Thursday, March 06, 2008

Mark Bauerlein: Break out the chocolate and put your feet up; you're working too hard

Over at the Chronicle, Mark Bauerlein has ignited a firestorm of controversy (for the academic world, anyway) with his post "Stop Pushing Yourself." A sample:
But if we look at tenured professors in the humanities and in many other disciplines, it seems to me that much of the work they do is entirely self-generated. The conference papers that have to be written, the scholarly articles they want to complete, the book projects that hang over them . . . these are not required. They are elective. . . . So why do they do it? Is it really worth sweating all those months getting that manuscript in order—which upon publication will sell only a few hundred copies—just to boost your annual raise a few hundred dollars?

New Kid had a good take on this, pointing out (as did some of the original commenters) that this applies only to the most privileged portions of academe, and Michael Berube points out that service work isn't being counted at all in Bauerlein's model. Eric Rauchway makes the point about privilege but with more charts and graphs for added outrage, and jbj at the Salt-Box says that maybe and in a very loose sense some of the activities are optional, but they're only optional if you think that things like advising, faculty governance, and paying attention to your teaching are optional (which apparently Bauerlein does).

I've said before that no one, and especially academics, likes being told "I'm so busy that I don't have time to do X, but would you do it?" It's a pistols-at-dawn remark to tell someone that you don't think he or she is as busy as you are, and, in effect, this is part of the sore spot that Bauerlein has hit with a sledgehammer. He's saying, in effect, "You're busy, but you don't have to be, and so your busyness doesn't count. In fact, a lot of what you do doesn't really matter." That's right up there with "I don't have time to read this manuscript/write this committee report/learn how to use Blackboard/meet with this student, but I'm sure you wouldn't mind taking it on" as an incitement to rage. His point goes deeper than that, however, as the bloggers mentioned above have discussed so well, so I just have a few questions:

  • Did Mark Bauerlein see his two books as optional? Would he have been promoted to full professor without them?
  • That "few hundred dollars" may not mean much to him, but to someone who takes coupons to Costco and is elated when she saves $15, it's a lot. I guess it depends on whether you already have a lot of money, but $300 is a lot to most of us, especially, as several have pointed out, if it's added to your salary base and extends over a lifetime.
  • And those readers? Are we to give up if we don't sell books like Dan Brown and Tom Clancy combined? Channeling Milton: "Still govern thou my song, / Urania, and fit audience find though few" (PLVII.30-1)
  • Isn't the incessant whining about and fear of academic deadwood that goes on in the Chronicle and elsewhere proof that "pushing yourself" is not only encouraged but required in academics? Does anyone expect this culture to change?
  • If he doesn't think that contributing to a store of knowledge is important, what about teaching? What about the extra time we take to just sit down and talk with students who want to talk? Is that time wasted, too?

    I wonder if Bauerlein isn't part of a more general trend that's always being written about: you know, the corporate executive who quits everything to raise goats in New Hampshire or open a cafe or whatever. He makes a pile of money and then writes a "My Turn" in Newsweek pontificating on the joys of rural living and the bad effects of corporate stress. Maybe that's the case with Bauerlein. He's done what he needed to do and now wants to cut back (maybe; this is speculation), and, because he doesn't see how others might not be in the same place in terms of salary or career, he's eager to see other s do that too. In other words, the most charitable interpretation of what he's saying is that he's made this discovery and wants to share it with the rest of us.

    Of course, such an attitude rests, as it always does to a greater or lesser degree, on privilege--not just the academic privilege of having a 2-2 load at a private university but having the salary that goes with it, the kind of salary that maybe allows you to kick back, open a box of chocolates, put your feet up, and relax.

    If you want to offer me that salary, give me a call. In the meantime, I'll be writing.

    Anonymous said...

    GOD. My father, the one who never applied for a job but got them by calling his dissertation director, got sick of things after making full and cut back by only teaching (2-2 load) and writing, but refusing to "do what serious people do" by no longer doing mega-service or fundraising / grantmaking. He considered himself to be semi-retired and slacking. Still steadily giving classes, directing dissertations and putting out books, on the theory that one had a job and should at least do "the minimum." Bauerlein needs to get a grip.

    Anonymous said...

    Oh yes. The other thing he quit doing when he decided to slack was go to conferences elsewhere. He could do that, as I point out, because at his place conferences came to them. His point was that not to go to conferences elsewhere was slacking, and he was slacking compared to what the non-semi-retired do.

    undine said...

    "Slacking"? Please!