Envious? Who, Me?

Envy has always been an aspect of academic life

Gabriel S. Delgado C./ Creative Commons

May 26, 2015

Last month I received my annual statement of sales for my first book, which was published in 2001. For a moment, I felt very excited. I had learned earlier in the year that the book had finally gone into paperback, and I’d hoped that might bring it renewed attention. I opened the envelope and learned that in 2014 the book sold precisely one copy, entitling me to $4 in royalties.

Understandably, the press doesn’t write checks for royalty totals under $25. Too bad: I could have bought a very nice cappuccino with my earnings.

In 1988, when I began my graduate studies as a Civil War historian, Princeton University’s James McPherson earned a Pulitzer Prize for his narrative of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom. The book sold 700,000 copies. The royalties must have made him a millionaire, providing an enormous economic supplement to the salary for his endowed chair. The book is worthy of the acclaim that it received. In fact, it has contributed greatly to my own scholarship and teaching.

At the beginning of my career, I hoped to become the next James McPherson. That ambitious dream was essentially healthy, no worse than my teenage hope of becoming the next John McEnroe. A desire to emulate the best can help provide the drive that you need to achieve even a modest degree of success in academe today.

At the same time, comparing yourself with academic stars can be unfair or even destructive. Most professors were "A" students, but we are graded on a very tough curve once we join the faculty. Mysterious processes — secretive search committees, blind peer review, and enigmatic tenure practices — shape our professional lives. Those opaque practices produce radical inequalities in status, income, and working conditions in our profession.

The gap between a professor holding an endowed chair and an adjunct instructor should remind us that we live in a new Gilded Age. Predictably, this harsh environment has a corrosive effect on collegiality and even self-esteem. The increasingly competitive nature of faculty life makes academics, including me, even more vulnerable than usual to one of the seven deadly sins: envy.

Envy is nothing new. People have been coveting their neighbor’s wives (and oxen) for thousands of years. After completing my dissertation, I began teaching at the University of Northern Iowa. I quickly learned that there is more than one way for an academic to write a best seller and gain popular acclaim. Robert Waller, a professor at my new university and former dean of the business school there, had just published a novel, The Bridges of Madison County.

His sentimental romance, with its pastoral Iowa setting, had skyrocketed up the best-seller lists. It included an idealized portrait of our rural state, without a hog-confinement operation to be seen or smelled. Instead, rustic covered bridges abounded. A movie deal followed, and the film starred Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep. Waller’s book was extolling the beauty of our state, but he himself had already left his day job and soon moved to a ranch in Texas. He was rich, and I was envious.

The competition never ends, even for those holding the brass ring of tenure. Jostling for status continues to be endemic even in regard to minor differences in standing.

Here is an example: At my regional comprehensive university, our union contract ensures that salaries are determined almost entirely by longevity. Yet some of our professors invest great significance to minor differences in salary, or the minimal distinction between being an associate or full professor. I was personally gratified when I became a full professor. The first thing I did was to change the signature on my email. That act gave me a little boost of energy similar to eating a bar of chocolate — I felt great satisfaction that lasted about 10 minutes.

As I have entered middle age, I have moved beyond the petty jealousy I felt as a young scholar. I stopped comparing myself to those few professors who succeeded in penning a best seller. I learned to enjoy academic comedies, especially those that lambaste the foolishness of privileged people jealously eyeing each other’s perks. David Lodge’s classic, Small World, for example, focuses on academic stars making their way around the conference circuit and coveting a new chair that comes with a huge salary and absolutely no duties. A clever new novel by Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members, portrays a burned-out English professor who focuses his envy on his school’s economics department, with its high salaries and newly renovated offices. In both books, professors are driven by ego — rather than by a love of teaching or research — and seem emotionally impoverished.

Gaining the maturity to discard envy has been essential to building a satisfying career. Success, after all, cannot be measured by book sales. It begins with intellectual curiosity, and thrives on good relationships with colleagues, friends, and students.

So here’s my advice: Accept who you are, and whatever you do, avoid feeling envious of others, including those who attain extraordinary success. University budgets have come under attack in the last 15 years, and many institutions survive on the labor of exploited contingent teachers. Resistance to those trends begins with solidarity across ranks and status, rather than with the petty quest for privilege lampooned by authors such as Lodge.

A couple of years ago, I poked around a tiny airport bookstore while waiting for a connecting flight and saw a novel called A Discovery of Witches. The author was a history professor at the University of Southern California. Her novel was part of a trilogy that has received high praise from Entertainment Weekly and was picked by Amazon as a book of the month.

Thumbing through its pages, I found that the book, which opened with a handsome vampire in a dusty archive, was not my typical reading. But the author’s picture looked vaguely familiar.

Then I remembered her: Deborah Harkness, now a novelist as well as a historian, had entered the history Ph.D. program at Northwestern University the same year as me, and shortly thereafter followed her adviser to the West Coast. I did not know her well, but I remembered her as uncommonly bright. Naturally, I was pleased to see that she has had a successful academic career as a historian of science.

Did I envy her for writing a highly popular and undoubtedly lucrative series?

Let me put it this way: I am supposed to be mature now. So even if I did feel envious, I would not admit it in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Wallace Hettle is a professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa.