One common source of anxiety for graduate students arises from not knowing how to address the faculty within their graduate program. What is polite and respectful? But not obsequious or sycophantic? It’s a tough call, particularly if you are new to your graduate program. How individual faculty members prefer to be addressed depends upon two variables: institutional culture and the faculty member’s personal preference.
The assault on higher education in Texas has been painful in recent months. Mysterious organizations with deep pockets have been pushing "breakthrough solutions" with little sense of the realities of higher education. Why do these people want to mess with Texas’s best universities? What kind of political game are they playing?
I look at my colleagues at the University of Texas at Austin and see hard-working, student-centered, idealistic people who are contributing to the quality of life in Texas. No different than faculty at Texas A&M or other state universities, we are proud of what we do.
Yet we’re under fire, forced to justify our existence to a grim assortment of the dim, the lost, and the self-interested. Yes, we realize that the attack is coming from a toxic blend of ignorance and ideology. It's often coming from narrow-minded people who don't know the difference between a teaching assistant and an assistant professor, who don't understand how research and teaching are interdependent, and who cynically want to make room for their own for-profit colleges and online schemes. To many of our critics, an education is a fungible asset that boils down to dollars and cents and nothing else.
It’s an absurd position -- but that doesn't mean we're immune to their criticism. The sad truth is that it's undermining our morale as well as the public perception of what we do. Let me give some examples of the claims that have been made about institutions like UT, each one tearing down our mission and our morale with falsehoods and distortions.
Not invested in our students? Apparently, the attack dogs have never spent much time with faculty members. If they did, they would see a high level of student interaction among tenured, tenure-track, and adjunct faculty alike. They claim our commitment to students is measured only by hours in formal class time. While our detractors imagine us frittering our days away with tea and crumpets, they fail to appreciate how our lives are freighted with hundreds of hours of invisible labor each semester: the long hours on scholarship committees; the late night e-mails from students needing an immediate response; the endless stacks of papers to grade; the extra meetings with students that spill out of office hours. Day after day, we are doing the little things that allow undergraduates to flourish in the world after UT. Our task is daunting but meaningful: we are teaching young people how to research, analyze, write, present, and innovate in ways that enrich individual lives as well as communities.
Faculty not working hard enough? We cringe when we hear that our productivity should be measured with a simplistic formula, one that would never be applied to lawyers, doctors, or legislators. We listen to claims that we’re neglecting our students because we’re too focused on research --- or, paradoxically, that we’re not doing enough research. Somehow our critics think we’re only working when we’re physically in the classroom, which is akin to saying lawyers only work when they're in the courtroom. All I can say is this: Being a professor is a great but exhausting job in 2011. The combination of student demands, research pressure, and service expectations creates a hectic workday that is never really over, not even late at night or on the weekend. In other words, it’s like most jobs in the frantic post-industrial economy.
Putting research over teaching? Sorry, wrong again. One of the key figures in the attack on UT is oil-executive Jeff Sandefer, who claims that UT hires top researchers without regard for classroom effectiveness. “They’re willing to trade off quite a bit in teaching quality for that research,” he was quoted as saying in The Texas Tribune. “Whether the new people are good or not is beside the point.” The reality is that good teaching is almost never “beside the point,” not even in the “publish or perish” culture of a research university. Professors who are not naturals at the podium are pushed into remediation -- if they do not arrive as strong teachers, they receive assigned mentors, special training, and peer pressure from faculty who expect excellence in research and teaching alike.
The need for greater transparency. If you want to feel naked to the world, try teaching at a public university --- not much is kept under wraps. Your salary, your syllabi, your publications, even whether you are “hot or not” is posted on the Web (the last on sites like RateMyProfessor.com). If you want to feel secure behind a wall of lawyers and feudal privilege, try working at a corporation or perhaps in the governor’s mansion. (Or check out the website of the group behind much of the criticism – the Texas Public Policy Foundation -- and try to figure out who is really funding their campaign against Texas’s universities).
A greater reliance on student evaluations will result in a better education. Unfortunately, turning education into a popularity contest is not the answer. For years universities have expanded their assessment programs to fit a more corporate model. What have we learned from this vision of students as “consumers”? That they don’t like it when historians "talk about lynching." That they favor female professors who "look sexy" in particular outfits. That they don’t like "reading books that are hard." (All actual comments that my peers have received). Of course, student evaluations can sometimes be useful --- but only to a point, one that gets overlooked in the mania for "market based solutions." Sadly, our market-minded critics won’t be satisfied until we put instant polling in the classroom, so we can see what ideas are "selling" without waiting for end-of-semester evaluations. Driven by market imperatives, commercial radio has moved in this direction --- why not let "edu-consumers" shape the curriculum with instant feedback?
Because it doesn’t work. We know that evaluations soar when students are presented with information that confirms what they already know --- just as evaluations go down when students are challenged to confront new ideas. In other words, in a "market driven" classroom, critical thinking and real innovation wouldn’t "sell," while comforting mythologies would be rewarded with high evaluations linked to compensation. Consider Presidential candidate Michele Bachmann's absurd claim that the Founding Fathers eliminated slavery -- many students would be pleased to hear such a comforting vision of our national origins. But wouldn’t you prefer to learn the hard truth? Wouldn’t that result in an informed citizenry able to make wise choices? Academe is one of the few places where we can choose hard knowledge over self-indulgent fantasies without being penalized.
Despite the attacks on our mission, our budgets, and our morale, I still believe that places like UT are extraordinary. In a state that has not always made a strong investment in education, UT has become one of the top public universities in the United States and as well as a powerful cultural resource. Speaking only for myself as a faculty member and an alumnus, I would offer a simple message to the attack dogs: don’t mess with Texas higher education. If you have a useful solution to a real problem, then let’s talk. We are an idealistic bunch eager to find a better way forward. There is always room for improvement. But don’t come at us half-cocked, distorting who we are and what we do. The people of Texas deserve better.
Randolph Lewis is associate professor of American studies at the University of Texas at Austin.
The café, located one block west of the University of Texas at Austin, was called Les Amis. Which, when pronounced with a certain drawl, or after a few Shiner Bocks, sounded like “Lazy Me.” It was just around the corner from the house where, as legend has it, Janis Joplin had lived during her student days. It would be nice to imagine that she might have visited Les Amis, but that is a stretch: It only opened its doors in 1970, about the time she died. In principle, though, yes, it was her kind of place. The café was the definitive landmark of the area known as West Campus.
Like any real neighborhood, West Campus was not just a place but a state of mind. It was a pole of attraction for people who endured living in Texas only by going into a kind of internal emigration. And Les Amis was a vital part of the cultural infrastructure. For one thing, the food was cheap. Generations of semi-successful musicians, struggling artists, and would-be writers budgeted their lives around the bowl of beans and rice (with cheese, if you paid extra). And because the entire wait staff seemed to be on perpetual cigarette break, it never felt like you were being rushed out the door. You could read a book without being hassled. Or write one, for that matter.
It was not, strictly speaking, a part of UT. But in no sense did it exist apart from the university. Les Amis was, so to speak, a non-academic outcropping of what Pierre Bourdieu called skhole -- that is, the open-ended space-time of scholastic life, in which questions can be raised and explored in a free discussion that evades any outside demands.
It's not that Les Amis was a unique outpost of this. On the contrary, any decent campus must have such pockets of creative impracticality -- places where people mingle, where loitering is permitted, even encouraged. They are the laboratories where conversation becomes a kind of experiment, and where you can opt out of normality for a while. (Maybe forever.)
