Swan Song for a University: On Carolyn Dekker’s “North Country”
By Rachel FederJune 4, 2023
North Country: A Pedagogical Almanac by Carolyn Dekker
In her new book North Country: A Pedagogical Almanac, Carolyn addresses her students directly, reminding them that this is what academia, or at least literature, can be: a platter of gifts, a realm at once generative and gentle. “Eat the mythical foods,” she writes, “discuss poetry and Greek mythology and Italian renaissance paintings, the whole world yours and all its jeweled fruits.” Graduate school opened those horizons up for us, at least in those early days, and Carolyn seemed more prepared than most to receive the instruction.
On that initial visit to Michigan, Carolyn noticed my snaffle-bit ring and we quickly bonded over our horsey girlhoods and love of poetry. She told me about the boy-and-dog novel she was writing, about craving a life compatible with writing. I was living, at the time, inside the collected works of George Oppen and Lorine Niedecker and Jack Spicer, while Carolyn was a self-described “basic Blake/Byron/Hemans girl.” When I ask her to conjure a particular line of poetry that was important to her back then, she says that Lord Byron’s “My very chains and I grew friends” rattles to the surface. At the beginning of graduate school, Carolyn told me she was planning to study 19th-century British literature, a kind of time travel I hadn’t quite realized was possible. From that moment, I began to drift back in my historical field of choice, while she drifted forward. Eventually, we almost occupied one another’s former places in the cohort, a sort of encapsulated model of literary history. But then, with her willowy frame, clear eyes, and almost startlingly serious expression, Carolyn could have made any intellectual choice seem like the best one. She was only a couple years older than I was, but her crystalline literary opinions and the braid that fell past her waist—not to mention her husband in tow—made Carolyn seem impossibly grown-up to me.
Looking back, I see how shockingly young we were. Carolyn was 24 when we started graduate school, while I was just 22. We moved to Ann Arbor for reasons at once idealistic and pragmatic. Our cohort launched in the autumn of 2007, on the very precipice of the Great Recession. While we couldn’t predict just how bad things would get for academia, we knew, at least on some level, that we were about to devote our twenties to a field that might not have a perch for us on the other side. Carolyn calls her decision to enroll in the PhD program anyway a calculated gamble; Michigan seemed prestigious enough to tip the odds in her favor, and its strong graduate-student union had ensured us a funding package that, while modest, provided more than she had been making as a full-time teaching intern. I had graduated college the spring before and was simply ready for life to begin. A couple years later, I took my dissertation on the road, and would sometimes crash in Carolyn’s guest room when I went back to Ann Arbor to attend events or meet with my committee. Her house, like her mind, was always full of projects—seedlings under a heat lamp in the office, an old library card catalog she was transforming into a spice rack, a new foster dog that 100 percent wanted to bite me. After graduation, we kept up sporadic contact, meeting for drinks or pad thai when we found ourselves at the same academic conference.
Academia, like love, sends you places. You’re taught from earliest days—from those milk-and-honey moments of graduate school recruitment, and even before—that, if you are to have any chance of success, you need to be willing to go anywhere. I followed my husband, whom I found studying anthropology across the quad, to New Orleans, and wrote my dissertation while he embedded himself with a group of activists. Then he followed me to Central New Jersey, which we adored more than we expected to, and then back to my home state of Colorado. We rented a cabin in the mountains, dealt with a long-distance postdoc in St. Louis. He held a couple of local, short-term appointments before switching fields altogether, because, as much as you’re willing to go anywhere, at a certain point it’s nice to live in the same place.
Carolyn’s early years in academia were similarly nomadic, and her approach to the job market, such as it is, demonstrated the necessary willingness to leave the logistics of her life up to chance. Carolyn was raised in suburban New Jersey, attended idyllic Williams College, and worked as a teacher in Boston while her first husband attended law school before finding herself at, and in, Michigan. After defending her brilliant dissertation on the atomic bomb and the literature of the American Southwest, she accepted a one-year appointment at Bates College, then left Maine for a tenure-track job at Finlandia University in Hancock, Michigan. To secure these opportunities, Carolyn tells me, she sent out 183 job applications in two years.
While working toward tenure at Finlandia, Carolyn published a critical edition of Jean Toomer’s 1935 play A Drama of the Southwest, as well as a number of essays and articles. But instead of devoting her assistant professor years to the project of transforming her dissertation into a peer-reviewed, academic monograph—a book squarely in the field of literary studies, and far from her creative writing dreams—Carolyn turned, instead, to an experimental collection of essays, and to small-press publishing. North Country combines reflections on teaching, memoir, literary criticism, and nature writing. Grounded in place and lyrical in scope, it meditates on moments of encounter—with her students, first and foremost; with dogs and horses; with works of literature; with a lover; with a child; with her parents; with another distance hiker on a desolate trail; with overgrowth and ruins.
