Friday, October 5, 2012

Turtle Rant: rambling musings from an occasional contributor.

The recent debates on CM have made me reflect on the possible differences between “work” and “job.” 

First, let me be clear:  Tenured, promoted, assigned to major-courses exclusively for the past fifteen years, salary, benefits, office, settled in what is for my partner and me a desirable location, a pleasant home in a quaint “walkable” town four miles from my office, I tell Siri often to remind me to shut up and count my blessings.

Here’s my big point for those of you who don’t want to read a long message from an old man:  I love my work, and I know I’m lucky, but my job--at least currently-- sometimes merits the wordmiserable

I love my work:  what I do each and every day is what some people take time off from their jobs to do.  I have many excellent students who work hard, develop skills, “get” college, succeed, and move on.  I am lucky.  My only regret is that most live anxiously, concerned about grades, next semester, debt, careers.  I try to understand and help them.  I have some students who clearly do not want to be in college, and I try to understand and help them.  I wish this college would be for them what it was for students twenty years ago.

For I once had a job like the one I imagined Yaro enjoyed.  Students—former, current, and future--dropped by, colleagues socialized and discussed classes, teaching, the “stuff” we teach, what we love to think about, and deans were clearly “on our side,” caring about the classroom, the students, what they were learning.  Teachers and teaching were important.  Committee work while not enjoyable to all was considered worthwhile and important. A few offices helped students, and for the most part, one might only be aware of the two vice presidents when they arrived at commencement.   We used the word community—before it became a buzzword for admissions brochures.  

Now, my campus has more “vice presidents” of something vague than members of my department—a department with 500 majors.  All departments rely on adjuncts as most colleges do I will admit.  People here keep saying that most colleges rely on adjuncts, but that doesn’t make things fair to adjuncts and to students, does it? My small department needs to hire seven or eight more colleagues to address the staffing requirements for over 500 majors, but when we are able to replace a retiree, we feel fortunate that the provost thinks so highly of us that we can hire one “new” colleague.  Adjuncts teach over 70 percent of the courses in my department—both general education and major courses.  A student can and increasingly does graduate from this college without having class with an instructor now called “permanent” faculty (that is, tenured or tenure track).   So, as I once said here at CM before, we have work for hundreds of adjuncts but no jobs. We burn them up, and most move on.  Most students spend more years on campus than the majority of their instructors do.  The chairs on this campus devote the great majority of their time recruiting, interviewing, hiring, training, and replacing adjuncts.  Recently, one department gave a tenured associate professor release time to help the chair with the adjuncts, and her first duty was to hire an adjunct to “cover” her classes. 

Yet our national rankings continue to climb.  Little wonder then that our administrators make such high salaries as the board of trustees recognizes the managerial skill necessary to cut costs yet raise the impression of standards. 

Students don’t know what “office hours” are as they have too many “professors” with no offices.  Students who need letters of recommendation have very few options when no faculty member currently on campus knows them—at all. 

The dean who hired me was frustratingly involved we thought.  But she knew all of us, listened to us, tried to work for and with us, compromised, negotiated, remembered favors and paid them back.  Those of us who remember her miss her now.  The last two deans never knew who I was; they were too busy for “day-to-day campus duties.”

My assistant dean, my associate dean, my dean, my provost, and my president were hired—note the passive voice—without searches.  Yet they are all quick to point to the longstanding tradition of shared governance on this campus. 

We did away with Convocation because the provost decided to concentrate on “Move-In Day” activities despite the fact that the majority of our students aren’t the best customers who contribute to operating funds by renting living space—I mean to say, they don’t live on campus. 

The bigger the administration grows, the more its officers use the offensive, problematic, questionable, and inaccurate metaphor of “family,” instead of community. 

Yes, I sound like the old man that I am, and nowadays I feel that I work for those people “hired” by the board of trustees, and not for students and education and that old-fashioned stuff, when this campus fostered and valued community.

