Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action 1940-1972

reviewed by Steven Weiland - 1997

coverTitle: Women Scientists in America: Before Affirmative Action 1940-1972
Author(s): Margaret Rossiter
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore
ISBN: 0801857112, Pages: 624, Year: 1998
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When Robert Hughes (1993) called the United States a “culture of complaint” in his acclaimed book by that name he included professors for their desire for more recognition than they deserved, given their self-satisfied isolation from life away from campus and their disciplines. Still, if many professors feel entitled to a complaint, some recognize their good fortune. Near the end of his contribution to a new collection of personal essays by professors with working-class backgrounds (This Fine Place), sociologist Michael Schwalbe of North Carolina State University speaks with candor and pleasure of his circumstances:

I enjoy this life. I’m not split between an unfree world of working for someone else and a separate home world where I can do what I want. Sure, there’s some work to do in this job, things I’d rather not do. But this is small stuff, and it’s rarely dirty or dangerous. So even if students, reviewers, editors, colleagues, and administrators are sometimes a pain, I never feel like my work weighs down on me from outside my skin. I could say that my work is as much a matter of how I live as it is a matter of things I do as a professor. (p. 331)

We do not know if Schwalbe participated in the 1996 national survey “Faculty Attitudes and Characteristics” by UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) (1996) but it would be safe to say that if he did he is among the large majority (86%) who believe, in the words of the HERI survey, that “autonomy and independence” are aspects of faculty life that are most satisfactory but not among the equally large group (80%) who reported as a source of stress the “lack of personal time” (p. 12).

How can so many of those who enjoy an unusual amount of control over their work also complain of stress from inattention to their own lives? Many professors will see no paradox in this question, believing with justification that their work is unique in its structure and demands. Other features of faculty work are equally puzzling or problematic. Characterized by conservative critics as “tenured radicals,” American professors are indeed overwhelmingly liberal in political orientation but, in the eyes of politically sympathetic colleagues, they are too resistant to change. And while academic research has built a foundation on methodological rigor and putative scholarly neutrality, we see now also a strong impulse toward recognizing the personal dimensions of inquiry.

Among the half million American professors there are of course enough differences—personal and professional—to make us cautious in speaking of categories as general as “academic life” or “faculty work.” Still, there is abundant writing about American professors, chiefly by professors themselves. A highly individualized narrative literature of faculty work (largely in autobiography but also in fiction) is flourishing even as reformist criticism of academic life, and more conventional studies of it, compete for authority in guiding policy, promoting change, or influencing practice.

In what follows I have adopted a genre-based approach, naming three dominant forms of writing about the faculty: criticism, research, and narrative. The first is the oldest form, Thorstein’s Veblen The Higher Learning in America (1918) being perhaps the best known early example of the effort to reveal fundamental structures and, directly or indirectly, to promote reform. Research on faculty based in the social and behavioral sciences gained a foothold in the 1960s and 1970s with the expansion of education (and higher education) as fields of study and, in the vein of applied research, the policy demands posed by rapid institutional growth. Narrative can be said to be academic postmodernism’s cause and creation, prompting disciplinary revolutions and reflecting recognition of difference in the academic professions. All three forms make distinctive contributions even as each reveals how much might be gained from more traffic among them.


David Damrosch, who teaches English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, wrote We Scholars to promote fundamental changes in faculty work, especially more collaboration. But he has no illusions about what it will take to realize such a goal. “The most rational modernization may encounter implacable resistance if it runs afoul of a professional prerogative first established in the thirteenth century and maintained into the present with a tenacity only increased by the fact that it persists unconsciously and unquestioned” (p. 19). In Damrosch’s view, faculty work takes from the past its best and worst habits. But professors themselves are the only genuine resource for reform because—however blind to what is possible—they have the necessary intellectual and institutional authority, and they are in command of the smallest and therefore the most manageable sites for reform: syllabi, classrooms, dissertations, and more.

For those who have kept up with the past decade’s criticism of the university and of professors, Damrosch’s gracefully written and compact book will have familiar features, particularly its focus on the consequences of faculty colleagues’ being needlessly isolated from one another, or the lack of academic community deriving from excessive academic specialization. Benevolent habits have been sacrificed to distorted ideals of professional achievement, as Damrosch’s pointed irony indicates: “Departmental nationalism has persisted in the structuring of academic work, but things have changed: many professors, and particularly the most original and productive scholars among them, no longer behave like good citizens, or even like citizens at all. They are more like resident aliens” (p. 41).

In the opening chapter of We Scholars Damrosch offers a synoptic history of the American university in the twentieth century in order to caution us against historical sentimentality and thus complacency in which we institutionalize our hopes for a “changeless home for eternal verities” (p. 45). Instead, Damrosch insists that we see the university as a “constructed” place in which structures and activities are not inevitable but are the products of human will and choice, which can change over time, particularly if the chief actors—the faculty—commit themselves to it. Damrosch speaks as a reformer but from the inside of academic work. In his view critics who have captured public attention have little pragmatic understanding of how the university actually operates—how reforms can be financed, for example. They are single-issue advocates who cannot see the full meaning of their proposals, however justified.

Undeniably, the future of faculty work is part of a group of related intellectual, scientific, and administrative problems: “The state of fields and subfields in many disciplines seems to be reaching a boiling point; how are we to manage their transformation ?” (p. 4). But according to Damrosch, disciplinary pressures can be mobilized on behalf of change and faculty members prompted to transfer the momentum of intellectual and scientific work to the cause of departmental or even institutional reform. “At certain historical moments . . . the normal institutional masking mechanisms are put under stress, and [problems] can assume both a new visibility and a new urgency” (p. 63). The conditions shaping the problems are well known. Any list would include the rapid increase in knowledge and the technologies transforming it, new patterns of enrollment, and limits on public financing with fresh demands for accountability. Damrosch knows the work of the organizational theorists who have supplied a useful image of “organized anarchy” for the university and how, among other things, such an image has made higher education administration vulnerable to the claims of those who see the solution to all problems in the application of business principles (e.g., “Continuous Quality Improvement” or some other generic managerial technique). But he also knows how the organization of and the demands on a teaching and scholarly career have changed in his own lifetime and that the new conditions must be managed in the vocabulary of faculty work.

