The CEA Forum
Summer/Fall 2009: 38.2
AN ASSISTANT ENGLISH PROFESSOR'S PERSPECTIVE ON THE PROFESSION
Confessions of a Tenured Professor: The Life of an Embedded
“Oh, really? So, you're an English Professor, then,” the 40-something exec sporting the pressed, dark blue suit says to me while looking over my shoulder for somebody else. With his necktie rich and modest and asserted by a simple pin, he pinches his cup of tea and holds it delicately but casually above the miniature porcelain plate piled with colorful appetizers piled on tiny sections of toast. “Well,” I add, “I'm actually an Associate Professor of English. Not a full professor. In fact, I just got tenure this last spring.” I finish this inane, pointless explanation and realize I'm talking to myself. Then, after a pause, the man turns his attention back to me in a way that suggests he's surprised I'm still standing there. I smile at him naively but knowingly and pledge to myself that I will never again get talked into coming to one of these fund-raising, feed-a-starving-artist, feel-less-guilty functions tied loosely to my wife's work in financial wealth management (the irony of an English professor being married to a person who works in financial wealth management is, well, ironic to the point of being redundant). “Well, then,” he continues, “I guess I'd better watch my grammar.” I smile (or maybe it's a grimace; I'm not sure). Another long pause. Another sip of tea. A little looking around the room. More waiting. We're like actors in a love scene, waiting awkwardly between takes to get on with things, I think to myself, making a mental note to write that down in the writer's notebook I've been meaning to buy and carry around with me.
The background noise seems to grow louder, and I'm almost certain I hear a mention of Michelangelo.
Then, forced by circumstances to finish this brutal conversation, he drops the overwhelming question upon my plate, “So, what's your…your area of expertise?” (This time I'm pretty sure I grimace.) My area of expertise? Pinned and wriggling, I stand there and silently work my way through the catalogue of self-effacing answers I normally give in these situations: semicolons, topic sentences, pronoun/antecedent agreement, hyphens, dashes, and meta-reflexive, playful, postmodern columns for online forums . But I don't say these things. Because, after all, I just got tenure and I'm tired of being overly modest. So, I lie instead and say that, “It's 19th Century American Literature” [I capitalize that, in part, because doing so suggests it is an AREA of expertise, a kind of specific academic entity, one that's nearly an ology—and because I'm not sure whether or not it needs to be capitalized, as capitalization is not, in truth, one of my areas of expertise]. He waits, as if I'm supposed to go on. I take the hint and continue, adding, “And also Narratology and Environmental Literature.” Predictably, he responds, “Narratology? Is that like the study of stories about old people?” He smiles revealingly, almost sardonically. A hit, a very palpable hit, I acknowledge with a chuckle. He follows this uppercut with a right cross, “And did you say ‘environmental literature'?” I nod, knowing he's got me on the ropes. “So, then, you're, like, a biologist?” “Oh, no. Not at all,” I confess before I can stop myself. “Hmm,” he says, visibly baffled, his forehead bunching up in neat rows. And then, before I can explain myself, he apparently spies across the oddly modern room THE person he had been waiting to find. He pats me on the side of the upper arm in a consoling gesture and hurries off.
Alone in a crowded room, I assess my situation and realize how oddly familiar this all feels. And I begin to sense that, more often than not, when I am off campus and out of the classroom—when I am attending conferences and other such academic affairs of the head— this is my element. Sure, this is my wife's world and these are her colleagues, and sure these strange strangers—by virtue of what they know and do on a daily basis—belong to a different world than I, but that's precisely what makes this all so recognizable. I realize, in short, that this is where I'm at my best: I know my way around a room full of people full of knowledge that I lack.
Then, it hits me: I am, I realize in a triumphant eureka-like moment, an “embedded generalist.”
Buoyed by my insight and thrilled to have coined a term that would sit smartly on a business card beneath “Associate Professor,” I begin to think about what it means to be just such a generalist. And though I want to track down my friend in the suit and state with certainty the answer I should've given, I know that—pithy, clever qualities aside—even this term, “embedded journalist,” can't convey all that is involved in this career path I'm pursuing. To do so, to explain what it means to be an a professional generalist (an oxymoron, to be sure—one heavy on the moron at times), I must share a few stories taken from my Bourne-Identity-like life in the real academic world (another oxymoron). These three, then, should suffice to convey what is involved in this particularly edgy, eventful line of work.
