Monday, April 13, 2015

"I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)." From the Tuba Playing Prof.

In a post here some time ago (in which I described myself as a turtle, not a silverback), I tried to articulate the difference between my work and my job. And I continue to see the gap between those two. I have long feared that my work has little to do with my job. Now I am beginning to feel that I am weary rather than miserable. I imagined what I was experiencing as malaise, that general uneasy anxiety that somehow “things aren’t right,” and things are beyond one’s control. I have been resigned for a long time that as an old man I no longer “fit.” And I have put into practice a simple strategy for most campus meetings: When I feel the need to say anything, I count to ten then shut up.

A student mentioned before class to no one in particular that he “hates group work” because he has issues with dissonance. Curious I researched dissonance after class and stumbled upon an essay written about mental health professionals. The authors put forth the concept of, their research on, and conclusions about what they label “professional dissonance.”

As I understand the concept, professional dissonance is when a professional finds that one’s actual tasks clash with one’s expected duties that come about because of professional values. As a result, the incongruity, the disharmony, the discord, etc. confuses, frustrates, aggravates, and stresses a professional having to “do tasks” instead of “professional duties.” One thing clear in their research: older male professionals feel it more than any other group. (Because they feel that they are allowed to express it?)

Is what I thought was “old man malaise” a case of professional dissonance?

I can’t help but wonder about the etymological differences of two words that denote the same thing to most people, duty and task. Duty comes from “what is due;” it is the price of accepting the responsibilities of a profession—one that I love greatly and dearly. Task is “an imposed payment,” what we call a tax. A duty is what one is prepared and willing to do; a task, what one is required to do. The first is what I welcome doing; the second, what I dread doing.

Such old-fashioned etymological distinctions show my age; but here I go: I wonder if my misery or weariness springs from professional dissonance, i.e., not from the having the duties but the tasks.

I feel no need to detail here what I still imagine my duties to be. Yet increasingly tasks I never imagined doing twenty years ago when I wanted to be a college instructor have required that I take on roles that clash with my professional roles as instructor, advisor, colleague, and scholar.

Here are the roles that take up more and more of my time (and some of course overlap):

Record Keeper. The latest big-money technological gimmick that promises to improve student retention is Starfish. (Was Snowflake copyrighted?) I have three classes (when every other senior faculty member in my department has one or two) with seventy-two students. I am now expected to record after every class and for every student class attendance, kudos, poor performance, etc. Perhaps Starfish has potential, but the university simply required it—without any training, statement of purpose or use, consideration of consequences, or a trial period. The university licensed it, so we have to use it.

Prosecutor. When I detect a case of plagiarism, I face hours and hours of additional work. Instead of explaining to a student how s/he violated the academic honesty policy, informing the student of hur grade, and advising the student of the procedure for an appeal of my decision, I have to prepare first a formal charge, determining what “level” of plagiarism the violation is, pointing out in what way the plagiarized essay plagiarized the source, then explain why I consider the violation a violation. Then, once a committee reviews my accusation, I must appear before it—at a time that it sets—to make the case I make in my written case. Then the student requests a second meeting in which s/he has the right to defend hurself. The committee then decides if academic dishonesty occurred, what level, and what grade IT will assign.

Editor. More and more students are requesting meetings before their essays are due so I can “take a look.” By that they mean that I edit their essays. One student said, “I need to you to take a look and point out the problems you have with it before I turn in it.” When I asked if she wanted me to take a look at draft, she replied, “No, I’m done, so you just need to look it over.” “You are asking me to grade it and revise it before you turn it.” “No, I just need to make a good grade in this class.” Another student explained, “I like my teachers to take a look, so I can earn the grade I deserve.” Unfortunately, not a single plagiarist has saved me hours of work by asking me to take a look before returning in an essay.

Physicist. I find myself more and more arguing the impossibility of time travel (as least currently). “What can I do to pass this class?” “What can I do to raise my grade?” “Well, we can’t go back in time, so. . . .”

Bobble Head. Trumpeting our long-standing commitment to shared governance, the president and provost call “all-assembled” meetings every freaking month. With no time allotted for questions or comments, my colleagues and I apparently are supposed to sit in rapt attention, smiling and nodding as the presivost details the lastes initiative that will take us to the next level—and assures us that this time it will work.

Confessor and Absolver. More and more students are too forthcoming with private issues. I am not trained to counsel those students, some with admittedly serious and often heartbreaking issues and problems, off and on campus, yet when I try to advise them where to go for help and support, I quickly realize that most students are sharing very private, intimate details with me so that I can absolve them for missing class, deadlines, exams, etc. This semester I had what must be the clearest example of all time, on any campus. After missing all but two classes, the student dropped by my office to list the demands on him: RA, SGA officer, 18 credit hours, 36 hours of work back home each weekend, flu, a breakdown, then Rehab. I suggested that as my class was not required for his major that he drop it, but he offered that he had to complete it to replace the failing grade he got the first time he took, the time he flunked for plagiarism. He pointed out that the F wasn’t going to look good on his graduate school application.

