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Roundtable: Academia

What happens when you put five academics together and talk about the future of higher learning, the intricacies of tenure, and whether or not American high-schoolers are really learning anything? THE EDITORS strap on their mortarboards and find out.

The Participants

María del Pilar Blanco
is in her fourth year of the doctoral program in Comparative Literature at New York University. She is currently teaching a course titled ‘Allegories of the City.’

Chris Federico is currently Assistant Professor of Psychology and Political Science at the University of Minnesota. His work focuses on ways people organize their perceptions of social groups and how they use knowledge to construct an understanding of the political world.

John Warner is a writer of fiction, humor, and non-fiction, and works as an instructor in the Department of Communications at Virginia Tech University. He has and M.A. in English Literature and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from McNeese St. University, and is co-author (with Kevin Guilfoile) of My First Presidentiary: A Scrapbook of George W. Bush.

Ken Womack is Associate Professor of English and Head of the Division of Arts and Humanities at Penn State University’s Altoona College. His book on the tragicomic nature of university life, Postwar Academic Fiction: Satire, Ethics, Community, was recently published by Palgrave Press.

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Is there any truth to the maxim ‘Publish or Perish?’

Ken Womack: Without question. Publication is a key ingredient for evaluation in nearly every research institution and the most visible means via which tenure-track faculty can demonstrate their ultimate, external acceptance by the academy. Yet the act of publication takes place almost entirely beyond the strictures of one’s home institution; hence, it becomes a nearly unassailable measure of a tenure candidate’s value, ironic as that kind of assessment device may seem. Not surprisingly, academics are famous for swapping stories about failed tenure cases. And nearly every story that ends with the denial of tenure inevitably involves publication—or the lack thereof.

Chris Federico: For the most part, I think Ken is right. At large research institutions it’s true that your publication record has a lot to do with the disposition of tenure cases—at many schools, it’s up to 50 percent of the game. However, it’s also the case that a poor record of teaching can really sink you, especially if your publication record is right on the threshold of adequacy. As my advisor once put it, teaching and service won’t necessary save your ass, but they sure can hurt it.

Maria del Pilar Blanco: When I was an undergrad the administration at my college was about to let go one of the best professors I’ve ever had because he wasn’t done writing his first book. His department and many of his students complained, he was allowed to stay, and a year later he came out with two books. Now that I am in graduate school, I experience the extreme shortage of faculty members, who are all on sabbaticals finishing work on their books.

What’s your funniest story from a conference?

Ken: I once delivered a paper while sitting on the edge of a bed with a not-so-firm mattress. As I read my essay the bed’s disposition caused me to lose my place on several occasions during my speech to an audience of two other scholars. Years ago I went to an eighteenth-century studies conference and observed as two scholars delivered professional papers on restoration playwriting. As they gave their papers I noticed the guy beside me reeked of alcohol. Wearing a rumpled blazer and untied black tennis shoes, he spent most of the session scribbling with a magic-marker on a yellow legal pad. After the second paper was over he stood up rather clumsily and took the lectern. Amazingly, he was the final panelist on the docket. For the next twenty or so minutes he read several largely incoherent passages from the same page of his legal pad over and over again until the session chair interrupted him and brought the session to a hasty close.

Maria: When I was an undergraduate I was invited to attend a conference that had big guests that year: Homi Bhabha (author of The Location of Culture) and bell hooks. I was part of a small group of students who met with Homi Bhabha and was just sort of star struck—academia-style—so I was quiet while the graduate students who were present spoke to him anxiously, signing quotation marks in the air and whatnot. That night there was a big reception and I spotted this really pleasant-looking, youngish woman who was sitting alone, and I went to talk to her, since I was alone and didn’t have anyone to talk to. I said, ‘Hi! I’m Maria.’ And she said, ‘Hi! I’m bell hooks.’ Then I said something like ‘Oh!’ or ‘Wow!’ and walked away.

Chris: Well, while I also have plenty of uproarious conference stories involving liquor—and my colleagues’ apparent inability to hold it—let me share something from this past summer’s annual meeting of the International Society for Political Psychology in Berlin for the sake of variety. My former advisor and I kept meeting up for breakfast in the lobby of the hotel where the conference was being held. It wasn’t until five days into the conference that we discovered the hotel’s ‘complimentary breakfast’ was actually 20 euros a pop. We figured this out in the middle of the fifth ‘complimentary breakfast’ we had there once we noticed almost all of our colleagues were actually paying for their morning meals. We left quietly.

