Saturday, October 28, 2006

Question: Do I Really Work?

Well, it's the weekend, and I thought this would be a good opportunity to talk about leisure. Whenever people get to know me, and they start to get it that I really am an academic, then the comments start. They fall into two categories: one is the Romance of Teaching, and the other is that most of my life is consumed by a search for ways to fill my time, since I don't really work.

The Romance of Teaching will hold for another day. Let's tackle the question of work.

It is true that what people most envy about my life (and my partner N, since she is a college teacher too) is time off. There are 10-12 weeks in the summer that we have off; the mid-semester break, the winter break (about 4 weeks, depending on how you count it), and my favorite, Spring Break, which at my school is two weeks long, because it takes the baseball team that long to play its southern travel schedule. At some schools, there is a mini-semester during winter break, when a faculty member doesn't always have to teach, but sometimes does. Thank god we do not have that at my Olde Neue Englande College. Oh yes, then I also forgot that we don't go to school every day, most of us, and we don't have to be there at a certain time, and we don't have to stay until a certain time unless there is something specific we have to do. And then there is sabbatical, which for me happens about every three -four years, when I get a year off to work on whatever book I happen to be writing.

This is one true thing (as Hemingway would say) about the conditions of my labor. Now the other part is that if you are REALLY doing your job, you spend a lot of time working at home. A lot. There are lectures to write, journals to read and a field to keep up with, seminars to strategize, books to review, and my least favorite, papers to grade. Then, aside from duties to students, there are meetings to go to: faculty meetings, committee meetings, hiring meetings, tenure meetings, meetings in office hours, curriculum meetings, department meetings, major recruitment meetings, senior honors work meetings, blah, blah, blah. And then, some of those meetings you really have to prepare for: write memos, strategize presentations, read scholarship.

Then there is your own scholarship, which may or may not be a compulsion, but it is true that the only way to get ahead in this world is to publish scholarly articles, for which we are paid nothing (actually nothing! my accountant hates this) -- often for two years of steady labor on a forty page piece -- or to publish books, for which most of us are paid very little. Some people, it is rumored, have to actually kick in money to a press to get their book published. This latter category of people is growing: it used to be only Romanian medieval literary scholars, and now that category has enlarged to include, say, historians of Victorian Britain, which is actually a topic with some audience. So the reason you write is not to make money, but a) out of genuine love for writing and scholarship; b) to get promoted at your own job, or get a raise at the end of the year; c) to get a more prestigious job; and d) all of the above.

So here's the PROBLEM with the idea that college teachers have so much freedom -- that there is no clear beginning and end to your work except that which is dictated by your work ethic, your sense of responsibility, your level of anxiety and your sense of personal ambition. Hence, while some of us work not at all (because, of course, if you have tenure, you can f**k off endlessly and no one ever does anything to make you be responsible to your sudents or your colleagues), most of us consider that a pathetic way to live. And then often your work is unpredictable: a class that you have taught a million times before suddenly explodes into political struggle; a student goes into meltdown or plagiarizes a paper and you find yourself meeting with deans twice a day for a week; a tenure case goes sour, and all of a sudden you are trying to save someone's entire career.

And we have no real freedom, most of us, to get decent raises either by working hard at our own institutions or by getting another job: the academic market is one of the least competitive there is. In return for working all the time, very few of us make what is considered, in the world of ambitious and/or educated people, a good salary. At my instituion, the average raise last year was about 3%, and there are no bonuses. I haven't hit 100K yet, and I have 11 years of formal education and sixteen years on The Job. I recently read in the student newspaper that our highest paid faculty member makes 235K, and she's almost 70, I bet, and has probably raised over $100 milliion for the university. In other professions -- medicine, say, even with managed care, this is chump change for a well-educated person who has done a lot to improve the position of the company as a whole. And then, here's the kicker: the combination of tenure and the fact that education is massively underfunded means that there is such a huge reserve army of labor for the number of jobs available, that probably 89% of us feel lucky to have a job at all doing what we are trained to do, and not swotting up for the LSATs. If you aren't in a field where there is public sector employment (any of the sciences, economics, sociology, psychology) you are truly, utterly screwed in terms of job mobility, and thus, ever putting your university in a position to have to compete for your services. The irony of college teaching is the farther up the scale you go, the fewer jobs are available -- since why would you hire an English prof at the level of full professor when you can get a new Ph.D. for half the price? You wouldn't. And they don't.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Teaching Evaluations (Written After An Unpleasant Meeting)

