promotes the response to the current funding challenge as both fair within an incentivized resource allocation scheme and transparent. They promote this seemingly salutary situation as a way to tell us that “we’re all in this together.” In fact, it’s neither fair nor transparent and we’re not in this together.

This may be better for the university in the long run. It’s too early and too difficult to predict. It is not better for the university at present. What Sheila describes in her column is the product of austerity both as an ideology, but also as our campus has responded to it. 

(I’ve written more about this general state of affairs in an article that I published here in a volume of North Dakota Quarterly that Sheila helped to edit!)

Audience, Expertise, and Professional Development: Notes from the Northern Great Plains History Conference

Last week, I trekked northward to Brandon, Manitoba to participate in a panel on public history at the Northern Great Plains History conference. The drive across the Manitoba prairie was during harvest was scenic, the panel was well-attended, and the audience and fellow historians offered some thought-provoking questions that I’ve been chewing on for the last few days.

In truth, each of these issues probably deserves its own blog post, but since I’m already a bit overstimulated this week, I’ll just set out three of the main themes that intrigued me the most. The panel itself was a round table and rather than consisting of individual papers, participants gave short introductions to their work and its key themes and the rest developed through conversation with the audience. 

1. Audience and Activism. Nikki Berg Burin framed her brief remarks around the idea of audience for work in activist, public history. Berg Burin is involved in the anti-human trafficking and anti-slavery movement and has a long simmering project designed to raise awareness and encourage activism around trafficking in North Dakota. At first, she explain, the idea was to produce a zine-like publication targeted to a wide audience through North Dakota libraries. As this idea developed, however, she began to think that a publication targeted toward groups already interested in related issues might be a more useful way to expand awareness and encourage a more nuanced and sophisticated debate surrounding these pressing issues.

This got me thinking about how the Digital Press at the University of North Dakota understands  audiences for its work. What distinguishes us from conventional academic publishing is that we do very little with academic libraries, which historically provide the largest audience for academic books and generally – at least in the fields of history and archaeology – purchase close to half of the print run of any conventional academic publication. Because we don’t market our books too academic libraries, they tend to get into the hands of individual readers, primarily as downloads, but also as individual purchases via Amazon.  

How these readers find out about Digital Press books is largely through social media and the web rather than conventional catalogues or advertising. This means that most work at our press already has a target audience both developed and made manifest in social media. This isn’t to suggest that conventional publishers don’t also leverage social media and the web to promote and disseminate their work, but rather to suggest that marketing a scholar’s book is often part of the added value associated with conventional publishing. While we all indicate in our proposals (and in some cases follow-up questionnaires) the audience for our works when dealing with conventional publishers, I’ve never encountered a meaningful conversation with a publisher concerning how the relationship between our intended audience, the arguments that we make, and the marketing strategy that we develop to get our book to readers.

This isn’t to say that a press like the Digital Press always gets this right, but Nikki Berg Burin’s remarks this weekend emphasized to me that collaborative publishing models might allow us to develop in more meaningful ways how we understand the relationship between the books that we publish and the audiences that we want to reach and activate.

2. Expertise. During the conversation this past week, we were asked how we asserted our expertise as public facing scholars when dealing with an audience who has become increasingly skeptical of (if not hostile to) the value of expertise and experts in contemporary political and social life.

I have lots of ideas (some good and some not so great) about this, but I suspect that most skepticism toward expertise is part of the long tail of anti-intellectualism in American life and this, in turn, is a product of our own peculiar view of democracy and our growing awareness the the academic-military-industrial complex has been allowed to function unchecked for most of the preceding century with seemingly disastrous results. Those of us in the humanities have also become aware of how claims of expertise (thanks, Foucault, Said, and others!) have served to reinforce social divisions in our society, advance colonial agendas, and to assert political power.

Our scholarship often takes aim at the previous generation of experts in the name of liberation while compromising our own claims to a similar status. Our practical experience as academics, however, constantly shows how our eagerness to defend our status as experts runs belies the superficial character of our own knowledge. Many of us recognize that expertise is less tied to a particular skills, sensitivities, erudition, and accomplishments and more bound up in performative gestures informed as much by gender, race, status, position, and other social and institutional constructs as any measurable degree of academic or professional attainment.

To be blunt: It’s much easier for a white male at Harvard to be an expert than for an African American female from an HBCU. This has nothing to do with our abilities or accomplishments and everything to do with race and gender.

In fact, a good bit of the professionalization process in graduate school revolves around teaching our students how to act like experts. This means showing them how to write the “I got the goods” footnote, reinforcing the methodological, historiographical, and practical foundations of a common disciplinary knowledge, demonstrating the professional reciprocity that supports mutual recognition of academic authority (game recognizing game), and explaining to them that giving a talk at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens as a graduate student with braids may seem awesome, but undermines your cause.

These very same processes, of course, also produce – seemingly by design – the feeling of “impostor syndrome” that wrack most faculty throughout their careers. Indeed, feeling like an impostor is often seen as a crisis of confidence to be mitigated or a “syndrome” that must be treated or suppressed. I tend to see it as the festering of a persistent awareness that academic expertise is not what it seems. The presence of impostors among us is a reminder: expertise is not the unproblematic and even virtuous product of our training and the meritocracy, but a crass assertion of power. The more virtuous among us hope that our assertion of expertise will produce a better world, but for most of us, it also leaves behind the nagging sense that while we were speaking, we weren’t listening, understanding, or collaborating.

We’re left to wonder whether there really is a baby in the bath water. 

3. Professional Recognition and Public Humanities. We had a few questions about how various departments (and our fields in general) recognized our work as public facing scholars. This seemingly anticipated a much tweeted about article from this weekend’s Chronicle of Higher Education that worried that many pre-tenure faculty were not being advised to follow a professional path that leads to tenure. In the context of this article and conversations in our panel, this means writing peer-reviewed, specialist publication for an academic audience rather than outreach and other less conventional practices. 

Considering the theme of the panel, it was easy to juxtapose specialist knowledge produced through academic literature which gains purchase among professionals against public facing work which has a wider audience and ideally more social impact. This juxtaposition, as I’ve framed it here, is a bit lazy and unfair, of course, because most of us hope that our scholarly work can find a wider audience in some way and see outreach beyond academia as really the only criteria by which our work can and should be measured. At the same time, many departments have become dependent on acceptance of original, peer-reviewed scholarship at top-tier journals and presses as a reliable proxy for academic quality and significance. These publication, in turn, become the basis for tenure and promotion decisions.

In contrast, public history and public scholarship tends to exist a more murky space. Critics fret that public facing scholarship sometimes lack peer review. In some cases, useful public  scholarship eschews originality for more accessible synthetic statements. There’s a persistent suspicion that prolific public facing scholars often have distinctive skills that range from understanding the vagaries of public taste to the ability to write in an appealing and accessible way and even personal patronage networks that open-submission and peer-reviewed seek to ignore.

While these concerns are legitimate, they seem to be more on the surface these days because academia is changing. I’d argue that austerity has put particular pressure on the humanities to assert our value to a wider, public audience by reaching out to our communities and looking beyond our disciplinary and professional borders. At the same time, we’re being squeezed in what increasing feels like zero sum game out our institutions. We are expected not only to compete with our colleagues on a level playing field but also to compete across our institutions for access to resources and support. This exposes us to two pressures. On the one hand, public facing scholarship is a remarkably diverse and ranges from personal blogs to popular publications with massive circulations. In contrast to how most universities understand academic scholarship, it is very difficult to understand the impact and quality of public scholarship because these publications often lack both the imprimatur of peer review as well as the kind of quantitative impact factors that institutions are increasingly using to evaluate faculty performance across disciplines. In short, scholars who work in public humanities often are at a disadvantage on their campuses with those who invest in traditional scholarship because the metrics used to understand academic productivity tend to simplify academic output.  

