Sunday, June 30, 2013

Going monk

We had a guest presider at Mass today: a wacky and hilarious young Trappist monk. I've known friars, but never monks--and part of the reason for our guest's presence was to talk about what monks do and why it has value: what's the point of living in silence in a cloister? What does that contribute to the world, or even to their lay co-religionists?

I've heard intermittant reports that vocations to religious life have risen slightly in recent years--but whether or not that's true, the contemplative life does seem to be having a minor moment in popular culture: The New York Times keeps turning out articles about urban professionals going on spiritual retreats, or families and individuals declaring digital fasts (or trying to), or what the rest of the world can learn from introverts. For that matter, just ask yourself: how many thoroughly secular people in your life have sung the praises of meditation? How many were doing it ten years ago?

For all the popularity of meditation, mini-retreats, or mini-fasts from one's gadgets and devices, there's still something challenging and counter-cultural, even uncomfortable-making, about those who actually live out the contemplative life in a monastery, convent, or ashram. Who are these people? Narcissists and dilettantes, searching for some kind of nebulous personal fulfillment? Weak souls in thrall to what's more or less a cult? Or asocial wackos who can't get along in the real world?

Those charges are also familiar to academics: why do you get the summers off? What's this "sabbatical"? What good is it to spend ten years writing a book that maybe 300 people in the world will read and understand?

I'm not trying to aggrandize what we do by suggesting either that it's so very radical or that it has a deeper spiritual purpose--and the monastic roots of the scholarly enterprise are well-known. But seeing this self-deprecating, low-voiced monk utterly charm our urban congregation made me hope that, as teachers who are also scholars, we bring our undergraduates a version of what the monk on leave from his abbey brings to a busy and skeptical laity: a sense of what we do with our lives and how it might be relevant to theirs.

Or as our guest said, "there's a little monk in all of us."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

On leaning in or dropping out

Here at Ferule & Fescue, we strive to meet all your college reunion-related needs--or anxieties, irritations, and grievances, as the case may be. A long-time reader, recently back from her husband's college reunion, writes in to express her frustration with what she saw among the women of his class:

Dear Flavia,

I just attended my husband's 25th college reunion at an Ivy League university, and I'm left wondering if his classmates--women and men alike--are aware that there was a feminist movement around the time we were all born. (I did not attend this university--I went to a liberal arts college that was definitely not Ivy League. Few if any of my women classmates have left the paid workforce.) Is it just me, or is the unemployed spouse and large (3-5 children) family back with a vengeance among the economic elite? Out where we live in flyover country, most of the families who look like this are evangelical Christian homeschooler/Quiverfull types.

Maybe this is just the stage I'm at in life, but it seems like elite women who came of age in the 1970s made much more intentional decisions about their lives with respect to feminist values than women like me who came of age in the 1980s and 1990s. Are these elite families aware of the similarities between them and evangelical families in the way they've chosen to arrange their household economies and to allocate the labor of adults? Is the shared value of patriarchal privilege in fact a feature, not a bug, even among so-called "liberal" families?

The women and men I'm writing about are the same demographic that Sheryl Sandberg addressed in her recent book, Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. What, I wonder, do these elites tell their daughters about the importance of working hard in school and getting a college education? Don't they ever wonder what kind of example they're setting? Do they care? A woman at the reunion (no job, 3 kids) told me that a friend (no job, 3 kids) called her recently in tears because her daughter said to her, "Mom, if you went to such a great school, why don't you have a job?"

I'm not the type to sympathize with a surly tween, but that's not a bad question. What was the point of that college/M.A./M.S./Ph.D./M.D./J.D. degree if you're not going to use it somehow? I can't believe I've lived long enough to see my age-peers give credence to that age-old antifeminist claim that it's pointless to admit women to college/professional school or to hire them "because they're just going to get pregnant and quit. Why waste it on them, when their spot could go to a man who will use his education/opportunity?"

What's going to happen if (or when!) these women get divorced? Courts rarely if ever grant alimony any more. What's the marriage- or job market value of a middle-aged woman with little or no job experience over the past twenty years? I sure hope they're stocking a massive treasure chest full of jewelry they can cash in if need be, or even better, funneling cash into a retirement fund for themselves. In the Cayman Islands.

Why do straight women still view their work and professional lives as extras, frills, or expendable? I was discussing this with a friend of mine who is an extremely hardworking woman in a very demanding profession. She remarked that "no one likes 'work.' That's why it's called 'work!'" In other words, as Don Draper said to Peggy Olson last season in Mad Men: "That's what the money's for!" Work is not supposed to be fulfilling or fun most of the time. It's supposed to be a means to an end.

