Review: How to Build a Life in the Humanities

This post was written by Bert Fuller, who is graduating from BYU’s Comparative Studies MA program and beginning his doctoral studies at the University of Toronto this fall.

Last March Daryl Lee of the French Department at Brigham Young University caught me reading Greg Semenza’s Graduate Study for the 21st Century: How to Build an Academic Career in the Humanities (2010; 2nd ed.). He remarked that “tools like this didn’t exist when I was going through the PhD.” In some sense, it is a shock that academic how-to guides and self-help books are relatively recent phenomena—hasn’t this job always been hard? Yet in another sense, growth in these genres is a product of the times, for which the norms are university corporatization, casualization of academic labor, and increasing early-career publication expectations. Amidst both torpor and chaos, Semenza writes against the odds, reminding us of the importance and benefits of academic work while providing tools for inevitable travails. Graduate Study should be required reading for any student seriously considering the PhD track and for any teacher advising such students.

Semenza’s newest book, How to Build a Life in the Humanities: Meditations on the Academic Work-Life Balance (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), is a collection of essays co-edited with Garrett A. Sullivan, Jr. It does not present itself with the same urgency of Graduate Study but represents a more reflective approach. The contributors hope to dispel the absurd idea, which Forbes Magazine published in 2013, that the university professor is at the top of the list of “Least Stressful Jobs.” Instead of this “laughable caricature of professorial life,” they hope to provide insight into the working conditions of real academics. In its own way, each of the book’s twenty-five chapters does exactly that. The editors cover their ground effectively by dividing the collection into four sections: (1) Professional Life, which describes day-to-day responsibilities (teaching, grading, citizenship, research) and at different kinds of institutions (liberal arts school, community college, research university); (2) Personal Life, which addresses human limitation (guilt, depression, aging) and social obligations (to children in particular); (3) Diverse Lives, which details experiences with discrimination (class, race, gender, disabilities, sexual orientation, and religion); (4) Life Off the Tenure Track, which tackles the realities of labor itself (as an adjunct, grad student, retiree). Given the aims put forth in the introduction, one begins reading without much expectation that How to Build a Life in the Humanities functions like a how-to book. It does, however, deliver profound if brief meditations on the stresses of life as an academic. These meditations remind academic laborers that they are not alone in their struggle and that the struggles are not insurmountable, despite the book’s overall somber mood. And while some chapters fall flat, most of the essays are well worth reading. To give a taste, I will focus briefly on two themes, each relevant to most people at BYU: children and religion.

The chapters “Maternity” by Kristen Ghodsee and “Life with Children” by Michael Bérubé throw light on the under-discussed reality that academics, even hyper-successful ones like a Bowdoin Professor of Gender Studies and a former MLA president, have children. As a university student for the past seven years, I consistently received the vague impression that wanting both family and a career in broader academe is anomalous. Apparently not. (For contrast, see the chapter “Life without Children” by Sean Grass and Iris V. Rivero.) Having both is common, though not easy. Moreover, the difficulty of having children is far greater for women. “Exhaustion. Bone-marrow-sucking, soul-crushing, never-ending exhaustion,” writes Ghodsee of her experience. She also tells a harrowing story about missing a fellowship deadline because her recommender was in labor. “I thought: If I had asked a male colleague to write for me, this wouldn’t have happened” (original emphasis). “As much as we try to legislate gender equality,” Ghodsee continues, “there is a brutal biological reality that cannot be ignored.” The pressure on males is different but no less real. In Bérubé’s case, the stress of children actually increased productivity. “If I hadn’t had a child at the age of 24 . . . I probably would never have gotten my PhD.” Bérubé continues, “I know this sounds counterintuitive. . . . However, it also happens to be true.” For Bérubé, the anxiety of providing for a child obliterated his anxiety of writing a seminar paper on Heidegger that would impress Richard Rorty. After he learned his then-girlfriend was pregnant, “I never experienced another period of dithering or wallowing. The stakes were just too high: I now had a baby to take care of.” Bérubé goes further by describing his children’s health problems (asthma and Down syndrome), the need for him and his wife to work, and the complexity of policy reform that would provide improved work-family relations. All three chapters on children testify to the underappreciated fact that children are not absent from classrooms, research, or departmental meetings. Their existence shapes how these institutional contexts unfold.

Another vague impression I’ve grown up with is the idea that religion and academics do not mix well. Of course this culture of antipathy was stronger during the cultural revolution of the 1960s than in our age of post-secularism, but religion remains a touchy enough subject to warrant Kristen Poole’s “confession” in a chapter titled “Religion.” She studies Shakespeare, Milton, and early modern religion but points out something strange about those fields: “It seems socially and professionally acceptable to speak openly about one’s disbeliefs, or to make jokes that presume a room of nonbelievers.” Poole suggests that antireligious attitudes usually mark a generational difference: her graduate students today tend to be interested in religion. Moreover, there is a “surprisingly large number” of academics who are religiously devout. Though Poole is conscientious in her treatment of religion in the classroom, she has decided that to avoid the subject in a course on Milton would be perverse pedagogy. To limit discussions to, say, race, class, or gender would unnecessarily hamstring the material. Poole’s solution is to respond to student interest: one semester students express more interest in religion; the next, in politics. Milton is capacious enough to answer the full panoply of concerns, and at no point should religion become taboo. Poole also shares helpful anecdotes about discussing religion one-on-one with students during office hours, but I will leave those details for the interested reader to discover.

While I agree with the editors’ recommendation that the essays be read in succession, I would be remiss to omit mention of personal favorites, essays that reward standalone reading. Rob Jenkins writes “Life in a Community College,” suffusing an otherwise marginalized form of academic labor with honor and dignity. Likewise, Karen J. Renner turns “Grading” away from drudgery and toward an experience of reward. Greg Semenza shares personal trials in “Depression,” and Eric Lorentzen reveals his fears and joys in the face of aging and death. Simon Yarrow provides hard facts in “Class,” adorned by the memorable line that “discrimination proceeds more often from ignorance and habit than hatred.” Lastly, Margaret Sönser Breen recounts her childhood identification with Peter Pan in “Sexual Orientation.” By the end, readers will certainly experience the editors’ aims: “Knowing something about the lives and experiences of our fellow workers can help us to understand better the multifaceted professional world we’re all a part of, making us more informed, more involved, and, hopefully, more empathetic colleagues. In other words, it can make the humanities a little bit more humane.” This book is recommended not only to students, administrators, and faculty, but also to friends and family who have difficulty understanding what academic labor entails.

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