Many a dissertation got drafted at Les Amis, or at least studiously procrastinated over. In the corner sat Rock Savage (at any given time, the drummer for five different bands) having breakfast at two in the afternoon, inscrutable behind his shades. At a table facing the sidewalk -- a few feet from the skinheads with skateboards -- you might find a Habermasian and a Derridean making an elaborate show of tolerating one another’s pathetically inadequate arguments. Meanwhile, inside, the ambience was forever that of an unwashed ashtray. In the booth near the door was a young couple that had recently broken up, doing a post-postmortem on their relationship, in lieu of burying it and moving on.
Such a life has its own tempo, its own logic. It can be liberating, but it can also be stultifying. You might leave it with a sense of relief -- only to find, years later, that a moment of nostalgia will blindside you.
I left Austin in 1988. Ten years later, meeting a fellow Les Amis alum at a party in Washington, D.C., I learned that the café had gone out of business in 1997. It was a shock to hear this: In some vague way, I always expected to return one day for a visit. There had been something sustaining about the fantasy of once again ordering the rice and beans with cheese, and the pot of coffee they brought to your table -- then spending the afternoon trying to get the bill from the waiter.
Now that was impossible. I felt grief, but also disgust and anger. There was no imaginary escape route from a life of ambition, responsibility, and deadlines.
And things got worse. The spot where Les Amis had once stood, my friend reported, was now occupied by a Starbucks. Fate was really laying it on thick.
But thanks to the efforts of Nancy Higgins, a young filmmaker in Austin, some of the memories have been preserved in a documentary, "Viva Les Amis." For now, the film doesn’t have a distributor, though it is available for purchase on DVD through a Web site. Higgins also indicates, in an e-mail note, that she is selling it “out of the trunk of my car.”
I can well believe she means that literally: "Viva Les Amis" has the feel of a labor of love – something made without much thought for whether it could be marketed. Higgins spent four years and something close to $40,000 making it. “No one ever got paid for their time,” she says, “including me and the people who helped me shoot it.”
Breaking even on the project would be nice, but it may take a while. “I have debt from the movie,” Higgins told me. “But I’ll pay it off someday.”
For now, though, she has earned the glory that goes with retrieving something valuable from the wreckage of progress, so called. Drawing on interviews with staff and customers, video footage shot during the 1980s, and a series of beautiful black-and-white photographs taken by Alan Pogue across the café’s three decades, Higgins evokes the feeling of community that, for many people around the university, made Les Amis a home away from home.
Almost literally so, in some cases. One of its denizens indicates that his record for hanging out there was 12 hours. Another interview subject recalls sleeping on the floor after it had closed for the night. The inner mysteries of Les Amis are revealed to outsiders. There was, for example, a walled-in area behind the café where the staff enjoyed beer, various smokable substances, and the occasional moment of fornication. (That would certainly tend to explain some things about the service.)
Higgins clearly has a feel for the place, so I asked her how she came to make the film. As a philosophy major at UT, she says, she spent a lot of time at the café, whether studying or otherwise. After graduating in 1994, she faced the perennial question of what you do with a liberal arts degree. You can probably see where this is going: For the next three years, she waited tables at Les Amis.
“My parents were so pleased,” she recalls (sarcasm mode on). “I took history and theory film classes at U.T., and read and did yoga and lived the relaxed Austin life. I stopped thinking about the future and just lived for awhile.”
She then headed to Emory University to do graduate work on avant garde and documentary film -- returning to Austin in 1999 with a master’s degree. After two years of watching other people’s films, she wanted to make one of her own.
“So,” she says, "I began working on a documentary about Les Amis -- a place that I missed terribly upon returning to Austin. Sometimes it's just the perfect night to go there, and you can't. That makes me really sad. I just wanted to preserve some of Les Amis before it disappeared from everyone's collective memory. I knew I wasn't the only one who grieved the loss.”
While various still photographs and home videos helped document the history of the café, nothing really captures the mood of the place like Richard Linklater’s " Slacker," which was a breakthrough independent film when it was released in 1991. That film had the misfortune to get swept up in the whole “Generation X” phenomenon, which had the effect of making the quiet and idiosyncratic enclave of West Campus seem like some kind of prefabricated lifestyle.
A few of the most memorable scenes in "Slacker" were shot at Les Amis -- and Linklater gave Higgins permission to use those clips in her documentary. “He knows how hard it is to secure rights,” she says. “At the time I asked him, he owned the rights to "Slacker," so we signed the paperwork and he let me use the scenes.” Linklater also included an extensive promotional spot for "Viva Les Amis" when the DVD edition of "Slacker" was released.
Higgins has done more than put together a video scrapbook. "Viva Les Amis" is also an essay on development -- on how the texture of life changes when a small business disappears, replaced by a corporate chain.
She interviews employees who work at the Starbucks that now occupies the block. They’ve heard rumors that another coffee shop once existed in the area, but don’t know anything about it. Sic transit gloria mundi, of course -- no surprise there. But it is certainly striking to listen to the young baristas as they describe what it is like to work there: the exacting dress code, the precisely formulated rules for interacting with customers, the system of corporate spying that makes sure each drink is served at the same temperature.
You can’t imagine a poetry reading taking place in such an environment. No doubt it is more efficient and profitable than Les Amis ever was. But the drive to uniformity and perfect top-down control seems joyless, no matter how much Bob Marley they play over the loudspeaker. I kept thinking of a scene from "Slacker" in which a local eminence named Doug the Slug stared into a video camera, announcing: “Every commodity you produce is a piece of your own death!”
I haven’t been back to Austin, and wondered about the changes reflected in "Viva Les Amis." It seemed like a good time to reconnect with Michael King, who was an assistant professor of English at UT when I met him in the early 1980s. Today King is the news editor for The Austin Chronicle, the local alternative weekly.
He remembers long lunches and late nights at the café, “drinking and talking with students and friends or other faculty, talking in the way that only a college community can do. I miss it.” But the city has grown, and the university helped drive the transformation.
“Austin and UT were simply much smaller then,” he says. “Although 30,000 students were plenty, they did not overwhelm the UT area in the way that 50,000 do.... It meant that sidewalk life around the university was a little sleepier, a little friendlier.... West Campus in particular has just been overwhelmed by numbers. The high-rise private dorms pour out students, night and day, and the street crowds can seem like Manhattan, without any of the amenities.”
He points out that there are new venues with something of the old Les Amis feel, such as Ruta Maya or Café Mundi -- the latter, for example, being the scene of a recent literary reading/oil-wrestling contest. But such places have, he says, “been physically pushed away from the campus, which, close in, is very much a crowded, rushed, gritty place.” In "Viva Les Amis," Nancy Higgins interviews the proprietor of Café Mundi, who says she worries that Starbucks will decide to open a shop down the street.
So far, the documentary has not been screened at film festivals -- and Higgins says she can’t afford to apply to any more, because doing so is expensive. It seems like a film that will find its audience, over time. “I like the idea of taking it on a tour of campuses,” she told me, “mainly to college towns like Austin that may be experiencing similar growing pains. But I haven't had a chance to try that yet.”
When I arrived to my new academic post almost two years ago I was faced with a daunting task. The office I had been assigned was still inhabited by the possessions of my predecessor, a beloved professor called Bart Lewis who had suddenly and unexpectedly died five months before. The door was decorated with a mural of student signatures and messages on brown paper and the inside of the office still contained thousands of pieces of paper, some personal photographs and a library that had been picked over by the university librarians first, and then by faculty members and graduate students.
