Yays & Nays: Making Love and Meaning Out of Nothing at All*

71_Francis-Bacon_Triptych_1991When SKG asked me to participate in this panel (or, rather, when I volunteered), I was pretty sure I knew what I was going to talk about. Early in my career here, at Suffolk, I was told there was no difference, in the eyes of the College, whether you served on Faculty Association committees or administrative-governance committees. For me, it made the most sense to work with the Faculty Association. I’m not sure why this is, but I felt more comfortable, philosophically, associating myself with the union. I can remember when I was a kid, my father, who was a teacher, took me to a political rally hosted and endorsed by NYSUT. He also served as union president for his local before making the leap, later in his career, to become an administrator. My dad isn’t an ambitious guy. I mean, he isn’t ambitious the way careerist are ambitious. My dad is an ideas man. He is also a man of principles. This meant, at least for him, that he could only go so far as an administrator. When he finally swallowed this truth, he retired, not out of resignation, I don’t think, but more from the notion that says leave Sodom to the Sodomites.

I share my father’s distaste for mere careerism. Maybe that’s why the Faculty Association felt, back then, like a better fit. There I was free to discover novel ways in which to serve the college and the community. I didn’t think I’d find the same opportunity chairing, say, the curriculum committee with all its yeas and nays and Robert’s Rules. Not that the FA doesn’t abide by these stuffy procedures. It’s just I found a place where, like a hermit in his shelter, they didn’t affect me. First, I became an EC rep, and very soon after—after the first EC meeting, in fact—I became co-chair of the community outreach committee. I learned very quickly that speaking in a meeting means chairing a committee. Before long, I was so full of ideas I became the community outreach chair. This was my first college-wide responsibility, and it promised to be fairly high profile. I was under the direct tutelage and, I might even say, patronage of one of my most favorite people in the world, Ellen Schuler Mauk. For whatever reason, she believed in me, my visions and my talents. She encouraged me to experiment, take risks, discover. Like my dad, I could be an ideas man. Like my dad, I could live by my principles.

I should back up a little here and say something about the role artists play in academia. I am, first and foremost, an artist. I didn’t get into this racket to teach and I didn’t do it to sit on panels like this. However good I am at either of these things and however much fun I have doing them, my aim, when I set off to study creative writing at the tender age of 25, wasn’t to be here. Truth is, I thought I would’ve been equally happy pumping gas during the day and writing through the night. Maybe I should’ve done that. But, as the saying goes, that ship has sailed and, being one traveler, as the poet says, means there is no turning back. Might as well make the best of it. And so I try. I do. But it wasn’t until I read Marc McGurl’s book, Fiction in the Program Era, that I really understood what being an artist in academia requires of me. It isn’t that I make great or even good art, it turns out, and it isn’t even that I should be an excellent teacher, producing excellent scholarship and serving on the most important and essential committees. Rather, McGurl points out, the artist’s role in academia is to fuck shit up.

Now that’s not exactly how he puts it. But that’s what he means, when he talks about the fresh perspectives artists can bring to a staid academia. McGurl cites the case of the early 20th Century novelist and author of Look Homeward, Angel, Thomas Wolfe, who NYU hired to teach freshman how to write, though he wasn’t a scholar. McGurl contends that artists have found refuge in academia not only because the economic climate in America is hostel to their endeavors, but also because academia needs artist to tell them, among other things, to take more risks. The artist’s only criteria for success, despite all talk of theory, is simple. She asks herself: Does this work? American artists in particular are pragmatic that way. And pragmatism, to work, must be experimental. A pragmatist must take risks, not unnecessary ones, but necessary ones. An artist experiments in her own work because practice and patience only get you so far. Take the case of the British painter Francis Bacon. He was a master draftsman and a fabulous colorist. He could paint anything he pleased. But, for an artist, that isn’t enough. Doing what you set out to do, well, any craftsman can do that. When Bacon had taken a painting as far as it and he could go, he’d commit some act of violence against the canvas. He’d smear it with white paint or gouge it with his knife. This would open up things in his paintings he couldn’t have otherwise imagined. He saw, then, in his work not what he was capable of, but what he wasn’t capable of.

Risk taking, and the synthesis which follows, is a characteristic of creative thinking. You must be willing to fail to do more than what you promised. Careerists are afraid of failure, so they hide behind statistics and titles. I don’t mean to insult anyone here who cares about his career, by the way. I care about mine. I agreed to be here because, at the time this talk was first scheduled, I was still up for my final promotion. I’ve since been promoted to full-professor. So there is a careerist in me, too, though I’ve learned to make him listen to me and not me to him. There have been times, I think, when I might’ve been better off letting him do the talking. My father knew this trouble all too well. An artist’s role might be to fuck shit up, but all times aren’t the right times to fuck shit up. This is a valuable lesson and jives nicely with the morphology of organizations and leadership, which I first learned about at leadership camp (that’s what I called it) at Cornell University. The theory goes, that organizations, like all living things from stars and galaxies to humans and insects, develop according to certain predictable patterns. Organizations just beginning their lives require a transformational leader, just as a larva requires the release of a certain enzyme to become a pupa. Release the wrong enzyme or let there be an absence where that enzyme should be and all sorts of bad shit goes down for the organism. Organizations are no different. Later in the life cycle of an organization, when it reaches adulthood and really is firing on all cylinders, to mix my metaphors, it doesn’t require the kind of experimentation and risk taking the younger, less established version of itself did. What it requires is that the business of business gets done. There may be room for improvement and innovation, but not if it gets in the way of the day-to-day routine. Of course, no organism stays in peak condition forever. As the organization ossifies, as its bones and organs begin to grow brittle and malfunction, resurrection awaits but only if it heeds the signs and allows, again, for the risk taking and innovation that brought it to health and stability in the first place.