When I asked Carolyn why she chose this hybrid form, rather than a standard literary-critical monograph, she told me that “being a female faculty member and one who teaches literature, you become everyone’s confidante. In my classroom, I tend to try not to get so personal.” She explained to me that “in some ways writing this book was a way to honor the interactions I was experiencing with the literature, the way I, too, was just flailing through and trying to figure life out, even though I try to keep that below the surface in the classroom.” Ultimately, Carolyn described her project “as braiding this highly personal consideration of books, which I suppose is a form of idiosyncratic literary criticism, together with family and campus stories, three threads that were making a life.”
This life, for Carolyn, is deeply rooted to place. Inspired by authors such as Henry David Thoreau and Annie Dillard, she chose to compress five years of essay material into “one academic year, one round of seasons” in order to give her readers “a richer sense” of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. But while each essay connects to the land and to her experiences reading and teaching there, the chapters that fall under this rubric are deeply varied, their woven stories engrossingly told. One chapter, for example, recounts her experiences teaching the works of Sherman Alexie the week his #MeToo scandal broke. Another ties together Lord Byron’s Oriental romances, the role of the poet’s granddaughter Anne Blunt in bringing Arabian horses to England, and the life of Carolyn’s own horse, a descendant of one of Blunt’s. Still another recounts Carolyn’s experience traversing the Trap Hills in Ottawa National Forest with only her dog for company. Regarding this adventure, Carolyn tells us that, “given the choice between people and the forest, I’ll take my chances with the forest.”
As North Country delves, via literature and pedagogy, into questions of self and world, the project also coheres to offer a portrait of academia’s necessity vastly different from what she and I experienced together downstate. It’s a portrait of a university in crisis, a prayer for the students and faculty who toil to develop their lives and minds and to support one another there, an act of metempsychosis that asks a dear but desolate place to reveal to its readers the crisis landscape of higher education.
North Country: A Pedagogical Almanac came out from Black Lawrence Press in late February of this year. About a week later, Finlandia University announced that it was closing its doors.
In an academic article about popular, recent works of postapocalyptic literary fiction, Carolyn writes that “northern Michigan acquits itself well as a frontier setting.” She goes on to explain that the “Upper Peninsula today is filled with ghost towns, overgrown cemeteries, and feral apple trees marking abandoned homesteads, and especially mining ruins.” Despite the remote, desolate nature of the region, Carolyn tells me: “The first time I saw Hancock on a map, before I got the interview or saw the town, I knew this is where I’d land for good.” Landing there required a radical and immediate reimagining of her life and commitments, including the dissolution of her first marriage. In an early chapter of North Country, Carolyn recounts her parents’ visit to her new home:
I want to tell my father about my new life here, what it means to me to live on the northern edge of beyond; to teach these students of Detroit, Calumet, and Escanaba; to tell him why I will stay, husband or no (and it will be no). Perhaps at some level my parents know this already, hence this journey to help me handle the roof and to check on their only daughter, alone and with winter bearing down on her in this new place.
While Carolyn may have started out alone on the Upper Peninsula, she didn’t stay that way for long. Her now-husband, Shawn, whom she knew from the martial arts world (which features, stunningly, in another of the book’s essays), moved to be with her. His younger daughter came with him, and his older daughter followed two years later. Reflecting on these migrations, Carolyn notes, “That is truly three other lives designed around this place being here with a job for me.”
For Carolyn, who received tenure in 2020, that job should have been available for a lifetime. But while the position turned out to be unexpectedly ephemeral, it was one that she managed with grace, supporting students as they dealt with hardships including “crumbling campus infrastructure, lack of money for textbooks, balancing full time jobs with full time course loads, winter, despair, remoteness and transportation challenges, family crises, under-resourced parenting, [and] academic under-preparation.” She founded a Textbook Justice Library that allowed students with financial need to check out their textbooks from course reserves for full-semester loans, and testified as a character witness for a student facing incarceration, but, she says,
I don’t think that anything I do on campus is terribly exceptional. Our campus pastor has been running a food pantry out of the basement of the chapel and a free community meal every Monday night, and one administrative assistant spent a weekend single-handedly collecting enough coats and boots to start a winter clothing closet for students in an empty office on campus. I’ve known colleagues to give laptops to students and pile them in their cars for Walmart runs and waterfall hikes. I think my colleagues and I understand that when our students are clinging to the very edges of a college life, we ignore Maslow’s hierarchy of needs at their peril—and the institution’s. You got these students here, but do they have a coat and boots to walk to class in?
