Yesterday, something I was reading for another purpose struck me forcefully concerning how we evaluate ourselves in academia and about what makes an academic–not to mention what an academic makes. It was this:
Well known for her work as a Digital Humanist, Adeline [Koh] has spent this year’s sabbatical developing a line of beauty products aimed specifically at the academic who has little time for self-care. It’s a decidedly feminist project, not at all divorced from the politics of identity, and a project for which she has had to rely on the skills she’s developed as a humanities and technology scholar. But are we tempted to look down our nose at her inventiveness? Are we tempted to peer review her life as we would a research article from her? She says that “academic culture asks you to champion some ways of thinking over others (in the humanities: capitalism/neoliberalism = bad!, not getting a tenure-track job at a research institution=failure), in ways which are often completely uncritical, but imperative for one to fit into the culture.”
From my experience, the situation is actually worse. We have so codified hiring, retention, tenure and promotion that we have reduced to near nothing the very thing that academics should be known for: experimentation, the trying of something different. Each of the three areas we base our decisions on, teaching, service and scholarship, is now so narrowly defined that one need not have actual experience of the candidate’s work in any in order to make a decision. We’ve reduced “teaching” to the results of formulaic observation reports, student numerical evaluations and standardized syllabi. “Service” has become time spent on committees and in particular administrative roles. “Scholarship” is proven by numbers of articles in particular types of peer-reviewed venues and books from a limited range of “scholarly” presses. Thus, when I decided to enter academia at 52, none of my activities outside of this narrow range counted for much of anything. Frankly, it grated on me that I was seen as no different than a twenty-
something just out of graduate school. In fact, if anything, I was viewed with suspicion: Why would someone my age embark on an academic career?
Though I had been following Koh’s sabbatical activities on Facebook, cheering from the sidelines, I hadn’t really thought about her activities in academic terms. Perhaps I should have been: After all, I may be one of the few academics in a position to actually understand what it is Koh is doing. While running “Shakespeare’s Sister,” the café and gift store I co-founded in 1994, I made up our own private-label products—lotions, shampoos, conditioners and the like. I had rows of bottled essential oils and gallons of different sorts of base with plastic pumps, hundreds of bottles, caps and labels and spent time creating our Shakespeare’s Sister scented offerings. I had to learn a great deal and, even so, was only a dabbler. Creating scented products takes a much more refined nose than mine.
What I could do, however, was watch the customers, seeing what they bought, and talking to them about what they wanted. At the same time, I was teaching them about essential oils and about the impact of various lotion bases on the skin. I enjoyed all of that… but that was only part of it. As Koh describes her own experience:
Sabbatical Beauty has taught me a lot of things. It’s taught me to struggle comfortably with my own lack of expertise, and to ask for help when I need it. It’s also given me a newfound joy in rediscovering abstract research questions after making things with my own hands. I’m also really grateful that through this business finding an academic community of women and men who enjoy doing things other than show off all day about Foucault or some app someone has made.
We opened Shakespeare’s Sister six years after I finished graduate school. In the meantime, I’d served for two years in Peace Corps (working in agriculture in West Africa), worked for a year as a high-school administrator/teacher, occasionally as an adjunct and
as an office temp. The idea of a permanent academic career did not cross my mind. I had loved grad school but, perhaps because I had grown up within it, found academic life stultifying.
Like Koh, I’ve found that I deal better now with ‘abstract research questions’ because I’ve made things with my own hands. Unlike her, that was no recent thing for me. I was very lucky: I grew up working in printing establishments, spent a great deal of time working in garages and restoring automobiles, and have experience with chickens, hogs and oxen. Do these experiences color my academic work?
You bet they do. They are a constant part of my teaching, my service and my scholarship—yet they count for nothing in terms of academic evaluation. They should.
Fortunately, on a personal level, they already do. As Koh sums up:
For me and for many others I suspect, academia does not, and should not, have to be the only, and ultimate measure of your self worth. You are worth more, can do so much more, and can value yourself so much more if you dare to step outside the funhouse.