Total B.S.: The Resurrection

whyprof, joining the multitudes with an unnatural fixation on professor-bashing, has declared “University Professor” to be the least stressful career because of “high growth opportunities, low health risks and substantial pay.” High-level corporate executive jobs – yes, the ones that gobble up bonuses and sail away in golden parachutes, even when they lure both their companies and taxpayers into economic netherworlds  – were for some reason declared among the most stressful.

As with David C. Levy’s editorial claiming that faculty at my college are underworked and overpaid based on spurious information, the Careercast article is notable both for for its disconnection from reality and the Schadenfreude with which it is forwarded by people with much cushier careers. I love my job, and I’m not going to argue that it belongs on the Top 10 most-stressful-jobs list, but déjà vu moments are becoming more common than apocalypse predictions. Once again, the good writers have based their claims on faulty assumptions:

  1. Professors have high pay.  For support, Careercast cited the (yes, dizzying) compensation of faculty from Harvard, University of Chicago, and UCLA, ignoring the fact that most full time faculty at middle-tier institutions earn about half this amount and full time faculty at two year colleges earn about a third of this amount, even using the mysteriously inflated data in the study. My own institution, Montgomery College, only includes salaries of full time faculty and doesn’t list adjunct salaries, which are measly.
  2. Faculty jobs are multiplying. Careercast misleadingly declares, “To maintain the quality of education while meeting the increased demand, universities are expected to add 305,700 adjunct and tenure-track professorial positions by 2020.” The article briefly mentions that competition is fierce for full time faculty positions (at MC, we usually receive at least 100-150 applicants for every opening) and cites the “new emphasis” on adjunct positions. However, most of the growth in faculty hiring has been in low-paid adjunct positions, with a good proportion of full time hiring to replace retiring faculty who were hired during community colleges’ hiring heydays in the 1970s.
  3. The job has few physical risks. I don’t have any official statistics, but with the massive teaching loads at institutions below the top tier of colleges and universities, overuse injuries and stress-related illnesses (like migraines) are rampant among faculty teaching more than 100 students a term. I’m not talking whining about headaches, but instead injuries that have interfered with work and have needed ongoing medical attention. We’re not saving lives here, but my neck, wrist, and shoulders are never going to be normal again, and huge numbers of my colleagues say the same thing. (Also, if the wacky proposals to require guns in classrooms are successful, the lethality of the job could increase quickly.)

Careercast considered these other factors in calculating stress levels, although they didn’t provide scores for each category:

  • Travel. Most of my long-distance travel is nominally optional, but necessary to stay current in my field. My short-distance travel is almost always reasonable – but if you’d asked me when I was an adjunct driving 500+ miles a week to different campuses, you would get a much different answer.
  • Deadlines. As far as I can tell, our faculty lives are one big calendar of deadlines – for conference proposals, articles, reviews, committee work, collaborations, class preparation. Most notably, courseload directly determines the amount of deadline pressure to respond to student work. A professor who assigns 25 pages of writing during a semester to 125 students is going to grade more than 3000 pages of writing in a semester, not counting homework.
  • Working in the public eye. Even when the public eye is mostly closed – as for this latest article – our work is scrutinized. Public speaking is the #1 most common phobia, and when faculty step in front of a classroom, scrutinized by dozens of skeptical students and sometimes by their helicopter parents, it feels very, very public…witness the persistence of teaching nightmares.
  • Environmental conditions. Environmental risks vary by discipline, ranging from picking up illnesses students pick up from their children to dealing with toxic chemicals and toxic people.
  • Hazards encountered. We’re not exactly on the front lines, but considering that most of the mass shootings have involved students and colleges in some way and that we’re “first responders” for a variety of situations, I wouldn’t say our jobs are hazard free.
  • Own life at risk. Thankfully, our lives are usually not at risk, but occasionally domestic violence, gang violence, or mental instability can create some dangerous situations. These are handled confidentially so I don’t have statistics, but at my own college several threatening situations arise at campuses each semester.
  • Life of another at risk. When I worked in advertising, I can say with absolute confidence that nobody ever came to me afraid that she would be killed by a spouse or ex-spouse, that he or she was about to attempt suicide, that he had nothing to eat, that her parents had kicked her out, or that an addiction made him a danger to himself. Now that I am a professor, these situations come up several times a semester, and once in a while I’ve even probably had a small role in saving a handful of lives. That doesn’t even count the kinds of lifesaving that happens when the support of a faculty member helps a student escape a soul-killing future, which is what I consider to be a good-sized chunk of my job.
  • Meeting the public. What is it that Careercast thinks we do at the start of every semester?