There were many books that remained on the shelves, but the space they took up was smaller than the empty gaps between their incomplete and uneven rows. The office, like those shelves, was like a bruised mouth with missing teeth. Bart’s answering machine contained a message from an unsuspecting friend or contact from Argentina who did not know he was dead. The message did not make any sense and the man did not leave a phone number for a call-back.
As I tentatively began to move in to the office during the summer, I was interrupted from time to time by visitors who did not seem to quite know how to react to my presence in their friend’s office. In their faces I saw sadness, surprise and friendly concern for my comfort in this sacred and alien space. I was frequently asked if I had met my predecessor, to which I responded that I had, during my job interview at the Modern Language Association meeting.
Then, the passersby usually told me an anecdote about Bart’s warmth, friendship and vibrancy, or their feelings for him. As you might imagine, all of this was a little bit unsettling, but I was determined to take command of this office. In those weeks of intermittent cleaning-up and moving-in, with our door closed, I spoke to Bart out loud on more than one ocassion. I don’t remember what I said, but I felt like his presence deserved acknowledgement. I probably said things like “Hey Bart, I’m here now and I’m sorry you’re not around.” “Hey Bart, how are you doing?” Or “Damn this is a good book, I can’t believe no one took it.” Mostly, however, I thought intensely about Bart as I explored filing cabinets, drawers and bookshelves.
I found barbells in a filing cabinet. Slides from Spain. Lecture notes. Meeting notes. Old binders from other universities. Old and stained copies of some his articles. Newspapers and magazines from South America and a famous New York Times Magazine issue with the writers of the Latin American Boom colorfully pictured on the cover. Most poignant, however, was a photograph of a younger Bart in another country, with his arm around a friend. As I looked into his eyes and kind face and noticed how the very curve of his shoulders seemed to communicate a receptive, humble nature, I could not help but think of my own mortality, and the day that some poor soul like me might have to go through the remnants of my professional life, and not really know who I was. I thought of the fragility of memory and remembering, and how quickly, relatively speaking, we all fade into the good night of forgetfulness.
I could not keep all of the books that remained, so I packed up the rest for a local second-hand bookstore that gave me practically nothing in return. I was glad for it too, because I didn’t want to make money off of Bart’s books. I stuffed vast reams of papers, old tests, exams and meeting notes and such, into plastic baskets that eventually made their way to my department chair. However, I was careful to save some of the syllabi and lecture notes: I did not want to banish those papers from my presence because I hoped that they might provide some kind continuity with my own teaching in the future. I also saved his articles, the separata and the journal issues, which I put on one of the bookshelves, where they sit now.
Throughout the process of cleaning the office, I felt myself having strange conversations with myself about the contingency and intimacy of the papers that academics produce in their professional lives. As fascinating as Bart’s lecture notes were to me, they were also quite opaque and mysterious. What was missing was his animating presence to give voice to what was between those bullet points and arrow points. I thought about the papers of my own that I was moving into our office and wondered if it would not be better for me to toss them in the trash and be over with it. Why subject someone else to the uncanny experience of looking through things that lose life when the hands that created them cease to move? Sometimes, in our office, I felt that I was surrounded by the bureaucracy of death. The illegible print of yesterday, waiting to claim all of my paraphernalia in some -- hopefully distant -- future.
My most dramatic act of possession took place when my partner and I moved all the furniture around. We changed the layout of everything. Then I put some of Bart’s books on the shelves, mixed in with mine, kept his articles out on the shelf, framed the New York Times Magazine cover on my wall, and put some of his lecture notes in the bottom drawer of a filing cabinet for future reference, under his barbells. I reprogrammed his answering machine with my own voice and decisively deleted that last, cryptic message that Bart could only respond to from eternity. It was almost my office now. In time, I would grow into it more and more, and come to be associated with it. Some day in the future, people might think it had been my office forever. But I’m just passing through, like my departed friend and colleague.
Cleaning Bart’s office made me feel close to him, and I’ve always felt comfortable in his old office. But I think I learned some things about academe and the lifestyle that I had begun to seek on my own before arriving at my new post. One of the reasons I had left my previous job at Brown University for a tenured position in Texas was to lead a more settled down life with my partner. After years in a commuting relationship, we found jobs together and ended our financially devastating and melodramatic airport farewells. As I drove across the country in a rented Cadillac with most of my possessions in the back seat and the trunk, I felt the personal and professional pressures of the last few years fall away from my life. I resolved to worry less about work and be happier.
Now, Bart’s papers and his sad, plundered library, with its uncertain, dispersed futures, challenged my attachment to work by making me aware of my own paper ephemera. I realized how unimportant my professional possessions were, not because they meant little to me (on the contrary, they still mean a lot to me), but because outside of the context of my work habits and thoughts, all of my papers cannot mean much to anyone else. They are truly mine and some day, truly no one’s.
Thanks to these thoughts it became a lot easier to recycle paper and worry less about my stuff. I want to live less on paper and more on life. If I’m lucky, my office will be bare by the time I’m gone, everything in it consumed by lived experience, gone with my spirit and my body. And if not, if I leave a bunch of stuff for someone else to get rid of after I’m gone, I want that person to know that it’s OK to move my stuff out. Welcome to your new office. Just erase my outgoing greeting and delete any messages that remain on Bart’s old answering machine. We’re all in this together.
Christopher Conway is associate professor of modern languages and coordinator of the Spanish program at the University of Texas at Arlington.
This past week the roof collapsed on my professional life. You’re tottering along, a bit woozy but still standing, minding your own business, dreaming of the summer which is right around the corner, there’s a lightening of the mood and the weather begins, gradually, ever so subtly, to turn, you decide to open your storm windows, you go for a walk in a “Fall” jacket, and then, in the words of the annoying cleaning commercial: KABOOM!
In short order, I woke up from my honey-colored dream of lazy summertime barbeques and short pants and sultry Big Eastern City days and nights with Mr. Gordo to discover several outstanding bill collectors on the phone: a conference paper due forthwith (like yesterday!), students clamoring for extra credit work because they bombed your midterm, the usual meetings and minute-taking, long-postponed paperwork rearing up, not to mention tax time and the suddenly desperate need to see your CPA before he himself is overwhelmed. But by far the most demanding task at hand has been the need to write my year-end report on activities for my dean, the time for which I severely underestimated because this is my first year at this particular college. So underestimated, in fact, I didn’t even know it was due, until I received (again, out of the blue), a polite note from my chair. I fear I am becoming the very model of the bumbling professor who forgets his car keys in the refrigerator.
In essence, my “book report” is a catalogue of my activities in the three well-known subject areas: research, teaching, and service. And there is a certain empirical quality to the task that is reassuring: Yes, Virginia, you are exhausted for a reason! Committees and meetings, abstracts and conferences, works-in-progress and works forthcoming, student evaluations and syllabi, e-mails and phone calls, lectures and events. I have been, um, busy this year, contrary to the stereotype of the academic as social parasite, so eloquently paraphrased by my girlfriend La Connaire tonight who said, “I thought the whole point of academia was not working hard,” followed by the sound of a stream of smoke blown into the telephone mouthpiece. As most academics would tell you, the stereotype bears little relationship to the reality of most tenure-line professors. However, this cataloguing of the minutiae of quotidian academic life has gotten me to think of the differentials in experience for faculty across the broad spectrums of race, gender, and sexuality.
As a professional, I obviously covered the unholy trinity with some aplomb, if not utter success in all three. Given what has been thrown at me this year in terms of workload, I feel I did very well, as undoubtedly will my dean, who has been nothing if not incredibly supportive. However, the differential I am thinking about here is the double duty that faculty of color, some women faculty, and some lesbian or gay faculty, perform in their role as symbolic capital for the profession. For we are not only meant to perform as scholars and teachers and colleagues, we also have to be role models and mentors and supportive persons, lifting as we climb, each one teaching one, until we reproduce ourselves like some sort of crazy neo-Fabergé Organics Shampoo commercial.
