Confessions of a SMECWID V: Leaving the Ivory Tower

Painting of the Tower of Babel, Cropped Square

By Tom Armbrecht

As regular readers of the “Confessions of SMECWID” series already know, I changed careers in 2016 when I stopped being a French professor and became an instructional designer. In the eyes of some my former university colleagues, my resignation meant that I effectively switched teams when I abandoned my “noble vocation” as teacher and researcher for a job at a for-profit enterprise. Although my company is in the business of creating monetizable products, this is far from all I do and hardly the only mission of our organization. We work closely with academic institutions and faculty, and regard ourselves as partners in the educational mission of the schools with which we collaborate.

Perhaps because we share many of the same goals as our university partners, some of my colleagues are occasionally disheartened by what they perceive as a lack of willingness or the inability on the part of faculty to respect the contractual agreements between our company and their institutions. These arrangements are in place to enable us to do our jobs and help them get their courses online. Frustration usually occurs when teachers submit incomplete work or miss deadlines. Although the vast majority of our interactions with academics are positive, there is occasional grumbling about the “ivory tower mentality,” which implies that the professors in question think that their intellectual pursuits and institutional responsibilities are more important than the ostensibly more mundane academic materials they have agreed to provide us.

In this entry of the SMECWID series, I would like to call into question the ivory tower metaphor by writing about my own experience from both sides of the turret, if you will. My aim is to elucidate the culture that perpetuates this stereotype to show that the professional life of the most infamous resident of the tower—a Professor of the Humanities—depends on the very interplay between private contemplation and public dissemination.

In his article, “The Ivory Tower: the history of a figure of speech and its cultural uses,” Professor Steven Shapin explains the significance of the ivory tower from its biblical origins to its present meaning. The expression was first used in Song of Songs to refer to Mary’s neck—“Thy neck is as a tower of ivory”—as a way of evoking her purity. In 1837, French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve appropriated this image of refinement to criticize the poet Alfred de Vigny, whom he accused of “retiring to his ivory tower before noon” instead of writing socially engaged works like those of Victor Hugo. According to Shapin, Sainte-Beuve’s ironic use of the image caught the attention of educated people in both the French- and English-speaking worlds, and became a well known trope for elitism and solipsism, especially within the arts.

The association persisted throughout the twentieth century: in the 1930s and 40s, the ivory tower was a place where “art for art’s sake” was created—a quasi-sin culturally speaking, since disengaged art ignored social problems like Nazism and fascism. (Ironically, National Socialists also exhorted artists to further their causes by creating propagandistic work). After World War II, the ivory tower became a place where scientists and other academics whose work did not serve a concrete purpose, such as winning the arms race or advancing the economy, were supposed to reside. By extension, the ivory tower became the opposite of a site of production, generating nothing of real use, whereas the output of industry bettered  society in a measurable way.

It was not until the 1970s, when the very purpose of post-secondary education came into question, that the ivory tower became the providence of academics in general, and of specialists of the humanities and social sciences in particular. The work of scholars outside the “hard sciences” was often seen as too abstract to be productive in a business (as opposed to a civic) sense. The criticism persists: when people suggest that universities are ivory towers today, they usually mean that what schools are teaching does not serve a quantifiable purpose. In an era when education has become so expensive that everyone wants assurance of a (financial) return, the ivory tower can connote almost any discipline—or even any course—that does not lead directly to employment.

As someone who taught courses at the graduate level and directed dissertations, I struggled with the question of value myself. Although I believe wholeheartedly in the relevance of the courses I taught, both in regards to my discipline and, more generally, to the exploration of human experience through literature and philosophy, I also realized that I was training students for a profession in which few would succeed. The academic job market in foreign language and literatures has been dismal for decades. According to the Modern Language Association, fewer than 50% of people who earned PhDs in Modern Languages between 1996 and 2011 found tenurable jobs. The rest had either left the profession or were underemployed as adjunct professors, which means little job security, inadequate pay, and often no benefits. Even some of my most brilliant students never managed to get quality positions within academia; there are simply not enough to go round.

The realization that I was in the business of training adults for a profession that most would not even have a chance to practice bothered me greatly and made me question the ethics of what I was doing. Was the pursuit of knowledge for itself enough to justify the rigors (and sometimes humiliations) of graduate school for students who subsequently found themselves unemployed at the age of 34, the average age of recipients of PhDs in the modern languages and literatures? Of course, no one was forcing my students to try to become professors, but I was guilty of helping to sell the dream. I had to, since the survival of my own program depended upon steady enrollment in it. The situation was scarcely better at the undergraduate level: no matter how passionate or talented the student, a degree in French seemed to be the bête noire of most parents concerned about their progeny’s future, sometimes justifiably so.