What’s the most inappropriate thing you’ve worn to teach in?

Chris: Well, as long as we’re including classes taught as a graduate student, the answer to that question would have to be a faded Oasis t-shirt and a beanie cap. And this choice of attire can in no way be interpreted as evidence of my status as some kind of academic hip priest: it was late ‘98 by then, and when Oasis was in the news it was usually due to an air-rage incident.

Ken: One year right before commencement I went to a seminar dressed in my cap and gown, complete with the doctoral hood and everything. My Shakespeare seminar—which included a fairly raucous group of typically noisy and restless graduating seniors—was quite suddenly rendered silent by my unusual attire. For the first time that semester they were literally stunned into submission. Come to think of it, I should probably wear the cap and gown more often.

John Warner: That would have to be my ‘Teacher’s Do It In The Classroom’ t-shirt over my French-maid’s outfit.

Ken: I would pay good money to see that. I’m serious—that’s what PayPal accounts are for.

Maria: There was this one time I wore a really bad combination of patterns and colors. I don’t know what I was thinking, but I saw my sister that day and she asked me, rather concerned, ‘Is that what you’re wearing to class?’ I should’ve taken a look in the mirror after her insinuation.

Describe how you felt the first day you taught.

John: Bowel-loosening fear. I was in graduate school, assigned to two sections of Developmental English, with something like 20 students in each section. I felt totally and completely unprepared, fraudulent in the extreme. I’ve experienced a less intense version of this sensation every semester since. I usually take it as a good sign.

Ken: I genuinely wanted to see if I had what it took to capture the class’s attention. Afterward—when I had discovered the possibilities and promise of university teaching—the whole episode left me feeling validated and eager to get back in there again.

Chris: There were only three people in the class and one of them was about ten years older than me. The rest were only about three years younger than me. To say the least this left me feeling I’d appeared on the scene without much of an aura of authority. This was not helped by one of my students showing up for class in a Black Flag t-shirt. The first five minutes of class were spent discussing whether ‘Six Pack’ or ‘TV Party’ was the more seminal cut on the Damaged album. I can’t quite remember how I steered the discussion back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s thoughts on race relations in nineteenth-century America, but I eventually did.

Maria: I felt balmy and blotchy. I also felt old. I looked at all of my students and the phrase ‘What the hell am I doing here?’ had never taken on such a real and tangible meaning as it did at that precise moment.

John: ‘Feeling old’ definitely comes to me more often now than when I was first teaching in graduate school.

What’s the best surprise you’ve had from a student?

Maria: Candy.

Chris: When I was teaching graduate-level statistics for the first time, and doing so with a feeling of great insecurity, one of my students told me that I was the first person who’d been able to get her to understand the topic in any way. It was something I needed to hear at that moment.

John: Last year I had a student, a freshman, who turned her interest in women’s basketball into a publication-worthy analysis of the media portrayal of Tennessee basketball coach Pat Summit, far exceeding her own expectations (and mine) in the process. Usually, it seems that students learn incrementally, and when one of them makes that leap, I think it’s thrilling for both of us. Also, there was that time during the dot-com boom that my student gave me a tip on Qualcomm when it was still trading at under 20. That was a nice surprise.

Ken: I had a student in a freshman composition course who was, to be blunt, an utter failure at nearly every assignment, and I was sure that he blamed me for his very significant shortcomings as a writer. A year later he came by my office and was a completely different person, more mature and with more focus. He wanted me to know he was enlisting in the marines and that my course helped him see he wasn’t ready for college. I was surprised to learn I’d been communicating with him after all; he may not have gleaned the rudiments about how to write a paper, yet he’d learned something after all—only about himself.

John: I think most academics who enjoy their teaching (versus those who seem to resent the presence of students in their lives) tend to find value in that kind of experience. Improving students as human beings is probably not what any of us signed up for, but increasingly I see that as one of my missions as a teacher, particularly a teacher of freshmen.

Are American students learning anything in high school?

Ken: No. Many of my freshman are under-prepared in terms of study skills. They often don’t know how to think critically, and many of them can’t begin to spell—despite the ubiquity of spell-check. More importantly, though, they reveal a remarkable dearth of cultural knowledge at nearly every turn, and this frightens me. But it also buoys my spirits because it means that whatever far corners of culture we find ourselves traversing in my class, we are essentially exploring new intellectual terrain. And that, to me, has value.

