Category: Public Higher Education

Crisis of Conscience in the Arts and Humanities

The current crises (multiple) in the US and the world has generated a very specific crisis of conscience among practitioners in the arts and humanities.  From the Mellon Foundation’s shift in funding priorities to my daughter-in-law’s small theater company and the anguished discussion on Victorian studies listservs about justifications for teaching/studying Dickens, those practitioners are agonizing over how their work (which they enjoy and want to continue doing) contributes to social justice.  “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem” troubles people of good will with special urgency in the current moment.

Retirement is a time for reflection.  I think of what I have done with my life, of the choices I made.  Those choices were, in one way, quite haphazard.  I did not have a plan; I was opportunistic.  I knocked on the doors that presented themselves and walked through the ones that opened. I almost never turned down an invitation to do something—and one thing led to another.  All of it, however, was within the structures of an academic career, and constituted advances along fairly clearly mapped out career paths.  Once having secured tenure, the choices I made were all safe ones.  I never put myself at serious risk in terms of financial and career security, even as I did not stick to a field or a discipline.  I was more of a free-floating intellectual, but within an institutional place where that carried no significant risks.  In that sense, I was less “careerist” than many academics, but my being a bit of a maverick came at no cost and was hardly anything like significant rebellion.  I maintained a steady distaste for, even contempt of, much academic business as usual, but let my colleagues go their way so long as they let me go mine.

What did I accomplish besides garnering my fair share of rewards?  Not much.  Tops among the rewards was working with students—and enabling some of them to go on to their own successes.  When the fairly obvious paths for a career began to close down, making the possible way forward to students increasingly murky, much of the joy of my work began to dissipate.  I couldn’t justify what I was doing in terms of the ways it provided opportunities for my students to advance.  And while the scholarship itself (as evidenced by this blog), my engagement with ideas and arguments, continued (and continue) to interest me, that pursuit seemed more and more like self-indulgence.  It does no good to anyone—a fitting way to spend my retired time if I wish, but hardly an activity that society should feel any need or responsibility to support.  I am cultivating my own garden, which seems a betrayal of our needy world.  But I can’t figure out where my efforts could be better directed.

All of this as a long preamble to an email I recently sent to a former student, now a professor of Victorian studies, when she wrote to me about the current discussion on those listserv about reading/teaching/studying Dickens.  Here’s what I wrote back”


“As for studying Dickens, I share your inability to think straight on the topic.  I have two fairly recent posts on my blog–the titles include the terms “cakes and ale” so searching that way will get you the posts–that are relevant.  I think people will keep reading Dickens in the wider world no matter what the academy does, whereas I think some authors–Smollett, Oliphant, Meredith–would disappear altogether if there weren’t scholars reading and writing on them.

But whether the academy should devote resources to scholarship on Dickens and have courses where students are made to read him is a much tougher question.  I do think it highly, highly likely that Victorian studies will slowly fade out of existence–and I do think that’s a mostly bad thing even though I also understand that Victorian studies does little, if anything, to address the massive problems that our world faces.  That’s the dilemma my posts try to address: how to justify activities and scholarship that are not necessary in the sense of not directed toward issues of social justice.  “Not directed” meaning that, even if that scholarship talks about social justice, it is not doing anything concrete to bring social justice about.

My advice for you remains the same.  Play the game by the rules that currently apply.  Get tenure.  And then, with that security obtained, consider what work you can do with a good conscience, making you feel you are contributing toward something you can affirm.  For me, that mostly meant helping my students make their way forward in the world while writing and reading about things I felt germane to articulating a vision of what we should want a democratic society look like.

But all that definitely often felt very removed from making the world a better place.  The helplessness of looking on, and the guilt of doing that looking on from a secure place, did often make me accuse myself of cowardice.  I should have been putting myself on the line and doing something direct instead of pursuing my very pleasant indirect path.