I ask Carolyn via email how she sees her book differently now, in light of what is happening at Finlandia. She replies: “There were elements of proleptic eulogy in the book; now it’s become a swan song for this university.” On March 2, the Thursday before Spring Break, Carolyn and her colleagues were called to an all-campus meeting on three hours’ notice. The press and public were barred from the room. There, the university president announced that the college would close after spring commencement on May 7. Faculty, staff, and students all heard this news together, in person; immediately following the meeting, the news went live online.
Carolyn tells me that some people have been asking whether there was a conspiracy to withhold knowledge of the university’s precarity from those to whom it would matter most. But whether or not employees and students were deliberately misled, Carolyn says that “to anyone really paying attention to the health of the college, I think that the news could not be a shock.” Carolyn explained that faculty are in their third year without retirement benefits and were formerly working under 10 percent pay cuts to their already stringent salaries. And yet, Carolyn believes that closure was not an inevitable conclusion, until it suddenly was. She tells me that her understanding “is that there was a viable path forward for the college, a possible emergency funding source being explored as late as midnight the night before the announcement. The board made the vote to close at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday, March 2nd, and we found out at 3:00 p.m.”
With her signature generosity of spirit, Carolyn tells me that, despite the suddenness of the cataclysm,
I think that this was handled as humanely and forthrightly as possible [given the circumstances]. The college just ran out of operating capital before it ran out of hope or energy or good ideas. On Tuesday, faculty were voting on new academic programs for next year, and on Thursday, the campus was absorbing news of the impending closure and layoffs, some of which were effective Friday morning. Those of us who have had two months of runway to prepare ourselves and our families are truly the lucky ones.
The college is now in receivership, meaning there is a court-appointed official on campus making the final financial decisions (“like whether an electrician can be called to give us light in a bathroom,” Carolyn explains) and to catalog the buildings and their contents for sale. Carolyn imagines that these sales might be necessary in order for the college to pay out the employee wages that will be earned before May. “This is all,” she says, “as grim and sad as it sounds.”
The general cause of our closure is the declining number of 18-year-olds nationwide, and the declining number of them who are choosing to attend college. It adds up to one million fewer students in college now than there were in 2019. Michigan’s Upper Peninsula has also been experiencing population loss through out-migration for the last 50 years. Similar demographic trends exist in New England, and have claimed some small schools, but many others have been able to survive by attracting students nationally and internationally, and simply by being older and with deeper coffers.
Connecting these national trends to the lives of her students, Carolyn adds that “Finlandia was serving a population of students who were, due to financial, social, and academic factors, disproportionately likely not to finish college.” She says,
Forget about four-year retention: first-year fall-to-spring persistence has been a struggle, and each January, students returned to campus to more empty chairs in lecture halls and empty tables in the cafeteria than there were in December. We were 50 percent first-year students every year. Every one of us on faculty taught our hearts out in an effort to bend that retention curve upwards, but at some point there is no substitute for personal and campus resources.
To survive and thrive in this sort of environment, Carolyn believes that Finlandia needed excellent strategic leadership. She argues that the new university president and board chair had the experience and the vision to lead the university forward—but it was simply too late to save the school.
Even as Finlandia begins to wind down its operations, Carolyn tells me that she continues to serve as an advisor to a handful of exceptional students who are considering graduate school in the humanities, “despite or because of what they see in the lives of their professors.” She offers these students pragmatic but hopeful advice: “Do it only if spending the time thinking about books or history or languages sounds like its own reward and if the program will pay you enough to survive.” Reflecting on the ethics of these conversations, she muses, “Should I discourage them outright? Many of these students have already experienced the challenges of working hard and still not making ends meet. When the other labor options are hideous, even today, why not grad school?”
Every place is also a story. This is true of the Upper Peninsula and of the Finlandia University campus. In North Country, Carolyn writes of hiking through the Ottawa National Forest, where signs of the past “are visible everywhere in the form of barely gated-off mine entrances and broken stone foundations.” When I ask Carolyn to speak to her home environment as an apt metaphor for the current state of higher education, she tells me that “part of the Keweenaw’s charm is the ruin porn—the rusting and rewilding of all of this incredible copper mining industry infrastructure. To see such signs of industry subsiding back into the trees is certainly to feel as if we’re already in a postapocalyptic setting.”