Seats 18A and 18B
Working my way down the narrow aisle while looking for my seat, I notice an unusual number of people sporting khaki and wool in a way that one senses but does not see new pictures or slightly different shades of paint. I stand politely next to a man sitting on the aisle seat and in this way ask him without speaking if he might stand a second so that I can sidle into my seat by the window. He stands, studies me without much subtlety, brushes flat his green button-down Ranger-Rick shirt and tan pants, holds his felt hat out of the way in one hand and his book in the other and waits. I move into my spot and set up camp, taking out my book, taking off my jacket, and pushing my computer carry-on under the seat in front of me. Then, in an uncharacteristic move for me, I sit in a way that invites conversation, laying my book— A Sand County Almanac —on my lap, thus demanding my new friend notice it. Here , it says, look at this. It's the book I am reading. Why? you ask? Because I'm going to a conference in Tallahassee, Florida. Why am I going to a conference in Tallahassee? Oh, well, thank you for asking. I'm an English Professor and my area of expertise is environmental literature. How about yourself? What do you do? Are you in the forest service?
In truth, I say nothing, and, my new friend says nothing. Instead, he glances at the book, reads the cover, acknowledges it, and then raises the bet when opening his own—James Joyce's Ulysses . He reads for a paragraph or so, if that's what you call those things in that book, and then he stops, as if struck by a thought, and looks out my window, wondering, it would seem, how far we have traveled. We have not moved yet, nor have the flight attendants done their aerobics. I speak up, “Are you reading Ulysses ?” “Pardon?” he says, having clearly heard me. Suddenly, I feel put in my place for some reason. “I was just noticing that you have Joyce's Ulysses there.” “Oh,” he says, looking at it in his lap as if somebody else had placed it there when he wasn't looking. “Yes.” Feeling good about being away from work and feeling uncharacteristically confident—away from family and colleagues who know me better than strangers on a plane—I plow ahead: “Are you headed to Tallahassee?” I ask, breaking new ground when it comes to idiotic small talk in small spaces. Clearly exasperated, this man in his early to mid-sixties looks up and down the aisle and says to me without turning in my direction, “Of course. Pretty much everyone on this plane is going to Tallahassee, given that that's what it says on the ticket.” I chuckle, adding. “Of course.” More silence. And in that silence, the little bit of sympathy I felt for the man and the corresponding sense of superiority I had thought was my province evaporates. He feels the shift and speaks up, but does so rhetorically: “Are you a teacher?” Normally I would correct him, noting that I used to be but now I am a “professor,” but I don't. I do say, though, as if admitting something, “Yes. Yes I am,” before adding with a hint of confidence, “and I'm actually heading to an environmental history conference,” my first, I don't say. “I know,” he says, cutting me off. We all are,” and with that I suddenly see what he does: the khaki and forest-green clothes color the cabin and a long row of hiking shoes with bright orange and yellow laces lines either side of the isle. Duh, as my little sister used to say.
But why, if this man knows where I am headed and what I am up to, does he give me the cold shoulder? I sit there puzzling through this situation I have suddenly found myself in while staring out the window, my modest junket tarnished before take-off. Then, it hits me: I am supposed to know him. He is, in this group and at this conference, famous. I then watch as a few straggling passengers make their way down the aisle toward the back of the plane, each nodding their hello's to this man in the way I imagine bishops and cardinals offering air kisses in the direction of the Pope and his ring.
