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.

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Libraries of the self: Or, are print books more ephemeral than e-books, and is it a bad thing if they are?

There’s a remarkable consistency in the way that readers write about their libraries.  Tropes of friendship, solace, and refuge abound, as well as metaphors of journey and travel that tell the tale of intellectual sojourn that books can occasion and recall for their readers.  Though I cannot recall the details of their first readings, I still treasure my Princeton paperback editions of the work of Soren Kierkegaard, the now ratty Vintage-Random House versions of Faulkner with their stark

Man made of books

white on black covers and yellowing pages,  my tattered and now broken copies of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and Other Poems, and his Selected Essays, held together by a rubber band, the band itself now so old it threatens to crumble into dust.  I keep these books now, not so much because of the information they contain.  Even the notes I’ve written in them aren’t all that entertaining and hold only a little nostalgic value:  I was a much more earnest reader as a younger person, but also duller, less informed, and more predictable, at least to my 51 year old eyes.  Still, these books are the talismans of a journey, and I keep them as stones set up to my memory of that journey, of the intellectual and imaginative places I’ve come to inhabit and the doorways I passed through to get here.  In that sense, a library represents both time passages and the attendant loss as much or more than they represent the knowledge and the information that has been gained.

Ariel Dorfman has a very nice meditation on the relationship between his library and his intellectual, political, and material journey in the September 23rd edition of the Chronicle Review.  In it Dorfman tells the story of his lost library, a library that he had to leave behind in Chile at the beginning of his exile.  The library was partially destroyed in a flood during his absence, and then partially recovered again when he returned to Chile in 1990.  As with many memoirs of reading, Dorfman understands the library as a symbol of the self.

Those books, full of scribbled notes in the margins, had been my one luxury in Chile, companions of my intellectual voyages, my best friends in the world. During democratic times, before the military takeover, I had poured any disposable income into that library, augmenting it with hundreds of volumes my doting parents acquired for me. It was a collection that overflowed in every impossible direction, piling up even in the bathroom and the kitchen.

It was a daily comfort, in the midst of our dispossession in exile, to imagine that cosmic biblioteca back home, gathering nothing more lethal than dust. That was my true self, my better self, that was the life of reading and writing I aspired to, the space where I had been at my most creative, penning a prize-winning novel, many short stories, innumerable articles and poems and analyses, in spite of my own doubts as to whether literature had any place at all in a revolution where reality itself was more challenging than my wildest imaginings. To pack the books away once we fled from the country would have been to acknowledge our wandering as everlasting. Even buying a book was proof that we intended to stay away long enough to begin a new library.

But, of course, Dorfman did begin a new library in his many years of exile, and his Chilean library was altered not only by the natural disaster of the flood, but also by the human transience whereby Dorfman himself changed and so changed his relationship with his books.  The changing shape of Dorfman’s library becomes an image of historical and personal change that must finally be embraced since it is unavoidable.

Six months later I had left Chile again, this time of my own free will, this time for good. I have puzzled often how I could have spent 17 years trying to go back and then, when I did indeed return, I forced myself to leave. It is still not clear to me if it was the country itself that had changed too much or if I was the one who had been so drastically altered by my exile that I no longer fit in, but whatever the cause, it left me forever divided, aware that my search for purity, simplicity, one country and one language and one set of allegiances was no longer possible.

It also left me with two libraries: the one I had rescued back home and the one that I have built outside Chile over the years and that is already so large that not one more new book fits in the shelves. I have had to start giving hundreds of books away and boxing many others in order to donate them to Duke University, where I teach. But no matter how many I get rid of, it does not look likely that there will ever be space to bring my whole Chilean library over.

And yet, I had already lost it once when I left my country and then regained half when that phone call came in 1982, and rescued what was left yet again in 1990 and can dream therefore that perhaps, one day, I will unite some books from Santiago with the thousands of books bought during my long exile. I can only hope and dream that before I die, a day will come when I will look up from the desk where I write these words, and my whole library, from here and there, from outside and inside Chile, will greet me, I can only hope and dream and pray that I will not remain divided forever.

It’s possible, of course, to lament our losses, and I suppose in some sense the vision of a library of the self is a utopian dream of resurrection wherein all our books, all the intellectual and imaginative doorways that we’ve passed through, will be gathered together in a room without loss.  But I also sense in Dorfman’s essay a sense that loss and fragility is one part of the meaningfulness of his books and his library.  I know that in some sense I love my books because they are old and fragile, or they will become that way.  They are treasured not only for the information they contain, but for the remembered self to which they testify.

I started this post thinking I would focus on the ways we sometimes talk about the ephemera of electronic digital texts.  There is something to that, and we’ve discussed that some over at my other group blog on the Digital Humanities.  At the same time, there is another sense in which e-texts are not ephemeral enough.  They do not grow old, they are always the same, they cannot show me the self I’ve become because that implies a history that e-texts do not embody.  While looking at my aging and increasingly dusty library, I feel them as a mirror to the person I’ve become.  Looking at my e-books stored on my iPad I see…..texts.  Do they mirror me?  Perhaps in a way, but they do not embody my memories.

If I give a book away to  a student, I always miss it with a certain imaginative ache, knowing that what was once mine is now gone and won’t be retrieved.  Somehow I’ve given that student something of my self, and so I don’t give away books lightly or easily.  If I give a student a gift card for iTunes….well, perhaps this requires no explanation.  And if I delete a book from my iBooks library I can retrieve it any time I want, until the eschaton, one imagines, or at least as long as my iTunes account exists.