I dunno, I don’t think they hate me…

“Why Do They Hate Us?” is a commentary in the most recent Chronicle of Higher Education by Thomas “not his real name” Benton where he laments the sorry state of “anger about professors.”  This piece gives me pause right out of the gate when he begins recapping a series of not so hypothetical unpleasant conversations he’s had over the years.  Among the “unpleasantness” he raises:

  • “What you teach is worthless—I mean, who needs more measurements of Walt Whitman’s beard when the economy and the environment are collapsing?”
  • “Why don’t you English profs just teach people how to write?”

I have to say as someone who teaches writing and not literature in an English department, I don’t think these hypothetical jabs are as inaccurate as Benton implies.

  • “I wish I had tenure and didn’t have to worry about being fired for not doing my job.”

Hardly a new argument, of course, one that misses the point of tenure, and one that seems to also forget that lots of employees– those in unions, those who work for the government– are notoriously hard to fire.  So when this comes up in polite conversation– which it does with my family once in a while– I shrug my shoulders, put up a sort of weak fight intended to educate the complainer that it is isn’t about job security but about academic freedom, and I agree that the system is problematic.  But on the inside, I also agree with Alex Reid when he wrote this about people who say things like “I wish I had tenure and didn’t have to worry about my job” sorts of comments:

“Well, maybe that’s why you don’t have tenure. To get to tenure, a person has to exhaust a tremendous amount of labor. Seven years of graduate school (on average), working as a TA or adjunct, borrowing a lot of money all for the chance to just compete for a tenure-track job. Most people wouldn’t take that risk (probably because they are sane or something). Then one has to negotiate the job market and tenure process. Really you can only get to tenure if you have a tremendous amount of intrinsic motivation for doing the work required.”

  • “My job [pharmaceutical sales] saves lives; your so-called work is a waste of other people’s time and money.”

Pharmaceutical sales?!  Anyone who would actually say that just deserves a punch in the mouth.

Benton then trots out a pretty long and old list of books proclaiming the death of the academic culture (including, for example, Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, published a lifetime ago in 1987) and then goes into a pretty typical laundry list of what’s wrong with America as the cause for why “they” “hate” “us.”

I’m not going to go through all of Benton’s reasons for why he feels hated because none of them are remotely new.  Instead, I thought I’d create my own little list as to why I don’t feel like I’m hated.

I’ve clung firmly to the stance that at the end of the day, what I do here is a job. It’s a good job and it’s a job that takes a lot of experience and training, but at the end of the day, it’s a job not unlike many other jobs that take experience and professional training– doctors, lawyers, engineers, accountants, CEOs, small business owners, etc., not to mention a lot of jobs that might not require as much schooling but that require a level of skill and experience I don’t possess– mechanics, carpenters, welders, farmers, etc.  I mean, I am enough of an elitist to acknowledge that being a college professor isn’t work that can be done by “just anyone,” but academics too often think it’s something much MUCH more than it is.  And again and again, I think that the saddest academics are the ones who somehow thought that becoming a professor was like being crowned prince of the kingdom.

I’m pretty ignorant about most other jobs, too. I agree that it is frustrating to read again and again AND AGAIN that professors are pampered because they can’t get fired, they work six hours a week, they’re drunk before noon, etc., etc.  At the same time, I don’t really know what my allergist does either.  As far as I can tell (based on my once a year or so 20 minute visits where he listens to my breathing, asks me how my shots are going, and where we bullshit about local news and events), he doesn’t do much of anything.  A monkey could go around and see patients like this.  What’s he doing to earn all that money?

Obviously, I know I don’t know what I’m talking about here.  Heck, for all I know there’s a blogger written by an allergist complaining about how stupid people are about the work he does, and I do think my allergist knows his stuff reasonably well.  The point is this:  given that I don’t really know what a lot of professionals really do, why should I be surprised that they don’t know what i do?