One of the peculiar features of college teaching now is the teaching evaluation. At the end of the semester, students get a chance to rate various aspects of the class, and at my school there are spaces for them to write more subjective comments (anything from real comments on the teaching to "great boots!"). I would like to note that the majority of students take this activity seriously as a contibution to the teaching endeavor, maybe even more seriously than they should. For a time I worked in an urban public college where the students routinely refused to fill out the evaluations because they were sure no one cared. At my school, the students often come from places where they were SURE that everything they said mattered, so they knuckle down to the task and take it very seriously. Like their SAT's.

That having been said, everyone who doesn't have his or her head in a bag knows that:

a) students collaborate. Thus you see the same phrases and ideas pop up in fifteen or twenty evaluations, because the students have all agreed ahead of time to write the same thing. They do this for people they like and people they dislike.

b) students project their own feelings about the professor on the professor; i.e., accusing the prof of having developed a personal grudge that caused the student to have a crappy experience, get a bad grade, acquire low self-esteem. I also think this is a way of students who don't feel they got enough attention developing a relationship (i.e, You Hate Me) that they couldn't figure out how to have after the fact.

c) you can sometimes teach really badly and get great evaluations. The reverse is also true. People who get great evaluations will not admit this. People who get terrible evaluations insist on it.

The latest pain is a website called, where students can log on and write really nasty things that the other students can see: other students don't see the university's evaluations. So this is advertised as a way of spreading useful information that students need. Ok, go look at your colleagues' evaluations and roar with laughter over one of your enemies being described as "senile," "doddering," "shouldn't be in the classroom." Of course this is based on nine students when the guy taught 100 or so last year. But whatever, it's a hoot, right? Then look at your own. Sure, you'll recognize a couple as being the person you recognize having taught that class. But mainly, students have to go so out of their way to evaluate you on a website. Often it is only the ones who really hate your guts who bother to post, or students who are out of control angry in general, or working for David Horowitz. Hell, for all you know, it's your own colleagues, And the students, at least, probably do it when they are stoned. The good news is that you can ask the people who run the website that a posting be reviewed if it is "erronious" or "libelous." My guess is "libelous" is the word most likely to succeed in a permanent take-down, but I won't know for sure for few days.

Of course, if you are a full professor, as I am, with tenure, as I have, students can evaluate you, but you know what? No one, I mean no one, gives a damn.

This is either something to look forward to or a reason to relax and get your sense of humor back, depending on how you are positioned.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

(Yet Another) Academic Blogger

I have a lot of doubts about blogging, but I think that it is about time that there was a space out there for academics to rap with each other about what we think the university ought to be used for and what we are doing in it.

For those of you who aren't academics -- this is called Tenured Radical because long ago, when the new right decided to undermine the intellectual foundations of the nation, one of the big charges made by radical neocons was that universities were full of "tenured radicals" who were indoctrinating the youth of America. The not so big secret, of course, is that universities and their faculties are far from radical, and that tenure is one of the features of university life that makes academics cautious at best, conservative at least. We need to change that.

Those of you who aren't academics will also want to know what tenure is: well, let's save that for a later post, as I am just setting this blog up. But in short it means -- after going through a terrible process, where everyone judges you, at the end of it, if you succeed, you have a job for life. For life. Really. Even the United Auto Workers can't give anyone that anymore. Unless they close the whole damn school (which has happened) or a president is willing to take a sanction from the professional body (which has happened) you have a job for your whole damn life.

Now you would think that would make people happy, wouldn't you? Or at least cause them to want to have some influence. But if you keep reading this blog, you will get some insight into the mysteries of the system, and what kind of people folks turn into if they don't keep ironic distance.

That's why I'm blogging. Ironic distance. That's why you should comment, ask questions, get the discussion rocking. Because frankly, boys and girls, being an academic isn't as much fun as it used to be, and I think we need to do something to change that.