Academics are not necessarily scholars and scholars are not necessarily academics: Academics basically pass on a body of knowledge; scholars, on the other hand, aim to modify and/or expand the traditional body of critical knowledge to be passed on to each generation.
If fortunate, s/he gets to retire, but then is faced with “what next?” Perhaps s/he will teach another year or two as a faculty adjunct, attend a few more professional conferences, write another article or two, perhaps post a blog, and then, time running out, write a final book—but what then? Advanced old age, arthritis, aches and pains are fast catching up; imperceptibly s/he slows down, strength is not what it once was, balance is awful. Children want mom and dad nearer to them for their/our sake and that of the grandchildren. S/He resists. But finally faces reality: future days are limited.
S/He looks around; the family home needs repair and paint, neglected for the pursuit of scholarship (Alles für die Wissenschaft, right? ); dozens of boxes filled with various stages of research, half finished articles, books completed or begun, and forty or fifty years of living in the same location, a scholar’s library of books lining every available wall in the house, its value now diminished in the digital age—but surrender the books? An incredible thought!
S/He begins dumping boxes of files, resolving only to preserve photographs that may have historical value—professional ideas consigned to the ages in that which s/he has published. Each dumped file a creative process, either completed and published or paused, representing months of work around the world in conferences, museums, libraries, on ancient archaeological sites. Each dumped file is one piece of the movement toward achieving the goal of reducing the carbon footprint and facilitating the move nearer children, but it comes at the cost of obliterating who s/he was: a scholar.
Unfortunately this scenario, or something similar, is the way of all flesh: you can’t keep things forever, and you cannot take them with you. There is a proverb, probably traditional, that the evangelist John appropriates to conclude Jesus’ address to Peter in John 21:18; the proverb succinctly summarizes the plaintive situation of those of us who live into advanced old age:
When you were young, you dressed yourself and walked where you wished; but when you become old you will stretch out your hands and another will dress you and take you where you do not want to go.
Alas, obsolescence is the way of the world: things eventually wear out, become ineffectual, and pass into oblivion—museums and libraries, on the other hand, are our ways of ensuring that we never completely forget, a way of ensuring immortality for some. Recognizing the way of the world for what it is should bring us neither to the edge of despair nor resigned acceptance, but it should disturb us enough to “rage rage against the dying of the light”—evoking for good or ill lines by Dylan Thomas:
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightening they
Do not go gentle into that good night.*
Rather they begin filling new collections of boxes. That is the way of the human spirit.
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
*Dylan Thomas “Do Not Go Gentle into that Good Night” in The Collected Poems of Dylan Thomas 1934-52 (New York: New Directions, 1957), 128.
Thanks for this, Charlie: it's squarely on target for me, I'm sorry to say! This week begins my final semester of teaching, and by July 31 I need to vacate the office that I have inhabited for 30 years. (I will have spent 39 years on the job here, plus two more years at another place; 41 years total in the higher ed biz.) I have hundreds of books to dispose of and file cabinets full of photocopied articles to recycle. Last fall I agreed to have my secretary and a student worker dispose of about 8 feet of shelf space taken up by loose-leaf notebooks full of photocopied articles that go back to the beginning of my graduate work in 1972. I couldn't bear to look at any of it one last time. I just waved it away and told them to recycle the paper.
If I want to sneak a few of my homes home, I'll need to empty some shelves there, too!
Since I have lived under a dark medical cloud for almost 13 years, I remind myself to be grateful that I'm not pushing up daisies yet!
Thank you for your wise words!
You truly have been and are a scholar and an effective one! I am one of surely a great number of your students who have benefited from you scholarly endeavors. You can rejoice in knowing this simple truth.
Congratulations on a life well lived, and I hope you continue your life endeavor as long as you have breath and thought.
Good Morning Bob,
Thank you for sharing your own situation. It helps to know that many of us are facing the same situation. What do you plan to do with your books? That is the one thing yet unresolved for me.
Thank you for the kind words. I regard them as a high compliment.
