Curmudgeon at your gates
Fragments shored against my ruins.
Introductions are usually awkward. University Affairs has offered me an opportunity to challenge a few assumptions with this new column, “Talking out of school” – to talk out of turn, as it were, about life as an academic in Canada. I am likely just rounding in on mid-career, though it is fair to say that this past decade has brought profound changes and new challenges to our profession. If you find my opinions to be a little unconventional, I hope that you’ll judge the experiences that brought me to this point not to have been.
I have had an ordinary career among a group of remarkable people. If you are reading these words, you likely have a qualification or two yourself, are probably involved in postsecondary education, and have lost at least some of the idealism with which you entered the academy. Growing up in St. John’s, I had the vague notion that many people worked at Memorial University, but I never met any of them until I enrolled there. Now, of course, I have seen that it takes the hard work of those many people to make our institutions thrive.
Encouraged by well-intentioned parents, I began a pre-business program 25 years ago, but I brought to it a passion for literature. As Newfoundland was then suffering 20 percent unemployment, my first English professor sighed at my familiar story, stared out her window, and said, “No one is working. Study what you love.” I changed my major on the spot. I decided in my senior year that I would go to graduate school only if I could arrange a scholarship. I had completed a master’s, and was waitlisted for the PhD program, at the University of Western Ontario when I won a fellowship to Oxford University. I knew that there were few academic jobs, and had no idea what one paid, so I understood that three years abroad might not set me up for life. I returned from England with two more parchments, a fistful of typically frank references, and no contacts. I lived in my parents’ basement, teaching sessionally, until I secured the last contract offered that year: a term position at the University of Lethbridge. Though I have tried on occasion to leave, I’m still here.
Over 15 years, I’ve taught a lot, and have been recognized by my institution for teaching well. With a SSHRC grant, I wrote a manuscript, hustled to get it published, and sold my obligatory 500 copies. I am fortunate to co-edit the journal of record in American magazine studies. Some time ago, I began working in student services and am now finishing my second term as an associate dean. I find my life in middle management to be maddeningly ineffectual. I got involved in administration out of a desire to know better how universities work. Some days, I wish I hadn’t found out.
Four years ago, to coincide with appearances on Charles Adler’s Corus radio show, I began blogging as “The Classroom Conservative.” I hoped to demonstrate that there are Red Tories in academia – and social progressives in the West. Now, the provocative title has outlived the collaboration, and I wonder if I am more curmudgeon than conservative. I used to tell my host that the modernists I study were never as revolutionary as they seemed. Rather than dismantle everything, they wanted only to turn it upside down to establish their dominance.
Similarly, my conservatism seeks to reaffirm first principles in my work and reinvent established practices for current conditions. I hope always to avoid an unthinking nostalgia for a past we remember as simpler than it was. In both aims and methods, we can trace the roots of our educational enterprise to antiquity. Technological innovation has challenged how we operate our postsecondary institutions, but from the outside, increasingly, our very purpose has been questioned anew. I am optimistic enough to think that we might recommit to the value of broad training in new circumstances, but I also believe that we must be cautious in the face of change, never chasing fads, so that we remain the solid foundation upon which our students can grow.
As I type, I am surrounded by the unmistakable signs of autumn. Wal-Mart is filled with returning students, and I am greeted elsewhere by colleagues I have not seen all summer. Margaret Wente in the Globe and Mail is again explaining how we might be replaced by an iPhone app. But her New World order won’t come quickly enough to save me from an 8 a.m. class.
I’ll let you know how it goes.
Craig Monk is professor of English and associate dean in the faculty of arts and science at the University of Lethbridge. His column will be appearing in every second issue.
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