More and more students offer “notes” from doctors, employers, parents, and sympathetic deans. These notes are seemingly magical—relics from Saint Thomas Aquinas (patron saint of students) that the students believe work like indulgences forgiving all sins and excusing the absence on the date on the note AND the ten absences before the “excused absence.” “But professor, I had a note from…..”

Discipline of Diogenes. More and more students assume that by telling me the truth I will excuse and overlook. I get many emails that start off “I’m going to be honest, I missed class, because…” The list includes overslept, overhung, not feeling it, up late after concert, game, etc. One student missed class because he was winning, and “you don’t leave the casino when you’re hot.” This semester, one of my most serious and diligent students mentioned that her essay was going to be late because she’d be off on a cruise and couldn’t afford the daily wifi charge. I asked why next week, and not the previous week, which was our spring break; she replied, “It’s my boyfriend’s spring break.” “Why didn’t you go last week?” “His break is next week.”

Adversary. More and more students are bypassing me when they miss too many classes or when I email them to schedule a meeting to discuss plagiarism and instead are going to the sympathetic and forgiving associate deans and dean of students staff who are mostly concerned these days with retention. I then must report to the deans and staff my policies, explain my record keeping, “characterize” my relationship with students, defend and detail my commitment to fairness—which presumably includes the students who show up, work hard, and care but that’s not always clear—and justify class policies. When I emailed a student in a senior seminar that she should drop the class to avoid a failing grade—after attending class once in the first fifteen meetings—I got an email from an associate dean declaring that the student assured her that she had been attending class and wondered if perhaps I didn’t know her. (Our senior seminars have fifteen students, and our system has photo class rolls to help us with attendance.) I scanned and emailed my attendance sheet, but the dean replied that “since there is some doubt about her attendance,” I had to “allow her to continue in the class.” The dean suggested that a meeting to reconsider my attendance policy might help me be a “better, more caring” teacher. (The student made it to class the next day yet never returned afterwards.)

Prophet. More and more advisees request a schedule that will assure that they make the best grades. Do they expect me to know that? Or to read the site that shall not be named? More and more ask what internship will lead to a permanent position.

Pawn. One office on campus demands that I help curb grade inflation by assigning more failing grades. Another demands that I help students pass to increase our retention rates.

I hope that my professional dissonance isn’t common yet suspect that it is. Twenty years into my career, I still love the work, and I have always tried to do what is best for my students. Yet I can’t help feeling that a few students take too much of my time for roles that I had never anticipated.


  1. Post of the week. Hell, it's nearly the post of all time.

  2. Fine vintage Misery. Good stuff.

  3. In addition to being an excellent description of the terrifying complexity of our work, and the ways in which the 'life of the mind' which should be so good for introverts has become a kind of social welfare system that demands extroversion...

    Now I want to hear "I'd Do Anything for Love (But I Won't Do That)" covered on the tuba. Though "Life is a Lemon (I want my money back)" from the same album is a much, much better song, more appropriate to our circumstances.

    1. Ooompapa Ooooompa Oom pa. pa...
      Oompa Oom. Pa. Pa.

    2. "Life Is A Lemon And I Want My Money Back"

      It's all or nothing
      And nothing's all I ever get
      Ev'ry time I turn it on, I burn it up and burn it out

      It's always something
      There's always something going wrong
      That's the only guarantee, that's what this is all about

      It's a never ending attack
      Ev'rything's a lie and that's a fact
      Life is a lemon and I want my money back

      And all the morons
      And all the stooges with their coins
      They're the ones who make the rules, it's not a game it's just a rout

      There's desperation
      There's desperation in the air
      It leaves a stain on all your clothes and no detergent gets it out

      And we're always slipping through the cracks
      Then the movie's over, fade to black
      Life is a lemon and I want my money back

      I want my money back
      I want my money back

      What about love?
      It's defective! It's always breaking in half

      What about sex?
      It's defective! It's never built to really last

      What about your family?
      It's defective! All the batteries are shot

      What about your friends?
      It's defective! All the parts are out of stock

      What about hope?
      It's defective! It's corroded and decayed

      What about faith?
      It's defective! It's tattered and it's frayed

      What about you gods?
      They're defective! They forgot the warranty

      What about your town?
      It's defective! It's a dead-end street to me

      What about your school?
      It's defective! It's a pack of useless lies

      What about your work?
      It's defective! It's a crock and then you die

      What about your childhood?
      It's defective! It's dead and buried in the past

      What about your future?
      It's defective! And you can shove it up your ass

      Oh, I want my money back
      I want my money back

      It's all or nothing
      And nothing's all I ever get
      Ev'ry time I turn it on, I burn it up and burn it out

      It's a never ending attack
      Ev'rything's a lie and that's a fact
      Life is a lemon and I want my money back

      And we're always slipping through the cracks
      Then the movie's over, fade to black
      Life is a lemon and I want my money back

      I want my money back
      I want my money back

    3. R&/orG: Makes me think of a Peter Schickele concert I went to that featured a piece he'd written for 7 (or 9?) trombones. You can do really, really strange stuff when you put a bunch of those instruments together.

