Friday, January 16, 2015

Middle-Aged and Morose Sends This In.

Do I LOOK like
an instructor?
Scene from the AHA Book Exhibit. A youngish book rep is talking to a middle-aged professor.
Rep: Are you an instructor?
Rep: (a tad flustered): Oh, I’m sorry. I thought you were a professor.
Prof: I am a PROFESSOR. I am NOT an instructor!
Rep: (starts to stammer a bit, wondering if he just pissed off a possible customer)
Prof: Do you understand how faculty ranks works in American universities? (Before the rep can answer) Apparently NOT!
(Prof then goes into detailed explanation about the different ranks.)
Prof: So, you see, I am NOT an instructor!
I was so tempted to say something like “So, where does ‘Asshole’ fit into those ranks?” or “Dude, he was just asking if you taught classes. No one, absolutely no one here cares about your rank but you. Look around, there are 5,000 other PhDs here. None of us care if you’re an adjunct or a full professor.”

I resisted the temptation, not because I wanted to avoid an argument, but because it would have put
the poor book rep in the middle, and he was having a bad enough day.


  1. In this asshole's defense, this is what happens when the American professoriate breaks into two distinctive tiers, reflecting what has happened to our once largely middle-class society. While academia always did preen over its hierarchies, a two-tier society encourages this even more.

    This guy is still an asshole, of course. My Dad was a teacher and was a very intelligent fellow, so I don't go ballistic whenever anyone calls me a "teacher." In fact, I consider it an honor. A society that has problems with teachers doesn't have a promising future, does it?

    Also, there are more than a few middle-aged instructors in academia these days. Ours here in my physics department at least get three-year contracts and benefits, and respect, since we depend on them so much for teaching, and we damn well know it. I sure wish we could advance the one with a Ph.D. to the tenure track: it's a shame.

  2. Jerks like that miss out on the great pleasure of connecting with random people. I get "So you're a teacher!" all the time when I pull out a pile of grading at events I've hauled my kids to. Sure I'm a teacher. Everybody's had teachers, so there's an instant conversation.

    If we get around to details like that it's college and I teach evolution, even the die-hard creationists have to admit I'm kinda nice to talk with and have no visible horns. Besides getting to know a bit about what makes them tick, I get the satisfaction of having inflicted some cognitive dissonance.

    That guy is so focused on his Dignity that he loses the chance to butter up voters and potential school board members with how cool and necessary his discipline is. Not to mention having a better time most days.

    Love your TWO great fantasy retorts and your wisdom for not saying them.

  3. Looks like both the rep and proffie may have not heeded the wise words, "you gotta know the territory."

  4. Those who bluster about their rank the most have done the least to earn it.

  5. Yeah, that's a silly prof.

    On the other hand, I hate it when students don't know their boundaries, and start their emails with "Hey", "Hey Peter", or "Hey Kaczynski" (not my real name!)

    So I fret a little about how to tell them my name on the first day of classes, or the syllabus. In the end I state it on the syllabus as "Dr. P. Kaczynski", write "P. Kaczynski" on the board, and say "I'm Peter Kaczynski" to the class. Most of them get the message.

    With my grad students (whom I've known for at least three years), just "Peter" is fine. But that took some getting used to, to be frank.

  6. Book reps always ask me "So are you teaching next semester?" Which is perfect, because you could be a grad student with varying service duties, or a big-deal proffie with the potential of sabbatical. But yeah, this guy's a jerk.

  7. Like Frod, I suspect that this is a symptom of what's going on in American higher ed these days (as well as, of course, in instance of complete assholery). "Instructor" is a generic term, like "teacher" (which I, too, embrace, Proffie, and I love the way you use it to draw people who might instinctively resist talking to a "professor" into conversation). All of us who teach are instructors, and teachers, as well as holding whatever titles our institutions see fit to bestow upon us. But "instructor" also looks to some professors, with reason, as the Ghost of Higher Ed Future (and perhaps, if they're honest about it, Present as well), in which there are very, very few people doing the traditional job of the professoriate (research, determining/creating curriculum as well as implementing it), and a great many essentially tending the assembly/customer service line. The people doing the majority of the hands-on teaching work currently often get the title "instructor," and the "real" professor recoils at the thought that he could be mistaken for a member of the great unwashed teaching ranks (which, if truth be told, he probably escaped mostly by virtue of age and/or luck, with a bit of competence/merit thrown in for good measure).

    I'd also guess that, in the future, when there are far fewer (if any) tenure-track professors to insist on the exclusivity of their rank, the exploited teaching ranks will also be called "professors," to make the institution sound like a traditional college, and, most likely, the people doing traditional professorial work will be Deans or Vice Presidents or something. Basically, the traditional professoriate, like the middle class, seems, at least at the moment, to be in the process of disappearing, and that unacknowledged reality is probably what Herr Doktor Professor was really reacting to, even if he doesn't acknowledge the phenomenon himself. Apparently the air of desperation at national conventions is getting harder to ignore, even for the privileged in the system.

    In short, I think Herr Doktor Professor was mistaken about which of the participants in the discussion didn't understand how academic ranks actually work these days (as opposed to what the Potemkin village of academic rank swaying ever more alarmingly in front of the actual workings of the university looks like).

    1. Likewise, I've always used "instructor" as the generic term, though I know some systems do use it as a status. But I can't see getting that worked up about it any more than I could get worked up about people assuming that I like samurai and ninja movies.

    2. Sorry, the system froze up on me.

      ...because I study Japan.

  8. Whatever gripes we may have about this sort of behaviour in North America, "social distance" between 'professors' and everyone else is much greater elsewhere. We have a fairly new hire, from continental Europe, who totally blew up at a grad student because he felt she hadn't given him the proper amount of formal courtesy expected of a grad student - prof interaction. I'm talking a really long, multi-page rant tearing a strip off her. She'd done nothing that would have been considered inappropriate at my uni, and every other uni I've ever been at. Someone had to take this guy aside and explain things to him.

    1. Explain what? American exceptionalism?

    2. Perhaps explaining that even Herr Dr. Professor's shit doth stinkith as well. ;)