Academic Minute: Meaningful Expressions

In today's Academic Minute, Lawrence Ian Reed, a psychologist at Skidmore College, examines the implications of facial expressions. Learn more about the Academic Minute here.


Ad keywords: 

Perceptions of Brilliance and Gender Gaps in Academe

A new study in the journal Science offers a new theory for gender gaps in academe. Researchers at Princeton University surveyed faculty members, postdocs and graduate students on whether they believed raw brilliance (as opposed to just hard work) was needed to get ahead in their discipline. In disciplines where there are strong beliefs about brilliance as a key factor to success, the number of women earning doctorates is lower than in other fields. The numbers of women earning doctorates go up in fields where scholars tend to believe that hard work and dedication are what matter.

Ad keywords: 

Illinois Board Says It Will Not Reconsider Salaita Decision

The University of Illinois Board of Trustees issued a statement Thursday that it will not reconsider its decision to block the hiring of Steven Salaita to a tenured faculty position teaching American Indian studies. The statement said that news accounts of a recent report of a faculty panel -- which found many irregularities in the way Salaita's hiring was blocked, and said that some of them raise academic freedom issues -- "may have given the mistaken impression that the decision regarding Dr. Salaita might be reconsidered. It will not." Salaita's hiring was blocked last year -- after proceeding so far that his courses were announced and he quit his prior job -- amid concerns about the tone of his anti-Israel comments on Twitter.

The board statement said: "Here, the decision concerning Dr. Salaita was not reached hastily. Nor was it the result of external pressures. The decision did not present a 'new approach' to the consideration of proposed faculty appointments. It represented the careful exercise of each board member’s fiduciary duty and a balancing of all of the interests of the University of Illinois. In the end, this is a responsibility that cannot be delegated nor abdicated."


Ad keywords: 

'No Confidence' in Alabama-Birmingham President

The Faculty Senate at the University of Alabama at Birmingham voted no confidence Thursday in the leadership of President Ray Watts, AL.com reported. Faculty members said Watts had failed to consult them in a much debated decision to eliminate the football program and also in other matters. But just hours after the vote, board members expressed strong support for Watts.


Ad keywords: 

National Endowment for the Humanities chief looks to focus humanities toward public good, national challenges

Smart Title: 

NEH launches initiative to promote research focused on the public good. The effort comes before what may be a contentious budget battle with the new Congress.

Essay on the four ages of a professor

Shakespeare penned All the world’s a stage / And all the men and women merely players for Jaques, that greatest of cynics among all the characters in all his plays. Touchstone may be the Clown in As You Like It, but Jaques is the fool. He opines that every man enacts seven roles throughout a lifetime: infant, student, lover, soldier, justice, pantaloon, and second childishness, followed by oblivion. I risk playing the greater fool here by attempting to extrapolate from his analogy: All the world’s a classroom / And all the emeriti and emeritae merely players.

Most college teachers enact four roles throughout a professional lifetime.  I don’t refer to the four ranks of career advancement — up the formal ranks to full professor/ I refer to a progression of relationships between professor and student. Ranks and relationships measure different kinds of development. Ranks are professional; relationships are personal. Ranks are institutional; relationships are organic. Ranks are rewarded; relationships are rewarding, at least potentially so. The Four Ages of a Professor — I’m in the fourth now -- are older sibling, friend, parent, and grandparent. (I first heard these categories in conversation with John M. Phelan, professor emeritus in media studies at Fordham University, and I use them here with his permission.)

To play the role of Older Sibling one needs to have begun teaching at a comparatively young age, not much older than the students themselves. Older sister and older brother are conventional characters in a familiar societal script, even for a person who has never played either one biologically. A young professor’s first relationship with students, especially if that experience is while still a graduate student, is that of older sibling, deriving from their proximate ages, but not solely from that.  It derives, too, from there being so few other roles on offer.  Bigger, more prestigious, parts may open up later (e.g., senior mentor, disciplinary historian, methodological expert, or recognized authority within a particular field), but these are rarely available to the novice.

Young professors and their students share a generational familiarity, possessing common knowledge and similar experience. They are likely to speak the same vernacular, listen to the same music, and view the same videos. As well, they probably use the same technologies and participate in the same social media. They share a familial shorthand that is both inclusionary and exclusionary. Their code is inbred naturally, while it must be learned fitfully, if at all, by others.

