The Happy Academic wants to ask Horowitz: how can I get in on that easy life?

I think a lot of folks have stumbled across my blog lately as the result of a “Ward Churchill Blog” Google search because I had a few posts earlier this month about that mess. Fair enough. I still don’t think Churchill ought to be fired over his infamous 9/11 essay, but the more I learn about him, the less crazy I am about “defending” Churchill. It’s like that bad feeling you get about defending the Klu Klux Klan’s right to march or Eminem to be Eminem: it seems to me that if you want to protect free speech, you’ve got to defend bad speech, too. This seems especially true in academia.

Anyway, that’s not really why I decided to write tonight. At least not entirely.

Churchill is still in the news in some interesting ways, including a deal where CU would offer him early retirement, and all this stuff about whether or not he is or isn’t Native American. But the piece that really caught my attention was the article “Faculty feels ‘beaten up'” in the Boulder, CO newspaper The Daily Camera (which, by the way, has one of the most annoying free registration procedures I’ve ever come across).

Basically, the article is about how the Churchill matter has been an enormous distraction for faculty at the University of Colorado, dragging folks into the mess who want nothing to do with this and to just get on with their teaching and scholarship and lives. And this is coming on top of budget problems, some other questionable administration decisions, and a bunch of controversy with the football team. I feel your pain, CU folk.

And just to add to it all, CU faculty had to deal with a “special speaker” earlier this month:

Nationally known conservative author David Horowitz told a crowd at CU that university professors work six to nine hours a week, eight months a year for $150,000. Horowitz’s comments came earlier this month, after Churchill’s essay comparing victims of the 2001 terrorist attacks to a Nazi bureaucrat ignited a political firestorm.

Wow.

Well, I am indeed a Happy Academic, but I’m not that happy of an academic. Shockingly, I make considerably less than $150,000 a year, and I spend more than six to nine hours a week just answering emails from students, colleagues, and administrators. I’m only in the classroom teaching about nine hours a week, but, as anyone who has ever taught at any level can tell you, most of the work of teaching is “behind the scenes:” reading, research, planning, grading, etc. It varies from week to week and from semester to semester, but I easily spend an average of fifteen or twenty hours every week out of the classroom getting ready for those nine hours in it. Plus there’s office hours and meeting with graduate students, both of which are more or less “teaching” activities.

Plus there’s scholarly work, which is part of the job description for a university professor, especially one at a place like the University of Colorado. Giving presentations, writing articles, writing books, and doing other kinds of scholarly activities are things that most happy academics (especially those at “fancier” schools) want to do, but it’s a hell of a lot of work.

And plus there is a surprising amount of work that almost all college professors have to do that has nothing to do with either teaching or scholarship. This tends to be called “service,” and I suppose it is. But really, it’s more like “administration” in just making things within the institution… well, work.

Horowitz’s characterization of the money and the workload of a college professor is of course incredibly wrong. But I suspect his characterization jives with the perceptions most folks in the general public have on the work of a college professor, and perhaps that is really the source of all this outrage against Churchill. Not only does Churchill get paid an outrageous amount of money from tax dollars to say incredibly stupid things; he doesn’t even really work! The Daily Camera article just fuels the fire when it reports “Churchill, a tenured professor who has only a master’s degree, earns more than $94,000 a year, teaches five hours a week and charges a $3,500 guest speaking fee. Last year, he spoke at a dozen campuses.”

Anyway, other than a few unusual situations like Churchill’s, I’m not entirely sure where this perception of the highly paid non-working college professor comes from and how its sustained. Part of it is perhaps because college professors tend to work weird hours and in untraditional settings. Everyone I know in academia does most of their work away from their university office (at home, in coffee shops, etc.). Another part of it (maybe the main part of it?) is that most people in higher education are pretty happy, even the ones who complain once in a while. Academics really seem to enjoy their jobs, so it doesn’t even really seem like they are working at all, at least not working in the way that far too many people in this country “work.” Like what you see in the movie Office Space or something.

Anyway, I think the academic job I have is pretty typical and it’s a far cry from 9 hours a week at $150K/year. But I’d really like to know how I can cash in on one of these gigs Horowitz is talking about. Call me, David.

Oh, and judging by this web site, I think Horowitz does okay paycheck-wise too.

Summer-time and the "Happy Academic"

I came across an article in the CHE today, “Making Time” by Julia “not her real name” Goode that rang awfully true to me. It’s another essay that discusses the peculiar problems of the “work time” of academics.

Now, Goode’s experiences are slightly different from mine because her husband is a practicing attorney (whereas my wife is also an academic and we both have these strange schedules), and because a lot of her problems in the article seem to revolve around what she admits is a “pathological need for social acceptance among peer mothers” (something I don’t think either my wife or I have).

