Saturday, November 13, 2010

It's a Wonderful (Academic) Life

Yes, I know I owe everybody a part III for my post on teaching. And maybe that'll happen sometime this weekend, since (mirabile dictu!) I seem to be caught up on grading.

But this morning, I bounced over to In the Middle, where Karl put up a very thoughtful post, complete with New! Video!, with regards to how we, as faculty, might be reinforcing our own cynicism. As I mentioned sometime earlier, one of my goals for this semester was to try to avoid negativity about my work. I mean, really, I could complain, but when both my siblings have been either un- or underemployed this year, and when I am close friends with a professional woman who may be on the brink of losing her home through no fault of her own, and when I know so many putatively successful adults in jobs they dislike, it seems graceless to do so.

And then some student comes along and wants a life like mine... well, why shouldn't they? I mean, it's far from perfect, but depending on your priorities, it can be very good. Nice work if you can get it, as they say. I do still think that it is our responsibility as faculty to alert potential grad students to the overall crappiness of the job market, and to sacrifices that our life choices entail if and when we do manage to land jobs, but why are we so reluctant to balance that out by talking about the positive? Are we perhaps afraid to admit that our sporadic bitching about our jobs may at times be unwarranted, and so we project it onto our students who are guilty only of being as idealistic as we once were?

And if we did dare to talk with students about the good things about our jobs -- heck, even the good things about grad school! -- might that contribute to our own happiness?

Oh, nevermind. Just watch the video. It's not the one you've seen before.**



**And yes, before someone tells me: I know that those other videos were in large part snarking on utterly unprepared students. But a not-insignificant portion of the ridicule was also directed at student idealism, which is something I think I (a self-declared idealist who still, at times, romanticizes her job) needed to be called up short on.

24 comments:

Comrade PhysioProf said...

That video was so fucken earnest it made my teeth hurt. It unduly props up the pernicious idea that academia is a "calling", and that only those who are willing to "suffer" deserve to become faculty. This is a total load of shitte.

Academia is a profession just like any other, and just like in any other profession, very few make it to the highest levels compared to how many try to. Academics don't suffer any more, or any differently, than those in any other profession.

The idea that taking the academic route is some kind of monastic vow also contributes to the excessive whiteness and maleness of university faculties.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

Comrade, you're not going to be surprised to hear that I disagree with you here -- if I didn't, I wouldn't have posted this. But I'm going to forestall my reply for the moment to let others on either side jump in, if they will.

token undergrad said...

Oh, Prof. Notorious, this brought tears to my eyes. (What follows is hopelessly autobiographical, but I think relevant.)

I'm a college junior, and I'll be applying to grad school in a couple years for a variety of reasons, most centrally that I believe in the humanities, I believe in what I have to contribute to them, I believe in the small-scale change of hearts and minds, and I couldn't see myself doing anything else with my life. And the thing is, some people do need to go on to get advanced academic credentials and do research and teach and curate the world's knowledge, or else academia, and specifically the humanities, as we know it will die out. If we tell all students that they shouldn't go to grad school, then who will keep doing the scholarly and educational work that needs to be done?

When I see videos like the original one on which yours is based, I get the message that the profession (yes, Prof. PhysioProf, I recognize that it is a profession, though I'd argue it can be a vocation and a calling too) isn't interested in supporting the desire of students to learn more and to teach what they've learned, which is disillusioning and upsetting to say the least. When I read and watch snarky faculty output which makes fun of idealistic students, I feel embarrassed and ashamed for thinking that I'm worthy enough to do what the creators of the snark do.

In my limited exposure to it, academic culture is certainly plagued by such susceptibility to dividing insiders from outsiders--just take the entire domain of literary theory, for instance. If you can somehow survive the hazing rituals, whether it's endless dissuasion and mockery, or endless inscrutable jargon and mockery, only then can you be granted entrance to the club. But as much as this may be a part of the culture, I have never understood it to be what academia stands for. And I thank you for allowing a little positive thinking to fester in the mind of a kid who should really be researching her undergrad thesis right now instead of worrying about what the job market will be like a decade hence.

token undergrad said...

Apologies, I just realized that the video in question wasn't your creation. I think all my points should still stand though.

Historiann said...

