Old Guy

There are several people in my academic department who have been around the university more years than me, but I have the second most “seniority in rank,” an admittedly obscure academic concept that just means I’ve been a full professor longer than all but one of my colleagues, even though there are others who have been at the university more years. I mention this not to claim any sort of status, but as the context for the fact that I find myself much-consulted by younger colleagues & even (occasionally) deferred to by others. It’s the first time in my life, I think, that I have had this sort of role. I find it daunting, in fact. This was really brought home to me today when I was given the responsibility of chairing my  department’s Tenure & Promotion Committee in a year when we will be conducting third-year reviews for three tenure-track colleagues.

The third-year pre-tenure review is a kind of temperature-taking that is designed to inform both the faculty member who is being reviewed & the department about the faculty member’s progress toward a successful tenure process three years down the road. It is in everyone’s interest to get the review right & to be a transparent as possible in setting out procedures & assumptions. Based on my earlier job of chairing a difficult search committee, I have a reputation for running transparent evaluation processes, which may be one of the reasons I got this job. I don’t mind, though it will mean a good deal of relatively boring clerical work (in which I have the good fortune to be assisted by the best department secretary I’ve ever encountered); another thing about being, institutionally at least, an old guy, is that you develop a grudging respect for the various institutional procedures. In my department, such procedures have operated most of the time more effectively than not, though there have been a couple of spectacular exceptions.

I spent the morning scheduling meetings & sending emails to arrange peer evaluations of classes, met with the committee, brought the chair of the department up to date, then went off to teach my classes. At an institution like mine, all of this other stuff is supposed to be about teaching those classes, bringing our knowledge & experience as scholars into the undergraduate classroom. That, finally, is why we go to the trouble to get the bureaucratic details right. It is east to forget this, especially when you have been around a long time & many processes have become routine, nearly invisible to conscious reflection.

Home from Far-Flung Travels

The Clarkson semester began yesterday, though my classes start today.I’m back from six weeks in Hanoi & a week at Zen Mountain Monastery & now the rhythm of the year shifts into something that feels more like routine. The idea, of course, is to keep it from becoming merely routine. I know it is not true for all — or even most? – artists / writers who teach, but I find that teaching keeps me fresh, at least most of the time. (One can turn anything into a grind.) I have the good fortune to work in an institution that gives me nearly complete freedom in choosing what to teach & how to teach it, so, for instance, the theme for my first-year students this term is “Why Life Sucks.” We begin with Gilgamesh, Job & a couple of other old texts, them move on to the Modernists Kafka & T.S. Eliot & Melville before ending with Margaret Atwood’s post-modern, post-apocalyptic novel Oryx & Crake. A good time is insured for all, hijinks ensue & etc.

We’ve had a run of warm weather but it is beginning to look a little like fall. Some of the maple trees have begun changing color & just now when I looked up I saw out the window that the pines in the front yard are dropping their old needles. I can hear a bullfrog in the ditch across the road, a loon up on the pond . . .