This notion of symbolic capital is one that is both forced upon us by institutions looking for the diversity fix, and nurtured within ourselves, by varying degrees of gratitude, guilt, regret, and sadness at the price of our success. We are the best and the brightest, the cream of the crop, those who struggled and worked, only to find ourselves marooned as tokens whose value is unclear, both to ourselves and the profession we serve. I am reminded of Toi Derricote’s story in The Black Notebooks, of meeting the “other” black woman professor at the college were she taught, only to discover that this woman was as light-skinned (i.e. completely passable as white) as Derricote herself, and how this causes a crisis in her thinking about why they were hired, and what is the symbolic value of having two black faculty members who look white?
Ironically, tonight in my race class, upon discussing with my students Fanon’s The Fact of Blackness, my eyes fell on this quote:
It was always the Negro teacher, the Negro doctor; brittle as I was becoming, I shivered at the slightest pretext. I knew, for instance, that if the physician made a mistake it would be the end of him and of all those who came after him. What could one expect, after all, from a Negro physician? As long as everything went well, he was praised to the skies, but look out, no nonsense, under any conditions! The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. I tell you, I was walled in: No exception was made for my refined manners, or my knowledge of literature, or my understanding of the quantum theory.
To which all I have to say is: Ain’t it the truth? Faculty of color can never be sure how close we are to disgrace, to the knife-edge of outliving our usefulness, our symbolic capital. Seemingly, we can never be appreciated as intellectuals alone. We must always have some other value, some point to our presence, aside from simple qualification. We must be, in the truism, 200 percent good. And never, ever, make a mistake, for it's not just our personal mistake, but a mistake for every person of color, past present and future. If we simply think of this differential in terms of labor, then perhaps the contours will come more sharply in focus.
While I appreciate my white colleagues for the support they provide, they are not expected to “liaison” with Latina/o students and student organizations. They are not expected to be role models of appropriate behavior. They are not expected to be present at every little thing that might concern race, whether interesting or not. They are not expected to be experts at the drop of a hat, nor responsible to others of their same race who might have particular critiques of authenticity for which they have to answer. No, my beloved white colleagues get to be themselves, be individuals, and go home and sleep soundly. So for me, this is not only about the incredibly problematic racial dimensions of role modeling or each one teaching one. This shit is also about work, cause believe me, this is work.
As any faculty of color, nay person of color, could tell you in an unguarded moment, the illusory community fostered by 60s social movements is exactly that: fleeting and utopian. Academics of color in particular suffer from the vertiginous histories of racial trauma that are predicated on the unintelligibility of the subject of color: the very fact of our theoretical stupidity. Living in a post-race society means that we are finally, blissfully allowed to be ourselves, individuals in a society that prizes individualism. Needless to say, we aren’t there yet.
And then, as I am thinking about this and taking a break from writing this post and perusing the Internet while wolfing down a quesadilla, I come across this little ditty, which linked from here, both of which sadly and ironically prove my point. The most inflammatory quote from Michael A. Livingston’s post on race and law school faculty is a bombshell:
Because it is so costly to dip below the required minimum of diversity faculty, in practice almost anything has to and is done to ensure that they are happy. At my school, I have watched sadly as one after another of the unwritten faculty rules -- the level of publication expected, the expectation that one's work would be presented to the faculty before tenure, even the assumptions regarding physical presence at the law school -- were compromised or abandoned to accommodate female or minority candidates who the law school simply could not "afford to lose" under the new dynamic. Once these principles are given away, of course, the same concessions are demanded by other professors, so that the entire system of expectations that cements a faculty begins to come crashing quickly down.
Good grief! So not only are we not smart enough to be hired on “merit” (the odious false consciousness of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, apparently) but we also simultaneously threaten the very foundations of the institution. For as tenuous a hold as faculty of color have in the profession, we seem to wield an incredible amount of power in Livingston's analysis. While it is true I have known some "playas" (as in players, not beaches) who have worked out some pretty impressive deals on next to nothing, by far the vast majority of the professoriate of color (and professoriate in general) works, day in and day out.
In fact, faculty of color are incredibly vulnerable not only through the typical utilitarian nature in which they are hired (as tokens) but also to the risible racism and real disgust revealed in Livingston’s quote. If anything, Livingston’s critique reveals more about the unscrupulous ways in which institutions will go out of their way to hire "dummies of color" to avoid hiring contrary to racist type (e.g. with intelligence) than the general qualifications of a vastly diverse class of people, who after all have earned doctorates and J.D.s, right? If we trace Livingston’s critique to where it originates, this isn’t just a critique of hiring and retention practices, it is questioning the very ability of people of color to hold advanced intellectual and professional degrees. And people wonder why race is still important?
The evidence is writ before you in Livingston’s post. Race still matters, and not only for red state academics or conservatives, for liberals and leftists hold similar, if more holistic, views. The black physician can never be sure how close he is to disgrace. One wrong move, and you’re toast, baby!
Self-assessment is hard, this I know after struggling with it this past week. But it might be time for the profession to take a real self-assessment of its own. For instance, when, if ever, will faculty of color be real intellectual members of the community, and not just tokens of diversity and tolerance? When will the university and its faculty and administrators stop considering us as detriments to its intellectual mission? Why, if universities are so committed to "diversity," can't they sustain and support faculty of color in double or triple digits? When can we stop the fiction of pretending just because student X is “brown” and I’m “brown,” we automatically understand each other, like dolphins? When, in other words, will our years and years of labor be appreciated for what it is, hard and good and honorable work? When, in other words, shall we breathe the fresh, clean air of individualism, which includes the noble as well as banal? When can we be normal, neither Sydney Poitier nor Step ‘n’ Fetchit? Not, apparently, any time soon.
Oso Raro, who is writing under a pseudonym, teaches cultural studies, literature and film at a North American university. A version of this essay first appeared on Oso's blog, Slaves of Academe, which concerns itself with academe and racial and cultural politics.
Starting each semester, I put my kayak into the headwaters of an unknown river, prepared with all the navigation equipment I may need, and the experience I carry from 18 years of teaching. The daring trip begins with only an anticipated destination for a map and a compass to keep us heading, generally, in that imagined direction.
I know where we will need to go, but how we’ll get there is not on any map. The adventure, or disaster, awaiting me depends upon the dynamics of the students: their own swirling energies, the classroom personas they’ve developed or those they are newly trying. Of course, my own proclivities and energies meet theirs in a confluence that can be turbulent or serene depending on what’s under the surface of our joining.
Last fall, I started a demanding schedule: teaching one evening class on Mondays and Wednesdays, and three classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I traveled to three different campuses during the week, and by the time I walked into my last class on Tuesday afternoons, I was physically and mentally tired. At the start, I had hoped for a class with enough energy to buoy what I knew would be my own lowest point of the day. I got more than I was hoping for.
My first meeting went well, and the class was energetic, to a fault. One cluster kept up a lively and continuous banter, while students on the fringes of the class maintained a civil quiet. The dynamic character of the class was definitely enjoyable, but also tinged with potential volatility.
I wondered how I was going to manage the animated cluster while also engaging the quiet students. Watching their dynamics, I could see the class was not coalescing into the gentle trip for which I had hoped. I could tell, however, that anxiety coursed beneath their discussion: the anxiety of the first-year student trying out old skills in a completely new environment and desperately hoping they’d work. Though I was tired, I liked these students. Though I worried about managing them, they were entertaining. It seemed like a good class from the start.