The core of Damrosch’s book is a chapter suggestively titled “The Scholar as Exile,” the problems of undergraduate general education and graduate education (the subjects of succeeding chapters) reflecting largely if not exclusively the organization of academic work and careers around principles of autonomy and solitude. In exploring the genealogy of “exile,” Damrosch himself indulges in a bit of historical sentimentality by invoking the career of the great nineteenth-century Harvard art historian and cultural critic Charles Eliot Norton. The story of Norton’s career, however remote it appears from our own circumstances, represents for Damrosch the scholarly disposition as it emerged with the growth of the university. Thus Norton’s benevolent instincts as a teacher and scholar were sacrificed to his increasing sense of distance from the academic enterprise and anger with its evolving form.

What is valuable about Damrosch’s interest in the case of Norton is that he plainly shares many of his predecessor’s values even as they changed in response to the vulgarization of the university (via sports) and the culture generally. The task is what to make of the apparently natural cultural resistance among today’s scholars, an academic stance and working habits they have inherited (partly via Norton). “Alienation is good if it gives an independent purchase for looking at the world and at one’s subject; it is counterproductive when it becomes an excuse for an outright retreat from modern life” (p. 84).

Damrosch tells two more revealing tales, of University of Texas law professor Jules Getman and Yale literary scholar David Bromwich, whose recent books he presents as personal testimony of the historical patterns that have made academic work so difficult and unsatisfying to someone with his values. While the first regrets the increasing tendency toward academic solitude, and the second makes a defense of faculty individualism in the face of too much “group think,” Damrosch knows that the lesson they offer together is that “we scholars” have a false picture of our own past and the choices available now and in the future. “Over time a modest average advantage in natural selection can give a group a dominant position, and its self-image can come to seem the portrait of the true scholar, rather than one option among others” (p. 86). He would not deny traditional academic virtues but only “loosen their lock” on the faculty. In a nicely worded statement of professional centrism we can see the option Damrosch favors: “It ought to be possible to strike a better balance between a breathless postmodern communal pietism and an archaic late-Romantic individualism” (p. 104).

According to Damrosch, collaboration in faculty work would improve both the undergraduate curriculum and graduate and professional studies. Damrosch thinks more radically in the latter category than in the former, where, though he recognizes the problem of faculty interests (particularly among senior professors whom he names “the hidden plutocracy”), he relies on familiar injunctions about the consequences of scholarly specialization and the benefits of collaborative learning and team teaching. He cannot offer much more than proposing that “ways must be found to integrate specialized knowledge with general education” and the wanly stated wish for alternatives “developed through conversation and consensus, taking both history and current conditions into account” (p. 133).

But signs like these that the genre of curricular criticism ultimately yields only platitudes should be evaluated against Damrosch’s proposals for graduate education, particularly how they would change the image of faculty work in this domain where, as Damrosch observes, individual prerogatives and tradition are strongest. “No exhortations to change will have any effect on graduate education if the faculty do not wish to make the change” (p. 140). Motive and interest are everything and where there is the most autonomy and small-group work there are the best opportunities for individuals to try new things. To be sure, we face a troubling paradox-high dropout rates among dissertation writers and overproduction of new Ph.D.‘s, at least in terms of the prospects for traditional academic careers. More than most critics of the university, Damrosch is sensitive to such circumstances but he cannot help in the end addressing the “next intellectuals” whose training may leave much to be desired but whose own professional prerogatives in the decades ahead may yield the necessary reforms. “We need not only to develop the inner imperative of our disciplines as we usually do, but also to go against their grain, trying to work together- to see better those questions to which our institutions normally blind us” (p. 188). By making “we scholars” his subject and his audience Damrosch wisely sacrifices a larger (nonprofessional) audience to the possibilities for actual change.

Journalists hostile to academic life have often set the tone of criticism of professors’ work, particularly what are seen as excesses of professionalism. A landmark book from within academic life that shares much of this view is Richard Ohmann’s English in America (with its subtitled claim to be a “radical” view of the profession), first published in 1976 and reissued now with a new and extensive introduction by the author. Ohmann, who has had a long career at Wesleyan University as a professor and sometime administrator, anticipated Damrosch in looking into the organizational literature as a resource for criticism of academic work. He makes a platform of remarks like this one from the well-known sociologist of the professions C. Everett Hughes: “Many of the specific rules of the game of an occupation become comprehensible only when viewed as the almost instinctive attempts of a group of people to cushion themselves against the hazards of their careers” (in Ohmann, p. 236). While some may find only cynicism in such a view, for Ohmann it conveys his belief that the academic professions are included in what neo-Marxists call the “hegemonic” practices of capitalist or free market democracies. Thus Ohmann says, “one cannot think clearly about any part of our working lives without seeing them in the context of historical shifts in the world’s productive system” (p. xxix). Accordingly, he understands recent trends in the academic labor market, particularly increasing reliance on part-time professors, as signs of how an economic attitude called “flexible accumulation” has found its way even into the study of literature. “The sorrows of English,” he says now with a welcome opportunity for hindsight, “are but one small effect of global economic transition” (p. xlv).

