Monday, June 29, 2015

The World-Famous Y-Bridge of Zanesville, Ohio

One of the strange things about being a collector-turned-dealer is that I am, in many ways, still a collector. My mother, from whom I've learned much of the wisdom (or folly) of being an antique dealer, always says that "Everything's for sale, eventually," but even so, there are some things I buy with no real plan for selling.

Two kinds of things I like to buy are folk art (especially carved wooden items) and original paintings and drawing. Rarely do I have a chance to buy a painting that also qualifies as folk art, but I recently purchased this painting of the Zanesville Y-Bridge, and I think it qualifies.

Zanesville isn't very far where I went to high school, and it seems as if I've always known about the Y-Bridge. Unfortunately, I suspect it is no longer world famous, though (apparently) it once was, or was believed to be by the town's inhabitants. Built at the confluence of the Licking and Muskingum rivers, the Y-Bridge has an intersection of two roads in the middle. One of those roads, of course, is US Route 40, the old National Road, and after Wheeling, Zanesville was one of the next big stops on the road that made possible the opening of the American West after 1800. So it was once a memorable curiosity along an an important road. But with Interstate 70 now running through the middle of Zanesville, the Y-Bridge is now just a curiosity, crossed only by locals--and maybe by a very odd kind of tourist,  I suppose.

My painting appears to have been made sometime around 1915 or 1920, showing the bridge that was itself replaced around 1980--which means that I must have crossed the bridge in the picture when I was younger. The painting is signed "E J Cayse/ Zanesville" and the previous owner seems to have used Google to trace some of Cayse's history. He was, apparently, a sign painter, and it is interesting to see (as I think my image shows: see the lower left corner) that this painting is, indeed, painted over a painted sign with numbers and letters, though I haven't been able yet to fully decipher the bottom layer.

Rosemary notes that, in the picture, the bridge looks more like a "T" than a "Y", but that only adds to the folky charm, as far as I am concerned. I think I'll hang it in the stairway, out of the light, but where I'll see it every day.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Gentleman Scholar

Patrick Malahide as Edward Casaubon, gentleman
scholar par excellence.
When I left academic employment in 2012, one of the things I imagined for my future was that I would need to find some way to re-invent the idea of the gentleman scholar. I would, of course, be unable or unlikely to put myself into a position of being independently wealthy, but I hoped that I could earn enough each week and each month to leave me some time to write. I hoped, if nothing else, to be able to continue making the contributions to the academic enterprise that had brought me both the excitement of learning and discovery and the respect of at least some of my peers in the tiny little world of Anglo-Saxon literary scholarship. I still had ideas, and some ongoing projects, and the work of re-defining our understanding of Old English verse that I had undertaken was a project that could literally take a lifetime to see to fullness. I felt I still had much to do.

So, the first time I went to Kalamazoo (where the big medieval conference is each year) after quitting my academic job, I listed my affiliation as “Independent Scholar.” And as I told many people at that year’s conference, I was trying my best to wear that label with pride. I was anxious, of course, because I was wise (or experienced) enough to realize that “Independent Scholar” carries zero academic cachet. Indeed, I suspect it’s a designation often enough looked at with suspicion: if one judges a scholar by the scholar’s affiliation (which happens all too often, I think), then independent scholar is at the bottom of the hierarchy of affiliations. I wanted to be a gentleman scholar, as opposed to an independent one, precisely because it wouldn’t mark me so clearly as an outsider or wannabe.

Whether I thought of myself as a gentleman scholar or an independent scholar, however, I found it very hard indeed to get motivated to do academic writing once I had left the academic workplace. Not having an office on campus made it harder to manage the requisite library work, and many of my books were now boxed up in the basement. But these hurdles could have been managed, I think, if I had been more motivated to do the work. This year, after three years out on my own, I’ve finally started to feel like there’s a place in my life for a kind of academic work again, and I’ve seriously started drafting another academic book, finally. This blog, too, is a place where I am starting to do a kind of academic work: to say my piece, from the persepctive of someone who is out of academia, and yet is not, really.

