Wednesday, October 03, 2007

A dirty word?

(I wrote this about a month ago, but I have been preoccupied with a family emergency and my own health issues. I thought it was interesting, so I am posting it anyway.)

You may think from the title that I am going to pontificate again on cursing. But no, that ship has sailed...and I still love to curse. As Mo'Nique said, those curse words "just taste good in my mouth."

No, I want to talk about the word "ambitious."

I spoke to a very wonderful friend from one of my former schools, and we discussed our plans for the future. She asked me whether I wanted to become a Dean someday, and I told her that I did. I also discussed how I have been laying the groundwork to get to that position. She replied, "That is what I love about you, Lesboprof. You are so ambitious!"

That got me to reflecting on a lot of the posts I have been reading recently. Dean Dad, BitchPhD, New Kid, and especially Oso Raro have made me feel like both a commiserator and a collaborator. (These are some of my favorite academic bloggers, so the internal conflict in my own response has been pretty bothersome for me.)
Their posts and the related discussions have centered on several related topics: not doing what your grad school instructors expected you to do with your degree, being underemployed or alternately employed as an academic, going against the expectations of others, whether those who do succeed deserve it (and can sustain it!), and whether the achievement of tenure is just a bunch of bullshit that is all political anyway.

Here is my dilemma: I am...
  • an oppositional (read: out lesbian feminist) scholar who does work that is not mainstream, but that makes a difference in the world and interests me personally (so I get some props from my fella and sista bloggers)

  • a scholar who has "succeeded" as per the rather traditional and rigid standards of my R1 grad schools' faculty by (1) getting the first R1 job; (2) getting a second and third R1 job, each one higher up the rankings ladder; (3) publishing in the "right places"; (4) getting tenure at the current R1 and moving into administration here.

Okay, well, I have not gotten big NIH/NSF/CDC/other-federal-acronym multimillion dollar grant, but otherwise I have done what needs doing, as they described it in my doc program.

I achieved this "success"--if tenure at an R1 is the success story, as I was told in my grad program--in my own inimitable fashion, as I described in another post on tenure that got published in Inside Higher Ed. But it was planful, purposive, and strategic. I made my choices, some of them against advice of mentors, but I knew it was a game I would play to win. But even when I look back at my IHE post on my tenure reflections, I wonder why it was so much less offensive to readers than the Chronicle "tenure prep as exercise" first person piece by George Farmer that New Kid just skewers. (Though several folks did make comments about how "depressing" my piece was, for some of the same reasons, I think, that New Kid and others hated Farmer's piece.)

Farmer and I have in common is that we both think we know something about how to get tenure, though I am clearer that I think there are many ways to do it that can reflect your personal style and choices. More to the point, really, is that both of us have chosen to play the game, thus the depressing bit, and we are clear about our intention to win--which for me is to have the resources, supports, and teaching load of an R1, specifically in a big public state school that serves all kinds of residents. Does that immediately make us sellouts?

Is ambition a dirty word?

(God, even as I type this, I realize that I sound like Carrie on "Sex and the City." Time to cut to commercial break, while I sit back from my keyboard and draw on my lit cigarette!)

(Coughs noisily, as I don't smoke!)

Seriously, though, it makes me sad to think about someone googling me and being snarky about what I have or have not done right, whether I have truly earned my place or not, and whether I still get to think about myself as oppositional, occasionally embattled, and--dare I say, in theory-speak--counter-hegemonic?! Maybe all I can claim to be is just a guerilla in the bureaucracy (see Needleman and Needleman 1974 book of the same name for the reference)?

It is strange to talk to other academics who don't have a big post-tenure plan. I do, and I always have. I like administration, and I am attracted by the opportunities and challenges that would await me in future positions higher up the administrative ladder. And I can't lie: the lure of being called Dean/Provost/President Lesboprof is part of the attraction (right, Dean Dad?)...

I guess I can only hope to keep my own values front and center, and try not to get caught up in the hype about assessing one's worth by looking at the types of colleges at which one teaches, the roles or positions one takes there, the kinds of research one does, where one publishes, the grants one receives, or the granting or denial of tenure (beyond its ability to provide job security and freedom of speech/research). I truly do believe that our academic system needs all of us, as we are, and that our diversity helps us serve students with diverse needs by doing the research, teaching, service, and administrative tasks we each select, and living the lives we want, as we are led and able. And I have to admit, I guess, that I am led to be ambitious.


ajnabieh said...

i am feeling this right now, as i design my personal plan to be abd in one year and to finish my dissertation two years after that. i want to get into my research, focus on it, get every last bit of interesting stuff out of it, write like a demon, and get a freakin' job. no eternal abd, no wandering around trying to finish. dive in, write, do something else.

occasionally i feel like the only person in my department who cares about moving forward in a timely manner. i went out with a bunch of fellow students tonight, and found out i was the only person seriously bugged by the fact that no one in the department is capable of giving students a clear understanding of how the courses are sequenced, how to take them, when to choose an advisor, etc, etc. we are a nice, hard-core-left-wing-theory place where someone said to me today, in all seriousness, "the level of semiotic violence done to the nature of analysis and narrative was astounding." apparently i'm the only one capable of conceptualizing "i don't want to be a student forever; i want to be a rock star professor at a school with a low teaching load and money to buy me plane tickets to interesting places and insurance for my wife."

i think there is a baggage to being ambitious among certain academic circles--it makes us look like we aren't actually in it for the work. of course we are. if we just wanted to be Important, we'd pick a line of work with fewer downsides.

Dean Dad said...

Thanks for the shout-out, LP.

One of the hazards of 'empowerment' is that you might find yourself having to handle power. In other words, I don't see any contradiction at all -- none -- in having egalitarian/humanistic values and trying to get into a position from which you can get institutions to act on those values.

If you're motivated just by the title (folks around here call me by a shortened version of my first name), that's one thing. But if you're trying to bend the institution to be fairer to some folks to whom, honestly, it just hasn't been, then go for it.

Put differently, if humane and ethical sorts don't run institutions, inhumane and unethical sorts will. I try -- not always successfully, I'll admit -- to make my college better for my presence. I'd bet cold, hard cash that the reign of President Lesboprof would result in a more inclusive, more thoughtful university. You go, girl!

undine said...

To answer your question about why your post at IHE met with a much more positive response than that of Treadmill Man: yours was good. It was positive and practical, and it gave readers good ideas about moving forward, much as this current post does.

Lesboprof said...

Emily: I support you, girl. Though I have to admit that I was the last one to finish my damn diss. Ah, well.

Dean Dad: What a very sweet response! I hope to follow in your very thoughtful and well-intentioned footsteps!

Undine: Thanks... and that made me laugh out loud!