But there are two things she writes about I can completely relate to. First, because she’s not teaching in the summer, people in the rest of the world think she isn’t “working” in the summer. Nothing could possibly be further from the case. Second, there is a constant “ying/yang” thing about the academic concept of “work time.” Eliminate the word “legal,” and I think this quote from the essay sums it up pretty well for me:

I generally appreciate the fact that producing legal scholarship is a solitary effort. I don’t have to worry about others pulling their weight or finishing their piece so I can start on mine. I work at my own pace, on my own time. I don’t have a senior partner or a supervisor calling me every day asking me where I am on a certain project. No one is watching.

The downside is that I have no daily or weekly deadlines to push me or keep me on track. I have a six-year deadline that requires marathonlike pacing. Unless I am extremely self-disciplined, I could wake up the year before my tenure vote having written nothing. Obviously, that is extreme. But come mid-July, more than once I have realized that I’ve done very little research in the previous six weeks and the new semester is rapidly approaching.

That much freedom is like enough rope to hang yourself, and it can also lead to a feeling of always working. That can lead to an unhappy academic if you don’t like the “work” in the first place.

Academia and The Real World: What's the difference?

This morning, I came across this entry at Collin’s blog about a Stanley Fish article in CHE called “The Case for Academic Autonomy.” In the nutshell, Fish is saying that academia ought to be autonomous from the “real world” in the sense that we academics ought to not merely respond to market forces, we shouldn’t try to make ourselves more like businesses, etc.

Collin’s take on the article is that Fish is misreading what Mark Taylor means by “networks” and what Taylor concludes in his book. I am at a disadvantage there because I’m not at all familiar with Taylor’s work (though it certainly sounds like something I ought to read), and I’m also not familiar with what Collin refers to as a “spectacularly miscalculated keynote” speech Taylor gave at a C&W a few years back. Which one, Collin?

Anyway, on the CHE site I also came across this article, “The Grand Poobah,” written by Frank “not his real name” Miller. By “Grand Poobah,” Miller means his new role as the graduate coordinator in his department, which is described as at a large midwestern research university. From the way he describes the job, it certainly sounds like an English department. Miller is a newly tenured faculty member, and he’s afraid that he will move away from “scholarship” and become an “administrative hack.” He writes “The relationship between the terms ‘academic career,’ ‘scholarly discipline,’ and ‘teaching vocation’ has never seemed more complicated to me.”

A couple of things strike me about all this:

* In my own department, I had put my name in to be the graduate coordinator for the next three years and I didn’t get it. On the one hand, I was (and actually, still am) displeased about this because of the departmental politics that were involved. On the other hand, not getting this has renewed my interests in my scholarship, which has been fun and something I can do on my own terms, more or less.

* Like Miller, I don’t have any interest in full-time academic administrator positions– you know, department head, dean, etc. I can’t say that I’ll never be an administrator since “never” is an awfully long time. But I’ve always believed that being an administrator is like having a “real job,” one where you are expected to be there 9 to 5, where you have to wear nice clothes, where you end up pushing a lot of paper around, etc. If I wanted to do that, I’d leave the academic world for the “real” world, which pays a lot better.

* Having said all that, Fish and Miller both remind me in different ways that being “an academic” means more than being a “scholar,” or even a “teacher/scholar.” I’ve had two different tenure-track jobs at “regional college/universities,” schools that focus on undergraduate education and that are considered “opportunity-granting” institutions. At both places, I’ve done “administrative” work where I was given release time. On an interim basis, I was a WPA and I ran a writing center at my previous job, and I used to be the “computer guy” of the department at this job, doing things like maintaining a computer lab and running the department web site. But beyond these “official” administrative roles, I also find myself spending a fair amount of my time as a professor doing administrative stuff– advising students, going to meetings in the department and beyond, etc.

I don’t think my experiences are all that unusual, especially for folks in composition and rhetoric. I think most professors, even those who don’t have any explicit administrative duties, actually do a lot of administrative work. And because of that, I think the definition of “academic career” that Miller is talking about is indeed always in play, even if you don’t take on any official administrative duties. I suppose it’s possible to be an academic whose only obligations are to sit around and be really smart, but those positions are few and far between.

* And for me, this raises questions about Fish’s desires for an “autonomous academy.” When he says “the walls between the academy and society,” what does he mean by “the academy?” And isn’t “the academy” a key component of contemporary “society?”

I kind of understand what Fish is getting at, and I even agree with it a bit. Schools ought to not be run like businesses; rather, schools ought to be run like, well, schools, meaning the goal should not be to turn a profit through finding “synergy” with “customers” or whatever. Our goal should be to provide students with access to an education.

