The Personal is Political, or At Least, Relevant

Today marks the second post in our new “professional development and reflections on the discipline” series, curated by the WPSA Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession. In this post, Professor Hirsch reminds us that there is strength in sharing our experiences with each other,  and grapples with our one-size-fits-all system for measuring success. For more on his reflections, check out his memoir,  Office Hours: One Academic Life. If these topics are of interest to you, we would like to encourage you to register for our short course at the APSA conference in Philadelphia in September on Unlocking Success with Failure. This half-day short course will focus on unlocking our success – as individuals and institutions – by exploring the failures in our personal and institutional stories. We will do so in the context of the many interdisciplinary intellectual frameworks that illuminate failure as inevitable and necessary for achievement.

By H.N. Hirsch

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Recently, I took a step away from usual scholarly expectations–I published a memoir about my academic life, a memoir I spent roughly four years writing (and rewriting and rewriting).  Having reached my sixties and having, somewhat by chance, somewhat by choice, worked in a variety of different institutional environments–the Ivy League, the University of California system, and two liberal arts colleges–I felt I had things to say about the strengths and weaknesses of each of these major types of academic workplaces, as well as things to say about being a gay academic of a certain age.

Writing a memoir is an odd experience when you are still embedded in the system you are describing, or at least it was for me.  At times I felt–and will no doubt be judged by some to have been–disloyal or ungrateful, someone seeking revenge or (as an officious senior colleague once said to me) someone who doth protest too much–an occupational hazard for anyone doing personal writing of this kind.  At other times during the writing process I felt liberated–enormously free to ignore standard scholarly form and to say things I had kept to myself for many years, things that seemed to me necessary to say.

I expected hate mail.  That hasn’t happened, at least not yet.  What has come in, surprising me, is sometimes-extensive reflections from some readers about their own careers and lives.  I’ve received emails or had conversations in which people say something along the lines of “I had the same experience at X, or with person Y, or trying to do Z, but I thought it was my fault/there was something wrong with me/I just wasn’t working had enough.”  Or, “God yes, I always hated” something.

Several things in particular have drawn people’s responses.  My description of homophobic incidents seems to have struck a chord, as has my discussion of the problems with the normal academic tenure clock and the pressures it places on those who wish to have children.  I relate a story about Judith Shklar, my senior colleague at Harvard when I was an untenured junior professor there, who was the first woman to be elected President of the APSA (and also a Macarthur fellow).  Early in her career, after finishing her degree, she was kept on as a part-time lecturer, and only much later promoted to the rank of Professor.  She confided soon after her APSA election that she was happy to have had that arrangement, even though some considered it beneath her or degrading; it allowed her, she said, to have both children and her career.  “I couldn’t have done it otherwise,” she said over lunch.  In her usual matter-of-fact manner, she continued: “there’s a reason there hasn’t been a woman president yet.”

What occurs to me, hearing the reactions to this and the other stories I tell, is how little time and effort we academic workers spend discussing our lives and careers with each other.  All of us have stories, yet we seldom share them, except perhaps with a trusted mentor or a close friend or two.

Why not?  Why do smart people with finely-honed analytic skills spend so little time talking about the enterprise in which they are engaged?  Why do we, for example, accept that the tenure clock must be somewhere between six and eight years, when we know, or should know, that this places enormous burdens on young families, or those who want families?  Why do we so easily accept the denigration of teaching at R1 institutions?  Why do we assume that peer-reviewed publications are the only thing that matters, at every stage of every academic career–why, for example, do the 18,000 faculty members at the University of California accept a one-size-fits-all system of expectations–expectations pegged to routine salary advancement?  At UC, as I relate, various tasks I was assigned by the administration counted for nothing–chairing a committee to create a campus resource center for LGBT students, chairing a department for four years.

The answers to these kinds of questions may be complex, and will certainly include the stark fact that academia is highly efficient at weeding out those who do not comply with its norms.  But I also think there’s little doubt that most of us who survive are loath to challenge, or to admit we have not always achieved, the academic world’s definition of success–even after earning tenure, our profession’s holy grail (which is rapidly disappearing–another thing we don’t talk much about, especially with our graduate students, whom we need to teach sections and grade papers).

That definition of success includes the very strong norm that, at every stage of our careers, we will churn out a steady stream of discovery research in papers and books that will be published in peer-reviewed venues.  Never mind that there are subfields where it is virtually impossible to say anything new (a new interpretation of Hobbes?  Good luck) and never mind that university presses are shutting down, or that the internet is remaking publishing, or that some of us carry much heavier teaching loads than others.  Never mind that a good book may take years to write, and that its subject may not lend itself to separately published chapters.  As I point out, John Rawls would have been defined as dead wood at the University of California during the many years he toiled on A Theory of Justice.

I think we do ourselves, our profession, and, especially, our young colleagues an enormous disservice by our reticence about these matters.  We believe in the importance of scholarly exchange, of sharing our work, but we don’t share our stories.  How many of us feel oppressed by the expectations we face?  How many suffer silently when we can’t measure up to the profession’s rather rigid definition of success?   How many of us sit on poorly-attended conference panels and think it a waste of time and money?  How many of us think our institutions’ priorities are out of whack?

The answer is: No one knows how many.

We are all bright people who know how to think, write, analyze, talk.  Perhaps we should spend more time applying those skills to our personal stories, painful or embarrassing as that might be.  If nothing else, it can be enormously therapeutic to find one’s voice.

H. N. Hirsch is Professor of Politics at Oberlin College and the author of Office Hours: One Academic Life (Quid Pro Press, 2016).

Other posts in this series:

Failure and Success in the Academy, By Susan Sterett, Jennifer Diascro, and Judith Grant




2 thoughts on “The Personal is Political, or At Least, Relevant

  1. Pingback: From the Contingent Faculty Problem to Labor Justice, Opportunity, and Incorporation | The New West

  2. Pingback: Unruly bodies: My life as an academic with disabilities | The New West

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