The role of older sibling presents many opportunities for teaching and learning that will never return again, no matter how long a career may extend. Older brother and sister are uniquely suited to initiate younger siblings into family ways and mores, values and traditions, taboos and penalties. The cultural norms of higher education are a young professor’s hand-me-downs, becoming the student’s dress-for-success. A conspiracy of kinship can reveal the secrets of preparation and research, practice and repetition, rubrics and metrics. Sibling intimacy teaches rites of initiation much more effectively than can parental authority. 

There are dangers, too, in the First Age of a Professor. The power associated with birth order may degenerate into authoritarianism. Younger siblings recognize abusive overreach immediately and are likely to respond by banding together in defiant self-defense. Domination by an older sibling incites resentment. Supportiveness, on the other hand, inspires gratitude, even admiration.

The First Age of a Professor accords educational possibilities that ought not to be missed. Unlike the sibling relationships in biology, which last a lifetime, those in pedagogy are short-lived. Soon enough, a young college teacher will have to leave them behind.

The Second Age of a Professor begins when identification morphs into friendship. Being a friend is the most complex connection a professor can make with a student. It’s also the most fraught. Delights abound; so do temptations. Authority blurs; so may boundaries. Mentorship emerges; so can intimacy. In the extreme, this last can cross professional, legal and ethical lines. Friendships with students develop during the most stressful years of a young teacher’s life, namely, the probationary period leading up to tenure.

The professor as friend, as with older sibling, presents unique opportunities for teaching and learning. Hallway exchanges democratize classroom hierarchies. Cups of coffee encourage free-flowing conversations. Critical vocabulary pops up in co-curricular discussions. Intellectual themes blend with departmental gossip. A professor may befriend undergraduate and graduate students alike, the latter group multiplying contexts for interaction. Evening seminars spill over into social settings. Personal conversation inflates into critical dialogue. Squeezing the extra chair into an office allows for group interaction, as well as one-to-one consultation.

The interests of professor and student are not identical, of course, but they are analogous. The student wishes to produce a video that will go viral on YouTube. The professor wishes to produce a scholarly article that will generate a wide readership in print. Students wish to accumulate likes on Facebook. Professors wish to accumulate kudos in peer review.

Most friendships, whether inside or outside the academy, involve a measure of self-disclosure. Students need a sympathetic listener. Professors, too, benefit from a student sounding board, especially when conversation with colleagues becomes awkward during the year of tenure review.

After receiving tenure, oddly and abruptly, friendship itself gets promoted into parenthood, the Third Age of a Professor. Friendships needn’t end, to be sure. Many survive for years, even decades, after a student’s graduation and a professor’s retirement.  Still, tenure changes things in unforeseen ways.

With tenure, one begins to feel like a full-fledged faculty member, assuming, along with departmental colleagues, a co-parenting authority. This does not apply solely to relations with students. It translates, also, into proprietorship over course curricula, degree requirements, and governance procedures. The newly tenured professor is expected to take on a more public persona within the discipline, stand for elected office within a professional association, perhaps, or become the editor of an academic journal.

Like all parents, tenured professors set the rules, control the resources, distribute the rewards, and dole out the punishments.  Most consequentially, they become narrators of the family’s story — casting its roles, orchestrating its plots, underscoring its themes, and targeting its audiences. They enjoy access to influential committees, central administrators, and disciplinary gatekeepers. In departmental governance, they have a vote like everybody else, but they also expect a say.

Tenured faculty members shoulder a parental responsibility for a department’s success or failure (i.e., its internal and external reputations). They influence departmental hiring, faculty assignments and, ultimately, the awarding (or not) of tenure and promotion. In other words, parent is the most powerful role accorded to a faculty member throughout an academic career. It’s the longest in duration, too. The obvious downside to this age is its nearly unavoidable presumption of entitlement that can undermine collegiality, especially with junior colleagues. 

The Fourth Age of a Professor is that of grandparent. The divide between parent and grandparent is generational, naturally, but its transition cannot be marked by a specific date. It is felt more as an emotional realignment resulting from the upward push of an oncoming generation of faculty members. One isn’t being pushed out necessarily, but one is certainly being pushed up. This is a good and necessary thing in order to accommodate change.

Grandparents teach differently than parents do. The professor-as-grandfather or professor-as-grandmother feels a warm enthusiasm for the intellectual growth of students. One is less judgmental, less harried, and less hurried. This more relaxed attitude may manifest in various ways, not least being higher grades.