I'm entering my 7th year of retirement as a private practitioner in clinical psychology. (1) One opportunity I had was to give a number of books to someone who made frequent overseas trips and gave books to psychology programs in developing countries.(2) Another opportunity I had was to pass along books to fellow psychologists at continuing education opportunities [granted, they had most of them anyway]. (3) The church library or local public library might appreciate some of them. (4) Children and grandchildren might appreciate some. (5) Also, in my town there is an agency which provides free legal services and holds an annual book sale to help fund the work.
Hope this jogs some ideas for you.
I also want to say that your blog is a place where I've felt that all ideas are respected.
I'm not sure why each "dumped file," as you suggested, represents the obliteration of your being a scholar. Did it lose its meaningfulness? When the file was sitting in your office for all those years- did you ever think about it, and did it give you any satisfaction? Or was the satisfaction derived from when you were actively working on it? Our homes are filled with items that once had meaning when we were in the hot pursuit of putting them together, getting them done, finishing that project... Once the project is finished- where do you go from there? When we're 40, did you worry about what to do with those boxes of files? Did you even think about it at that age? Who you are on the inside is no different at your current age than at any other age. Remember how good it felt to be productive and interested in those projects and know that other projects are still possible, even though they may be different from what you did back then. Thank you for sharing your thoughts- I'm sure many of us can relate. Elizabeth
Maybe you could see if some in your family would like them or some of the books. The many books from my dad’s office, though of mathematics I don’t hope to understand, my grandparent’s novels which I have read at least once, all bring memories that are priceless, from my days as a kid running amuck on campus to watching grandpa in his chair, smoking his pipe and reading.
Dennis Dean Carpenter
Gene and Dennis: Thanks for your suggestions. It is not just my problem but as I tried to point out in the blog it is a universal problem: all of us will deal with it at some point. In my case, the professional books will be the last thing I get rid of.
Gene: thanks; I try to be respectful of the ideas of others--we all learn from one another even if we disagree.
Dennis: I also have a large number of books out of my field and I am an avid reader of fiction, as well. But those will be easy enough to part with.
Good Morning Elizabeth,
I will try to answer the first question. My published work is my "legacy," whether or not anyone reads it. But the boxes reflect me at work, me engaging in a particular scholarly enterprise; they contain the blind alleys, my rejected mistakes and so forth. What I published were the results of a process that can only be found in the boxes. And I have had reason to check the boxes from time to time through the years to answer questions about this or that issue.
Oh wow... well that makes sense then. That would be really tough. That is indeed a shame that you cannot keep them. It's not like you can just put them in a storage unit. However, I would certainly think Missouri State's archive department would have any interest in them. Have you reached out to them? Surely some archive department somewhere would want them- I know I would. If I had room, I'd store them for you myself. I have notebooks and journals that I consult from time to time and I cannot imagine parting with them... on a much smaller scale than you of course. I truly hope that some friend or family member will assist you in preserving your life's work. You have my email and if I can be of any assistance, please let me know. I would be happy to reach out to a university on your behalf. Elizabeth
Oh, Charlie, I read this and immediately choked up. We are old! When did this happen? As you know, I am not a scholar, just a person full of curiosity, and I, too, have the boxes, the books, the papers, the accumulation, and yes, detritus, that results from living 45 years in one house. And I don't know what to do with it all. I don't think there is much call for our collections anymore. Even libraries are getting rid of mountains of paper as they convert to a digital world. And surely, you remember your older colleagues trying to find homes for their books and treasures when they retired. Maybe we just have to be satisfied with the pleasure and satisfaction we derived from all of this. I do know that the things you have have written have often given me courage and a new way of looking at religion; and that has changed my life.
Thank you and yes, all of us at the far end of life have similar problems. Learning to accept our mortality is not only physical, mental, and emotional, but painful when we are called upon to dump what would have been the residue of our lives. Better us than someone else!
Public archives are for those whose work has "forked lightening" on a national or international scale. It is enough for the rest of us that we have been able to leave behind a traceable literary trail through the wilderness of life.
RE: disposing of one's professional library, the most hopeful possibility that I have found thus far is the Theological Book Network. They accept donations of books and then ship them to seminary and university libraries abroad, mostly in the Global South, I believe. I'm in discussion with them now about my situation, so nothing is settled yet, but it looks hopeful. Check them out at:
Theological Book Network
3529 Patterson Ave., SE
Grand Rapids, MI 49512
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