What made this all clear to me was applying this model to the Old English poem Beowulf.   For those of you who don’t know the story, essentially it tells of the adventures of the Anglo-Saxon warrior Beowulf. In the first two parts, Beowulf is a young man out to prove his worth. He travels across the sea to defeat the monster Grendel, a loping marshwalker, who wreaks havoc on a neighboring kingdom’s hall and kills its men while they lie sleeping and half-drunk on mead. Here, Beowulf’s courage and strength sustain him. He is victorious. The monster Grendel is slain, his mother is slain, and the king adopts Beowulf as his son. The story’s last part takes place many years later. Beowulf is back home, and his people have enjoyed a fairly stable reign with Beowulf as their ring-giver, that is, until a dragon emerges from the shadows and threatens the relative peace and harmony. To make a long story short (it is an epic poem, after all), there are no young men willing or able to fight this supernatural power. Only Beowulf, old as he is, can meet the challenge. And so he does, with a little help, after much handwringing, from a young warrior named Wiglaf. Unfortunately, this will be the last fight Beowulf fights. He and the dragon exchange mortal wounds. Beowulf dies, and in the aftermath, a keening woman prophesizes bad times ahead for Beowulf’s people. Now that their shield is dead, who will protect them?

The idea I’m driving at here is this. Beowulf ought to have been a wiser leader. It is the job of young warriors to defeat the threats that face a kingdom, not old men—even if that old man is Beowulf. Studying the morphology of organizations helps its members know when it’s time to innovate and take risks and when it’s time to give rings. The artist’s role, however, is always the same. No matter where the organization is in its lifecycle, the artist challenges, creates, takes risks. What I admired about Ellen was her willingness to listen. We didn’t always see eye to eye, and many times I thought she was being obtuse. Still, I learned a great deal about myself, the union, the college and the world from those years. I don’t work as closely with the FA as I used to. I’m no longer a EC rep, and I don’t chair the community outreach committee, but the lessons I learned when I was a junior faculty member have stayed with me and served me and the college well.

I’m supposed to talk about the service I’ve done that means the most to me, so I might as well get to it, since I’ve already eaten up a lot of time theorizing. Like I said above, when I promised SKG I would participate in the panel, I thought I knew what I was going to talk about. Even last semester, I thought that the most meaningful service I rendered the college was the creation of the very successful program you probably know as Professors on Wheels. I don’t speak much about my involvement in the creation of the POW program not because I’m not proud of my efforts, but because I kind of like the credit going elsewhere. I mean, I didn’t create the program alone. It didn’t leap out of my head fully formed like Athena or something. Rather, it took many years of asking some essential questions, which were finally answered during a rather long summer session at the Chair Academy Leadership training.

I was part of that first class, which required a two-year commitment and the promise of doing great things afterward. The promise was implicit, and the measurement of great things was largely left up to us. For me, I used that time to think and rethink about the role the community outreach committee could and should play. We had started our outreach by doing the things many outreach committees do. We participated in cancer walks, we collected food for food drives, and the like, only to conclude that while we were doing some good, we weren’t doing enough. The fruits of our labors were going unnoticed. Sure, the organizations and institutions were grateful, but how many thank you letters can you hang on your wall or, perhaps more relevant to this discussion, put on your A-Form? So we decided to ask larger questions. What problems was our community facing and how could we help? At the time, housing prices were skyrocketing. I’m sure many of you remember what that was like. One day, a house could be selling for $300,000 and the next a bidding war between two buyers could drive the price up by tens of thousands more. Poorer people were being driven out of their neighborhoods and young people, with limited income—like new hires, for instance—were finding it difficult to buy a home.

Charity requires abundance. It requires, not anonymity or altruism, but excess. You can’t give away what you don’t have to give. Even Francis could only give to the poor and the needy what he had in abundance. He had love. Many nights his followers, the Franciscans before such an order existed, starved and shivered for want of food and shelter, but then Francis would sing and they would be filled up again. I cite Francis now only to underscore the problem we faced. It wasn’t just doing good. We wanted to do good that mattered. There were selfish reasons for this, of course. The FA didn’t sponsor the outreach committee just because its heart is big. The outreach committee was formed as part of a PR effort to show the community that we professors benefit the community in more ways than one. I chaffed against this idea at first because I wanted our charity to be the kind of selfless charity I had read about in hagiographies. The problem was, I was doing this on someone else’s dime. And also, I’m not a saint. So back to the drawing board we went.