Still, English in America is actually quite a local work of criticism, focusing mainly on English in the research universities. Several chapters (they were written originally as essays) reflect the view that faculty work is essentially a disciplinary and departmental matter. Ohmann’s book retains much of its original value and even gains in importance by allowing us to see how criticism of professors and their institutions gained momentum from within the profession prior to more recent external attacks. In his essay on the Modern Language Association, Ohmann recognizes colleagues who resist convention but only to underscore how the foundational argument for literary studies deflects from authentic faculty work (in what follows the estimates are lower than what pertains in 1997 and thus even more disturbing):

In our institutional efforts to transmit and preserve culture, I see only a denial of the critical spirit. Our computerized bibliographies, our fragmented “fields,” our hundreds of literary journals and 30,000 books and articles, our systems of information storage and retrieval, our survey courses and historical pigeonholes, our scramble for light loads and graduate students, our 67 sections and 67 seminars, our emphasis on technique and procedure, our hierarchy of scholarly achievements, our jealous pursuits of social neutrality and political vacuity—in all this I see a retreat from criticism and a movement into more comfortable ways of life. (p. 49)

The term “criticism” here borrows something from literary studies itself (the close examination of texts and ideas) but more from what is often referred to as “critical theory,” or the effort to understand how it is that a complex group of social, economic, institutional, and other forces yield certain kinds of professional behavior. In the stance of the latter kind of critic of faculty work, Ohmann makes criticism of the former kind parochial and self-serving. But since he knows such faculty work from within, he can identify problems and patterns of behavior as a higher education critic with much concrete authority.

Over the years Ohmann has withdrawn little of his institutional criticism but he has welcomed signs that English is now less isolated from the times.

When you look around at the English curriculum in the most generous sense, the sense that counts most—not just courses and requirements and majors, but the questions embedded in the course of study, the ideas and perspectives that students are likely to encounter in and out of class, the things that we tell them are worth their intellectual work, the very academic agenda—the curriculum has been deeply altered, and indeed politicized, in just (!) thirty years. That’s why the Bight pays us the courtesy of its bellicose attention. (xxxvi)

There is satisfaction from the perspective of late career but it is not free of the strongly held ideology that motivated Ohmann’s work in the first place. He has not changed all that much. “I did believe then, and do now, both that the capitalist project of development is careening toward misery and brutality that can be alleviated only through a radical, social transformation and that the deformities of our professional life, not to mention of perhaps more consequential professions like medicine and law, are attendant on contradictions of the whole social order” (p. xxvi). Critics of faculty work like Damrosch who share Ohmann’s perspective are more liberal than radical, or at least they are reluctant to make “the whole social order” one of their subjects. They accept (at least in their writing) a definition of faculty work that focuses on the classroom and the library, academic careers being a part of the social order of course but without the resources necessary for broadly based political reform.

Buffeted by external and internal critics, professors are likely to respond best to Damrosch’s moderate voice of reform-with its focus on the uses of autonomy to achieve more collaboration. But is it too constrained—with its focus on graduate study, for example—to have the broad effects he seeks? Criticism is a demanding genre for writing about faculty because the disciplinary stance giving it authority for academic readers is only a platform for self-interest in the view of others.

Damrosch’s and Ohmann’s scholarly loyalties amount to a form of self-interest; they publish books and essays while lamenting too much attention to publishing in the profession generally. I believe that they should not be bothered by the paradox because of the independent and self-critical stance they have adopted. Thus, in academic as in other work, as Ohmann notes, “ideology tries to make reality match up with desire” (p. 233). When he said in 1976 that his profession was “wrapped in delusions” he was thinking chiefly of its claims to be outside society’s economic and political struggles. He still believes that professors of English and other subjects can do “liberatory” work but only if they “historicize the politics of education” by finding forms for it meeting today’s circumstances, preferably public activism to “oppose the tyrannies of this culture” (p. 335). Damrosch hopes to liberate professors themselves from habits standing in the way of their own and their students’ best academic work.

In Ohmann’s form of criticism not to recognize that there is a choice between his and Damrosch’s approach is to be deluded still. Critics of faculty work make such differences matter and, in effect, ask readers at least to encounter images of academic life in which the choice of change means more professional satisfaction. Speaking for the oppositional stance of critics, Ohmann says, “though there is no cause for joy in this position, I do find it exhilarating in comparison to its main-competitor, the idea that we must keep doing what we have been doing, only more and better” (p. 335).

For experienced professors, the choices presented by criticism of faculty work mean reflection on long-term commitments. In the view of A. Leigh Deneef and Craufurd D. Goodwin, prospective and new professors need a different kind of advice. Thus, in the second edition of The Academic’s Handbook there are twenty-nine essays addressing virtually every feature of faculty work. The topics include interviewing for a job, securing funding for research, managing a lecture course, teaching by discussion, life as a minority faculty member, internationalization of the curriculum, publishing and the new technology, and more. The authors, most of whom are associated with Duke University, offer practical measures in tones that are generally reassuring and mindful of the pressures on young professors. If anything, the volume understates the most important pressure of all, simply gaining a tenure track position in higher education. But this book is for those who succeed in a difficult job market and few new professors will find it fruitful (publicly at least) to adopt Damrosch’s stance, much less Ohmann’s. It is realism rather than reform that motivates most contributors to the Handbook, as in the late Kenneth Pye’s advice about moderating interest in academic governance and Elizabeth Nathan’s account of student advising, which she declares to be “time-consuming, demanding, anxiety-provoking, expected, and exceptionally rewarding if often unrewarded” (p. 199).

But there are benefits to the stance of (generally) uncritical experience, as in Goodwin’s cautious irony in the essay on gaining tenure: “If you are told that your institution’s tenure committee ignores teaching in its evaluations, can’t tell quality if it is rubbed in their faces, and makes decisions either by log rolling or favoritism, remember that soon you may be in their place” (p. 155). The system is essentially a just one, he thinks, and new professors are advised to adopt the prevailing values. From another perspective, in his essay on salary and benefits, Deneef makes a more general claim deriving from his sense of the lives of those who contributed to the Handbook even if many faculty colleagues complain about being paid too little. There is this antidote to professional complaint:

[They] have three months of vacation in the summer, have streamlined their effective time on campus to as little as two days per week (and then certainly not a full eight-to-five schedule), and routinely travel across both the country and the continents. They may imagine that their community neighbors working at IBM or American Airlines or whatever are making substantially more money and are generally more secure financially, but a moment’s glance at national statistics concerning poverty rates and job layoffs ought to be enough to dispel such fantasies. The academic life is, as one of my more realistic colleagues says, “the best deal in the world.” (p. 168)

Precisely, Ohmann and Damrosch would say, and all the more reason to adapt the academic vocations to new public, professional, and personal ideals. Young readers of the Handbook will need time to come to such a conclusion on their own but their chances-of doing so will depend on whether they will also seek the counsel of critics.