There is a question of temperament here–although it can also seem a question of selfishness.  I have worked in political campaigns since I was 18, and I find I am not suited to it.  I believe much of what campaigns do is futile make-work (phone banks and canvassing, of which I have done a fair amount without any sense that it is effective) and I also find the focus on winning the election at the expense of much investment in what one is winning the election to achieve troubling.  Finally, in my one experience dealing with Congress (I was part of a team trying to influence the writing of a legal aid bill), the compromises we had to swallow and the pettiness and ignorance of the representatives we had to deal with was a massive turn-off.  The political process–no surprise–is very broken.  So a retreat back into academia, where at least I could control my relations to my colleagues and students, and act in ways I could affirm toward them, was a huge relief.

More than you wanted to hear doubtless.  But how to make one’s way through a life lived in a corrupt and cruel society is a real dilemma.  How to maintain self-respect and some sense of investment in what one is doing day in and day out even as you bemoan the state of the world and feel you should contribute to making it better.  Not a trivial problem. “


Cakes, Ale, and Mellon (2)

My post on the Mellon Foundation’s announcement that it would orient all its future funding decisions toward projects that advance social justice generated a conversation on Facebook.  You can read the give-and-take by going to my FaceBook page.

Here I want to make my position clear (which is hard because I have mixed feelings on the topic)—and elaborate on my rationale for those feelings.

Let me state my opinion at the outset—and then the rest of the post tries to explain that opinion.  Mellon has been the biggest foundation funder (by orders of magnitude) of work in the arts and humanities for many years now.  It was especially important because it funded institutions—museums, theaters, dance companies, learned societies, universities, small presses and the like—as well as individuals.  And (this is my big point) is was one of very few places where people in the arts and humanities did not have to justify their work by reasons external to the work itself.  You certainly had to convince Mellon that the work you were doing was of excellent quality and make a case that it was deemed significant and superb in the relevant field, but you didn’t have to claim external benefits.

Why is that important?  Because the arts and humanities cannot exist in a market society unsubsidized.  The major source of subsidy is the educational system, from kindergarten through to universities.  95% (to pick a plausible number out of thin air) of artists and humanists will make the majority of their income from teaching.  And that means the arts and humanities are continually burdened with making the case that they are pedagogically useful.  The insistence that that case be made—accompanied by an increasing skepticism about that case—is familiar to anyone who works in these fields. So Jessica Berman is absolutely right that we need to be adept at making that case since we will be called on—repeatedly—to make it.

But that need to make the case means the arts and humanities are continually and increasingly on the defensive, trapped within a game they cannot win but must play.  Thus the endless shouting into the wind about the benefits of a liberal arts education.  I am not saying those arguments are untrue.  I am simply saying they never convince the people who demand that we make those arguments even though they have closed their minds to them long ago.  It’s a pointless, frustrating, undermining game.  What a relief it was to not have to play it to secure support from Mellon.

Now let me tell you a true story.  I taught in the Humanities Department of the Eastman School of Music for eight year.  My students were all aspiring musicians.  Because I am deeply committed to the notion of an informed citizenry, my classes there were usually designed to give students an understanding of the state of these United States.  At the end of one semester, a promising young pianist came to tell me he was going to abandon music because the world was in too bad a shape for him to continue in good conscience.  I hope that you would in a similar circumstance be as horrified as I was.

That was not what I meant at all, I hastened to tell him.  I want you to be an informed democratic citizen, but I never intended to make you think you should give up trying to become a concert pianist.  You have an enormous talent and the world needs great pianists.  Your first responsibility to yourself and to the world is the nurturing of your talent.

Here comes the hard part.  I don’t think Beethoven and golf are significantly different as human endeavors.  Both are difficult, intricate, capable of being endlessly fascinating.  To become a master of either you need to be obsessed to the point of being a bit crazy, certainly to the point of neglecting much else that most of us think part and parcel of a well-rounded life.  Both deliver something to the practitioner (discipline, interest, satisfaction/frustration) and to those who enjoy watching/listening to adept practitioners (fandom, pleasure, the joy of watching something very difficult being done superbly well).  I don’t really see (despite the somersaults we go through—and it is always somersaults if Adorno is our guide) that claims about why Beethoven should be in the school curriculum but not golf hold water.  If it’s complexity and mental agility and an ability to pay close attention that we are after, golf could do the trick just as well.

