What has become of the eccentrics in the ranks of our professors? From time to time, when I run into a colleague from another institution, I ask if he or she knows of any such individuals. Almost always, the answer is either "no," or a lengthy pause of consideration before offering up a bland example of an octogenarian who drives a motor scooter.
It is often said that academia is not the "real world." I’m not so sure how true this is today, what with the distinction between gutter and campus highly blurred, and practical emphases on job placement and technological "know how" supplanting the liberal arts. But looking back at my undergraduate years in the 1970s, I do think I studied in a sort of bubble highlighted by, for lack of a better descriptor, wacky professors who may not have been able to function outside the ivory tower.
I recently unearthed one of my college notebooks. On the inside back cover I had caricatured each of my instructors from that particular year. One glance and I immediately recalled the inspirations for my artwork.
There was, for example, Professor Feigenblatt, who walked with a stiff limp and chain-smoked during his German lectures. After each smoke he would drop the still-glowing butt onto the carpet and slowly grind it in with the tip of his orthopedic shoe. As a preamble to every lecture, he would clop over to the desk of each of the Fräuleins present and would ask permission to remove his sports jacket. Then he would light up and begin his rambling lectures while blowing smoke in our faces. On one occasion when he was absent, he sent his elderly German secretary — replete with bifocals on a pearl chain and her hair in a bun — to proctor a test we were taking. I approached her desk with a question from that test. To my surprise, and delight, she gave me the answer, loud enough for everyone to hear. A line quickly formed at her desk, and she dutifully helped all of us out. "Ach," she said, giggling, "if Professor Feigenblatt ever finds out he’ll be so annoyed." We all promised we wouldn’t tell. The professor returned the following week with the tests in hand, his face aglow. "Wonderful grades!" he exulted. "Everybody got an A!"
Professor Gleason was a bumbling biologist whom, due to his generous and ovoid physical proportions, we students had nicknamed "The Egg." He seemed to be totally baffled by his own course material, and managed quite capably to convey this bewilderment to the class, so that none of us knew what the hell was going on. I once went to his office with great trepidation to ask him to explain a challenging concept. When I arrived there he had his back to me as he stood before an elaborate apparatus of glassware, ringstands, tubes, and clamps. I recall thinking, Well, how about that? Still waters run deep. He does know what he’s doing after all. When he turned to me, however, he was stirring a cup of coffee, brewed on the intricate set-up. One day he took us down to the banks of the Hackensack River for a field trip. We helped him get the large motorboat into the water, and then the ten of us students looked on from the bank as he worked away at the engine, yanking the pull repeatedly to get it to start. He hadn’t noticed that the boat had begun to drift away, and we had no intention of alerting him. We all watched in silence (and with rising anticipation of a canceled class) as The Egg worked at the engine, his crablike arms too short to extract the pull all the way. Within ten minutes he had drifted out of sight. So we went home.
My organic chemistry professor, Dr. Weinstein, was rather fearsome and had little patience with students. His reputation didn’t rest upon his teaching prowess, because he had only one mantra — “Read the book!” Word was that he had fathered a famous chemical reaction during World War II and continued to get mileage out of that one, shining achievement. He was also as near-sighted as Mr. Magoo. On the first day of class he distributed our glassware and warned us, in his harsh, croaking voice: "I will inventory the glassware at the end of the course. If any is missing, you’ll pay!"
Well, there was inevitable breakage during the semester, and a lot of it. On the last day, Weinstein told us to stand shoulder-to-shoulder in front of the lab benches while he walked from student to student with his clipboard. For our part, we were passing the glassware to one another behind our backs in such a way that everyone wound up with a "complete" set. "Well," rasped Weinstein when he was done inventorying. "That’s a first." If he later discovered the deficits, it didn’t matter, because his eyesight was so bad that he would never be able to identify any of us.
Professor Holzer taught an elective in sociology. In addition to her atrocious hats, one of which resembled the bread fungus Rhizopus, her most salient gloss was her inability to find not only our classroom, but the campus as well. It was Professor Holzer’s first semester at the university, and we took full advantage of her complete mystification about the location of the campus. After missing the first class and arriving 30 minutes late for the second, she turned to us and asked for the best way to get from her home to the school. We told her to proceed in a completely contrary direction, up the Taconic State Parkway. She did so, and missed the next class. But when she surfaced again she seemed not the least bit more witting about what had happened and asked us for directions again! This time we sent her to Queens. Eventually she discovered the correct route to the school. I would like to say that she forgave us for the shenanigans; but why would she? She never suspected we were taking advantage of her.
Mrs. Reynard (she was an instructor and not a titled professor) taught English lit. Her specialty was Romantic English poetry. The thing was, she couldn’t remember who had written what. One day she commenced a rolling commentary on Robert Browning, beginning with his biography and then dissecting his metrical technique with the focus and deliberation of a brain surgeon. She ended her discourse with the comment, “Once you’ve read Browning, you’ll never forget him.” Then she recited a poem, “The Birth of Love,” after which she placed her hand on her heart and sighed. A student spoke up. “But Mrs. Reynard,” he said, “that’s Wordsworth.” “Oh,” she said, and blinked uncomprehendingly as she began to page through the text in search of Browning.
Professor O’Rourke, of psychology, was the epitome of the absent-minded professor. He was the type who pushed his glasses up on his head and then spent the next fifteen minutes looking for them. He could often be seen wandering around the parking lot searching for his car before realizing that he’d taken the bus. He once went into the men’s room with his briefcase and came out with the toilet seat under his arm. I kid you not. But within his discipline he was absolutely crackerjack.
In the jaded eyes of us students, it was clear that our professors would have a hard time functioning in the wider world. Gleason, we knew, would never be a boat pilot, O’Rourke would fail miserably as a parking valet, and Holzer’s inability to connect points A and B would automatically disqualify her from driving a cab.
But I miss these people. Or better said, I lament not having colleagues like them in my teaching environment. Where have the outlandish characters gone? My sense is that the nature of the university beast has changed and has had a leveling effect on the spectrum of personalities. As higher education has striven to define itself as a business ("Students are our customers!" chirps a perky poster), there is less tolerance for professors who might — heaven forbid — embarrass the institution and drive the paying public away. The result has been a more rigid screening of applicants for conformity, or, in the lingo of current hiring practices, "institutional fit." This is a catch-all phrase that colleges and universities use to trump all other qualifications and acquire the person they had their eye on all along. In other words, a brilliant eccentric who can simultaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other while captivating his students has less institutional fit than a bland monotone who sticks to the text and is grateful to the administration for giving him a job.
What about me? I don’t think I’m eccentric, or cranky, or absent-minded. What professors with these characteristics have in common is their unwittingness: the prof is out of touch, to a greater or lesser degree, with his surroundings and especially with how his students regard him.
I still recall an event at the end of Professor Gleason’s biology class. Between semesters we had a seven-week break. At the beginning of the break a few of us went to his office and put a few fruit flies in his desk drawer along with enough food to sustain several generations. When we returned to school after our lengthy vacation we followed The Egg across campus as he waddled toward his building. We waited outside his office as he arranged his things, got his coffee apparatus going again, and then, as he opened his drawer, screamed out, “Oh, my God!” This was followed by a frantic racket as he swatted at the swarm with what sounded like a frying pan. But he apparently never suspected a thing. He certainly didn’t interrogate any of us. The cozy academic life for him simply went on.