For a while, we focused on affordable housing. We branded ourselves, ordering more FA Affordable Housing mugs than was good or natural. We screened original T-shirts and wore them proudly. We raised money to sponsor Habitat for Humanity build days, where we could volunteer to help build a house. Pictures were taken. Hammers were swung and nails driven home. Everyone seemed happy. But after several successful HFH build days, we put down our hammers. For all our efforts we found ourselves in the same predicament as before. We were doing good, no doubt, but the reach of that good was limited. However handy a professor or a poet might be, what he has in excess certainly isn’t carpentry skills, or he’d be doing that. And each build cost around $3000, and despite rumors to the contrary, money isn’t something professors or poets have in excess either. So what do we have? That was the question that changed everything. That and the recent experience I had had with my late father-in-law.

I wrote a piece for The Word a while back that sketches out the Professors on Wheels origin story (Sept. 2009). I’m not going to rehash the contents or the sentiment of the article here. Follow the link if you want to read it. But the gist goes like this. My father-in-law had just died. He was a difficult person. He was also a sad person. A lonely person. I lived with him for about three years while his health declined. I spent many hours cooking for him, caring for him, binding his wounds, cleaning his sores, scrubbing his infected legs and washing his swollen feet. No matter what I did for him, still he was essentially alone. Luckily for him, he had had opportunities less fortunate people don’t get. He had been college educated, so he read. A lot. He had made quite a lot of money during his working years, so he lived in a beautiful place and wanted materially for almost nothing. His wife had died twenty years before him, and that was a terrible blow, but his children and grandchildren lived close. His daughter, my wife (we are nearly divorced now), and I lived with him, too. But his loneliness was existential. There was nothing or nothing much we could do to alleviate it.

After his death, I got to thinking. What are our responsibilities to the aging people in our lives? What do we owe them? What can we do? It is a good sign that you are working on a worthwhile project, when you see where your life intersects with your work. When Robert Frost talks about need and desire being one, I think this is what he means. The poem I’m talking about is called “Two Tramps in Mud Time,” and it ends like this: “Only where love and need are one/ And the work is played for mortal stakes,/ is the deed ever really done/ for Heaven and the future’s sake.” For me, the joining of my guilt and grief over my father-in-law’s life and death and the need to find a new focus, a more relevant and necessary focus, for the community outreach committee led to the creation of Professors on Wheels, because what professors have in abundance isn’t money or time or muscle but this: what we teach. I didn’t realize the success of this idea until Dan Linker and I attended the first graduation of the first class of POW students at a nursing and rehabilitation facility in Farmingville. Newsday was there, and they did a feature story on the POW program. Some college administrators attended the ceremony and saw what we had been up to. And wept. But this was nothing compared to the outpouring of thanks and gratitude that came from the patients, their caregivers and their families. None of the POW grads had graduated from college. Most had never taken a college class. Ours was the first, and we had brought it to them.

Emerson says that charity means living fairly. I think that’s true. But I also think it’s true that it means giving away our talents. Milton says that God doesn’t need our work or our gifts, so we do this for some other reason. Perhaps the simplest reason is that what is best in us can’t and shouldn’t be quantified. It isn’t charity what I do everyday at work. I am paid for my efforts, and now that I’ve been here more than 15 years, I’m paid handsomely enough. It is the best part of me, then, that helped create Professors on Wheels. I know that. I also know where my talents lie. I’m an artist. I like to create. I left the POW program right after that graduation. Just when the college started to notice and praise, I stepped down as chair of the committee. I didn’t even mind when a colleague of mine was publicly given credit for its invention. I’d done what I set out to do. It wasn’t mine any longer. There were many reasons for leaving, but ultimately I realized I had given my one talent which, as Milton points out, it is death to hide.

I started out writing this piece hoping that I would transition, at some point, away from the POW to another project I’ve work to help create. This one is more timely and more contentious, I think, because while I was a junior faculty member and cared about avoiding the limelight, in more recent years, I thought I might better serve the college if I spent my talents working on those things, which the college deems important. I’m talking now about the ILOs. When the prospect of working on the ILOs was presented to me, it was sold as a chance to change significantly how the college does what it does. The members of that committee, I was told, would have a hand in shaping the future of the college. We were asked to consider what we wanted a SCCC student to look like when she graduates. We were told this would change things. I wonder if that’s even possible now. That’s sad. It’s sad not because it’s impossible to affect change, which is experimental and radical, on the institutional level. That probably has never been the case. It’s sad for me because I once believed we could. But maybe I exaggerate. Why did I involve myself in this or any other committee work? I’m an artist. I’m most comfortable taking risks. I’m most comfortable making nothing into something. What happens to it after that isn’t my business. Maybe that’s the lesson. I can live with that.

*This essay was presented as part of a professional development panel discussion on our favorite faculty service achievements.  The event was sponsored by the Faculty Association.

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