This creates a curious and not entirely innocent paradox, as we’re being pushed to do more public facing scholarship and to justify our place on campus, our institutions are doubling down on practices that at best ignore and at worst devalue such work in the competition for increasingly scarce institutional resources. The practices of assessing impact factors, valuing peer review, and creating quantitative models for mapping productivity across campus are celebrated as efforts to level the playing field, to reinforce the meritocracy, and to protect public investment against deadwood faculty and programs who coast along protected by tenure. At the same time, these systems are profoundly biased against the kind of outward facing work that disciplines and professional organizations have encouraged us to value and pursue. 

This is a catch-22. If we pursue public facing work more vigorously, we might attract the appreciation of our communities and our professional organizations, but we also move outside of the system designed to measure and evaluation productivity. If we double down on professional and scholarly work that will be rewarded at our institutions, we often find ourselves writing specialized work for narrow professional audiences that gets criticized by the wider public and indulgent, irrelevant, navel-gazing. This, in turn, reinforced a view of the humanities as a luxury that should not be supported on the public dime.  

There is no simple solution for this outside large-scale disciplinary and institutional change. This is hard, slow work filled with the risk of unintentional consequences, but as the humanities enter a period of existential crisis, it certainly seems worth pursuing. 

Reading to Review

Over the last few years, I’ve experienced an enormous increase in the number of both book and article manuscripts that I’ve been asked to review. I’m not exactly sure why this is happening. I’m neither more qualified than I was a few years ago or more visible. It must just have to do with the cycles of the moon or something.

This is compounded, of course, with running The Digital Press and having the chance to read manuscripts multiple times as they develop toward a final version. I’ve also had the chance to coordinate peer reviews of these manuscript and have a front row seat when authors found the critiques of a reviewer to be less than constructive. (And, as of this year, I’m also the series editor for the Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, and I anticipate more of this kind of work.) 

In any event, one thing I have become more comfortable doing is trying to distance my own expectations from a manuscript. Some of these expectations are bound up in my disciplinary practice, in my training, and in the scholarship that I’ve read and appreciated over my career , and all this informs my idea of what constitutes quality or rigor. To be clear, I recognize that I can’t entirely shed my perspective on a piece when I review, but I do try to step back and understand what a manuscript is doing on its own terms. 

The point of all this is saying that the more I review, the more I get comfortable reviewing other people’s work and I feel like I’m getting more sympathetic toward an author’s goals (and less likely to be “Reviewer #2” or to critique a manuscript for not being what I would write about). I’ve even started to enjoy finding the unintentional in a manuscript and really enjoying the way in which authors ideas leave behind the little eddies in their stream of thought that have their own character, charm, and utility. After all, sometimes the most significant thing about a manuscript isn’t what it says or argues, but the other ideas or arguments that it makes possible.

I’ve been thinking of creating a little guide for reviewer for my press. I don’t want to presume anything about how other people review. I suspect that most people have their own jam when they sit down with a manuscript and that no one WANTS to be “Reviewer #2”, but also that reviews should help the author see their own argument in a different light and create a pathway toward a better final work. The goal of a reviewer, to my mind, is not to be a gate keeper, but to be a hidden collaborator who encourages an author to accentuate and develop the best parts of their manuscript and minimize oversights, flaws, or problems.   

The Edges of the Absurd in Academia

Yesterday, I suggested that the basic way in which administrators and faculty talk about academia creates moments best described as absurd or even the theater of the absurd. In these situations, both sides use laughter to reinforce the fundamental incommensurability of the two perspectives on the academic project. 

This view, of course, is reductionist and there are many and frequent spaces where administrators, faculty, students, and staff find themselves on the same page or negotiate meaningful understandings and compromises. After all the, university does function.

At the same time, these negotiations always entail certain risks. Adopting the language of the administration may open space for compromise, but it might also compromise certain aspects of the faculty position. Recently, I’ve noticed the depressing frequency of faculty claiming that some of their colleagues, generally, but not always nameless, don’t pull their weight. Usually the faculty criticize their peers for their lack of commitment to service, poor or apathetic teaching, and The solution to this depends on the situation and ranges from the drastic to the mundane. At the drastic end, there’s immediate termination; at the more mundane end, there tends to be more administrative oversight. I had long thought that this kind of statement by faculty was relatively harmless and reflected a commitment to higher education, the institution, the spirit of collegiality, and our students.

