Document Type

Article

Publication Date

9-2016

Abstract

Message from President: Academe is not immune to the new epidemic of affiliation. Often enough, thinking people choose careers in higher education owing in part to a desire to escape the avalanche of demographic labels—race; class; gender; ethnicity; income; educational level; zip code and associated social status; favorite URLs—that rolls over individuality and buries free thinking. Academe, many hope, provides the last bastion for individual achievement. The quest for liberty, whether from imposed group identities or mass movements, is, as revolutionaries soon discover, not so easy as expected. Even dissidents want to belong to something. Surprisingly, academic folk prize affiliation more than anyone else. Their affiliation markers are numerous, attach themselves early in professional life, persist, and, through dues, can even be bought. The affiliating mania begins with concern over degree-granting universities—did you take your Ph.D. at Yale or at Bismarck State Cosmetology Institute?—and continues through myriad identifications: with a dissertation director; with the institution at which, largely by luck, one happens to land a job; with a department; with a discipline; with laboratory groups; with collaborators; with editorial boards; and, for the dues-paying, with professional organizations. A person who achieves promotion and tenure is so thoroughly marked—so indelibly tattooed—by affiliations as to be unidentifiable without them. As is known by anyone who has ever been introduced at a conference, speech, or event, affiliations constitute the bulk of one’s public identity. Many of the affiliations in which academic professionals take pride also contribute most directly to the entrapment about which so many colleagues complain. Acquiring affiliation X often precludes obtaining affiliation Y and thereby limits the range of action. Becoming an Assistant Professor in Music History de facto blocks the study of Horticulture, at least for six or seven probationary years. Among the most pernicious and yet most prized affiliations is membership in a department or discipline. Affiliating with any one field of study certainly improves access to discipline-specific resources and creates the cuddly feeling of belonging to a tribe (and thereby being protected from other tribes), but it also sets the new affiliate in tacit distinction from, if not opposition to, the rest of the Republic of Letters. It also prevents affiliates from recognizing that departments and disciplines have almost no power to determine university policy, distribute support funds, or advance a career. Perhaps the most startling recognition that emerges from prolonged involvement with both administrative and faculty affairs is that many of the inroads into faculty prerogative that have been made by administrations were laid down not by wicked bureaucrats but by affiliation-loving faculty themselves. Deciding that “I am a faculty member” (and not an administrator) or that “I am a Professor of Biology” (and not of Foreign Languages) automatically places an affiliating colleagues in a small corner of the institution and far in the background of the vast landscape of higher education. Such self-identification begins the process by which the right and authority to speak for the community of intellectuals erodes. Sometimes this inadvertent isolationism is inflicted on a young person, as occurs when a mentor or a promotion committee member warns a beginner to show what he or she can do within the discipline and not get mixed up in far-reaching initiatives. Seventeenth-century poet John Donne tells us that “salvation to all that will is nigh.” The solution to the affiliation problem is remarkably easy even if unlikely to be deployed by large numbers of colleagues. Because the affiliation mania is endemic and everywhere in academe, the mere act of speaking out on large issues is often so unexpected as to confer enormous power. When colleagues really do talk about big issues, those accustomed to life in silos listen (or sometimes run). When someone says, in a personnel committee meeting, “yes, this person has released plenty of good scholarship, and that is admirable, but what has he or she done to advance the institution of the university?” those with parochial instincts often experience a moment of enlightenment. De-affiliating, declaring oneself what was once called a “public intellectual” rather than an employee in a department, is the greatest of all services.

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