Thursday, January 16, 2014

This Week's Big Thirsty. "When Did You Lose Your Academic Innocence?"

Marty in Medford:

I remember in my first teaching post getting mentored by a great man who I long admired. I was super fortunate to luck into a junior faculty spot in his program and I floated on clouds for weeks before my first day.

I saw him only fleetingly during orientation, and then suddenly the first day of classes were upon us.

I had a fresh new briefcase. I was wearing a new suit. I felt as if my life had finally begun, the life of the mind, the great passing of knowledge.

The great man waved at me as he headed for his first lecture, a slew of grad students in tow. I imagined them striding across the quad, a hundred or more undergrads waiting.

About 25 minutes later he returned to his office. As he keyed his door he belched loudly. "Fucking undergrads," he said, "I wouldn't piss on them if they were on fire."

That shouldn't have haunted me as much as it has.

Q: When did you lose your naive and dewy eyed view of the profession? When did you lose your academic innocence?


  1. I lost my naive and dewy-eyed view of the profession when I was first called "a necessary evil" and "a nuisance," upon matriculation as an undergraduate. So why do I stay in academia? I get to be an astronomer. Sheer bloody mindedness helps, too.

    Anytime I get too cynical, a good cure for it is to attend a graduation ceremony. Here at Middlin' State, we have a large populations of first-generation college students and immigrant students. Every graduation, there is a very distinguished graduate bedecked with academic honors who intends to go to medical school and wants to come back here and become a family practitioner helping people, and not a plastic surgeon in a wealthy community. This graduate will thank Mom, who only ever had the opportunity to get a 3rd-grade education, but sacrificed and helped by working as a hotel maid. And she cries. Come to think of it, this past year it was the chemistry professor, but they caught her on camera crying, it was great.

  2. I was always a bit jaded, but I lost all illusions when the president of my university, whom I had always respected, lied to my face. It was an obvious lie, and it was obvious that everyone knew it was a lie. It only purpose seemed to be to assert the president's power to lie to us and not be called on it.

  3. My vision of what university would be like was largely influenced by what I saw in movies and on TV. When I started grad studies, I thought it would be much like what I experienced while studying for my B. Sc. I couldn't have been more wrong.

    At the department where I started on my first master's degree, I got roped into being the token grad student at the faculty meetings. That's when my respect for professors was shattered. Instead of being in the company of learned men, I saw people behaving like over-educated schoolyard brats. There were many times when I wondered when fistfights would break out.

    If that wasn't enough, the supervisor I started my degree with turned out to be a do-nothing who exploited his grad students, treating them as if they were his private employees working only for his interests. If anyone ever completed their studies, it would have been by accident and he would do what he could to prevent it from ever occurring again.

    About 10 years later, I started my teaching job. It didn't take me long to find out that my colleagues were little better than the profs I referred to earlier. I was also appalled at my students. Had I behaved the way they did while I was an undergrad, I would have been expelled and rightly so.

    Now, any time I see a movie about dedicated teachers and inspired, high-achieving students, I can only laugh.

  4. Let's see...I think it was on my last couple of years as a grad student, when I suddenly understood I was completely on my own. Not in the sense of being responsible for anything that happened in my career (or didn't happen), but in the stronger sense that the people around me--advisor, department, research group, fellow graduate students--were all completely indifferent to whether I stayed in the profession or was never heard from again. That's the reality of the career, maybe every career. The Universe

    There was an awakening of a different kind when I got my first postdoc at PseudoIvy OutWest. The position included teaching, and I got a first-year class. So there were tests, and the usual distribution of As, Bs and Cs. Whoa there, what is this, a B? What are you thinking, my parents are paying big bucks for this, and I never got anything less than an A in high school . The little geniuses, they all thought they "deserved" As. (That was over 25 years ago.)

  5. Replies
    1. This happens to me each yea. I have less and less wonder to begin with each Fall. When I have none left, I shall depart.

  6. I lost my innocence while I was still an undergrad, in my 4th year. At the end of term profs put the marks for all of the assignments, midterm & exam, on the course bulletin board (yes, this was before the Internet et al., and this was how profs "communicated" with students about a course). In the "final mark" column I noticed an enumeration error. A really big one. So, I went to the prof's office, introduced myself, handed him a handwritten copy of my marks, and noted the error. The prof's face drained of colour, and he angrily sputtered out "This is a big change. So I actually have to fill out paperwork to get your grade changed. DO YOU REALIZE HOW MUCH FUCKING PAPERWORK YOU ARE MAKING ME DO???" He went on at length. All his grad students actually vacated the lab while he continued to rage at me. This was my first realization that, hey, sometimes profs just don't give a fuck. (the prof was a year from retirement, and was well known to be a curmudgeon, so I didn't bother complaining to the office, there was no sanction that was going to affect him as he was already on his way out)
    As a prof I don't like paperwork either, but at least I don't shit on a student because of my own mistake, and because of this incident I'm always diligent to make sure I don't have any entry or enumeration errors in my grades spreadsheets...