Book V of Middlemarch's original
serial publication.
But given my recent thinking about finally trying to adopt the mantle of the “gentleman scholar,” I’ve spent a good part of the summer reading George Eliot’s Middlemarch, a huge and ambling (if not rambling) excursion of a novel: the kind of book that you might take on a trip to a foreign land, and one that might take you on such a trip as well. Eliot’s fictional town of Middlemarch is populated by a varied and diverse set of characters, from a wide spectrum of social levels: in fact, as I told Rosemary at one point, if I was reading a science fiction novel where social status was so finely sliced and so nearly determinative in its effects, I’d say it was completely implausible, and that no human society could possibly be so concerned with such social hairsplitting. Fiction is stranger than fiction, I guess.

Of course, part of my interest in the novel at the moment lies in the figure of Edward Casaubon, the gentleman scholar. Casaubon, like myself, has passed fifty, and his marriage to Dorothea Brooke clearly takes second place in his world to his own life-long academic project, A Key to All Mythologies. On their honeymoon in Rome, for example, Casaubon spends a good deal of his time in the Vatican library. Uh-oh—I guess I remember doing a bit of academic work myself when Rosemary and I traveled to London after our marriage.

Unlike me, of course, Casaubon is a churchman, responsible for the pastoral care of an entire rural parish in the neighborhood of Middlemarch. But he’s a wealthy heir, beyond his own expectation, and once he is able to, he’s happy to pass most of his pastoral responsibilities along to his curate, while he focuses his energies on his scholarship. But I was surprised by the shock of recognition I felt to read, at the end of chapter 38, that, “all through his life Mr. Casaubon had been trying not to admit even to himself the inward sores of self-doubt.” Casaubon has impostor syndrome.

Fortunately, I never felt the impostor syndrome that so many of my academic friends have described to me, in which they feel unworthy or uncertain of their place in the academic world. But to the degree that Casaubon seems to have impostor syndrome himself, he struck me, of a sudden, as more like many of my academic colleagues than like me. And then the idea took its hold on me: it’s not me, who is today’s gentleman scholar, but the institutional gentry of the tenured class.

I know some of my readers out there are themselves tenured, or on the tenure track. So perhaps I will not or cannot be forgiven for thinking that the essential and often unconscious or unacknowledged reliance of many tenure-track research faculty upon the heavier teaching loads of adjunct and untenured teachers has an uncomfortable parallel in Casaubon’s casual reliance on his curate. Nor, perhaps, can I be forgiven for suspecting that Casaubon’s curate has only a contingent guarantee of employment, if any guarantee at all. Nor will some forgive me for feeling like Casaubon’s unworldliness, self-importance, and prickly abrasiveness are too often matched by some in today’s academy.

And maybe, too, I have my own share of self-importance, unworldliness, and abrasiveness, even here in this blog: but I make my living these days in trade (in business, as Caleb Garth would put it, with a kind of awed astonishment). Surely the virtual sinecure of tenure should remind us all of the class implications of a term like “gentleman scholar,” regardless of the sex or gender of those in tenured positions. Casaubon’s impostor syndrome causes him to constantly compare himself (at least in his own mind) to his intellectual nemesis Carp and the others at Brasenose, but even in the novel, it’s clear that he’s more like the scholars at Oxford than he is like most of the folks in Middlemarch.

I think I am a working scholar, in comparison. This year, when I’ve gone to conferences and given lectures, I’ve had “Chancery Hill Books” listed as my affiliation, even though a business affiliation is probably even lower on the (always implicit) academic hierarchy of value than “independent scholar”—precisely because it suggests that I work for my living. But my scholarship is not independent of my work, any more than I am independently wealthy. Terms like “independent scholar” and “gentleman scholar” now remind me of the class structure of contemporary academia, in which non-tenure-line teachers are the working class, and the tenured folk are (in comparison, at least) a kind of metaphorical gentry. The tension between these two kinds of faculty status echoes and reflects the unreal reality of the American class system, which Americans can rarely think clearly or effectively about, because it’s part of the American ideology to believe we don’t have a class system at all. But it’s alive and well (or, perhaps, not so well) in academia.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Shelfie Wednesday: some original illustrations

I hate to admit it, but sometimes I expect too much of the internet. Too many times, I've been able to use Google in order to trace the history or origin of something obscure and unusual. I've done it often enough, at least, that I start to think that I'll always be able to do it.