Academic specialists in higher education—typically members of small programs in higher education in colleges of education but also scholars in the social and behavioral sciences who have made higher education the focus of their work—are sure to be pleased by Damrosch’s invitation at the outset of We Scholars to colleagues in literary studies and other fields in the arts and sciences. He acknowledges that by virtue of preparing for and living an academic life, scholars and teachers have a kind of expert knowledge of the university. But it is not enough if such interpreters approach the task of writing about higher education as a busman’s holiday. “People who would never think of writing an article in their own field without first reading most of the literature on the subject will produce entire books that reflect only the most cursory attention to the work of specialists in the several fields that include academic life and work within their purview” (p. 12). Considering Damrosch’s ambivalence about “specialization” in his own field, his generosity toward scholars of higher education studying faculty matters should be welcomed as a sign of what might come from more cross-fertilization in thinking about academic work.

Robert Blackburn and Janet Lawrence are accomplished specialists in the study of professors as an occupational group. Their work, together and with others at the University of Michigan in the past few decades, has set a high standard for systematic study of virtually all features of academic careers. They led a major national center for the study of higher education and academic work in the mid 1980s and early 1990s. The background and results of a series of studies undertaken during that time are reported in great statistical detail in Faculty at Work, which actually derives from what the authors believe to be the limits of standard scholarly practice in the study of professors “Researchers [in higher education] have borrowed from a wide assortment of conceptual frameworks—a natural thing to do, since no conclusive framework exists for understanding this occupational group” (p. 282). Recognizing the growth in higher education research since the mid-1980s at an “exponential rate,” they determined a service-oriented need to register its cumulative significance, and more important, a conceptual need to give it form and direction. Thus, Blackburn and Lawrence are both spokespersons for such work and critics (in the conventional sense) of it, particularly its lack of a durable theoretical impulse.

Their own conceptualization of faculty “role performance and achievement” reflects the view that “faculty consciously and cognitively assess their work environment and respond to their perceptions, an ongoing process that leads to reevaluations of one’s self, reinterpretations of one’s environment, and shifts in behavior and productivity” (p. xiv). The new framework has four “constructs”: individual sociodemographic characteristics, the stages and common activities in a career, self-knowledge or how we understand our own motives and behavior, and social knowledge or how we see our environment. There is in Faculty at Work an exhaustive review of the research literature intended to justify the premises behind the framework and choice of constructs, and to explore indicators and measures for the authors’ empirical studies on faculty behavior and “products.” Blackburn and Lawrence are, typically, generous with regard to predecessors but note that since few studies have a coherent theoretical foundation, “one would expect the generally low correlations and little explained variance that the literature discloses. We founded our framework on sound theory and the best existing knowledge about faculty” (p. 111).

The several studies conducted within the framework favored the research universities because Blackburn and Lawrence determined them to be the places where “the data were richest” for what they wanted to know (particularly, what prompts and sustains science and scholarship). Even so, they claim that their findings can, with sensitivities to particular issues, be generalized across other institutional types. Simply stated, the results of their studies show that “sociodemographic” factors matter least in accounting for faculty behavior. Among “career” variables it was “career age,” or the number of years one has had a full-time faculty appointment, that appeared most ‘to influence productivity. Unlike previous studies, theirs do not assign great significance to the status of a professor’s graduate school. “A kennel club pedigree may initially locate one at a more highly regarded university. Today’s success, however, depends upon performance, not prejob credentials” (p. 281).

It was the framework constructs named “self-knowledge” and “social knowledge” that were the most useful in explaining variance. The well-known psychological category “self-efficacy” as a feature of “self-knowledge” mattered more than any other variable in the research, at every kind of institution and in every discipline. “Social knowledge” as a category contained the most predictors, particularly the “support” derived from financial and material resources and that which comes from salutary effects of colleagueship. The framework, to the authors’ satisfaction, showed that behavior variables were strong pedictors of productivity:

Faculty do what they believe they are good at (self-competence), devote energy to what interests them (interest and-percentage of effort), engage in activities in which they can influence outcomes (efficacy). It is not surprising, then, that the corresponding behavior-say, doing research—results in publications. (p. 281)

Blackburn and Lawrence know that experience and common sense would suggest as much, so they focus on the significance of their findings as part of the long-term enterprise of research in higher education, including their efforts to provide a durable conceptual foundation. For as their engagingly candid account of a familiar dilemma in faculty behavior shows, such work will only be as good as the theory supporting it is in reflecting the complexities of mature professional practice.

That faculty continue to publish after being promoted to full professor no more proves the intrinsic-motivation theory than the positive correlation between publications and salary proves that extrinsic motivation determines faculty activities. The aging professor may be continuing to publish in the hope of securing higher-than-average raises, and professors who do not change their behavior when offered rewards to do so may balk not because of an internal drive to do what they have been doing but rather for fear that they will fail at the new task. Settling the intrinsic/extrinsic debate requires a sophisticated set of experiments, ones never likely to be launched. Neither theory alone can adequately account for faculty behavior. One again suspects that there are interactions involved, and that faculty call on one or the other reward system depending on factors-and circumstances neither theory alone adequately takes into account (p. 284)

Presumably, their framework will account in a newly comprehensive way for such “factors” and “circumstances” but they know its limits.

Near the end of Faculty at Work, in identifying what they see as the long-term value of their study, Blackburn and Lawrence propose that their problems “rest more with the data available than with conceptualizations and the underlying theoretical constructs.” For what makes it difficult to penetrate the meanings of professional behavior is that “there is an ongoing cycle of interactions and altered cognitions, values, beliefs, preferences, and behaviors” (p. 289). Their portrait of professors is by their own account “static” or a “snapshot in time” and cannot really tell us what will happen next, to any group of academics much less any particular one. Accordingly, they propose that the great task of research on faculty is a major longitudinal study, through even an effort of this kind is of course always constrained once a cohort is chosen with its peculiar historical circumstances.

