Daniel T. Kline (University of Alaska, Anchorage)

44th International Congress on Medieval Studies, May 2009

Western Michigan University

BABEL Panel: Are We Serious Enough Yet? The Place of Ethics in Medieval Scholarship

Before the Text

If the profession were a genre, what genre would it be?

For some us perhaps a form of sacred scripture, a calling that brings us to a place of recognition, a form of knowledge that somehow we already deeply knew but could scarcely articulate.

For some of us perhaps a fabliau whose ass-over-tea kettle inversions and reversals leave us giddy and breathless with their comedic twists of fate.

For some of us perhaps a morality play whose characters and situations personify a psychomachia writ large upon a social stage.

Still others may see it as a tragedy, the working out of decisions whose unintended consequences leave our lives littered with bodies while we howl, howl, howl in rage and grief against our own blind and foolish decisions.

Still others may see it as a conduct book, a hagiography, a Breton lai, a chronicle, a lyric.

And a few of us ascend even to the height of myth.

But I would say that the discipline traditionally is structured like a chivalric romance in the classic sense – the lone male who moves from stage to stage of training in social decorum, of practical education and personal tempering, under the sponsorship of powerful, usually male, benefactors, surmounting formidable obstacles in pursuit of a patrimony that finally is properly his – a grand adventure whose trials ultimately prepare us for the role we will then take over from another powerful male, so that we too may become the sponsor of other young knights or tulks as they pursue their own path, their own patrimony.

We all know – we all know that we know – that the trek is long and lonely, the way fraught with danger – perhaps even wodwos, the Black Knight at the river crossing, or maybe even the Old Man from Scene 24 who asks us three questions at the Bridge of Death.

But the chivalric model no longer sustains us because the profession is no longer nor should be any longer the enclave of lone males who move determinedly from patron to patron, sponsor to sponsor, or department to department – BA, MA, PhD – stoically taking on the next challenge or suffering the next indignity placed in our path.

We live complicated lives. We are women, we are men, we are partners, we are married, we are gay, we are straight, we are all queer, we have children, we have relationships, we have obligations, we are obligated to the others in our lives, to those others of our others that populate our lives, whose lives we treasure and whom we hold dear.

***

In other words, it's not your dissertation advisor's profession anymore. Because even though we might see our careers as a kind of text, as a narrative whose trajectory we direct, or at least influence, the profession itself is now increasingly governed by powerful texts – maybe even more so than powerful persons – whose discourses shape  our professional, and therefore our personal lives – in ways previously unimaginable, or at least at a scale that I'm not sure previous generations could foresee.

Here are a few of those texts and discourses from my context:           

The Workload Agreement:
Each year in the spring I lay out under the three traditional categories of teaching, research, and service what I will do in the coming year and how much time I will spend doing it. I sign it, as does the chair, the dean, and the provost, each of whom may revise it and send it back until it satisfies an institutional calculus in which I am a variable. It is never accurate.

The Annual Activity Report:
The workload agreement is then followed in the fall by an Annual Activity Report that documents the degree to which I have met the obligations I articulated in the Workload Agreement.

The Annual Performance Review:
These texts are then compiled each year in my Annual Performance Review File, supplemented with the Student Evaluation of Faculty Teaching forms (both narrative and statistical), whose validity we all know to be minimal – whose outcomes can be influenced by our height, our race, our tone of voice, and our wardrobe – but whose impact on our professional and thus personal lives is profound.

The Four-Year Review File: 
In turn, these are compiled in the crucial Four-Year Review File, along with committee reports, chair evaluations, teaching observations, article off-prints, peer letters of recommendation, thank you notes from students, and anything else that might convince a college- and university-wide peer review committee that we are indeed valuable enough to keep around until a tenure decision.

We must make crucial tactical and strategic decisions at each stage of this process of self-documentation until we reach the 6th year and the Performance and Tenure Portfolio, where the Department, College, and Provost reviews the file, makes recommendations, and signs – or doesn't.

Even after tenure now the process continues, at least in my context, every three years from tenure on, when after twelve years – unless extraordinary circumstances present themselves – we can file for Full Professor.

***

As we all know, this is but one of many discursive trajectories within which live and move and have our being, and along the way we teach our classes, mentor our students, and grind out a few articles or a book, and we come to rooms like this at Kalamazoo looking for something to renew our spirits, meet up with old friends and mentors, share some gossip, catch a few sessions and our friends' sessions, and if we're really, really lucky, get to go to a great party or two (thanks Eileen!), and share a couple of nice meals with those we love and care for and those we just want to get to know.

This is all as it should be, but this familiar narrative is – dare I say? – determined by new kinds of texts even farther beyond the ability of many of us to shape, let alone direct:

Mission Statements
Vision Statements
Strategic Plans
Statewide Priorities
Performance-Based Budgeting Schedules
Legislative Reports
Workforce Development Plans
The Oklahoma State / CUPA-HR National Faculty Salary Study
Collective Bargaining Agreements
The Faculty Handbook
Institutional, Programmatic, Departmental, and Course-level Assessment

And in this era of easy federal money for corporate malfeasance but scant resources for higher education, a few important terms to keep in mind:

Contingent Faculty
Financial Exigency
Right-Sizing

I could go on, but I think you understand.