So this past week, out at an antique auction, I picked up a stack of original pen-and-ink drawings.

"Surely," I told myself, "these are from some children's book or magazine: I won't have any trouble tracking them down."

I should have known better. I have no real doubt that these illustrations, or at least most of them, were published. Although they are unsigned, they are obviously of high quality, and most of them include hand-written captions, notes of page numbers (presumably where they would or did appear), and indications ("40%" or "66 2/3%") of how much they'd be sized down during the printing process. The pencil notations and the style of the art make me think these are probably mid 20th century, but there's nothing to let me be more precise.

And yet, so far at least, no Google search has turned up anything like them. Some of the cats are given unusual names: "Nelona" and "Oedipus". No luck on those. Some of the captions, I thought, might turn something up. Nothing there, either. Since the auction I got these at is located in central Ohio, it's possible these were published in a magazine like Highlights for Children (long published in Columbus) or some similar publication, and their periodical publication has meant that they've escaped Google books.

I doubt that any of my readers out there will recognize any of these, but it would restore my faith in humanity (as opposed to my faith in Google) if they did.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Accidental Theorist: How a Teaching Professor Turned into a Theorist

Nothing could have prepared me to start thinking like a French theorist.

Perhaps that’s not quite true: I could imagine a kind of utopian graduate education in English where students not only read French theorists (I have in mind not only figures like Derrida, Foucault, Kristeva, and Barthes, but also others like Gerard Genette or Thierry Groensteen) but also learned to read across and think through the large swaths of primary materials that shaped these theorists’ thinking. Such a program would take time, of course, and the reading could hardly be prescribed: there can be no recipe or substitute for reading everything. One’s teachers in such a program, I imagine, would in fact be engaged in just the same project: reading widely, not with a particular goal in mind, but rather reading to build up a store of confusions, contradictions, and uncertainties that, if one is lucky, one can finally find a way to cut through. But there would be no focus on any particular genre, or historical period, or theoretical approach, since focus is what allows one to ask and answer narrow questions, rather than wide ones.

But as I hope is clear, that imaginary graduate education was not the one I got. Certainly, I was encouraged to familiarize myself with theory, as it existed in the early 1990s. My graduate education always asked for a fair degree of focus, not least in the dissertation. But the “best practice” of doing theoretical work, as I understood it at the time, involved using the theory to help illuminate something about the (literary) text, and using the text to illuminate something about the theory. This is a kind of work I have engaged in occasionally, for example when I read Harvey Pekar’s American Splendor comics with and against Foucault’s “What is an Author?” in order to clarify how authorship works as a formal feature in texts. 

But even that project was possible for me because all of my teaching experience as an academic came in jobs where I was expected to (or had the opportunity to) teach a broad spectrum of classes. Between the University of Northern Colorado and West Virginia University, I regularly offered classes in composition, in the English language, in British Literature surveys, and in both contemporary comics and science fiction and fantasy. Only occasionally, in comparison, did I teach courses in Medieval Literature, which was my nominal specialty as a scholar.

But all that teaching—and the reading and thinking it involved—in areas outside of my primary area of specialization, I am starting to think, is actually what helped me to start thinking more usefully about questions that span all of English letters. For me the study of Old English meter and the study of modern graphic narratives grew to be connected somehow. At one level, I ascribed both interests to my recognition that I was a formalist by inclination. At another level, though, it was the kind of question—just what does link Old English verse to comics?—that could only be answered by looking at the truly big picture. In a sense, I needed to become a theorist to understand the question itself, much less begin to answer it. I couldn't rely on other theorists' thinking, or build upon it: the questions I was trying to answer were my own.

