The Academic Self: An Owner's Manual

Donald E. Hall
Columbus: The Ohio State University Press, 2002
104 pp., $9.00 pb

Robert Bennett
Paul Trout

[Editor's Note: Two colleagues look at this book from different perspectives. Professor Bennett (RB) is just beginning his career, and Professor Trout (PT), after 30 years as an educator, is nearing the end of his.]


Donald Hall, professor of English at California State University (Northridge), believes that many academics (he provides no numbers) suffer from an array of dysfunctions. We resent heavy teaching "loads," feel unappreciated by colleagues, regard co-workers as rivals in a zero-sum game for status and success, fear failure, valorize fault-finding and attack, obsess over vita building and quantifiable achievements, and work way too much. As a result, academic life, he says, is often cankered by shame, fear, and anger (16).

Hall's chicken soup for the academic soul consists of a number of "clear, concrete, and practical strategies" for improving our professional lives, both personally and collectively (xv, 95). I'll focus on those strategies that strike me as the most useful, starting with those each one of us can employ personally to improve one's own professional life.

For starters, Hall urges each of us to keep in mind that our careers are always "in the making," never fixed to a single goal. While a few academics bore ever more deeply into a narrow specialty, many academics develop wholly new research interests as their minds, needs, and cultural environments change. Instead of worrying about "losing focus," we should delight in taking advantage of new opportunities for intellectual growth. Remaining flexible allows us to exploit new information and possibilities (16-17, 53).

Just as important, we should have a broad and flexible definition of "success." Of course we can never define "success" finally or wholly on our own terms. But we can "critically engage those larger values and adapt them--even dispense with some of them--as we take responsibility for our career choices, attitudes, and behaviors" (88). At the very least, we shouldn't allow a careerist definition of "success" to determine our professional self-regard. A careerist standard based on quantifiable products inevitably leads to frustration, disappointment, and a sense of failure since somebody is always pumping out more product than we are (12).

Instead of obsessing about our "productivity," we should "invest ourselves partly--or even largely--in the process of continuous learning and professional reinvention" (52). It is simply healthier to find fulfillment and pleasure in the various steps toward a product, rather than letting our happiness depend upon people and forces over which we have little if any control (46). And, if we recognize that "success" can be achieved through service, teaching, and collegial relationships, as well as through countable publications, we'll be less likely to "depress" should we suffer a setback in one or another area of professional life (40).

Hall also makes a good point when he says that neither our "successes" nor our "failures" are wholly within our control. Although we all like to believe that our achievements reflect our boundless talents and worth, in reality both our achievements and setbacks are affected by unknowable forces, including Chance. This understanding serves to make us humble when we succeed, and even-tempered when we fail (12). We do not live in a perfect meritocracy, and we should make our peace with this reality from the get-go.

While Hall's strategies should deter "burnout," most of us have had episodes or long periods during which our careers slump, where we feel used up. Hall has practical suggestions for those whose careers have "stalled," a more hopeful word because it suggests that a little push may get a career moving again.

To "un-stall" a career: keep reading in your area or in a new area; join or remain a member of professional organizations; attend conferences, even at your own money; write something every day, even if it's only a paragraph; take on manageable tasks, such as writing conference papers, book reviews, and encyclopedia entries, or serving on editorial boards or as an outside reader or consultant. These small projects keep you--or get you back into--the game, let you explore new interests that need not require extensive scholarship, and enable you to make productive contacts with editors and publishers. Would that Hall had said more about what the administration could do to help stalled professors get moving again.

Hall also has plenty to say about how we can improve the quality of our lives as members of a department and campus.

Hall believes that academic life is rife with dysfunctions because we professors are loath to examine the values and conventions that shape and control our attitudes and actions. The remedy, Hall counsels, is for us to interrogate--both individually and collectively--those values and conventions to sort out which work and which need "radical revision" (27). In short, we must know ourselves by examining and re-evaluating every assumption and common practice that governs our professional lives.

As I understand Hall, this reflexive turn should entail a critical scrutiny of the many unarticulated--essentially "sacred"--assumptions governing such potentially unsettling topics as the allocation of merit pay, the assessment and rewarding of teaching, and the often wildly different grading and workload standards found in any department.

Hall's "Do It!" recommendation strikes me as facile. An obvious professional deformation afflicting academics is the preoccupation with examining a "subject" external to the profession itself. I know of no profession whose members are least likely to examine their most basic assumptions. Few academics, in my experience, read about pedagogy or other professional issues, or reflect deeply or usefully about what it is they do and why they do it. This willful unconsciousness is no accident.

