Passion, Identity, and the Faculty in the Humanities: Reflections on Anna Neumann

A half a life time ago now, I was living in Amsterdam working on a short term mission in the red light district.  Sunday evenings it was fairly typical for those of us on the staff at The Shelter to attend a gathering at a community run by Youth With a Mission.  The director, Bill Hallam, a converted hippie who had formerly trekked the drug trail between Amsterdam and India, was talking about how to find your direction and purpose in life, something a lot of people drifting through Amsterdam were in need of, myself included.  He asked us what one thing really got us excited, really made us jump out of our skins, so to speak.  After a little hesitation and with some embarrassment, I raised my hand and said that more than anything, I loved discovering new ideas, learning new things, having sudden aha! moments where my thinking and reading came together in to some new insight.  I recounted how, as an undergraduate, I would read in the library and suddenly be seized with excitement at some new illumination, some new connection that I hadn’t thought of before.  I would be so excited, I would be shaking and have to get up and walk around the library, shaking my fists in the air and whispering “Yes! Yes! Yes!” under my breath.

Most people in the meeting laughed.  To his everlasting credit, Bill Hallam did not.  He said, “Well, maybe that is a clue that you are called to read, and to learn, and to think.  And the church should find a way to support you in that.”  I took him up on it.

I thought about this lesson again reading Anna Neumann’s essay in Change, “Protecting the Passion of Scholars in Times of Change.  I’ve been doing some reading about motivation and change as I work on revising an essay originally presented at a conference in Richmond on Humanities and the Professions, as well as trying to do some preparation for a panel at the Lilly Fellows administrators conference.  Broadly speaking, Neumann makes the case that passion for their subject matter is a driving force in faculty motivation and in faculty pursuit of excellence.

“The scholars I interviewed, all one to five years post-tenure, chose the academic career out of a deep desire to understand the subjects of study that beckoned to them through the rigors of graduate training, the challenges and insecurities of the pre-tenure years, the “big test” of the tenure review, and often post-tenure workloads and campus cultures that did not support the scholarly learning that meant a great deal to them intellectually and personally.”

She cites some faculty having the kinds of physical reactions I had and still have to the joy of engaging their work, and how this can be a near-mystical, or at least deeply creative experience.

“I’m not so sure how common this is, but when things are going well, what happens is first of all, it affects me physically, not just intellectually. My body kicks into a higher gear. I shake, and I can’t stop moving. I barely sleep as it is, and I sleep even less.

“Although it might sound like it’s distracting, it’s not. It’s wonderful, it really is. My students say that I’m talking to the muses. I start channeling things. I start spewing forth conjectures or mathematical ideas without really knowing where they’re coming from. Obviously your subconscious is doing the information-processing when you’re in this agitated state, giving you the results of it while hiding the reasoning. And so then you have to go back and reconstruct where it came from and then try to use it. It’s like you’re not creating it—it’s being revealed to you.”

For Neumann, this kind of engagement is deeply threatened by changes in higher education, though she doesn’t precisely go in to why she believes that is the case.  According to Neumann, this passion for discipline is the singular and defining characteristic of higher education and has to be protected, as she puts it “at all costs.”

This is a hard thing to disagree with, and its not that I do.  I think Neumann is intuitively right that impediments to change among faculty are much more complicated and emotionally nuanced than we administrators usually give them credit for.  Faculty resistance to change in higher education is less about recalcitrance or smugness, and more about emotional investment and identity, about honoring a way of being in the world rather than a means of clinging stubbornly to certain ways of doing.  Every faculty member I know of is in some sense a convert, one who chose to become something rather than someone who delivers certain outcomes, a distinction between being and doing that it crucial to remember.

However, it does seem to me that Neumann has a fairly abstract notion of passion in general and scholarly passion in particular, one that exists in a kind of static and romanticized limbo.  On her reading, scholarly passion is somewhat Titanic-like, with the scholar and his/her subject matter stationed at the prow of the ship sailing rapturously into the future, in this case unprotected.  The tragedy in such a view of passion is that it comes to an end, or that it changes.  If Leonardo Dicaprio and Kate Winslett had not hit the literal iceberg they would have had hit others more metaphorical, and their passions would have changed, adjusted to changing circumstances, matured, etcetera.  If it had not so adapted and changed, it would have died.

Passions like everything else have histories and contexts, and are enabled by certain kinds of material grounds.  We like to say love conquers all, but its well know that financial stress and economic hardship are among the leading causes of stress and hardship in relationships.  And our original passions are made possible by circumstances of chance or class or gender, a mixture of social convention, resistance to convention, and the drive for self-making that consumes late adolescents and young adults launching into a vocation.  We should not be surprised if the ardent passions we had as adolescents and young adults are reshaped and changed and have to find new ways to be or must express themselves in new ways in times of change as well.

So I don’t much like the language of “protection” that Neumann employs, at least not to the degree that it seems to imply “preserve”;  a little too much of the whiff of the museum or mausoleum.  If that is the goal, I don’t know if it is reachable, because higher ed has changed dramatically already, and is likely to change even more by almost every report that we can envision that responsibly tries to envision the future.

However, it does seem to me that  we need to recognize that faculty engagement with a subject matter in a discipline, is a very different matter than selling a car.  It is, as Neumann suggest, much more like the personal investment in a work of art.  Faculty identities as human beings are deeply connected to their fields and their historical ways of understanding them;  their passion is not like a passion for chocolate cake or for Ferraris.  Their passions for a subject matter are an expression of the self, a way of being in the world, that is, in fact, like a religious faith, something that has come at great cost, and has been rewarded with a certain kind of being.

It seems to me that as we begin to address the wrenching changes that are upon us in higher education, it is important to keep this fact in mind, and work together with faculty on issues of identity at least as much as we work with them on issues or policy or program.  Especially, administrators need to be engaged with faculty in the process of narrativizing relationships between what higher education has been and what it is or may be becoming.

Change does not mean loss exclusively.  It means transformation, which is the continuation of our disciplinary selves in to new and sometimes strange circumstances.  Often, in the midst of change, the story of higher education is told as if we were last years model, a clunker that has to be cast aside for newer and more adaptive.  This is a fundamentally offensive approach to the good and important human work that colleges and universities and their professors have done for centuries in many different forms since the founding of the first universities.  A story about the humanities–my own area as an administrator–has to engage with and value the ideals of humanistic study as it has been received, and articulate a relationship between those ideals and our changed circumstances, whether those circumstances are focused on closer engagement with career preparation, doing humanistic study in a digital framework, unbundling the degree, pursuing competency based education, or recasting the relationship between the humanities and the sciences.

This story need not be defensive, tragic, or apocalyptic as it is so often cast by both the defenders and the dismissers of the humanities.  It need not be the closing of a book or the dissolution of our scholarly passions.  It can be the next chapter of a book. The meaning and purpose of where we are going next is made clearer by our engagement with where we have been.