We hit whitewater around the third day of class. I had assigned a reading on discovering a sense of vocation -- an assignment that had been successful in the previous semester. When I launched the opening discussion, I was met with charged comments, none of which was substantive criticism. The liveliest group, of course, offered the loudest, weakest points: “I don’t like the cover.” “He writes like a woman.” Things escalated.
Amused by their reactions, I bantered with them as I worked to focus the discussion on more substantive commentary above the din. But I also began to be more than a little irked. I had selected the reading carefully, with my class plan in mind, and here was a disaster in the making the second week of class. The fringe students glared at the noisy ones, harrumphing in their chairs. Members of the cluster egged each other on to more dazzling displays of amusing disdain.
And then it happened. Caught up in the repartee, I momentarily lost the dualistic mind -- one part engaged, one part observing -- required during teaching. One student, an amiable young man practiced at humorous commentary, posited a summary statement that was pure garbage. I fired back and laughingly told him so. His face fell. I knew I had made a big mistake. I had turned that student off. I apologized immediately, but the damage was done.
As I reacted to their comments, I neglected to observe what was really happening. I also forgot the students’ vulnerability. Their ability to dish out ridicule did not reflect their ability to receive it, particularly from their professor. I had potentially shut off any other student less willing to risk mockery. While I was annoyed with the students, I was doubly annoyed with myself. On my drive home, I considered what had happened, and wondered about how to retrieve what might have been lost during our exchange.
I saw in our experience a troubling problem: what the students had assumed was critical commentary was nothing more than ridicule. My own balance between engaging with the students and observing their reactions had been skewed in the resulting discussion. While I did not want to disengage from the students, I needed to observe more carefully the undercurrents beneath their classroom antics. Worried that I would not like him, my victim had used his humor to engage me, to make me laugh, to join in his witty barbs, and because I did like him, I had joined in. But we were not on equal footing and my comments contained a much more powerful threat because I did not have to like him, and he knew it.
Whether we liked each other was insignificant in the classroom community, but that we respected each other, and those we read, was paramount to our learning. Here was the crux of the problem: Our respect for each other, our respect for the writer of the text, our respect for the collaborative and communal experience of the class, had evaporated in the discussion. How to get it back?
When our class next met, I told my students that I had been thinking about our last class all weekend, and that I had been disturbed by what had happened because it was not how I wanted our class to go. I summarized my reading of the events, pointing out the mocking comments, which they half-heartedly denied. Then I posited that the reason we should not approach texts so disdainfully was that 1) mocking something was easier than thinking about it critically, and 2) because mockery begat mockery and we had seen the very problematic results of that. After digesting my comments, one student admitted that the reason she had reacted so strongly was because she did not understand the text, a point I found much more useful to our discussion. And that is where we began again, moving forward together through the challenges of the reading.
In The Courage to Teach, Parker Palmer writes “the way we diagnose our students’ condition will determine the kind of remedy we offer.” Diagnosing the condition that stands between students and their learning can be the most difficult, and most rewarding, aspect of teaching, but it takes that dual mind. The ability to observe how students are learning in the midst of engaged interaction allows an educator to learn what lies beneath the classroom persona, and to avoid the easy, derogatory cliché that turns off both teacher and student from the successful interaction of learning. What I hope my students learned that day was that neither my mockery nor theirs was acceptable intellectual behavior, that engaging in a discussion required respect from, and respect for, for all the participants.
As we recovered from our whitewater moment, my class and I did develop a much better relationship. Outbursts were few, but their general good humor resurfaced. The quiet students glared less at the boisterous ones, and the classroom dynamic shifted away from peril. I could have easily blamed those students for their lack of depth, bemoaned the state of youth today, and abandoned them in their learning as I closed off from understanding the individuals who were my students. I could have cynically scoffed at their intellect before I gave them a chance to demonstrate anything saving myself from any effort.
But I would have lost out on meeting the very interesting people they were in the process of becoming -- a collegiate swimmer, a crisis management EMT, an abstract artist, and an Eagle Scout. By focusing on the real issue, I offered all of us an opportunity to restart our journey, and make our class a vital passage into learning.
I’ve heard many a student excuse for missing class: flu of one type or another, early escape to Mexico the day before spring break, the old high school’s homecoming, even a stint in jail. But recently one surprised me, not so much in its originality -- a car fire, though that was a new one -- but in the evidence offered.
Terry is a grad student at my university who drives 130 miles each week from Interlochen Arts Camp to Grand Rapids for a night class. One Monday he e-mailed that a car problem might result in his absence the next day. Attached to his text was a series of numbered digital photographs taken just hours before: No. 127, his car, smoking alongside the highway; No. 128, from 20 yards further back, the burning car, flames engulfing the left side; No. 142, a firefighter, gazing at the blackened shell; and No. 143, in a creative denouement, the burned-out car being hoisted by a wrecker.
Clicking through Terry’s sheaf of jpegs was a welcome diversion from the steady stream of more mundane e-mails that fill my day, and the break prompted reflection on the Internet’s effect on daily academic life. Ask most faculty about the general impact of computers on their teaching and you will still hear more reports of in-class technology disasters than grumbles about e-mail; of electronic malfeasance (everything from easy plagiarism to text-messaging during an exam); of fears about being replaced by online instructors; or, if they are virtually savvy and have authored their own online curricular materials, of having their intellectual property appropriated by the university.
But read a batch of evaluations by current students, and you will find complaints about Professor Luddite never answering e-mail. Who cares anymore about seldom-kept office hours? Faculty are now expected to be on-call electronically -- if not quite 24/7, like transplant surgeons, then certainly far more than under an old paradigm that assumed availability to students only during class and office hours, scheduled or by appointment. It is e-mail, finally, that is the main engine behind ever-burgeoning demands.
Not so long ago you could display your techno-awareness just by printing an e-mail address on a syllabus. Want to impress your students today? You’d better send immediate answer to e-mails arriving sometime during Jay Leno’s monologue. (They’re probably watching Jon Stewart or playing online poker, but that’s a topic for another essay.) Outside readers of Professor Luddite’s course evaluations, though, should interpret student gripes skeptically. Or do I alone receive late-night messages from students posting second messages sent at 2:32 a.m. anxiously asking whether I had received the first, sent at 11:45 p.m.?
Even the most ordinary academic tasks have taken on new levels of complexity. A once-innocuous instruction, “Your final paper is due in my office by 5 p.m.,” now unleashes floods of e-mails with attachments, all bearing pleas to assure the senders that you received the papers. My answers often generate subsequent messages of “thanks” and requests for final grades. And recently I have had to warn students that the university’s spam filter, which has spared me thousands of offers for penny stocks and generic Viagra, may also weed out their messages from Yahoo or Hotmail.
“Be sure to make a copy of your essay,” my teachers from another century sagely advised. Occasionally I inflicted eye strain on those last-century academics via faded typewriter ribbons that have happily dissolved into the past. Today, I print off student texts on a networked laser printer, texts that are visually sharp, however fuzzy the thinking.
If I’m distracted, though, or if I’m tired, there’s a chance that otherwise-convenient attachments will be virus- or worm-ridden, making life hell for days, even weeks. Student codes drone on about punishments for plagiarism. To my mind purveyors of malicious computer code (however innocent they may be) also deserve draconian treatment. Caning might be sufficient, though confiscating the offender’s X Box would be more effective and better fit the crime.
