Tom Bredehoft has another post up at Chancery Hill Books about the ways in which not teaching at an R-1 fundamentally shaped his career as a scholar in fruitful ways. In brief, he writes that building his career at a regional comprehensive university and then adjuncting for a few years at another university made him a more creative and more theoretically inclined scholar than he ever thought he would be as a medieval Old English literature expert:
Between the University of Northern Colorado and West Virginia University, I regularly offered classes in composition, in the English language, in British Literature surveys, and in both contemporary comics and science fiction and fantasy. Only occasionally, in comparison, did I teach courses in Medieval Literature, which was my nominal specialty as a scholar.
But all that teaching—and the reading and thinking it involved—in areas outside of my primary area of specialization, I am starting to think, is actually what helped me to start thinking more usefully about questions that span all of English letters. For me the study of Old English meter and the study of modern graphic narratives grew to be connected somehow. At one level, I ascribed both interests to my recognition that I was a formalist by inclination. At another level, though, it was the kind of question—just what does link Old English verse to comics?—that could only be answered by looking at the truly big picture. In a sense, I needed to become a theorist to understand the question itself, much less begin to answer it. I couldn’t rely on other theorists’ thinking, or build upon it: the questions I was trying to answer were my own.
As much as the breadth of my teaching helped me both to discover some of these questions and to begin to answer them, it is certainly true, too, that my work in selling books has affected the range of things I attend to in my scholarly work: I know much more about the bibliographic details and publication history of works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from having bought and sold and collected them than I do from having taught them, no matter how often. And both topics make an appearance in my 2014 academic book, The Visible Text.
Perhaps my experience cannot be generalized; I’d be among the first to acknowledge that the way I’ve gone about things in my career may not be for everyone. But it seems odd to me to realize that if I’d had a conventional faculty job at a true research-oriented university, there might have been a far greater match between my scholarly focus and the classes I taught. But the consequence of that greater degree of matching is that I might never have had the tools and experience of books and texts to write a book that considers literature and material textuality from the eighth century to the present. Certainly, as a research faculty member at a research university, I’d have been encouraged (actively or passively) to have a narrower, more defined focus, and the teaching part of my work would have involved fewer courses and fewer sections of them. Part of me thinks that it may well be the case that my work as a teaching faculty member and bookseller might have prepared me to address new theoretical questions better than any other aspect of my training and career.
Friends, I’ve been at the beach for a last look at the blue Pacific, packing up, and picking up loose ends of my sabbatical year as we get ready to hitch up the team and head eastward back to our home in the alta sierra. While I’m busy with all this glamour, check out Tom Bredehoft’s latest post on the alt-ac/post-ac life. He’s got a fascinating description of a little mystery he solved regarding a Davey Crockett almanac of 1840:
The almanacs in this lot, as it turned out, were very much a mixed bag, but the one I immediately spotted as most interesting was titled only “Crockett Comic Almanac 1840.” No author or publisher was given, and there seemed no obvious way to identify even the printer. But I knew that much of Davy Crockett’s reputation as a rough-and-ready frontiersman had been spread and elaborated by a variety of Crockett almanacs dating from the 1830s to the late 1840s, and that those books were very collectible indeed. My almanac was missing one leaf, and someone had snipped out a further joke or two, but it still seemed likely to have some value.
But it wasn’t listed in Drake, the standard bibliographic reference on American almanacs before 1850. A closer look revealed that the first interior page, listing the eclipses for the year, stated that they had been calculated for the longitude of Cincinnati, and it seemed likely that the book had been printed there. Still, I could find no record of any Crockett almanac printed in Cincinnati, and the Morgan online bibliography of early Ohio imprints had no record of such a book either. At last I turned to WorldCat, and was nearly frustrated there, too, but for a buried reference to an almanac with the same title bound in a collection of almanacs from the 1840s in the state library of Ohio. On my next trip to Columbus, I dropped into the library and called for the book, and I was delighted to see that it was the same as my own Crockett almanac. Further, I glanced through the other almanacs bound together with it, and I discovered that type batter on the eclipses page of another Cincinnati almanac enabled me to pin down the printer (and probably the publisher) with certainty. I had learned something.
Tom Bredehoft at Chancery Hill Books has another great post from the alt-academic/post-academic life on the insight that professional liminality has granted him. You might remember that Tom is the guy I wrote about earlier this week who resigned a tenured full professorship at the University of Northern Colorado so that his spouse could pursue another professional opportunity, which led to him teaching for a few years as an adjunct instructor.
