Post from sabbatical-land 126 days to go: dodging the administrator bullet & those lazy professors

I say “126 days to go” based on my self-declared date of September 1 as the end of my sabbatical, but this isn’t entirely true. Technically, my sabbatical was only for the winter (what everyone else calls spring) term, and since today is the last day of finals for this term at EMU, I suppose you could say that today is the end of my sabbatical.

Anyway, on the “dodging the administrator bullet” part of things: I applied for an administrative position here at EMU, as the Director of the Faculty Development Center, and it’s been quite a trip over the last couple of weeks.  I first mentioned the possibility of this here earlier in March and over at EMUTalk when I talked about closing down that site. I’m still going to be phasing EMUTalk out because it’s too much of a time-suck and it’s too much me (and that’s what this blog is for), but this is what I had in mind when I said “I might apply for an administrator job.”

Most of this is a matter of public record (which is why I’m comfortable about blogging about this at all), but needless to say, I’m not going into too much detail about the actual search process. Let’s just say I found myself as a finalist, I thought the interview process went well, the powers that be hired Peggy Liggit (who was the interim director), and I couldn’t be more relieved.

Part of my relief has to do with the job itself– I’ll skip the details of what I mean on that point. But most of my relief has to do with what I guess I’d describe as a realization that becoming an administrator would be a bad idea for me. It was sort of a mini midlife crisis. I first applied for the position because I thought I was qualified (and the fact that I was a finalist for the job suggests that I was qualified), I thought it might be interesting, and I liked the idea of the pay raise. But as the process went on, the more I saw the negatives of giving up my freedom, the ability to work at home (or coffee shops or wherever) while wearing jeans and t-shirt, the flexibility of not having to be in an office 40 hours a week, my summers. I started to realize I was going to end up doing a whole lot less scholarship and probably no teaching and instead I was going to go to a lot of meetings. Maybe I would have felt differently if I wasn’t sabbaticalling right now and if I had been waist-deep in grading and the like. In any event, about a month after I had first applied and while the interviews were happening, I started regretting applying at all. I mean like really really regretting it.

But like I said, in the end it wasn’t to be me, I couldn’t be happier, and I’m (almost completely) sure I won’t be doing that again. Of course, I probably would have never reached that realization had I not actually applied for the job in the first place.

Anyway (and I’m not sure this is completely connected), I was thinking about my realization that it would be foolish for me to give up what I’ve got– even for a lot more money– and a couple of these laws that have been floated lately to make professors “work more” and/or to vote them out of a job. There was the “8 courses a year” proposal in North Carolina by state senator Tom McInnis — here’s a CHE article about it— which would basically mandate a 4-4 load for every professor in the state schools, including the research universities. Then there’s the proposal from State Senator Mark Chelgren in the Iowa state congress where faculty would be evaluated solely on student evaluations– a professor not meeting some threshold of performance on these evaluations would be fired– and where the five professors who scored above this minimal threshold but the lowest would be fired. CHE has an interview with this winner of a politician here.

Of course, both of these plans are bad, though I have to say that the angry backlash reported in that CHE article about the “8 courses a year” proposal is perhaps a little over the top. Sure, if you’re teaching at an R1 and are expected “book plus” and/or lots of grant writing and the like for tenure and even more for promotion, a 4-4 load is a lot. We technically teach a 4-4 load here at EMU and there are some departments where faculty do teach four courses every semester. But because of a series of what are called “course equivalencies,” most faculty teach something closer to a 3-3 load (that’s what we teach in my department), and there is course release/reassigned time for doing quasi-administrative work and the like. But the point I am trying to make here is that lots of faculty at lots of “less than” R1 institutions teach eight courses a year or more.

And the “vote them off the island” plan from Chelgren is based on an actual problem: it is pretty much impossible to get rid of bad professors who are tenured, especially over something like bad teaching. Don’t get me wrong: the vast vast majority of professors are good at what they do in large part because it takes a lot to get these positions. But every department has a few bad apples– old, tenured, dried-up apples– and it doesn’t really matter how terrible the student evaluations are. So as ill-informed as Chelgren is, I kind of see where he’s coming from.

Both of these proposals are also variations on the “lazy professor who gets his summers off” view of academia.  This is a view that is of course inaccurate and it tends to be held by not very educated people and also by people who are kind of envious of the lifestyle. What I mean is sure, I work a lot, but I also enjoy the freedom to do the work I want to do and I can do that work mostly wherever I want. So I guess one of the big reasons why I’m not leaving my faculty job for administrative work anytime soon is so I can continue to tick off people like McInnis and Chelgren.

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