As student e-mails grow more frequent and address increasingly trivial matters, professors are less able to keep up with the volume. I don’t personally know any faculty who use instant- or text-messaging with their students -- “DO WE ND 2 RD CH 6 FOR QZ 2MORO?” -- or who print their cell phone numbers on a syllabus. I suppose some of my Gen X colleagues might. Like enthusiastic young professors at small colleges who say, “Here are my home number and address. Drop by anytime to talk,” they’ll learn to regret it.
The effect on faculty life of this new communications urgency can be felt across many arenas, even those that serve as escapes from the ever-growing demands of student-consumers.
Fifteen years ago the most animated discussions at faculty cocktail parties were about computers. Simply mentioning your new “machine” would override the usual academic gossip. Now I envision hosting a party with a laptop visible on a table: conversation bubbles, Pinot Noir flows. ... How long, I wonder, before someone asks about wireless access and decides to check her e-mail?
Even brief escapes to professional conferences have been spoiled by new pressures to monitor overstuffed virtual mailboxes. For several years now at Modern Language Association conventions, technolust combined with an obsessive need to “check in” has shortened lines at the bars but created long queues at e-mail kiosks. At least the wireless Internet currently available in most hotels has improved the electronic comfort level. One can loll on a king-sized bed, cocooned in the hotel’s terry cloth robe, sipping coffee while fielding queries from anxious students and e-mailing friends at the same conference. Or, if you are in certain trendy disciplines, you can “attend” a conference online -- though that would force you to stay home, deprived each night of turndown service and the before-bed mint.
The next technological wave promises podcasting of our lectures and discussions, and some schools have already contracted with Apple’s iTunes. “Our students are digital natives,” says one University of Missouri official. “We seek to meet our students where they are and iTunes is the interface with which most of our students are already familiar.”
Where once it seemed students would be content only when they could park their cars inside the classroom, today they want faculty (and the knowledge conveyed in their classrooms) as available as 24-hour cable.
Of course, regular e-mailing between faculty and students fosters overfamiliarity, chipping away at the deference many academics used to take for granted. A dean at Georgetown recently told The New York Times that the tone students often take in e-mail is “pretty astounding, with a familiarity that can sometimes border on imperative.” (He may have meant “impertinent,” but no contemporary university administrator would dare use that term, holdout from the British Empire that it is.) One might also argue that annual tuition in excess of $25,000 fuels a sense of student entitlement. In this world, faculty are the “servants”; but the trend is not limited to private universities and pricey colleges.
This e-mail frazzled academic can rationalize one consolation. When my students receive nearly immediate e-response, they are at least one step away from the impersonal world of much university education. The contact may be virtual, not face-to-face, but the effects can still be impressive. If your college uses a program like BlackBoard, try the online chat option for real-time “conversation,” especially near a paper due date. After one of these sessions you’ll see a marked improvement in the quality of work submitted.
Late-night virtual office hours are not so bad occasionally when you are at home and sipping on a beer. And however tempted I am to curse an ever-full e-mail box, I often wonder how we managed without it. How else would I have been able to stay in contact with a student who recently missed several classes because she and her teammates were busy winning the NCAA Division II basketball championship? Talk about athlete-students. She e-mailed me about the course on the very afternoon of her final game.
Yet unrelieved e-communication with our students eats into time we need for intellectual recharge, thinking and writing. Enticing digital waters can also drown us. Be it from the clutter of my study or from the comfort of a high-end hotel, every time I respond to student e-mail during “off hours” I may be writing the script for my own obsolescence. How long, I wonder, before a collective of ambitious Ph.D.s in Calcutta is both willing to teach all my classes online and to remain available 24/7 fielding queries about the next day’s assignment -- like the revolving “Mikes” who help resolve my wireless network problems? Is this the end of the virtual path upon which I blithely trod?
Such musings, I suppose, are born less from genuine fear than from computer fatigue, despite my new LCD screen. Yes, our students are now and will remain “digital natives.” But I’m confident that, much as we try to “interface” with them, we won’t easily surrender the face-to-face pleasures of the seminar room and the office. After all, how else could I have witnessed Terry, when he actually did find his way to class that Tuesday night, regaling his peers with fresh prints of his fiery adventure -- from Nos. 127 through 143.
Rob Franciosi is professor of English at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan.
As a purchasing agent in Silicon Valley, I felt challenged. I needed to direct sales staff, placate management, reroute angry clients, and above all, make sure that no production lines went down in northern California. It was more than a 40-hour-a-week job. I often came in one weekend a month to help with inventory. Wrangling semiconductors -- getting them from vendors at a fraction less of a penny than my competitor, divvying them up between deserving clients, and getting them to their destinations before a disaster could happen -- was exhilarating work. I often went out with co-workers after work to celebrate another "productive day." This, I thought, was living.
Years later, I found myself working as a graphic designer for a small advertising agency. Later I moved into art direction and copywriting. I worked for a large agency in San Francisco, providing campaigns to multi-million dollar corporations. I loved the work. I often felt pushed to do my best -- and per the industry standard, I often worked two full weekends a month. Creative directors would have dinner brought in from smart fusion restaurants. And we would work on. And on. More than a few times, my senior art director would find herself on the phone, trying to give away tickets to the symphony or opera as we worked into the night. I found that I thrived on deadlines.
In 1999, I made the switch. Intent on a career that provided more than a paycheck, I started tutoring high school students for success on the SAT; later I taught composition at a local business college at night. Finally I landed a string of adjunct work at several colleges in the Bay Area. I quit my day job at the advertising agency, and by January 2000, I was supporting myself as a postsecondary teacher.
It is the most demanding work I have ever done. Yes, managing millions of dollars worth of semiconductors was challenging. Designing national advertising campaigns was tough. But these positions required less of me -- emotionally, intellectually, and physically. Teaching college was a whole new game. And one that would require me not only to use every skill I had to succeed -- but also force me to grow and change in ways I could never had anticipated.
What is it about college teaching that makes it so demanding? Why do so many professors suffer from fatigue so deep that only a summer off can revive them? The answer is complex -- and one that differs according to circumstance.
First, for most, the teaching load is overwhelming. Many of my untenured university colleagues work a 5/5 load. Some, like me, in English (or other disciplines with heavy grading requirements) work a 4/4. Add on to that the requirement to publish, to present at conferences, stay current with industry publications, and do committee work and you have a recipe for a breakdown.
Colleagues who work for a university dedicated to research do get release time from teaching. Yet even graduate assistants and release time cannot balance out the energy required to succeed in research and teach a 2/2 load. Sometimes preparation for classes comes last -- which leaves professors feeling guilty and anxious.
The expectation to publish puts additional pressure on already-stressed professors. Today I met a colleague eating a sandwich in the faculty lounge, a staggering pile of paperwork spilling from his attaché. Exhausted, he is struggling to grade finals, conference with students, and figure final grades. He confessed that he has not written the paper he is to present at an out-of-state conference. The conference is in three days. He is not alone. Many of my professor friends have revealed that they, too, are strung out on work and unable to keep up. Knowing that publishing is crucial to promotion and tenure makes many professors anxious and depressed when they cannot write when they are most productive.
Although rewarding, committee work requires effort. Attending biweekly meetings, studying materials, producing reports, advising colleagues, and being in constant contact with committee members can make it difficult to prepare for classes. Keeping administrators happy with up-to-date paperwork not only requires concentration, but the ability to organize. Professors who don't log deadlines in a calendar they regularly consult may find themselves in trouble. Because so many committees' work affects things that are important, such as the curriculum, professors feel that they must invest the time -- if only to uphold their department's goals. And that time must come from somewhere.
