I’m writing this post in response to comments left on an earlier post (“Who’s Confused?”) by Richard Burt and an anonymous commentator. Mr. Burt is a professor at the University of Florida. He published his comment as a post on his personal blog, “Burt Hurts: The Wide-Ranging Thoughtful and Thoughtless Thoughts of Richard Burt.” I thank them and the others who have taken the time to leave comments — even the mean ones — for helping to make my blog a place where public debate can happen. I regret that Mr. Burt resorts to distortions and the kind of ad hominem attacks that have also been a hallmark of the various e-mails distributed widely on NYU’s “Faculty Democracy” and “FASP” listservs, but I do appreciate being forced to re-test my positions. I’m writing now to respond to the criticisms (and, yes, the attacks) in a series of posts, because I want my response to be visible rather than buried in the comments sections of this blog.

The_Thinker_Musee_RodinI take the things that I wrote in my “Fallibilism” post seriously. In fairness to Mr. Burt, I don’t think he’d read that post before responding to “Who’s Confused?” The original title of Mr. Burt’s post on his own blog — http://burthurts.blogspot.ae/2013/03/what-post-i-cant-wait-to-read-part-2.html — suggests that he might get around to reading it. I can’t wait to read his response to that one.

I thought that I was doing my best in the “Fallibilism” post to offer the kind of constructive criticism to my “employers” that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did not. (You’ll see later why the Bard reference here is appropriate.)

I’m not perfect though, so maybe I didn’t get my point across sufficiently. I’ll keep trying.

Mr. Burt seems to think that I’m a complete idiot — or worse (think of a a 7-letter epithet beginning with the letter “A”). I’m willing to entertain those notions seriously. I’ll let my readers be the judge of what Homeric epithets should be attached to my name for all time.

Given the self- and other-directed ambivalence to which the title of his blog, Mr. Burt would probably think of me as a self-hating administrator. He’d probably be right, though I think of myself instead as a “reluctant administrator.” I used that phrase with the NYUAD Dean of Arts & Humanities who offered me the job of “Associate Dean of the Humanities” back in 2010. He told me that in his view that made me perfect for the job. I took the job because of my devotion to the NYUAD project, and I’ve done it for three years, the standard length of a departmental administrative job back on the Square.

Now I look forward to handing the portfolio over to another colleague and turning my attention to other projects, both personal and collaborative. Those projects include turning in my almost-done manuscript on US emergent literatures to NYU Press (yes, dear editor, it really is going to be turned in this spring); finishing the book on “Cosmopolitanism and the Literary Imagination,” which is under contract to Palgrave and has changed dramatically as a result of my teaching here in Abu Dhabi; co-editing the Oxford History of the Novel, Volume 8: US Fiction after 1940 ; co-directing NYU Abu Dhabi’s Global Shakespeare Project with Rubén Polendo; and serving as publisher for our nascent Arts & Humanities journal Electra Street.

Mr. Burt seems to think that I’m a career administrator, an also-ran as a scholar. He writes, “You might very well think that Patell is a time-server, a lackey, a sycophant, a failed academic who didn’t publish enough to be promoted to full professor, a courtier who, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, makes love to his employment.  You might very well think that.  Patell should be congratulated for showing us the contempt in which self-servicing university administrators so richly deserve to be held.” Again, I’ll let others look at my list of accomplishments and decide whether “time-server, a lackey, a sycophant, [and] a failed academic” are good descriptions of the trajectory of my career. I, for one, have always thought that one’s fifties were the golden time for scholarship for humanists, so I don’t think I’m done yet.

Mr. Burt is absolutely right, however, that I haven’t published enough yet to be promoted to full professor at NYU. And he is also right that the delay is due to the fact that I’ve done administrative service. What he doesn’t know — how could he, I suppose — is that I actually find administrative service frustrating because every minute I spend doing it is a minute that I could be spending on my own scholarship and teaching.

That’s not entirely true. There are some things I like about administrative service. These involve being able to collaborate with others on forward-thinking initiatives and being able to bring together imaginative individuals to work on projects like the “Global Shakespeare Student Festival,” which we’re holding here at NYUAD right now. (More on that to come, but for now you can look at this post from Electra Street and this Facebook page.)

I’ve always made sure that my administrative duties had fixed ending dates. I’m happy to pitch in as an administrator, but administration is not why I got a doctorate in literature.

I reluctantly agreed to be the Director of Graduate Placement in 1999, immediately after submitting my tenure materials. I won’t go into how much fun that was, but it at least it was only a one-year job.

Even more reluctantly, I agreed, after receiving tenure, to serve as Director of Undergraduate Studies for the English major (which meant overseeing the academic careers of about 650 English and Dramatic Literature majors at that time). My wife will tell you that the years 2001-2004, during which I held that post, were among the most trying of our lives, because I was trying to remake the job of DUS into something that could be passed along from one faculty member to another. My predecessor had held the job for 20+ years at a time when the faculty in English taught 2 undergraduate and 2 graduate courses a year, and the department culture was such that even faculty members of good conscience would immediately start talking about the graduate program if asked to describe the work of the department. The undergraduate program was an after-thought, and most of my colleagues couldn’t have told you what the requirements for the undergraduate major were. Department faculty never did undergraduate advising, except for the few people on the undergraduate curriculum committee who were drafted once a semester to serve as pre-registration advisors. Advising happened emergency-room style in those days.

