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Academics Behaving Badly
May 15, 2008 - 12:09pm


Last month I went to an organizational meeting for anyone on campus interested in teaching courses (off-campus) for people who traditionally haven’t had the chance to go to university. It’s a worthy project that would help with a number of social ills, but the organizing body doesn’t want publicity at this early stage—not everyone would be down with it politically—so I can’t offer specifics.

What I can describe is the behavior of some of the tenured faculty who showed up for the meeting. No sooner than sitting down to free cookies and flavored water, they started asking if they would get release time from their departments in exchange for teaching with this project, if they’d be reimbursed for travel, given funds to buy classroom materials, etc. This was clearly an under-funded, even fragile, startup project, and in fact when I asked what more we might do to help (I was thinking publicity), one of the project officers asked if I meant to give them money.

A couple of faculty members there didn’t want to teach at all but did want to begin forming committees, a habit as natural to academics as fur-grooming. To be specific, they wanted to put themselves at the head of a steering committee that would determine every aspect of the committees they wouldn’t serve on. The project officer said they’d already formed committees, thank you.

Listen, I’m not trying to sound virtuous (when I’m being virtuous, Rory, you’ll know it), but I never would have thought to ask for expenses, let alone for pay or other considerations. I just wanted to help somebody out. Besides, I love my job, and I try to be a good departmental citizen because I genuinely want to be a part of whatever is going on so I can feel involved, not marginalized.

But I’m also a realist and a resourceful fellow; being a survivor of the Great Adjunct Purges of Ought-Five should be testament to that. I hope that being seen will permit me to be seen a while longer, so I volunteer for committees, teach independent study sections, direct honors projects, write students letters, try to look out for them when they’re having difficulties—in short, do all sorts of work that is neither required nor remunerated.

Not everybody thinks this way, evidently. I got a letter this year from an administrator who thanked me for serving as second reader for two former students now working with other profs. He said many faculty complain bitterly about reading even one such project. And I teach half-again as many classes at a third less pay, with no hope of job security, release time, sabbatical, professionalization opportunities, or travel or other expenses. I sat in the information session thinking about how I’ve always defended tenured faculty when somebody like Carlton, an IT manager at Northwestern, complained bitterly about their hubris and sense of entitlement, their little rages and struggles for meaningless power.

You probably don’t know this, but there are non-academics who say that tenure is out of touch with the world, that it spoils those who profit by it. Hey, I know it’s not true; you work nonstop to publish or perish. You enhance the treasure houses of our cultural understanding. You bring in grants. Sometimes you teach undergraduates. But did you have to lean over and snatch the last oatmeal cookie from the platter in the middle of the table just as I was reaching for it?


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