As I said, I am certainly not arguing that my job is the most stressful, and in fact, because my work is so satisfying, the stress doesn’t seem to matter as much as it would in a job that was empty of social value. On the other hand, knowing that I am doing something important in a population whose last best hope is often education carries its own sort of stress, because every day I must weigh my own needs against the needs of others and balance all sorts of competing projects that represent competing values.

It is interesting to me that level of responsibility, amount of prioritizing necessary to get the job done, and public bias (few have knowledge of what we do, but everyone has an opinion about it) weren’t considered in the criteria, since they’re known stress factors, but I’m not a pollster, so whatever. As I tell my students, I am privileged to have the best job in the world. It’s just not the best job in the world for the reasons some people think.

My Kind of Dinosaur

The Professor of a Certain Age frequently appears in a pair of dueling stereotypes: the white-haired and endearingly eccentric white male who delivers brilliant and inspiring lectures; and the doddering, out-of-touch microspecialist whose tenured bliss has propelled the national education crisis. I am approaching both a birthday and the one-decade mark in my career as an English instructor, so, although I have had some opportunity to observe Professors of a Certain Age in their natural habitats, I have found that neither of the stereotypes quite fit the senior faculty I have known.

The more I teach, however, the more I notice a gaping divide between two ways of approaching “experience.” One involves a long, monogamous marriage to a handful of ideas, and a long, exhausted shuffle toward retirement. These faculty are apathetic towards their students, their disciplines, and often both. At some point in their careers, their desire to do the minimum possible subsumed their desire to contribute to the profession or to their students’ education. They have been teaching the same things in the same way (and making the same comments at department meetings) since before some of their colleagues were born, and their teaching practices stagger unwavering into perpetuity, mostly because making significant changes seems like too big a hassle. They are our Professor Binns, who in the Harry Potter series goes on showing up to class to deliver the same endless lecture, unaware that he’s actually dead.

I don’t know everything, but I know for certain that I don’t want to end up burned out and lazy. I have had two other careers that made me smoulder down to cold ashes, so I sometimes worry that I’ll fall out of love with my third profession. Consequently, I have been trying to gather ways to protect myself from future obsolescence. Fortunately, most of my senior colleagues are inspiring role models and mentors who – despite counting their years of teaching in decades – continue to do outstanding teaching, go to workshops with facilitators who have a fraction of their experience, and continue to evolve as professionals. (They have even taken time out of their breakneck schedules to encourage the sometime neophyte who authors this blog.)

The other day, a colleague jokingly referred to herself and a few colleagues as “dinosaurs,” meaning that they’d been employed at my college long enough to remember the last few curriculum overhauls, but everyone in the room knew better. Rather than “I know what I’m doing,” these teachers’ motto is “I’m always learning.” I have asked a few of these perpetual learners what it takes to be a productive, Darwinian sort of dinosaur: the type that grows wings, decides one day to walk upright, or sprouts an extra arm for holding stacks of papers while opening classroom doors.

One wonderful thing about asking teachers about teaching is that they are so generous with their secrets. Nearly all of them have recommended keeping their minds open to experimentation, testing something radically new every year, going to conferences to harvest new ideas, and trying not to remain too long in a comfort zone. One colleague eschews conferences but reads academic journals; several others regularly interrogate themselves about their teaching; a couple have pursued doctoral programs. Nancy Sommers, co-author of the Hacker handbook series, says that staying connected to students has sustained her through thirty years of teaching and study of responding to student writers; along those lines, she told me about an elderly professor who tends his inner flame by calling former students on their birthdays. She also said that making space for her own writing has also kept her from falling into a rut.

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the need to reach the distant universes of our students’ potential while simultaneously commenting through stacks of essays, spending hours in committee meetings, and getting the laundry done and bills paid. When I attend a conference, though, I inevitably feel revitalized. This past weekend, I was in Portland, Maine for the Two Year College Association Northeast Conference. I left not only with a couple of beautiful scarves, but also Nancy Sommers’ ideas on how to comment more effectively on student writing, a panel’s strategy for encouraging better composition pedagogy, and former Maine poet laureate Baron Wormser’s unique strategy for teaching literature (which I tried in two classes this morning with impressive results).

It is reassuring to know that for one weekend I was doing what is required for productive dinosaur-hood. Years ago, after a particularly dreadful class session I taught when I was an adjunct, one of my full-time colleagues said, “Sometimes it’s easy to forget that teachers must also learn.” I often tell people, students included, that I have the best job in the world. Even if eventually I will be one of the dinosaurs, I don’t plan to become a fossil. Good teaching, it often seems, is not about what we can invent, but what we can steal; and it’s not about the information we deliver, but what we can perceive and absorb.