I have been sharply critical of the corporatizing of universities, and I realize that my attitude verges on gloom-and-doom handwringing that might reflect the utterer’s cynicism more than the objective situation. I stress that UTA is not as corporatized as some schools, that lots of good things happen here, and that the problems I cite in my imaginary dialogues are general national trends, not specific grievances.
Yet they are real enough. If you teach English, you face intractably deteriorating conditions. More students in your classes, fewer tenured positions to aspire to. More outcomes measures imposed from above, that relate little to what you value, or indeed with reality itself. Less autonomy in the classroom; more top-down dictation of what one learns and how one learns it. Less confidence in or deference to your hard-won professional ethos. More assessment via the quantity of throughput instead of the quality of the academic experience. More decisions made remotely by people who have no idea what you do. Above all, a steady dwindling of the “liberal” element in liberal arts. Instead of taking time out from making a living to read Montaigne or George Eliot or Kenneth Burke and share ideas about them, you seem doomed to grade routine assignments on rubrics dictated by corporate culture.
So what’s a liberal artist to do? How should one cope with this global and local nonsense? Oughtn’t I to suggest some positive solutions occasionally, instead of just slinging the snark? Forthwith!
- Pretend it isn’t happening. And I don’t mean that in the ostrich sense. If theory has taught me anything, it’s come from the works of writers like Michel de Certeau, who argue that resistance to oppression isn’t only, or always, or most effectively carried out by linking arms at the barricades and reappropriating the means of production. Instead, by taking local paths of desire, people redraw the maps of their habitats. Besieged by demands for measurable outcomes, facing more work and less time to do it in, baffled by institutional goals that seem to be changing every fifteen minutes, and contradicting themselves as they do? OK. That “signature assignment” must be rendered unto Caesar. But for the 50 minutes you’re in class, or the afternoon you spend reading, or the happy hour over refreshments with your colleagues, pretend it doesn’t exist. Actively. Pretend you are someone who is free from institutional constraints, who works for more important things. Start a side conversation. Investigate some issue you just learned about. Connect something you’ve encountered in this atomized classroom to something across campus. And speaking of the big guy,
- Render less unto Caesar. If given more work, fit it into the hours you have. Find shortcuts, jettison busywork, keep your eye on what’s valuable to you. Comply with “Compliance,” mind you: I’m not suggesting unprofessional slacking. But I am suggesting professionalized slacking, which is another definition for the Liberal Arts, and is at the core of the historical tradition of the university. Limit yourself austerely to a fixed amount of time for grading and data entry, and carve out some time for why you entered the business to begin with. Do not overprepare for class; leave some room for something unpredictable to happen. Can’t fit all your work at all the places you teach into 40 hours? Maybe that’s a sign that your employers can’t, in fact don’t, really expect that level of detail work. (Work you’ll notice they never reward, anyway.) Do the minimum, promise your students less but do it as promised: then read that extra essay or short story you’ve been wanting to, watch that movie or read that comic book, and draw some new connections in class tomorrow, instead of devoting ten minutes to how to master the latest library database or drill students on where the semi-colons go in MLA style: ’cause they’re gonna change MLA style and the library databases again in another year or two, too.
- Reclaim your intellectual life. As I always say, there are only 168 hours in every week. Work your 40 and then knock off, but actively. Listen to language around you and wonder how and why people use it. Critique the implicit ideologies of that video game you’re playing. Chart the plot arcs of that TV episode. Reflect on how sports announcers narratize the games they call. Yes, yes, I know, there’s a lot of work in an academic week, and you need downtime to post photos of your cat, use recreational substances, and stare languidly into space. But hello, this is the only intellectual life we have. You didn’t come to the university to be a mindless drone in a hive; you could have done that in the commercial world. Unfortunately, the commercial world outflanked you, and you are now a mindless drone in an academic hive. Pretend you aren’t. Shut your mind off while complying with routine work demands, and then re-open it when you hit the pavement at night – not the other way around. One burnout risk in our profession comes from believing that our time “in the office” is sacred, serious, and at the heart of our intellectual and spiritual being. But maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s just another office job. Don’t let it get to the point where you gave your all on assignments nobody will read closely or collect after you’ve read them closely, and then have no energy left to think with after you reach the parking lot. Make being an intellectual your hobby. As long as nobody values your professional contributions, feel free to be a dilettante on your own time. And insist on more of your own time.
- Get out more. There are constantly outstanding lectures, shows, programs, screenings, presentations, and concerts, by and large free, at UTA, in downtown Arlington, at the Public Library and Museum of Art, let alone across the Metroplex. Academic conferences swing by locally pretty often. We’ve had great poetry and fiction readings this past year, and will again next year: didn’t you become an English major because you liked poetry and fiction? Go out and hear things you didn’t know you were interested in. Teachers rarely take advantage of these “extras,” because there’s always some pressing task, always the inertial exhaustion, always the excuse that the topic is not “in our field.” But the people who remake fields know that they need to explore beyond the boundaries of those fields.
I attended an interdisciplinary colloquium earlier this summer in France. (Paid for by moi and the University of Limoges, I will add; didn’t use a dime of good Texas taxpayer money on such frivolity.) It was the usual thing, lots of people showing up for a few of the talks, some people solely for their own, which was all that was going to appear on their resumé anyway. Two people – the first speaker of the colloque and the last – stayed for absolutely every moment of every talk. They were also the two most senior distinguished scholars in attendance. They were precisely the two who didn’t have to listen to everybody else. But it occurred to me that listening to everybody else was how they got to be senior and distinguished.
- Ignore strategic development, institutional planning, and departmental politics. This is probably good advice whatever your profession, unless of course your job is “strategic developer,” “institutional planner,” or “politician.” The strategic direction will reverse itself three years from now. The institutional plan will be obsolete even sooner. Departmental politics are fantastically boring. “Who loses and who wins, who’s in, who’s out” may sound intriguing, but remember that that’s what King Lear proposed he and Cordelia should pay attention to in order to pass time while in prison. Don’t even plan your own career all that much; life will happen while you are making other plans, as it always does. Stop thinking in “meta” terms about the stuff you will do once you finally be where you want to be – teaching job, next graduate degree, tenure. Do that stuff now, while you are young and lucid. As a character in Henry James once put it, “Live.” Which I wouldn’t know except that when I was an adjunct, I spent a year reading Henry James when it was of no professional advantage to me whatsoever.
In short, the situation will not improve. Think of your intellectual being as a garden. “Il faut cultiver notre jardin,” as someone else in a book once said: “we must work our garden.” You can wait till you have more money or a bigger lot or till the plant sale; you can put it off till it rains, which it won’t. But if you don’t just dig in, soon you’ll have no garden at all.