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Bitch, Ph.D.
August 9, 2007 - 11:41am

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UD

I've taken for my title the great name of a great blog, Bitch, Ph.D., because this post will be a bitchy consideration of an essay that appears in this morning's Inside Higher Ed. In this post, I will unpleasantly take issue with the style and content of this essay.

One great rhetorical as well as substantive problem for the tenured North American professoriate is our leisure time. Money magazine just named "professor" the second best job in America in part because "professors have near-total flexibility in their schedules." (The magazine also cites creativity, low stress, and other advantages.) Aside from our classroom hours, which are few, huge numbers of us have remarkable autonomy during the academic year, and almost total autonomy during our long summers.

Ann Althouse notes that the rhetorical problem starts in April, onset of a long break for those who do not teach summer school. Weekends for her have "only to do with where traffic and crowds will be. 'Do you have plans for the weekend?' I get asked that a lot. If I say 'No,' will I sound like a loser? If I explain why weekends mean nothing to me, will I seem to be bragging...?"

UD will, in this post, consider only this rhetorical problem. She will, however, note that the substantive problem of our leisure involves the moral imperative to use our free time to generate things of intellectual and/or aesthetic value. This is a problem, because if we fail to do this, or if what we produce is of questionable value, we will feel extremely bad, having been given, with tenure, gifts like sabbaticals, long summers,and year-round autonomy ...

I mean, they aren't really gifts... They're all set up to make it possible for you to publish the articles and books and other things that represent your lifelong intellectual project. If you turn out not to have an intellectual project, or if you're just going through the motions, all that free time will weigh heavily upon you. William Deresiewicz has described you, if this is you, quite adequately in a recent American Scholar essay. I will not quote from it. I do not have the heart.

Academics might as well acknowledge, with the openness Althouse demonstrates, the reality that Money magazine recognizes. Instead, many of them continue to take umbrage when ordinary working stiffs express envy or resentment of their absolutely wonderful working lives. This is where we enter IHE's piece. People, complain two Canadian professors, think academics spend their summers "resting on hammocks sipping mint juleps while pretending to be absorbed in deep contemplation..." Whereas we're really working our butts off.

One problem UD's got with this picture is that if you actually were in deep contemplation on the hammock, this would be an admirable use of your time as a professor. Contemplatives should contemplate. Take a long walk every day, like Kant. Just, you know, think. The authors of the piece assume that only hebephrenics rushing to a conference and then a classroom and then a faculty meeting represent working professors. But of course hebephrenia is negatively correlated with the production of ideas.

Having trapped themselves in this way, the professors must spend the rest of their essay doing a very familiar little dance -- the Look How Grinding the Work of Professors Actually Is dance. This is a futile and thankless routine, since you don't need to consult Money magazine to perceive that, by any measure, many professors enjoy deleriously fine working conditions. The authors complain of "hours and hours on end of marking" papers, but this assembly-line image fails to persuade. They talk of the long grueling process of producing a research paper, noting that years can elapse between sketching out a research paper and publishing it... But this only strengthens the point that professors inhabit a world willing to wait for them to refine their ideas. They remind us, at the end of their piece, what such pieces always remind us of -- their shitty salaries. We work like hell, and we're not paid! But professors' salaries aren't all that bad, especially considering their working conditions, so this point also fails to persuade.

The professors end by patting themselves on the back bigtime as they selflessly "fulfill a larger purpose" than making money, "a purpose borne of the need to make a difference in the lives of our students and citizens in the broader society." To be a professor can indeed be a noble calling, but these cliches -- coupled with unlikely language about blood and sweat -- will do nothing to convince a non-academic reader of this.

It doesn't help matters that these hard-working professors didn't look up how to spell "born."

 

 

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