Today he asks some simple questions inspired by the eruption in Wisconsin over tenure this week: “Cutting the UW budget and working to limit tenure there are simply obvious extensions of the notion that some teachers do not, in fact, need tenure, and that some teachers can teach for lower salaries. If some, why not all?. . . . If tenure is good for tenure-track teachers, why not for all? If a living—or even middle class—wage is good for tenure-track teachers, why not for all? This is a moment where common cause needs to be made between tenure-line and non-tenure-line teachers.” To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin during the American Revolution: “we must hang together or we will all hang separately:” Continue reading
It’s been too long, friends! What can I say, except that my last six weeks on sabbatical are chock-full of visitors, travel, and reunions, which have left me little time to live in the virtual world. I’m back online now, though, and have an idee or two to share.
First, I should say that I’m a great believer in the power of personal narrative. When I was younger, letter- and journal writing helped me make sense of the trials and errors of youth. When I was older, blogging at Historiann.com served the same purpose as I wrote about some of my early professional challenges and created a space in which others could find a supportive audience and share strategies for dealing with abusive colleagues and the insanely competitive academic job market.
Around the same time, I started writing a biography of a woman in my period of study, so clearly I’m committed to individual narratives as both a storytelling device and as pedagogy: we learn so much from reading about other lives. They can offer us encouragement, cautionary tales, and perhaps most importantly, help us imagine other lives and different ways of living. There is a real creativity crisis among us professors who want to offer our students ideas for career alternatives to academia (alt-ac) or post-academia (post-ac) careers. Professors are the worst people to ask, because we took the conservative path and remained in academia! But we can seek out stories that may give us and our students new ideas for alternative ways of making a living and living a satisfying life. (Because trust me: academia is not necessarily a path to either goal, let alone both!)
An old friend of mine who used to live in my hometown of Potterville, Colorado, the distinguished medieval English literature scholar Thomas Bredehoft, has started blogging about his decision to leave a tenured full professorship and his new life as an entrepreneur. Tom was a full professor who took a position off the tenure track as a spousal accommodation, when his wife took a tenure-track position at a university in another part of the country. After teaching off the tenure track for five years, he left traditional academia in 2012 to pursue his own alt-ac business in the rare book and antique trade. As he continues with his academic writing, Tom wants to use his blog to consider the academic, alt-ac, and post-ac worlds, from the perspective of someone who has spent most of a career thinking about books and poetry. Continue reading
Why, yes! Yes, I do.
Alert the authorities: Katie Roiphe is dead right about “Why Professors Should Not Have Affairs with Their Students:” Longtime readers may recall that I’ve been pretty unsparing in my criticism of Roiphe for a long, long time now, but she really nails it here.
In this new essay, Roiphe writes from the perspective of seeing a number of male colleagues have affairs with their graduate and undergraduate students, and I’ve seen it too among men in the profession–my age and even younger, so it’s not going away anytime soon (although thank the Goddess I’ve never seen it among my colleagues in my department.) First, it’s an obvious and embarrassing trope: “The dynamic is so trite one can barely commit it to the page, but it seems that otherwise charismatic, original men are completely happy to inhabit this cliché, to live and work in it. In my experience these are men who would rather die than dress or speak or write in a clichéd way, but in this particular area of triteness, they feel entirely comfortable.”
Also, “the prospect of sleeping with an undergraduate seems a little like wanting to sleep with a puppy,” as in bestiality, not as in chaste and adorable puppy snuggling, which is obvs. perfectly fine. But who cares if a middle-aged schlub makes a fool of himself? I don’t, and neither does Roiphe, because of course it’s the damage to students and to the trust in the professor-student relationship that concerns her most: Continue reading
Mark Bauerlein, a not-that-old fogy at an elite university, wrote something cranky about the practice of higher education in the New York Times last weekend. The column has been subjected to a ritual beating by many in the academic blogosphere. Yesterday, a call went out from David Perry (@Lollardfish on Twitter, and the blog How Did We Get Into This Mess) that he “would like to see R1 profs engage in a loud and public conv[ersation] ab[out] teaching and research.” Although I teach at an R1, it’s the Aggie school in my state and certainly not “elite.” I also don’t teach Ph,D. students, as my History department offers just a Master’s Degree.
This year, as regular readers know, I’ve been far away from the grind at Baa Ram U. and on sabbatical at the Huntington Library, a.k.a. “Scholars’ Disneyland.” I’ve been living much like a Renaissance scholar, dining at the table and enjoying the luxuries of my sponsoring Prince–that is to say, nothing like my real life, but you know what? The conversations I’ve been having here with the Distinguished Fellows–all of whom teach at elite universities and supervise Ph.D. students as well as undergraduates–frequently revolves around teaching, and yes, teaching undergraduates! How do we reach them? How do we get them to become and remain History majors? What subjects interest them most, and how can we use those interests to develop an aptitude for historical thinking?
We’re like young parents who want nothing more than a night away from the children, and then we end up talking about the children the whole time we’re out to dinner. Continue reading
I have a date at the Mouse House today. Can I get to this tomorrow? I have some thoughts, of course. (Caveat: I teach at an R1 but it’s not “elite,” and History does not have a Ph.D. program. Do I still count?)