This last point is driven home (admittedly to my despair) by the fact that sports are a much larger presence in our schools than the arts and humanities.  Certainly in terms of money spent, sports (at least from ninth grade on) garner much larger budgets.  And when (as is seldom the case, but not never) sports have to justify their presence in the curriculum, they offer reasons that echo the ones trotted out to justify the liberal arts.  Reasons about mental discipline, learning to work with others etc. (Side note: isn’t it wonderful that Stanford has dropped eleven sports instead of cutting the music department?  Let’s hope other universities follow their lead.)

What about social justice?  I hate to think of the somersaults that are going to be required to demonstrate that work on Beethoven will contribute to social justice.  (As I said in my first post, I predict the route taken will be to make Beethoven more available to audiences traditionally unexposed to him.)  Some authors (Dickens, Carolyn Forché) are going to be much easier to link to a social justice agenda than others (Nabokov, Jorie Graham).

Even with the more obviously politically relevant authors, I think the rationale is often a subterfuge.  I think of all the work in the past thirty years about Melville’s relationship to slavery.  Solid work—but driven, I think, primarily by an interest in Melville not by an interest in slavery.  Melville was not an important figure in abolitionist circles; if you are really interested in the history of slavery in the US, of attitudes toward it, and its practices, Melville is way down the list of places you would go.  He only acquired any significance long after slavery was abolished, and our investment in him now is disciplinary (having to do with the canon) and aesthetic (in the sense that we think him a superb novelist).  Yes, we want to know about his reactions to slavery—but not because they tell us all that much about slavery and abolition efforts, but because they tell us about Melville who we think is significant enough as an artist that knowing more about him is worthwhile.  What drives the scholarship is not the advancement of social justice, but the advancement of our knowledge of Melville.

I know I am going to be misunderstood on this point.  So let me state it in different words.  Literary studies bestows authority on certain figures; it has a canon.  Efforts to break open that canon—and to examine the processes that go into its formation—are (I think) directly political.  But such efforts have been modestly successful.  The undergraduate curriculum, even for majors, remains mostly canonical.  And scholarship, while certainly more historicist over the past forty years, still tends to be anchored by one or two “major” figures even as it explores less honored (or taught) writers.  It is the authority attached to those major figures that still matters greatly—with its assumption that 1) learning more about those writers is a self-justifying scholarly motive in the discipline, and 2) that what those major figures thought and did is significant because of who they are. (The kind of circular reasoning about significance that drove Barbara Herrnstein Smith crazy in her attack on aesthetics, Contingencies of Value.)

To state for about the millionth time in my lifetime, my basic take on this relationship between art/scholarship and politics.  I just don’t buy that writing about social class in Dickens is political, and certainly don’t see it as an advancement of social justice.  Political work engages in changing institutions, in working on facts on the ground.  Scholarly work can change political opinions, just as Dickens’ novels can, but we have a very attenuated sense of the political if we think that our job is done when we teach Bleak House and write an essay about its views of social responsibility.  If, in fact, our reason for being in the classroom and doing our scholarship is political, then we are acting in bad faith.  If you really take politics as your primary motive in life, then making art or writing literary criticism is not what you should be doing.

I don’t think we advance social justice one iota if we confuse direct political action with the indirect attention to political questions that can occur in our classrooms and in our scholarship.  So my fear is that Mellon’s insistence that we tie our work to social justice will just abet this confusion of the direct with the indirect.  It is hard enough to be honest about our motives for what we devote our time and energy to.  And it is equally hard to be realistic about what our work can and cannot accomplish.  I think Mellon’s new orientation will encourage comforting lies we already too often are tempted to tell ourselves.

To be blunt: I hate the gestural politics on display at the Whitney and in the halls of the MLA.  It’s cheap in the sense that it costs its practitioner nothing and seems mostly directed at garnering the approval of his peers.  There are, of course, notable exceptions—Banksy, James Baldwin, and Edward Said come to mind immediately—so I need to be careful not to claim that it is impossible for art and scholarship to be political.  But it is damn difficult.

