Tilt at Windmills; Get Knocked On Your Tail

Because more people are familiar with the Disney Pinocchio than Collodi’s original, they tend to miss some points. In the Disney movie, a talking cricket named Jiminy acts as Pinocchio’s conscience, speaks the truth, and helps him become a Real Boy. However, in the original, the cricket is known merely as the talking cricket. He speaks the truth to Pinocchio… and the marionette smashes him with a hammer.

Well, I haven’t been thrown off the UK board, but I’m definitely getting the Talking Cricket treatment from many of the participants. I’ve gotten the usual nonsense about a 9-month work schedule (because of course, I spend my summers in a cryogenic stasis chamber). When I got my grading finished yesterday, a colleague and friend jokingly asked what I would do with all my “free time.” My answer was honest: “Read, think, write, blog, facebook.” (Hey, we all have some vices.) But when you think and write, you need stuff to think and write about.

One of the things I do when I teach is connect the stuff I study to the larger world. To do that, it helps to know both the stuff I study and the outside world. I’m constantly looking at a variety of news sources, developments in the worlds of politics, science, popular culture, and of course literature (medieval and otherwise) looking for connections, so that I can help my students make those connections later. Some of this information becomes a subject I’ll discuss, but far more of it provides context. Either way, I’ve got to acquire that information, because my field, the world, and my students continue to change, and I’ve got to keep up. A large portion of that acquisition takes place in that copious “free time.”

My boardmates also trotted out the tired old business of our work — especially our research — having little or no utilitarian value (although they haven’t thought enough to put it in those terms, opting instead to sneer at “paying for research into the ingrown hairs of the caterpillars in ancient egypt” [sic]. By the way, that gem came from the mayor of Bozeman, MT, who should know better. Or not.) Of course, a big problem with this argument is what FLG might see as a “time horizons” issue. The fact is, we don’t always know when we’ve discovered something that will be valuable later. We’ve just seen an instance of discrete pieces of information turning up over a period of years, waiting to be assembled by the right people, people with a different perspective on that information, and access to a broader range of information. Now,  both the person who put it all together and the people who supplied/gathered those individual data points matter. If any one of these pieces are missing, maybe things turn out differently… and I’m sure Osama wishes they had. And that was still a relatively short-term process. To claim that study is valueless is both exceedingly arrogant and a sucker’s bet. What those people are saying is that they lack the imagination to see that it might matter eventually.

And then they played the trump card of cushiness — “You have tenure!” Yes, I do. But there are things people outside academia don’t realize. First of all, as I’ve noticed, an ever-shrinking portion of the academy is tenured or tenure-track. What’s much more likely is that when a tenured faculty member retires, the line is attritted, and the courses that prof once taught are now taught on a just-in-time basis by cheaper, expendable adjunct faculty — Look, Ma! No benefits! So complaints about tenure may well be like complaining about horse-and-buggy traffic: unless you’re in Amish country, it’s probably not an issue. And Amish country is getting smaller all the time.

Beyond that, however, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding outside the academy of what tenure does. I’m tenured (the culmination of a multi-year probationary period, by the way.) So I can’t be fired, right? Well, no. For example, if the college decides it can’t afford me (which is to say, if a majority of trustees declare what we call “financial exigency”), I can get the sack. More pointedly, I can also get the boot for things like insubordination and dereliction of duty. From the nice folks at Wikipedia:

In 1994, a study in The Chronicle of Higher Education found that “about 50 tenured professors nationwide are dismissed each year for cause.”[6] A study in the Wall Street Journal published January 10, 2005 estimated that 50 to 75 tenured professors (out of about 280,000) lose their tenure each year.

While tenure protects the occupant of an academic position, it does not protect against the elimination of that position. For example, a university that is under financial stress may take the drastic step of eliminating or downsizing some departments.

So tenure allows me to keep my job if I do it well and the school can afford me. Why not keep me, if those conditions hold? Where it gets interesting is that it also allows me to call things related to my work as I see them (as long as I’m not insubordinate.) That is to say, on matters in my discipline, I’ve earned the right to tell the truth — even if it’s politically awkward — without reprisal. (There may be other consequences, however.)

But none of this matters to the folks on the board. I’m acting like a talking cricket. They’re looking for hammers.

About profmondo

Dad, husband, mostly free individual, medievalist, writer, and drummer. "Gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche."
This entry was posted in Education, Why I Do What I Do. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Tilt at Windmills; Get Knocked On Your Tail

  1. kpk says:

    For the folks who tend to suggest that I don’t “work much” w/ my 12 hour teaching load, I’ve offered this clarification: During the semester, I work on average 2 hours a night (after the family is fed and the child is sleeping). Also, during the semester, I work on average 8 hours over the weekends. And this is “work” in terms of grading, prepping, researching, etc – not the additional “extra-curriculur” time-sucks like sponsoring student organizations, supporting student performances and athletic contests.

    If we run some rough math on this, those averages on a 16 week semester come up to about 28 “extra” 8-hour work days – double that for the academic year, and I’m working an extra 56 8-hour days.

    I love my job. I believe this is my vocation. And if I take summers “off” – it is in exchange for the nights and weekends I work for 9 months a year. Of course, as you point out, we don’t take summers off. We teach, we grade, we take on external research projects… This is a good life. I’m not complaining, believe me. But it runs counter to my instincts and my training to embrace the misinformation that circulates about what most of us in the field do in terms of work load.

  2. J. Otto Pohl says:

    My experience is that the hours worked in academia are not that much more than other jobs. The difference is that blue collar jobs get 1.5 overtime for each hour over eight in a day or over 40 in a week. This is a problem and if you expect people to work 70 hours a week you should pay them at least double for the extra 30 hours. But, given that many jobs that get 1.5 overtime only get minimum wage during normal hours, they are not exactly getting a better deal. I suspect a lot of salaried positions have similar long hours to academics without any overtime.

    The big difference is that work as an academic is much more enjoyable and physically easier. As much as I hate grading I would rather spend four hours doing it rather than an hour making 100 lattes. Grading is less exhausting, less mind numbing, and you can take a break when you want. Much of what I do as an academic is stuff I did without any pay during the years I was unemployed and living in the desert after getting my Ph.D. Back then I did the research and writing without any money plus I had to spend a lot of time applying for jobs which is a lot harder work than teaching. The only thing I do extra now that I am getting a paycheck is teach and grade. I would rather not grade, but I like teaching and I have yet to figure out what people think is hard about it.

  3. Jeff says:

    I find it funny that a big-time university sports coach often gets free housing and transportation and earns millions even if his team fails or if he’s fired before his contract ends, but the real enemy is the $60,000 tenured professor. It’s as if people want their future grandchildren to work in other countries’ call centers.

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