“Move it or lose it”: on stagnation and (im)mobility

ns-dalhousie-universityCraig Monk’s column in the latest University Affairs really struck a chord with me. Energized by the presence of a new colleague, he reflects on the challenge of “elud[ing] stagnation” in academic work. Hiring often happens in cycles, and right now at many places (Dalhousie included — or at least in my faculty at Dalhousie) there’s no new (full-time) hiring going on at all, with the result that there are no infusions of fresh ideas or enthusiasm that aren’t compromised by uncertainty. In addition, as Craig points out, “tenure limits lateral mobility”; while he is a wholehearted supporter of tenure (as am I), he recognizes that even as it protects the core of our work and values as academics, it also makes some kinds of positive change difficult to effect. “It would be nice to work,” he observes, “in a field that eludes stagnation.”

Security and stability in one’s jobs are wonderful – and increasingly rare – things to have. No tenured academic can help but feel both incredibly lucky and incredibly privileged. Like Craig, more than anything I value the autonomy that comes with these advantages: “I have never,” he notes, “felt pressure to teach only certain texts, and I built a research program around satisfying my curiosity.” That same description of why this is such a great job also hints, though, at why it is also a challenging one. A great deal of the work is self-motivated, and to do it well requires not just curiosity but also enthusiasm, creativity, and energy.

I see very little evidence in my daily work that tenured faculty live up to the stereotype summed up in the term “deadwood.” The path to tenure is too hard and uncertain and requires too intense a personal commitment to requirements that you have to really care about to do at all, never mind successfully. In my experience, academics are driven — by passion, by interest, by ego, by a need for constant affirmation … by many things, none of which magically dissipate when tenure is finally won. But that drive needs fuel, and I think Craig is right that stagnation is a risk, especially when economic conditions are difficult, class sizes are rising, resources are scarce, colleagues are not replaced, and students seem more interested in credentials than education. Add to these pragmatic concerns the constant messages humanities faculty get (from outside as well as inside the university) that our work is not valuable and our expertise is dispensable, and it can be difficult to sustain the enthusiasm that generates excitement and new ideas in the classroom or in our writing.

I’m particularly prone to feeling stagnant in spring (or what passes for it here). It’s not just the dreary grey weather, though that’s certainly part of it: after all these years, I still get painfully homesick around the time the cherry blossoms start to come out in Vancouver. For some years after I came to Dalhousie I continued applying to jobs in the hope that I could be closer to my family. Realizing that this was never going to happen was very depressing for me and made me feel quite trapped. One of the cruelties of academic life is that you become less mobile the more experienced you are — until and unless you cross the magical threshold and become a contender for something like a Canada Research Chair, or take a turn into administration, though even then moving to a particular location is hardly something you can make happen. I do try not to brood about this any more, but I’m reminded of my immobility every spring when students start reporting on the results of their various applications: as they move on to new programs and new jobs, very often in different cities or even different countries, I find myself wistfully telling them “send me a postcard – I’ll be here, where I always am!”

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Anyway, because literally moving is not something I can any longer work or hope for, I have tried to find ways to avoid stagnation while staying in the same place, and the paradoxical thing is that while tenure is a major impediment to the former, it provides crucial protection for the latter because it gives me the freedom to experiment. I’m not that interested in the particular changes Craig mentions (such as secondments, exchanges, cross-appointments, advising, recruitment, administration). What I have done, sometimes deliberately and sometimes by accident, is reinvent myself as a scholar and professor. Dreaming up new courses is one obvious version of this. I also took a big turn in my research interests in the years just after I got tenure and my monograph came out, away from gender and historiography, where I’d been focusing since graduate school, and towards literature and ethics. This meant a gap in my publication output, but the work was very rewarding and led not only to a couple of articles but also to significant changes in my pedagogy. Then in 2007 I started blogging, not realizing how much of a change this would ultimately lead to in the way I conceptualize both academic work in general and my own professional life more particularly. More than anything else, my work with Open Letters Monthly (though it’s not clear that it will help me advance professionally) has helped me feel that I am not standing still — that while I may sit at the same desk in the same office I’ve had since 2001, I have moved on in some ways that really matter.

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Still, a little more literal change might also be refreshing. I recently learned that a colleague in my faculty is leaving for a position somewhere else (yes, a rare example of lateral mobility!). I wonder who’s in line for his office.

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