There is no byzantium on our campuses where we can stand and watch whatever is past, or passing, or to come, although some of us may feel that we do during such holy fire rites-of-passage moments as graduation or a newly granted tenure or CRC professorship. We might even sing to ourselves a chorus of George Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” forgetting that Fred Astaire was singing only about memories and not reflecting that something would someday take those away too. In the academy retirement, whether mandatory, voluntary, or from gentle decanal pressure, transforms both tenure and rank to memories. A last rite of passage. Suddenly one is last in line even for SSHRC’s locally administered travel grants. Time also transforms other apparent certainties to memory—the New Criticism, archetypal criticism, area studies, thematic criticism, identity politics. Before long postcolonial studies and diasporic literatures may also have become parts of periodized memory. The writing’s on the wall, as a current and soon to be forgotten Dulux paint commercial tells us, borrowing Lenka’s already aging music. At least the proto-diasporic Daniel seems still to have longevity, reminding us that passage is always passage from, and passage among, as well as passage to. [End Page 21]
Many academic passings onward are also passings from and usually involve more complex choices than those standard academic rituals of passage such as graduation, publication, tenure, or promotion. Passings to an administrative position are one of these, often thought of, or feared, as an abandonment of research or an admission that one wasn’t the ambitious scholar or committed teacher one had appeared to be. Retirement is another, particularly early retirement, or any less-than-late retirement in jurisdictions in which mandatory retirement dates have been eliminated. Is it an admission that one hadn’t really enjoyed teaching, or enjoyed the company of one’s colleagues, or agreed with the directions one’s field was taking?
Accepting a position at another university—a “rival” university—is another, sometimes perceived by one’s colleagues as an abandonment, a betrayal, or even an insult. When a colleague once left York University for Western, for example, the late Norman Feltes commented that he could understand one leaving York, “but for Western?” he asked. “For Western?” Passage to, in Norman’s view, might be a passage down, or a passage back, or a passage toward self-interest and away from collegiality. In our profession self-interest is not nearly as desirable a thing to display as a willingness to work “for the good of the department,” or “for the interests of our students,” “for the future of our profession,” or the “excellence” of the university. Such moments of passage can render ambiguous many of the pieties that underpin the everyday functioning of a department. Although we usually hold a party and collectively buy a gift, nevertheless.
Another complex passing occurs when one leaves—or takes on—a task of seemingly indefinite term. I was president of ACCUTE at the time that Doug Wurtele and Carleton University were approaching the end of their editorial and administrative roles with English Studies in Canada. The executive received proposals from Mary Jane Edwards and Carleton and from a team at the University of Alberta for the journal’s continuance. Some of us had concern that distribution costs could rise if the journal were to be distributed from outside of Ontario and its inter-university transit service. Some saw the Carleton proposal as offering at a continuation of Doug’s careful eclecticism and of the requirement that contributors be ACCUTE members, and the Alberta one as constituting a swerve toward cultural and postcolonial studies and a welcoming of contributions by non-members. The two proposals were so dissimilar that it appeared that something would be lost no matter which were chosen. What was possibly at stake here was the passage of ACCUTE itself to a new generation [End Page 22] of scholars—something which became clearer five years later when a similar Alberta proposal for ESC was accepted.
Passage to a new generation is often the subtext of...