Now, if I were to open my desk drawer one morning and recoil as thousands of fruit flies streamed out, I’d immediately know something was up, and I’d immediately suspect my students. Then I would plan my counterattack. Perhaps this comes from having grown up in rough and tumble New Jersey, where interpersonal warfare is part of the social fabric and nobody is allowed to get away with anything.
I was recently at a gathering of colleagues, some of whom had brought their college-age children along. I took the opportunity to ask if any of them knew any true eccentrics at their schools. Those of my generation (baby boom) and older had colorful stories to tell from their undergraduate days. But not one of the kids could describe a prof who was outrageous or singular in any but the most benign and modest of ways. Their teachers were, for the most part, unmemorable.
Oh, where have they gone? Where are these helpless, hopeless, unaware yet frequently gifted personalities who, like planets orbiting their stars, never stray far from the schools that give them comfort and purpose? Is there nowhere to be found a philosophy professor who has taught his mynah bird to recite the odes of Pindar? Or a physicist in search of a perpetual motion machine? Perhaps a linguist who is working on toe sign language? Our eccentrics and dreamers and mental drifters have been replaced with pragmaticians who have mapped their courses out with all the precision and predictability of masons building a wall. Nothing is left to the imagination, and even their attempts at humor abrade us specifically because we know they are trying to be funny for our sakes. How much more wonderful it is when a professor makes us laugh because his world is odd, his steps sometimes unsure, his glasses eternally lost upon his head, the toilet seat propped under his arm.
I have heard it said that nostalgia is a form of protest. And I suppose it is, because I feel a longing for something I once had and that I now miss. I realize that one cannot hire a new professor because he or she is eccentric, but what’s sad is that hiring committees no longer overlook eccentricity in their constant striving for institutional fit. Perhaps this is because eccentricity has become conflated with liability. The only hope, then, in the current social climate, is for eccentricity to rise to the level of a disability that would have to be accommodated. Then these colorful people would have a fighting chance and colleges and universities would be presented with opportunities to become more interesting places again.
How do furloughs work for educators? Let me be clear: I am both happy and thankful for being invited onto the tenure track my first go-around, given the precarious economic situation and academic job market in 2008-9. I’ve taken very little for granted in the past year or so. What could I possibly have to complain about? Working conditions are not hazardous — well, outside of faculty meetings at least. Many of us have relative autonomy — that is, when no one is looking. We ultimately get paid to pursue issues and topics that we enjoy. Wall Street folks feel justified in their gripes over new regulations and a 3 percent increase in their marginal tax rate, despite making money hand over fist. Maybe we can offer a humble university professor some license to complain … about furloughs.
This is the third year in a row my university is subject to furlough plans; there is no consensus on whether there will be a fourth. The current plans are progressive, which means that the amount of furloughed time is directly proportional to one's salary. In my case, as a new faculty member, I must relinquish roughly a week’s worth of time and pay. The furlough concept vexes me for two reasons. At first — less so now that I am in my second year — it was a bitter pill to swallow when I crept out of graduate school, making practically nothing for some of the work that I do now, and hearing at one of my first faculty meetings that I was already getting a pay cut. Just when I was about to draw a steady paycheck, there was discussion of taking money away. Having never worked for state government, the furlough concept was completely foreign to me. I grappled with the idea that as a professor, I was an employee of the state, and therefore subject to furloughs. When a sanitation worker goes on furlough, trash doesn’t get picked up. We all see that, and it’s a highly visible and olfactive inconvenience.
As a professor I was informed that the furloughs must impact academics as little as possible, which I completely understand. Yet, with the explicit prohibition on canceling class, skipping a faculty meeting, or slashing committee appointments, all of my so-called furloughs encompassed the multitude of tasks that I complete in private. This includes planning, grading, answering e-mail messages, reading, writing, research activities, professional meetings, and reviewing manuscripts or proposals. No dignified or obvious public response is permissible. Not one person feels the impact or the insult of furloughs other than the individual faculty members. It is also true that few faculty members will actually refrain from any of the above activities during a mandated furlough day because that’s just twice the amount of grading or e-mail messages that have to be dealt with the next day.
The second problem with the furlough (read: pay cut) scenario has a lot to do with my former life as a public school teacher. This is why I might be more offended by the requirement to not only take the pay cut, but also track the exact days on which I supposedly slough off to "earn" it. No one ever understood my job as a teacher except for those who actually taught. To many, our job consisted of roughly six or so hours of hanging out with a bunch of kids. We do that for several months, are given generous breaks in between, and we have the entire summer off to travel, mow the lawn, and basically waste our nation’s valuable tax dollars doing nothing.
I can appreciate how people have this view; it’s a difficult myth to dispel. If anyone took the time to really examine what goes on behind the scenes, or if teachers were actually given a voice to speak out, one would see a person lugging stacks of notebooks home on a daily basis. More stacks of books and binders would go home on weekends. They’d see teachers going in sick to work because it’s too much trouble to call in a sub. Parents undermine your judgment at almost every turn, you can’t use the restroom for hours at a time, lunch lasts for 20 minutes and largely consists of leftovers or snacks in the fabulously accommodated teachers’ lounge, and all the while you have to navigate a hopeless bureaucracy that chips away at your professional autonomy.
So much of what a successful K-12 or college educator must do to make the classroom operate effectively is done behind the scenes. In fact, the preparation done privately is absolutely essential to the public face of the profession, which is in the classroom. Whenever a new mandate or policy rolls out, a new curriculum, or certification requirement, it’s dumped on the backs of teachers. We are told that our extra duties must not in any way compromise time with the students. Teachers who have already run out of time weeks ago perpetually take the minutes and hours and blood out of their private preparation, which then inevitably creeps into educators’ personal lives. Educators take their jobs very personally and our performance, or lack thereof, is interpreted by society as a personal virtue. If we are perceived as not burning the midnight oil for the sake of our students, then there must be something wrong with us. It’s a character flaw and we therefore should find another line of work.
What’s the connection to higher education and the furlough concept? Sacrifices must come out of my private responsibilities as an educator. The powers that be know full well that for any professor who wants to keep his or her job, which is based on satisfactory teaching, research, and service, nothing meaningful will be cast aside. Many of us will just keep right on working as usual with not one thing taken off our plate. As an aside, I admire faculty members who are able to take a stand, put an outgoing message in their e-mail, stating that they are on furlough and will not answer messages today because they are indeed on furlough. I wish I could exercise a little self-control and actually take a day off here and there. As a new faculty member, I just don’t have that luxury. The demands to publish, research, and stay current with the latest and greatest teaching gadgets and techniques are too great.
Let us call it what it is: a pay cut, not a furlough. The latter concept cannot apply to educators unless we can furlough our public duties. Dealing the blow within our private responsibilities — in our offices, at home, or away at meetings — reads as if these duties are not as valuable. Because they do not generate revenue explicitly, private functions like reading, writing, and research are expendable. But in similar ways in my public school teaching, there would be no teaching — no effective teaching — without all that educators do behind the scenes. Without a furlough of our public duties, no one can understand the message and the impact of budget cuts. Educators take the hit in silence, and it is this lack of defense of our private duties that perpetuates the myth in the general public that educators have none. We clock in, teach our students, and then clock out.