Increasingly, I feel that I have little to no control over my professional life.  I recognize few people do, but I once enjoyed that here.  Assessment, core standards, grade inflation management (even though we trumpet that our SAT scores are up, up, up), enrollment management, five-year plans, one-year plans, FTE-based hiring, weekly email messages from offices that I haven’t heard about before demanding that I watch forty-minute online “videos of slides” on how to hire, on how to treat each other, etc that are mandatory—with the word mandatory CAPITALIZED,underlined, and boldfaced, classroom utilization, the scheduling grid, common goals or outcomes or learning outcomes, or course objectives (the phrase keep changing every few weeks it seems) corporate book store requirements, uniform syllabi for all classes, no matter level, focus, or topic are minor in the big picture, but for me they add up in that they seem to remind me that I’m an employee, not the professor I once was.  I had more “freedom” when I was working towards tenure than I do now.  

But my misery also comes from a job in which I benefit greatly while temporary employees work as hard as I do.  When did temporary employees become the permanent method of "covering" classes--filled with students duped into thinking that we're all one big family?  I'm tired telling my students during academic advising (which begins next week) "I don't know that instructor; s/he is new to the program."  

In closing, if I may, I want to suggest a new term for the College Misery vocabulary, for not all old men are “silverbacks.”  A turtle:  an older (typically male) colleague hired, tenured, and promoted at a different type of school than where he finds himself, often with credentials that wouldn’t get him hired.  Plodding along, occasionally mentioning how things used to be yet trying not to make too much noise to avoid being thought a silverback, ready to pull back into the shell, the turtle is slowly on its way, humbled, annoyed somewhat, confused often, and mostly resigned to plodding along.   

I am a turtle these days, something that I'm not proud of.

- Tuba Playing Prof


  1. Oh yes! Yes yes yes, THIS is what it's like for me and my department. We had more turtles than silverbacks, but then there were two rounds of 'voluntary severance or early retirement' in which most of them either chose to leave or were taken to one side and talked to after which they chose to leave.

    I'm too young for that, but I would definitely like to claim 'turtle' (or aspiring turtle given my relative youth) as my label. The one good thing about the UK system, or at least the part of it I know, is that the majority of classes are still taught by members of the department... although given the increasing emphasis on research and research income for both measuring the department's value and the individual's value, that may not mean that the students get good, dedicated teachers.

    Thank you for this post. Please write again!

  2. I'm more of a terrapin than a turtle, but I know exactly what you mean in your post.

    POW, if we haven't yet had one this week!

  3. Yes. Your poignancy is worthy misery.

  4. Thanks TPP. I've been trying to think of a way to articulate this for a while. Those of us with tenure are indeed lucky in many ways, and can have no complaint with a steady job doing work that is in many ways enjoyable. But the misery comes for me from seeing the idea of university scholarship - something that should be uplifting - turned into an assembly line for widgets, to be managed and streamlined, and eventually to become little different from a used car dealership.

  5. Making a distinction between work and your job helps me deal with one portion of misery. Educating people and continuing our own education is a noble profession that benefits mankind. I really believe that. Where I work? That's a human endeavor, with well-intentioned, intelligent people having to make decisions with incomplete sets of facts and no easy solutions. Oh, yeah, I forgot to mention the morons and assholes sometimes contribute the problems also. Like every other institution, where I work is flawed but what I do is noble.

  6. YES omg YES. Great post. I'm in between fresh young gumdrop unicorn and turtle -- a middle-aged service slogger, I guess, with a decent job that gets harder and harder -- but I notice these things too.

    And THIS: "the offensive, problematic, questionable, and inaccurate metaphor of 'family,' instead of community." Yes, yes, yes. "Community" can be problematic, but "family" is a coverup for "how much unpaid labor can we get out of you?"

    Love you, TPP. Keep 'em coming.

    1. Unpaid and underpaid labor is pretty common in families. It's an apt metaphor.

    2. Chiming in as another "middle-aged service slogger"...I watch spacious, fabulously appointed and equipped libraries being built, then see them nearly empty most of the time. At the same time (in response to intense pressure by administration), we have a program that has increased enrollment by 40%, and still have the same 2 1/2 classrooms (and no more equipment OR full-time faculty) that we had before.

