Friday, May 09, 2008

Academic as Performer and Product: Professionalization and Scholarship

I really need to be getting to work on some scholarship, actually (the Article that I Just Can't Let Go), but I read two things this morning over my coffee that brought the ideas for this post to mind, and I think that it might help me to get to work to do this post first. (This also helps with holding on to AIJCLG for just a bit longer, as I know I'm procrastinating.)

The first piece to which I link above is a Chronicle First Person column by Patricia Nelson Limerick about being a "university-based public scholar." Limerick, a historian at the University of Colorado at Boulder, writes about doing "applied" scholarship in the humanities. She writes:

Come on in, the water's fine!, I would like to say to graduate students and assistant professors. There is certainly plenty of room in this pool. In the early 21st century, there is no limit or constraint on the desire of public constituencies to profit from the perspective of a university-based historian.

Even better, the usual lament of the humanities -- "There is plenty of money to support work in science and engineering, but very little to support work in the humanities" -- proves to be accurate only if you define "work in the humanities" in the narrowest and most conventional way. If, by that phrase, you mean only individualistic research, directed at arcane topics detached from real-world needs and written in inaccessible and insular jargon, there is indeed very limited money.

But for a humanities professor willing to take up applied work, sources of money are unexpectedly abundant. There is no need for humanities professors to waste any more time envying the resources available to scientists and engineers. Instead, you can offer to play Virgil to their Dante, guiding them through the inferno of cultural anxieties, laypeople's misunderstandings, and political landmines.

However, she concludes that within the structure of academe it's difficult to make such activities one's scholarly profile if one hopes to get a job and to get tenure. She lists a bunch of reasons why this is the case, and then continues:

Here is the upshot: To become university-based public scholars, young people may well have to put their ambition into cold storage for a decade and a half. Go to graduate school, write a conventional dissertation, get a tenure-track job, publish in academic journals and in university presses, give papers at professional conferences to small groups of fellow specialists, and comply with all the requirements of deference, conformity, and hoop-jumping that narrow the road to tenure while also narrowing the travelers on that road. Then, once tenured, you can take up the applied work that appealed to you in the first place.

In the end, she doesn't really think that this process is the best one or a sustainable one.

But I still worry about the sustainability of higher education's current practices, especially the rigid and anachronistic standards of evaluation that drive hiring and promotion. And I cannot shake the idea, composed of equal parts gloom and cheer, that the minds of professors and students are the most under-utilized renewable resource in the United States today.

When we give up jargon, when we substitute humility for smugness, when we listen intently to people who have acquired their expertise in front-line practice, and maybe especially when we undertake to understand political positions that do not match our own, we dissolve the barriers that block the full engagement of professors with the public.

Now, I think that Limerick is a bit... how shall I put this? I think that her analysis of public engagement through scholarship is colored by the fact that she's at a very good research university where material resources for such work are abundant. The reality of my professional life (at a regional, non-research-oriented university) is that this kind of "public engagement" work (across all disciplines) receives much more recognition from my administration and colleagues than does traditional scholarship, but at the same time there isn't really support on the front end in the form of money, resources, and time to do it effectively (whatever one's discipline, though it's even more an issue for disciplines that don't traditionally center on this kind of work). It's actually easier to do traditional scholarship, even though it's not what the ruling bureaucracy at my particular institution loves the most.

That said, I think that one of the reasons that I responded to this piece and that it got me thinking is because it's one that puts scholarship into a professional context. The scholarship that one does may be intellectually invigorating, and we may feel passion for it, but it exists in a context - or actually many contexts: "scholarship" speaks to constituencies within our discipline, within our university community, within the broader community of which our university is a part, within our classrooms. It "does" a lot of things, and it defines who we are to a range of audiences. Scholarship isn't, in practice, about leading a "life of the mind." It's about performing an identity (or multiple, sometimes competing identities) in the world.

After reading this piece, I read the second to which I linked, in which Sisyphus talks about the articles that she's working on and finding venues in which to publish them. Sisyphus muses about a rejection that she received, and about wanting to send it right back out to be under review elsewhere. She writes:

Only, I'm not so sure what are the other options "in my field" it would be good to aim for. Only, a lot of the journals I can think of are "up" on the selectivity scale, not down. Only, I do weird stuff.

