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The Academic Self: An Owner's Manual

By Donald E. Hall
Ohio State University Press
130 Pages
ISBN: 0-8142-5099-8 (paperback)

Reviewed by

Tom Nolan

Department of Nursing
Somoma State University


The Academic Self, written by professor Donald Hall of CSU Northridge, is described as an "ownership manual" for teaching assistants and junior faculty and is certainly timely. Hall offers sage advice to a new, young generation of junior faculty on how to take ownership of their academic selves.

Guided by the theories of self-identity and reflexivity of sociologist Anthony Giddens, Professor Hall encourages his readers to examine critically their professional self-identities, processes, values, and definitions of success. He discusses these concepts by asking faculty "to own" their self-identities and offers a number of practical strategies for responding productively to the many uncertainties of academic life. The book is set up as a brief self-study course--in other words, a "study of the self."

Hall observes that Ph.D. students are trained in a research mode that does not prepare them for the realities of life in a teaching university. Anyone who sits with a group of new faculty during their first semester on campus while they discuss getting ready for their initial review for retention will hear echoes of many of the concerns that give Hall impetus for his book. Reality shock at how heavy a four-course teaching load really is, compounded with questions about fuzzy (and sometimes conflicting) expectations for scholarship and service, can foster a feeling of generalized anxiety.

So, what are new faculty to do? Hall makes it clear that the ball is more in their court than they may at first realize. He says that faculty can and should define successful careers on their own terms, while he reminds us that individual efforts are always to be balanced with communal responsibilities.

Professor Hall uses the metaphor of "text" to examine the professorial "self," pointing out that just as we are trained to read critically the texts of our disciplines, so also do we need to read the "texts" of our selves. He divides his book into four chapters, each succinctly examining components of professional identity: the self, the academic profession, the processes of the academy, and collegiality. For each of these, Hall offers a series of "talking points" that are designed to provoke thought and discussion. The chapters conclude with selected practical strategies.

Rather than seeing collegiality as a burden, Professor Hall argues in his chapter on collegiality for a communal ideal that must be "an intellectually energizing, functional coexistence." Quoting J. Hillis Miller, he suggests that "people with very different opinions are able to dwell amicably together and respect each other's opinions." The question remains about how faculty are to thrive in departments that score low in functionality.

Hall speaks eloquently and with conviction about his own career in teaching. An aspect of taking "ownership" of one's career is to be prepared for chance, to be open to the unexpected occurrences that come one's way. Dr. Hall shares an anecdote about how he traces the success in his career today to a serendipitous chain of chance events that started in a bookstore years ago. While killing time, he happened upon a book of Victorian short stories that later led to his submitting several papers building on selected themes from that book. With this experience he was able to develop an array of applications to satisfy different job requirements, one of which landed him his current position.

"What does success mean?" Hall asks as he concludes his book. Each of us needs to define success for ourselves, in light of the context in which we find ourselves. Indeed, we are not held in bondage by the environments in which we work. Rather, Hall urges faculty to "critically engage those larger values [of their department, school, university] and adapt them--even dispense with some of them--as we take responsibility for our career choices, attitudes and behaviors."

It is easy for new faculty, or I should say for any of us, to become overwhelmed at times by the press of personal and professional responsibilities. Keeping it all in perspective is paramount to a successful and happy life. The old question about "how much will it matter a hundred years from now?" has its use in setting priorities and managing time. I might add that a sense of humor never hurts. In fact more than humor, the ability to laugh at oneself and the situation in which one finds oneself can tip the balance that moves one beyond mere survival to personal enrichment and satisfaction--maybe even "ecstasy."

Hall is a passionate man whose energy and excitement for his profession are threaded throughout his thoughtful book. Early in his academic career he was profoundly influenced by the work of Walter Pater whose work urged him to "burn always with [a] hard, gemlike flame," a motto that now sits on my desk! He quotes Sartre in urging us to "get as many pulsations as possible into the [time given us] ... [but] be sure it is passion." For it is not merely in either the process of our lives or our productivity, but both--the experience and the end--that lead to "moments of 'ecstasy' supported by an overall, sustainable sense of equanimity." And that is how Professor Hall defines success for himself.

Hall's essay--barely 100 pages in length--would make an excellent gift of welcome to each of the new faculty who join our ranks. For that matter, mid-career and senior faculty too can find refreshment from Hall's treatise, especially when he discusses the notion of burnout with suggestions about how to avoid it.

Perhaps Professor Hall's intent was to publish an essay that has universal applicability rather than dwell on CSU-specific issues. He makes little or no mention of hot-button topics such as collective bargaining or today's increased expectations for publications in departments in which senior faculty have not published much. Nonetheless, the book certainly stands on its own as a serious reflection on what it means to be an academic. In addition, the talking points in each chapter would make excellent starters for brownbag discussions among faculty at all stages of professional development.

Posted January 14, 2003

All material appearing in this journal is subject to applicable copyright laws.
Publication in this journal in no way indicates the endorsement of the content by the California State University, the Institute for Teaching and Learning, or the Exchanges Editorial Board. ©2003 by Tom Nolan.

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