Some critics of the university may be disappointed with the ways that the very structure of Faculty at Work reifies institutional practices, or the familiar division into research, teaching, and service. True enough, there is recognition of the popular proposals made by Ernest Boyer (1990) for a redefinition of “scholarship” that would blur the border of research and teaching and bring more regard to those dedicated professors whose publications lagged behind their peers’ but who brought a self-conscious inquiry-based approach to the classroom and to their preparation for it. In (tacitly) resisting this approach, a resistance I myself share, Blackburn and Lawrence display their loyalty to the research institutions, some of whom make gestures at change in the form Boyer endorsed but continue to reward behavior and productivity along the lines of the assumptions about faculty work revealed by the Blackburn and Lawrence surveys. Thus, as they work largely within the prevailing professional ethos of the major research institution, the value of their framework may be twofold: first, in structuring inquiry in ways that help us to make sense of and use of work less comprehensive than theirs, and second, by virtue of the high degree of importance they attach to social and behavioral theory, making the field of research on faculty more accountable to work in other fields and thus (presumably) more appealing and useful to practitioners in them.

In mainstream social science research on academic work, “productivity” has turned out to be perilous for two reasons. First, as Blackburn and Lawrence recognize, the focus on discrete and measurable products of faculty performance has reinforced institutional and personal attention to research. Alas, given their methods, this is not a failing they themselves can altogether avoid. The “Preface” to Faculty at Work includes the wish that they not be labeled “reductionists” because they are quantitative. And near the end, as they report key findings, there is the caution that “all is not quite so simple. We are dealing with complex individuals engaged in complex social relations in complex environments” (p. 281). Suitable modesty to be sure, but not so reassuring when we are also told that the new “framework” solves the problem of the reductionism and simplicities of the previous research. There is throughout Faculty at Work the claim to “explain” and “predict.” But by the end what is explained and predicted is not so new or so certain (life and work being so “complex”) that “we scholars” can rely on the book in proportion to the novelty of its approach within the field of research in higher education.

Productivity—of higher education researchers themselves—has also turned out to be perilous since their work appears to have had only a small there may be too much empirical research, or at least too much in relation to efforts like Blackburn’s and Lawrence’s, to synthesize, theorize, and make it useful. As Damrosch suggests, well- and little-known books by professors in the traditional disciplines about problems of teaching and research rarely recognize such work. Why? The research is about professors but rarely addressed to them. As is often said by critics of academic research on K-12 education, it is too remote from the objects of its inquiry to have authority.

To say as much for researchers on higher education has the sound of paradox, since they are professors and work in universities like the subjects of their studies. But it has proved difficult to break out of the circle of inquiry defined by the American Educational Research Association and the Association for the Study of Higher Education where the problems of the disciplines—the ones that matter most to professors, particularly at research institutions—get only the most generic and superficial attention. Whatever its rigor, Faculty at Work and the research traditions it both criticizes and represents does not take-us deeply enough inside academic life in the ways that most academic workers themselves are likely to recognize.


Blackburn and Lawrence claim to have as their subject the individual professor. But none actually appear or speak in Faculty at Work except the authors themselves, the ambivalences in their own voices (when not speaking in charts and tables) revealing how complex and confounding academic work can be. Their own academic stories can be seen in the fortitude with which they have pursued a synthesis and durable framework for their field and in the seemingly paradoxical recognition of how difficult it is to find out about what they most want to know. Thus, while adding with their studies to our recognition in the past few decades of the increasing importance of research at all types of institutions, they direct us beyond what their measures can reveal.

Damrosch, hoping to speak about and for the academic community, recognizes the resilience of the individual. “At some middle range, in between one’s private self and one’s public teaching and writing, there exists what could be called one’s scholarly personality, a guiding cast of mind that is partly a predilection for certain issues and approaches, but equally a fondness for a certain mode of work” (p. 85). It is “we scholars” who can change the nature of faculty work but it is only an interest in the sources of individual careers—over the life course—that can lead US toward deep understanding of motives and preferences.

What is the best source of knowledge of individuals? Psychologists are increasingly recognizing the role of narrative—the stories we tell ourselves and others about ourselves—in personal identity. Life history (a convenient cover term for the many varieties of narrative about individuals) is a genre that reaches across the intellectual gaps produced by academic specialization. As a visit to any bookstore will show, biography is one of our culture’s most popular “literary” forms, the quotation marks denoting the range of life writing—from airy and adoring celebrity “bios” to dense and interpretive accounts of historical figures. Biography has always had a major role in history and literary studies but its place in the social and behavioral sciences has been problematic. It flourished prior to World War II but declined during the growing hegemony of quantitative methods afterward. In his influential The Sociological Imagination, C. Wright Mills (1959) protested by proposing that it was biography joined to history that provided the best source of knowledge of human behavior in society.

But mainstream social and behavioral scientists have been wary of the single “case” even if readers of every kind find in life stories information, entertainment, solace, inspiration, and instruction. Natural scientists, including those working in universities, sometimes have had their stories told, their gifts of discovery being relevant to the lives of readers in ways that, say, art historians or classicists are not. Professors do not appear to be appealing biographical subjects, their lives (apparently) lacking the necessary personal drama and social significance.

Fortunately, Paul Buhle and Edward Rice-Maximin have ignored such assumptions and written a detailed and compelling life of the controversial scholar and teacher William Appleman Williams (1921-1990). While not everyone would agree with their view that Williams was the nation’s most important historian, his career represents important features of academic work in the form of a revealing story of aspiration, achievement, and ultimately disappointment. Writing as sympathetic historians themselves rather than as psychologists, Buhle and Rice-Maximin acknowledge the focus of their approach early in their narrative: “Full understanding would require deep insight into a character fragmented through childhood tragedy, rebuilt through personal determination, challenged by world events, and settled as firmly as it could be settled through the self-identification of the citizen scholar” (p. 3).