A bit further down, she continues:

Mr decline-of-English can grouse all he wants but I think the profession is way more like his ideals than his fears; from where I stand it's tough to be taken seriously when I stuff rocks and a novel and sugar packets all in a big metaphysical conceit and hit "churn." I have had bad luck dealing with what I call "author journals" and "author people." You know, they ask me to cut two thirds of the essay ---- all the cool stuff that is not a boring retread of Done to Death Novel. They come up to me after conference papers and say, which of Overdone Author's novels are you dealing with in your other dissertation chapters? And then when I start telling them about a chapter with no novels, but with kitchen sinks, their eyes glaze over and they walk away. And, their lit-focused or specific-author focused journals appear to vastly outnumber stuff I feel "a good fit" applying to. I mean, if I cut out all the "yoking together of heterogeneous ideas" parts, you're getting rid of my biggest strength.

So, in sum, I have no clue where I'm going with this. "This" being not only this blog post but my career. Do I even want to write about nose-picking metaphors if they're not going to let me include photographs of antique electric nosecleaners I've been collecting? I dunno. Writing this post has reminded me that I still do love what I do; I just can't get anyone else to love it. Or pay me to do it. Same difference.

Now, you may be wondering why these two pieces inspired this post, for on the surface they appear to be talking about very different things. Limerick writes about doing away with jargon and about making scholarship accessible to people outside the hallowed halls of academe; Sisyphus writes about trying to make a place for herself within those hallowed halls in what is ultimately quite a traditional way. But see, this leads back to something I really believe to be true: that our scholarship, as much as we might love it, isn't centrally about the fact that we love what we do: it's about constructing and performing an identity, and the props, costumes, and lines available to us are limited.

What's funny, though, is that I can't think of a single person who conceives of their own scholarship as "mainstream." Everybody I know (in literary studies) thinks they're doing something that challenges the status quo, that doesn't fit into the dominant culture of his/her field. People whose work is rooted in "close reading" (and here I'd quibble with Sisyphus's rejection of the term - I'd say that while "close reading" has evolved from what the new critics did that it's still the foundation for much if not all literary critical methodology) lament that editors and reviewers don't find what they do "sexy" or "edgy." People who are more theoretically oriented lament that the "author people" are so in love with their authors of choice that there is no room to intervene in that body of criticism in unconventional ways.

To some extent, I think this just goes with the territory of the dialectical model through which literary criticism comes into being. In order to do "original" work, one must write against something. What we do depends on resistance - real or imagined. In order to make an argument, one must have something to argue against. But I also think that what causes us, as scholars, some cognitive dissonance is the fact that when we are drawn to scholarship, we're drawn, however much theory we've read and however much we've internalized the poststructuralist belief that there is no such thing as "truth," to the promise that what we think, and ultimately write, will be the "truth." That it will offer a "true" insight (if not the only insight). That it will constitute a "new" way of seeing, and that our readers will go, "Aha! Well, of course! Indeed!" and that what matters is the "knowledge" that we produce.

But as I've made my way into this career, I become more and more convinced that the primary work that scholarship does isn't really about that. It's a nice secondary effect of research, but not its primary mission. Primarily, research is about positioning oneself in a context, about constructing an identity for oneself as a professional.

I suppose that the first inkling I got about this fact was from my dissertation director, when he advised me as I was conceiving my dissertation that the dissertation was first and foremost a "job-seeking document." For this reason, he advised, it made sense to write on canonical authors that departments would want me to teach (a) and that I write on authors that clearly positioned me within a narrowly defined subspeciality, that would allow me to apply successfully not only for jobs within that subspecialty but also within the broader specialization of what that is a part (b). This meant that the dissertation I wrote was not the dissertation I'd initially envisioned - I'd wanted to throw in everything but the kitchen sink in my initial vision - but that doesn't mean that I didn't write a dissertation I wanted to write. No, I wanted to write the dissertation that I ultimately wrote, but I saw it, from the beginning, as a means through which to market myself. This was a bit of a disappointment at first, but my mentors also reminded me that the dissertation was not the end of what I'd do as a scholar, but rather only the beginning: "Write that magnum opus once you've got tenure; for now, worry about getting that job in which you can get tenure."