It’s hard for me to criticize furlough plans because I know people are losing their jobs. Perhaps my pay cut, combined with all the others, will save a few jobs here and there. I’m happy to do that, if that is indeed what I’m doing. If I make it hard for students and parents who are paying more for my services than ever, they just won’t come back, or they will pursue their education elsewhere. Long term: that’s not good for business.
When I complain about pay cuts or furloughs, I end up feeling like a selfish jerk afterward. But universities are dropping the ball in their handling of furloughs and pay cuts. There’s a considerable amount of resentment and suspicion of administration due to the precarious economic situation. In order to alleviate tensions, the leadership could acknowledge faculty as they get stiffed. Would there be harm in canceling just one meeting? How about free parking passes for faculty or free meals on campus, assuming that eating on campus is a pleasurable experience? I won’t even get into deferred compensation plans, but that’s also a good option.
There are numerous potential gestures out there that could be easily seen as a tip of the cap to our troubles. If teaching and other official duties are deemed sacrosanct, even though a host of other requirements are intensified, something will eventually have to give. Until furloughs or pay cuts explicitly affect what occurs in the classroom, the shift of the burden to the private realm, as has happened with K-12 teachers, will force the issue further underground and out of the public eye. Educators of all stripes and levels will continue doing the same job, but for less and less.
Shaun Johnson is assistant professor of elementary education at Towson University. His blog is At the Chalk Face.
On the subway, during early morning rush hour, I raise my head from my “bible,” where I have underlined in red an unfamiliar word that I need to look up in my pocket dictionary, and notice a man sitting across from me, bent over a fat leather-bound book on his lap, his left index finger on a page, his right hand writing on a loose sheet covering the opposite page. The leather cover looks old and soft and stretched and the pages appear swollen. There are dozens of slips of paper stuck into the book, their white and yellow edges protruding. His book, I’m guessing, is an actual Bible. But those slips? Are they notes to himself? Reference markers? Receipts? I enjoy discovering bus transfers and train tickets left behind in my old books. (Ah!, I say to myself, now I know when I last read Sons and Lovers! And, after a moment’s puzzlement, I remember why I had gone out to Mineola in January or why I was in San Francisco on that fall day.) That man across from me has made a book his very own — not the Bible but his bible.
Don’t worry, reader! I’m not about to advocate against the damned Kindle (I know there are clever features on electronic readers for taking notes). Instead, I want to figure out why I find it so touching to see on public transportation this man and others taking comfort and joy in their literal or literary bibles. To see a man with an opened volume reciting under his breath, to observe a woman lost in thought as she nods her head in agreement with something she has just read — I certainly feel a sympathetic intimacy. I identify with anyone involved in the private act of reading his or her bible in a close-quartered public space. To live in those books, to identify themselves by their books, I admire them (and myself, yes). That they’re bibles of one kind or another — the books of life! — not idle books, not schoolbooks, not comic books or thrillers, not to satisfy someone else or to distract us from thinking — but absolutely for thinking and moral reflection. I love seeing that on the subway. Those bibles are the books of our lives, and there those books are out in the open. When I’m reading those riders’ absorbed faces in their absorbing books, I’m learning more about them than I would from their Facebook pages.
I’m a little less open, however, about my bible.
I’m one of those people who say they’re going to learn Russian so that they can read Anna Karenina in the original. I have and I am. Just as I imagine common-folk striving to learn their letters so they could piece together the Bible on their own, I’m crawling through Anna Karenina at the rate of about an hour a page. I read it every day, and when I reach the end, sometime next year, my plan is to start all over again. One’s bibles don’t get old, do they? But this time through is especially grueling, because it’s my first time in Russian. I print it out in sections from an electronic library, and I carry around with me in a thick cardboard envelope a couple of chapters and a red pen, with a mini-dictionary in my pocket. I underline unfamiliar words and terms; I circle words I can’t find in my dictionary so I can look them up in big dictionaries at home; I pause and puzzle and occasionally glide, as if I’m reading in English. After each chapter (there are 239 chapters), I make myself write up my questions about vocabulary, grammar and phrasing as well as, most importantly (this is my bible), my very personal responses, the doing of which requires me to reflect upon and translate significant sentences and paragraphs.
So no one sees an Anna Karenina in my hands; they see a man with a red pen knitting his brows and poring over a standard-size sheet of paper. If they happen to see the Cyrillic letters, most bystanders look away. If they don’t see the Cyrillic, perhaps they assume I’m doing Sudoku or a crossword.
At the beginning of the 20th century and the end of his long life, Tolstoy compiled a couple of anthologies of the world’s wisdom for unsophisticated readers. In "Readings for Every Day" and "A Circle of Reading," Tolstoy clipped and rephrased Socrates and George Eliot, Henry George and Sophocles, Dostoevsky and himself. He went for the gist of the other geniuses’ meanings and didn’t fuss about literal exactitude! I admire his boldness. I, on the other hand, humbly keep to his very words; that, after all, was what I wanted when after reading Anna Karenina 15 or 20 times in English, I thought, "Why do I have to get this secondhand?" If I could go to a museum and see a Cezanne, why would I look at its reproduction in a book? I decided I would get Anna Karenina as up-close as personally possible. I reasoned (quite reasonably I thought), "I’m a teacher! I teach language. I can teach myself." I was influenced, in fact, by Tolstoy, who used to learn languages by getting a New Testament in that language and then deriving the grammar and vocabulary. I could do that!
No, I couldn’t.
Most of us need teachers. Most of my students need teachers, and I hate to admit that I needed one too. So, thank you to Albina at the language school in St. Petersburg, to Katya in Santa Barbara and to Dina here in New York City. They taught me I didn’t know enough to teach myself. But now, after five years of labor and love, I do, and I stumble along. Of course Anna Karenina is way too hard for me, but I persist, partly at least because it is too hard. Those marvelous little stories that Tolstoy -- in the midst of writing Anna Karenina! -- composed for children's primers: those are my speed. They’re challenging and satisfying. But I want my bible. Not counting being a family man, a teacher, occasional reviewer and editor, my real life continues to be this book.
A friend asked what I’m reading, and I realized all the reading I do for teaching and reviewing, none of it really counts. What am I really reading? I’m reading Anna Karenina! For now, the other books are just to pass the time.
I try not to but find myself complaining about the farming terms that pop up so much in the chapters about Levin or the political issues that occupy Levin’s half-brother and Karenin, because I cannot figure out or divine those words. Or even if I look up plowing, I forget it — I never want to see that word again, but there it is over and over again. At the community college in Brooklyn, my developmental writing and reading students do this too; we learn a word, and for the day we know it. The next day it’s gone:
"Austerity? — Remember, guys? — Austere …? … No?"
My students were hoping or thinking that it was a one-day’s use word. Disposable vocabulary! No such luck either for me with the Russian "plowing" or "forking" (pitch-forking, but it looks like plain "forking"). Fork that!
