The Education of Fear

I just finished reading Natalia Ginzburg’s book of essays, The Little Virtues. The title essay is her meditation on education and parenthood, both of which she believes are far too focused on instilling small virtues such as thrift, caution, prudence, tact and success. Better, she believes, to attend to the larger virtues of generosity (of finance and of spirit), curiosity, courage, frankness, and love of life.

The problem is that the little virtues, being little, can easily be made even smaller and thus taught and tested. We can easily tell when someone has “good manners,” by examining how they perform each of innumerable protocols of table service and social interaction. We can less easily tell when someone is compassionate, nor do we know exactly how to teach it.

And I think that higher education has almost fully made the transition from the large virtues to the small. We send kids to college so they won’t be unemployed. We tell them to major in things that are marketable, practical, in demand. We privilege the major over “gen ed” (such a waste of money, after all…), and spend freely chosen electives installing more armor on our already restrictive battle gear. The faculty at Pitt, for example, are up in arms about the possibility of more students having to take two semesters (six credits, five percent of their degree program) of a foreign language. “Adam Leibovich, chair of the department of physics and astronomy, wrote in an email to his faculty colleagues on the eve of a fully faculty vote on the proposal, ‘We need a large turnout of science faculty to have our voices heard so that resources are not taken away from us.’” Every scrap of curiosity and energy must be reserved for the major, the career prep. Possibilities for surprise, for sudden epiphany, are trimmed away.

About fifteen years ago, I wrote an essay that got me fired. (To be more precise, I’d just given four months notice that I was leaving for Duke, but I gave this essay as an invited talk one weekday evening to a group of educators, and the next morning was told that I should leave after a couple more weeks instead.) It was about high school, and the ways in which the education of fear had taken hold so strongly, an education to avoid pain rather than strive for glory.

That was fifteen years back. Now I see the same thing take place in higher ed, which has allowed itself to be discussed as part of the “K-16 system,” a phrase that fills me with loathing. College is, at its best, not job training of any sort, nor preparation for graduate school. College is a time to be surrounded by brilliant, curious people who are not our parents; people who are curious about vast swaths of the world, and thus raise our eyes to new horizons. A time of large virtues, boldly defended.

Don’t Judge a Book… oh, go ahead.

One of the most delightful aspects of working on The PhDictionary was receiving a copy of the proposed cover design. I was just delighted by every bit of it. (If you look on the back cover, down by the edge of the spine, you’ll see “Book and cover design: Matt Avery.” I love the fact that he was credited for his brilliant work; too many people involved in good projects are not.)

But when I look at my bookshelves, in the sections having to do with intellectual life in general and higher education in particular, the visual landscape is less engaging. About 15 years ago, I had a chapter in this book:


I mean, really. Is that a pepper mill? The top of a gavel? A McDonald’s hamburger in a compression tester? Why those shapes? Why those edges?

And why those colors?? The dense intellectual work signaled by Theoretical Perspectives in Environment-Behavior Research: Underlying Assumptions, Research Problems, and Methodologies is kind of undercut by the sparkle-pony lavender, no?

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We seem, in academia, to forget that ideas have aesthetic and emotional merit as well as intellectual merit. I can’t tell you the number of academic books I’ve seen that have solid-color covers with sans serif text; or have some six-dollar clip art in half transparency under way too many words. Academic writing is discouraging before you ever even have a chance to encounter the ideas, because it’s packaged in the equivalent of the labels they use for FEMA emergency rations. You aren’t going to enjoy this, the cover promises, but it’s good for you.

Home Cultures

A friend of mine just sent a link to a very nice piece at the new York Times, by a writer with whom I’m not familiar, Annie Liontas. She was discussing the ways in which some families have artists within them; other families introduce their kids to fine art and fine writing; and others have no access to that, leaving the kids to discover “literature” or “serious music” or “fine dining” on their own. Or, as Liontas argues, by being exposed directly to it through education rather than at home.

Although there were a great many things to be thankful for in my childhood, and my parents gave me everything they could, there was no literary inheritance to speak of. My father was a Greek immigrant to America, a welder who came to own his own business. I am among the first in my family to graduate from college. As a result, I’ve often felt myself left behind — untutored, fraudulent. But the truth is that anyone who makes a life of writing eventually finds her inheritance of culture. Mine just came a little later, like Saunders’s, through that great equalizer, education.

