Remembering Sam Becker and university citizenship

Sam Becker, for whom the University of Iowa Department of Communication Studies building is named, and whose six decades career was highly accomplished, passed away on November 8.  While I was a doctoral student at Iowa in the 1990’s, Becker was already retired but still ever-present, and by the sheer randomness of graduate student office assignment two colleagues and I ended up right across the hall from his small retirement office.  He was often available for conversation and also extraordinarily productive, a professor who gave the lie to the all-too-popular idea currently dominant in the humanities and some of the social sciences that the only way to get real research done is to work in seclusion either behind a closed office door or, even better, from the house.  Looking down hallways of closed faculty office doors, and I mean this as no insult since Iowa is typical, I think, of today’s academic culture, I was always struck by the fact that the most open and accessible professors – Gronbeck, Ochs, Becker – were also among the most research productive.

By my time in the program, Dr. Becker was only occasionally teaching, but he taught one of my very first classes, a one credit hour professionalization seminar that only met, as I recall it, for about 45 or 50 minutes a week.  We were coached on the protocols of academic citation, taught the mechanics of the main communication associations (Sam’s lifelong commitment to the National Communication Association meant we heard most about that one), and we talked about how one best organizes one’s research work.  I believe it was there that he told the story about how he first got hooked on academic scholarship in communication.  He was a young undergraduate at the university in the 1940’s, and was encouraged to turn a classroom paper into a publication, which he landed in one of the lead outlets for communication research.  Over the next sixty years he produced more than 100 peer reviewed research essays, advised nearly 70 doctoral dissertations, and won high degrees of acclaim for his work (NCA president, NCA Distinguished Scholar, recipient of the association’s first mentorship award, and many more, including a number of honors on the Iowa campus that include the rare privilege of a namesake building).

Professor Becker’s death evokes in me, against my better judgment perhaps, a nostalgic desire for a sort of academic culture that likely no longer exists.  The temptation to nostalgia when it comes to the academic past is fraught.  Even as the American public universities threw open their doors and programs in the 1960’s and 70’s, they were far from perfect, and the political constraints under which professors work today are in some respects incomparably different.  And universities look a lot different through the eyes of a professor than they do through the eyes of a graduate student.  It is easier to imagine public university work as a sort of exotic salon culture, the pure life of the mind where professors think great thoughts in communion with their colleagues, when one’s schedule, overloaded as is graduate student life always, consists of one intellectual interaction after another, seminar to seminar and great book to great book.  The academic life performed for graduate students, indeed for all students, is simply not the same as the one lived in a profession as dominated by committee meetings as discussions of big ideas.  Comparisons between past and present too often fail.

But my nostalgia lingers.

Sam Becker represented a style of academic life and an extraordinary commitment to building local programmatic excellence, that I find harder to find today (and in my world so infrequent as to be essentially nonexistent), living as we do at a time when many professors understandably find their main intellectual sustenance from longer distance networking – social media, blog- and listserv-centered – and themselves too informationally enriched (or, alternatively, overstimulated) and even overwhelmed by those gushing sources to desire anything but minimal face-to-face engagement with on-campus colleagues.  Part of this, I believe, is the characteristic connection of rather-shy-and-life-of-the-mind-driven academics with the more controllable interactions of online and distance encounter; it is easier to present a polished, a more clever persona through Facebook and blogging than in the heat of a tedious faculty meeting, and so as a result many gravitate to the New Comfort Zones of virtual engagement.

Entire academic generations have been mentored to the view that their most assured path to professional success is isolation – keep your head down, don’t over commit, set up a home office and be disciplined about working there, spend as few hours on campus as you can because if word gets out that you’re available then colleagues and students will eat you alive and rob you of all your productive energy.  This advice is reinforced because when one resolves only to spend ten hours a week on campus then, not surprisingly, those ten hours quickly fill to capacity as students figure out those are the only opportunities for real access not coordinated by emails.  The approach affords little time to linger, for lingering is time wasting.  Sorry!  I’m drowning; gotta run! becomes an easy refrain.

All this is understandable and not unreasonable.  I’m as prone to the temptations as anyone.  The seductive blend of intellectual (over) stimulation, where ideas can be consumed at any pace one prefers, and staged (or scripted) encounters managed from the comfort of the computer desk chair, can simply feel more enriching than sitting through a long research presentation or a comprehensive examination defense.

Donavan Ochs, a Becker colleague at Iowa, and Sam Becker, both veterans of military service (I have the sense that had something to do with it), put in pretty regular daily schedules.  Ochs, with whom I had the chance to study classical rhetoric and do an independent study on Aristotle, often put in 8-to-5 days.  As I recall it Donovan wore a tie every day, even in the 1990’s when few others did, and his door was always open apart from times when he was in private meetings or teaching.  When I asked him once how he got any work done under those conditions, he was plainly surprised at the question, and his reply – what I do here is my work – led to wider conversations about academic life.  Ochs noted that an open door policy did not prevent his research productivity, since the morning hours typically gave him many undisturbed hours to write and think.  His door wasn’t open to enable empty chit-chat – he was always profoundly encouraging but kept conversations mainly work focused.  And because he worked, seriously worked, for the duration of the regular day, he avoided the guilt so many of us feel at thinking we should be working at all hours of the night.  I always had the sense Ochs went home with a clean conscience – he had a life apart from Aristotle, a healthy set of diverse family and life interests, and retirement presented no apparent trauma for him.

It is simply impossible to generalize about the state of faculty engagement given the diversity of campus environments, and unproductive even to try, and there remain, of course, more pastoral campus settings where relatively smaller student cohorts and perhaps better supported faculty lives enable the creation of close intellectual community that at some level still adheres to the wider mythology of enclaved campus life.  But life for students and professors at the big state universities, and I suspect even in places where campus life is residential and intensively communal, is changing.  If the National Surveys of Student Engagement are to be trusted, students report less frequent conversations with their classroom professors outside of regular class times.  Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University and a key (and controversial) national advocate for delivering high quality and research intensive educational outcomes to very high numbers of enrolled students (ASU is now one of the nation’s largest universities), often repeats the idea that demographic surges require a model of education that is not numerically exclusive (the backward logic that translates so that the more people a school turns away, the better their reputation).  If public state institutions cannot find ways to well serve the students who are academically gifted but not financially or intellectually elite enough to enroll at the most exclusive private schools, Crow often says we’ll end up with a two-tiered system where the rich kids are educated by professors and the rest will be educated by computers.

The truth is that the big public universities are fast veering in the latter direction, not in the sense that MOOC’s educate our students but that the experience, especially in the first couple years, can be awfully impersonal, if not on account of large classes than because so many early classes are taught by graduate students and temporary faculty whose good teaching may nonetheless insufficiently convey a sense of place and local intellectual tradition.  The wider incentive structures are too often negative:  no pay raises, the demoralized sense that follows from the more frequently expressed taxpayer hostility to higher education, the pressures to win grants and relentlessly publish papers, accountability pressures that seem to require more and more administrative meetings, the idea that one must always stay on the job market or you’ll likely not be able to get a pay raise here, the growing number of students and in some states the expectation of higher instructional workloads, a tendency to think of day-to-day intellectual connectivity as simply more uncompensated service.  All this lures professors from the committed work of building local loyalty and into more defensive practices that feel like simple self preservation but are also, I suspect, self-defeating because they only accelerate a vicious cycle of brief and highly focused teaching and mentorship alternated by long stretches away.  Participate in a sustained reading group?  Sorry, I just don’t have any time for that.  Organize a campus colloquium, film or lecture series?  DittoAnd since everyone else is overwhelmed too, what would be the point?  No one would come.  Did you see the lead essay in the new QJS?  I’m curious what you thought.  Gosh, I’m months behind on that kind of reading – all my energy has to go to my book.  What energized you at the last big national conference?  Oh, couldn’t make it – and how could I when the university gives so little for professional development support?