On the other hand, when Tolstoy describes the psychological states of Anna or Stiva or Kitty, or involves us in the intense conversations between the main characters, I’m right there, in spite of my sloppy, potholed Russian. Tolstoy has been my mentor on understanding psychological states and romantic interactions ever since I read him when I was 18. What I understand of psychology is really Tolstoy’s understanding of psychology. So when I’m with his characters in the midst of those crises, I can turn and tilt the Russian words like pieces of broken glass until I see my way through a whole paragraph or two without a dictionary. But farming? Economics? Serious discussions that have nothing to do with romantic relationships? I don’t know that language very well, and all my grammatical weaknesses — the Russian perfective, prepositions, participles — cripple me. I do not so much crawl as drag myself with one arm across a dusty plain.
What must it have been like for those readers for whom the only book was the Bible? What about all those tedious lists of laws or names? Could one really go through that, striving to understand filler? There is no filler in Anna Karenina. Because I feel that, when I don’t know a word, I have to look it up, even if it must be a farming implement or a special type of jacket. Sometimes I know all the words in a phrase and I still don’t know what it means — I copy it down and I write my own lame gloss. Maybe the next time through I’ll know what it really means. Why don’t I simply look in a translation? Because … because I’ve spent all these years trying to learn Russian so that I didn’t have to read translations anymore! It’d be easy, but I’m not going back.
Meanwhile, every once in a while I look guiltily at my old friends on the bookshelves — Trollope, D. H. Lawrence, Jane Austen, William Carlos Williams, Jorge Luis Borges — and I feel apologetic. I know I’m neglecting you! I’m in a new exclusive relationship for now. I need to get comfortable — I don’t have time really for any book but this bible! — but I’ll get back to you. That’s what I think. But if I stop circling through Anna Karenina, that means I’m dead — or if I’m lucky I’ll be reading it on a train in a heavenly subway system sitting across from other readers and their bibles.
Bob Blaisdell, professor of English at City University of New York's Kingsborough Community College, is writing The Anna Karenina Diaries. He edited Tolstoy as Teacher: Leo Tolstoy’s Writings on Education.
In late November, The Journal of Electronic Publishing released a special issue devoted to questions of academic publishing – a topic this column has followed from time to time. The most salient points of the symposium were digested here by one of my energetic colleagues before I had so much as resolved to write about it.
That’s a major effect of the emerging post-print culture, of course, apart from its significance for the economics of publishing and the various problems associated with archiving digital material. There is the matter of speed. A team of diplomatic historians will probably be bringing out a collection of papers about the WikiLeaks revelations (downloadable in PDF) by Friday afternoon.
As it happened, my foot-dragging about the JEP issue coincided with a few days of wandering the stacks of a big university library -- catching up with, among other things, The State of Scholarly Publishing: Challenges and Opportunities, edited by Albert N. Greco and published by Transaction last year. It contains papers by Lindsay Waters (humanities editor at Harvard University Press), Cathy N. Davidson (chair of the Digital Futures Task Force at Duke), and Sanford G. Thatcher (former president of the Association of American University Presses), among other worthies. And the chapter called “Conflicting Agendas for Scholars, Publishers, and Institutions,” by Cass T. Miller and Julianna C. Harris, can be recommended as a smart, succinct account of the basic tensions within what the authors call “the scholarly communication environment.”
But the contribution that really stands out, to my mind, is “Scribble, Scribble, Toil and Trouble: Forced Productivity in the Modern University” by William W. Savage, Jr., a professor of history at the University of Oklahoma.
“Occasionally, in secondhand bookshops,” he writes, “I will locate the remnants of some elderly professor’s library, and among the assorted volumes there will be the inevitable stack of professional journals, dating back to perhaps the early 1950s. Perusing these, I am always surprised by how slender they are, and how few book reviews they contain. In contrast, the modern journal is as thick as medium-sized city’s telephone directory, and it is largely devoted to book reviews and notices. I received two journals in the mail recently and beheld in their book review section mention of enough titles relevant to my interests to keep me busy until Social Security kicks in…. One may keep abreast only by keeping awake and ignoring bodily functions that do not involve eye, brain, and printed page.”
This can be framed eulogistically, of course, as evidence of the accelerating “production of knowledge.” But the essayist maintains that an obsession with publication for its own sake has taken hold. He recalls the comment of a departmental chairperson to an assistant professor: “If you’re going to be promoted for publishing rubbish, you’re going to have to publish a lot more of it than you’ve published so far.”
A footnote indicates that the word originally used was not “rubbish.”
And in a passage that may seem literally incredible to younger scholars today, he cites a piece of advice by one professor in the early 1970s – an epoch when “faculty who worried about publishing too much, thereby alienating colleagues and damaging their own careers” still wandered the earth. To be safe, this scholar suggested publishing “an article a year and a book every five years.” That would be enough to satisfy the administration, “but not so much as to threaten [your] colleagues unduly.”
Tell us another one, Grandpa. This slice of ancient history is worth contemplating now – if only because it is so clearly impossible to imagine anything like that situation being restored. E-publishing did not create the cult of hyperproductivity, of course. But it imposes no limitations on that tendency. The only potential barrier to constantly growing scholarly output is the scarcity of attention.
Before the curmudgeonizing gets out of hand, though, it’s worth challenging the usual insinuation that kicks in when the opining starts – that in the good old days, people didn’t have to publish as much, but at least the work they did had to be good, unlike these days.
One consequence of spending time with searchable databases is that you occasionally see just what people used to get away with. Here I’m thinking in particular of a paper appearing in one of the leading journals of American literary scholarship during the early 1970s – when, to go by Savage’s memoir, it would have been just enough for the year’s work.
Someone had noticed that Tom Buchanan’s fascination with a racist author named Goddard in The Great Gatsby was actually a thinly disguised reference to Lothrop Stoddard, author of The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy and similar rubbish. The scholar noted this and called it a day. The implications for reading F. Scott Fitzgerald remained for somebody else to pursue. Pointing out that Goddard was actually Stoddard was quite enough. That was that.
Today, of course, someone sussing out an allusion would then go on to document its historical provenance, contemplate its metaphysical implications, and spell out the 47 ways it complicates all hitherto existing understandings of the author’s work. (It would be the prof’s third article of the year – the short one, probably.)
The ever-expanding sphere of scholarly publication means that plenty of material appears that probably shouldn’t -- and that nobody notices, in any case. But that’s the least complaint-worthy thing about the present situation. 'Twas ever thus. The real problem is that now there’s just too much of the good stuff, as well.
To give William Savage the last word: “Youngsters rant, geezers argue, publishers work overtime, and the printed matter” – not to mention the digital! – “keeps on coming, right along with exam papers, term papers, theses, and dissertations, gladdening the hearts of optometrists everywhere.”
For Anonymous, because I’ve never started a poem with “Because.”