      Our remarkable gifted (and numerous) adjuncts are paid a salary that would better fit fast food jobs. They stay (though goodness knows why) because, like Ben, they think their work is noble.

    3. And family (a very hierarchical notion of family, but family nonetheless) was also the metaphor used to justify slavery, with the slaves as perpetual children.

      I also find myself thinking of my university/department as a dysfunctional family, with those in power feeling free to change the rules, and the sticks and (occasional) carrots used to shape the behavior of those with less power, at whim. I find myself spending significant amounts of time doing things that I believe might please those in power not because there is any immediate reward, but because I'm afraid it just might matter some day. It's very close to (well, maybe it is) an abusive relationship. The really sad part is that many of those with power don't mean to be abusive of me, or those with even less power than I, but somehow the system manages to shape their actions that direction anyway.

  7. Oh, the misery. Despair, even. Hear, hear.

  8. From 1965:
    Are you a turtle?
    You bet your sweet ass I am.

  9. Turtles? Terrapins? This place is going to need its own Voight-Kamphh test:

  10. Love, love, love it. What a great post. Thanks for sharing it, Tuba.

  11. Amen. You've described the misery (and the work/job distinction) all too well. From the perspective of someone without tenure or the prospect thereof (but a long time at a single institution; I guess I'm permanently impermanent), I'm especially drawn to your comments about there being work for adjuncts (and other contingents), but no real jobs. I'm on the next rung up the ladder: a job, but no real career track (and the possibility of being let go in late middle age without the need for a buyout/severance package). But much of the misery -- especially the relentless demands for goals and outcomes and standard statements -- is the same. I realize we need to reflect on the worth and success of what we do, but isn't that what used to happen, much more collegially, in those committees you mentioned? But vice presidents (and their own underlings) need to justify their own jobs, and they seem to do so by creating more work for the faculty. And, of course, hiring and supervising adjuncts/contingents really does require a lot of work (which is spread among proportionately much fewer TT faculty).

    Given the circumstances, I don't think there's any shame in being a turtle. At least you're giving your students and your institution your best under the circumstances. On the other hand, I do appreciate those turtles who see tenure as a reason to stick their necks out now and then and scream to the high heavens (do turtles scream?) -- or at least the New York Times -- that something is wrong, and needs to be fixed. How to fix it, though, I don't know.

  12. No tenure here, so this 'ol turtle will be (mostly) keeping her neck firmly inside the shell. My husband is gravely ill, so I don't have the luxury of mounting the barricades.

    I will fight the battles that are "bright lines" in my ethical universe, but the fact is that a mediocre health plan is standing between my family and penury. Fixing the crazy is something to help with, but I will not be the leader holding the torch/ pitchfork, much as I would like to be.

  13. I'm not a turtle (does 15 years in count?), but I'm not sure I ever want to be one in the current climate of academia. Having our reality laid out so clearly and miserably makes me wonder what I'm doing on my campus with its multiple VPs.

    Thank you for this insightful, thoughtful glimpse at why we are so miserable.

    I second the vote of the term "turtle." Long live the turtle and the duck.

  14. Turtle here, absolutely. Thank you for describing in such exquisite and painful detail exactly what has been going on in my institution too. Every year there is less money for teaching but VPs keep hiring more of each other and sending each other on expensive junkets to "workshops" to learn how to be VPs. Meanwhile they are so sure the job market will keep faculty scared and under their thumb that in salary and contract negotiations they routinely refuse even common-sense requests that wouldn't cost them any money, because what are we going to do, huh? Get another job? Huh? Good luck with that, you pathetic asswipes, we can buy you in job lots you know ... our administrators used to come from our ranks. Now they get hired from somewhere else, promoted wildly past their competence thresholds, and lay about them with cutbacks, clawbacks and cancelled jobs, drunk on their own power and as far as we can tell, actively enjoying all the pain they cause, and they have no idea at all of what the mission of a university is or should be.

    It didn't used to be like this. I still enjoy my work, plus I'm getting paid and that matters a lot, but I sure as hell don't enjoy my job. This isn't my university anymore. It isn't *a* university anymore. I don't recognize it.


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