Thursday, June 13, 2019

Academic Freedom

Academic Freedom: 
Why, When, and How I Retired
     There must by fifty ways to leave your workplace, your job, your profession, your career.  Some dream of leaving when they win the lottery.  Others, less fanciful, banal even, leave when they have figured out their income would be the same in retirement as it would be if they went on working.  Either way suggests work driven by money rather than by a passion or source of joy.  Or it means, they can now concentrate on the fraction of their work that they most enjoyed.
    When prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, altered England’s higher education, many faculty members were “made redundant” (i.e., retired early).  One man, still in his early fifties, said to me, “It’s like getting a Guggenheim every year for the rest of my life.”  My kind of guy.  A Guggenheim, (usually) a year-long fellowship, provides a modest living wage with some research expense money to boot--with the expectation of learning, writing, and eventually publishing the results, but no duties.  I had a Guggenheim once, but ten years passed before the book, Pegusus in Harness, was published.
      I always said, and then wondered if I were just kidding myself, “They pay me to do what I’d do anyway. I love my job.”   And I did, though I did not like grading papers—having to tell myself over and over that the work helped students learn to think more clearly so that they could express themselves more clearly.  But did they read my comments? Did they care enough to improve?   Experience said, occasionally, yes.  My work also entailed reading literature; talking about what I read; examining catalogues from Rare Books Stores in order to augment library collections; travelling to exotic cities for conferences with colleagues who not only understood my research and arguments but could point to weak spots—making me better.  (I recall Singapore, Innsbruck, Copenhagen, Alicante, Cáceres , Pisa, Milan, Bern, Munich, Sydney, Dunedin NZ, Kolkata, Cape Town, Amsterdam, The Hague, London, Edinburgh, New York, San Francisco, Victoria BC, Toronto, Chicago, St Louis, Vilnius, Bogota--there were more.   My expenses to such places of pleasure were paid, mostly.   An emotional high also comes with acceptance of an article for publication, and again, a year or so later, at publication.  My paid work entailed spending time in libraries all over the world (among them Beinecke, Houghton, Newberry, Firestone, Perkins, Bancroft, British Library, National Library of Scotland, Bobst, Morgan, and Mitchell in Sydney)[1] to do research on what interested me.  It was the life of Riley.
      I always said I did not work for the university; instead, the university paid me to do what I thought best to do.   Well, I taught “assigned” classes—most often classes that I had asked for.   I also had imposed deadlines for getting grades in, with penalties I only guessed at for not complying.  I was “expected” to grade fairly and promptly, of course, but there is no pleasure in grading unfairly or making tasks take longer than needed.   I studied what interested me, taught the way I wanted to, wrote for journals of my choice, attended conferences that interested me.
     Loving one’s work can, unfortunately, make knowing when to quit difficult.  The event that colored my thinking on retirement involved a man I never knew personally, but about whom I “knew” two things.  Knew, in quotation marks, acknowledges that I have no way of knowing if my perception of him squared with reality.   That does not matter for the effect on my thinking about retirement.  Ian Watt wrote a book called The Rise of the English Novel which I read in graduate school and admired beyond measure.  It appeared to me that he had read everything written in the 18th Century, though he focused on Defoe, Richardson, and Fielding.  He definitely wrote coherently about it.  I could never read that much, but I desperately wanted to have some coherent view of the English Novel.  He gave me one.  Lionel Stevenson’s The Panorama of the English Novel I found covered more ground but seemed dry.  Edward Wagenknecht’s Cavalcade of the English Novel just seemed overconfident or arrogant to my student ears.  But Watt, what a brain.  What an intellect.     Years later, I attended a conference where Watt, then in his late seventies or eighties, presented a paper.  Four speakers shared an hour–and-a-half session, each allotted twenty minutes.   At forty minutes my idol had tumbled from its pedestal—not just because of the time overrun.  The audience sat politely—deference to a man who had given us all so much.  I would not forget that lesson.  Do not go there.
       Assuming one has a stellar career, has achieved some modicum of fame, has been feted or honored in some way, how does one know when to walk away? Accolades are heady; one wants more.  One needs to leave while one can still walk--preferably before noticing that the honors have slowed or ceased.  If one’s career has a peak, it is all downhill from there.  Better to quit at the first slips than to repeat the silent embarrassment of Ian Watt.   If one will never do better next time, why continue?   I repeat that I did not personally know the man or know what heights he might still have achieved.  I recall the event; it sufficed.
        My parents were missionaries.  They wanted me to be a missionary, too.  That thought dominated my education from age 7  to 21.  My mother taught me to sing:
I may never march in the Infantry,   (march)
Ride in the cavalry,   
(pretend you're riding a horse)
Shoot the artillery.   
(clap hands together)
I may never zoom o'er the enemy,  
(spread arms out and pretend to be a plane)
But I'm in the Lord's Army.   
(point one finger up to God)
I'm in the Lord's Army, (yes, sir!)   
I'm in the Lord's Army, (yes, sir!)