If our work as artists and teachers is not political, what is it?  I have backed myself into a corner here, pushing me toward an answer I would have scorned most of my (misdirected? misunderstood?) career. (In short, I was as committed, maybe even more so, to literary studies’ efforts to be political–and thus avoided saying, to myself or others, what I was actually practicing everyday as a teacher.) Cultivation of a sensibility of open-ness and appreciation.

Another story to indicate what I mean.  Some years back I discovered that all the students in a class I was teaching had never seen “Casablanca.”  My deepest commitments were brought home to me.  I didn’t deeply care if they never read Pope’s “Epistle to Man,” but to never see “Casablanca” would be to go to the grave without having passed through life.  My goal as a teacher was to open eyes to the richness of the word and the life it was possible to live in that world. To move my students toward the “quickened consciousness” Pater extolled. That goal did mean I wanted them to see how cruel, how unequal, how unjust the contemporary world is, but bringing that point home was part of the larger project of their seeing “life” and “the world” in all its many-sided splendor and squalor.  And it is in the arts that that splendor and squalor are most fully on display.

This last point brings me back to cakes and ale.  William James was interested in what he called “moral holidays.”  He did not mean the term pejoratively.  He knew that everyone of us grants ourselves such holidays.  So how do we justify them?  Peter Singer is the utilitarian philosopher who makes the absolutely stringent case against such holidays.  There is no way, Singer argues, to justify spending $150 to see “Hamilton” when that same sum, given to Oxfam, can feed 40 people.  No cakes and ale without an obligatory side dish of guilt.

Singer’s challenge returns us to my Eastman student’s crisis of conscience about playing the piano.  We can do somersaults to justify our cakes an ale. Even when admitting they are no good for the world or even to ourselves (sugar and alcohol?), we will talk about psychological well-being, letting off steam, all work and no play, etc. etc.  Because, of course, we all do take moral holidays.

My utopia is a world where we are relieved of the felt necessity to justify the holidays.  They are just good in and of themselves.  (Of course, traditional aesthetics keeps returning to this issue of intrinsic value again and again.)  There is nothing wrong about pleasure, about things that fascinate us by their intricacy and difficulty (we can imagine the “holidays whisperer” crooning in our ear.)

Hannah Arendt, with her obsession with amor mundi (love of the world), approached these issues in a somewhat different way.  She talks about the “freedom from politics” as among the freedoms to be protected and cherished.  One hallmark of totalitarianism is that everything becomes political; nothing gets to escape signifying one’s political allegiances, and one is either applauded or persecuted for every single taste or action. We are in a bad way when wearing a mask during a pandemic becomes politicized.  Zones of the non-political are liberating in the way that “moral holidays” are.

Just think of how dreary a world without music, without novels, without holidays would be. That world would certainly be hard to love. That’s all the justification we need.  More importantly, it is all the justification we are going to get.  All the other rationales are threadbare, barely plausible.

Mellon used to be a place where you didn’t have to do lip service by trotting out those all too familiar rationalizations.  Apparently no more.

Cakes and Ale and the Mellon Foundation

Sir Toby:
Dost thou think because thou
art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Twelfth Night Act 2, scene 3, 114–115

The Mellon Foundation has announced that, starting now, all its funding will prioritize work in the arts and humanities that advances “social justice.”  I will admit to very mixed feelings on reading this news.  Here’s a link about the shift:


First, a little bit about Mellon before my reaction.  This year the Foundation will make $500 million worth of grants.  They are the gorilla in the world of funding for the arts and humanities.  Only the NEH and NEA are even remotely comparable in terms of supporting organizations and big collaborative projects.  Individual fellowships are available from the ACLS and places like the National Humanities Center, but Mellon has been the place for infrastructural support of institutions.

Mellon has gone through a sea-change over the past thirty years.  In the 1990s, they were an astoundingly elite organization, with their humanities funding going almost exclusively to private universities with very few exceptions.  In the early 2000s they decided it was time to expand their portfolio and came to the University of North Carolina.  It has always been true that Mellon comes to you; there is no application process, just an invitation from Mellon to submit a proposal. It will be interesting to see if the new emphasis on social justice will be accompanied by a more open application process.  Getting in the door at Mellon has always been extraordinarily difficult, especially for those further down the prestige chain.