Naturally, it is the last that claims most of the authors’ attention and Buhle and Rice-Maximin offer an authoritative if partisan account of the American scholarly Left in the years after World War II, in particular Williams’s efforts to fill the role of what is now referred to as the “public intellectual.” Ironically, the expansion of American higher education in the 1950s and 1960s meant more and more well-trained intellectuals but less and less attention to the interests of the “public.” Williams’s aspirations in this regard derived largely from his highly critical views of American foreign policy as a betrayal of distinctly American historical ideals. Thus, and suitably enough for a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, it was as a “bereaved patriot” that he sought an audience outside the university.

Williams was associated for many years with the University of Wisconsin so his biography is also in part an institutional—or, more exactly, departmental—history as well. We learn how a group of professors and graduate students (a few cohorts of the latter) succeeded in forging a style of historical inquiry even as their ideas sometimes conflicted and their careers diverged geographically and intellectually. Collegial and intergenerational relations are an integral part of academic life. Williams was not always easy to get along with and he struggled in mature life to reconcile the durability of his relations with prodégés with the hostility of his relations with colleagues who rejected his politics, his scholarly style, and his efforts to redefine the academic vocation. For professors at least, there is a familiar and poignant academic drama in the contrast between Williams’s local circumstances (what he could achieve in the graduate seminar)-and his struggle for status and recognition nationally, and even internationally. As told by Buhle and Rice-Maximin, Williams’s story is also an account of how an individual scholar manages a publishing career, with highs and lows traceable to the wish to find the right audience at the right time.

Readers with minor interest in the ideological shadings of academic radicalism can nevertheless find in Buhle and Rice-Maximin’s account a story of greater interest. They have found a voice for academic biography reflecting the genre’s more general appeal. Thus, in representative passages from the years in Williams’s career when its core dynamics were becoming clear, here I is how key elements—his ambition, sense of marginalization, and growing alienation—are made into biographical interpretation:

Williams’ small-town Protestant idealism and his background of childhood emotional insecurity, reshaped successively by the rigors of Annapolis, the horrors of war, and the driving need to make something special of his own life, could account for the energetic intellectualism and the personal elusiveness of the young man. Approaching his thirtieth birthday, he was still in the process of becoming the psychic offspring of that little boy from Iowa He correctly anticipated glory, but he had a long, hard push ahead. (p. 59)

Only when this darkest of scholarly years had closed, and perhaps not even then, could the full measure be taken of the delayed or abandoned scholarship, broken lives, and the swift advancement of hardened cold-war ideologues into many positions of continuing professional authority or reflexive-historical study would find them scattered and very often at the margins of professional expression. In those margins, Williams found eager editors and his own public voice. (p. 77)

Behind the bold front, a certain pathos might be detected, but only by the very perceptive observer. Williams disguised the ample private weakness hidden in the strength of many a remarkable public figure. A slap at him in Time Magazine and ferocious personal attacks on him . . . did not daunt him; nor did the cancellation of book contracts on political grounds, nor even the chilling experience of persistent harassment by the U.S. House Committee on UnAmerican Activities and the Internal Revenue Service. But a certain political and emotional inconsistency, the difficulty of reconciling current hopes with an unsentimental interpretation of American history, cast a shadow over his efforts. Beloved and admired, he frequently seemed in private a radical alone with his own soul. (p. 101)

The interpretive vocabulary here amply demonstrates what narratives of academic life can add to what can be learned from criticism and research. There is just enough about Williams’s personal life to show that the professional cannot be understood without attention to the private.

Williams lived in a troubled household and was discouraged by signs that even the rebellious 1960s did not conform to his image of intellectual activism. There is some bitterness. “He somehow never received the high academic status virtually automatic to others who had refigured major paradigms” (p. 180). Williams stepped down the ladder of academic prestige when he left Madison for Oregon State University. He served an active and controversial term as president of the Organization of American Historians but his last decade was increasingly given over to solitude (long walks on the Oregon coast) and resentment that his achievements as a historian were now only part of the history of his field.

Like many biographers (and adult developmental psychologists), Buhle and Rice-Maximin make good use of the contradictions in their subject’s character. Thus, “Williams celebrated persona, express [ed] positive and negative sides alike in his romantic, competitive character” (p. 60). The biographical narrative ably captures the dialectic of academic pleasure and pain in Williams’s career even as it chronicles Williams’s rise in the profession. Much of what Buhle and Rice-Maximin report can be classified, in the vocabulary of Faculty at Work, as “self-knowledge” and “social knowledge” but the relations between the two over time in very particular settings are the natural subject of life history and a resource for biographical interpretation. Speaking as scholars and activists themselves, the authors know that, as Williams himself once said, “the cutting edge of criticism can be easily dulled by the soft center of personal gain” (p. 90). Williams largely resisted the latter but he did not altogether succeed as an academic agent provocateur. With its often intense competition between professional, public, and private motives, Williams’s career stands for academic lives in which a place must be found for social and political commitments, for collegial and contentious professional behavior, and for the long haul in a working life in which “products” (a term, again, from higher education research) and possibilities are configured in highly personal terms.

While Blackburn and Lawrence propose that we subordinate sociodemographic to other kinds of data about faculty work, two new volumes of academic autobiography ask for greater recognition of the distinctive circumstances of academic women and of professors raised in the working class. These books are part of a now rapidly growing literature of personal narrative on academic life—there have been previous volumes dedicated to working-class professors and to sociologists (e.g., Bergen, 1990; Ryan & Sackrey, 1984)—and the more general attention being given to narrative as a form of inquiry in the social and behavioral sciences, including education (Casey, 1995).