Recently, though, I’ve started to wonder. As we increasingly work on a campus where oversight, assessment, evaluation, and surveillance have become commonplace, suggesting, out loud, that a faculty member isn’t doing their job takes on a more ominous cast. Not only is this asking for more oversight, but it’s also confirming a perception of faculty as privileged and undisciplined workers who require constantly monitoring to stem the temptation to abuse the freedom of tenure.

In my experience (and in a growing number of public reports), the tools used to increase oversight at the university – particularly those that seek to quantify faculty performance – are not neutral. They not only reproduce biases present in academia more broadly, but introduce new biases linked strongly to priorities that seek to use data “to disrupt” traditional practices closely tied to tenure and academic freedom, on the one hand, and the growing role of contingent faculty, on the other. 

I’m increasingly of the opinion that this is a line that shouldn’t be crossed.  

Faculty, for their part, are only too quick to complain about the cost of administrators, procedures, and bureaucratic inefficiencies on campus as well. We’ve all heard and maybe even indulged in a bit of complaining about administrator salaries. It’s common place in academic conversations and low hanging fruit. At the same time, we should be cautious particularly those of us at state institutions. It’s easy enough to cite administrator salaries as contributing to the increasing cost of higher education (despite significant evidence to the contrary) or to complain about the proliferation of Associate Vice Presidents. At the same time, this is echoing certain attitudes that the public sector cannot be trusted to use public funds responsibly. Moreover, critiques of inefficiencies and over-staffed, bureaucratized processes contribute to a similar discourse. In the past, these critiques have served as a rhetorical base for folks who want to reduce funding to higher education (and the public sector more broadly). 

Once again, these are lines that we as faculty should not cross. 

The desire to find common cause with administrators and even public critics is understandable, of course. We all have shared frustrations when we encounter faculty who are struggling to do their share (or who seem to be coasting on the system). We also know that there are parts of the university – like any complex institution – that can be run for efficiently or in ways that more directly benefit the goals of students, faculty, and staff. The issue isn’t whether we should work to make the university a better place. 

Instead, the issue is, in part, the rhetoric that we adopt when we offer these critiques.  

Absurdity in Academia

One of the things that initially drew me to academia was the absurdity of it all. I don’t mean to suggest that all aspects of academic life are absurd or even the best parts of it are absurd, but certain things about the academic life encourage us to laugh at both ourselves and our situation.

For example, in graduate school, I loved the fact that some faculty appeared to care nothing for their appearance, I found the stories of researcher who literally lived for days at a time in their labs endlessly amusing, and marveled at emails from my advisor at 2 am. To me, these simple acts reflected an unwillingness to concede to the 9-5 life (such that I imagined still existed), refusal of professional expectations, and single-minded pursuit of one’s intellectual or academic goals (even if the results could be a bit stinky). 

On the flip side, I soon recognized administrators or aspiring administrators by their more professional comportment. They wore ties (or suits or gender appropriate corporate-style dress) and nice shoes. They seemed more bound by business hours (although today, I realize that deans and the like often work hours that are as long as anyone on campus). They spoke in the strange corporate patois and oversaw the complex bureaucracy that seemed to function by its own logic. 

A a student, the interaction of the administration and the faculty was almost always amusing because I assumed that somehow faculty had the upper hand. To my student mind, the faculty was smart, more agile, and rhetorically sophisticated. We reveled in the stories of how faculty out maneuvered witless administrators. Now that I am faculty, I find the interaction between faculty and administrators no less funny, but I understand the mutuality of it. Despite the fact that many administrators still hail from faculty ranks, they seem to intentionally do things to trigger faculty in how they imagine our motivation.

For example, our campus has recently started a program where we can earn digital badges for meaningless tasks like uploading a video to our online class or filing in certain paperwork on time. No thinking person believes that “digital badges” will motivate faculty to be “team players” or to “work hard and compete with their peers” but I am fairly certain that most people understand that such policies set off a certain group of faculty with predictably amusing results. For our part as faculty, pointing out that policies don’t make sense or open the door for novel abuses or gaming the system doesn’t actually tell administrators things that they don’t know. It does, however, create humorous awkwardness as a member of the English department, for example, dressed in dean’s clothing recites the latest wisdom imparted through a recently viewed webinar. With this relatively newly minted dean, it was actually possible to see him “talking out his neck” as his eyes and brain belied how little he believed what he was saying or its underlying logic. In another incident, another dean suggested that I adjust my teaching load in my contract by 3.33%.

