An Examination of the Tenured Mind

Reviewed by William G. Tierney

Professing to Learn: Creating Tenured Lives and Careers in the American Research University. Anna Neumann. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009.

Anna Neumann has written a book about the lives of faculty early in their tenured careers at research universities that in some respects follows a path first outlined by Max Weber in “Science as a Vocation.” The text is a result of two research projects—one that began in 1993 and a second that ended in 2001. In the first project the author interviewed thirty-eight faculty members at one university, and in the other she interviewed forty individuals at four universities. This is a book that ultimately fails in its attempt to convince me about the lives of earlycareer faculty, but in its failure it succeeds at helping me think about academic work and academic lives.

The author is careful in her explanation of what she set out to do—understand the lives of recently tenured faculty—and equally judicious about whom she did not study. Contingent faculty, community college faculty, new faculty, and a multitude of other groups are important to study, she acknowledges, but with a sample of seventy-eight, the study needed to be narrowly configured. Neumann also points out that she is not particularly interested in organizational contexts and instead focuses on the interior lives of scholars. Although in one of the seven chapters she provides snippets about the institutions in which these scholars work, the author is more interested in what she calls “passionate thought,” which she describes as “strivings for honest understanding: for thought that is emotive in its honesty, drawing its creator to it equally for what, in honesty, it is and also what, in substance, it represents.” Neumann found faculty members who variously associated passionate thought with the pursuit of beauty or the search for expressive space, with a single or crosscutting area of study, and with individual or shared endeavors. In other words, individuals in multiple fields experience passionate thought in many ways. Neumann concludes that most of those she interviewed “experienced their scholarly learning as being powered by a search for passionate thought.”

The author’s voice is clear and, well, “passionate” throughout. The tone of the book is like a conversation over coffee. Even so, the text has extensive references, citations, and footnotes that enable the reader to follow the trajectory of the author’s thought. This is one of the best-written academic texts I have read in quite some time. Why, then, do I say the book fails?

In a book that is so particular, so rich with quotations, I came away disappointed that the contexts in which we live and work were fused together as if we all think and act alike. The book, for example, allowed me to reflect on my own academic life. Pennsylvania State University, where I began my academic career, and the University of Southern California, where I am now, are vastly different research universities. The institutions—my colleagues, the environment, the culture of the places—have shaped how I approach academic life, yet we do not get much sense of such differences in Neumann’s book. It is as if passionate thought occurs in similar fashion in all places, and that has certainly not been my experience.

I might have passionate thoughts as Neumann describes them, but they also are shaped by my own identity as a gay man. My scholarship is not shaped simply by the texts I read and write and the research I conduct; I am inevitably framed by who I am as an individual. Although Neumann refers to how children or family are also valued by these academics, we do not get a sense of how one particular value shapes, distorts, collides with the others. One participant, for example, says, in relation to the place of scholarly work in her life, “It’s one of four or five things that I value.” When asked what else she values, she states, “My children, my broader family . . . community things . . . and it may sound silly, but I exercise a lot. . . . Fitness is very important to me.” Passionate thought, to me, cannot be cordoned off from the rest of my life. Fitness is important to me, too, but when I am hiking in the Pecos Wilderness I also am thinking through particular problems I have in writing, or with a text I have read, or with a project I might do.

The author also makes it appear as if research universities are cocoons in which everyone walks around in reveries of passionate thought. Neumann interviewed about ten faculty members on each campus, but on my own campus we have a few thousand faculty members. I do not see much reverie. Sure, I see remarkable men and women, and I know some of the types of individuals about whom Neumann writes, but I also know folks who simply take faculty life as a job and are not consumed by passionate thought, or individuals who are more campus politicians than thinkers, and even a few who are neither politicians nor thinkers. Some of us also think of our passion as more concerned with praxis, but these differences do not come through in the book.

I also know that my life is remarkably different today from what it was in 1993, and it is not simply that I have more gray hair. We have seen significant changes in academic work over that time, and the expectations for the just-tenured associate professors of 1993 were vastly different from the expectations for their counterparts in 2010. Neumann does not delve into these differences, so she has us assume that the institution of yesterday is akin to that of today. Where she sees similarities, I see disruptions. The pressure to generate external funding, to communicate with new audiences, and to utilize new technologies—to name just a few tasks—are different demands from what was expected of us seventeen years ago. Do we even have time for passionate thought anymore?

And that question is why this book ultimately succeeds. Although I have significant quarrels with the premises and findings in her book, Neumann has written a passionate text. She asks us to think about what matters to us—and what should matter. She contends that academic work is a calling, or a vocation, as Weber said so long ago. We are committed to the life of the mind, and our commitments get played out and defined in manifold ways. Any text that is so elegantly written on such an important topic deserves a careful reading even if we end up disagreeing with one or another point.

William G. Tierney is University Professor and Wilbur-Kieffer Professor of Higher Education at the University of Southern California and director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis. His e-mail address is wgtiern@usc.edu, and his blog is www.21stcenturyscholars.org.

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