I didn't think the original videos made fun of student idealism so much as student cluelessness and unpreparedness. And it's not like we've never seen actual evidence of that in our offices before, besides the earnest and prepared students like the one in the video here. Both videos reduce students to stereotypes--this one just portrays the student as unusually competent and self-aware.

But, maybe I'm just a jaded professor who's already lost her soul!

Dame Eleanor Hull said...

My teeth hurt too.

thefrogprincess said...

I can't even watch. I too really think the pervasive idea that academia is a calling to be one of the most troubling parts of academia. My issue isn't when one individual believes it's a calling for them; it's the larger narrative in which academia becomes a calling as a way to justify the casualized labor, the precariousness, etc. I'm with CPP, it's a career choice and a profession (even though I don't agree with CPP's frequently referred to reference of professional sports). If I wanted to take a monastic vow, I would have been a nun or a missionary. I refuse to be complicit in allowing administrators etc to treat my labor as less valuable b/c it's something I'd do for free (since it's a calling). I like what I do; I made a choice to do it; but I'm allowed to have expectations.

I can't tell you the number of times people threw "calling" or "trial by fire" etc in my face as things went to hell and a handbasket last year, all comments meant to shut me up since nobody was interested in solving problems.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

I'm going to jump in here, but I'm going to try to keep it brief because I think I've mostly said my piece in the post itself, and I'd like to hear what others have to say.

I think I felt more comfortable with this take on things because, even after 8 years of grad school and nearly as long as a professor, I'm still an idealist and even a bit of a romantic when it comes to my work. Part of this may have to do with me being a medievalist, which encourages notions of a semi-monastic life of the mind. Or maybe I'm just wired that way. Who knows?

That said, FrogPrincess makes a good point about the notion of "calling" being used as a bludgeon, or a way to justify hierarchical exploitation. I recall when my grad program was in the throes of unionizing, the metaphor of "apprenticeship" was thrown about to justify why we shouldn't be paid a decent wage or expect health care. I will happily call bullshit on that.

Nevertheless, I maintain that there is a fine line between being realistic, and being unnecessarily cynical. My idealism may cause some of my readers -- even those who normally like what I have to say -- to cringe, but for me, it's what allows me to keep enjoying and believing in what I do.

'Nuff said. Shutting up and listening to the conversation again for now.

Nicole said...

I suspect that if only the students like the one in this video went to graduate school in the humanities, then there wouldn't be an excess supply of PhDs.

If only students like this one went into more mathematically technical PhDs (biology, math, and physics excepted) then there wouldn't be nearly enough PhDs (or rather, we'd be hiring even more immigrants). The only person I know in my field with this level of idealism *just* got a Nobel Prize (and he's very pragmatic when it comes to policy itself). Thank goodness it's just a job. A nice job, but still a job.

Karl Steel said...

The complaints about the video presenting academia as a calling misses, I think, one of its important points, which is the call to unionize. This is hugely important, in part because it calls attention to the material conditions (a precritical formulation, sure, but bear with me) of our employment; note too that the video demands that TT faculty work to improve the employment conditions of adjuncts. If this makes your teeth hurt, so be it, but I think the video wonderfully combines the intellectual thrill of this job with our responsibilities to our students, our workforce, and our world.

Say says the proudly unionized professor.

And if you do have a union at your institution, GET INVOLVED. Attend all the meetings; contribute your labor. Trust me: you'll feel a lot better about yourself than you do after, say, wrangling with your colleagues on the parking or social committees.

Dr. Virago said...

Yes, what Karl says.

Not only that, but where in the video does it use the word "calling"? It talks about *enthusiasm* and that's a different thing. And goddamit, who doesn't want a job -- yes, just a job -- that they actually *like*??? If I had kids, I'd tell them to do what they love, and I certainly tell my students that. And frankly, that's a radical f'ing position in a world of STEMites and MBA types telling us we're useless and impractical and that students should do things that get them a job, regardless of whether they're suited to it or even freakin' like whatever that almighty credentialed job is.

You can like your job and be enthusiastic about *and* work to improve its material conditions at the same freakin' time. In fact, I'd say actually liking your job might even be a prerequisite for the latter.

Karl Steel said...

DV: word.

tenthmedieval said...