UNC’s first proposal was for Mellon to support our fledgling Latino Studies program.  Mellon was not interested in anything so politically fraught; it ended up funding our second proposal instead—for a program in Medieval and Early Modern Studies (MEMS).  Mellon’s evolution can be charted in the fact that its next two humanities projects it funded at UNC were in the digital humanities and then in the public humanities.  In other words, between 2004 when it funded MEMS and 2016 when it funded the Public Humanities Program, Mellon had moved from focusing on elite traditional scholarship to encouraging emerging humanities practices (digital humanities) and then on to supporting efforts to move the humanities out into public space beyond the university.

I have, over the past ten years or so, taken to asking various people: “do you think there will be professors of Victorian literature in fifty years?”  I take their answer as a litmus test of how far their heads are stuck in the sand.  To me it seems obvious that certain forms of literary scholarship are fast becoming dinosaurs.  And it also seems (to me, at least) incredibly difficult to justify the study of English literature as crucial to just about any good (social or individual) that we can name.  Do we really think our society is going to keep subsidizing the study of Dickens—and keep requiring that students read Dickens?  Only institutional inertia keeps the practice alive.

And yet.  Do we want to live in a world where no one reads Dickens?  In a society that says we can’t afford Dickens?  That we have other more important matters to attend to?  Even when the rationale is “social justice,” not economic viability, the reasoning is still utilitarian.  Activities without an impact, a deliverable, must go by the boards.

The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations abandoned the arts and humanities some years back.  The Mellon Foundation became the only place to go.  Mellon was a strong supporter of humanities institutes like the one I directed at UNC.  And it was a very generous supporter of arts programming at UNC, most memorably in our extravagant celebration of the 100th anniversary of Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring—featuring commissioned performances, an academic conference, classes on modernism, and visiting artists.

It is hard to see how that Rite of Spring project could claim to contribute to social justice.  Is every dance company that looks to Mellon for support going to have to show how its choreography contributes to social justice?  Must humanities scholarship claim a social impact to garner Mellon money?

I have said my feelings are mixed.  I understand that Dickens scholarship may be a luxury we cannot afford.  It seems presumptuous to claim one is entitled to make a living teaching and studying Dickens.  For many years, I evaluated proposals for dissertation fellowships from across the university.  It was always difficult to balance a project from Public Health on breast cancer in non-white communities against a thesis on Melville.  The significance and social contribution of the one was obvious, while the work on Melville seemed like fiddling while Rome burned.  But what kind of society do we end up with if we declare non-utilitarian pursuits are a “privilege” that must be renounced?  No cakes and ale for the likes of you.

The arts and humanities in the United States have, to a very large extent, retreated to university campuses. (Outside of two or three big cities, any innovative or “avant-garde” artistic endeavors survive because of university support.)  In the midst of the pandemic, universities are in dire straits—and it doesn’t take a weatherman to see any ill wind as bringing more cuts to arts and humanities programs/departments that were already in a precarious position prior to COVID-19.  Mellon has been an increasingly crucial partner with universities since 2000—and has in the last twenty years extended that partnership far beyond the elite privates and the public flagships.

What is that partnership going to look like under the banner of “social justice”?  Access and affordability are certainly social justice issues—and there is much Mellon can do to further those goals.  So maybe more traditional (or more experimental), less immediately presentist, work will be supported if it has credible plans for reaching formerly unreached audiences.  But just how potentially popular will something have to be to qualify?

It’s ironic that I have these doubts and fears since I spent most of my academic career trying to push my discipline of literary studies and my university’s curriculum toward a more direct engagement with the analysis of contemporary society and its problems (injustices and inequities).  I think my hesitation now has to do with what seems to me an oversimplified vision of the relation of the arts to social issues.  I don’t think—at least in many cases—that there is a direct path from artistic vision or humanities scholarship to social effects.  Reading novels does not guarantee that the reader will care about, much less do anything to promote, social justice.  If Mellon insists on such direct social pay-offs, it will abandon large swathes of work in the arts and the humanities that it has supported in the past.  Such work really has no place else to go for support—and its loss will be felt in an artistic and scholarly world that will be diminished (less diverse) because Mellon has put its thumb on the scale.