As much as the breadth of my teaching helped me both to discover some of these questions and to begin to answer them, it is certainly true, too, that my work in selling books has affected the range of things I attend to in my scholarly work: I know much more about the bibliographic details and publication history of works like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings from having bought and sold and collected them than I do from having taught them, no matter how often. And both topics make an appearance in my 2014 academic book, The Visible Text.

Perhaps my experience cannot be generalized; I’d be among the first to acknowledge that the way I’ve gone about things in my career may not be for everyone. But it seems odd to me to realize that if I’d had a conventional faculty job at a true research-oriented university, there might have been a far greater match between my scholarly focus and the classes I taught. But the consequence of that greater degree of matching is that I might never have had the tools and experience of books and texts to write a book that considers literature and material textuality from the eighth century to the present. Certainly, as a research faculty member at a research university, I’d have been encouraged (actively or passively) to have a narrower, more defined focus, and the teaching part of my work would have involved fewer courses and fewer sections of them. Part of me thinks that it may well be the case that my work as a teaching faculty member and bookseller might have prepared me to address new theoretical questions better than any other aspect of my training and career.

I’ve always been one to believe that teaching and research are related enterprises. But I wonder now whether one of the unspoken, unrecognized consequences of the growing divergence between research faculty and teaching faculty arises from the enforced narrowness of research faculty focus, a narrowness which often seems and feels like a blessing to the individuals who have access to it, but which results in a narrowness of vision. Busy adjuncts and teaching faculty often get no material benefit from any scholarship they can manage to complete, and their work thus often structurally discourages them from being scholars as a result. Research faculty members, to the degree that the courses they offer match their research interests more and more closely, may well risk losing the breadth that could help make their scholarship of interest beyond a small circle of like-minded readers.

I am amused to imagine the uproar if a Chair or Dean at an R1 university were to come to the English department and tell them that all faculty—from full professors to adjuncts—would henceforth have identical teaching loads, through the simple mathematics of dividing the number of courses offered by total number of faculty, and that everyone's teaching load would be as broad as possible. It will never happen, I suppose: those who would benefit most have too little power, and those who would be teaching more in such a scheme (not necessarily working harder overall, I should point out) probably have enough power to prevent it from happening. But still I wonder: might it not be the case that the quality of thinking and making connections, and thus the quality of scholarship, and maybe even the overall quality of teaching would improve, if those who are most dedicated to research were to find themselves teaching more broadly?

At the least, I hope that this kind of thought experiment may help us think more clearly about how the academy values teaching, and scholarship, and the linkage between them.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Shelfie Wednesday: Toothpick Holders

A dozen toothpick holders I recently picked up. These 12
were manufactured by at least 8 different glass
firms, and they date from about 1885 to 1905.
While I mostly will write about books here, my business is, after all, Chancery Hill Books and Antiques, and I do buy and sell a good deal in the antiques field as well. Because my folks, for many years, were very active in the antique American glassware and art glass world, I picked up a lot of knowledge from them, and that knowledge is one of the things that makes my business possible.

So one of the categories I often buy and sell in is collectible Victorian glass toothpick holders. Like celery vases, spoon-holders, and salt cellars, toothpick holders, by their very existence and intended function, tell us something about the Victorian dinner table (and its associated manners) that we might not quite imagine otherwise. In the case of toothpick holders, it's simply important to note that toothpicks, apparently, were intended to be available at all times upon the table, and presumably they were there to be used. 

Produced at every conceivable price point, toothpick holders were popular, it seems, with all social classes: I'd probably hesitate to use a toothpick in public, but 120 years ago, it was apparently very much normal to do so, even at the fanciest tables.

Toothpick holders are still quite collectible today, because they are small and often cute (none of those pictured here is over 3" tall) and they are varied in both appearance and value: in the past two months, I've seen toothpick holders sell at auction for prices ranging from a dollar each to over thirteen thousand dollars. And yet, it seems to be the case that, like many older collectibles, toothpick holders have seen their collecting heyday pass: they are collected now mostly by folks older than me (often a good deal older), and they are not (yet, at least?) as highly valued by people in my generation or younger.

But each one is a little piece of history.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Crockett Comic Almanac 1840

Front cover, Crocket Comic
Almanac 1840
In late 2013, I bought a box lot of old American almanacs at an antique auction in Ohio that I frequent. Most were from the early nineteenth century, and I really knew almost nothing about them when I purchased them. But almanacs were among the most widely published and widely owned American books in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Almanacs provided rural Americans and townsfolk alike with calendars and astronomical data, and they usually included edifying, educational, political, or polemical reading material for their users, too. Depending upon one’s inclination, one could purchase an anti-slavery almanac, an anti-masonic almanac, a temperance almanac, or even a phrenology almanac. Despite—or because of—their essentially ephemeral nature, many early almanacs are collectible (and collected) nowadays, as available and often inexpensive examples of early American printing, as records of popular culture, and in some cases for containing early examples of what we’ve come to call comics.

The almanacs in this lot, as it turned out, were very much a mixed bag, but the one I immediately spotted as most interesting was titled only “Crockett Comic Almanac 1840.” No author or publisher was given, and there seemed no obvious way to identify even the printer. But I knew that much of Davy Crockett’s reputation as a rough-and-ready frontiersman had been spread and elaborated by a variety of Crockett almanacs dating from the 1830s to the late 1840s, and that those books were very collectible indeed. My almanac was missing one leaf, and someone had snipped out a further joke or two, but it still seemed likely to have some value.

But it wasn’t listed in Drake, the standard bibliographic reference on American almanacs before 1850. A closer look revealed that the first interior page, listing the eclipses for the year, stated that they had been calculated for the longitude of Cincinnati, and it seemed likely that the book had been printed there. Still, I could find no record of any Crockett almanac printed in Cincinnati, and the Morgan online bibliography of early Ohio imprints had no record of such a book either. At last I turned to WorldCat, and was nearly frustrated there, too, but for a buried reference to an almanac with the same title bound in a collection of almanacs from the 1840s in the state library of Ohio. On my next trip to Columbus, I dropped into the library and called for the book, and I was delighted to see that it was the same as my own Crockett almanac. Further, I glanced through the other almanacs bound together with it, and I discovered that type batter on the eclipses page of another Cincinnati almanac enabled me to pin down the printer (and probably the publisher) with certainty. I had learned something.
Back Cover
The learning, and the sharing of what I have learned, have always been the things I love most about the academic life, and I am happy to say that it is truly part of my life as a bookseller as well. But also, it seems important to state clearly that the rare book trade is often, surprisingly often, a knowledge generating enterprise, not all that different from the academic world. And in these days when graduate schools and graduate programs in English in particular are trying to think how they might help guide students to so-called “alt-ac” careers, the rare book trade is one straightforward place where at least some of the skills of academia (bibliographic reference and description, paleography, knowledge of printers’ habits and practices) are used every day. But museum work, librarianship, and public history or folklore might make equally interesting futures for English graduate students, though it’s the book trade I know best, of course. Academics, it seems to me, need to understand and value all of these other knowledge-generating careers, if they have any hope of effectively communicating to their students that they have value.

Perhaps, however, it is hard to expect academics to give more than lip service to these alt-ac possibilities—which are employment and career options for both them and for their students, I might point out—when the MLA’s own annual house-organ styles itself Profession. As far as the MLA is concerned, there is only one profession, or only one that matters. Likewise, most academics, I’ve come to realize, are often not very good at even seeing, much less thinking, outside of the university box, and so I find myself telling stories like this one as often as I can, hoping without much hope that the academic world, and the MLA, might find a way to value more than one profession, to honor more than one knowledge generating enterprise. To my mind, there should be greater cross-over and cross-participation: booksellers and librarians should regularly be represented on MLA panels; humanities scholars should seek—even demand—joint appointments in their universities’ rare book rooms. If there is a crisis in the humanities, it seems to me, it is in part caused by the explicit and implicit messages that humanities doctoral programs send to their students: that there is only one profession that counts; that any sacrifice is worthwhile for the life of the mind; that it’s better to work as an adjunct than to leave “the profession”; that non-tenure-track teaching is a stage in one’s career, as if “graduating” to a tenure line were automatic.

The refrain (if such a term is accurate) of the Old English poem Deor, “Þæs ofereode; þisses swa mæg,” is often loosely translated as if it simply expressed the notion that “This too shall pass.” But of course, in the Old English, the promise is only that it may pass, and for Deor himself, there is no certainty at all that his current distress will reach any end while he lives. The truth is that the crisis in the humanities is no more certain to pass than Deor’s distress. Graduate students, after all, are canny enough to recognize when their teachers give only lip service to the possibilities of alt-ac employment, and thus graduate educators must learn to have an authentic respect for the learning that goes on outside “the profession” before any real solution to the crisis can be imagined.

Of course I sold my Crockett Almanac: I had put a lot of energy and a lot of hours into learning about it, and I was able to turn my learning into cash money: selling it it literally made my week. I find it odd, sometimes, to recognize that my livelihood is now tied to the whims of the American consumer (and the American consumer of luxury goods, no less!). But then again, isn’t that, also, true of academics as well?

Monday, June 8, 2015

New Acquisitions: 1846 Sanders Pictorial Primer, with early baseball images

For some reason I keep finding myself buying children's books, especially ones from the nineteenth century (and occasionally a bit earlier, though true children's books of that age are difficult to find). My most recent purchase in this category, Sanders' Pictorial Primer from 1846, I bought because I was interested to see that it was bilingual, in English and German, and apparently intended to help teach literacy skills in English to speakers of both English and German.

At least that must be the case. How else can we understand the way in which the German illustrations for the alphabet translate the English terms, without any attempt to ensure a match between the items shown and the German words? The illustration for P, for example is "Pear," which works fine on the English side, but on the facing German page, the letter P is still accompanied by a picture of a pear, and the German word is give: "Birne."

Flipping through the book, however, I realized that some of the images showed children playing what looks to my eye very like baseball: a pitcher prepares to throw a ball towards a batter, who stands upright, in the baseball fashion, rather than waiting for the ball in a cricketer's crouch. Unfortunately, no whole playing field is shown, which would clinch the identification, but it seemed interesting, nevertheless. The accompanying text says only that "Some [boys] play at ball."

But the picture piqued my curiosity. Even a quick search online (yes, I relied heavily on Google and Wikipedia) suggests that the first organized baseball games took place in 1845 or 1846, although informal children's games (like the one depicted here) occurred even earlier. What I have not been able to find--yet, at least--is an earlier picture of baseball players: if this is not the earliest example, it must still be a very early one indeed.


Friday, June 5, 2015

Mearcstapa: Boundary Patrollers

When I used to teach Beowulf to undergraduates, I often compared the first parts of the poem to a classic American Western: Grendel and his mother were the outlaws who had harassed and taken over the town, scary liminal figures (OE mearcstapa: boundary-walkers) whose very existence proclaimed that there was something rotten in Denmark. Beowulf himself was also an outsider, like the gun-toting loner who cleans up the Western town, one who can’t really ever fit in. Like the gunfighter riding off into the sunset, he is too much the outsider to be integrated into the community; Beowulf has become too much like the monsters he fights.

I hesitate, in some ways, to begin a “Post-Academic” blog, and to even make the attempt to forge a “post-academic” identity for myself, in part because such an identity positions itself so clearly as just the sort of liminal figure embodied by Beowulf—or Grendel. Which kind of figure I am, after all, may only be a matter of perception or perspective. But Beowulf and Grendel both are symptoms of the rottenness at the heart of Heorot; they are, in a sense, generated by the very structure of the story they find themselves caught up in. I feel a kind of kinship with them both.

And thus perhaps I must speak, or write, precisely because I find myself peculiarly positioned on the borders of academia. Like Beowulf, or Grendel, perhaps I may see more clearly to the heart of matters than do those who live them more from the inside.

Gareth Hinds's Graphic
Novel Adaptation of
So, I have been thinking this week about Wisconsin. Now, I will admit at the start that I have not looked too closely into the specific proposed changes to state law that have recently been affecting the state university system in Wisconsin, but I am intrigued to note that Wisconsin is a Northern border state, and yet placed solidly in the Midwest; the UW system sees itself standing near the heart of the system of American collegiate education, and many of those living in the UW system feel they are under attack from the ravages of a marauding outsider with little understanding of or regard for the culture or traditions of the place. There’s something rotten in Wisconsin.