This retro-vision marriage and family arrangement looks like an incredibly shitty bargain with patriarchy to me. So what's the answer? Can't the world of work also be a crummy place for women, and more especially for mothers? Absolutely! Believe me, I write as someone who has had her share of craptastic jobs with sexist bosses and coworkers. But, I've managed to work my way into a decent position, and I have hopes that new opportunities might open up for me in the future. Even when I was in a crummy job, the cash (as they say) was good to eat, as are the health benefits, the 401 K, and the Social Security (eventually). Maybe it's my background as a scholarship kid who always assumed she'd work her whole life, but I've never seen the world of work as a faceless enemy.

How can we ever expect or hope that the world of work will work equally for women and men if women persist in dropping out and men persist in supporting them, at least so long as it suits them? Why aren't women who drop out of the paid workforce being treated for depression, or at least urged to get counseling before they go? Just imagine the social and moral panic if a large number of upper middle-class men between the ages of 30 and 55 decided that they didn't want to work. Here's a useful tip: if you have a college education and unemployment seems like a good idea, seek treatment. If you are educated for and capable of a decent job, the disinclination to work should be seen as a symptom of an underlying problem, not a lifestyle "choice."

In my experience, having a two-career family has meant that we have sacrificed some things, but we're more flexible in facing life's headwinds when they blow, as they surely will. We had to move out of state and far away from our families, and my husband's job is far from perfect right now. But these disadvantages are far outweighed by the advantages of having two jobs in the family. For example, my husband changed jobs last year, something that was made so much less complicated because we are insured by my employer. When our child was small, we could afford excellent in-home care and also save for hir education. We don't have to debate whether or not we can afford camp, music lessons, or orthodontia. We can!

Finally, we're raising hir consistently with our feminist and egalitarian values: everyone in our home works, and everyone contributes as they can to the household. Everyone helps with shopping, cooking, and cleaning up. No one's time or work is more important than anyone else's. Maybe this is what I find so disappointing: the abandonment of egalitarian as well as feminist ideals. But then, my observations here expose a weakness in Sandberg's focus on elites as the key to feminist change in the workplace. Elites are the last people to lead a revolution, as the world works pretty well for them. Elite women continue to make the shitty bargain with patriarchy for their children's sake--their sons's sake, in any case. I don't see at all how their example benefits their daughters in the long run.

I guess that's as good a bargain as they can strike, once they give up on an independent income.

Parts of my guest writer's account ring true to my experience and parts of it don't: almost none of my classmates have left the workforce entirely, and most are still working full-time. But as I'm almost a decade younger, it may just be that the things she describes haven't yet come to pass among my age peers. Certainly, it seems that if push comes to shove in the marriages of my heterosexual friends, it's pretty much always the woman's job that gets shoved.

(And here's where I should add that, like Sandberg, I don't think there's anything wrong with choosing to stay at home or with downshifting or slow-tracking for a time--but like Sandberg and my guest, I'm troubled when it happens on a larger scale and when we lose crucial voices in public life and the working world as a result.)

I'd love your thoughts, readers, about my guest's observations: is this a widespread phenomenon? And if so, do you share her disappointment. . . or do you have a different interpretation of what's going on here or what kinds of outcomes we might expect (for women, for their kids, or for individual marriages) over the long term?

Monday, June 24, 2013

On the internet, every week is old home week

As I've been trying to finish up revisions on an article, I've found myself taking an increasing number of internet breaks--the five minutes that stretch into ten that stretch into a whole afternoon gone. To be fair, I entered this particular rabbit hole with the best of intentions: I wanted to see if an acquaintance's book was out yet, so I could ILL it. But Googling him led me to his CV, and then to looking up his publications in the MLA database--and the next thing you know I was looking up practically everybody I've ever known to see what they've accomplished since the last time I checked in on them.

And, well, that takes a while.

But I'd defend this particular episode of Google- and career-stalking on these grounds: it's been forever since I last indulged in it.

My first two or three years post-degree were a different story. I felt I was keeping obsessive tabs on how everyone else in the profession was doing: not just people in my field, but acquaintances from grad school and their colleagues. It wasn't about envy or feelings of rivalry (at least not most of the time); I really felt I had no clue what I was supposed to be doing and at what rate. In grad school, there had been a pretty clear series of hoops to move through, and we moved through them at more or less the same pace. And when one of my compeers got a journal article accepted or went to a conference, I knew it.