***

Here are a few more recent documents and their associated institutions. And perhaps untoward in the Humanities, some data.

The recent MLA 'Report to the Teagle Foundation on the Undergraduate Major in Language and Literature', which, while advocating for institutions "to invest in the interdisciplinary capacities of faculty members through support of team teaching and faculty development" and articulating "the relationship between the goals and objectives of undergraduate concentrations in their disciplines and those of a liberal education" advocates collapsing Departments of English and Languages into a single administrative structure – and for all the right reasons.

I found out just before I left that at my institution, Languages will now be under the Chair of the Department of English. I do not know if this is a permanent arrangement or not.

Here's another couple of 'data points' as they say in the assessment trade.

According to the annual Chronicle of Higher Education faculty salary survey, English department faculty are consistently the lowest-paid positions across all campus types and at all levels (except for fine arts at the associate level and faculty teaching at religious institutions). Generally, this is offset at institutions with a strong statewide union contract.

According to a recent MLA report, only 5% of English majors go on to attempt a PhD, and only 1 in 3 PhD's will land a TT job after 3 years on the job market – and this after all the years in MA and PhD programs.

PhD candidates are spending a little less time in their programs – only 7-8 years rather than 10-12 – but are generally emerging with much higher student loan debt.

So here's the rub, right? Because balance sheets, budgets, loan statements, and cost-benefit analyses are ethical documents as well.

***

So here's my question: What are our ethical obligations to our students? Especially when – generally speaking –

They will remain in school 6 to 10 (or even more!) years in school than their peers even before they have a chance to land a 'real' job, a job for which they will consistently earn less than may of their colleagues across campus, let alone their peers in the private sector, a job in which they will likely have little choice of location (even if they get an offer), a job that they often will enter with crushing debt loads?

That's 10 or more years less of accumulating benefits and contributing to retirement.

And over a career these inequities can literally mean millions of dollars, can mean vast differences in quality of life – again not just for the poor scholar, but for the poor scholars others – partner, husband, wife, children, aged parents.

I hate to fall into teleological thinking, which Levinas has rightly called a form of violence in itself, but my question is an honest one and I think important but may be seen as crass or depressing: Is this changing profession worth it? Or maybe, What is the worth of this changing profession?

What is our ethical obligation to our students in this changing profession?

***

I'm thinking here about one final genre, one final discourse, that each of us wrestles with but that no one really talks about: The Talk.

You know, The Talk? We've all had the talk, and we've developed our own versions of The Talk. It's that Talk that we give to that student – you know, the really bright one, the one who has a good eye, who pipes up in class with a sharp insight or deftly formulated question, the one who says, 'Hey, can I come by and talk to you after class?'

I used to love those Talks because I somehow saw myself in them and remember those moments when Dr. Munson, Mr. Francis, Dr. Moore, Dr. Dillard, Dr. Hull or Prof. Strohm or Prof. Clopper all said to me, in one way or another, 'You know, you're pretty good at this. You ever thought about a PhD program?'
I used to talk about letters of recommendation, application strategies, investigating programs, making contacts, revising application essays. How that, with the right combination of luck, skills, and perseverance, 'You'll be alright.'

But the Council of Graduate Schools PhD Completion survey reports that the lowest PhD completion rate now falls to, perhaps surprisingly or perhaps not, to males in the Humanities (47%), which is lower even than females in the math and physical sciences (52%).

I used to say, 'You'll be all right.' But I no longer believe that to be the case. In my heart of hearts, I know that many of my students who have gone on to PhD work are not all right.

What I now wonder is, What do we say? What do you say in your Talk?

The bottom line now in my Talk is this: If you have to pay for a PhD, don't do it.

If it's an itch you have to scratch, go with my blessing. I don't want to stop anyone from pursuing their dream, but for too many I now think it is just that, a dream. Or worse, a fantasy.

***

One of my favorite Kalamazoo moments has little to do with the conference but I always look forward to it anyhow, and that's Prom Night at the Radisson. You know. You've seen it.

The young people who don't even know how beautiful they are. How utterly beautiful.

I sit in the lobby and watch them pass, thinking of the first poem I studied in Dr. Dillard's Freshman comp class, Dylan Thomas' 'In My Craft or Sullen Art', and why I stay in the profession:

In my craft or sullen art
Exercised in the still night
When only the moon rages
And the lovers lie abed
With all their griefs in their arms,
I labor by singing light
Not for ambition or bread
Or the strut and trade of charms
On the ivory stages
But for the common wages
Of their most secret heart.

Not for the proud man apart
From the raging moon I write
On these spindrift pages
Nor for the towering dead
With their nightingales and psalms
But for the lovers, their arms
Round the griefs of the ages,
Who pay no praise or wages

Nor heed my craft or art.