The Story of Stories—Staring James Phelan, Peter Rabinowitz, and Yours Truly
I pack up my coolest jeans and head to Austin, Texas, for the 2008 International Conference on the Novel, where I soon discover in the lobby of the Hyatt Regency that my jeans are not nearly as cool as I had thought. As is the case with my handle on all things narratological, my jeans are about ten years behind the times. Apparently, people stopped wearing Levi 501's about the same time that these people in the faded and blemished pants stopped “getting into a good book” and started studying “the intersection of textual surfaces.” Undaunted, I find my badge there on the table in front of the happy and attractive graduate students from UT-Austin, hang it around my neck as proof I paid the appropriate people sufficient monies to gain entrance to this exclusive event, and then stand looking conspicuous, hoping to meet somebody willing to stand between me and the space which keeps suggesting I am alone. I don't look conspicuous enough, apparently, and I start thinking that as soon as I get around to it I'm going to write a book titled Outliers and see if I can't make a little side money.
Two awkward days later, after jogging nearly 35 miles because I had the time and energy, and after eating chips and salsa alone at seven different restaurants in the Austin area, I find the convention room where I am, according to the official program, slated to serve as the Chair of a Panel titled simply “Narratology.” When signing up, I figured this would be the best panel for a person such as myself, a person looking for a paid excuse to pay a visit to Austin, a place where his sister-in-law lived right up until two weeks after he bought his plane ticket and three weeks before the conference, a place where it's warm in May (when it's not yet in Minnesota). I also thought that this panel would be the perfect one for a narrative tyro looking to get up to speed on narrative theory. I was wrong.
On the way into the room, I spy a book by “Richard Walsh” prominently displayed on the book table, and I think to myself that the name sounds strangely familiar. I place my seventeenth glass of ice water for the day on the far end of the table near the podium and turn to meet Richard Walsh, who, as it turns out, is presenting a paper as part of my panel. Wearing the coolest jeans I've seen yet and sporting scruff that suggests he has not shaven since he occupied a more British textual surface, he is clearly out of my league in every way, shape, and form.
Also presenting are Rolf Reitan of the University of Aarhus and Professor X of Aalborg University, a gentleman with a powerfully thick accent who makes me incredibly nervous (so much so that I still cannot bring myself to put his name in this account of my uneventful life as I worry he will track me down and stab me in the neck with his beautiful silver pen). To be sure, this guy doesn't like me. I can tell right away. “I'm not going to answer any questions after I read,” he says while sitting down in his chair and pulling me in close to him by my jacket lapel. “OK,” I say, smiling like an idiot.
Then, after introducing Walsh, who delivers an apparently brilliant paper that makes these academics clap uncharacteristically and makes me feel my brain in the way that I once felt my insides while suffering from hypothermia in a mountain lake in Montana, Prof. X commences: “I am not going to deliver the paper listed on the program,” he announces, looking up from his notes at what I just realized is a packed room with people standing along the back and in the doorway. “I am going to read a letter I wrote on the airplane. It is directed at Phalen there and Rabinowitz, both of whom ruined fiction and my love of literature back in the early 1980s.” We wait for the punch-line, but it doesn't come. He's not joking. He's serious. I look in the direction in which he is staring and see a tall, imposing man who I realize is THE James Phelan sitting next to THE Peter Rabinowitz. Making good on his threat, the scholar from Aalborg delivers his address, his voice quavering at times, and then concludes it without comment. Silence falls on the room. Then, people start staring at me. “Perhaps, in lieu of questions,” I venture, feeling good about having come up with that phrase on the spot, “we might discuss briefly the points Professor X has presented.” That was dumb. A discussion devolves into a debate, and it's “pandelerium,” to quote Jeff Foxworthy. For the next fifteen minutes (the longest of my life), I'm fielding questions I cannot in the least understand and redirecting thinly veiled insults like one swatting drunkenly at a well organized and particularly tenacious swarm of bees. Forty-five minutes later, after the third presenter has added oil to the turbulent waters with his paper and thus placated the crowd, Walsh turns to me and says, “Good job, Paul,” before weaving his way through the empty chairs to join Phalen and Rabinowitz.