My colleague's office sports two full bookshelves of publications; yet not one spine is broken. Journals and magazines can be a great source of support and even inspire us to try out new teaching strategies -- but to find the time to pick one up, we must put something else down. Many of us simply cannot find time. One professor friend of mine in science does find time. A magazine holder in his bathroom is stocked with geology publications. Each of us knows that these publications can help us teach -- yet where will we find time to reconfigure our course materials to reflect these new concepts?
Preparing for lectures and creating assignments demands time. Even when colleagues teach a course they've taught before, many invest considerable time retooling the course outline, revamping handouts, and creating new assignments. I change textbooks every two or three semesters -- if only to find a new way to teach decades-old information. Workbooks and companion Web sites often help me feel refreshed, too. But in some disciplines, preparation doesn't take the biggest slice of the time pie.
For many, grading feels like the anti-teaching tool. The bulk of my time is spent in evaluating and marking up students' work. No matter how many positive comments I make on a student's paper, I feel as if I am using the stick rather than the carrot to motivate. And the sheer number of hours it takes to grade a stack of papers is intimidating. It's no wonder that many in my discipline have trouble getting to this perilous task. It's one that will steal a professor's weekend more quickly than any other teaching requirement.
Before each semester, I mark my calendar -- not only for my teaching dates, but for the weekends after I collect papers. I know that in addition to nights, I will spend six or seven hours each on Saturday and Sunday grading. This is part of my job. I anticipate it and plan for it. Yet somehow, when I collect any one of the four papers I require (or the midterm or final essays), I feel the weight of them in a box on my front seat. It may take two trips for me to get them upstairs. After days of reading, making individual comments on papers and filling out a grading sheet, I will transport these essays back to campus, plug students' grades into my grading software, and bring them to class to hand back to students. And so the process begins again.
Even those in disciplines that require more standardized testing may find the grading process daunting. With trained graduate students, a mathematics professor I know must still review students' grades before moving on to teach another assignment. He cannot build on a shaky foundation; if students are doing poorly, he must find time for review. And that will take away from other more advanced concepts he was planning to teach. Yet every instructor knows to check for retention of knowledge; a somewhat flexible course outline will allow them to adjust for learning. This, too, requires more thought.
Managing a classroom is difficult work. Professors gradually become more adept at identifying the psychology at work in these groups -- but each class provides its own challenges. Many early morning classes can be terribly quiet; students literally have not yet woken up. Night classes can be stimulating -- or quiet, depending on students' level of confidence in the subject. Student population may not reflect the campus demographics reported. After teaching for several years at a large community college in California, I realized that my classes were crowded with Asian-American students. After attending workshops in diversity, I found teaching strategies that encouraged participation from this population. Later I found myself at a small private university that catered to athletes; this forced me to find another set of skills to reach this specialized group.
In many general education courses, students may come into the same course with wildly different expectations and abilities. And a good instructor's job, of course, is to somehow bring all these minds to the same place -- so that they can not only succeed in this course, but also go on to the next course in the sequence. Students often disagree about class topics. They may even argue with a professor about an assignment. These conflicts, much less conflicts among students, cause professors much anxiety.
On many campuses, professors report that they feel more like security guards than instructors. Telling students to sit down, separating students who are shouting and fighting, taking away cell phones and electronics, and confiscating notes during exams not only tire professors, but make them wonder why they got into this field. Although not all classrooms are as chaotic, even the occasional argument among graduate students can cause instructors to lose their composure. Carefully timed lessons can become a piecemeal experience. Overachieving students may feel cheated out of necessary instruction. A professor may have to take time from another well-planned class recapturing information lost during a discussion that got out of hand. And so more thought needs to go into the next lesson.
Being "on" in the classroom is draining. Many introverted friends told me that they collapse in their offices after a 50-minute class. If they are lucky, their schedules allow breaks between each class (or between every two classes) to re-energize. One colleague told me that she now understands the life of a comedian. After grueling preparation, they go onstage, deliver what they have, look for feedback, and then slink back to a dressing room to either drink, sleep, or cry. Instruction is not so different.
With a VH1-influenced culture, many instructors feel compelled to "edu-tain" rather than educate. With iPod and MP3 Players in hand, many students have come to expect to be entertained in class; anything less may result in grade review and tenure denial. Even for extroverts, teaching demands everything we have. While delivering a lecture, we are constantly checking for understanding. Constantly switching teaching methods can be tiring for instructors; yet we feel compelled to keep students' attention. Seeing students as an audience to be entertained can also give an instructor the false sense that students are indeed "getting it," when they are actually just responding to new stimuli in the most basic sense. Smart professors constantly check for retention; tools for assessment need to be adjusted for each course -- and in some cases, for each class.
The one quality that professors value most about their jobs can also be the one that causes them the most fatigue: intellectual challenge. Even though I had to use many strategies to sell semiconductors in Silicon Valley, it was nothing compared to the brain power I've had to use to teach a subject to college students well. A decade ago, I found advertising challenging. Dreaming up new ways to sell a product or service to corporate executives was exhilarating; still, it was nothing compared to finding ways to reach a student population of incredibly diverse abilities.
And professors do not "clock out" at 5 p.m. As one online colleague posted, "The work is infinite. There is always one more thing you could, should, would like to do." The industry encourages workaholism. Professors that "do it all" are promoted and given tenure. Those that buckled under the need to publish, teach, do research, serve on committees, and do informal public relations work are pushed out of this tremendously competitive business. For many, it's exhausting. Although tenure can provide some relief, I know of two dozen colleagues who do as much as they did when they were seeking tenure. These seasoned veterans are even more in demand by others in the discipline. Now mentoring younger faculty, they find themselves presenting at campus functions as well as at academic conferences. Retirement may be their only hope for much-needed relaxation.
The professors I know are not rich. In fact, many are not even considered upper middle class. In this Midwestern town, many are labeled "middle class" only because the cost of living here is so low.
Yet with student loans in tow, many of the my Ph.D. colleagues have found themselves working not only a full-time position, but also summer and overload assignments, just to get out from under. For many of them, it will be 10 years or more before they pay off their educational debt. Yes, some professors in research do very well. Yet these are the exception -- not the rule. Most professors, especially those without at terminal degree, find themselves barely paying the rent. Those in the first few years of teaching may accept any position just to fill out their CV. And full-timers on contract find themselves not only working for 70 percent of what their colleagues make -- but with no guarantee of work past that academic year. Many have made great financial sacrifices in order to teach.
Accountability at so many levels can place further pressure on professors. Not only do professors answer to students and their parents, but to administrators, colleagues, their discipline, the state -- and ultimately the nation. Education has never been the simple task of passing information on to students. Preparing students for real-world jobs has been one goal; finding ways to assess students them has been another concern. Retaining students when local blue-collar businesses are paying double the minimum wage is a battle.
At every turn, we hear that a college education is worth less and less. In Declining by Degrees, editors Richard Hersh and John Merrow explored lowered academic standards, an increased focus on research instead of teaching, and an administration interested in rankings rather than high academic standards. The move from liberal studies and general education to specialized education (and a focus on technology) has challenged traditional professors' values.
Most professors I know feel impotent. They may be forced into either coddling students, watering down curriculum, or passing students who have not earned a passing grade. Those who do not give in may find themselves labeled as "outdated" or, worse yet, a political outcast. In today's consumer-driven world, holding the line is becoming more and more dangerous -- not only for institutions, but for individual professors as well.