I’ve had my own teachers who’ve introduced me to fine writers. But I was also surrounded by books and magazines all the time as a kid, though no one would have mistaken them for being literary. Good Housekeeping, Hot Rod, Field and Stream, Reader’s Digest, Boy’s Life. Romance novels that my mother read, science fiction pulps that I acquired, used, by the boxful. The World Book Encyclopedia. And I learned to swim in the world of words; not in the carefully-laned racing pool, but in the open lake, with the weeds and old tires.

I was surrounded by music. Mostly not very interesting music, Lawrence Welk and church hymns and easy-listening or top-40 radio. The radio or the record player were always on. But I learned to understand why music mattered, that both listening to it and producing it had an immersive quality like little else.

And I was surrounded by stories. When my folks weren’t home, I watched a ton of television, and I learned how characters interacted, how they expressed their motives and desires through their words and deeds. I learned how to throw in a funny comment to lighten a tense drama, how a facial expression conveyed emotion. And I learned how to tell stories myself.

I think these origins account for why I’ve always been impatient with so much of academic writing. We consciously shed ourselves of wit and pace, of rhetorical repetition, of the responsibility to help our readers have an emotional as well as an intellectual experience. We mistake “high culture” for culture writ large, and forget that watching Cheers or listening to Iggy Azalea or reading Cosmo are themselves immersive, formative, aesthetic experiences that we carry forward into the work that we do. Immersion in “great art” has its power; immersion in any art at all has another.

I’m not a pure populist, willing to be so relativistic as to equate Justin Bieber and Dave Brubeck. But I’m also, frankly, bored by an awful lot of supposedly serious work, so precious that it can’t get out of its own way and just tell the damn story.

Bookshelf—The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work

It’s been a month or so since I recommended a book. This edition of Bookshelf features The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, by Alain de Botton (2009, Pantheon). For those of you who haven’t read de Botton’s other work—and he is prolific—you can think of him as a British version of Malcolm Gladwell with a broader emotional range.

In TPSW, de Botton takes a careful look at the daily experiences of the ways we make our livings, and the meanings we draw from it. He loves to look at the work we take for granted. For instance, he follows one yellowfin tuna from the Maldives Minister of Fish to a fishing boat in the Indian Ocean to a Maldivian fish processing plant to a Qatar Airways cargo jet to Heathrow to a grocery in Bristol to the table of Linda Drummond and her eight-year-old son Sam, wise beyond years:

He also makes the ancillary suggestion, less often remarked upon by marine biologists, that our perpetual killing of fish has left the seas choked with an array of pallid oceanic ghosts who will one day gather together to exact terrible revenge on humanity for shortening their lives and transporting their corpses around the earth for supper in Bristol.

He finds a deep and powerful joy in work we think of as demeaning, and a brutal sadness in work we might find more professional. The deepest sorrows in the book come in his discussion of manufacture and packaging for a new brand of cookie (“biscuit,” in British usage), in which dozens of people come together in what is clearly an exercise in consumer psychology rather than nutrition or pleasure. They are simply making a thing to be sold. The nature of its uses is irrelevant, the same labor system applies to skirts or shirts, sheets or snacks.

It is surely significant that the adults who feature in children’s books are rarely, if ever, Regional Sales Managers or Building Services Engineers. They are shopkeepers, builders, cooks or farmers—people whose labour can easily be linked to the visible betterment of human life. As creatures innately aware of balance and proportion, we cannot help but sense that something is awry in a job title like “Brand Supervision Coordinator, Sweet Biscuits” and that whatever the logic and perspicacity of Vilfredo Pareto’s arguments, another principle to which no one has yet given a convincing name has here been ignored and subtler human laws violated.

In academia, we too are engaged in work, the provision of our time and talents to accomplish… something. What will that something be? How will we find meaning within our days? After doing research in which I was engaged for ten hours a day among teenagers, I found myself as a director of research for a school reform organization, and in the heart of the deepest despair I had ever known. I was an adult who worked with adults who worked with adults who worked with adults who worked with kids, the equivalent of the Brand Supervision Coordinator, Sweet Biscuits, paid well to make no lives better. Much of the white collar world is this way, engaged in coordination rather than identifiable labor.