Yes to what CPP says but for the reasons Frog Princess gives, not those CPP gives. The idea that the profession is a calling is dangerous precisely as FP says because it opens us (all of us, but obviously the lowest levels most) up to exploitation and poor rewards. At the same time, any kind of public service, which this is, whether we mean specifically the people we teach and inform or the wider world of humanity at large that needs a humanities sector to stay human/e, is obviously always going to be subject to lower remuneration per point on pay-scale than the private sector, because the public purse has many demands on it and there is not an infinite tax-base. This is, pace CPP, a kind of suffering we (and other public sector workers) get that other professions don't. One of the things that makes that more OK, not OK but more OK, is that we love at least some of our work and are driven to do it for more than financial reward.

Personal datapoint: up until this very year, all the money I'd ever made in paid employment bar, er, bar work and eight terms of contract teaching with too few hours to live on, was in database work. I could have been making a lot more if I'd given myself to that full-time outside the academic sector. Likewise, a friend of mine with a Cambridge Ph. D. in a fairly narrow field had got a job as a technical writer by the time a suitable lectureship came up, because he liked food and shelter and stuff, and when he put the application in for the lectureship said to me, "But if it comes up, I'll have to think real hard about how much I want that ten grand pay cut". At that point, it's the person with a calling who takes the academic job, and thank goodness because, as token undergrad says, what would happen if they didn't? So let's be happy to have a calling dammit.

Comrade PhysioProf said...

This is, pace CPP, a kind of suffering we (and other public sector workers) get that other professions don't.

I have no fucken clue what "pace" means, but I am not a public sector worker.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ CPP -- That's true, but many of us who work for state universities are. And yes, there are differences in our jobs (and the way we view them) depending on institution type. But I don't think that's critical to TenthMedieval's point.

Historiann said...

Dona nobis pacem, pacem. . .

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@Historiann -- and now, I'm imagining you chanting. ;-)

You know, I've been blogging for years, and I'm astounded at my inability to predict what will touch a nerve. Never a dull moment in blogland...

reassignedtime said...

Coming to this way late because I was off socializing with my former idealistic thesis student (now friend). I couldn't make it all the way through the video. Here's the thing: at least the beginning of it is a lot more like the conversations I have with students who really are thoughtful and prepared to a grad school path. But those are RARE. And, also, they're not funny. The thing about the first video was that it was funny.

But so, anyway, I did talk to BES about idealism and the original snarky video yesterday, and we both agreed that idealism doesn't make it ok for a student to be at the point of applying to grad school and to think she's going to work with Harold Bloom and have no freaking clue about what she's getting herself into. The zeal of the student in the first video, we agreed, is probably appropriate for a student declaring the English major. But you're supposed to learn something between then and when you are about to graduate.

So this brings me back to the current offering. 1. It's not funny. 2. It is, as Historiann noted, a stereotype, just like the other video was, except for it's not funny. 3. What student can know that he/she will relocate anywhere to study Shakespeare? What seems reasonable at 20 seems much less so at 30. Just saying. 4. I really think it's ok to laugh at things that are funny and not to feel like we have to apologize for it. Idealism or belief in the profession doesn't mean never laughing again at something that's so wrong it's right.a

Comrade PhysioProf said...

Dona nobis pacem, pacem. . .

You fucken historians and your fucken greeke crappe.

Dr. Virago said...

OMG, why does everyone keep complaining that it's not funny?? It SAYS it's not funny; it's not supposed to be funny.

Historiann said...

It would have been much funnier in the original Latin.

I saw one of these in the original Aramaic once. The gist was that Jesus was trying to dissuade a disciple.

Notorious Ph.D. said...

@ Historiann: Bwah-ha-hah! I TOTALLY want to see that video: "Do you understand that there's a good chance that you're going to get executed, and that it's going to take place in some backwater province of the empire where there's no wi-fi?"

Historiann said...

Just imagine this in those weird Xtranormal robot voices: "I don't care what you say. You WILL deny me three times. I am the Son of God--what about Son of God don't you understand?"

Comrade PhysioProf said...

OMG, why does everyone keep complaining that it's not funny?? It SAYS it's not funny; it's not supposed to be funny.

BECAUSE TEH FUCKEN INTERNETZ OWEZ ME TEH FUNNEEZ!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!