But really, the world of academia is “the real world,” or at least it’s a part of it. Students attend schools because of societal pressures (e.g., a college degree will help you get a better job), not purely for academic pursuits, and people work at schools because of societal pressures (e.g., working at a school as a teacher, administrator, staff person, janitor, and so forth is a job that pays the bills) and not just the love of knowledge. Don’t get me wrong– being a college professor is a great job, but it’s still a job.

If the academy really were separate from society, maybe the job aspect of it wouldn’t be necessary. Maybe it would be sort of like being a monk or being Amish, communal living where all of my day-to-day needs and pleasures would simply be part of the lifestyle. Of course, if the academy really were separate from society in this fashion, I wouldn’t be in the academy.

Steve the Happy Academic, addendum to Part I: "They Like Me, They Really Like Me!"

Well no, not really.

I was a bit surprised when I surfed by the Invisible Adjunct blog yesterday to discover that she had already posted about my blog, and then somewhat surprised again that her post about my blog generated a fair amount of discussion. You can read all about it by clicking here.

The fact that a lot of folks at Invisible Adjunct weren’t exactly willing to share in my academic happiness didn’t surprise me. For one thing, as I had said in my original post, these folks have a point. But more importantly, many people who follow the Invisible Adjunct blog are seeking a community of like-minded folks who share their complaints and laments about the academic world. Complain and lament with a group, and there is a problem with “the system;” complain and lament alone, and there is a problem with you.

No, what really surprised me is that anyone actually read my blog in the first place. I mean, I know that there are several bloggers who link to my blog (many of the people I link to link to me), and I know from my own blog surfing, it’s easy to wonder into a new blog space. This is one of the appeals of blogs to me: it reminds me of the very old days of the web, where the pleasure was just surfing about. Still, I mainly see my blog as a space to post things that are of interest to me and maybe a few others, links to sites I want to go back to later, thoughts on teaching and the academic life. Sure, it’s a public space, and I want others to read it, but it still always surprises me that anyone else actually does.

Steve the Happy Academic, Part I

I’ve been spending some time lately surfing through sites like The Invisible Adjunct, academicgame, and Household Opera, among other web sites. Most of these are linked through the very excellent Invisible Adjunct site. In various ways, much of what these bloggers write about is the sorry state of the academic life. You can probably guess what the “Invisible Adjunct’s” story is (or at least part of the story); the writer of “Household Opera” is a PhD student who is contemplating leaving academia, and the writer(s) at “academicgame” just seem, well, pissed.

These (and others along these lines) blogs are interesting to read because they make good points and observations about academia in the news, they have good links, and they are generally well-written. And it’s not as if what many of these blogs are saying isn’t true or at least potentially true– more often than not, I agree with what I see in these spaces. But at the same time, these blogs bother me. For one thing, they too often move far too quickly from what I read as legitimate complaints to “whining”– and let me say that “whining” is a word I’m not comfortable with here, but it’s the only one I can come up with. I guess what I’m saying is they are telling a part of a story, one that, logically speaking, can only be a part of the story.

There are lots of things wrong with the academic world and higher education, no doubt about it. And yet, even with all of the problems, I still am quite satisfied to be in academia. I am, as the title of this post suggests, “a Happy Academic.” Why? Well, at the risk of sounding like I’m gloating and/or just trying to “put on a happy face,” here’s a short list:

  • I had a “real job” once. I don’t know all the life stories of the “not so happy” academics who run some of the blogs I mentioned, but I have noticed in my own mixings with fellow academic-types that there is a difference between those who went “straight through” from the BA to the PhD, and those who interrupted their studies along the line. I took three years off between my MFA (in creative writing) and my PhD program; during that time, I was an “office temp” and then ultimately a “PR Rep” for a state agency in Richmond, Virginia. The details of the work I did aren’t important for my purposes here, but these experiences put me smack-dab in the middle of the “real world” (well, as it existed in the early 90’s): felt-lined cubicles, dress codes, strict hours, mind-numbing tasks, pointy-haired bosses, etc., etc. Dilbert-land. It wasn’t horrible, but it also wasn’t for me. Further, whenever I get it into my head to complain about the academic life, I quickly recall the alternatives. This always cheers me up.
  • I never tried to make a living as an adjunct. I was an adjunct way back when; during this “working in the real world” time, I worked 8-5 in an office and then I taught one or two night class sections of freshman composition. I did this for two reasons. First, I needed the extra money. But second and more important, it kept my foot in the academic world just enough for me to decide that I wanted to jump back into it full-time.

    But for me, being an adjunct college teacher was never my main source of employment, and I didn’t have any sense that being an adjunct would somehow lead to a full-time and permanent teaching job. I’ll save this for another time, but I think that those folks who are trying to piece together a full-time teaching experience by picking up a few sections at several different schools are making a mistake.