Another Celebrity Sighting
A little over a year ago, between the trip to Austin and the one to Tallahassee, I was invited by the benevolent people at the Aldo Leopold Foundation to participate in a brainstorming session involving teachers, conservationists, and scholars, one designed to foster discussion and delineate the future of the Leopold legacy. This was exciting stuff for me in large part because I was asked to come, which distinguished this academic endeavor from others by virtue of the fact that I didn't have to trick others on a committee into letting me pay to participate. But, of course, I couldn't help but wonder, Why me? Sure, I had taught a couple of classes based on Leopold's A Sand County Almanac, and, sure, I had spent several years in the Leopold Papers working on an annotated edition of his most famous book, but still. Come on. Let's be real here. So, unsure of why I was invited, I went nonetheless because it was an honor and because the Foundation agreed to pay my mileage and my hotel. (And hedging a little, perhaps, I brought along my running shoes just in case the experts discovered I had little, if anything, to contribute to the conservation conversation—I am not, after all, a biologist or an historian.) And here's what happened—
I sit down in a beautiful new boardroom—the kind that ecologists would create, built with trees planted by Leopold himself and harvested by his family and his intellectual descendants—and begin perusing the program. I'm looking through the list of teachers for my name, and I soon have what is often described as “that sinking feeling” when I cannot find my name on the list. (I always thought that was a pretty weak turn of phrase until I felt that feeling; now I know that it is right on the mark.) Meanwhile, about eight others have entered the room, all of whom apparently know each other and shop at the same stores. I stand, introduce myself to those preparing to sit near me and take my seat once more. Then, in walks a tall, slender, bearded man who blends perfectly into the scene. He's at home here. “I'm Bill,” he says, shaking my hand. “Hi,” I offer. “I'm Colin.” “Where you from?” he asks. “Minneapolis. Augsburg College, actually, though I live in Northfield. How about yourself?” “Madison. Environmental History,” he says, and, having effectively dispensed with these formalities, we soon get down to business.
I spend the next two days working closely with this nice man from Madison, a man who, as it turns out, really knows his way around A Sand County Almanac and all things related to Leopold and environmental history.
Then, a week or so later, I'm visiting my uncle-in-law, a fairly renowned environmental historian in Minnesota. Aware of my recent sojourn to Wisconsin, he inquires, “How was the trip down to the Leopold Center?” “Great,” I report without hesitating, “I met the nicest people.” “Really? Who was there?” “Oh, mostly just Leopold people. I worked quite a lot with this guy ‘Bill' from Madison. Nice guy who knows his stuff,” I state, noting my uncle-in-law's odd expression. With one eyebrow raised, he says, “Do you mean ‘Bill Cronon'?” “Hmm. I'm not sure. That sounds right,” I reply, adding, “He's tall, slender, has a beard….” “Yeah,” interrupts my uncle-in-law. That's him. That's Bill Cronon.” “OK,” I concede, baffled and clueless yet again. “He's big time. You know that, right?” “Really?” I blurt before I can stop myself,“That's odd. He was such a nice guy.”
Gratuitous Hook-and-Return Conclusion
Nine months after my visit to Wisconsin and just a week or so after finding out I had been tenured, I loosened up with a couple beverages in the bar a few feet from the bustling lobby where the ASEH conference was warming up on a Saturday evening in Tallahassee, not too far from the ocean and the singing mermaids. Enjoying the late-night company of a gaggle of graduate students who know the lay of the land (in every sense of the phrase) much better than I ever did or likely ever will, I own up about my blunders involving my friend Bill.
Given how hard they worked to keep from spraying their drinks with laughter, I'm confident that I provided comic relief for their pressure-packed conference of presentations and networking, one likely capped off by my question, “And who is that guy over there, the older one in the felt hat and green shirt? Should I know him?”
Colin Irvine is not an expert on any topic related to composition, literature, pedagogy, or tenure. He is, however, an associate professor of English at Augsburg College, where he specializes in American literature, ecocriticism, and English/education methods. He says, "I am interested in talking in and through a column to other professors about various issues related to teaching freshman and sophomore-level courses. I'm also interested in exploring issues related to what it means to be a non-tenured assistant professor of English. My hope is that I could touch on serious, significant topics pertinent to these subjects in a sincere, insightful, and, perhaps, original manner." Stay tuned for "Making Lemonade," version 2.0, as Irvine shifts focus post-tenure.
Return to Table of Contents