Because no system interests me unless it is flawed in ways that challenge my flaws
Because Ph.D.-ing allows one to avoid the crush of work's redundancy with the joy of analysis
Because most systems humble us and help us see how to seek our own senses of power
Because the creative and scientific production of ideas is not linear and is never ending
Because the best way to be rewarded is to make your own expectations informed and doable
Because all the trauma of a system amounts to what makes me rise above it
Because my acknowledgment rests mostly in the truth of knowing who I am
Because education nurtures and creates second chances toward self-reinvention
Because professors have more say in advancing change than in most power structures
Because I have learned to play the game of proving my worth with parallel life rules
Because I understand my hardships are worthwhile for the abstract rewards of the job
Because in school I am only limited by my own lack of questioning
Because knowledge is never ending and life is short, I do not waste time on self-pity
Because I know how my learning light is spent I promise to keep it bright
Because I am where students are given to me
Because I came from a career of meaningless but excessive financial reward
Because I can write this poem as professional act
Because leaving teaching for me is leaving loving,
I am the academy.
Will Hochman is a twice-tenured full professor at Southern Connecticut State University who has taught first-year writing for more than 30 years. His most recent book of poems is Freer from Pecan Grove Press, and Facts on File has just published Hochman’s (with Bruce Mueller) Critical Companion to J.D. Salinger — A Literary Reference to His Life and Work.
Academe is in crisis. Young academics have been left out in the cold: according to American Association of University Professors (AAUP) statistics, only about 25 percent of new Ph.D.s find full-time, permanent jobs. We are wasting the talent of a generation.
There have been scattered proposals to redress the situation, such as cutting graduate programs, but none seems to have stanched the carnage. And it is unlikely to change in the foreseeable future; given current state and federal budget pressures, it will only get worse. Moreover, professors, especially tenured professors, probably won’t be first to gain increased public support when the economy rebounds.
Therefore, the best recourse is to solve the problem ourselves, taking matters into our own hands, as it were. To that end, I have recently founded an organization, Academic Opportunities Unlimited (AOU). Our motto is “We can’t guarantee you’ll get the job, but we can guarantee an opening.”
AOU is elegant in its simplicity, rebalancing an artificially skewed market. One of the effects of the job crisis is an aging professoriate. Since the 1970s, the scales have tipped heavily AARP-ward: while only 17 percent of faculty were 50 or over in 1969, a bloated 52% had crossed that divide by 1998. It is no doubt worse now, and strangling the air supply of potential new professors.
AOU would work to remedy this bias against youth. It would, through a rigorous screening process, pinpoint faculty who are clogging positions and select them for hits, or “extra-academic retirement” (EAR). While this might raise qualms from the more liberal-minded among us, we would argue that it is more humane, both to potential faculty who otherwise have been shunted aside and to those languishing in the holding pattern of a withered career, than our current system. The retirement would be efficient and quick, and strictly limited to those who, as the saying goes, have their best years long behind them.
In turn, AOU would enliven campuses with new faculty. It is widely acknowledged that faculty in most disciplines have their best ideas in the first flush of their careers, so a good part of their later careers are spent rewarming an old stew; AOU would encourage fresh ideas and innovative research, and bring some excitement back to campus. Undoubtedly, the changes would be visible: rather than looking like fugitives from a nursing home or a Rolling Stones concert, the faculty would be snappier, with better-fitting jeans.
A secondary benefit is that it would have a catalytic effect on those with tenure, who would step more lively when on campus or not hang on to their jobs until they had squeezed the last bit of ink from their yellowed notes. It would bring some concrete accountability to tenure and in turn help to recuperate its public image. Tenure would no longer be seen as a protection for lazy elitists, but a badge of genuine distinction and continuing merit.
Though AOU might prompt arguments like those against euthanasia, I think that it’s more apt to see it like “Do Not Resuscitate” orders in hospitals -- no easy choice, but the reasonable one in many situations. One can envision administrators building such a codicil into academic contracts. While aided retirement might be sudden, consider how many times people say that, if they had a choice, they would rather depart quickly than decline over years in hospitals and nursing homes. Is not academe, given its current demographic, a kind of nursing home for the intellectual class? AOU would be more humane than most other ways of expiring, and it turns the tide from a drain on scarce resources to a more just and productive use of them.
We should stress that AOU is not predicated simply on age, which would be ageist, but on productivity. We are as yet undecided on the exact process -- whether it should operate through nominations (a “three nominations and you’re out” rule -- 3YO) or through a statistical assessment of productivity -- although we will be conducting trial runs soon.
Foreseeing concerns that it might violate academic freedom, we should emphasize that AOU would not tamper with hiring; hiring should of course remain in the domain of the academic unit, as our motto indicates. AOU would clear the current logjam and create more openings, and then it would be up to particular candidates to demonstrate their excellence.
While AOU is an independent enterprise, we expect that university administrators will welcome the turnover of faculty. Cost-conscious provosts will embrace the reduction of salary lines from high-cost, low-yielding professors to starting salary levels. Deans will welcome the infusion of new energy instead of old entropy into departments. At the other end of the spectrum, students will be enthused by more-engaged faculty, with more contemporary popular culture references and the ability to text.
Among colleagues I’ve let in on the ground floor of AOU, there is some debate over whether we should employ independent contractors to conduct retirements or whether we should keep the job in-house. The consensus leans to the latter, which would provide an excellent opportunity for Ph.D. students or unemployed Ph.D.s to serve as “Opportunity Interns” (OIs).
Such an internship would have its own educational value. For one thing, it could give those in the positions a chance to apply the diverse academic skills that they have learned in practical ways -- those from physics could consult on ballistics, those in chemistry could advise about toxicity, and those in English could get coffee. It would be a truly interdisciplinary endeavor, and it would dispel the image of academics as nerds bound to the ivory tower, again building more public respect.
One way to think about it is that AOU would be a rational correction of the academic job market. The market has become distended in an artificial bubble; AOU would help to return the apportionment of faculty to a more natural range. Most scholarship shows that organizations work best if employees represent a breadth of youth and experience rather than clotting in one group, which, like sitting on one side of a rowboat, will swamp the organization. AOU would recover a more normal and productive range and revitalize the professorial ranks.
We welcome both nominations for EAR and applicants for Opportunity Internships.
Jeffrey J. Williams
Jeffrey J. Williams is a professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University. He is finishing two books: one tentatively called Against Obscurity: Essays on Criticism, Culture, and the University, and the other an edited collection of critical credos from minnesota review, which he edited for 18 years.
Submitted by Mary Hoeft on February 24, 2011 - 3:00am
It was 7 a.m. on January 11, 2011. In an hour, I needed to be at a writing workshop. I sat down on the edge of the bed in my hotel room, and turned on the "Today Show." A photo of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords’s left hand appeared on the screen, embraced firmly by the right hand of her husband. Matt Lauer spoke of the brilliant, articulate woman, loved by all who knew her; all, that is, except one deranged young man who gunned her down in front of a Safeway grocery store. The scene then switched to the community college campus from which the shooter had recently been suspended.
The young man's math professor explained that he could see that something was clearly wrong with his student. A series of complaints to administrators resulted in the student's suspension. He would be allowed to return to school if he could demonstrate that he had undergone a psychological evaluation that offered proof that he did not pose a threat to others.
While my eyes remained focused on the television screen, my mind went back three semesters, to a student enrolled in two of my classes, a young man who sat in silence during discussions, black ski cap pulled tightly over his forehead. Whenever I called on him by name, he appeared startled, as though I had brought him back from some faraway place.