Or at least this is the impression I get from reading my Facebook feed: there have apparently been huge budget cuts to the university system, as well as implicit or explicit attacks on the system of tenure. And as far as the governor of Wisconsin seems to see himself as a potential or viable presidential candidate, many academics across the country are perhaps reasonably worried that what has come to Wisconsin may soon enough begin its ravaging elsewhere.

One of the strands of discourse that has been spreading out from that center, then, has been a defense of tenure, which has (at least sometimes) taken the form of explanations of why it’s a big deal and why it’s necessary to the intellectual freedom of educators. As a person who has enjoyed the security of tenure, of course, I have a great deal of sympathy for these positions. And yet as someone who taught—after tenure—as an untenured instructor, I cannot help noting that if tenure is good for some educators, it is surely good for all of them.

In short, the normalization, over the last few decades, of using (and increasing the numbers of) adjunct and non-tenure-track instructors, at practically every college and university in the land, has had the effect of suggesting to outside observers—indeed, I’d say it suggests to anyone who thinks clearly about the issues—that collegiate education can be accomplished more cheaply and without tenuring the teachers. It seems important to try to say this without pointing a finger of blame anywhere. Cutting the UW budget and working to limit tenure there are simply obvious extensions of the notion that some teachers do not, in fact, need tenure, and that some teachers can teach for lower salaries. If some, why not all?

In many ways, I no longer have a dog in this fight, since I am now self-employed: I am self-tenured for as long as I can stand myself, I guess. Even so, I would love to see the tenured and tenure-track faculty of the land equally mobilize the logic of “if some, why not all?” If tenure is good for tenure-track teachers, why not for all? If a living—or even middle class—wage is good for tenure-track teachers, why not for all? This is a moment where common cause needs to be made between tenure-line and non-tenure-line teachers.

And yet, in my experience, tenure-track faculty often seem to work harder to justify their higher position in a two-tier system of instruction than they do to work for the benefit of those caught in the lower (non-tenure-track) tier. It has sometimes felt as if they are concerned to police and patrol that border that separates tenure-track from non-tenure-track with particular diligence. This, of course, is exactly what’s rotten at the heart of academia: the game is already over, if we act as though some teachers (i.e., those on one side of this border) do not need tenure and can be paid but a pittance. If people in tenure-track positions accept the existence or necessity of non-tenure-eligible faculty lines, then they have already accepted that tenure is not really necessary, and they risk reducing the effect of their own arguments to “But tenure is really necessary for me, and for those like me”. Likewise with salary, and with teaching load: “Oh, I’m in a tenure line, I need to teach fewer classes and get paid more because my teaching is linked to my research.” As if some teaching need not be linked to research, as if teaching twice as many courses a term should not be expected to affect the quality of instruction. But if reasonable pay and teaching loads are good for some, why not for all?
First US Edition of Seamus
Heaney's translation

In the end, I worry that every public justification for tenure (or for research components for teaching appointments, or for low teaching loads, or for reasonable salaries) that is not simultaneously a call for the abolishment of the two-tier faculty system is bound to fail upon its own logic. The tacit acceptance of the two-tier faculty system on the part of tenured and tenure-track faculty will only prove the point of the Grendels in the academic Heorot: that some faculty are sheep and some are wolves. The real problem with Grendel, after all, is that he has moved from the borderland into the center and has started eating the warriors: the ones who fancy themselves the wolves, the privileged class. Sure, Hrothgar’s thanes had a difficult and dangerous job, but they had tenure, you know.

[In the interests of clarity and full disclosure: I have friends and colleagues at more than one of UW’s campuses, and none of my comments here are targeted at them. I wish them nothing but the best in dealing with whatever should ultimately happen there. This post may have been prompted by what’s happening in Wisconsin, but it’s not really about those particular events or people, as I hope is clear.]