Seniors in the Academy

Whether they are in front of or behind the lectern, Deidra Faye Jackson asks, why deny older faculty members and students their academic due?

November 27, 2019
 
 
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Seniors, or the more seasoned persons among us occupying academic spaces, have become a source of angst and anger among the younger set lately. And I suspect that those 65 and older -- the elders who are holding it down in the academy as faculty, administrators, staff and students -- regard such antagonism as nothing new based on how we regularly treat seniors in our society.

Social media reaction to recent news stories declaring that “hundreds of baby boomers” may now pay just $10 per credit to attend classes at the University of Minnesota as part of a special program has been swift. Many of the overwhelmingly negative responses of the apparently younger online posters drip with resentment. Those posters immediately bemoan their own mounting student loan debts and denunciate “entitled” seniors for being able to attend a “second” college on the cheap.

Berry College, a Georgia private liberal arts institution, aims to retain its matriculating seniors by inviting 70- to 80-year-olds to move in and launch their new work-free lives at a planned retirement complex now under construction on campus. It is expected that they will have free roam of the college and its trails, access to athletic events and, possibly, enjoy complimentary classes. That news was met by some who feared that the “silver surge” would forever change “traditional” student interactions and campus activities.

And, in an impassioned perspective that appeared in Inside Higher Ed, “Why I Have Not Yet Retired,” an 80-year-old university professor defended why he has chosen to remain in academe. Virtually line by line, this seasoned academic strove to prove his mettle, to attest to his worth as “teacher and a scholar,” and to champion his effectiveness (still) at instruction and research by illustrating how he instructs, listens to and genuinely advocates for his students. “The quest for meaning is ubiquitous, no matter a person’s age, course of study or career leaning,” the veteran professor implored.

But many responses to his moving discourse were dismissive. Online commenters posted their hot takes on the limits of human physicality and cognition. They shared caustic tales of “old and useless” professors whom they say have stayed well past their prime, taking up full-time tenured faculty lines that could have benefited more youthful and dynamic academics.

To all the naysayers, I can’t help but ask, why you mad, bro?

In another time, it might have been easier to chalk up such public antipathy toward seniors working and residing in our academic environments to simple ageism. But current political, social and economic influences have added additional layers of anxiety and hostility, steadily fueling even more vitriol. More nuanced and pointed charges now are being leveled at veterans of all stripes, whose members include many who have more than paid their dues in various service roles over their lifetimes.

They do not deserve this bitterness.

As a proud Gen Xer, I and my compatriots inhabit the era situated between the baby boomers and the millennials. We could all document the sundry advantages and disadvantages, as well as the fluky circumstances and deliberate designs, that have marked the state of affairs during each of our generations. Some have been to our benefit, and some have been to our detriment. But older faculty members and students who have proven their competencies and continue to demonstrate their capabilities should have their academic due whether they are in front of the lectern or behind it.

Unfortunately, however, our society often treats seniors, for the most part, like trash. After a specified point, if we are not ignoring their voices, we render them meaningless. In higher education, it seems that we rush to give certain older persons a fixed shelf life regardless of their contributions, their truths or their pedagogical prowess. It echoes the propensity of the motion picture and broadcast news industries to “disappear” aging women, while simultaneously embracing older men as they advance in years. Preordained academic superstars, because of their status, often enjoy an unlimited period of validity.

But other longtime educators and professors, who may have earned yet not have attained some critical scholarly favor, are not as safe. When we perceive them as nearing the end of their tenures, we no longer attach importance to their expertise -- which, unlike their colleagues with some measure of luminary status, has a fixed service life. We discard them, tossing aside their abilities, talents and distinctive approaches.

Too many people seem quick to kick seniors to the curb on these issues, highlighting those nasty characteristics of aging that undoubtedly will lead to their diminished academic capabilities in lecture halls around the globe. And that’s not to say that won’t be the case for some older academics. But if we are to fixate on the very real concerns of career ineffectiveness in the academy, surely we know that tenured 60-, 70- and 80-year-olds do not corner the market on professional incompetency in higher education.

Thoughts for Seniors

Those who distrust the intellectual fitness of older professors and students and begrudge their access to educational resources should reconsider and simply acknowledge that the pervasive image (or caricature) of older professors does not always reflect reality. The stereotypical portrayals of senior profs -- absentminded, bumbling, curmudgeonly, feeble -- are all too familiar. Perhaps an extraordinary sea change could occur, not from seniors altering themselves, but from others of us altering how we view them.

The advice that I offer here to seniors themselves, a group whose experiences far outweigh mine and whose insights surely exceed my own, seems almost trite. But I offer them in support of those who choose to remain active in the academy, to put in the work, to be seen, to be heard and to be respected.

Stay relevant. The kinetic energy usually ever present on college and university campuses is infectious. Discover or take advantage of distinctive programming that you may not get the chance to partake in elsewhere. The opportunity to hobnob with and query invited speakers and guests -- the noted experts, celebrated personalities and current news makers drawn to campus audiences -- ensures that you avoid a moribund mind-set.

Plug in and be an early adopter, not a member of the late majority. Technology’s ubiquitous influence in higher education is undeniable, from classroom management to student engagement. Get plugged in to what it is working effectively in your field of interest. Embrace apps and other appropriate cutting-edge high tech that will improve your life, academically and otherwise. Do not wait for the endorsements of others to tether yourself to the tech train and enhance your world.

At the same time, don’t believe the hype. Though many of us, most notably among younger generations, seem conjoined to social media, being social media savvy is not the same, and we often aren’t as savvy as we may project.

Offer your wisdom. When my students are working on assignments during lectures, I usually solicit offers to provide them “free wisdom, free wisdom here!” It is meant to be tongue-in-cheek, but it is my way of reminding them that I know things they do not. Sometimes my students have taken my offers, and sometimes they have not. But do not be afraid to share your valuable wisdom with those who will embrace it.

Always have a plan B, C or D. Be ready to grab your second, third and fourth winds should the time come. For instance, you could market your wisdom in other ways, if not verbally. Write a column or script. Teach a class in the community. Create your own podcast where you can potentially maintain a wide global reach and discuss your distinctive experiences and perspectives. (If you have listened to podcasts these days, you know that subjects are wide-ranging and that this is very achievable.)

Don’t relinquish your quest for meaning. The professor who wrote about how he was not ready to retire recalled that his quest for meaning “has grown richer, more nuanced and satisfying … more lucid …” When I was in the throes of finishing my dissertation, I ultimately began to downsize the impacts that I felt my research would usher into the world. What I initially intended to be life-changing work morphed into a never-ending quest for inner peace as I sought to prove my own truths through my academic inquiry.

My eventual epiphany was anticlimactic but rewarding: I want the culmination of my university research career to make a lasting difference in the world, but in my heart, I know that it probably will not. It took me a while to realize that, no matter how long I continue my academic work, I may not shift the landscape. But the continual pursuit of knowledge, truth and meaning is reward enough.

Whatever your age, always be in pursuit of finding your own truths in your role as an instructor, scholar or student learner.

Bio

Deidra Faye Jackson is an instructor of writing at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, where she teaches in the departments of writing and rhetoric and higher education. Her research focuses on scholarly productivity, faculty development and “publish or perish” environments. She tweets at @DeidraJackson11.

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