It was different once I had a tenure-line job. For one thing, my colleagues were at different career stages, so it was harder to assess what would be an appropriate level of production for me at mine. For another, there was only one person in my subfield. And for three. . . we just didn't talk about that stuff too explicitly. We talked about teaching, departmental business, our personal lives. And while I had a mentor and a very clear T&P document, I didn't have a sense of how my department's promotion and tenure standards stacked up against other departments', or even of how much my colleagues were actually doing (as opposed to the minimum of what they and I needed to do).

So I tracked the progress of people I knew who were in my field and closer to my career stage. There was a certain woman a few years ahead of me in the profession who became my aspirational benchmark. I didn't really know her and our work wasn't especially related, but for a variety of reasons I decided that whatever she was doing (the places she was getting published, the fellowships she was receiving) were a good index of what I should be shooting for.

There were some smart things about this strategy. I was able to identify and pursue opportunities I wouldn't otherwise have known about, and keeping my ear to the ground, as it were, helped me to make better choices about where and how to spend my professional energy.

At the same time, though, it wasn't totally healthy to be constantly comparing myself to others. It's also wrongheaded to think that you can take a valid measure of anyone's scholarly or professional development--including your own--on a semesterly or yearly basis. Scholarly time doesn't work like that. Sometimes a person goes three years with no new publications because of a backlog at a press or journal, or because they're immersed in a massive book project--or because they got pregnant or married or divorced or depressed. During other periods, they might seem to be in constant motion as everything piles up on their CV at once.

Coming to this realization may be why I've stopped keeping active tabs on other people's professional lives. Sure, I know how my friends are doing--because they're my friends--and I'm eager to hear about new work by those I admire. But I no longer think that I'm learning much about what I should be doing or where I stand by comparing myself with others.


So what was behind this recent flurry of Google-stalking? A deep aversion to working on my article, for one, but I think I also thought that now--when most the people I know are five to eight years post-degree--some patterns would be more apparent and it would be easier to assess who's doing what. And I'm curious, in a more distant and less personal way, about what it means to be a scholar at early midcareer at this historical moment in the life of the profession: what does that path of a young(ish) scholar look like in this day and age?

But while it's easy to identify the extremes (those who have published twice as much as anyone else and those who have dramatically underperformed or overperformed whatever the conventional wisdom about their early "potential"), the signal is still pretty fuzzy.

What we need, obviously, is a longitudinal study.

I'd hazard a guess that it takes 10 or 15 years post-degree to start to see the shape of anyone's career very clearly. In the same way that it's pointless to hyperventilate about what a loooooser you are on the eve of your five- or ten-year college reunion (because seriously, no one's who they're going to be yet, and anyone who thinks they are is the boringest person alive), it's pointless to compare oneself too closely to others professionally. Just do your thing and go to the damn reunion.

So maybe we should check in on each other only every five years, as we do with our college classmates. We could even submit ridiculous self-narratives and assemble them into a handy bound volume.

No, you're right: that's what the internet is for.

Monday, June 17, 2013

New faculty woes

I've spent an unusual amount of time lately talking with recent PhDs and doctoral students new to the area, a process that's been giving me vivid flashbacks to my own first year or two on the job. Some of these people are our own recent hires, whom I'm getting to know better--but most are people who've contacted me about the possibility of renting our house next year while we're away on my sabbatical. Both sets of people, though, have reminded me how tough it is to move somewhere new, and how even getting a tenure-track job doesn't catapult one into adulthood or into career or personal stability quite as easily or immediately as one sometimes hopes and imagines.

Grad students, of course, come in all shapes and sizes, and people finish their doctorates at different ages and at different life stages. Some are already in a reasonably stable place, financially and personally, and getting a tenure-track job involves only a relatively straightforward strengthening of that position (there may be some short-term anxieties or upheavels if there's a big geographic move or if a spouse has to change jobs, but nothing that the household can't weather). But for others . . . it's harder. As long-time readers know, I had a relationship of six years implode in my first year on the job, and I went into MORE debt despite moving from the country's most expensive metropolitan area to a very affordable Rust Belt city, and from a contingent faculty position to a secure, well-paid, tenure-line job. Nothing about that period was as bad as my first several years of grad school, but it was still a more difficult experience than I was prepared for.

Most of the people I've been talking with seem more like me than not, and I wish this were something that the profession acknowledged more fully: how very hard these shifts can be. We talk a great deak about how hard and how heart-breaking it is trying to get a tenure-line job, and we talk a certain amount about how stressful it can be to be a junior professor trying to make tenure; much less frequently do we talk about how hard it can be landing at a first job that just isn't the right fit (and those conversations are always hedged about with apology and embarrassment: yes yes, we're lucky to have these problems), and I'm not sure I've ever seen a public discussion of the struggles that accompany a new job that's actually pretty good and about which one has no real complaints--but that nevertheless produces new problems or fails to solve the ones we thought it would.