Frequently, during class, he would turn to the young woman seated next to him and engage in a conversation. After asking him repeatedly to focus his attention on what I was saying, I finally asked him to switch seats. I made the request three times before he got up and moved. As he slowly walked across the room, I saw on his face what I had seen only one other time in my teaching career: hate.
A few days after that experience, a good friend and I were having lunch in the Student Center. She expressed her concern about a student who made her feel uncomfortable. As she described his behavior, I asked, "Are his initials AC?" (Those are not the student’s real initials.) She nodded in amazement.
A week later, one of my students came to my office, visibly upset. She said, "Why would he write those terrible things about you -- you of all people?" I explained that I had no idea what she was talking about. She handed me a copy of the e-mail that the young man had sent to more than one hundred students on campus. One of the sentences in his letter said, "She needs to be gone." While the sentence was ambiguously phrased, I felt certain that I knew what he had intended to convey: "This professor needs to be gone from the face of the earth."
I went to my dean with a copy of the letter. He listened supportively to what I had to say and then expressed regret that he needed to be away from campus for the next few days. He said that he would turn the matter over to the director of student services. I said, "I fear for my life and the lives of others on campus. I do not believe that this student is mentally sound."
The following morning, the director of student services came to my office. He said that he had just met with my student and that the student had reassured him that I had nothing to fear. Although the director of student services felt reassured, I did not. I believed that this student posed a threat to me and to others.
When the dean returned to campus, he held a meeting with the student and me, warning the student that he had picked on the wrong professor. The dean said that I had the reputation of being "one of the best." My dean and director of student services acted in good faith. Both did what they felt they needed to do to treat both the student and me with the dignity that we deserved. As I left the dean’s office, my fear had not diminished.
I spent the next two months facing my student every day in class, wondering what he might do if he snapped. On days when he got up and walked out midway through class, I envisioned him returning with a gun. When the semester ended, the young man left campus. I haven't seen him since. But I continue to think about him. I continue to wonder where he is and how he is and if he is receiving mental help. For his sake, and for the sake of our community, I hope so.
I looked over at the clock on the nightstand and saw that it was 7:50 a.m. I turned off "Today," which was now showing blizzards on the Eastern Coast, and headed to my writing workshop.
Nine professors from across the state were in attendance. The workshop was led by a colleague from my university; a brilliant, outgoing young professor who, over the years, had become like a daughter to me. During the workshop, I could see that something was bothering her. At our first break, I asked her what was wrong. She said, "I just received a phone call from the director of student services. One of my former students was on campus today, shouting that she was there to kill me." After the student left campus, the director of student services called the police. In his phone call to my colleague, the director reassured her that the incident had passed, that he had talked to the young woman and she had told him that she didn’t own a weapon and wouldn’t be returning to campus.
I called our chief of police and asked whether the young woman who had threatened my colleague’s life had been found. He said that he was unaware of the situation. He referred me to his captain. The captain said that another officer was looking into the matter and that she would call me as soon as she was back at the station. Two hours later, the officer called. She said that she had contacted the young woman and that the student was apologetic. The student had reassured the officer that she had no intention of killing my colleague. Instead, the officer said that the student had come to the campus with a magical umbrella, one that had the power to cause my colleague to age 120 years.
The officer said, "The young woman assured me that she has an appointment with her psychiatrist tomorrow. She’s supposed to call me and let me know how the appointment went."
I asked the officer if it would be possible to get a 72-hour mental health detention and she explained that it wasn’t possible because she hadn’t had the chance to speak to the student while she was on campus. I said, "But another faculty member witnessed her behavior. He said that he felt threatened and certain that the young woman intended violence." The officer said, "I need to make that determination myself."
I continued, "What about a disorderly conduct charge?" The officer said, "I doubt that a judge would support that; not when the individual needs mental help."
By the time I finished speaking to the officer, everyone in the workshop was aware of what was going on. Several were sharing their own frightening stories: one, of a student who had written a threatening poem in blood on the wall outside of her office; another, of a student who had warned her that his psychiatrist said he had the type of personality that could cause him to snap and kill someone. He had come to her office to assure her that, if he did kill someone, it would be her.
All of these stories were told by articulate, intelligent women who had, at some point in their teaching careers, feared for their lives, only to be reassured that they had nothing to fear.
Professors and students do have something to fear. As a French professor, I am keenly aware of the fact that an entire French class was a target of the deranged young man at Virginia Tech. Those who know and love Representative Giffords are all too aware of the fact that a troubled young man destroyed the lives of many.
After having spoken with the officer who investigated my colleague’s case, I am certain what I will do if I ever encounter someone who threatens the lives of others. I will immediately dial 911. Then, I will do whatever my university’s threat assessment action plan tells me to do. Why will I dial 911 first? Because it is better to be safe than sorry. If the officer who investigated the "magical umbrella" case had arrived on campus before the student had left, she might have been able to determine that the student posed a threat to herself or others. The officer may have been able to take the student to a mental health facility where she would have received a thorough psychological evaluation.
My heart goes out to Representative Giffords and to all of the families of those who died or were wounded at the hands of a mentally deranged young man. Pima Community College took action by suspending a troubled student. That action, unfortunately, did not stop him from killing and wounding nineteen people.
Universities must be safe havens. Dialing 911 will be my first act as I attempt to keep students and colleagues out of harm’s way.
Editor's Note: Inside Higher Ed gave the University of Wisconsin-Barron County, where the author of the above essay teaches, the opportunity to offer its analysis on the events described, and that response is the following: "Our primary concern, as UW administrators, is the safety of our faculty, staff, and student body. We wholeheartedly support the recommendation of Professor Hoeft; if students, staff, or faculty believe that their lives or the lives of others are in danger, they should call 911. As the result of incidents such as that outlined by Professor Hoeft, the UW Colleges has implemented formal threat assessment groups on every campus. The role of these groups is to assess and coordinate responses to students whose behavior raises concern for serious health and safety risks to themselves or other members of the campus community. On the UW-Barron County campus, this group has extended its role to include faculty and staff education and to provide increased access for students to mental health counseling services. The campus has also held in-service workshops on various topics including victim advocacy and encourages an ongoing conversation regarding campus safety. The best way educational institutions can protect themselves is to be prepared. We would urge all educational institutions to review and update their emergency procedures."
Mary Hoeft is professor of communication arts and French at the University of Wisconsin-Barron County. She is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Barron County Restorative Justice Program.
Last Friday, I attended a meeting of progressive faculty and also started reading Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad. In raving about the book to friends, I keep calling it Waiting for the Goon Squad by accident, apparently mixing it up with Waiting for Godot and with my identity as a progressive faculty member always waiting for the goon squad to show up -- the goon squad being that vague and shadowy watching cloud that we fear may out us as real people.
The meeting itself wandered into a conversation about our online identities. Someone mentioned the recent case of the provost candidate at Kennesaw State University who was driven away from the job he had accepted by the local paper in Marietta, Georgia — about four hours’ drive northwest from where we were meeting in Statesboro, Georgia. The candidate didn’t out himself as a Marxist on Facebook; he merely cited a source, and the criticism of blacklisting someone based on a cited scholarly source has been well covered elsewhere. But this surveillance of our scholarship quickly and inevitably descended, in our case, into faculty fears that if we let anything slip about ourselves in a public forum in Georgia or elsewhere, someone might see us for who we really are.