Self-reflection may expose a "dissensus" more easily papered-over than dealt with. And many academic egos, especially in the put-upon humanities, are like party balloons--easily deflated. Quick to be threatened and hurt, we want to avoid any situation that calls into question the factitious, taken-for-granted world we comfortably inhabit. Hall's book would be unnecessary had we academics been inclined to employ our analytical and critical skills to our professional lives, as he thinks we should. So, unlike my colleague Robert Bennett, I do not think that the dysfunctions of academic life are as much external as internal, an outgrowth of the kinds of psyches and personalities attracted to the academic life.

Unfortunately, Hall does not say how academics can break out of their protective cocoon. Let me. Perhaps faculty members could get used to frank talk about topics they prefer to avoid by setting aside a couple of days each semester to discuss teaching methods and requirements, and how they would improve the quality of education provided to students. Such an exercise might encourage some faculty members to read about the relative effectiveness of teaching styles, the various methods of grading and testing, the pros and cons of student evaluations, the psychological needs and development of adolescents, and other topics crucial to the tasks of professional educators. Such collegial exchange on pedagogical issues should be viewed as a fiduciary duty.

For Hall, the keystone of academic life is collegiality. Publications in the "best" journals and dazzling performances in the classroom provide few consolations if we hate and despise our colleagues, and are hated and despised by them in return. Each one of us, Hall counsels, "should place collegiality at the heart" of our work life (37). There's all kinds of "good practices" that nurture collegiality, both in oneself and in others.

First, don't hold grudges--they only "hinder our work in the present" (xii). "I have seen colleagues explode over imagined slights to cherished authors. I have seen others fume over the small personality quirks--the facial mannerisms or voice patterns--of their colleagues. Dysfunction often begins with unnecessarily harsh judgements [sic] and lingering, silly grudges" (74). So, no "silent treatment" for those we find "different." Second, don't be too thin skinned. If we accept that every person is fallible, it's easier to dismiss slights. Don't be confrontational or argumentative. "We should be able to disagree openly and even vigorously without engaging in hurtful and personal attacks" (77). Don't treat your colleagues as if you are about to be recruited by Harvard and so won't have to see them again, ever. We just may wind up spending many years, if not decades, rubbing elbows with a colleague or two we find revolting.

This brings us to ways to improve community. For one thing, each of us should do our share of committee work, and perform that work responsibly. We should be on time for meetings, and speak to the point instead of holding forth or going over things again and again. An especially important committee for improving collegiality is the department Awards and Scholarship Committee, which, if effective, can make everyone in a department feel good by identifying colleagues and students worthy of public recognition.

Less officially, we should praise and congratulate colleagues even if the favor will never be returned. Collegially is also promoted when we sponsor or take part in student clubs, discussion groups, faculty seminars, brownbag lunches, parties, and get-togethers. By showing up, we show we care. It only takes one or two energetic faculty members to reinvigorate an entire department (81). Hall is right to point out that investments in collegiality will provide "continuous payoffs over long periods of time" for everyone (75).

While Hall doesn't say this, young faculty members should operate on the assumption that "collegiality" plays a more important part in tenure decisions than is usually or officially acknowledged. It is always a sub-text, sometimes a powerful one, affecting the assessment of the officially admissible texts.

While I was put off at times by Hall's clotted style, grammatical errors, and pretentious trumpeting of common-sense advice, I found many of his insights and recommendations useful and true to my own experience. If only I could have read him earlier in my career.


Critically Analyzing the "text" of the academic profession, Donald Hall's The Academic Self: An Owner's Manual offers a compelling critique of contemporary universities. Criticizing everything from mismanaged departmental bureaucracies to closed-minded and cynical colleagues, Hall characterizes academic environments as generally ranging between the "dysfunctional" and the "destructive" (xiii). He blames these problems on what he perceives as a passive and uncritical professoriate: one that "far too rarely" makes its "own professional 'selves '" part of its "critical reading projects," and one that is almost never willing to "challenge the behavioral norms of [the] profession" (xv, xvii). These professional dysfunctions, he adds, cause new professors to experience professional culture shock when they emerge from intellectually engaging graduate programs only to assume jobs that are "stunningly different from anything [they] had imagined" (xiii).

Attempting simultaneously to deconstruct institutional shortcomings and reconstruct a new sense of the academic profession, Hall's treatise oscillates between two fundamental objectives. On the one hand, its cynical criticism attempts to disillusion young scholars by making them more aware of the professional "dysfunction" and "stunningly different" jobs that they are about to encounter. At the same time, however, its optimistic suggestions for improving the profession attempt to rejuvenate educators at all stages of their careers by encouraging them to take more "responsibility for challenging and changing" professional dysfunctions (xv).