The picture I’ve just drawn is exaggerated, thankfully, but I suspect that even as caricature it retains a certain familiarity.  Fortunately the energetic participation new faculty bring to academic programs is inspirational, and idealism trumps low morale for so many staff and faculty who sustain both distance networked and local connectivity. Whatever the incentives, every department includes professors at all ranks who pour their energies into building real collective intellectual communities.  It might also be added that the struggle I’m describing may be most accentuated in the humanities, where the norms of academic research are only slowly shifting away from the lone-professor-writing-her-latest-book to practices of team-based interdisciplinarity.  The very important beneficial consequences of globally networked disciplinary conversation arose for important reasons – the generation of new knowledge is more dynamic than ever before in human history, even despite data that (at least in communication) the research work is increasingly localized in smaller numbers of publishing faculty (a recent analysis in speech communication showed that something like 85% of all professors have not published anything or received external support for their projects in the previous five years).  But I wonder if the number of high productivity and communally engaged scholars can be sustained when their morale is under assault too, because the dynamics induced by understandable mentorship and reduced support bring into ever-starker relief the old 20/80 rule, where 20% do 80% of the work.  As 20/80 becomes 10/90, this is how intellectual dynamism, and universities, die.

Sam Becker’s career suggests a thought experience that asks whether the considerable benefits of 21st century intellectual life can be improved by some integration of the professional practices of the 20th.  I want to hypothesize that what so often seems like the depressing path of today’s stressed system of public higher education need not necessarily be accepted as a New Normal.  If public higher education is to retain its historical vitality, changes will have to happen on many fronts.  Taxpayers and legislators will need to be persuaded of public education’s value.  Reasonable systems of accountability will need to document the outcomes of pedagogical encounter, I know.  But there is a role for we faculty to play as well, and Sam Becker’s professional life suggests some of the possibilities.  Becker knew that good and committed scholars who simply show up day after day and make themselves open to engaged discussions with others, both online and in person, actually attract other smart students and teachers to join as well in ways that energize the common enterprise, and that calling it quits at the end of the workday creates intellectual sustainability too as people find time away every single day to recharge.  He saw, because he so often created it himself, that the vital and passionate sense of connection that emerges as intelligent participants in the educational experience talk to each other and rev up excitement about ideas one discussion at a time.  He realized that when everyone is present and engaged in program building, service work is made more manageable by division among larger numbers of connected co-workers.  I cannot prove it, but my suspicion is that the great intellectually vital centers of communication scholarship were (are) built more fully by acts of local loyalism than by enterprising free-agent academic nomadism.

The key is not simply hallway cultures of greater presence but also necessarily entail high degrees of intellectual openness, a refusal to see the scholarly enterprise as ideational warfare or zero-sum, even in contexts where resourcing is finite.  And this was another of the Becker legacies.  During his five decades in the department, communication studies nurtured, developed, and then in some cases spun off new academic units, including theater and film.  Those discussions were not always smooth or even friendly, and Becker had strong opinions.  But what he always preserved, as I saw it, was a culture of openness to new and productive work – it led him to shift over his own career from interests in quantitative social science to British cultural studies qualitative research and then back again.  No department is ever entirely free of intellectual entanglements – smart people will tend always to prefer their own lines of inquiry and can too easily fail to see the value of the efforts undertaken by others.  But so long as there are some Beckers around, these inclinations to either/or warfare that have consumed whole programs in acrimony can be channeled productively into both/and collective accomplishment.

Fantasies, perhaps.  But these are ideas whose lifelong embodiment in one Samuel L. Becker – Eagle Scout, decorated war hero, “Mr. University of Iowa,” champion of social justice and the idea that public education enriches us all, extraordinary teacher and scholar and administrator – remain for me compelling, even given the New Normals of this new century.

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