FRANK TALK ABOUT WHAT WE DO WITH OUR LIVES

Peeking into Academe

In Notes on June 18, 2012 at 10:35 pm

A note from Work Stew Editor, Kate Gace Walton:

When I launched Work Stew last year, I thought it might be difficult to get people to write frankly about their jobs. And to some extent it has been. This email, from a research scientist I contacted for an essay, sums up the usual hesitation:

“I will give some thought to a potential contribution. I must say this is probably somewhat easier to do as a self-employed person than as part of a large, fragile ecosystem. My work itself is wonderful, but the job has countless drawbacks that evoke daily fits of stifled rage… It is hard to imagine how one can write anything meaningful without alienating someone important in the endless cast of collaborators, bosses, underlings, administrators, and other work frenemies.”

Interestingly, essays from academia have been particularly hard to come by. Molly Bishop Shadel, an associate professor at the University of Virginia’s School of Law, contributed an excellent piece that was quickly shared more than 90 times. But six months later, Work Stew still has just as many CIA operatives in the mix as professors.

As a result, I’ve had to look elsewhere (gasp!) for additional glimpses into the academic life, and last week this article from The Chronicle of Higher Education caught my eye: “Why Are Associate Professors So Unhappy?” I think it’s worth a read. And maybe it’ll inspire a few more Work Stew essays from academia. I live in hope.

In the meantime, I’m very grateful to Oren Izenberg (University of California, Irvine) and Kyla Wazana Tompkins (Pomona College), who took the time to share their reactions (below) to The Chronicle article. More food for thought.

“It seems to me that what the article wants to be about is the friction between the idea that academic life is a vocation (that we are privileged to freely pursue the life of the mind, that we accept the price of that privilege in the form of relatively low salaries, uncertain social prestige, etc) and the reality that academia is a profession (with institutional politics, institutional responsibilities, frustrating bureaucracies, etc.).

On the one hand, one could fairly say that the former is and always has been a naive view of American academia, and (if the stated discrepancy is real) that what is happening is that associates are unhappily waking up to the reality of the profession they joined.

But it isn’t that simplefirst, because the professional part of the profession has changed and is changing: universities are becoming increasingly corporate and faculty governance is being erodedso institutional responsibilities have less and less to do with thinking about what is best for teaching and scholarship and more and more to do with adjusting to a corporate mission. And second because the ideal of teaching and scholarship as a noble vocation is being used to manipulate faculty into giving up reasonable workplace demands (the resistance to faculty unionization is a good example of this).”

—Oren Izenberg, University of California, Irvine

“When you have caught the golden ring, as those few of us who got tenure-track jobs and who got tenure have, you have to explain your unhappiness carefully. Ours are good problems to have, in many ways. But I would say that, the difficulty of being an Associate Professor is that you have very little controlor most of us do anywayover your mobility. Most of us land in places far from our families, and sometimes separated from our partners. Many of us live in places far from the communities that make us feel whole, sane, and creative. And a terrible and difficult job market pretty much guarantees that most of us will exert little to no control over our locations. So even if you want a change, not because your job is bad or you hate your colleagues or whatever, but simply because you want to move into a new place in your life, you are virtually guaranteed to not be able to. And that lack of control, in a culture that seems more and more organized around mobility, is psychically grinding. But as I said: employed, in conversation with your colleagues in your school and in your field, teaching wonderful students, having time to think and read and writethough never enoughthese are things worth sacrificing a lot for.”

—Kyla Wazana Tompkins, Associate Professor, Pomona College

  1. […] this episode, I talk to researcher Evelyn Ch’ien. I connected with Evelyn after publishing “Peeking into Academe,” a short post calling for more academics to weigh in at Work Stew. An article in The […]

  2. […] connected with Evelyn after publishing “Peeking into Academe,” a short post calling for more academics to weigh in at Work Stew. An article in The Chronicle […]

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