  7. I lost a part of it in grad school (like so many others). I recall reading my TA-ship contract/guidelines and it saying something like we were supposed to put in 20 hours per week. One of the profs in our department stated very clearly that we were not supposed to waste that much time "teaching" and get our asses back to the lab. "The undergrads are here to pay for our research." Mostly, like Bubba, I lose a little bit, maybe not every day, but certainingly every year. I lost a chunk, (or was it that I blew chunks?) last semester at one of those never ending assessment floggings. We were talking to our "assessment faciliatator" about how we had done an assessment and found that we were doing X well and our students are successful at tranfer institution Y. His response was "Middle Earth Accrediting Agency doesn't care if you are doing your job well, they want more assessment!!! Crappy CC next state over only graduates 2 percent of their students, but they are NOT on probation because they are doing a lot of assessment!!! We had long suspected we were doing assessment for the sake of assessment, it just killed a part of me to have it yelled at me by some brainwashed boob with almost no teaching experience.

  8. When I was a student grader as an undergrad, my mentor clued me in to the realities of academia. I wasn't smart enough to listen to her, though, and didn't switch majors to something that would allow me to work comfortably outside of academia.

  9. I was a faculty brat. I didn't understand the full extent of the stupid, but enough daily gossip filtered into my brain that I realized that these really smart adults weren't all very smart.

  10. Like others above, I think it's been a gradual, and continuing, process, and in some ways I still haven't lost it (or at least am still willing to tilt at the occasional windmill, which probably amounts to the same thing). It may also be relevant that I was never all that innocent (blame some combination of temperament, early loss of a parent, and early/continued exposure to the Calvinist tradition for that).

    My first big jolt was probably realizing how little my undergrad alma mater (an Ivy which almost never tenured its assistant professors; in fact, I don't think it had an official procedure for doing so at the time) valued teaching. The teachers I most admired didn't get tenure (and I'm not sure I realized that pretty much nobody was getting tenure; I just noticed that the tenured professors didn't seem to be as dedicated to teaching as the assistant professors I especially liked who didn't get tenure). I determined that I was going to care about teaching nonetheless, even if it meant teaching at a different sort of institution than my beloved alma mater (okay; yes; I was still pretty naive about a bunch of things at that point, including my own abilities and the employment prospects for which they equipped me, but this was the late '80s and they were predicting an upcoming shortage of college proffies, and I'd just won an undergrad thesis prize). Throughout grad school, I resisted and (at least in private, among like-minded-friends) critiqued the assumption that "your own work" meant only your research and writing. I also took on challenging, time-consuming teaching (freshman comp) at the first opportunity, during a semester when my colleagues were focusing on their dissertation prospectuses and TA'ing in large lecture courses. That was, in retrospect, a mistake. I now advise grad students who eventually want to focus on teaching to spend grad school (and quite possibly,depending on where they get a job, also the tenure track) focusing on their research and writing, because that approach will, paradoxically, give them the most freedom to focus on teaching in the long run.

    Meanwhile, having taken the other approach, I periodically argue -- windmill ahoy -- that even research-intensive institutions should have teaching-intensive tenure tracks. I also admit to myself, these days, that I'd probably be happier, and perhaps even more productive, on a research-intensive track myself. Perhaps the greatest loss of innocence is the realization that the part of the enterprise you believe to be most important is not necessarily the one for which your temperament makes you best equipped.

    And on that cheerful note, I will go back to creating/updating syllabi, assignments, etc., etc.

  11. Haven't lost it yet. With 379 days until I retire, perhaps I won't. Of course, I do live in a yellow submarine...

  12. Hmm, it happened in grad school, but it's hard to say which event was the moment at the water pump (referencing Helen Keller, but I reserve the right to mix metaphors here). Some candidates:

    1. Master's program, TA, hearing the prof crowing about his competition with colleagues about who could require the most expensive reading list (as a way of getting free books for themselves). If the Big Thirsty is about loss of innocence, then this was when The Man got to second base with me and then bragged to his friends.

    2. Ph.D. program, second year, working hard as grad student rep on the uni disciplinary policy committee, drafting and redrafting the policy after hearing from various campus constituencies, and then having the Chancellor's immediate underlings just scrap it and submit their own to Academic Senate. That was my first committee work and the last time I took such work seriously. In terms of innocence lost, The Man got a thorough hand job from me and then walked away without kissing good night.

    3. Ph.D program, third year, being encouraged by faculty to join the planning committee for Annual International Subdisciplinary Conference and then being selected co-chair with another grad student. We thought this meant great trust in us and collegiality, but when we divided up the tasks by the number of committee members and asked who wanted which role, we got crickets. They had secured the conference and then passed 100% of the planning on to inexperienced grad students without mentoring us in any way. But they were quick and loud to castigate us later when we excluded some abstracts because they missed the deadline by a month. Didn't we know that by following the guidelines we'd published months earlier, we were putting our department's professional relationships in jeopardy? Then the professors were lordly hosts to the guests while we were scrambling to help participants with last-minute equipment requests. One high-level guest asked for a travel map to a national park in a desert fairly nearby. Then he complained that I'd given him my own, which had some rips. (I wanted to ask him if he was a member of AAA, and couldn't he have done this for himself?) For all this work, we received no pay -- in fact, we were paying tuition for the privilege of doing the faculty's work -- no units to relieve us from our full loads of classes, no bottles of wine, no gift certificates, not even a perfunctory thank-you note.

    Yes, # 3 is when I realized that The Man wanted only one thing, and that he would not respect me in the morning, nor at any other time.

  13. What? You mean academia isn't all unicorns and rainbows? Noooooooooooooo!

  14. I guess it must have been when my mother's newly-hired-from-the-outside department chair hissed at her, "A single mother? You're a liability, and I'm getting rid of you." Fortunately she had tenure and a good memory, and he was eventually frog-marched off campus.