      Burnt Chrome: Exactly. It's like the distilled essence of heavy metal. The "what about" bridge is Stand-up-and-salute anthemic. I mostly listen to that album when I'm grading.

    4. Sorry, kid, but as they say in the big city, "You pays your money, and you takes your CHANCE."

  4. Puts a finger on a lot of stuff I've been feeling about this job.

  5. Awesome post. "The dean suggested that a meeting to reconsider my attendance policy might help me be a “better, more caring” teacher." This made me laugh and weep at the same time.

    1. I just pulled in a new grant, so I get to tell the dean to go jump in a bucket of aardvark's vomit.

      We are right now having a mutiny, against a lazy, ineffective, disorganized, incompetent, but at the same time sanctimonious department Chair. Every one of the tenured faculty in our department signed a memorandum of no confidence. The stupid little twit doesn't want to step down, citing the adverse effect it will have on his career---No kidding!---so this is bringing out my mean streak. I am positively enjoying tormenting him: for example, I won't be attending this week's faculty meeting, since it conflicts with the provosts "summit on student success" (which I have no intention of attending, of course).


    Seriously. This post is a thing of beauty.

  7. Yaro himself could not have said it better.

  8. Brilliant. This is one of those posts that makes me relieved that my own institution is still comparatively sane, and also concerned that the inmates will eventually take over the asylum. And by the "inmates," I don't think I'm referring to our students -- who are mostly non-privileged and non-entitled -- but to any administrators who would move things in the direction you describe. I'm not a violent person, but reading this post makes me want to apply some Strelnikovian measures to your entire administration, or at least implement a mass firing. The snowflakes are annoying, but we can deal with them, and even, in many cases, help them grow up a little, but not if they're enabled by administrators who value short-term student satisfaction over all, and wouldn't recognize actual learning/growth if it bit them in the rear.

  9. The [associate] dean suggested that a meeting to reconsider my attendance policy might help me be a “better, more caring” teacher.

    Dear Ass Dean,

    Because I am in fact a good and caring teacher, I have over several years developed the skill and practice of beginning the semester with a surplus of fucks to give. Attached please find an Excel spreadsheet detailing how I have allocated my fucks thusfar. In brief, after the student in question was retained in my class despite having clearly not attended, I have but one fuck left to give. I therefore leave it for you to decide: should I give a fuck about this alleged meeting, or should I give a fuck about this student?

    Yours etc.,

    P.S. having to write this email has consumed 0.25 of a fuck; reading your response will consume another 0.25.

  10. TPP described a situation similar to what I experienced while I was teaching.

    My colleagues and I were, with time, expected to do more in addition to our duties as instructors. The reason for that was that our departmental administrators dumped their work onto us.

    The department head was interested in only one thing: his personal advancement and he didn't care what he had to do in order to either get promoted or rub shoulders with the senior administration. Each year he did even less than before as an administrator and more as a professional brown-noser. It got to the point that the department secretary was expected to put up to 40% of her time towards his personal pet projects.

    What he didn't want to do in an administrative capacity was dumped on the desk of the assistant department head who, as it turned out, was the wrong man to give it to because he had to be the laziest manager I ever knew. The only duties he didn't pass on to his subordinates, aside from the occasional teaching he had to do, were those that either required an executive decision or needed his signature and, when called upon to do those, whined and moaned almost as much as my students.

    Anything he didn't want to do, someone else got stuck with. Since he didn't particularly like me, I'm sure I got a greater portion of it than my colleagues did.

    Then again, I wasn't terribly surprised, since he was in heavy-duty training for retirement.

  11. Where do I begin expressing admiration for this existential crie de couer?

    Record each student's daily behavior? In college? WTF?
    The plagiarism tribunal? Again, the fuck?
    The dean concluding that "there is an attendance problem"? (Yes, the attendance problem is that she doesn't attend.")

    Bobblehead. This. This is the only one (from admin) we have at my school too. I thought it was bad enough, but how you can deal with all that shit and not just curl up under your desk is beyond me.

    And that's just from the admin side.

    Confessor and Absolver. Yes. The confessions are carefully calculated to elicit the particular absolution that will save the GPA.

    The TMI: Yeah, I'm in such a case right now, complete with foot condition selfie.

    The life of the mind? Fucking A.

  12. It certainly sums up a lot of my week. Little "misery" misery in my work, but plenty of professional dissonance. "Prof Diss" has a certain ring to it, although not in a good way.

    I also wondered about any connection between professional dissonance and depression.

    Anyway, fabulous post. This - for me - is why CM is so necessary.

  13. POW for sure! And it reminds me of the concept of "Emotional Labor."


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