In the case of This Fine Place, edited by C.L. Barney Dews and Carolyn Law, the editors hope to break the illusion of “class homogeneity,” or the association of academic careers with middle- and upper-class backgrounds. “Working class” can be a problematic category but the editors leave the definition to the authors, most of whom grew up in homes where, even if there was a modicum of material prosperity, income came from manual labor and the values associated with it. That often meant skepticism about higher education generally, and in particular about useless “intellectual” pursuits associated with the liberal arts and sciences. Virtually all of the twenty-four contributors to This Fine Place teach and write in such fields (particularly the humanities), which is reflected in their historical sense of academic class consciousness.

Co-editor Carolyn Law says that the book is “our attempt to stop being embarrassed after a very long time of consciously hiding our pasts from the view of our colleagues and students, to reveal our working class roots not in the terms of the academy that would seek to degrade them, but to reclaim our past lives, as well as the present lives of our families, through autobiography and to make those lives relevant in critically important ways to the work we do and will do as professors” (p. 4). Recent autobiographical work by women “teaches us that when one has no voice one is as good as invisible, and invisibility is, in the long run, intolerable” (p. 5). It is not quite right to say that the authors in This Fine Place are “voiceless,” since the majority publish their work. Class is a peculiar part of an academic or any professional identity since, as Law says, “gender identity stays with us throughout a career but social class does not” (p. 6). Accordingly, most of the narratives in This Fine Place are about becoming a professor, the years of formal education, the struggle to recognize an emerging academic identity, and early experiences (generally painful) of academic socialization.

Suitably enough, several authors in This Fine Place represent the significance of their backgrounds in the attention they give to the meaning and value of work itself, particularly the differences between the labor that supported their childhood households and that which sustains their adult lives. For example, John Sumser says that “the key to the impact of working class backgrounds in intellectuals is located not in the idea of class but in the idea of working” and “thinking about the world must begin and end at some concrete place” (pp. 299-300). But his academic life now represents an amusing paradox. Contemplating the displacement of modernist values (e.g., intellectual positivism), by postmodern ones (e.g., epistemological relativism), he says: “I feel like I have changed sides in some very important game and that the values that drove me to play in the first place are no longer compatible with my new role. I became an intellectual because I wanted a craftsman’s brain and a craftsman’s world, I wanted clarity and certainty” (p. 304). Most of the working-class authors, as the title of the book suggests, are preoccupied with the more evident paradox in the fact that they are professors at all and that the conditions of their current work include many reminders of their background. Mindful of the fact that seemingly all of his colleagues come from homes where there is some pattern of higher education and professional practice, education professor Stephen Garger says, “It is as if I am a familial step behind in the academic world” (p. 52).

Some contributors to the volumes of autobiography contest the editors’ organizing principles. Historian Wilson Moses (This Fine Place), making the stance of divided consciousness the subject of his narrative, asserts that “all thinking people have more than two souls” (p. 198) and thus the fundamental mental circumstances of the working-class professor are no different from those of other teachers and scholars. And in Individual Voices, Collective Visions, another collection of academic autobiographies, Helena Lopata says that while gender is obviously critical in the social roles of spouses, parents, and lovers, “it is much less important in the roles of [for example] professors or artists” (p. 195).

To be sure, in the second volume of Women Scientists in America, Margaret Rossiter offers documentary and biographical evidence to the contrary for the period from World War II through the early 1970s (the first volume of this planned three-volume account, published in 1982, carried the subtitle Struggles and Strategies to 1940). Higher education is one source of obstacles, the others being, in Rossiter’s comprehensive account, government and industry. While the focus in this book is on social conditions and institutional policies, there are enough brief stories to demonstrate how for individual women in science “the enormity of their deprivation” (p. 371) prompted the activism characteristic of our own time. Rossiter makes known her regret that there were not more rich biographical sources for the first two parts of her story, but that the dramatic increase in autobiographical narrative—particularly among women—will make knowledge of the years since 1972 that much more enlightening even if still discouraging.

The contributors to the new autobiographical volumes (This fine Place and Individual Voices) believe in the significance of difference, or at least the ways in which they have experienced professional marginalization, alienation, and (in the case of women sociologists) gender discrimination. Thus, the narratives show that women’s work in academic sociology is inevitably political. As Judy Long puts it: “Being a feminist theorist would mean being an activist even for someone who did not choose it” (Individual Voices, p. 129). But choice itself, as Long also notes, often plays only a limited role in guiding a career. Speaking for herself, and I would add for an important strain in adult developmental theory, she asserts how contingent her career and life have been, how difficult to assimilate to age and stage specific formulations of any kind. Rather, “unexpected events have shaped and reshaped my life” (Individual Voices, p. 128). English professor Naton Leslie rejects any idea that there is a “system” (social or institutional) shaping his life. “The system didn’t offer me what has become my career; in fact, the system really seems less definable to me as a series of options and choices than it does a sequence of accidents and lucky roulette spins” (This Fine Place, pp. 73-74).

Relations between the “individual” and the "collective” do indeed define many of the sociological contributions. That is, there are core elements of shared experience—struggling for legitimacy in graduate school, gaining a place in a department, establishing a family, finding a role in the feminist movement (intellectually and organizationally), and consolidating the gains of a professional life with lasting patterns of discrimination or marginalization. As a genre, the stories may share a plot but (as in the case of This Fine Place) circumstance and incident mean there is considerable variety or individualism in career paths. To varying degrees all of these professors had to find the resources for unconventional faculty behavior, the conventions of their fields and of the academic professions being obstacles to recognition and advancement. The narratives themselves gain from the fact that their authors have had to be somewhat more inventive than other professors in “plotting” their lives and careers. As Elaine Hall says, “Learning that you can violate an unspoken taboo and live in dangerous knowledge; the power of outrageous acts is not easily forgotten” (This Fine Place, p. 209).