Teaching was not the only aspect of my job that raised moral questions. As a professor whose official duties included publishing his research, I had to respect the standards of my discipline. This meant submitting my work for scrutiny by my peers, and also conforming to the established norms of my specialty. Although I regularly produced creative work in and about French, it did not count as scholarly activity, and thus was not recognized by my department as a worthwhile endeavor, at least as far as the university was concerned. Fortunately, I also was good at doing traditional research, which got me tenure. Although I do believe that the extended written dialogue with my peers furthered the knowledge not only of French literature, but also of important social matters (as I will explain in a minute), I did not, however, enjoy writing only for an audience of like-minded specialists. Despite my conviction, I could not help but feel I was preaching to a choir singing a song that only they could hear from deep inside a towered cathedral that welcomed only the already ordained.

The last article I wrote, which, exasperatingly, you can read only if you pay (or ask me) was probably my greatest intellectual accomplishment within the context of French Studies. Ironically, however, it was also the least comprehensible to anyone outside this field, since it was in French and depended on the reader being familiar with various philosophers and literary theories to understand it. Despite its unintended, but discipline-required impenetrability, the central question it addressed—how author-filmmaker Virginie Despentes transcended artistic genres to question assumptions about the relationship of gender to identity—is an important one; my article sought to reveal the significance of works often dismissed as mere pop culture, and argued instead that they have the power to affect their audience’s understanding of the world.

To publish an article about Despentes’s work in a peer-reviewed journal, I had to write at a level of complexity that would be difficult for even native French speakers who were not academics to understand. This made me ask myself what exactly I had accomplished by making an argument that only experts could comprehend about works that most anyone could appreciate. How could my sophisticated assertions have any effect on the people that Despentes was creating for, and what good were they if the answer was none?

In his aforementioned article, Shapin notes that “the tension between scientific disengagement and responsiveness to human needs” is the taut foundation upon which the idea of the ivory tower, whether sanctuary or fortress, stands. In tracing the historical development of the trope, he shows how it has alternately been revered and despised as the locus of deep contemplation. I felt this stress deeply, and would like to believe that managing it was what allowed me to justify the work I was doing as both a teacher and a researcher.

Writing for my academic peers necessitated rigor and thoughtfulness for which I would not have found the time (or motivation) had it not been expected of me by the university and my peers. The article took me months to complete, in part because French is not my native language, but also because the journal required revisions. The effort needed to write a text worthy of being published in a French-language academic journal made me grow as a scholar and improved my linguistic skills. I tried hard to make sure these benefits were passed on to my students when I integrated the knowledge I had acquired and the thoughts I had developed into my graduate and undergraduate classes. To do so, I had to summarize and simplify the arguments I had made over many pages. I also had to think beyond the confines of the protected intellectual space in which I wrote to ensure my ideas were not only comprehensible, but also relevant to my audience, both inside and outside the context of my course. Given that the core subject was a reconsideration of the idea of “woman” as realized through the works of a popular writer-cineast, the real objective of my research was not to please my peers, but to have a positive effect on women’s place within the world.

Although I may have reached only a relatively small group of readers and students, I hope that my thinking affected theirs and that, ultimately, their thinking might have eventually had an effect on the world outside academe. I will never know—and do not need to, since my aim was not to reproduce my thoughts, but to “produce” people who know how to think for themselves. Ironically, the fact that many of the students I taught would not find places within the academy may have broadened the article’s impact, since it meant that what they learned would be shared outside the university. It is this possibility that makes me think that teaching is an essential profession, even if what is taught doesn’t have an obvious practical purpose, such as immediate employment.

Of course, it would be disingenuous of me not to acknowledge that once I decided to go, I didn’t just leave the ivory tower, I jumped head first over the parapet. After 16 years as a French professor, I wanted to know what it would be like to share my ideas in a different context with a much broader audience. Object Lessons is a case in point: my long posts might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but at least anyone can take a sip.

Tom Armbrecht has a PhD in French Studies from Brown University. Formerly a tenured Professor of French, he taught literature and philosophy to both undergraduate and graduate students at an R1 university before deciding to focus his career on online learning. Tom has been involved in educational technology since its inception, first as a student, then as a professor, and now as an instructional designer. His current position as an Online Learning Architect allows him to capitalize on his pedagogical expertise to create courses that engage and inspire students and teachers alike.

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Confessions of a SMECWID V: Leaving the Ivory Tower

by Tom Armbrecht
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