So as you move forward with your “career planning,” think perhaps instead of your service planning. As de Botton says, work is meaningful when it allows us to generate delight or reduce suffering. How will you best do that?

Relatively Undisciplined

The world works in funny ways.

I sent out a number of e-mails to friends in the past week, letting them know of the birth of the book, and have subsequently received dozens of lovely notes that remind me of why they’re my friends. But none among them was more surprising than the terrific note I got this morning from Simon Cook.

Simon, among his many other attributes, is a boundless repository of Soviet jokes. To wit, three men in the Gulag:

Comrade, what are you in for?

I was ten minutes late to work. They accuse me of not supporting collective goals. What are you in for?

I was ten minutes early to work. They accuse me of ambition. What are you in for?

I was on time for work. They accuse me of owning foreign watch.

Simon and I spent many, many hours out on the deck between the “portables” (trailers) that constituted the one-time home of the Duke University Writing Program, keeping one another sane in a crazy time. He let me know this morning of his life in Israel, his wife and three sons, his work as a professional academic editor. And he let me know of his project Rounded Globe.

Rounded Globe is what a library was meant to be. A library without boundaries.

We publish high quality accessible scholarly essays.

Accessibility means a work can be freely shared. It also means that it is intelligible to a reader outside the discipline. We believe accessibility is the basic condition for the survival of the humanities in the digital age.

All our ebooks are published under a creative commons license that allows them to be freely shared.

I love that broader definition of “accessibility,” going beyond the economic arguments of open access to the moral arguments of which communities we converse with. I once made the case in another publication that ethnography, as traditionally practiced, is another form of colonization, taking resources from a community for our own use while leaving nothing of benefit behind. If we’re going to talk about people, at least let’s not talk about them behind their backs.

Simon himself has shifted his intellectual focus from the history of 19th Century political economics to a cultural/historical analysis of The Lord of the Rings as a form of English cultural history (J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lost English Mythology). He was only able to do that because, as an independent scholar who makes his living through supporting the work of others, he was not beholden to remain on a set of tracks through a known landscape. His discipline holds no power over him, a blessed form of freedom.

Comrade, what are you in for?

I publish paper cited three times. They accuse me of insufficient impact. What are you in for?

I publish article in New York Times. They accuse me of popularization. What are you in for?

I publish book outside my discipline. They accuse me of curiosity.

Unseen Work

I tend to mistrust “how-to” books. I think they’re too sanitized to be trustworthy, reducing complex and contextual circumstances to linear recipes. Much more interesting are the “how-it-happened” books, in which some person talks about how their amazing life got to be so amazing. Filled with stories and accidents and roads not chosen, these are the books that I’ve found more reassuring and helpful. There’s a reason The PhDictionary isn’t structured as a how to get a job book…

One of my very favorite “how it happened” books of recent years is Bill Bruford: The Autobiography (2009, London, Jawbone Press). Bill Bruford was the drummer for the band Yes in its early years of huge success, then jumped ship for King Crimson during its early years of huge success, and then pursued a succession of personal projects (Bill Bruford’s Earthworks) and fun side jobs (Bruford Levin Upper Extremities, or BLUE). He’s one of these players who revolutionized his instrument—contemporary drummers do things a little differently because of him, they have more possibilities at hand (so to speak…).

Bruford’s structured his book around a series of common questions he never wants to answer again. What’s it like working with Robert Fripp? Do you just play anything you like? Do you like doing interviews? And one of those questions was “Oh, you’re a musician. So what do you do during the day, then?” He never actually does the arithmetic in the book, but as I read, I came to estimate that maybe 30% of his professional working life as a drummer was spent behind a drum kit, practicing or rehearsing or performing or giving lessons. The substantial majority was engaged in the business of music:

  • auditioning and hiring other players
  • arranging practice venues
  • scheduling studio time
  • reviewing designs for t-shirts and CD labels
  • managing product distribution
  • scheduling tours and organizing transportation
  • getting paid by promoters and venues
  • shipping musical instruments and sound equipment around the world, and setting them all up when he arrives
  • doing interviews, signing autographs, working his own merchandise table after the shows