John: I agree with Ken about the complete absence of critical thinking or analytical skills among the vast majority of students. Aside from the graduates of the very top high schools, they’ve never been asked to engage in any kind of analytical process. I think this dovetails with their dearth of cultural knowledge, as they don’t really have any skills with which to process the culture they live in, so they simply don’t bother processing it. To be fair, though, I remember being pretty dumb about the world when I was an undergrad and in my experience, when I’ve introduced them to the pleasures of critical thinking, many of them really embrace it. I can’t think of anything more important than critical thinking skills in terms of creating proper functioning human beings.

Chris: I’d have to agree: aside from good marksmanship, I don’t think today’s students are learning nearly enough in high school. This is particularly the case with regard to their ability to express themselves clearly and focus on any given topic long enough to think critically about it. Nevertheless, honesty and openness seem to be two traits today’s high school students are graduating with. For example, I never thought I’d have a student who’d be honest and open enough to justify his absence during ten of the fifteen class sessions for my freshman seminar with the admission, ‘Dude, I think I’ve been smokin’ WAAAAY too much pot lately.’

John: Ha! I had the exact same admission from a student last year who had disappeared for six weeks in the middle of the semester. When he came back he told me, ‘I fell prey to the demon weed.’

Maria: My students, for the most part, are coming from very good private high schools, therefore I can’t really speak in more general terms about high-school students. When I congratulate them on their good analyses of texts, several of them have told me, ‘I went to a really good high school.’

John: Nevertheless, as everyone knows, complaints about the lack of preparedness of undergraduates as they enter college are as old as college itself, but I don’t think that students are really any worse off than they ever have been in terms of the skills and knowledge necessary for learning at the university level.

John: I spend a lot of time early in the semester tearing them out of the comfort zone of their high-school mentality, i.e., jump through this hoop and you’ll likely be rewarded with an ‘A.’ I’m not shy about telling them when they’ve done bullshit work versus actual, thoughtful work.

What would you, as a post-grad, have told yourself as an undergrad?

John: The first thing I would have told myself was to defer college for a year. I’d also encourage me to take more courses that were intellectually interesting, rather than those that were advertised as ‘easy.’ Also: major in something other than creative writing, or double-major in creative writing and something else. I would have also told myself to learn for real how to do library research.

Maria: 1. Take time off before grad school; 2. Read the big philosophers; 3. Read more great books, instead of pigeonholing in one specific period; 4. Be realistic and consider going to school somewhere less distracting and expensive than New York City (this last feeling comes and goes, though).

Ken: Go to a small college. As an undergrad I needed guidance and someone, anyone besides myself, to get involved in my future. As an undergrad at a massive state university, I was as intellectually and interpersonally lost as can be. I needed someone to help me to fight that fight, and a biology course with 475 other addled souls is not the place to find out what makes yourself tick.

Maria: I think that some people can handle large schools better than others. But going to a small college develops academic networking more easily, which is something that you need to develop if you want to go to graduate school. At the same time, however, I think about how young 17 really is, and the thought of feeling lost and having no adult figure to turn to is really daunting.

John: I agree. If you’re going to a large school, make sure that a large school is suitable for you. I think my education might have been better at a small school, but I enjoyed my large, state-university experience. I was an inveterate major changer, and liked having the opportunity to dip into different areas.

Chris: I’d have told myself that ‘smokin’ WAAAAY too much pot’ was a legitimate excuse for missing class.

How do you—really—get tenure? Is tenure an outdated concept?

John: I’m not in a tenure-track job, but I’ll say that tenure is, as we know it now, an outdated concept. It’s well known that at many universities, particularly the largest state institutions, undergrads are primarily taught by graduate assistants and non-tenure track instructors (like me). But life as adjunct faculty offers little or no security, relatively low pay, comparatively long hours, and no possibility for advancement. I think the logical solution is the creation of a ‘teaching-tenure’ track that recognizes the contribution of those who do much of the work of teaching undergrads, such work which frees up traditionally tenured faculty to produce their scholarship. This is hardly anything new, but it’ll be awfully tough to make it happen. I hope it does, though.

Chris: The process of getting tenure isn’t as straightforward as many think. Published scholarly contributions and the ability to bring outside money into the department are indeed—as everyone assumes—the most heavily-weighted factor. But there’s also more variance in what constitutes a legitimate ‘scholarly contribution’ than most people realize. In many departments, one highly visible publication can get you farther than five serviceable ones that manage to slip in underneath your audience’s radar. Junior faculty wending their way through the probationary period often overlook this, and end up wasting valuable time dumping uninspired work into the literature.