I'll leave the relationship component to the side, though I'm not the only person whose move to the tenure track or to a new job precipitated a breakup or divorce--or a prolonged period of isolation and unhappy singlehood. But the money thing is huge, and compounds whatever other struggles a new faculty member may be having with her job or her personal life. Moving is expensive and complicated, and requires a major outlay of cash, especially for people who have been subsisting for years on a graduate stipend.

When I took this job, I had a final paycheque from my previous job in May. I wouldn't receive my first paycheque from RU until the end of September (and my health coverage wouldn't begin until October). I had to travel to a new city to find an apartment, put down a deposit, move, buy a car, and live for four months. . . on nothing. Since I was only coming from 400 miles away, RU covered most of the cost of my move itself--three professionals and a van--so things weren't quite as dire as they could have been. But they were dire enough. I had good credit (i.e., a high credit line and a low rate on a few too many cards) and some help from my parents, so I made it through. But seven years and a number of raises later, I'm still paying off some of that debt.

I'm in stable though not excellent financial shape these days; my car is paid off, I own a house, my consumer debt is slowly shrinking, and though taking a year at half-pay will be tough, I can do it without adding to my debt. I'm no longer in constant financial panic. But lemme tell you: running credit checks on possible renters and piecing together the kinds of gambles and bad decisions they made in grad school has given me some PTSD-style flashbacks. I want to tell some of these prospective renters, "OH MY GOD. I UNDERSTAND!" But I also want to tell them, "You're fucking delusional if you think you can afford this rent on that salary. It's going to be so, so much harder than you think."

But no one wants to hear that. All I can do is tell our own new hires, as soon as they accept the offer, when their paycheques and medical coverage will actually begin. (Strangely, this is information that no one else ever bothers to pass along.) And I can try to be a sympathetic and helpful colleague, if they have other problems they care to share. I hope they won't have problems--but experience suggests that an awful lot will.

Friday, June 07, 2013

Never that central, not really in crisis

A friend alerted me to this fascinating post arguing not only that the latest narrative of decline for the humanities is excessive and alarmist (there's no evidence that the past decade has seen a steep drop-off in the percentage of college students majoring in the humanities), but that there was never a period in American life where humanities majors accounted for more than a tiny percentage of the adult population.

Benjamin Schmidt, a graduate student at Princeton, runs the numbers and finds several things. First, the mid-to-late 1960s, when somewhere between 15 and 20% of all college students majored in the humanities, were a brief and anomalous blip: the best numbers from the previous decades suggest that about 10% of college students majored in the humanities in the 1940s and 1950s, compared with about 8% today--and of course, in the middle of the 20th century, vastly fewer Americans went to college and there were vastly fewer subjects available to major in. Second, there has never been a time when humanities majors accounted for more than about 4% of the entire adult population--compared with about 3% today.

At least as interesting as the data are Schmidt's reflections on why so many people are so invested in a narrative of decline for the humanities. He suggests that it fulfills different needs for different groups: a belief in the prior-centrality of the humanities allows (a) humanists themselves to argue that their disciplines once were and still should be at the core of both university education and public life; (b) conservative critics of the academy to claim that misguided academics in thrall to something (multiculturalism! French theory!) destroyed the humanities; (c) business-oriented pragmatists to dismiss the humanities as outdated and irrelevant to the modern world.

He points out that, in fact, the great period of recovery for humanities majors (after the crash in the 1970s) came in the late 1980s and early 1990s--"in other words, the heart of the culture wars, perhaps the only period that everyone agrees was ruinous to the humanities."

Read the post and see what you think. Here's the big question I'm left with: what would it mean for us not to believe that the humanities are in crisis? How might we teach differently, research differently, or approach broader questions of educational policy differently?


Wednesday, June 05, 2013

I sing the sorrows of inbox zero

Over the past month, more than one academic friend has remarked on the never-gets-old thrill of opening her work email during the summer only to discover--nothing! No messages!! At all!!!

And, sure. That's a delightful thing. On the other hand, there are still messages one might hope or expect to find in one's work email, even during the summer. And opening up the account only to find nothing there is dispiriting. At least during the semester one can always count on something new being there, and usually a something involving capital letters and question marks and the typographic equivalent of frantic hand waving.

Even exasperating and distracting missives are, well, distracting.

What am I supposed to do, here: work?