Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Giving Tree and Revisiting Traditions

Have any of you read Shel Silverstein's book The Giving Tree? I didn't understand it at all in the first grade. Why would the tree be happy about giving everything it had to the boy? I thought it was pretty depressing. Even when I understand it now, I still think it is depressing.

I guess it is supposed to be about the relationship between a parent and a child, but I think it could easily symbolize the relationship an academic has with the university.

Today in Writing in the Profession, we discussed how some traditional ways and genres of the university should be revisited, such as the dissertation. We also thought about how graduate school can act as gatekeeping devices, so that only students that can actually do real academic work can make it through.

If you've read The Giving Tree you know how it ends. My point is maybe we should do more than just revisit some of our traditions. Maybe we should revisit what it means to be an academic, especially in our field where the emphasis is placed on service.


  1. My mom and I both think that The Giving Tree is one of the most depressing children’s books.

  2. I’ve used the phrase “I knew what I was getting into” more times than I can count since I started grad school and I did, I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy and that there was going to be a lot asked of me. That’s academia. Hell, that’s life in general, but I think the metaphor of the Giving Tree is a good idea for a cautionary tale. I think my whole problem with the book wasn’t necessarily that the tree was willing to give itself up for the boy, but that the boy would even ask it to do that in the first place. I know that the book is trying to show the extent to which a parenting is willing to go for their child, but even growing up I couldn’t imagine what kind of selfish child would ask their parent to sacrifice that much of themselves. Relationships, even familial ones, should be based on mutual giving, especially after the child is grown and able to take care of itself.

    So if we were to use this metaphor to look at academia then the assumption would generally be that we would be the child of the university. Instead, though, the university has made us into the parental figure. We are the ones that are being asked to give of ourselves without any recompense and we should be happy to do it. And for my students, sometimes I am, but I don’t owe the university anything. Of ten times as grad students there seems to be this feeling that the university is doing us a favor. They ae waiving (some) of our tuition and giving us a stipend to allow us to study here and we should be grateful. And I am grateful, but I also understand that they aren’t doing this out of generosity. No, they are being compensated in the form of cheap labor.

    Then after we graduate we should feel equally indebted to the University for hiring us. As a millennial that was still an undergrad when the recession hit I have been constantly bombarded with employers, universities included, trying to capitalize on the vulnerability we developed during this unstable period in the economy. Whether this is still true or not, when the recession hit the job placement rates at many universities plummeted, so we went from hopeful sophomores to juniors that were being guaranteed unemployment by our professors and advisors. We were told that we should take any job we could get and be extremely grateful that we got a job at all. And on top of that we weren’t supposed to do anything that could jeopardize that job because there were at least a hundred other unemployed people (most of which probably had more experience than us) waiting to take our place if we screwed up even the slightest bit or rocked the boat too much. Add that to the mentality in academia where the fear of tenure being done away with has been around for decades and there is an utter sense of expendability. The university owns us. If you are not willing to have this Giving Tree-esque relationship with the university then you can be replaced. And that creates an unhealthy, toxic environment for faculty. Somehow we need to rewrite the narrative so that we can say no without the fear retribution.