The Chronicle Review

An Academic Rip Van Winkle

Steve Brodner for The Chronicle Review

August 01, 2010

Without much fanfare, I cashed out my stock options 18 months ago and quietly returned to the academy, after more than 20 years in devoted service to corporate interests.

The time I spent in the hollows of cutthroat capitalism (profitably plying, believe it or not, the skills I learned while earning degrees in medieval poetry) was, on the whole, surprisingly rewarding. But at age 60, I felt ready again to follow those wild, drunkenly idealistic impulses that had made the academic life seem so worthy and honorable when I was 20.

With some luck, good timing, and recommendations from friends around the university, I found myself back employed by one of my alma maters, as a director of communications. If all goes well, I plan to spend the latter years of my working life at one of those most successful embodiments of practical, sturdy idealism, an American land-grant university.

For the past few months, I've felt a strong pull to report on what university life looks like to one who has found his way back after strange travels outside the village walls. As much as I initially fought the analogy, every time I start to frame my story, I keep finding myself identifying with Rip Van Winkle.

I fight the analogy, of course, because literary canon makers have long considered Washington Irving's powder completely wet. But in spite of my attempts to shift the story onto more noble or literary ground—say, to T.S. Eliot's insistence that "the end of all our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time"—Rip keeps breaking in to insist that he shape the tale.

To make sure I wasn't shortchanging a story I last read in 1967, when I was 18, I recently dipped back into it. To my surprise, the plot's central joke had somehow changed over the years. Back then (when the proportion of women enrolled in college was half what it is now), my teachers (all male) made sarcastic, misogynistic comments about how Rip is driven to the mountains to escape his carping wife. This time around, I was more taken with the political irony of the story. Rip's two-decade nap allows him to sleep his way through, among other things, the American Revolution. When he stumbles back into the village, which is ablaze with fractious arguments about the latest elections, he immediately outrages his neighbors by haplessly singing the praises of King George III. Rip soon settles comfortably back into his quiet life, though—Irving's nasty irony arguing that, in spite of a revolution, nothing had really changed that much.

This reading of Rip's adventures fits nicely into my own return narrative, up to a point. The truth is, I'm stunned by how little has changed—or rather, how much of what drove me away 20 years ago has gotten even more disturbing. There's been no Bunker Hill or Yorktown in academe since I marched off, practically shoeless, into the hands of industry. Instead it seems that there's been a steadily accelerating devolution.

My story is illustrative in its simplicity. I left a good college a year or so short of my tenure decision. I had a long résumé of publications, most in the right places; I had organized sessions at MLA conferences; I was honored to get to teach Chaucer once a year to hard-working, interested students; earnest, talented graduate students came to me for advice about their futures.

But there had been a long foreground to that success.

I had moved my family four times in six years (only one relocation partially reimbursed by my employer). I had paid my dues as a teaching assistant at two institutions, for appallingly low wages. After my doctoral exams, one semi-elite Northeastern college's English department offered me a lectureship with these conditions: four courses each fall semester, none each spring. But almost all of the adjuncts, I was assured, qualified for welfare during the spring semester. Consider the spring semester "something like a research fellowship," argued the department chair.

Before that, I had been offered an instructorship (in 1980) at a rapidly growing university in a large Southern city. Well, almost offered. The terms: five writing courses a quarter (after five years, the position could potentially be upgraded to assistant professor), at $12,500 a year, slightly more than the average hourly wage I'd pulled down as a not-too-able carpenter's assistant during the summers when I should have been writing my dissertation.

As with Rip among the hill people and their flagons of drink, the search committee had plied me with sherry (though the interview started at 11 a.m.), which accounted for the giggles I couldn't suppress at the salary offer. Which accounted, I suspect, for my not being actually offered the position. By the time I arrived at my dream job, I had taught 58 sections of introductory composition. Most of my graduate-school friends could tell similar stories.

I once hiked 2,100 miles through the mountains with a pack on my back; I can go the distance. I'm not a particularly weak individual. But by the time the final straw floated down, I was exhausted. That last fiber landed on a Friday afternoon during a conversation with a bright grad student in her mid-20s. She loved literature, had taught high school for a bit, and had the bug. She was, she explained, doing her first teaching assistantship and was finding it hard to juggle her own course work with her desire to build a flame under her students. I tried gently and with a pleasant lilt in my voice to explain what was most likely in front of her—the years of 80-hour workweeks, the compromises she'd be expected to make in her family life, the monastic poverty, and the fact that 10 years down her path, the teaching slot she wanted would be happily filled by teaching assistants just like her.

