Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Professor-The Last Good Job in America?

"Our Dear Leader" at my university gave a special talk this week.  Faculty received so many notices and reminders about it that many of us thought he was going to have some major announcement, akin to the recent bomb dropped at SUNY Albany on the languages (except Spanish), classics, and theater.

It was scheduled to be 90 minutes. I arrived for the last 30 minutes.  But it had already ended, and everyone still milling around had suits on and nice buttons with the university seal in their lapels--in other words, administrators.  Faculty had bolted.  I took that as a very good sign, and I was right. Turns out nothing new at all was said.  Thank goodness!

But I still feel embattled as a professor, with a job that could just disappear "poof" into thin air.  Ironic, given that many think tenured professor is the last secure job around.  A personal finance magazine came to my area to have a workshop on the new economy, and one of the financial experts quipped, "Well, if you're a tenured professor up at [my university] you have job security, but the rest of us...."

Ha ha, very funny.  I just don't believe in job security through tenure anymore.  And when a professor loses his or her job, they must move to a new job in a new city/state (if they can find a new job).  I do not want to move--I dread that more than losing my job.  I can envision not being a professor, but I cannot envision moving from this area.

Inside Higher Ed has an interesting interview with Ellen Schrecker (author of The Lost Soul of Higher Education) out today.  Schrecker notes: "Professors are getting a bad rap these days.... After all, a full-time tenured position in a college or university is, as many observers have noted, the last good job in America. No wonder, therefore, that ordinary citizens, who currently face so much economic uncertainty, resent the security and autonomy that tenured professors enjoy."  She notes that many of the people teaching in higher ed are instructors or even lecturers stringing together 5 classes at 3 different area colleges.  Also noted is the importance of academic freedom!

Refreshingly, she argues that tenure "attracts talented people into the academy and protects its quality. The security that tenure provides makes up for the economic disadvantages of the academic profession, whose members, faculty stars excepted, rarely make as much money as other similarly educated professionals. At the same time, the rigorous process through which they are hired and achieve tenure ensures that the men and women who staff the nation’s faculties are competent, experienced individuals who deserve a lot more respect than they have been getting these days."

Exactly!  THANK you!  As I wrote in an earlier post, in my discipline, failure in academia can be rather lucrative--as the other options available to us pay better.  And about the respect that we deserve--Stanley Fish in NYT calls upon us to refuse "to allow myths (about lazy, pampered faculty who work two hours a week and undermine religion and the American way) to go unchallenged."

First, I insist that the "American way" fundamentally involves questioning authority--an impulse upon which the country was founded.  Universities with academic freedom through the tenure system help keep it that way.  What could be more patriotic!

Second, I work way too much.  I was at a campus meeting for "mid-career" faculty.  Most of us there were yearning for a better "work-life balance."  Lazy?  Pampered? We are own most demanding taskmasters.  As one faculty stated, "we choose the stick with which we beat ourselves."  A politician here has been calling for faculty to teach 5 classes a semester!  Teaching more would force me to be a worse teacher or give up research--and I hate both ideas.

So in response to Stanley Fish's call to action, maybe we all need to start tracking systematically how we spend our time.  That politician might be surprised to find out that I wake up at 6AM to write or prep for class.  And I do the same 9:45-11pm.  And in between those hours, I teach, go to meetings, respond to endless work-related emails, and stress out about university budget cuts.

But I'm not sure I have the time to systematically track my time....

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