And I did that. Now, the way that I've handled my scholarly trajectory since hasn't been quite so calculated (I've got total freedom where I work in terms of pursuing whatever catches my fancy), and I think that did affect my marketability for other jobs in the past couple of years. Who I am as a scholar is limited by the fact that I pursued my fancy and not what was most desirable in a broader context. That said, as I look back over what I've achieved over the past five years, I'm not sure I'd trade it for a job at another institution. I mean, I can do what I want where I am. Wasn't that the whole point from the get-go? I do believe it was. And so I'm ok with how I've fleshed out this identity of mine as a scholar, even if it means that I don't end up at a more research-oriented institution. The work that I'm doing here is incredibly interesting to me, I like the student population that I teach, and I like my colleagues. That said, I've had to mourn the fact that some ambitions that I had for what I would do in this profession aren't likely ever to materialize into achievements - not because I don't do interesting work or because I don't have stature in my field, but because the kind of work and the kind of stature I've acquired don't - and most likely will never - match my youthful ambitions.

Ok, but that last paragraph was a bit of a digression. I guess what I'm saying overall, though, is that scholarship isn't this pure thing that exists outside of the economy of professionalization. In fact, I'd say that it is one of the cornerstones (if not the cornerstone) of that economy, and ultimately, the scholarship that we produce positions us in a certain way in the markets that drive this profession. We are products while at the same time we have a great deal of control (although not total control) over the means of production. And so when I write on Author A, or I use Theoretical Approach B, I'm engaging in a performance of a particular identity or a particular set of identities. And readers and colleagues and people in the audiences of papers that I present respond to that performance. And yes, depending on the venue (because I'm careerist) my performances shift. When I'm with the "author people" I put on a show that they'll enjoy. When I'm with the "theory people" I give another performance entirely.

Does that make the work that I do any less valuable? I wonder that sometimes. But then I think that the fact that I'm able to do this means that my work actually sees the light of day, and that's valuable, even if I am a sell-out. And I do think that I am a sell-out, and I don't really have many convictions where research is concerned. It's because I'm an attention-whore :)

The point of this post is not to be critical of those who approach scholarship differently from the way that I do. I do think that it's possible to have intentions that are purer than my own, which pretty much come down to "I want people to look at what I did and to like me! Like me, dammit! Think I'm fabulous!" - to have those intentions and to be wildly successful. But I think that it can be useful to consider that maybe that's not the only way to conceive of ones scholarship or of oneself as a scholar. The bottom line for me was that it was more important to perform an identity, and to position myself as a product, that would give me entry into this profession - to follow the path of least resistance in a lot of ways - than to dig in my heels and to do scholarship that fully articulated the "real" me or what I "really" think. And that is a compromise, and not one that everybody should or can make.

But when I was talking to BES about grad school this week, one of the things that we discussed were these very issues, and the necessity of framing one's work as a scholar in ways that will be marketable and in ways that fit into the demands of the economy of the academy. Sometimes that necessity is at odds with our politics (for example: while it is a valuable feminist project to write on less canonical women authors, most departments aren't looking to hire a specialist in Esoteric Woman Writer, nor are most journals looking to publish articles on her) or at odds with our beliefs about what "scholarship" should be (that it should somehow be "pure" and outside of what is often an oppressive market-driven structure). The trick, I think, is finding a way to negotiate the competing demands of our personal passions and interests and of the market that determines the material resources that we have to pursue those passions and interests. And that is a really difficult set of competing demands to negotiate. And there's no one-size-fits-all model for doing it.

And since there's not, this post is probably bullshit. I mean, who cares what I think about this stuff? It's not like you just follow a formula and everything works out according to plan. There's been a lot of luck involved in my scholarship getting an audience, and I'd be the last to tell you otherwise. It's entirely possible that if you tried to replicate what I did that you would not have the same results. But at least for me, it helps to detach and to think about my choices as a scholar in that broader professional context. It makes me feel less pain when I'm rejected - it's not about me after all - and it makes me feel more confident about where I fit into the profession generally.

And so with all of that being said, I've got to take one last look at that article that I've been too afraid to send, make the final changes, and send that motherfucker off. Because while I can come up with a lot of excuses for why I've not done so (the semester! issues with copyright permissions for the book! allergies!) the reality is that I've not sent it because I'm afraid of how it will be received because it's new work and because I really am invested in it in a way that goes against my tendency to detach and to see scholarship as just another "professional document." Because even as cynical as I am about that stuff, not all of my idealistic tendencies have been beaten out of my just yet.

