I was working on an essay recently about my experiences taking the GRE subject test in literature and what that test may say about English departments’ curricula. When I sent a draft of that essay to one of my colleagues, he pointed out that I generalized about other English departments’ curricula based on our own, which he argued is not typical. After several years of reading about higher education and writing occasional essays such as this one, I’m beginning to believe that we all generalize about academia based almost exclusively on our own experiences.
In thinking about the essays I have read about higher education over the years, I realize that the essays and especially the comments about those essays speak about the academic world in very different ways. When I have written essays about my experience in higher education, whether in this publication or others, I always receive comments arguing that my experiences do not accurately represent higher education, as if it were a homogenous mass. Such responses come from almost every essay I read, no matter what the subject. When anyone with a full-time position even hints that the job market might be better than some might think, those who are unable to find such a position lambaste the author, supporting their assertions with their experiences or those of friends. When people working as adjuncts or in other tenuous and poorly paid positions write about their experiences, full-time employees comment that they are exaggerating or not doing what they should be doing to obtain a full-time post.
Part of this problem comes from the fact that most of us have worked and will work at only a few different institutions, ones that usually are similar or of the same type. It is rare to find someone who has moved from a community college to a research university or even from a private university with a specific focus—religiously based, for example—to a state university. Most of us have a particular comfort zone or are able to find jobs at only one type of institution. This limitation leads us to believe that our type of institution is the way higher education is, or at least we fail to see the wide variety within academia. If we teach at a research university, for example, our view of community college professors is informed by our experience at the research university and at best very limited contact and conversations with community college professors.
I have also been reading David Eagleman’s recent book, Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. He lays out two concepts from Jakob von Uexküll, a Baltic German biologist from the early part of the twentieth century. Uexküll distinguishes between Umwelt (the environment, or surrounding world) and Umgebung (the bigger reality). Eagleman writes, “Each organism has its own umwelt, which it presumably assumes to be the entire objective reality ‘out there.’” Those of us who work in higher education approach our experiences the same way, assuming that our particular Umwelt is equal to the Umgebung of all of higher education.
Thus, when we write essays, we speak from those experiences as if they were the only types of experiences one could have (or people read them that way, perhaps). So we complain about heavy teaching loads or outrageous service demands or town-gown conflicts or a lack of laboratory space or whatever is particular to our institution or institutions similar to it, and people who do not have the same concerns complain that their worries are being ignored.
The problem becomes even greater when disciplinary difference is taken into account. Science professors complain about grant writing, while liberal arts professors bemoan students’ lack of writing skills, and professors in the more professional degree programs talk about accreditation and internships, as if everyone else has to deal with the same problems. While professors in degree programs where female students and professors are scarce talk about sexism, English professors look out at their classes and wonder where the men have gone.
There are even differences where we do not expect them. Last fall I and several other faculty members were having dinner with a visiting writer and scholar. His institution, like ours, is a member of the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU), a group of 118 institutions that are clearly Christian. While his university is better-known than ours, nationally speaking, we are not that far behind, as far as I can tell. When we were talking about workloads, then, I expected we would have the same concerns. However, he mentioned that he had received a research release for one class this year, giving him a 2/2 teaching load. A bit sheepishly, he asked about ours: a 4/4 load, with two or three core courses each semester.
While we all know such differences exist when we stop to think about it, we do not function this way. If our writing (and I’m including online comments here) reflects our thinking, then our thinking presumes that our way of being higher education is the only way. We lose our objectivity and respond to people’s stories with our own subjective stories, arguing that our way is the only way, rather than listening to hear how someone somewhere else might think.
We need to tell our stories, certainly, and we need to read others’ stories. We have experiences we need to share, as we can learn from colleagues who are in similar situations and those whose academic lives seem very different from ours. However, we must do so with humility, remembering that our Umwelt is not the Umgebung, that we never see the greater reality of higher education, just our small segment of it.
Of course, that’s just my opinion.
Kevin Brown is professor of English at Lee University. He has published essays in Academe, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Teaching Professor, and Inside Higher Ed. His book They Love to Tell the Story: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels was published in 2012.