While they are valuable for providing concreteness to our views of faculty lives and work, the frameworks chosen by the editors of these volumes of autobiographies could be more inclusive and suggestive. In what terms can the stories be said to add up to more than collective representations of the subjects as they define themselves by class and gender? No theory or principles of adult development are offered as a format for making sense of the stories. There is a host of impressive ideas circulating in the study of adult personality and cognition of potential use in understanding the meaning of academic careers—the “possible self,” “mid-life androgyny,” “adaptive competence,” and “mature autonomy” are just a few. And for that matter, the idea of career itself and particularly new interpretive approaches to it should play a conceptual role in whatever justification there is for the contemporary project of personal narrative. Instead, in most personal narrative, there is a near exclusive focus on the expressive intentions of autobiographers, many of whom—like the contributors to This Fine Place and Individual Voices, Collective Visions—claim the achievement of a personal “voice” among the gains of professional maturity.

Still another way to find meaning in the texts beyond what they provide for their authors is to ask why we read them and with what effects. Here too the current focus may be a constraint. We are interested in information about faculty careers, and narratives have a claim from that perspective on inquiry in higher education generally. But where there is the opportunity for identification in encountering a life there also needs to be consideration of the ways that narratives can prompt more than that. In collecting the stories of the senior women sociologists Ann Goetting relied on the meaning of her relationship with a teacher earlier in her career: “Her mentorship healed and saved me” (Individual Voices, p. 3). And she (and the editors of This Fine Place as well) expects as much, metaphorically at least, of the readers of the autobiographical essays reaching beyond the wish merely to understand academic work.

While Verstehen of the human experience is valuable and rewarding in itself, biography provides the additional benefit of activating the readers to construct a benchmark in the interpretation of their own lives. It allows us to . . . locate ourselves and make sense of our lives. . . . The confirmations are comforting; without them one feels isolated or marginal. Consensus sustains us with shared consciousness and community. (Individual Voices, p. 18)

The human desire for company is undeniable and historians and critics of autobiography have recognized its role in that regard. Goetting and Fenstermaker, and Dews and Law, in editing the lives of the working-class authors, imagine for their texts a community of readers whose experience is essentially the same as that of the authors. Law says that the working-class narratives are “stories about finding strength in numbers* (This Fine Place, p. ‘7). The writers’ claim on readers is defined by their similarities. Anything else is relegated to parenthetical recognition (verstehen, as above) and, in a revealing metaphor, named the “darker side” of the role of academic autobiography in which “we may also encounter persons who have found opposing truths and perhaps still others who verify our weaknesses, losses, and deprivations” (Individual Voices, p. 8).

Psychologist Jerome Bruner, himself an academic autobiographer (1983) and now a theorist of personal narrative, has provided a rationale, including a category called “negotiability.” Thus: “While autobiography exists, as it were, in the private intentions of the autobiographer, it also exists for its public interpretive uses, as a part of the general and perpetual conversation about life possibilities” (Bruner, 1995, p. 41). In naming the “conversation” of lives Bruner offers an appealingly broad rationale for academic autobiographies. However overworked conversation may now be as a metaphor in educational discourse, it captures the several ways in which lives intersect and interact with one another and for purposes perhaps other than consensus or empathy. If academic autobiography is to be a resource for understanding academic work then its meanings will have to be drawn out (by autobiographers and others) in the vocabularies of different fields for the many purposes of knowing more about professors.


Professors, like everyone else, are eager to be understood as individuals. But professors, more than others, should understand the motives for social science research and the benefits that come from systematic inquiry into academic work. Even so, the literary imagination will continue to be an influential form for probing the psychology of careers, as David Lodge’s well-known novels do with humor and insight into faculty lives. Norman Holland’s Death in a Delphi Seminar has its humorous moments but its great virtue is the instance it offers of invention in academic self-consciousness. Holland makes the form of his teaching and scholarship into a setting for a novel that is both playful in its exploitation of the form—a graduate student with strong opinions about her field and its controversies dies from poison—and perceptive in its disclosure of how teaching and learning are built around personal and intellectual rivalries.

With its often ironic commentary on the uses of literary theory, Death in a Delphi Seminar will be less accessible to nonacademic readers than Carolyn Heilbrun’s popular Kate Fansler mysteries. But Holland’s novel yields pleasure too from what it requires of faculty experience to appreciate its specialized appeal. He calls his book a “Postmodern Mystery” to call attention to its curricular and epistemological significance, particularly the difficulties in understanding a text when its meanings are so personal and contingent. When an astute detective tells Professor Holland (the chief character in his own book) that “the whole case ravels itself up in a series of paradoxes” (p. 313) he merely joins the intellectual action within the story, which in the end turns on the difficulty of marking the border between the psychology of scholarly inquiry and of human relations. Holland’s demanding seminar and its problems (in life as in the book) reveal the deep structure of graduate education.

Experienced professors are probably the best audience too for criticism of the academic vocations, sympathetic as many are to the skepticism and good intentions standing behind it. Does such criticism change faculty behavior? Damrosch believes in the good will of his colleagues and the prospects for reforming faculty work from within. In effect, revised kinds of faculty work would show up in the Blackburn and Lawrence framework as new forms of “self-knowledge,” reflecting awareness of how new conditions for research and teaching can be safely incorporated into traditional perspectives.

But the stories to be told by succeeding academic generations will surely reveal that nothing so reasonable is likely to happen frequently enough for us to recognize it as a durable feature of faculty work. Instead, academic life will continue to invite and produce writing about professors that reflects the variety in their motives and activities. There will be reform and resistance, productivity and lassitude, class or gender identity and professional impersonality—sometimes even, in the case of each competing pair, in the work of the same professor. And even if faculty independence is ultimately moderated by changes in the structure of higher education, in the end no single attitude or path will mean success, much less satisfaction. Sociologist Suzanne Keller, the first tenured woman at Princeton, is grateful that her field at least permits the “serendipitous” as well as the “single-mind” course. Thus she speaks with pleasure of her faculty work and life having been a “drama in motion-open-ended, unpredictable, ever poised for surprise” (Individual Voices, p. 168).


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 98 Number 3, 1997, p. 537-560
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 9638, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 7:12:24 PM

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