(It's been so long since I've been scared to show my work that I think it took me this past month to finally come to terms with the fact that this was my problem. And this should make you realize that for all of my pronouncements on this blog, I totally do not have all of this stuff figured out.)


Shaun Huston said...

Awhile back I posted an entry that picks up the same threads as Limerick. I think you're right to note that those of us at regional/smaller state schools (my institution is in the process of "rebranding" itself to be considered less regional) have more freedom to pursue less traditional, and often more publicly minded, publishing, but that resource limitations, including time, means that we face a different set of constraints than those at R1 schools when making such choices. My blog entry discusses the issue of professional positioning as well, but less elegantly than you do here.

Susan said...

I think in some ways you are right about scholarship and professional positioning, but as a historian I find it more complicated. (We don't have canonical authors, and there are fashions that you may catch the wave on or not.) My reaction to Limerick was that she's a historian of the US west at an institution in the west, which allows certain kinds of public activity. I'm a historian of a different country, and back some centuries. I don't live in the places I write about. That does actually limit some of my ability to do public work.

That said, the other thing I'd say is that given the uncertainty of academic careers, you totally have to write the dissertation/book you want to write. People I know who don't tend not to finish. That doesn't mean you don't adapt and do something that might have a better chance of being marketable.

I've always taken somewhat sideways approaches to my work, and have been oddly marginal and engaged in wider professional contexts. I've just got a job where the somewhat odd way I approach issues is a strength rather than a weakness. And that's what everyone hopes to find.

Dr. Crazy said...

Thanks for the link to your post, Shaun!

Susan, you're right that certain specializations are much more difficult to fit into public scholarship/public engagement, for any number of reasons. One of the reasons that I don't position myself that way is because with my specialization it's a huge stretch. What's interesting is that I have medievalist colleagues who actually have an easier time of that in my location than I do. I think the issue if one is not at a school with a lot of clout (and cash) is that configuring one's work to fit into a "public engagement" model takes a lot of energy and creativity (time) as well as material resources, so it's not that it would be impossible for me to do it, but given the constraints on resources for me, it's too difficult to embark on such an endeavor.

Also, I didn't mean to imply that one should choose a "hot" topic that one wasn't passionate about or that one shouldn't consider one's own interests in conceiving one's scholarship. (This is actually where Sisyphus was right on in a comment to a previous post in which she noted that it's bad to throw in the postcolonial/african-american/whatever chapter into a dissertation to attempt to increase marketability when that's not really what one wants to do in a whole-hearted way.) I was (and really still am) passionate about the ideas in my dissertation. But I could have done something similar theoretically with different texts and been much less successful - by writing on the canonical but with an off-center theoretical approach, I was able to market myself better than if I had written on the non-canonical from that same approach. Obviously I'm coming from the perspective of my discipline, and the possibilities and options differ by discipline. I guess what I'd say, though, is that regardless of discipline we all have to pick our battles and think about our scholarship in terms of the practical outcomes that we hope to achieve for ourselves. But so all of that is a long way of saying that I think that we basically agree :)

As for what you say about the job that you got, well first, congratulations! Second, I'd say you're right: that is what we hope to find. The difficulty, I think, is that it's very easy to conceive of research as totally separate from the rest of our professional lives, which can land people in institutional situations that *don't* actually fit what they want for their careers. So if you write super-esoteric dissertation in English, probably only a huge research university could support you. You might get that job, but if what you love most is teaching, you're screwed. Or you might end up with no offers at all, if you don't hit the market at the right time. If you write slightly off-center but also mainstream dissertation, you have more options. (I know a few people who've been burned on the market by going with their esoteric passions without considering the market at all, and so that's where I'm coming from with this.)

Feminist Avatar said...

Despite the fact that when I chose my subject area I did not consider this, the more I write, the more I realise that my work, however marketed, is auto-biographical. The direction in which my thesis took, the theories and ideas I engaged with, my topic area, my style of writing, are all reflections of my upbringing and background and in some respects and attempt to tie many of the disaparate parts of my identity together- to rethink what it meant to be me. This was not intentional and not something I realised until I was nearly finished.

And despite all of this, I wrote a well-received thesis and believe it has the potential to be quite marketable.

I wonder whether, however calculated we are about our topic area, we can get away from the fact we shall eventually write something very personal- maybe this is just me.