(The insincerity of these gestures evokes a kind of colonial mimicry not so much at the level of deans and their minions, but certainly at the level of the department chair. I’d like to think about this more.) 

Faculty, for their part, return the favor. I once proposed an evaluation process for my department was so complex, absurd, and reflexive that, for a moment, it broke the system and drifted in the university ether before being rejected on technicalities. I’ve always enjoyed watching my colleagues from across campus advocate that their academic specialty is fundamental to the entire project of higher education and cutting it – even slightly – would make our institution a university in name only and significantly accelerated the decline of society. Just as we smile and nod as our English professor in dean’s clothing spouts the latest administrative jargon, we must imagine that our administrators, despite their earnest and understanding nods, must be chuckling. 

These regular performances of the absurd reflect the fundamental incommensurability of our two languages. For administrators, the highest priority it the fiscal and corporate health of the institution and that is mostly bound up in a set of behaviors defined by the logic of the business world and the bureaucratized, progressive, modern state. Many faculty, particularly in the humanities and arts, continue to see their work as craft and fundamentally incompatible with modern structures. We work on our couch at 2 am, wear jeans to work, and find even routine paperwork Byzantine in its logic and complexity. I suspect that this incommensurability has its roots in the two traditions that define higher education: the traditional and the progressive. Faculty tend to be drawn to the former; administrators to the latter.

Our willingness to see the absurdity in the language, behavior, and logic of administrators is effectively a safety valve that releases the tensions inherent in this system. It depends on both sides willingness to recognize the other’s logic as familiar (and maybe even compelling), but refusing to accept it as valid. The tension between recognition and rejection, comprehension and commensurability, and literally speaking and hearing creates a situation where both sides speak past one another in a theater of the absurd. For some this can lead to despair, of course, and we never can really forget that the stakes of this absurdity are real and involve people’s lives, careers, and sense of self. At the same time, there are moments when the sadness and anxiety breaks and we have to laugh. This is both cathartic and reinforces the incommensurability of our two positions. 

More tomorrow…

Mid Career Scholarship and Humility

This weekend, I finished reading Umberto Eco’s lovely little book, How to Write a Thesis, that was translated and republished by MIT Press a few years ago. The book is a great refresher for  mid-career scholars and I would love to use it one day in an undergraduate research class. From the choosing a topic, to identifying sources, organizing research, preparing an outline, and writing and formatting the thesis, Eco leads a researcher through the entire trajectory of a project. He also offers some useful observations on the attitude of the researcher. He calls for students to have both humility enough to read everything with an open mind to its potential and proud enough to speak with their own voice and to own their expertise.  

Over the last five years or so, my experiences as a scholar has certainly fortified my sense of academic humility and I suspect that some mid-career scholars feel the same way. Not only do I feel more humbled by the immense and complex task of producing new scholarship, but I also recognize that my own skills as a scholar have eroded significantly since I completed my dissertation in 2003. In fact, going back to that manuscript from time to time, I find my academic voice almost unrecognizable. I started to wonder what caused this change. Why do scholars lose confidence in mid to late career and why does our (or at least my) work suffer? 

To be clear, I’m not assuming that all scholars go through the same process that I am experiencing and I recognize that many scholars continue to produce important, influential, and high quality work in their mid-career and beyond. Everyone’s academic trajectory is a bit different and situation – in terms of resources, support, political awareness, and rigor – varies. I am writing today with the suspicion that at least some mid-career scholars feel like I do, and not to suggest that all mid-career scholars are the same or even similar.

It seems to me that at the very time when we should be more confidently asserting our expertise on a topic, that we increasingly admit to our own failings and the shallowness of our own knowledge, understanding, and expertise. On the one hand, I recognize that some of this is simply a growing awareness that many smart people in the world write and say many smart things. On the other hand, some of it – at least in my case – derives from the conditions that produce good academic work in one’s early career change by mid-career swinging the balance from early career pride to humility. 