Ken: If you’re able to negotiate the hurdles of publication or collegial acceptance—and an amenable personality genuinely helps in both regards—you probably have what it takes to get along with your peers and succeed on the tenure track. But despite what the media or conservative politics might have us believe, tenure is hardly an outdated concept. It’s a central aspect of academic freedom and what makes it possible—particularly in the humanities—for us to push the envelope of learning, no matter how controversial that envelope may sometimes seem.

Chris: The issue of academic freedom is one of the best arguments in its favor. However, I think it also has the virtue of keeping academic life from becoming overly commodified. Without it, we’d all be living in the world implied by Alec Baldwin’s ‘Always Be Closing’ monologue from Glengarry Glen Ross. Of course, one can see how this state of affairs might appeal to the aforementioned right-wing critics of academia.

Maria: The answer is ‘Publish or Perish.’ Add to this—in the field of literature at least—that you need to be on the vanguard all the time, be able to shed your past research interests in favor of fresher ones, and publish continuously. I’m not at that stage of the game yet, but this is the rumor. Some schools favor teaching over publishing, but I’m starting to think these are a dying breed.

Ken: You’re absolutely correct that ‘publishing continuously’ makes a difference, but as Chris observed, some publications really are worth more than others. My advisors have always counseled me that a good research program involves trying to publish as many articles as possible that allow you to involve yourself in an ongoing critical conversation. In the long run, though, it’s valuable to seek out larger and more vaunted forums—i.e., major presses and more esteemed periodicals—from which to make your name in a particular field.

John: If I ever do get on the tenure track, I actually worry about the, shall we say, Catholic nature of my publication history and if much or any of it really is the kind of thing that gets me anywhere in academia. I could argue that the book I did with Kevin Guilfoile is a trenchant piece of satirical political commentary, but the truth is, we wrote it in 18 days and it has pictures drawn with colored pencils (that I didn’t even do!). Some of what I write makes me look ‘unserious’ and I worry that I’ll have to bury part of myself if I ever do climb onto the tenure track.

Have you ever worked in the corporate world? If so, how is it different or not?

Ken: I worked in the corporate world for several months. I would argue that despite our claims about the differences between the ‘real world’ and academic life, they are essentially the same. Both worlds are equally riddled by politics and problematized by the inequities between the proverbial have’s and have-not’s. And money ultimately influences the direction of both spheres. The notion of profit may function very differently in each world’s existential equation, yet it is money that invariably drives the engines of the ‘real’ and scholarly worlds.

Chris: Yes, but only in its lower rungs—i.e., clerical work. But being at the bottom of the corporate world and the bottom of the academic world are actually not as different as people think. In both realms, you’re a target for exploitation. The main difference is that the corporate exploiters don’t pretend to have any moral objections to the expropriation of others’ labor.

Maria: I have worked in a law firm, and academic work, though it might sound fantastic because you get five months off per year, follows you wherever you go. You’re always subconsciously or consciously trying to find something to write or teach about in everything you read, whether it’s the paper or your summer reading books. In addition, you feel guilty if you don’t formulate these vagrant ideas that pop in your head when you read something into coherent and publishable work. I feel that in the corporate world, when you turn off your computer at 5pm, work is over, and you can begin thinking of other things.

John: I recognize the ‘constant calling’ phenomenon that Maria describes here, and believe it to be real for most everyone in academia who takes their research/writing and their teaching seriously. But based on my experience, corporate work does not always turn off at 5. In a serious corporate job, the 40-hour week is an absolute myth. My average week a an analyst/project director for a marketing research firm was 60 hours with a couple of Saturdays a month thrown in for good measure.

Have you ever taken a class because you felt you ‘had to’ in order to make nice with an important person in your program?

Ken: Yes, and it was an unmitigated disaster. I enrolled in one class with a professor of international renown in the hope he might eventually agree to be on my dissertation committee. To my great dismay, I learned that he often skipped class and eschewed grading seminar papers because his academic stardom allowed him to get away with such behavior. In the end I learned very little except that I didn’t want him on my dissertation committee under any circumstances.

Chris: This was actually why I took my advisor’s statistics class my first year of grad school. It was widely regarded as the most difficult class of its sort at the time, but there was really no way I could avoid him for the next six years of school.

Maria: No. I have had a sense (because I was advised to do so while I was an undergraduate), however, that I need to have certain big names in my transcript to show future employers which superstar professors I’ve studied under.

John: We were a small program, so everyone took all the same courses. By the end I’d had enough of writing workshops period, so I would’ve opted out if it was possible, but it wasn’t.