In other faculty meetings and professional gatherings, I’ve heard a sort of competitive edge to the fear-driven conversations about what we post and whom we friend online. We have rules: no students; only students who have graduated; maintain two profiles; keep it utterly neutral. Since I began my career in higher education, I’ve learned that faculty members who survive — like other employees in the corporate world and its wannabe stepchildren — are those who embody a poker-faced restraint. This is why I assumed I wouldn’t last long. My poker face is more of a bingo face. And it’s assumed among faculty in general that anything can and will be used against us in a future Horowitz-driven witch hunt or a future round of budget cuts that accidentally happens to target outspoken faculty members.
This larger theme of fear of the cloud ties in nicely with Egan’s book. The "goon squad" in her book could be time itself, or it could be taken to be the cloud of consumer data and its market-driven aims of manipulation. One of the inadvertent heroes of the book — who ends up a superstar by giving in to the cloud — kept himself pure by remaining completely offline. Egan’s super-smart book may be saying that this idle hope is not the way to safety, or she may be saying something else. Her version of electronic communication is sales- and surveillance-oriented, and she’s got fantastic points.
But my version of the cloud also includes the strange and meandering civic functions the cloud provides. People do still occasionally hook up with political causes and learn about social issues through the Internet. And there are people like me — untenured and naked — who occasionally nevertheless post something about their political thoughts or personal experiences online.
In my own case, I have to admit this is driven by the contrarian streak that made me a memoirist. I like telling things that other people seem to feel are embarrassing. I don’t like secrets — they make me edgy; they make me clench my teeth and get depressed. And most of what I believe and have done is already out there in paper form, so I’m done for no matter what goon squad shows up.
I have never eaten a baby or knocked down an elderly person, but I have several things in my life that are bothersome and that I will not write about. Being "open" does not equate to having no discretion, shame, or concern for other people. I have pretty much the same filter wherever I go, and I like to believe that my online person roughly matches what I would say to you face to face. That’s my goal: to make the two identities match up.
Even on Facebook, I friend lots of people. I post links to articles that interest me. This doesn’t mean that I live a particularly fascinating or racy life, or that I post pictures of myself drinking with my students. That’s an image of someone who doesn’t care about their position as an adult working with young people.
Anyway, I don’t have those pictures to post. And I want to be a good role model. Often, I fail — just like every other adult. But I think being "out there" online is part of being a good role model. I want to suggest an alternative to the cautionary, circumspect, and reactive common faculty response to our own personalities. What if being ourselves online is part of our civic responsibility?
In other words, if we only put the neutral stuff online, our students see us as people who are interested in coffee, walks in the park, and the occasional splurge at a bookstore, and nothing else. Maybe we let slip what music we like, as long as it's not the Dead Kennedys or Ani DiFranco. In that version of our online selves, the "goon squad" of Egan's novel wins. The orientation toward private and consumer concerns is what is left when we strip away anything that might be used against us down the road. Either students see us as cowed and impersonal, or they can’t find us at all online, and they lose an opportunity to see what it’s like to live an adult life as one particular person who happens to care about civic issues.
There are two responses to the fear of online surveillance. One is to manage your data so carefully that when they come for the Marx-reading or Marx-citing, they can’t find you.
And then when they come for the Friere-citing, you’re nowhere to be found. The other response is for everyone to say, "I’m Spartacus," to "like" Spartacus on Facebook if you like him in real life, and to push back against the tactic of combing someone’s online identity to search for the objectionable material by being a bit more human online. If we try to compete against each other in a race to the bottom, the winners are those that succeed in being completely impersonal and private and apolitical, focusing on their own private square of safety (with a window) as the world goes to hell.
As wild as your personal beliefs are, we really only have one public sphere, and the Internet is part of it. Engaging in public conversation does mean ultimately that you will be searchable, and that’s important, because public conversations always involve risk, but these small risks are what change the world and what support other people to take larger risks and be themselves.
As Mother’s Day approaches, I find myself feeling thankful for the many gifts I have as a working mother in academe: two healthy daughters who teach me lessons in patience and learning on a daily basis; a wonderful partner who supports my career and takes on his share of responsibilities; and a highly coveted tenure-track job at a prestigious liberal arts institution.
You could say that I am living the dream that my own mother had for me. While I was growing up in the 1970s, she told me that, with hard work and perseverance, I could be or do anything that I wanted. As we know, this was not true for her generation of young women; they were expected to marry young, stay home, or work a traditionally “female” job, if the family needed the extra money. Employers did not offer flex time, nursing rooms or telecommuting to help women succeed as working mothers. But women then could see what would make work environments better places for women, and by extension for their families, and after decades of demands, laws passed and workplaces changed.
So, here I am -- my generation’s version of a “supermom,” complete with an employer that offers a family-friendly support structure. My academic department mentors me and works around the hours I need to be home with my family. The provost hosts dinners where families are invited and child care is provided. My tenure clock was stopped for one year when my daughter was born, and the college has an arrangement with affordable day care close to campus.
Still, throughout higher education a gender gap persists, and like the generation before me, I can see a vision for an even better work environment for all parents. As most working mothers will tell you, when we look beyond the appearance of the so-called “supermom,” there are some serious doubts about how far the feminist movement actually went. I am acutely aware that every minute I spend researching and writing is a minute away from my young children. On the other hand, I fret that every faculty and committee meeting I miss because my kids are sick is an invisible strike on my tenure packet. I dash from meeting to teaching to grading to home. And I often ask myself: Is all of this scurrying worth it? What will I tell my own daughters when I talk to them about their professional options? Can they have it all working in higher education?
I contend that the answer is yes, but only if several changes take place.
1. Eliminate the university system’s glass ceiling: Though at least 50 percent of Ph.D. recipients in the United States are female, fewer women than men are employed in the top of the academic hierarchy. A 2008 report by the American Council of Education stated that only 37 percent of chief academic officers are female.
Women are also paid less and are less likely to gain tenure. AAUP Director of Research and Public Policy John Curtis reports in his article, “Persistent Inequity: Gender and Academic Employment,” that, “After four decades of efforts to fully involve women in the academic workforce, only 42% of all full-time faculty are women.” Fifty-five percent of all part-time faculty are female; fewer full-time women faculty have tenure (34.6 percent) than men (48.6 percent). What’s more, only 28 percent of full professors are female. As these women age, they will live on less and have fewer health care options than the male students with whom they studied in graduate school.
If a woman wants to have children, things will get even harder. A study that looked at a National Science Foundation survey of doctoral recipients found that women with children were 38 percent less likely than men to achieve tenure. At the same time, women with children are the majority in non-tenure-track and part-time positions, perhaps because women think the demands of raising young children preclude full-time employment. It is hardly surprising that female professors are less likely to have children than are male professors.
The reasons for these outcomes are many and complex. To understand the factors and to get at a real solution, we need to start a real and sustained conversation about discrimination, diversity and gender stereotypes in the profession. We must confront what is wrong and develop new industry guidelines for judging and tracking performance.