In most respects I find both Hall's criticisms and recommendations on the mark. Like a good analyst, he has a strong sense both of the professions' various dysfunctions and of strategies for correcting them. In particular, I find Hall's description of professional cultural shock as extremely useful for graduate students and junior faculty. While many Ph.D.-granting institutions focus primarily on producing research-oriented scholars, young scholars frequently find that their first job includes more teaching and service than they had expected--if that job is even inside the academy at all. In today's competitive job market, even the best graduate students will likely find it necessary to modify, and perhaps even radically redefine, their professional ambitions.

The first chapter of Hall's book is packed with profound insights about how scholars need continually to redefine their relationship to the profession in response to various career contingencies: there is "no one career path that guarantees success," all careers are inevitably "subject to certain forces beyond our control," and our "senses of professional self-identity may change dramatically over time" (11, 12, 16). My own experience on the job market corroborates Hall's sense of the academic profession as an on-going process of continual redefinition. Even though I ended up with a job startling like the job that I had hoped for--my dream job was at the University of Montana, and I ended up at Montana State University--I was interviewed by a wide range of schools, and each interview challenged me to re-think the various professional roles that I might end up playing. At one university I had to explain how my interest in globalization might apply to the borderlands of Southern Texas, while another university asked me how my training in postmodernism and multiculturalism might be adapted to the institutional mission of an Orthodox Jewish university. While I would not say that I found every job ideally suited to my interests, I did find that I could imagine enjoying a much wider range of professional roles than I had anticipated, if I adapted my professional ambitions to the objectives of each institution.

One of the real strengths of Hall's book is that it encourages this kind of professional evolution. In fact, Hall proposes that every academic ought to draft a professional statement that overtly declares "our identities as professional texts," but he explicitly describes such a document as a "living and changing document" or a "drawing board upon which one conceptualizes and reconceptualizes" a career always "in the making" (19).

Where I take exception to Hall is when he suggests that this process of professional re-definition comes suddenly as a shock at the end of graduate school or perhaps even mid-way into a career. While this may be true for many--a danger that Hall's book attempts to prevent--I found the process of professional re-conceptualization was an integral part of my academic development from the first day of my Ph.D. program. For example, Hall claims that "no mentor ever revealed" personal experiences of professional failure, but I understood that "failure" was at least a possible, if not an inevitable, part of every academic career (13). Not only did I fail to get accepted the first time that I applied to doctorate programs, but my mentors openly shared stories about the long, circuitous, and fortuitous trajectories that their careers had taken. I could see that even successful graduates from my program were taking jobs in high schools, community colleges, and even outside the academy.

More importantly, a critical self-awareness about the profession was incorporated into my graduate program. While my graduate program focused on producing research-oriented professors, it was made clear early on that our careers might end up following alternative paths. We had job seminars in which professors offered different takes on the state of the profession. We had meetings with former students who described the various jobs they had received and shared copies of their curricula vitae, job application letters, and statements of teaching philosophy. We even had seminars on job opportunities at community colleges or outside the academy. Clearly, conscientious students and graduate programs can begin exploring the issues raised by Hall immediately on the first day of graduate school rather than after one has already accepted a "stunningly different" kind of job.

My biggest argument with Hall, however, is that he mis-diagnoses the root cause of the problems that he describes. While I agree that the academic profession has many problems, I do not believe that a passive and uncritical professoriate lies at the root of these academic evils. Many of the problems that Hall describes--such as "heavy teaching loads" and a "tense, competitive atmosphere"--result less from unthoughtful professors than from the corporatist down-sizing of universities, administrative micro-managing of academic departments, and the marginalization and underfunding of humanistic disciplines (xiii). While I agree whole-heartedly that university professors should continually re-imagine and re-evaluate their professional agendas, most of the professors I have known are actively involved in and deeply committed to such a task. They may have had varying degrees of success in creating institutional change, but most have fought for one kind of change or another. Even many recalcitrant and retrogressive members of our profession tend to be aggressively retro and passionately recalcitrant. I do not believe that professors lack a sense of professional commitment so much as they have widely varying, and at times even diametrically opposed, professional agendas. I would suggest that the real solution to resolving some of these professional differences might be found less in self-help books for academics than in a crash course on organizational behavior and more critical analyses of the corporatization of higher education.

Hall offers excellent theoretical and practical advice about how to improve university life, [but I disagree with Hall when he identifies an uncritical professoriate as the root of academic evils. While] and I believe that universities do need to re-invent themselves continually; but I would argue that professors are the best qualified and most committed agents for making those changes.

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