As I write this, it’s almost commencement. In an hour or so, we will have our annual recognition dinner, where we give various faculty and staff awards, recognize promotions, retirements, and other professional transitions, and generally usher another academic year to its end.
It’s been a busy last few weeks; I’m leaving the country on Monday for two weeks on a faculty-development trip, and have been urgently preparing to leave the office untended, which is a shockingly difficult task, even during what should be one of the quietest periods of the year. In the few small gaps in my schedule, I’ve been thinking about issues of concern to job seekers, and have been browsing the Web to see what various academic bloggers are saying.
In that process, I found the blog of someone I knew relatively well from conferences 15 years ago or so, when she was a graduate student heading towards dissertation and job market, and I was an assistant professor in the same general discipline of Restoration and 18th-century studies. As most academics do, I sought out her CV and looked to see what she’s been doing; I’ve sadly been out of the loop of 18th-century studies for years, and was curious to see what someone I knew pretty well and who is about a half-generation behind me has been doing.
My former colleague now teaches at a community college, coaches writing, blogs, does some freelance journalism, and plays with her kids. She started out on the faculty of quite a prestigious university (which doesn’t surprise me), but for whatever reason has chosen to take a different path, and one that looks from her Web site to be quite an attractive one.
The coincidence of my finding her blog and my reflections on our recognition dinner has raised once again the question of what counts as “real” or valuable for academic professionals, and what the overarching narrative of the profession tells us we should think is real and valuable. Looking around at my faculty colleagues at Buena Vista University, I see a number of pretty happy people, who are doing all sorts of interesting things both as traditional scholars/writers/artists, and in a variety of other modes as well. They are making terrific contributions to the university community and our students, lead decent, comfortable lives, and have a good deal of flexibility to choose their personal and professional pursuits.
Years ago, when I started my first academic job at another small college here in Iowa, I felt quite literally as though I had fallen off the edge of the planet, which I know is a common feeling for new faculty members who confront the difficult realities of academic employment and come to discover that, no, most undergraduates aren’t like they were, and no, most colleges and universities aren’t like the high-powered research universities where they earned their graduate degrees.
When I look at the colleagues we are honoring tonight, though, I think that this may not really matter if one looks at the situation from the right direction. Certainly, our faculty have their problems: They are overworked, could certainly be paid better, and we all live two-and-a-half hours from a decent airport and city. If you measure their accomplishments by traditional research-university standards, most of them (including me) haven’t done all that much.
But considering their tremendous impact on our students, an impact we can certainly demonstrate in many different ways, and the fact that we value their accomplishments in this area, or as members of the local school board, consultants for local businesses, tutors for local children, members of various professional or community organizations, or other similar activities, I don’t think we can say they aren’t accomplished. In fact, in terms of positive contributions to the greater world, they are awesomely accomplished, and I am mightily proud to work with them. Have a great summer.