Friday, December 31, 2010

Are we the source of much of our own misery? Maybe next year can be different.

I posted this to RYS in 2008. Since it was not among those posts that the archive kept and it is a possible source of New Year's resolutions, I figured I could re-post it here and now. Revisiting it now more than two years later I find it a bit too much like a sermon in tone and content. But I'll leave it pretty much untouched and resolve for the new year to publish funnier stuff soon...

Something has occurred to me over and over again when reading RYS and while listening to the bitching and complaining I hear at the faculty water cooler. Metacritical Mortimer moved me to spell it out. It isn't much in the way of a solution, but an idea about where to look for one.

There seems to be a certain determinism, a certain inevitability in our fate. One would think that we would be smart, self-critical, self-correcting people. One would think that we have a great deal of control over our jobs since there is (comparatively) little hierarchy in academia, at least in the sense that we don't have rigid chains of command. But we keep the cycle of misery going. There are things we hate and that we can change, but somehow just don't.

We hate to be hurried by "publish or perish" - conditions under which Darwin probably would have never gotten noticed - and lament that our teaching doesn't count for enough, but use the same damned criteria on colleagues when judging their performance.

We hate writing all those letters of recommendation, and yet when we chair a hiring committee, we always (thoughtlessly, from sheer habit?) insist on them from every applicant, not just the final 10, say, or a list of references instead of full letters.

We hate being treated like shit when we are junior faculty, but sometimes treat others who are our former selves like shit when we "grow up" and get tenure. Indeed, if anyone could institute a flattening of the hierarchy, it would be those in the hierarchy. That is the case at the university more than just about any other job situation imaginable. At some schools, it even happens, where "fulls" and "associates" and "adjuncts" interact like equals.

It often just exposes our vanity, however, showing that we are often no better than corporate, military, patriarchal or church hierarchies.

We hate it when the plumber or the car mechanic talks to us condescendingly, as if everyone should know how a water boiler or transmission works. We find it uninteresting and just want to get the encounter over with and the job done. But then we assume our students are dumb for not knowing the basics of our various fields or lack curiosity for not caring to learn. Many of them are hear to jump through hoops, just like we are at the local garage.

When we are administration, we seem to forget what it was like in the classroom, either as a student or, in some cases, as faculty, and we insist on evaluation methods we used to think were inadequate, superfluous, unfair and stupid. They're easier for us and they satisfy the bozos above us, so we conform.

We deplore the commodification of knowledge, but then complain about our pay or use job applications to other schools to negotiate more money from our current job or condescend to those adjuncts or others who are in it for it and not for the money. We tell people it is crazy to follow our example and give poor pay as the reason.

Our policies for grading, late assignments, make-up work and the like often enable the very snowflakes we like to complain about so much.

We can all think of more examples.

Much of this is because there are different people involved: The thoughtless full professor did not mind being treated like crap as a junior, or perhaps she wasn't treated that way and never learned the difference. Or we are the same people in different decades of their lives with changed experiences and personalities. Or other roles really do require different kinds of butt-headedness. But some of this is our own home-made grief.

So solutions should focus at least in part on our own empowerment and the control we still have over our own jobs.

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