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« Laws of Academic Calories: Girl Scout Cookies Edition | Main | Typecast »

November 19, 2008


Sybil Vane

Thank you for this sensible-ness.


I think you are being a little rough on them. These texts were not whiny. They confessed struggle, difficulty, disillusionment, but not an inordinate level with that experienced by many new faculty. It is tough to be an assistant professor and one of the aspects of the difficulty is discovering that the job you got is really different from the one you thought you had. I also don't think it's fair to imply that as long as you are employed you have no right to complain or even be disappointed by your experiences. Yes, there is an army of people out there who would die to have my job. But that doesn't mean I have to love every second of it, or not let myself be aware of my mood or the things I don't like about it.


Like I said, I don't object to grousing at all. Who doesn't grouse? Grousing is one of the great joys of life. (OK, that's a little hyperbolic. But, hey, stress relief.) the end, I do think that some additional perspective on one's grousing comes in handy when you are publishing it, as opposed to engaging in water-cooler talk. And I do object to the CoHE turning this particular form of grousing ("I never promised you an academic rose garden, film at eleven") into its very own genre. Especially because nobody ever learns anything from these essays, apparently. Do we assume that the audience for this material does not read the CoHE (where they would have come across these complaints before)?


I often find the material in the CoHE whiny. However, I do think many people find it affirming to discover shared perspectives. And I also think what people find whiny is conditioned by their own experiences vs those of their audiences. Frankly, I have never understood why people feel so personally offended by these pieces--and I think the people who pick at them should be asking themselves, "why do I feel obligated to comment on this essay moralistically instead of just accepting that the author has a different perspective than mine?" Why do they draw such outrage and/or disgust?

My own initial faculty experience was one where I was the only woman and the only faculty member under 60 in a small department. I did not have a "cohort" at my employer to grouse with, I found the new faculty experience very alienating, and I did find a lot of the material in the CoHE helpful as a means of processing what had happened to me. It taught me that I wasn't alone. I was grateful. I am not sure that the point of these essay is "learning from them." They are people reflecting on their experiences and they happen to be widely shared experiences. If you don't share them--fine--turn the page and move on; but I have problems with looking down on people who are experiencing difficulties and are honest about it.


I think these essays are generally either self-congratulatory, useless, or both but...I actually think it's a really important part of your trajectory as an assistant prof to GET to the point where it is 'just a job.' You have all these lifers around you--at least I do--who are slapping you around constantly and talking about how the academy is a deep, deep've sacrificed a lot of your time (and money) to get there, and pre-tenure it feels as though all that can be taken from you in an instant with a bad vote. So you're supposed to think of it as a 'calling' while you are on an extended probationary period. It could well be a calling, indeed, but when you don't have tenure, any particular position is a job. And I think it's healthy for junior faculty to separate their work and their identities as scholars from the institution, given what I just wrote.

And, LP, you are (at least) a second-generation academic. What may feel ho-hum to you may be just as much a product of the fact that you were exposed to the life early on. For those of us whose parents didn't graduate from high school and who came to the academy with movie-ideas of what professors did, there is a process of having the scales fall from our eyes to understand that a good deal of this work (just like other professions) is invisible to spectators and much less romantic than it seems from the outside. So your insider view of what's obvious isn't obvious to everybody.

That said, I generally deplore the first-person essays. It's hard to sound whinier and self-indulgent than I do in my blog, but they somehow seem to manage it every single time.


It's hard to be sympathic toward professors who miss research and have too many committee meetings when you are an adjunct who also doesn't have time for research because she's teaching four classes at two different schools, with no benefits and for half the salary many professors get for teaching half as much. I'm with the Little Professor -- suck it up, at least you have a full-time job. And with the economy like it is and two job searches I applied for cancelled, I'm sure I'll be in the same situation for a while -- or worse, if they decide to cut back on adjuncts as well.