The benefactors of an equitable and flexible promotion system will be not only future female professors, but also future students and faculty of both genders. All will enjoy a more engaging and dynamic environment of higher learning, because the best minds — men and women alike — will have equal access to tenure and promotion.
2. Develop better family-leave policies as the standard in higher education. Whether a faculty member gives birth or adopts a child, it is a joyous but hectic occasion. It is only natural and humane for family life to come first. Yet family-leave policies vary widely among institutions of higher learning, and recent research notes that when leave policies do exist, they are often under-used. This is partly because policies can be confusing and women fear being “mommy-tracked.”
The Committee on the Status of Women in Political Science argues that parental leave should mirror any and all benefits given to people facing illness and injury and that “[t]here should be little disagreement about this leave being paid leave.” These policies would be available to both mothers and fathers, though women would perhaps benefit more as research shows that women on average bear a greater share of child rearing and household responsibilities.
In addition to extending the tenure clock, many institutions, reduce teaching loads and give a professor additional, or “modified” administrative duties such as extra student advising or conference planning, the semester after giving birth. But this particular policy — i.e., reduced teaching expectations and added service requirements — is not always effective. Anecdotal sources suggest that these policies might exist to prevent allegations that women are getting special treatment. What is less understood is that these duties can be burdensome and overwhelming during a period that is already exhausting and stressful. If they are absolutely needed, policies on modified duties need to be flexible, equitable and understood by senior administrators, as well as by deans, department chairs and faculty members to avoid mixed signals. If we want women to succeed in this profession, it is essential to continuously examine and re-examine these policies.
3. Offer on-site accessible and affordable child care. Few studies exist about child care availability to the professoriate. A 2008 report by the Collaborative on Academic Careers in Higher Education states that after visiting six top universities, “One looming issue on all campuses we visited was child care — the lack of affordable, quality, on-campus child care. Many want it; few have it.” In addition, day care centers that are university supported may have long wait lists and are, therefore, not universally available to all faculty members at the institution.
I think this partly explains why many women decide to take lower-paying, more-flexible jobs in the short term. What we fail to recognize is that, in the long term, women will probably not make up those lost years in publishing and scholarship. Colleges and universities must ensure that all professors and staff in higher education know that their children are in good hands while they are working. To attract and maintain the top professors, universities must commit even more funds to high-quality and affordable day care on site.
As Mother’s Day approaches, working mothers are thankful for the progress that previous generations have made on our behalf. But we must challenge the status quo and address the gender gap in higher education. We owe it to the next generation of families.
Stephanie McNulty is assistant professor of government at Franklin & Marshall College and author of Voice and Vote: Decentralization and Participation in Post-Fujimori Peru, forthcoming from Stanford University Press.
This month the University of Texas System released 821 pages of “productivity” data for all faculty members and graduate assistants employed at the nine academic campuses that make up the UT System. As an adjunct lecturer for UT- Arlington, I am listed, along with my dear friends and colleagues in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, on pages 91 through 93. We are sorted alphabetically, our names stacked one atop the other much like our mailboxes in the departmental office, and beside each is information about teaching loads, external research funding, cumulative grade-point averages, and compensation received in the form of salaries and benefits.
In public conversations, those taking place in print and online media, it is the report itself, rather than its content, that is at the center of the controversy. Publication of detailed information about the professional activities of those employed in postsecondary education has reignited long-running debates about the often conflicting ideals of individual privacy and institutional transparency, the relative values of teaching and research, and the meaning of and purpose of academic freedom.
As these are presented in op-ed pieces and blogs, there is the sense that while academics’ opinions on the issues are complex and numerous, that the positions from which they may be formulated are simple and number only two: tenured or tenure-track professor. Further, much of the discussion has centered on the reactions at the flagship campus at Austin and how this type of public reporting will affect that institution’s ability to recruit and retain “superstar” professors. At both the national and local levels, the focus has been on the Austin campus and little attention has been given to those employed by the other eight campuses. Those of us who are outside of Austin and the tenure system find ourselves outside of the conversation, our concerns not represented. The result is that the discussions taking place publicly are incomplete.
On university campuses in North Texas there are two very different takes on what publication of salary data means. Those who are tenured or tenure-track are worried about the reactions of the general public. And with good reason. Those outside academe often have little appreciation for the economic, social and cultural contributions postsecondary educators make to the state and lack understanding of the research and publication processes. Though most professors earn only modest salaries, and only a few's could be described as handsome, many still fear that the public’s perception will be that they are receiving more than they are worth. In a time of state budget shortfalls and widespread economic uncertainty, those whose work is often invisible and so misunderstood, make for easy targets.
Adjuncts and other contingent instructors are uneasy for another set of reasons. Not even the most creative political commentator could accuse us of greed. Our wages are not only shamefully low relative to those of our colleagues, but also in comparison to the workforce as a whole. And so for us, the publication of salary data has a very different meaning. It turns what is ordinarily a private embarrassment into a public one. It is insult added to injury. Still, this is not our biggest concern. Our real worry is how this information may further erode students' perceptions of our worth.
Attitudes about the relative value of those within and those outside of the tenure system are an often-unacknowledged aspect of the university culture. These attitudes are communicated in subtle but powerful ways and students pick up on them. Students see that the names of some instructors are listed in directories and department websites and others are not. They take note of the fact that those who are not listed are the same ones who are also crammed like cordwood in shared offices that often lack basic equipment. Through these and other small indicators, students come to understand that adjuncts are not valued, that we are expendable, that we are — as we are designated in the report— "other."
When students internalize these messages — and it is inevitable that they will — they lose respect not only for the individual adjuncts, but also for what we do. The classes we teach, the information we deliver and the assignments we give are deemed less important and less valuable.
I know that I am not supposed to complain. Regularly, I am reminded that I am fortunate to have a job in academia. And twice a year, when classes are assigned and I find myself again having somehow managed to make the cut, I am thankful: I will have another semester of getting to do what I love in the place I have grown attached to. But then come the calculations: after withholdings, and the expenses I incur — gas, parking, dry cleaning, toner cartridges — how much is left? Each semester it is a bit less, even as I am asked to do a bit more — submit more progress reports, assign more written work, be more available to students, teach larger sections.
Like most Americans, I am finding ways to do more with less. What I cannot afford to do without is the respect and confidence of my students. I worry about the conclusions they may draw if they learn what I am paid: $2,500 per course. Put differently: that’s $12,500 for five courses a year, when a 3-2 courseload would be considered full-time at many institutions. It’s there, in black and white for anyone with the time and inclination to sift through the data and work the math. What the figure doesn’t show is the number of hours I spend preparing for those classes — reading, planning lectures, updating statistics, reviewing notes, tweaking and grading assignments. It doesn’t show the commitment I have to my discipline, those with whom I share it, and the university in whose name I do it.
My position is not secure. I have not yet signed my contract for next semester and I will admit to being a bit nervous as I write this. Still, I believe that the issues raised by the publication of the data are important and that if we are to address them, we must all be allowed and willing to participate in the conversation.
Harvest Moon is an adjunct in sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington.