Friday, November 18, 2016

The Peter Principle Proffie. From Uggy.

Do you ever feel like a living embodiment of the Peter Principle? I do! You might as well stamp "incompetent" on my forehead. I got my job because I was good at research. Now I'm a teacher, an academic advisor, a research advisor, a counselor, and an accountant--everything but what I was trained to do--and I can't escape the feeling that I stink at everything.

Take teaching. I used to think I would love being in the classroom. What could be more fulfilling than introducing students to the subject I love so much? (I can feel you laughing. What can I say? I was always an idealist.) These days my attitude toward teaching ranges between "tolerate" and "hate" depending on the day. I thought I would be a good teacher because I'm good at organizing information and making difficult concepts accessible, but it's clear that most of the students don't value those skills. On course evals they complain about my voice ("Uptalk is distracting"), my enthusiasm ("Uggy will be a better teacher after s/he realizes some of us just don't care"), and my class rules ("Your laptop policy is dumb"). I'm not a natural-born entertainer and I resent feeling like I have to perform every day. Lately I have developed a strategy where I focus just on the five people who pay attention and ignore everyone else.

I spend a lot of my time as an unqualified amateur psychologist. In my role as an undergrad advisor I tried to help a student who bombed an entire semester due to bipolar disorder get back on track academically. I placed frantic phone calls to the college's social worker after a student confided (via email) that s/he missed a test after taking too many sleeping pills. (That one had a happy ending at least--the student got into counseling and thanked me for intervening.) Along with other faculty, I provided input when behavioral services assessed a grad student who was borderline suicidal. I still break into a sweat when I think about that case. What if the student had taken hir life?

As a research advisor, I have spent several hours over the past two weeks trying to convince a graduate student to test hir computer program against results already in the literature. S/he's resisting because code tests are "boring." I finally ran out of patience and dropped an ultimatum: if you don't do the code tests, we won't submit your paper. The student slouched off, sulking. S/he accused me of being "too perfectionistic" to write papers with and said I haven't been at my best this month. What can I say? I know how to do science, but I don't know how to manage and motivate recalcitrant students. On the flip side, I don't know how to keep good students afloat when they start to suffer the confidence crises that grad school produces so frequently. Sadly, working with the grad students is as close as I get to science these days.

By nature I am the stereotypical absentminded professor, so I have to work very hard to stay organized. Constant minutiae-chasing drives me crazy. I budget and re-budget grants ("Oops, I allocated $1,000 for page charges but this paper is going to cost $1,230 to publish. Can I move money from the travel budget? Oh no, that's already earmarked for next month's symposium.") I try to stay on top of my grading, but it's a losing battle ("Janie said she handed in her homework, but where is it? Bob has an excused absence, but Bill's missed quiz is unexcused. TA Jen put in her lab grades, but what is TA Joe up to?")

I really want to be good at my job. I admire teachers who have been through the student bullshit gauntlet tons of times yet still bring their A-game to the classroom. I wish I could be like those teachers, but I'm so exhausted. I want to give my grad students the attention they need to be successful, but lately I've been keeping my door shut because they get on my nerves so much. I've actually been thinking about quitting my career, which would be a very drastic move given how much hard work it took to get the career going in the first place. My spouse works full time so I could conceivably quit, but it would mean a huge financial shakeup. I think I have a lot of science left in the tank, but I don't know if I'll ever get a chance to sit down and do a real project of my own again.

I'm looking for insight from CMers. If you have thought of quitting, what brought you back? If you got to a bad place in your attitude toward teaching, how did you turn it around? (Or did you hit the booze and Xanax, which is where I'm headed?) How do you hit the reset button, especially if you have children or other family responsibilities that don't halt just because you need a break? Would you quit if you were in my shoes?

-Uggy from Utica

1 comment:

  1. Some small suggestions:

    "Janie said she handed in her homework, but where is it?" There is only online submission! I know this isn't true at every university, but ours has computers and scanners that they can use, so even in the rare case of things that must be handwritten, I'll only take homework that's submitted online. I've yet to meet a Janie who can convince the IT department that they lost her homework, or mis-timestamped it, or whatever the story is.

    "Bob has an excused absence, but Bill's missed quiz is unexcused." A long time ago someone here posted this sentence: I cannot discuss another student's situation with you, even to convince you that you are being treated fairly. Does your syllabus or department policy lists why an absence is excused? Can you point them to the policy, and assure them that you are following it?

    Take comfort in the small victories --- that grad student didn't commit suicide, and you made a huge difference to the sleeping pills student. Yes, most of the students are just passing through, but can you take pleasure in the ones who do engage? Can you find fulfillment in getting slowly better at engaging a few more every few years?


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