First, as a graduate student, I had more time and resources to do good research. It goes without saying that as a mid-career faculty member there are many demands on our time (and for my contingent colleagues, it is only worse). Between teaching, service, and other obligations across campus (and into real life), I struggle to find the blocks of time necessary to read and write in a thoughtful and confident way. 

More than that, I had to good fortune as a graduate student to have access to good research libraries, time to write and read, and funds to travel both to collect data and to gain new skills. While my current library does a more than adequate job keeping me supplied with books and I have the good fortune to travel regularly for research, I’m also aware that maintaining this situation requires constant “hustle” as a colleague puts it. Time, funds, and resources are not a given and lapse the moment that you take your foot off the gas and stop applying for grants, stop protecting time and space to write, and grow tired of the processes necessary to get books and articles. My energy to produce careful research has waned because it’s not easy to do especially with the constant competition from life and work.  

Second, social conditions change by mid career. I was fortunate as a graduate student to have amazing colleagues who would read my work, talk endlessly about ideas, and drive me to be both more rigorous, more precise, and more measured in my scholarship. While I still have some remarkable colleagues who are willing to read, comment, discuss, and help me to revise my work (and vice versa), I also know that they have competing priorities as well. The days of the seminar (and the pre and post seminar conversations) are gone and the rigor derived from those experiences is gone as well. (To say nothing of the prodding pen of my advisor and faculty).   

In its place is the intentionally impersonal process of peer review which generally lacks both iterative process that defines the seminar and a deeper awareness of one’s academic development. I say this not to make my situation seem unique. I recognize that most academics experience some sense of writing in a vacuum that I do. Instead, I have come to realize how much the social situation of my graduate education allowed me to be at better scholar.  

Third, and this might be the most person, I realize that after over a decade of doing what I can to get by in academia, I’ve developed bad habits, fallen into bad research and writing habits, and have found myself so adrift of the last research skills. The social circumstances that pushed me toward rigor and the resources that made it possible for me to research and write well are gone. Now, I write too quickly. I read broadly and without depth. My research methods tend toward the random and I rely too heavily on an increasingly compromised memory and a disorganized process for note taking, draft writing, and editing. While I can produce plausible academic work, it isn’t good academic work. Eco’s book reminds me how research should be done.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, I feel like I’m much more intellectually and politically aware now than I was as a graduate student. In graduate school, the larger intellectual project of my work was much more closely tied to my own personal and professional ambitions. I wanted to get my degree and get a job and to do that I had to write and research at a particular level. 

Today, there’s more to writing and researching than personal professional advancement. The legacy of what I study, how I do my work, and why I write what I write hangs heavily every time that I sit down to do research. This is a good thing, of course, but the burden and complexity of responsible scholarship does not always align with challenges of producing good scholarship. The struggle of producing scholarship that is both good and right is universal, but it seems uniquely difficult to accomplish as a mid-career scholar when the complexities our moment and the limits of time and resources intersect most violently. 


This post isn’t meant to bemoan my fate or even make an excuse for my own mediocrity, but instead as a first step toward thinking about how to reinforce or even re-establish the skills, resources, connections, and contexts that made me a competent scholar in my early days. I realize that the NEH and other organizations run faculty seminars and such things are increasingly common at universities in the US. I also understand that for contingent faculty the challenge of remaining sharp, engaged, and relevant as scholars is even more pervasive. Perhaps mid-career faculty and contingent faculty can find common ground on the need to re-develop and maintain research skills. A start to this could be as simple as monthly seminars or as a comprehensive as regular training sessions on new research techniques, scholarly writing, and engaged scholarship.   

At the same time, reflecting on my own decline as a scholar has pushed me to recognize the need for greater humility and to temper any rush to claim expertise. Over the past three or four years, I’ve found myself reading more charitably, collaborating more constructively, and doing more to promote the work of colleagues who have kept sharper, longer into their careers. Perhaps part of being a humble scholar, then, isn’t attempting to recapture the energy, skills, and ideas of my youth, but to contribute what I do have left in the tank to helping others realize their goals.

