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April 23, 2019 / Matthew Wolf-Meyer

We’re Having a Generational Transition Problem…

That’s Luke and Yoda, from “The Last Jedi,” watching the original Jedi temple burn to the ground. My apologies if that’s a spoiler in any way.

There was a moment when a senior faculty member and I were talking in a shared departmental office — just catching up really. The faculty member was talking about their daughter, who recently had a child, started a career, got married, and bought a home. The senior faculty member said she was “finally getting it together” in her early 30s. And it dawned on me that my senior colleague was basically talking about me. I was the same age as their daughter, in a similar place in my career trajectory and personal life. It made me suddenly realize that part of the generational transition problem I was seeing in our institution and the academy more generally, was that Baby Boomers were in the position of handing things over to people that were basically their children’s age (thanks to a series of hiring freezes in the 1990s and early 2000s). When my senior colleagues looked at me, I realized that they were seeing their children or their children’s friends, with all of their career and personal foibles. Why would they hand off to those children, especially something precious like their career’s work of institution- and discipline-building?

I’ve watched senior faculty — nearing retirement — at several institutions basically sabotage departments, programs, and centers that they’ve built rather than anoint and mentor younger faculty to take the reins. For the last several years, I’ve been trying to think through what I’ve seen in the university, particularly around the transition from an older generation of scholars (mostly Baby Boomers) to people of my generation (Gen Xers, although I think I’m on the tail end of the spread). Why not hand off rather than let things fall apart?

It comes in many forms. The benign neglect of not having faculty meetings to talk about necessary changes to the curriculum as faculty retire. The secrecy — if not outright denial — about faculty retirements and when they’ll happen. The gatekeeping that insists on junior faculty consulting senior faculty with the classes they want to teach or improvements they seek to make. The lack of actual mentoring on the part of senior faculty toward their juniors. The deliberate ambiguity about institutional expectations and opportunities, spanning everything from tenure requirements to the availability of resources. And then there’s the more aggressive and deliberate actions that some faculty take: spiking junior faculty’s tenure cases, arguing against diversity hires as unmerited, withholding access to resources, and running centers, programs, and departments aground rather than help steer them in a new direction.

It’s hard not to see some of this behavior as a function of the changing demographics of faculty hires, including shifts in representation of gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, disability, but also a greater diversity in the institutions that are producing Ph.D.s. Visions of what the discipline of Anthropology (and probably every discipline) are and will be are changing, sometimes radically. I can imagine that for many senior faculty, seeing these changes occur is alienating, and, for some, deeply distressing. Which all has me thinking that part of the generational transfer has to be some collective ego work: labor to help make evident to senior faculty that their lifetime of contributions to the field are vital, and also work on the part of younger faculty to articulate visions of Anthropology (and other disciplines) that redevelop the canon to acknowledge the generations before us while developing supple visions of the disciplines that build upon their pasts, address present needs, and develop livable futures.

Taken from the Louvre’s archives, that’s the image from an ancient Greek vase depicting a relay race (between naked Greek men, to be specific about it).

Years ago, a senior faculty member I knew well retired as soon as he could. His rationale was that he had spent the last 30+ years trying to build a specific vision of anthropology, and after decades of frustration with the institutions he was a part of and the colleagues he had, he was just done. He could have coasted for several years, teaching a set of courses he cared about, but he preferred to cut himself loose from the institution, travel, and write. I really admired his graceful exit.

Before that, a group of senior faculty I knew (different institution, different time) were dealing with the demographic and institutional shift among the faculty by thwarting junior faculty efforts to hire even more diverse faculty. It was only when a couple of the senior faculty broke ranks — acknowledging that the department wasn’t really theirs to build any longer — that the junior faculty had enough of a quorum to make the hires they wanted to. One of the junior faculty described it all as a problem of grace — that some people couldn’t manage the intergenerational transfer gracefully.

I’ve recently become aware of way more younger faculty quitting their academic jobs. Maybe this always happened, and I didn’t see it. But I know personally of several faculty in tenure track jobs (some tenured) who have either quit without a job lined up or have made a calculated exit from academia. And the internet is littered with additional examples. It’s hard for me not to see people driven to quit as responses to institutions that they don’t see futures in — and feel like they don’t have the mentoring or support to make a livable institutional future. Somehow I have a hard time seeing quitting as a form of grace.

The problem with both my impulse to interpret my senior colleague’s actions as one of gracefulness and that junior faculty’s similar impulse to interpret a lack of grace on the part of senior faculty is that it places the onus on specific faculty to behave in particular ways. If we’re going to navigate this intergenerational moment generatively, it’s going to be through collaboration, not individual choices.

That all said, I’m not sure what the right way forward is. I do know that universities are decidedly conservative institutions, and that incrementalism is probably the only sustainable way forward. What might that look like?

Develop sustained dialogues between junior and senior faculty. That might be through workshops or conference panels, or, locally, by having faculty give guest lectures in each other’s courses or discuss their work in seminars. Having a regular space to come talk about ideas, one’s scholarship, and one’s place in the field keeps lines of dialogue open. It also makes it clear that whatever else is happening, there’s a relationship that’s being maintained between people who recognize one another as scholars (even if they might disagree as respected experts).

Collaborate intergenerationally whether in writing or funds-seeking or conference planning. I don’t doubt the first two of these can be hard, but it might be a site where very deliberate mentorship can happen. Working on panels for conferences together (or local workshops) can serve as a way to introduce each other to networks of scholars with shared interests.

Share writing. Writing is so central to the profession, and, for better and worse, people’s relationships with their work. Sharing writing, often without the pretense of needing anything like feedback, is helpful to keep lines of communication open, but also to help develop expanding networks of connection between scholars across generations.

Create structures of care, which can range from the occasional check-in email, a meal or drinks, or even home visits if you’re familiar enough. Some of the best, most humane interactions I’ve had with other faculty have been in one-on-one meals or drinks — not dinner or department parties — and they’ve produced some of the most lasting scholarly friendships I have with people more senior than me.

I’ve been very deliberate to pitch these suggestions without presuming that invitations need to come from juniors to seniors or vice versa. Kindness is the rule, and building a sustainable future depends on actors across generations working together to have something to hand off to the generations to come.

Other ideas? Other good experiences? Please post them in the comments.

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