     The effect waned somewhat in college.  Two years I attended a Bible college, then transferred to a state university to major in English education.  The plan was to earn a living as a teacher of English as a second language in the country I had grown up in while also persuading lost souls to convert and assure themselves of heaven.   I abandoned that plan and went to graduate school,  when students in my practice teaching stint convinced me that high school was no place for the likes of me.
      Not only was Vietnam a battlefield I would have gone to Canada to avoid, the mission field lost all appeal.  In graduate school, for the first time, my motive for study was a desire to learn, just to find out, just to know, just to get the rush of discovering that which I did not know.  I no longer felt the need to fulfill someone else’s dream or plan for me.  Not in anybody’s army, I marched on my own.  It was exhilarating.  From 21 to 70 I was always in college, learning new things, always excited about what was next.
       I had a new feeling about my life.  I was a hound dog chasing literary rabbits—learning to learn and discover and share what I knew.   I admit, at least at first, I was not terribly good at it.  Should I reveal here the ways I embarrassed myself as a graduate student, or as an Assistant Professor, or as Associate Professor, or as Professor?  Though the events are still vivid, recalling them gives no pleasure.  Discovering the phrase “Fail better” eased my anxiety somewhat.   As time passed, the rookie mistakes became less frequent.  Honors came.  I felt over-valued most of the time, though I tried not to show it.   To be fair, there were times when I felt unappreciated: when a younger colleague got a bigger raise then mine, when an article got turned down, when I was told the university would survive even without following my advice—times when I felt my judges to be doofuses. I remembered the sign I saw in some office saying: Doing a good job around here resembles wetting yourself in a dark suit: it gives a nice warm feeling but nobody notices.
        But good work rewards us in other ways then the recognition one receives.  One colleague once said, specifically about scholarly editing, but applicable in any field, “Producing a first-rate edition is worth doing even if no one reads it.”   I’ve wondered if people who do not do good work find it easy or hard to live with themselves.  I decided to retire the evening I walked home from teaching a three-hour graduate seminar and suddenly realized that, in answer to a student question, I had given an extended answer based on facts I had muddled in my memory.  I got home and emailed a correction to the class.  I retired at the end of the year. 
     Other factors applied. Though primarily because I distrusted my memory, on which I had prided myself in my younger years, dimmed eyesight made it more and more difficult to read anything, especially scholarly articles to “keep up” in my field.  Furthermore, I had been in school from age seven to seventy; starting a new life had to be soon or would be never.   I left off learning professionally. I attended only two (invited) conferences after that: one to receive what I consider to be a life-time achievement award, and the other, my first conference ever in the country of my birth, where I presented my paper in my native Spanish.  I also quickly polished up and sent off four articles and a book that were nearing completion.  Then my back was fully turned.
      I began full-time amateur learning.  My new life consists of woodworking and forestry (with some time off for fishing) on 120 acres of steep forestland, which my wife and I had bought thirteen years earlier as a retirement place.  I have encountered the vastness of my ignorance and also the joy and excitement of learning new things in a new field.   My place sports a 40 hp tractor with frontend loader, scraper, winch, and bushhog; a pickup truck and flatbed trailer; a four-wheel runabout; a small hydro electric plant and solar panels to support us off-grid; and a workshop with planer, jointer, scroll saw, table saw, band saw, sanders, drills, routers, lathes, radial arm saw and various hand tools.  In retirement I have built a 20x20 shed over a dock, a 22x40 pole barn, a 16x24  fully enclosed workshop, and I have made, with wood from my forest, harvest tables, head- and foot-boards for beds, night stands, and a variety of wooden bowls and wooden pens.   Wood both exacts and forgives, requiring patience and careful attention to the material.  Mistakes can sometimes be smoothed or re-purposed.  Sometimes they require one to start over.  Attention to detail can allow one to achieve a thing of beauty; carelessness or inattention ruins everything.  The emotional high comes when someone sees something I’ve made and says, “Oh, I want one.”   By the way, cataract surgery and implanted corrective lenses restored my eyesight, so that reading became once again a pleasure.  I’m thankful that, in my new career, I have no evaluation meetings with a boss, no competitions, no reason to do anything for any reason save the love of doing it. 
     Which brings me to the topic: Academic freedom.  For this I am not doing research into the actual historical origins of the concept or the practice.  Nor am I doing any research into university handbooks about faculty responsibilities and rights.   Universities are institutions devoted to research leading to the discovery of new knowledge (and, inevitably, the discovery of old errors and faulty received wisdom).  It follows that its faculty members must have the freedom to pursue research and new knowledge without the restraints of political, religious, or economic interests.  No faculty member should be stopped from searching for new truths (well, actually, to be more honest and modest about it, searching for new, more plausible, explanations) about life, matter, art, actions, or whatever the subject might be.   Academic freedom means being free from the fear of being fired or squelched for discovering and revealing unpopular truths.  Tenured academics can fearlessly speak truth to power (clichĂ© though that is)—it’s their job, their privilege, their responsibility.
       Hence, tenure enacts academic freedom--freedom from the fear of firing because someone does not like the results of research.  Tenure does not grant job security for any other reason than the unjust dismissal for having researched and reported unpopular, controversial, or threatening subjects.   It is not protection from being fired for other reasons, such as not doing your job or engaging in behaviors detrimental to the intellectual pursuits of colleagues or students.  Tenure becomes a genuinely sticky issue when controversial “research” fails to be transparent or traceable, or when it is demonstrably shoddy.  When political agendas attach themselves to research, bias seems both inevitable and unethical, as has been shown with tobacco, race, medical cures, herbicides, and sexuality.  Dressing up economic, religious, or political agendas with shoddy research does not, in my view, merit the protections of academic freedom.  Real research presents the facts that speak the damning truth, the researcher need not sully him or herself with an agenda.  I suppose some clever person will already have sussed the fact that I’m clothing academic freedom in the shield of objectivism.  All I’ll say is that that is a plausible argument; and I’ll ask, what shield is that clever person hiding behind? Perhaps the one that says, since all positions are political and biased, I want mine to be the winner.
       For me, universities exist to discover, question, and explain what we know and want to know, and to share knowledge with others: in short, researching, teaching, writing, and floating ideas for discussion in classes and conferences.  Anything else wastes time and resources.  When one starts to do these things less well, the time to go has arrived.

[1] Respectively: Yale, Harvard, Chicago, Princeton, Chapel Hill NC, Berkeley, London, Edinburgh, NYU, Yew York, Sydney.