Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Ask the Administrator: Why is Everyone so Crabby?

An occasional correspondent writes:

I've been reading along for quite some time and it
seems like a lot of your commentors are, well, unhappy
with their lot in life.

I teach high school right now. I absolutely adore my
job. I'm also finishing my dissertation, have an
article in press, have another in the works, and just
picked up a 58K grant. I do all of these things
because they're fabulously exciting to me. I work way
more than when I was a TT faculty member at a CC, even
if you only count my actual job. But, I wouldn't
trade it for anything else right now.

The adjuncts want TT jobs, the folks with TT jobs want
to actually have 'a month off with pay' or reduced
demands on their time or something so they can, well,
I'm not sure what exactly.

Your comment that you've not had a month off with pay
raised a whole set of comments where people seemed to
play 'one-up' and in the process made it really sound
like they don't like research or the publication

I've always wondered about faculty and administrators
and perhaps you can address this:

How much do you really understand what the job entails
before you start?

If you've done it for a few years and you still seem
to dislike it so much (hi to your commentors) then why
do you keep doing it?

What barriers exist to you just doing what you want?
Heck, do you even know what you want?

I guess this is really two larger questions and you
can provide answers in the context of higher ed should
you like:

If you haven't done a job, how do you know what it
entails? (before you started deaning for example)

Once you've started doing a job how do you decide if
it's actually worth keeping? (as in, why do you keep

One of the lessons of blogging is that meanings, no matter how transparent they may seem to you, will be filtered through other people's experiences, even if those filters change the meanings completely. They won't be aware that they're doing it, though, and they'll blame you for whatever they're projecting onto you. Comes with the gig. (In that sense, blogging and deaning are similar.)

The line about a “month off with pay” is a pretty good example. It's a fair description of some people, and a real misreading of others. I know that, and I assume that others know that, too. Apparently, some folks took great umbrage at the line. If you've worked on different sides of the desk, as I have – adjunct, full-time faculty, and administrator – I know both how common those lines are and how complicated the realities they reflect are. (That's why I included it as part of the 'internal monologue,' rather than something to say in public. It's up there with snarky comments about people's clothes or politics. Most of us have similar thoughts from time to time, but we also 'know better,' so we don't express them. The line was an example of venting for comic effect, which assumes a certain basis of shared understanding between reader and writer.)

The larger point, though, is about discontent with one's lot. It's a great question, and one I think about quite a bit. Every dean's nightmare is the professor who basically retires on the job after receiving tenure. It isn't as common as the popular press seems to assume, but it happens. It's also true that some folks who are honestly motivated for the first ten or fifteen years of their careers get a little stale by twenty, and positively curdled by thirty. Given the deadly combination of high intelligence and heavy repetition, it's not all that surprising.

I think part of the issue is that we have a 'one size fits all' definition of what a professor is, even though different institutions have wildly different expectations. For example, High School Friend is an endowed professor of a physical science at an R1. For him, teaching is a very small part of the job – not quite an afterthought, but pretty close – and research is all-consuming. To a colleague at my cc, his teaching schedule would look positively leisurely, and in a very narrow sense, it is. But he works insane hours, since by his (and his university's) definition, research is where the action is. Professors at my cc have far heavier teaching loads, and with much greater repetition of preps (maybe 8 sections of Intro to...every year, plus two of whatever else), so the prospect of boredom is much greater. On the other hand, research expectations are minimal. In my observation, many of the senior, tenured people really do have a month off with pay at Christmas, and three in the summer. They defend it by saying, largely correctly, that they need it to stay fresh from year to year. (I know there's some truth to this because I did a few years as full-time faculty at Proprietary U, where we had a twelve-month teaching calendar with cc-level teaching loads each semester. After a few years, most of us were pretty fried.)

So which one is the 'real' professor? Both, and neither.

I worked with a colleague at Proprietary U who was constantly angry that it wasn't, and didn't try to be, Harvard. When I moved into administration, I made him a deal: don't be a pain in my ass, and you can use me as a reference to get a job you actually want. After a year, he decamped for a place more to his liking, to the relief of all concerned. Last I heard, he's doing quite well in his new digs, having found a college whose definition of 'professor' comes much closer to his own.

Certainly, there are some grievances that unite the entire profession: low pay relative to the length of training, indifferent and/or ill-prepared students, and the general crappiness of the market. Paradoxically, given the 'universal' aspirations of the term 'university,' there's also an epidemic of provincialism. I don't mean it in the geographic sense, but in the generic sense: whatever my unspoken idea of higher education is, is right, and everybody else is an ignorant jerk. Since relatively few people hop between different tiers of higher ed as full-time employees, there aren't that many who can really bring a comparative perspective to bear. Given relative inbreeding and, in many cases, an extended lack of hiring, local myths can attain 'unquestionable' status, even while being badly wrong.

I suspect that crabbiness is worse now than in the past, since a relative lack of opportunities (esp. for non-stars and at the entry level) often forces people to choose among options they didn't have in mind when they started. Had my original plan held, I'd be a tenured Associate Professor of (my discipline) at Oberlin by now. Life didn't work that way. It's hard to take ownership of one's career decisions when the available options are so few and so flawed. The sense of powerlessness, I think, contributes to the level of crabbiness.

There's also a real lack of felt options for many academics who tire of academe. By the time the fatigue sets in, it's late in the game to start over again. Maybe you have kids to support, a spouse who's tired of waiting for you to get your #%*! together, or just an impatience to get on with it. For a burned-out but tenured English professor at a community college, in his fifties, making 80-90k, what else is out there? Most of the realistically-available options would involve massive pay cuts, thereby making them unrealistic. (That's the paradox of the academic salary structure. The hardest-working years are usually the lowest-paid.) Some fields have the luxury of being able to move back-and-forth between industry and academe, but the evergreen disciplines largely don't.

Why do I keep deaning? A whole bunch of reasons, but the one I keep coming back to is that I don't trust many other people to do it. Too many academics have absolutely no idea of the realities of running an institution, and too many business-types have absolutely no idea of the realities of higher education. I believe – I'll cop to a certain arrogance on this count – that I have the training, the temperament, and the taste for it, and that relatively few people do. That's not to say that I don't get frustrated – regular readers know all about that – but the frustration is because I actually care about higher ed. If I were only in it for the money, I would have picked up a finance degree and left by now. I want to see higher ed done right, and I think I can make my best contribution to that via administration. I'm a good but not spectacular teacher, and a competent but not prolific researcher – my wheelhouse is in administration. That makes me a rare bird, but that's okay.

Wise and beneficent blogosphere – any contributions to a general theory of academic crabbiness?