The Privileged Poor

This weekend, I read Anthony Abraham Tuck’s The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges are Failing Disadvantaged Students (Harvard 2019). This seemed like appropriate reading heading into the academic year. More than that, the topic of the book (which is neatly summarized in its title) is one that has sort of haunted me for the last several years. On the one hand, my institution, the University of North Dakota, is by no means an elite college. On the other hand, much in Tuck’s book applies to the kind of diverse student body that UND attracts that includes students form a wide range of economic circumstances, levels of academic and social preparation, and experiences. The diversity of students including students that Tuck would identify as the “privilege poor,” who entered college from solid or even elite high schools and who were prepared academically and socially for college while still being disadvantaged economically. UND also has its share of “doubly disadvantaged” students who struggle with the social and economic aspects of college. Finally, UND has students who adapt quickly to the college environment. 

To be clear, my own experience attending a small liberal arts university, reflect my own incredibly privileged middle class up bringing and the rigorous quality of my own high school education. I recognized myself in Tuck’s book, of course, and I realize that my background allowed me to make the most out of my college experience. I never really struggled reaching out to faculty for help or support. I understood the expectations in my classes and how to navigate most of the social, bureaucratic, and academic pressures of college work. My family supported me throughout college financially, socially, and emotionally.

That being said, I’ve been thinking a good bit about how my classes, my approaches to teaching, my expectations of my students, and my view of my institution reveal and reflected my own privileged experience in college. Many of these questions originated after I read Arum and Roska’s Academically Adrift (Chicago 2011) almost a decade ago (here are my thoughts then).

Tuck’s book is worth reading for anyone teaching at the university level, and particularly significant for those of us at institutions with diverse student populations. It complements recent work on gender and race by showing how economic status and the privileges that it often affords exerts a strong influence on how students experience college. The book, however, takes pains not to oversimplify the influence of economic class by demonstrating how the “privileged poor” from stronger educational backgrounds in high school irrespective of economic status often adapt more quickly to college. 

I have a few simple take aways.

First, I need to recognize that students from less privileged backgrounds have distinct challenges adapting to college culture. Something as simple as explaining how office hours work or what they mean can help a “doubly disadvantaged” student feel more comfortable seeking help from faculty.

This simple advice (which isn’t unique to Tuck’s work, but brilliantly contextualized there) has already shaped my approach to meeting with students. In the past, I’ve had a more or less open door policy meaning that students were always welcome to come to my office. For many students this was appealing because it allowed them more flexibility in how they interacted with me and recognized that most of our students have far more formal constraints on their time than I do. At the same time, I also see how this kind of flexibility can be disconcerting to students who are uncomfortable interacting with faculty because they represent authority figures, because students fear that they’re interrupting, or because students don’t want to be asking for special help or handouts. Formal office hours provide a kind of structure that both encourages students to see office hours as part of our mutual obligation to one another, and this might help mitigate the social risk that some students feel.

Second, students from less economically secure backgrounds sometimes have experiences that will compromise their academic performance, but will feel uncomfortable (or simply unaware of the possibilities of) seeking help, asking for extensions, or finding a way to make up missed work. While I’ve never been a stickler for due dates and deadlines, I can make more clear in my syllabus and – more importantly – in class that I’m willing to be flexible and work with situations that could arise. This policy, of course, is not just important for economically disadvantaged students, but also for students struggling with any number of other challenges from mental health issues to balancing work and life, family responsibilities, and academic, financial, or other challenges.

Thirdly, I need to do more to support the real material challenges facing disadvantaged students on campus. Tuck talked about issues like dining halls closing over spring break introducing a real crisis for students on assistance who lose access to free meals. He noted efforts to create food pantries on campus and other efforts to expand the scope of aid to include all aspects of the university experience. 

At the same time, he offered a cautionary note when he observed the social stigmas attached to certain programs that provided support to students, but also made their economic status visible to their peers. 