I was asked by the Dean of the College of Arts and Science to help change the culture of the department to one in which undergraduate education became not just a priority but a defining aspect of the department’s work. The timing was actually pretty good: at that time, rising undergraduate enrollments and declining graduate enrollments necessitated a change in the standard faculty load to 3 undergraduate courses and 1 graduate course a year.

My first job task at DUS was to get all of the faculty members to start advising undergraduates. I asked a few faculty members to become more high-powered advisors, getting training in the Byzantine computer system of student records so that we could streamline some advising and not continue to burden the overworked administrative staff. One colleague — now a full professor in the department — balked, offended at being asked to attend a training session “full of secretaries.”

If we had put these changes to a departmental vote, I imagine that they’d have been voted down, but the changes were imperative and so, no, the faculty didn’t get a vote. I think the department culture vastly improved after that, and my “regime” (as Mr. Burt would no doubt call it) was widely viewed as a success.

One of the legacies that I most cherish (in addition to laying the foundation for our current honors program) was being able to establish a prize, for the most outstanding senior English major, in the name of my predecessor, honoring his years of service.

When my initial term of service was up, the Dean of the College assumed that I would renew the appointment for a second term.

I refused.

He pleaded.

I refused again. The only way that success could be judged, I told him, was if the job as reconfigured could be handed over to someone else. It was.

I did agree to help out in a diminished capacity as “Director of Undergraduate Honors,” reporting to my successor as DUS, and I did agree to serve on a two-year-long hiring committee that overlapped with a sabbatical because I wanted the perspective of the undergraduate program to be represented. It was an open-field, multiple-position committee, part of the “Partners’ Plan” that John Sexton had convinced the trustees to create, which was designed to enable some departments — including English — to make a great leap forward.

During the end of my term as Director of Honors, I held the simultaneous position of “Acting Director of Graduate Studies,”  after my colleague John Archer found himself unable to continue in that position. In the spirit of collegiality, I agreed to take over his unfinished term of service.  That reminds me that I never did thank John for enabling me to spend most of the summer of 2007 in the DGS office.

Mr. Burt quotes with disapproval my citation from Stanley Fish’s book Save the World on Your Own Time (2008). I’ll quote a part of it again:

At the end of my tenure as dean, I spoke to some administrators who had been on the job for a short enough time to be able to still remember what it was like to be a faculty member and what thoughts they had then about the work they did now. One said that she had come to realize how narcissistic academics are: an academic, she mused, is focused entirely on the intellectual stock market and watches its rises and falls with an anxious and self-regarding eye. As an academic, you’re trying to get ahead; as an administrator, you’re trying “to make things happen for other people”; you’re “not advancing your own profile but advancing the institution, and you’re more service oriented.”

Despite the fact that he teaches literature, Mr. Burt seems to me to misread the last sentence when he writes, “Ah, yes, the days when I was just another narcissistic faculty member, the days before I could ‘make things happen for other people.’  The ‘other people’ who administrators obviously do not include faculty. No, ‘advancing the institution,’ means working to help administrators leave NYU with huge retirement packages, packages so huge that the NY Times ran a story about it.   http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/04/nyregion/nyu-gives-lavish-parting-gifts-to-some-star-officials.html. The NY Times interview Patell spends his blog attacking” [sic].

It’s quite clear to me that the administrator whom Fish quotes means “the faculty” when she refers to “other people.” I fully sympathize with her when she talks about “not advancing your own profile but advancing the institution.”

Mr. Burt’s next sentence, the one that begins with “No,” is an example of what my students would call “reading in.” Burt’s comment has nothing to do with the quote he presented. If his post were a student paper, I’d point out the lack of fit between evidence and conclusion.

But let’s conclude this long-winded post with a consideration of Burt’s last “point.” Maybe I have, in fact, been working to fatten the pockets of evil administrators, but, sadly, I’m not one of them. In fact, before I assumed my present position, I had an offer from a research university in the Midwest that entailed a big raise in salary and immediate promotion to full professor. I’d been underpaid for years at NYU because I had not been one of the faculty members who solicited outside offers in order to get lucrative counter-offers from NYU. The Midwestern offer was tempting, not only because of the additional salary in an area with much lower cost of living than Manhattan, but also because it represented a fresh challenge. NYU countered by offering a fresh challenge (more involvement with NYUAD) and a staged raise, some at first, much more once I’d gone through the promotion process to full professor. Ultimately, the NYU offer top the other offer by about $1000.

There’s a docket sitting on the English Department Chair’s desk. It contains a full set of reviews of my work since tenure, including that of the manuscript mentioned above that’s (over)due to NYU Press. When it goes through, I’ll get a nice raise (though ironically I will then be radically underpaid if the average salaries for full professors posted by NYU Local are to believed). But NYU Press  asked me to think about a question pertaining to the manuscript that I found interesting and led me to revise the manuscript. Sadly for me, I couldn’t get the revisions done before moving to Abu Dhabi in 2011. And my administrative work and full load of teaching since then have prevented me from completing the revisions

Thus I’ve been leaving a significant amount of money on the table for the past two years, while I go about the business of “working to to help administrators leave NYU with huge retirement packages.”

I did, however, manage to complete my book on the Rolling Stones’ album Some Girls for Continuum Press’s 33 1/3, a labor of love that wasn’t about career advancement and can’t be counted toward academic promotion.

You know, maybe Mr. Burt is right.

I am an idiot.

[Image Source: Wikipedia]