Think of a youngster learning to ride a bike. An older sibling instructs. A friend criticizes. A parent pushes from behind and then, at some unexpected moment, lets go. Grandparents, on the other hand, approach the problem from another perspective, closer to that of a cheerleader. “You can do it. You can do it. I know you can.” Verbal enthusiasm may be just the thing to inspire confidence and boost achievement.

Non-judgmental encouragement aids in the acquisition of knowledge and skills. A pat on the back assists in the mastery of difficult vocabulary associated with unfamiliar theory. A few students may take advantage of what they perceive to be a professor’s laissez faire vulnerability, but their number is surprisingly small. Most will be grateful for the increased self-confidence. This will be helpful as they proceed through their education.

The smart grandparent, regardless of family, stays out of a parent’s way. In a university setting, this may mean giving up a favorite seminar, stepping aside from a powerful committee, or saying "no" to another term as department chair. Such opportunities belong to the next generation and are no longer one’s responsibility.

My analogy to Shakespeare’s Seven Ages of Man is inexact, of course. I have passed over, for instance, Jaques’ final pronouncement about oblivion. The Four Ages of a Professor — older sibling, friend, parent, and grandparent — come replete with their own rewards that go far beyond the satisfactions of emeritus or emerita status. The fulfilling relationships of a long career, especially those with students, will provide whatever succor a professor can find against oblivion.


James VanOosting is a professor and writer-in-residence at Fordham University. He has published 10 books and many articles.

Editorial Tags: 

Essay on the need for academics to establish close ties to program officers

Russ Olwell writes that academics working on grants -- proposed or awarded -- need to remember what they tell students about how there are no dumb questions.


Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 

AFT Think Tank Hosts Panel Discussion on Adjuncts

WASHINGTON -- Several advocates for adjunct faculty members spoke Wednesday during a panel called “The Emergence of the ‘Precariat:' What Does the Loss of Stable, Well-Compensated Employment Mean for Education?” at the Albert Shanker Institute here. The education think tank is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers. Rosemary Feal, executive director of the Modern Language Association, compared the contingent faculty dynamic to an “iceberg,” in which only the less than one-third of faculty members who are tenure-line are visible to parents and others who still believe in an antiquated professor "myth." If the majority teaching force is vastly under-supported and under-recognized, she asked, “Is higher education the Titanic?” Barbara Ehrenreich, co-editor of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, said the adjunct faculty trend challenged another myth – that of the university as a meritocracy – and said she believed now is a “turning point” in awareness inside and outside academe about poor adjunct faculty working conditions.

Jennie Shanker, an adjunct faculty instructor of art at Temple University, spoke first-hand about the financial, professional and personal hardships of working as an adjunct faculty member, and also spoke about the initial successes of the AFT-affiliated metro-wide organizing campaign in the Philadelphia area. Andrew Ross, professor of social and cultural analysis and interim director of American studies at New York University, linked the adjunct discussion to concerns about student debt, which he said is turning education – what was once a “vital public good” – into the “cruelest of debt traps.” 


Ad keywords: 

Pacific Lutheran Adjuncts Withdraw Union Petition

Adjuncts instructors at Pacific Lutheran University who wanted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union have pulled their petition from the National Labor Relations Board. Effectively, the current election is over and the one-third of ballots that were challenged by the university – including votes that were submitted late in October due to the federal government shutdown – will not be counted. In a statement issued late Wednesday, organizers said that adjunct faculty members “could actually get to a new election faster and with less legal expense if faculty proceed to a second vote with those currently teaching” at the university. It’s unclear how, if at all, the decision will impact the NLRB’s recent decision in favor of the adjunct union, over claims from the university that any adjunct union would violate several long-standing legal precedents precluding faculty unions at private and religious institutions. A university spokeswoman said via email: "We appreciate the support of our faculty for [the university's] unique system of shared governance and we look forward to working collaboratively with our faculty to continue the work of addressing the concerns of our contingent members."

Ad keywords: 

Saint Mary's College of Calif. students 'Disconnect, Power Off and Unplug' in interim term course

Smart Title: 

Saint Mary's College of California challenges students to a technology fast during an interim term course on the benefits of disconnecting from social media.


Subscribe to RSS - faculty
Back to Top