  • I studied and thought about “the market” before I started my PhD. I went into composition in rhetoric because I genuinely like teaching writing, particularly writing to students in classes like first year composition and other “advanced writing” research sort of classes– this as opposed to creative writing. But I also went into composition and rhetoric because of the laws of supply and demand that I thought were patently obvious when I began PhD studies 10 years ago and which I think are still obvious today: there remains a relatively high demand for people who study composition and rhetoric (particularly for people who study things like technical writing, computers, and/or English education) and a relatively low supply of people interested in pursuing PhDs in composition and rhetoric. Conversely, there is a relatively low demand for people who study literature (though this varies quite a bit in terms of period, genre, critical focus, and so forth), and a relatively high supply of people interested in pursuing PhDs in literature. It has been this way for 30 years, give or take, and there is every reason to believe that this trend is going to continue.

    I’m not trying to say that people shouldn’t follow their dreams or that you shouldn’t study literature and that literature isn’t important or what-have-you, nor am I trying to suggest that people should go into fields like composition and rhetoric just to get an academic job. What I am saying is this: Way back when, I found myself torn between going to get a PhD in literature, in creative writing, and composition and rhetoric. I love all of these things. But I knew, because of supply and demand market forces, my chances were better if I focused on composition and rhetoric. Simple as that.

  • I’m interested in both teaching and scholarship. This is especially important to be a happy academic who teaches English at a “middle of the road” college or university in this country since professors are more or less expected to do both. I’ve met a number of unhappy academics who were almost completely invested in their scholarship, who saw their teaching as an unwelcome burden. That’s not good. And conversely, I’ve met a few unhappy academics who just want to teach their classes, go home, and not bother to keep up with the scholarship. I think most happy academics have found some sort of balance between the two.
  • I realize that when all is said and done, being an academic is a job– nothing more, and nothing less. This is a hard one for me to articulate, and I don’t mean to diminish the nature of the academic job. I think it’s a different sort of job than working in an office or something like that for a lot of different reasons. Being an academic is more of a “calling” than working as a PR Rep for a state agency (at least it was for me). One of the definite perks of a faculty job is you have a tremendous amount of flexibility in terms of when and where you work, though one of the definite drawbacks of this arrangement is it feels like you’re always working. And I also think that being a college teacher– even a part-time or non-tenure-track faculty member– affords you a level of autonomy and freedom that people who work in Dilbert-land can’t even imagine.

    In other words, it’s a good job. However, having said all that, it still is ultimately just a job, one that comes with all of the hassles, petty politics, paperwork, and irritations that anyone who has job has to put up with. I like what I do, but I don’t do this “for fun.” I’m not independently wealthy; I do this for money so I can live and provide for my family, the same reason why most of the other people in our society have jobs.

    I think what sometimes happen is academic-types become disappointed in the academic life when they start to think that being a college professor is somehow something different than being an employee. I’m not sure why this is the case; maybe they are imagining academia as feudal system and being a professor is like being a prince or princess. Maybe they have in mind a television show professor. Maybe they have in mind some abstract memory of a professor they had i
    n college who seemed to have risen to the level of a minor deity. But for whatever reason, I think sometimes folks are disappointed by the reality of it all. There are good days, there are bad days; there are rumors and office politics and backstabbing; there are office parties and water cooler talks. My job is different from a “normal” job in many ways, and it is just like a “normal” job in many ways. Because, ultimately, it is a job.

  • I’ve been lucky.Sure, I have worked hard to get here and I continue to work hard, but it would be foolish for me to not acknowledge that a lot of my happiness as an academic is simply dumb luck and good fortune. While my first academic job wasn’t a good one (for reasons I’ll perhaps go into another day), I have not had to live in an unpleasant place since graduate school, one of the things that makes many academics unhappy. As an aside though, I do feel like I “paid my dues” in terms of living in a nasty part of the country since I did my PhD studies at Bowling Green State University. BGSU was a great school, but wow, was Bowling Green, OH ever an ugly stinky place to live.

    I’m happily married to a brilliant woman who is a full-time lecturer in the department where I work, and we have a great kid– in other words, I’ve managed to have a good family life, something that many unhappy academics have not been able to do because of job pressures or other reasons. My current employer, Eastern Michigan University has plenty of problems– perhaps you’ve read some of my musings here about our president’s controversial new house and the screwed-up nature of the faculty union. But in the grand scheme of things, the school is a good employer and the department I work is great. I like what I teach, I’ve been lucky enough to fall into some good scholarly opportunities, etc., etc.

    I don’t think good luck is ever entirely “good luck;” but I know plenty of people who have worked as hard as I have who have not been as lucky. Again, I’m not trying to gloat here; just trying to acknowledge why I’m happy.

Well, that’s that. I’ve worked on this rant for a few days now, and I have wondered for a while if I should post this. Oddly, it might be more popular and socially acceptable for me to post something about how unhappy I am. But I’m not, so this will have to do for now.