On Gratitude in Academe

Brian Taylor

November 23, 2010

Academics are trained to have a negative outlook: We find fault with one another's work, with our institutions, with our society, and, most of all, with ourselves.

Those tendencies confer some strength. The struggle of constantly testing ideas may lead to the most reliable conclusions. Our inherent skepticism can make professors into the conscience of our society. And our professional drive toward higher standing can lead us to accomplish more than we might if we cherished contentment over advancement.

But there is a price for all those advantages: Academe has a culture of ingratitude.

After all, gratitude suggests satisfaction, and we are not supposed to be satisfied. If we are grateful, then it means we are accepting the status quo, which is, almost by definition, always intolerable. In some quarters that I know quite well (and partly support), Thanksgiving is seen as almost a stern command to be grateful with one's meager portion and not to question, for example, the increasing extremes of wealth and opportunity. In that context, gratitude is for suckers.

There is merit to that position. But I want—in the spirit of the season—to reflect on some of the things that make an academic career worthwhile:

Students: They are the reason we exist as a profession. Since we're not immortal, we have to transfer what we know to the next generation. They can be exasperating—lazy, entitled, rude—but they are also, by a wide margin, the most rewarding part of being a professor. I often wonder about the impact of my scholarship or the purpose behind endless committee meetings, but I have never doubted the value of teaching something—even something seemingly small, like the art of punctuation—to a student who sincerely wants to learn and who might benefit from what I have to teach.

Scholarship: It's easy to say that some scholarly work is wasteful, but it is hard to know what may be useful in the future. And the building of scholarly credentials—the maintenance of an engaged academic mind—is essential to good teaching. Scholarly work is never a solitary enterprise, even when one works alone; research requires that we engage in a conversation with other scholars and build on what they have done.

Conferences: Apart from impersonal journal articles, conferences are the primary means by which I connect with other academics. I particularly like small conferences, where most participants have something in common, and where the possibility of helpful suggestions and future collaboration is greater. The larger conventions, like the Modern Language Association, can be alienating. (Who doesn't have sour memories of the academic job searches held at such meetings?) But they can also be places to see the epic struggles of our profession, to present our projects to potential editors, and to reconnect with far-flung colleagues.

Colleagues: Because there is so little mobility in academe, feuds between faculty members can incubate and fester for decades. But such tensions are nearly always minor in comparison to the intellectual, social, and even spiritual support we receive from the people with whom we work. The web of relations between mentors, peers, and junior colleagues is an essential—and deeply rewarding—part of the maintenance, growth, and transfer of knowledge to the next generation.

Libraries and librarians: Our colleagues who are information professionals provide us with the scholarly resources we need for our research and teaching, and they do so with minimal recognition and considerable pressure to adapt to rapidly changing technologies. While the Internet has been a boon to scholarly research, the physical library is—more than stadiums, more than student centers—the heart of the academic enterprise: It's a place for solitary reflection as well as serendipitous encounters in the context of intellectual seriousness. Nothing can replace libraries as places, even if they are no longer primarily based on the circulation of printed materials.

Administrators: They are easily vilified, and sometimes they deserve it (like all of us). We may disagree with their choices, but administrators typically have the larger picture in mind. That is not to say they are always right (particularly some who treat higher education as a for-profit business or an ideological tool). But as a group, administrators work harder than most of us to maintain our institutions in the face of increasing uncertainty, economic stress, constant criticism, and, sometimes, outright hostility.

Philanthropy: While higher education is an indisputable public good—and there is always the danger of undue influence from wealthy donors—many of our institutions have been built and sustained by private support. Since I was an undergraduate, I've benefited from scholarships, fellowships, travel grants, and, most recently, the support of a major foundation to create a program that combines what I most valued in my own education with more recent technological innovations. But behind all of that have been the institutions themselves, which were created by private support long before I arrived.

Shared governance: The opportunity to have a respected voice in the policies of one's institution is what makes academe fundamentally different from a business or a bureaucracy. Unfortunately, the preservation of shared governance requires vigilance—and even fierceness—on the part of faculty members. That ferocity is hard to maintain in a time when most of us feel lucky to be working at all.

Flexibility: Academe is notoriously inflexible when it comes to finding jobs; many of us have to move to places far from anywhere we would regard as home. The problem is compounded if we have partners who need an academic position, too. Once we're securely employed, however, most academics have some autonomy in the hours they work: when classes are scheduled, when we hold office hours, and when we conduct our research. You could say that we have the freedom to work any 70 hours a week that we would like, but having some flexibility makes a large difference for households juggling two careers and possibly some children, as well as all the other responsibilities of life.

An office: I spent a good number of years migrating between spaces that were never really mine, where I could never put down roots in the form of books, a computer, and maybe a few geeky knickknacks, so having a place at the college is particularly important to me. It pays psychological and professional dividends as a secure, comfortable "laboratory" for my scholarly work, a place of retreat and recharging between teaching and meetings, and a place where my students can find me, and I can advise them with lots of resources on hand.

Luck: Anyone who is a tenured professor has had to make many sacrifices to obtain that position. But nowadays, the qualitative difference between those who hold privileged posts and those who are working part time in contingent positions is smaller, as they say in contested elections, than the margin of error. There are many people who deserve tenure-track jobs and will never get them. Somehow I won the lottery, and I am grateful that I get to be grateful for all the other things that go along with that good fortune.

But I do not want this column to be a lure for would-be academics. During the last few years, I've had an overwhelming feeling that we are entering a period of dramatic, rapid change in higher education. There are many good things about the academic life, as I've understood it, that are probably not going to last, even to the end of this decade. As we are constantly reminded, traditional academic careers—and all the privileges connected with them—are, as many administrators say, "no longer sustainable in this economic climate."

Whatever happens, I am grateful for what I have now. And perhaps the best way to show that is to deserve my good fortune and to try to extend it to others.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture.