Academic Bait-and-Switch: Grand Summer Goals

Brian Taylor for The Chronicle

August 24, 2011

In 1739 a French artisan named Jacques de Vaucanson built and displayed a sophisticated clockwork imitation of a duck. The life-size metal bird put on quite a performance, quacking and moving its wings. Best of all, the duck took food into its metal beak and, a little later, expelled what appeared to be the final product of digestion from a tube in its rear. The process was a fraud, of course, but de Vaucanson won acclaim because people believed he had created an automaton that defecated as well as any mallard hatched from an egg.

When academics draw up a proposal or fill out a request for money, they often pull a "Vaucanson's duck." That's my term for promising to do something grander than what the end product could actually be. Just as de Vaucanson alleged his device could actually digest food, academics competing for severely limited resources present claims that make them sound like P.T. Barnum. Such behavior should surprise no one. Take 100 well-trained and narrowly focused workaholics, tell them that each must write a proposal to outdo those of the other 99, and see what happens.

For that matter, imagine judging a stack of 100 requests for the same development grant. If 99 professors asked for a grant to write books that might be read by five people, whereas one candidate offered to build a bird that would revolutionize robotics and make your university's U.S. News & World Report ranking fly above the clouds, which would you favor? I'd certainly opt for mechanical quacks.

I'm as guilty of creative exaggeration as any other academic. To gain a fellowship as a graduate student and a grant as a new instructor, I claimed I could radically revise interpretations of a major author. In my research I uncovered interesting tidbits and offered them up to enlighten the universe, but I have yet to notice any effect upon the reputation of the author in question.

Even getting travel money from my employer, Locally Known College, sometimes involves presenting the truth rather selectively. In a request for money to attend the Modern Language Association conference in Los Angeles last December, I described a need to learn about the current state of the profession for the sake of my graduate-school-bound advisees, which was absolutely true. But I left out my equally pressing desire to spend an afternoon visiting Aston Martin, Bentley, and other exotic automobile dealerships in Beverly Hills. A responsible academic might visit those auto showrooms to gather material for a scathing condemnation of excess horsepower, or to stage a protest for a greener planet. I went to gaze wistfully at mechanical wonders I will never own.

When I was a graduate student at Elite National University, a professor urged me to tell other professors only what they want to hear, but I can hardly use that to defend my excursions into hyperbole. I should find a way to present proposals that remain realistic but still compete with the impossible dreams of others. What's more, I should stop pulling Vaucanson's ducks on myself.

Ever since I started graduate school, I've viewed the summer months as a magical period during which I will become Henry Adams, Uberprof. I'll prepare more, think more, and accomplish more than I have at any other point in my life. Let me take you back in time a few months, and I'll show you how I develop this annual delusion.

Sitting at my desk one cold day last February, I envisioned a summer in which I would get 36 hours of work out of every 24. First, I planned to update the syllabus for one of the courses I would teach in the fall, but then I thought, perhaps I should also revise the syllabi for all of the courses assigned to me for the forthcoming semester. I have different course assignments in the spring, and I foresee still others the following year. No doubt I should revise all of them.

I also vowed to use my summer to peruse material about the current state of the profession. I'm already familiar with Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's Academically Adrift and Cary Nelson's No University Is an Island, but many more tomes call out to me from my bookcase. An equally important but perhaps grander task would be to learn about the Digital Humanities movement. Whether it reshapes the discipline or proves merely to be the flavor of the decade, a professor ought to know about it.

But what was I thinking? The profession doesn't reward teaching, doesn't want innovative ideas, and doesn't appreciate examination of its many internal problems. With publication the only thing that counts toward tenure and promotion at research universities, and with the rest of higher education lusting to imitate those universities, everyone must generate words, words, words. (To be fair to my fellow scholars, I admit there's no way to know which collections of words may lead to something important. In crafting a way to get the faux feces to slide out his bird, de Vaucanson created the first rubber tube, which eventually led to inner tubes for tires. Every time I drive my old Subaru I owe thanks to de Vaucanson and his mock-up of a quacker.)

I needed a big project of my own, so I vowed to use my summer to write more, but what? All English professors should add to their scholarly output, but actually I'd rather write a second novel. I never found a publisher for the first one, however, and a quick review of the manuscript makes me wince and realize why no one would touch it. But I could learn from the shortcomings revealed in the first and try to write another. I found the idea of spending a summer writing a novel quite tempting, especially since the people who attend the conference of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs always seem more engaging and less desperate than those who grumble their way from session to session at MLA.

No, I decided not to risk it. Writing a novel is dangerous for anyone who professes English. It improves one's ability to teach but makes one question the sacred principle of publish or perish.

For a few moments I toyed with the idea of attempting a screenplay, but I decided I should stick with books. Perhaps I should try multitasking. Could I write two books at once? Would two be enough? Perhaps I ought to try two simultaneously this summer, and if I could accomplish that, next summer I could shoot for three. That would certainly earn some approval, even though I'll never get as much as de Vaucanson did. His mechanical bird gained praise from Voltaire and King Louis XV, and a century after the duck's debut, Nathanial Hawthorne mentioned it in "The Artist of the Beautiful."

Today, as the fall semester is upon me, the summer is a memory. I began the season with grand visions of doing several things at once, but that plan worked as well as any multitasking I've attempted in the past—which is to say, startlingly poorly. How can I reconcile myself to not being as productive as Stanley Fish?

Like any academic I could protest that the three months weren't actually entirely free. I taught a class, which I do every summer. I do it because I enjoy teaching, not because I want to make up for the disparity between my annual income and that of my spouse. (I couldn't accomplish that even if I taught half a dozen summer classes.) I also spent time chatting with former advisees who ignored my guidance and went to graduate school. (One enjoyed her first year, while the other had a more miserable time than I've related in previous columns.) I had to file self-evaluations of my teaching effectiveness, and, of course, I had to handle grade complaints from students who didn't hand in all the work.

My self-justification is laughable because clearly I've pulled a Vaucanson's duck on myself. So frustrated do I feel that at breakfast today I ran my reflections past my beloved spouse. I concluded by declaring, "Professors demand too much of themselves in summers. The three worst things about teaching are June, July, and August."

My spouse stared at me. She used to teach but gave that up for a year-round, 9-to-5 arrangement, or, as she calls it, a "job." After a moment she observed, "Setting superhuman goals and not achieving them during three months of unsupervised activity must be excruciating."

Although I appreciate my spouse's wisdom, I know that once again next summer I will quack, flap my wings, and see what happens.

(Editor's Note: Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14 of this series are online.)

Henry Adams is the pseudonym of a faculty member at a small liberal-arts college in the Midwest.