Running 'Round the Ivory Tower


Terri E. Givens considers some of the frustrations of faculty life.

March 16, 2012

I feel like I have been a downer lately, but sometimes it seems that life just won’t let up. Despite having lost two more family members since my last column, I am still hanging in there. Life is hectic, trying to keep up with family, friends, my extracurricular activities, including running the Austin marathon, but I somehow manage to keep my head above water. You can call me a whiner, but after all I have been through the last few months, I think I have a right to vent. In order to give myself some free therapy, I have decided to devote this column to the things that are driving me crazy about my job and Austin.

1. Class sizes. I teach an undergraduate course on comparative immigration politics once a year. The course, which is one of the required government classes (issues and policies in American government) that all students have to take. When I got to UT Austin more than 8 years ago I had about 115 students in this class. Last year it went to 190. This semester, 325. I know I’m going to hear from everyone (including my colleagues in American politics) who has been teaching these kinds of courses all of their careers, but it is a bit of a shock to have such an increase, particularly when I wasn’t even informed about it until I checked the course schedule during registration in the fall. Same thing happened to another colleague. I am a much better teacher when I can connect with the students, instead of standing up on a stage, barely able to see them in a huge lecture hall.

2. Losing colleagues. With the budget crisis, our department (and others) had to choose between letting go of lecturers and not funding graduate students as teaching assistants. Most departments in our college chose to let go of lecturers. In one rather glaring case, which got national attention, this meant the loss of a high-profile colleague. I remember it all very clearly, a year ago. As I was rushing to grab lunch between classes last spring semester, I saw a familiar face heading in my direction. I knew I had to stop and speak to her; a friend had told me only a few days before that Sarah Weddington had been told that she might not be employed as a lecturer in the fall at UT, due to budget cuts. I told her I was very sorry to hear the news and that this must be unsettling for someone who had been so committed to undergraduate teaching. Besides that, she is a historical figure, given that the Texas Monthly magazine I had just been reading mentioned the restaurant where she had first met Norma McCorvey – aka Jane Roe – as one of the 175 most important places in Texas history. Sarah Weddington, the lawyer who successfully argued Roe v. Wade in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, was a potential casualty of the budget cuts at UT. As we discussed her predicament, it was clear that she wasn’t ready to give up on what had become a rewarding stage in her career.

As you can imagine, Sarah has been popular on campus, and for over 20 years her courses have been in demand by students in women and gender studies as well as government. A neighbor told me how she had waited two years to be able to take one of Sarah’s courses and felt it was one of her best experiences at UT. Another former student who had taken Sarah’s leadership course felt she was lucky to be able to brag, like her mother (who had taken a course from Stephen Ambrose), to her family and friends that she is a former student of Sarah Weddington, a pioneer in women’s rights. Others described how her class did a great job of preparing them for law school because she used a law school textbook and she ran the class like a law school class.

Students and people around the country wrote to protest, and in May the dean asked her to continue for another year. However, at this point it looks like she will be retiring after this academic year, and we are ultimately losing her, despite the support she received. In the meantime, I have watched several other excellent teachers move on, while our courses get bigger…

3. Post-tenure review. I just went through my first post-tenure review, since it has been six years since I got tenure. It wasn’t a tough process, but I did have to pull some things together and get my teaching reviewed. My review was mostly positive, with a note that I haven’t gotten a particular book done yet (I’m working on it, really!).  Then a day or two later our regents decide we have to go through an annual review where we will get some kind of 1-4 ranking. Not clear what this will mean for post-tenure review, and given that we already go through two reviews every year (one based on the academic year, one based on the calendar year, which is when salary changes are considered), I assume the review will be combined with one of the existing ones, but you never know around here. It definitely means more work for senior faculty; our department chair certainly couldn’t manage to do this every year for over 50 faculty members.

4. Websites, blogs and social media. I will admit that I am a tech nerd, and have been one for a long time (DOS anyone?). However, I resisted having my own website since I got to UT, and avoided most social media until this past year. I decided to start blogs for my undergraduate courses so that I could avoid having to update my PowerPoint presentations at the last minute when there was breaking news – something that has been happening with the European fiscal crisis on a regular basis. It is convenient, but I have had a steep learning curve, figuring out all the ins and outs of blogging.  I started using Twitter to help me follow the news, but now it feels like I’m trying to drink from a fire hose. Yes, it’s my own fault, but a part of me actually likes it and I have actually found some great material for my courses this way.

5. Heat and drought.  We have actually had a decent amount of rain in Austin over the past couple of months, but Texas is still in a drought.  After a record hot summer (which was preceded by a record cold winter), I am looking forward to the fact that I will get to spend two months in Washington, D.C. on a Wilson Center fellowship in June and July. Unfortunately, August is usually the hottest month in Austin and we all have to be back for school. I don’t miss the rain and cold from when I lived in Seattle, but I wouldn’t mind if we could stay in the 90s or even low 100s this summer, rather than the onslaught of 110 we had on a regular basis last summer. Thank goodness more of my neighbors have put in swimming pools.

6. Mosquitoes. They love me, I hate them. It’s March and they are already coming back to haunt me after a mild winter. I refuse to wear mosquito repellent because I can’t stand the smell and it seems to be somewhat toxic.

Of course there are plenty of good things going on in my life. My boys and my husband are healthy and happy. They put up with all the turmoil going on around me. I have an excellent job, in a wonderful city, and I have wonderful friends here. I’m excited to get to D.C. this summer, so I can hopefully focus on getting some real writing done. I’ve managed to do quite a bit of editing this academic year, so at least I have some book chapters and an edited volume being published this Spring. Spring break is around the corner, and hopefully I will have a chance to breathe. So over all I would say I have a good life. But venting still feels good sometimes. Feel free to use the comments section to add to the list.


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