My Life as a "Shake."

I am not considered a "real" professor. But what does that mean?

March 2, 2012

When I was a kid, when we’d go to McDonald’s and I’d order a “milk shake,” my older brother took great pleasure in saying that it was just a “shake” because there wasn’t any milk in it.

For whatever reason, my brother wanted to make sure that I knew that I wasn’t getting a “real” shake, and for my benefit would occasionally speculate about what the contents might be – ground up pencil erasers, cat fur, Styrofoam, what have you. At the time, I didn’t care, I just knew it tasted good, that it did what a milkshake does, namely be cold and chocolaty.

I think of this sometimes when my students call me “professor.” From their perspective, I do the work of a professor -- show up to class, give assignments, grade, sit patiently while they weep in front of me after receiving their grades, etc… -- so that’s what I am.

But it’s not true, I am not a professor, something I’m reminded of often, for example recently when reading blogger James Joyner’s response to Michael Berube’s championing of equitable conversation for non-tenure faculty. The post itself is titled, “Paying Adjunct Professors Like Real Professors” (emphasis mine).

I find many of Joyner’s points objectionable, though they aren’t anything I haven’t heard before, i.e., adjuncts knew the bargain before starting graduate school, and that adjuncts drag down the quality of instruction. Joyner’s view is that adjuncts are “unsuccessful” academics, toiling in a kind of minor league system, hoping for a promotion to the majors.

Joyner’s article betrays what I think is a common misperception about a significant number of people like me.

Perhaps most importantly, I do not believe I am unsuccessful. I’ve published four books. I edit a very popular website. I publish essays, humor, fiction and non-fiction widely. Nor am I unique. Is the proprietor of this blog, Mr. Churm, suddenly “successful” because after more than a decade of plying his trade among the unreal he is on the verge of joining the ranks of the “real”?

Last I checked, today he still jumps into his pants with both feet simultaneously, just like yesterday.

Over the last eleven years I’ve taught at four different universities and encountered far more non-tenure-track faculty who we would label “successful” by the standards of our field, than the opposite. People with books. People who are master teachers in the classroom. People who are tremendous assets to their universities. People who are not “real” largely because of fate and circumstance and an academic culture and community that has allowed itself to become a marketplace.

Our goal is supposed to be to become “real,” because with realness comes more money as well as the future promise of more security if we can clear the hurdles of tenure and earn the Dairy Council seal of approval


I do not claim to speak for everyone in my position, but in my case I have no specific desire to become a “real” professor. Here at the Associate Writing Programs Conference the place is lousy with “real” professors and to my eye, they appear just as grouchy and maybe even slightly more drunk than the rest of us. They have to deal with the sticky wicket of self-governance. They must help departments and colleges navigate through the thickets of an increasingly hostile climate to higher education. They must advise and serve and publish (often work they do not care about) in order to maintain and advance their realness. If I am ever privileged enough to join the ranks of the real, I will do these things to the best of my ability, but they will also be things that separate me from the work that I most enjoy.

What I want to do is work that involves me in the intellectual and creative development of college-attending persons. What I want to do is teach. I enjoy it. I’m good at it because I enjoy it, which makes me try hard, which makes better at it, rinse and repeat ad infinitum.

To teach college, one must either become “real” or accept a job that pays less than a living wage.

These seem like stupid choices to me, choices that benefit neither the real or the unreal, and certainly not the students.

But what do I know? I’m just a shake.


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