©2019 by Sebastian Knowles

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Dead Wood

Updated: Jul 3, 2019

We all know them (I've been one of them). Disaffected faculty playing out the string, acting tetchy in faculty meetings, always having a zinger to unbalance the opposition, unable to write. Dead wood. I'm not talking about that group today - what interests me (or rather, what scares me witless), is the actually dead faculty. The ones that "die with their boots on," as the quaintly militaristic phrase has it. One literally did die with his boots on, a medievalist falling over a tent at night during a Civil War reenactment. Another taught church history, and everyone said at his eulogy that "this was the way he would have wanted to go: teaching his students." As if his identity (that word again) had been totally subsumed by his role as an academic, and that to lose one would mean to surrender the other. This, I think, is what keeps faculty, dead wood or otherwise, around. They are terrified of losing themselves.

Here's a story I wasn't allowed to tell at my father's funeral. I was sitting by the hospital bed, six weeks after he had fallen into a coma, a year before he died. It was May 2007. We had no idea if he would wake up. After such a long period of inactivity it was just me and Mum tag-teaming at Mass General. The nurses had already politely suggested that it wasn't helpful to sleep overnight on the furniture. And in the middle of one morning, Dad woke up. Not abruptly, the way you would at the sound of an alarm, but tectonically, as if great plates under the earth were moving. I was immediately reminded of what Stravinsky had said about the Russian Spring - "it was like the sound of ice cracking." I looked around in a panic - there was no one to help me with this. No one else to register the moment after six weeks of waiting. I held my breath and said nothing, waiting in what was more horror than joy, completely out of my depth. And Dad began to speak. "Must get to the Faculty Club," he said, in a quiet but determined voice. I had no idea what he meant by this. After he repeated the phrase several times, I realized that his brain had put him right back where he started, on his way to the Faculty Club to give a report to the Harvard Faculty about the changes to the Core Curriculum. That was when he had the stroke that took him to the hospital. Having suffered through the original Core Curriculum, I knew something about the suggested revisions, but also knew that it was very likely too late for him to help the President and other administrators convince the faculty that these significant changes to general education were needed. "It's all right, Dad," I said. "They've already had the meeting. Derek took care of it." He sat up as best he could, rearranged himself, and glared in my direction. (I still have no idea if he knew anyone was there.) "Don't you condescend to me," he said. And then I knew that Dad was back.

And so he was, but less than a year later, two months before his planned retirement, he did actually die. And I resolved never to go like that. I have seen too many good people, lovely people, get cancer while they teach in the classroom, or retire and then suddenly fall terminally ill. The look on their faces, as I visit them in hospital, is one of betrayal. "This is not what I had bargained for," said Denny Griffith, that wonderful man and President of CCAD, taken far too early in what he had hoped to be a reward for several careers' worth of back-breaking work. As I write, my best friend is back in the James after complications from his second bone graft. Lauren Berlant has written of the "cruel optimism" of faculty in the teaching profession, convincing themselves that all is well but actually betrayed by all that they desire. Faculty of the world, unite. You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Yosemite Valley, Autumn 2018

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