I think it’s okay that students go to college for many reasons, including getting a job and/or becoming a professional. I think that when people like Benton write this– “A generation ago, we could still defend the belief that our courses in literature, art, history, philosophy—the liberal arts, broadly defined, and always self-critical—were enriching in ways that could not be deposited in a bank or measured by outcomes assessment”– they’re assuming that at one point going to college was purely an intellectual curiosity, the study of the liberal arts just for the sake of the liberal arts.  That’s silly.  Higher education in North America for the last 300 years (and before that in Europe, of course) has always had some occupational component to it.   Becoming “self-critical” and a “better” and “enriched” person was and continues to be the mission, but to suggest that was ever the only reason for higher education is just wrong.

I value my teaching and my colleagues, and I do only the scholarship I want to do. Maybe another way of putting this:  not all jobs in higher education have been created equal by any stretch of the imagination, and at EMU, a lot of the traditional and fairly wide-spread problems of work in higher education just aren’t here.  There is “solidarity” of a sort among faculty through the faculty union, and the requirements for tenure and promotion and tenure are modest enough here that we get to do things that we want to do and not that we feel like we have to do.  Though I will admit this isn’t true everywhere.

I am lucky enough to live in a college town where being a professor isn’t a weird job. I’m lucky enough to live in a county where there are literally 75,000 or more college students and a stone’s throw away from Ann “college town central” Arbor.  I have to admit it’s a lot easier to be a college professor when you’re surrounded by a lot of other college professors.

So, like I said.  I don’t feel too hated.  And I don’t feel too sorry for myself either.

4 thoughts on “I dunno, I don’t think they hate me…”

  1. Well said–I agree wholeheartedly. A lot of these overly rehearsed complaints overlook the amount of joy that comes from teaching, writing, and enjoying the usually social, laid-back space of the college campus. Like everybody else, I’ve had the “what do you if you only teach a few hours a week?” conversations, but I’ve never felt hated. If and when someone busts out with the “jeez, must be nice” line of rhetoric, I’ve always just said something like “yes, it’s rewarding work, you should look into graduate school if you think you might be interested.” Not in a flippant way–just a subtle reminder about the time, work, and sustained focus that’s required to attain my drunk-before-Noon lifestyle. Seriously, I’m with you–I don’t think people hate me.

  2. This is the first entreaty by a professor that I have encountered that bothers to mention academic freedom in conjunction with tenure and even then your defense is timid. As you know, and can probably elaborate on more eloquently than I, tenure is the pillar of academic freedom and it exists to protect academics from persecution. In a sense that protects job security, but the job security that is had by tenured professors is not an extension of tenure but a benefit won by unions. The job security that is had from tenure and the job security that is had from being a member of a union are two separate issues.

    I would like to think that those who oppose collective bargaining are merely confused over the semantics of tenure, which could be cleared up by a more vocal professoriate. However, I suspect that a lot of the job security bashing is really a covert way of attacking academic freedom.

    I think nerves in our industrial-service economy are wearing thin. The regimented schedules that most workers in the USA face daily net little financial reward, less personal satisfaction, and no prestige. People seem to turn on one another rather quickly when they feel that they are being cheated. After 30 years of wage stagnation, just point to someone that seemingly has a chushy job that is difficult to quantify in terms of dollars and productivity and then watch the jealous rage boil over.

    One last point, higher education in Hellenic times was about training politicians and generals, both of which are jobs, good jobs. So really, education has always been occupational training. Albeit, the best educations are those that flexible in how they can be applied and teach skills that can be practiced broadly in many arenas.

  3. All good points, Kevin. Tenure and unions are an interesting mix since at EMU, what (perhaps?) matters more than tenure is the role of the union in terms of not only job security but also a way to “cure” problems. The union provides a mechanism to complain about working conditions in a variety of ways that doesn’t exist at a lot of places and that is not really a part of tenure, too.

    If I had to pick one or the other, I’d probably pick the union. But with some regrets, I will admit.

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