I will be 67 in July.  Most college professors (at least on my campus and among the ones I know elsewhere) do not retire that young.  Seriously thinking about retirement at 70—and often taking a year or two past that to pull the trigger—seems the norm.

I make a very good salary and have a research fund that pays for books and travel to conferences.  My students—god bless their cheerful hearts and inquiring minds—still seem to buy what I have to offer, even though I feel embarrassingly ancient as I stand before them.  I can avoid almost all the tedious committee work in my department and around the university because I am not a “player” anymore.  I cannot avoid the increasingly onerous paperwork, the endless forms and surveys required of us.

So why retire?  My job is not terribly difficult, and often very rewarding.  I still love the students (without reservation)—and my colleagues (in suitable doses).

For starters, I am tired.  I don’t work anywhere near as hard as I did fifteen, even ten, years ago.  I feel like I was a .290 lifetime hitter, with a few peak years at .310, and now I am batting .230.  It’s time to hang up my spikes, even though the club would keep me on indefinitely as a veteran presence.  He used to be something, so we tolerate him hanging around.  Giving less than my best feels cheapening, even fraudulent.  Better to walk away.

The tiredness manifests itself in various ways.  In the past, I was constantly changing the courses I taught, the books I had students read.  In the past five years, I have found myself stumped as to what to teach—and have resorted to recycling old standards.

When I had a year at the National Humanities Center two years back, I discovered that I didn’t want to write scholarly prose anymore.  I simply wasn’t going to do the homework necessary.  As any reader of this blog knows, it is hardly that I lack a continuing interest in intellectual questions.  But I am no longer willing to make myself acquainted with the vast literature—some of it awfully good—out there on any given topic.  I want to pursue my own lines of thought through writing, but I don’t want to bother to engage with the ongoing scholarly dialogue on my chosen interests.  In short, my scholarly career was obviously at an end—and it felt fraudulent to continue to draw a salary while not doing that part of my job.

So much for all the negative reasons.  Luckily, there are also positive ones.  The Covid-19 shutdown has made those all the more obvious.  Time is not hanging heavy on my hands—or on Jane’s.  Even isolated from all our friends, the days aren’t long enough to do every thing we want to do.  I am reading, writing, exercising, listening to music, tending to the daily chores of life; the need to finish out the semester on Zoom only distracts from all the things I want to be doing.

When I look back at my career as a professor, and at the life that Jane and I lived/created over the past thirty-plus years, I am astounded at how much we did.  I can’t imagine how we did it.  I want to say that the books wrote themselves; I certainly don’t see how it was possible, amidst everything else, to have put in the time and effort necessary to write them.  It’s as if someone else did it—or as if I wasn’t present to my own life.

That’s the overwhelming feeling—no regrets at all, but a sense of having missed my own life.  Was I even there?  Getting through each day, with its piled up responsibilities and commitments, was the priority.  There was no larger plan, no overall strategy.  Just survival, putting one foot in front of the other, dealing with each day and its demands.

I loved every minute of being a parent—and am blessed with an ongoing good relationship to Kiernan and Siobhan (in such sharp contrast to my relationship to my parents).  But it went by too fast—and they (I know) felt slighted at times in favor of all the other things I was also doing during those years.

That’s no way to live (really!).  The virus shutdown has slowed Jane and me down—and it’s wonderful.  We still have plenty to do, still have eyes too big for our stomachs.  But all the sense of urgency is gone.  We do the things we do out of pleasure, with all the pressure taken off. If something does not get done, so be it.  It’s glorious.  We should have retired years ago.  The work world is crazy and crazy-making, with its absurd norms of productivity and ritualized scenes of public humiliation called “evaluation” (annual reports, promotion and tenure, and all the rest).