Here’s a fraction of the setup for a concert in Cadiz, Spain (after he’s rebuilt his own drum kit, a job the technicians had bollixed up wholesale):

After about 30 minutes, I take time to mic and position the grand piano, mic and position the bass amp, position and monitor the music stands, and complete the thousand-and-one other tasks that will make the stage ready for the arrival of my colleagues. This is, of course, the job of the production manager, for which I am now wearing the seventh of my nine hats. The drum kit is functional and soundchecked with minutes to spare; the others walk in. Unnecessarily sensitive to the collective mood, my radar scans the arriving group and gratifyingly registers laughter, stories. Next up, then, for the next hour and everyone’s amusement, is the bilingual soundcheck, with no translator.

While not as glamorous, academic life also has its unseen logistical worlds, jobs no one ever teaches us but that we must know how to do in order to do the work people think we do. We need to learn to operate and modify software, to set up and calibrate equipment. We need to learn how to respectfully ask permission to engage the archives of a crabby family, or a justifiably resentful subjugated culture. We need to learn to book our own travel, to act as our own literary agent, to act as our own promoter, to be our own tech support when we’re on the road and our laptop acts up. We manage down, when we bring the recalcitrant student into some degree of engagement with our course; we manage up, when we bring the recalcitrant dean into some degree of acquiescence with our research plans. We organize schedules, write budgets, manage expenses, build and supervise teams. We manage hurt feelings and encourage new partnerships. All of those are learned skills, too often learned in shame and secrecy by screwing up unnecessarily and repeatedly.

One of the goals of The PhDictionary was to make those logistical skills at least visible, so that younger readers could know that these problems were coming and that they could ask about them in advance. But a second goal was to make those logistical skills newly visible to older readers who already do them—to remind advisors and chairs and deans of their own responsibilities to teach the logistics and the culture of our profession, not merely the 30% of working life that has to do with content.

Bookshelf—Becoming an Ex

Occasionally, I’d like to highlight a book that I think that you’ll benefit from, whether you’re a prospective or current grad student, a prospective or current faculty member, or an advisor of either of those two communities.

Today’s book, a recommendation of a kind and smart friend, is Helen Rose Fuchs Ebaugh’s Becoming an Ex: The Process of Role Exit (1988, University of Chicago Press). And I think it’s important because it complicates the already-complicated process of taking on new roles, whether personal or social or professional. We already do a pretty bad job of that, which is why The PhDictionary exists—we don’t do nearly enough to help our students or our colleagues prepare to be different people when they take on a different role. A scholar is just a different kind of animal than a student—more independent, more political, more aligned with bodies of thought and the people who develop and carry them. Being a good student is only marginal preparation for being a good scholar.

Ebaugh’s brilliant contribution is that we simultaneously take on two new roles every time we become someone new—that we also become an “ex.” To draw from the list on the cover of her book, we become an ex-doctor, an ex-nun (her own circumstance as she moved into academic sociology), an ex-prostitute, an ex-husband, an ex-convict. Like a whiteboard erased after a busy class session, we will always carry the faint writing of the past self. We spent decades becoming a terrific student, and now we need to learn to be an ex-student. We need to learn to carry those life lessons with us, to claim the very best parts of that role—diligence, energy, collegiality and cameraderie—into our faculty or professional lives while understanding that the new role will also require different attributes.

In a very real sense, the process of becoming an ex involves tension between one’s past, present, and future. One’s previous role identification has to be taken into account and incorporated into a future identity. To be an ex is different from never having been a member of a particular group or role-set. Nonmembers do not carry with them the “hangover identity” of a previous role and therefore do not face the challenge of incorporating a previous role identity into a current self-concept… A person in the process of establishing him- or herself in a new role struggles to become emotionally disentangled from the self-perceptions and normative expectations of a previous role while at the same time people in society are expecting certain role behavior based on a previous identity. [Ebaugh, 149]

Academic life is full of transitional moments: from undergrad to doctoral student, from doctoral student to faculty supplicant, from job beggar to job holder, from pre-tenured assistant professor to safely tenured associate professor, from faculty member to administrator. At each of those transitional moments, we should give conscious consideration to building the new person that the new role requires, while being equally conscious of the pasts we will carry.