I didn't even begin to crack her optimism. In my estimation, she had close to no chance of ever landing an academic job. And the cause was simple: The powers that be had made a calculated choice (if gradual, and usually without much thought to the long-term consequences) to outsource teaching to graduate students and adjunct faculty members. It looked to me like the greatest generation (under pressure from taxpayers who were choosing to no longer support public education with much vigor) would be the last in a while to enjoy a sane, healthy life in academe. I didn't feel right being complicit. Even if my earnest grad student hadn't felt it in her bones yet, this was already the oldest story in the book by the mid-1980s, when I headed out to learn the marketing trade.

Rip had no one, not even his dog, to guide him back into the village after his long sleep. But when I came back, I rediscovered The Chronicle, which helped me ease back into the culture. Or rather, its news stories magnify the dis-ease I sometimes feel about the nobility of the enterprise to which I've returned. The percentage of college faculty members who are tenured or on the tenure track sank to 31 percent in 2007 and has probably fallen below 30 percent by now. Including graduate teaching assistants, only about a quarter of all instructors have some sort of tenure. Work pressures have mounted enough that some profs are outsourcing their grading to Bangalore. I could go on. But you know the story.

Just for fun, I checked the Web site of the English department where I was once an instructor (a job I loved, by the way). In the early 1980s, it employed four of us full-time, nontenurable staff members. The departmental site now lists 17 for a student population that hasn't come close to doubling in the last three decades. And I'd be willing to bet that the department chair is sifting through a pile of résumés to line up a few part-timers to be called in at the last minute, when the fall-semester enrollment numbers solidify.

Throw some savvy for-profit education outfits into the mix, and one can't help imagining that Rip Van Winkle's sleepy village could look at some point in the future like one of those forsaken farm towns in the Midwest that flourished for a brief moment in time, until the agricultural conglomerates brought their relentless bottom-line thinking to bear. Remembering my marketing days, I can only imagine the great bonuses the for-profit advertising teams are anticipating as they start conjuring their magic on our students (their customers), who are just beginning to understand that the plot line means they will venture out of the village with a collective debt of about $95-billion ($23,900 for every graduating senior in 2008), into a world where hiring for new graduates was down 21 percent in 2009 (and in spite of the recovery, up only slightly this year).

It's all very disheartening.

Once Rip returned, he spent the rest of his life lounging around Mr. Doolittle's Hotel, telling all comers the story of his time out among the powerful little men with their flagons of sleep and forgetfulness. Bear with me for one last cautionary tale from my life in the corporate world.

The company I worked for developed telecommunications gear, often revolutionary telecommunications gear. The bright, focused people who worked there used their pioneering expertise to digitize the world's communications systems in the 80s; their experiments with fiber optics made an affordable Internet possible in the 90s; their intellectual property drives the mobile devices that are now transforming our lives. A decade ago, the company brought in $30-billion a year and supplied gear to 70 of the companies on the Fortune 100 list. It looked to me too big to fail, that it would be around for another 100 years. But despite its moment in the sun, the company declared bankruptcy two weeks after I moved back into academe. By early 2011, it will have disappeared, its 110,000 employees scattered with the wind.

How all that happened is complicated, but I can tell you one simple truth from my experience out there: The values of the executives who steered that ship of disaster look very similar to the values of those among us who think that the way to sustain the great tradition of public higher education is to trim expenses by outsourcing the teaching—the core of the undergraduate experience—to grad students and adjuncts.

And here's what is particularly heartbreaking. Here's where my story takes a turn that would never fly in a well-written tale, but that is absolutely true to my experience back in the village.

A big part of my day is spent in the university library. Coming in one morning recently, I paused to watch a young man walk up and join three students who had pulled chairs together around a table. As the new arrival settled in, he let out the archetypal "That's awesome!" cry, loud enough so that I leaned in to see what he was admiring. He was looking at what appeared to be an animated differential equation making itself visual in stages embedded in a PowerPoint chart. As I walked by, he was practically chewing his lower lip off in his enthusiasm and was asking the laptop driver, "How did you do that?"

It was a moment that could have awakened Rip Van Winkle's long-dead dog. A moment that crystallized all the reasons that most of us went into teaching to begin with. And I see a half a dozen of these a week. It's easy, since this place—the library—is crowded, packing in the equivalent of a fourth of the student population on a good day. I generally walk around for 10 minutes or so each afternoon to recharge.

Some of the students are on Facebook; some are watching cats do funny things on YouTube. But most are heads down in their studies, or working out physics problems together on whiteboards they've drawn into impromptu circles. When we started lending out iPods, they would sometimes come back loaded up with an app that some student had developed herself to make the device more useful. I interview lots of students, and they tell me they love the library, love the university. They are not kidding. They are idealistic and hardworking.

But I can't help worrying about the stories they'll be telling about us 20 years from now.

David Hiscoe is director of communications at the North Carolina State University Libraries.