I will admit to a fundamental selfishness as well.  A sense that it’s not my responsibility any more.  I fought the good fight while employed—and lost most of my fights (for interdisciplinary curricula, for support of collaborative work, for expanded notions of what should “count” for promotion, for UNC to face up to its racist past and to the unspeakable Republicans who are ruining our state).  Now I feel OK just washing my hands of it all.

I am going to spend my time in the ways I wish.  Others will have to carry on the fight.  I am tired of it in every possible way one can be tired.  Enough.  I have other—and I hope better—things to do.  Certainly more sane things, ones that don’t pull me into the orbit of the crazies.  (It is the relentless energy of those right-wing thugs, the way they work every angle and never let an opportunity to do harm pass them by, that amazes, frightens, and exhausts me.  Yes, I hate to let them win, but nothing I have done to date has kept them from winning and now, like Thoreau, I feel—at least at times—that I have other matters to attend to.)

The fact that I am deeply ashamed of UNC plays a role in my decision to retire.  I have given over 25 years of my life to this institution—and for most of those years, even as I fought those losing battles, I felt UNC had a fundamentally good heart, that it usually did the right thing when it came to the big issues.  I may have been very naïve about that—but our wonderful students, my conscientious colleagues, and an approachable administration that listened to (even when it ignored) advice made me love this place. I was given the freedom to do what I believed in during the time I directed the Institute for the Arts and Humanities. More generally, UNC was good to me and Jane, giving us scope to pursue out interests, and paying us generously.  We met (this is no exaggeration) hundreds of people—students, colleagues, alumni—during our years at UNC who inspired us in one way or another.

My work with interesting and committed donors contributed to my general sense of well-being.  But then the university’s response to the athletic scandal of fake classes, its failure to address forthrightly the racial legacy represented by Silent Sam, and its supine self-prostration before a Board of Governors determined to destroy public higher education made me want to walk away.  I made my public howls of protest, for which my fellow faculty thanked me and to which the administration turned a cold shoulder.  I had had enough.

I hope that UNC is on a better path now.  The current chancellor does understand how damaged the Carolina community has been by the events of the past eight years—and is trying to fix that damage.  I wish him luck.  But I am relieved to be walking away.  I don’t want to be part of that effort.  It’s been too discouraging to watch the lack of courage and honesty that got us to our current state.

So I retreat into a more private space.  Writing my blog, riding my bike, seeing friends and traveling.  Jane and I will become grandparents in the next few weeks, with our granddaughter in DC with her parents.  I am committed to helping my daughter-in-law keep her theater company, We Happy Few, afloat—and thriving.  We will also help with child care.  Return trips to Italy, Cornwall, and New Zealand are highest on the travel list.

Inevitably, I will become involved in some kind of political work.  I refuse (mostly) to give money to campaigns any more.  (I end up donating to down-ballot races when I get a direct appeal from a friend involved in that campaign.)  Contributions to the national races just seems like abetting a corrupt system.  And I hate the way I get blackmailed into giving because the other side is spending so much.  Instead, I give the money I used to throw at Democratic presidential and Senate candidates to local charities that I know are doing good work.  Maybe I will also work for that kind of charity instead of for a more directly political cause.  I would like to find something I believe in and that seems effective to throw myself into.  The theater company has that appeal.

And this blog.  It is strangely comforting to write posts that feel addressed to an audience out there, even if I know only a tiny few (ten or twelve maybe) are on the receiving end.  The pressure of an imagined audience puts a little spine into the writing.  But the knowledge that there isn’t really an audience (or certainly not a judging one) gives me the sense that I can write whatever I like, ramble, digress, indulge myself.  It’s the perfect form for me, not utterly solipsistic, but relieved of any need to please an audience.  I can just write to please myself—and let anyone who wishes listen in.

That’s the thing about writers.  They always write far more than any reader could ever possibly read.  Writing, a matter of so much pain and angst for many academics, is an addiction like any other for those of us who can’t stop pouring the words out.  The blog will abide.  It is pure pleasure, completely divorced from any sense of obligation or responsibility, just another indulgence in what I intend to be a blissful retirement in which I do the things I want to do. No more, no less.