In their book, Supporting Beginning English Teachers: Research and Implications for Teacher Induction, Thomas McCann, Larry Johannessen and Bernard Ricca have suggestions to assist secondary teachers in English; these can also be applied to postsecondary teachers in any discipline. After recognizing the pressures of teaching, administrators can seek to assign reasonable workloads. Asking a new instructor to do five different preparations for five different courses will not produce a positive outcome. Evaluations that focus on professional development rather than taking a punitive stance is valuable. Mentors and peer coaches help not only newcomers, but those already teaching on campus. Compensating instructors to attend orientations -- either comprehensive, or dedicated to a discipline -- can result in less concerns during the academic year. Campuses that invest in statewide or national organizations help instructors see themselves as professional educators.
Ultimately, dedicated professors will find that they will need to find their own way in balancing workload, family and personal life. Many will find phases of their career where everything else takes a backseat to education; the foundation that they are building will guide later efforts in academia. As in any industry, overachievers will often land the best jobs. Those who cannot make the ultimate investment for their career may find a place in postsecondary teaching -- or eventually move to a profession with much more reasonable demands. What was once a soulful business has become more and more businesslike. The end result is that many qualified professors may find themselves in private industry -- rather than make the sacrifices necessary to succeed in education.
Shari Wilson, who writes Nomad Scholar under a pseudonym, explores life off the tenure track.
Last fall in the section I teach of introductory microeconomics, I asked a student a simple question about the demand and supply of gutters. Nora had a blank expression, one that said, “I haven’t a clue of what you’re talking about.” If Nora had been struggling to understand economics, I wouldn’t have thought a thing about it. But Nora is a star, one who shines brightest when asked really tough questions.
Then it occurred to me. Nora didn’t know what the word “gutter” meant. It is easy to forget that Nora is Bulgarian -- her English is that good. I asked her whether she knew what the word meant, and looking embarrassed, she replied that she didn’t. How do you explain what gutters are without using the word gutter? It’s not easy, at least not for me. So, I broke into pantomime, with my fingers simulating raindrops heading for a cliff where they were caught by an invisible gutter.
Suddenly, her face lit up, and she quickly answered my original question. But it had taken her longer than I would have expected, even adjusting for my pantomiming skills. Still puzzled, I asked her, “How do you say ‘gutter’ in Bulgarian?” She said she didn’t know. Amazed, I said, “You’re pulling my leg, right?” She wasn’t.
Are there gutters in Bulgaria? I don’t know; I’ve never been there. Everywhere I’ve lived, gutters are ubiquitous. Are they common elsewhere, or are they just an American thing?
One student disliked my treatment of Nora, saying on her evaluation of the class: "Something that bothered not only me but other students (and I know this from talking to my classmates) was the way Professor Harrington picked on the international students. We had about five international students in the class, and one day Professor Harrington did a problem about gutters. The student he asked to answer the question was Bulgarian and did not know what the word ”gutter” meant, and Professor Harrington made a big deal out of this. He asked her how you would say “gutter” in Bulgarian."
She says, “He continued to [quiz international students about their understanding of English] in other classes, singling out the international students and making them look inferior to the rest of the class.”
If the student had listened to the quality of her international classmates’ answers to my questions, she would have realized that they were academically superior to the vast majority of their classmates. Indeed, their median grade was 4.0; they all spoke English fluently; and, their essays had fewer grammatical errors than most of their classmates. It seems implausible to me that any rational observer would infer that they were inferior based on my questions about their knowledge of a few English words.
But even Nora looked embarrassed when she “confessed” that she didn’t know what gutters were. She had no reason to be embarrassed, yet she was. Why?
Perhaps, it has to do with the power of gut feelings, which allow people to quickly categorize experiences without having to think too deeply about them. Following them can even save your life in situations where you need to make quick decisions, implying that gut feelings are probably hard-wired into us via evolution. Hence, gut feelings probably can’t easily be turned off, implying that Nora could have been embarrassed by the gutters episode regardless of whether it was justified. And this is a shame -- because good class interactions should be full of professors and students going in any number of directions, some of them uncomfortable, without worrying about appearances or comfort levels (or whether some comment is going to make you a poster child for the Academic Bill of Rights).
I was in a gray area with Nora, one that I did not perceive as being gray until I thought about the comments of this student. I feel badly that I might have embarrassed Nora -- it was certainly not my intention. Nevertheless, asking Nora whether she knew the word for gutter in Bulgarian was the highlight of the course for me. My intuition screamed at me to ask it and her answer rewarded the impulse -- not because I was happy to discover that she didn’t know the word, but because it made me think more deeply about the way in which languages compete with one another for survival. Indeed, many languages face extinction because they are cluttered with words that people no longer find useful. For example, some languages have dozens and dozens of different words for ice, which may not be a selling point in the coming age of global warming.
Nobel laureate Robert Solow argues that the most difficult thing to teach students is how to be creative in economics, followed closely by critical judgment. It is much easier to teach tools, such as demand and supply, than how to use them creatively, or critically. The first step in using economics creatively is to ask interesting questions, ones that naturally arise during genuine conversations sparked by observing differences like those concerning the acquisition of language. While these conversations are crucial in teaching students to be creative, they are also likely to tumble into gray areas and sometimes produce dry holes, two things that make some students uncomfortable.
Another way to be creative in economics is to apply economic reasoning to topics commonly thought to lie outside the realm of economics. Hence, I want my students to learn that there are no boundaries to the usefulness of economic reasoning. I mean NO boundaries, absolutely none. Boundaries smother creativity because they encourage students to turn off their economic reasoning skills whenever they cross them.
Last semester, I described how a San Diego abortion cartel in the late 1940s charged women different prices depending on the quality of their clothing and the characteristics of the person accompanying them, a practice that economists call price discrimination. For example, a young woman who was brought to the clinic by an unrelated, well-dressed Sacramento businessman was charged $2,600 for an abortion. If the woman had come alone, she would have paid something closer to $200. Four students have come to my office or e-mailed me with concerns over the use of examples like this one. For example, one student argued that abortion is too morally charged to be used as fodder for examples, especially ones that are so narrowly drawn.
Crossing the border into conversations about race is especially dangerous, because the border is patrolled by guards searching for insensitive comments. It takes courage and tolerance on the part of both students and professors to have genuine conversations about race. However, no topic is more important to discuss in economics courses given the glaring disparities in economic outcomes between African-Americans and whites. For another course I teach, students are required to read an article about the controversy that erupted when members of one middle-class community proposed naming a “nice street” after Martin Luther King Jr. The proponents wanted to weaken the correlation of his name with poverty and crime, while the opponents feared that naming a street after him would cause their neighborhood to decay. I admire the proposal yet empathize with the opponents. Since streets bearing his name are more commonly found in poor neighborhoods, (even unprejudiced) people might rationally "steer clear" of the area if they name a street after Martin Luther King Jr., a phenomenon economists call statistical discrimination.
Teaching students to use economics creatively requires having conversations that are not smothered by fears of saying something wrong or of stepping over some boundary beyond which economic reasoning is prohibited. But genuine conversations require that students have done enough of the reading to participate with intelligence -- and checking on that may also make students uncomfortable.
A student last fall accused me in his or her course evaluation of picking on students, saying that “if it was obvious a student was unprepared or had not done the assigned reading [Professor Harrington] would call them out on it.” It’s true. I admit it. Failing to read the assigned articles imposes spillover costs on other students that can be corrected by imposing penalties on unprepared students. For example, one student could not answer straightforward questions about the readings in two consecutive classes, prompting me to ask him whether he had ever heard of the expression, “three strikes and you’re out.” At the beginning of the third class, he joined the conversation, easily answering my initial questions and making a few comments of his own.
David E. Harrington
David E. Harrington is the Himmelright associate professor of economics at Kenyon College.Â