Carolyn goes on to share her worry that many of Finlandia’s campus buildings will end up in ruins too—she likes imagining them as affordable apartments but admits that, “given the scarcity of capital up here, it seems more likely that the mice and bats will have them.” In so many ways, Carolyn tells me, she and her colleagues have already been working among ruins. In North Country, she describes “crumbling staircases gated off forever; projector bulbs burnt out two weeks at a stretch; water dripping into trashcans through unrepaired roofs and crumbled ceiling tiles.” She describes the college’s plan to repurpose unused buildings for community benefit but shares that “the renovations are always going to be completed next year, and this year we all live with the ghost-town feeling of broken windows and dust and the promise of renewal just around the corner.” Now, it seems, things are likely to stay somewhat as they are. In a follow-up communication, Carolyn sends me a photograph of a broken staircase with wisps of neon orange fencing on the ground around it. She writes, “Maybe ‘gated off’ was giving too much credit.”
Despite the dissolution of the university she organized her life around, Carolyn isn’t planning to go anywhere. Reflecting on the last line of the book—“We’ll be here, waiting beside Lake Superior, for whatever the next season brings”—Carolyn says that, in many ways, she was facing this possibility and had already decided what she and her family would do about it.
Carolyn tells me that sometimes she thinks of herself as trapped. She has become, in this distant place, a mother and a foster mother and a grandmother. She is close to the people who need her. She has a 33-year-old horse she can’t imagine moving and savings that wouldn’t go nearly as far almost anywhere else. Despite all of this, Carolyn cannot help but choose optimism:
It’s more life-giving to think about the blessing that it is to be rooted here, to be in love with particular trails, shores, and creeks, and to know how profoundly I am supported by a caring and close-knit community. There are affirmative choices: I can afford horses here; my asparagus patch and my apple trees are coming into their own; I can ski all winter here; my eldest daughter is quite settled here in town and my grandbaby is starting kindergarten next year. All of us are in love with so many aspects of the life here.
So what is next for Carolyn, who is officially unemployed as of May? When I ask her how she imagines the future, she replies,
I look at my husband, who got his GED at 40 and has done so much in his life—everything from private security work to steel work to auto-industry work and now laboratory work—out of a frank blue-collar commitment to providing for his family. My father lived that kind of life in his working years. He helped pave over New Jersey and then looked wistfully back upon retirement and thought about whether it might have been possible to organize his life in some way to have spent more time outdoors or to have done work that shaped the world in ways he wanted it to look instead of helping the Northeast spiral towards buildout.
Work can be in service of what and whom you love, but work can also be an act of love, as it has been for Carolyn during these professorial years. She explains,
I traded all my education for the luxury of loving and believing in what I did. I’m still interested in K–12 teaching or nonprofit work as possible paths forward, but I’ve also had years now to square up to the idea that my work and my wishes may not rhyme so well in this next phase of life. Both my dad and my husband are models for the ways that this kind of path can also sustain a meaningful life.
Here’s the thing about academia: you’re nomadic until you aren’t. As much as you might be expected to pick up your life and redesign it somewhere beyond your wildest imaginings, you will eventually put down roots. At some point, you might decide that it is best to all be in the same place.
And why am I telling you all of this? It’s not only to encourage you to buy and read Carolyn’s book, although I hope you will. Nor can I claim to be sounding a new alarm about the fate of higher education in general, or literary studies in particular. Nobody with more than a passing connection to the field can have any doubts about how swiftly the systems and structures that define our little corner of the world are being gutted. Indeed, for people like Carolyn and me—recently tenured associate professors—the field has always teetered on a knife’s edge. I’ll never forget approaching one of my undergraduate mentors to tell her I wanted to apply to graduate school, and to ask for a letter of support. She said that she would write one, but also told me quite stridently that if there was anything else in the world I could imagine doing, I should do that instead. She gestured at her office—her books, her name on the door—and said, “there but for the grace of God go I.”
During our very first semester at Michigan, Carolyn and I were told to read through that year’s list of faculty jobs—abysmal then, practically nonexistent now—and highlight every single one for which we could possibly imagine applying. We weren’t sold a fairy tale in graduate school—far from it. Rather, we entered of our own accord into a community, a vocation, a discourse field that was already, in the words of 19th-century British poet John Keats, “leading a posthumous existence.” We sparkled with inspiration and bantered back and forth in class not because we thought that what is happening at Finlandia would never happen to any of us, but because we knew it could, at any moment. We ate together of the jeweled fruits anyway, because we understood then what we understand now: that every student is a world, that every encounter with literature can be a radical act of transformation. Literature, like love, calls us to tenderness even at moments of great change. And part of the urgent, ongoing work of the humanities is to help us understand what has been lost.
Rachel Feder writes poetry and prose and teaches at the University of Denver.
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