Tuck’s book is an accessible, yet richly documented study of the various kinds of privilege and disadvantage present at elite universities which is nevertheless valuable for faculty at a wide range of institutions. The book offers both focused attention on the interpersonal dynamic between students and faculty which is readily applicable to my own interaction with students, and larger institutional perspectives that provide context for how students experience their education and social life at the university.   

Academia as the Universal Baseball Association

Anyone who likes sports and baseball, in particular, should read (or re-read) Robert Coover’s The Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. The book describes a fantasy baseball league designed by Henry Waugh and played with roles of dice and a series of charts that allowed Henry to simulate the complexities of the game. Henry played the game for years creating seasons, statistics, dynasties, and storylines that introduced personalities, character, and politics to the Association.

The game preoccupied Henry especially after a young, start pitcher was killed when he was struck in the head by a pitch during a game. This caused Henry to spiral into a deep depression and the border between the world that he built up around the game and reality began to blur. Soon, he started missing work and drinking heavily and becoming more erratic around his friends. This began to impact the game and the Association culminating in his efforts to include a friend in the playing of the game. Henry then manipulated a roll of the dice to kill the pitcher who though the lethal pitch. This effort to restore balance in the league made clear the enormity of Henry’s responsibility as proprietor of the league and keeper of both its statistics and narratives. The players in the league depended on Henry for their existence, but also for their autonomy through his honest rolls of the dice. 

As I spend more time in academia, I start to wonder how much of what we do exists in a kind of fantasy world where the players, narratives, and situations that inspire our work depend on our own imagination to have agency. This isn’t to suggest that our scholarship doesn’t have real consequences. As the death of a star player in Henry’s Association demonstrated, the worlds that we create spill over into our realities and shape our lives and the lives of other people. While many critics have seen in Coover’s work a commentary on free will and the divine (observing that J. Henry Waugh is very close to Yahweh, one of the names for God in the Old Testament). I wonder whether it might also be a commentary on academia, where so many of our arguments exist in this self-referential world that only sometimes spills over into the rest of our realities. Our expertise, our claims to knowledge, and our positions of social, political, or cultural authority all depend on the relationship between what we do and the existence of a meaningful reality outside of the limits of our game. 

Classics and the Disciplines

I was pretty interested to read second installment in Sarah Bond’s series “Addressing the Divide” on the Society for Classical Studies blog. It reflects on the division between Classics and Archaeology and ponders the borders of Classics as a field. Classics has always been a bit odd in that – from an outsiders perspective – it appears to lack the methodological definition of so many 20th century academic disciplines. In practice, this means departments that have traditional textual philologists, historians, religious studies scholars, archaeologists, and art historians. In her post, Bond quotes James Newhard who noted that Classics is a three-legged stool with legs of philology, history, and archaeology. In short, Classics embodies pre-modern transdisciplinary practices, but also offer a way to think about the future of the university.

It goes without saying that negotiating the relationship between Classics and more conventional disciplines is fraught. In fact, this post evoked some well-considered concerns from Art Historians who feared that this specific reading of Classics marginalized their contributions to the project.

Taking nothing away from their critique, I think the tensions between disciplinary practices and fields like Classics speak to changing nature of the university. Today more than ever, academics are looking toward their disciplines as counterweights to the growing tendency for universities to break down the traditional organizational and institutional structures that provided a framework for professional autonomy and shared governance. They have also served to establish standards of competence and expertise through formal procedures such as accreditation as well as less formal means such as the publication of academic journals, the hosting of annual meetings, and dissemination of guidelines and recommendations for institutions and individuals. 

At the same time, there’s a growing suspicion that disciplinary definitions – as they now exist – may not provide a framework for addressing the most challenging problems facing our world. More than that, most of us – in almost every academic field – happily stray from our narrow disciplinary preferences to dance in other people’s gardens. We rely on the work of other specialists to support our arguments and to correct us when we stumble over intellectual or discursive pitfalls.

Because I don’t associate strongly with Classics (although I would admit to being “Classics Adjacent”), I’m reluctant to weigh in on these debates, but I am fascinated and optimistic that negotiating the relationship between disciplines and the field of Classics will offer a template for understanding how disciplines will fit into an increasingly trans- and interdisciplinary university.