I've been an adjunct, too, by the way. I don't think that these assistant professors were saying that their problems were more serious than those of adjuncts, nor were they saying adjuncts don't have any problems. Probably many academics wish they had more time for research--as far as I know professional life is not a contest to appear more put upon. (Or if it is, count me out!) I still don't get where this hostility is coming from.


Chaser: trust me, I had all sorts of rude awakenings, despite being a second-gen academic :)

Servetus: "Hostility" may be too strong a word. Let's try "exasperation." And the exasperation is really directed at the CoHE, which is encouraging a certain type of confessional prose that, as Chaser says, tends to come across as..."whiny." This essay, for example, shows signs that it could have been an interesting narrative about coming to grips with the job-ness of academic jobs (in the very first line, for example). Instead, we get "the rigors of the professoriate," but these rigors are no more rigorous than, say, the rigors faced by high school teachers, lawyers, mid-level managers, industry executives... The authors are talking about the nuts-and-bolts stuff required to keep the workplace going (and, as much as I hate to say it, that includes committees). They aren't complaining about long-distance relationships, or the child vs. career trade-off, or handling racial/sexual/religious/political injustices, etc., etc., etc. And what "the" are we talking about here, given that at many institutions, "the professoriate" consists primarily of adjuncts (who have an entirely different set of far less enjoyable problems)? I mean...the authors are academics. One expects, if not academic prose, some more...self-awareness, somewhere?

I do think, as Chaser says, that the "First Person" essays are a great opportunity to offer stories of academic life that run counter to starry-eyed "life of the mind" fantasies. Which is why I keep complaining about them, because that's not what the FP essays are doing.


(Given the current state of the NYS budget, goodness knows of what my ivory tower will soon consist.)

A cheap wooden tower painted ivory white, I'm sure.

It seems to me that the problem with the FP essays is not so much that they are whiny -- academics whine even when we're not really intending to, because we're all trained to be prima donnas -- as that the whining is about rather manufactured problems. And you can see this from the fact that over time the FP essays end up complaining about virtually every aspect of academic life, regardless of whether it is a serious problem, or a minor inconvenience, or a necessary evil, or a fairly good thing that is being held to ridiculously high standards. The students are bad, the administration is bad, the colleagues are bad, the paperwork is bad, the resources for research are bad, the teaching is bad, whenever you get something good it turns out to be bad, the pay is bad, the benefits are bad, the emotional support is bad, the joys of teaching are long gone, and every silver cloud has its dark lining.

The whining is probably ineliminable. It would be nice, though, to have well-thought out and constructive whining. (I just was at a professional development thing for the philosophy department last night, on getting students to read and understand difficult philosophy texts. We all whined, throughout, but we also shared tips, bounced ideas off each other, had arguments, and came out with more than we had going in. That's what academic whining should do. We're professional intellectuals; even our whining should be intellectual.)

Professor Zero

Well, what I get from those essays is that these asst profs did have first year honeymoons (I envy that) and are now adjusting to a reality that is less glamorous than what they had imagined, but that they see all of this as a mere adjustment, and that everything really is all right. So these are narratives about hyped up struggles that ultimately affirm the social order.

So it's actually the hunky-dory- ness of the world described in these essays that gets to me. What about the discovery not that being a professor is a job, but of the corporate nature of many institutions? What about the difficulty of understanding a new institutional culture? What about discovering what it is to teach incredibly privileged students (if you're a public school kid yourself), or underprivileged ones (if you went to private schools, or Big 10/public ivies)? What about being white and going to teach at an HBCU as your first job? Many stories would shed light on the variety of experiences which can be had as a new assistant professor.

There are a lot of real problems to be discussed and I know a lot of people really suffer. That professordom is a job is NOT one of the problems, though, and this is where CoHE irritates me: it showcases angsting in situations were things really are all right. The unspoken corollary is that things really are all right generally and angst is ultimately baseless. This is not to invalidate the experience of these writers, but to question the larger CoHE rhetoric here.

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