Sunday, February 13, 2011

What bothers me...

I've felt a mild malaise about academia in the past year. I couldn't quite put a finger on what it was, but I think maybe I've figured it out.

You have to understand, I'm one of those people who secretly sort of hopes that life is fair. Or, at any rate, that the people who work hard, who follow the ethical rules, who do what is right - that they get rewarded, or at the very least, not-screwed-over.

When I was a kid growing up, I was taught to respect my teachers. Even teachers I disliked. Because they were my teachers, and because they had gone through a fair amount of education and presumably knew more than I did.

And I was also taught that going into education was a respectable career. That you were educating the next generations, preparing them to go out and be doctors and lawyers and such, and that it was a good and worthwhile thing to be. It seemed that, by and large, university people were looked up to in my parents' circle. (Though that could have been a false impression, and maybe it never was so...maybe it was just who my parents' friends were).

Yes, I heard yet another commentator opining on how college is "a waste," and how it's better to keep your kids out and, I don't know, apprentice them to someone, than to risk having their brains destroyed by those horrible professors.

And it just makes me sad. Because there's nothing I could say to someone who believed that that would make them think that I was anything BUT a parasite and doctrinaire and wrong and bad.

And I admit, I worry a bit...will the next push in budget cutting be, "let's close down a lot of the public universities"? Driven, in part, by the mentality that college may be fine for those few twisted eggheads - but not normal, red-blooded men and women?

And then what do I do? Go on unemployment? REALLY become a "parasite" while I try to find another job that will allow me to support myself?

And I realize, those are unrealistic worries; they're unlikely to happen. But still, a part of me says they could.

What bothers me more is the respect issue. I grew up treating my teachers and profs with respect - even, as I said, the ones I didn't like very much. (If anything, I was more deferentially distant with some of the ones I disliked: there were a few profs I had who had the reputation of doing things like yelling at students who came to their office hours).

But now, I wind up with students walking into my class 20 minutes late. Or stopping me before I start class to complain that the stapler in the computer lab is out of staples, and that I "need" to go and refill it. Or who talk in class. Or pull out their texting device. Or show up with their work undone, and then ask me if they can give it to me the next class meeting. (That frustrates me, as I have explained that I have due-dates when I do FOR A REASON: I am able to budget grading time then so I can get the stuff back to people very fast. I pride myself on handing most things back in the next class meeting. Which is why I often make papers and the like due on Fridays.)

Or even the little crap: the people who don't staple their papers, and then look at me and go, "you got a stapler?" Um, no. This is not my permanent room. I do not live here. The last time I brought a stapler to this room it was gone in three days. Please staple your papers before class.

I know, it seems like such a petty little thing, but really - taking an extra five or ten minutes to have to staple all the unstapled papers, it's just something that wears on you over time. That makes you feel more like a servant than a mentor. And I don't like feeling like that.

Actually, a number of times during the semester, I begin to wonder if the students see me (and my TA) as more servants than mentors...when they leave a mess in lab. Or when they do things like e-mail with a request or question at 2 am, and seem unhappy to find I've not answered it by 8 am.

I'm sure part of it is an age-related thing; people in their late teens and early 20s are still stuck in that childlike idea of being the only person who matters - or, more likely, just not thinking that if they're asking something of me, that other people will be asking, too - or not thinking that I have other things going on that I have to deal with, and that sometimes, seriously, having someone call me up and go, "I know our paper is due today but I just couldn't get inspired to write it. Can I have another week" makes me want to cry.

And from time to time we get dicta coming down from On High about what we must do, how we must do things. More assessment testing. Surveys we're supposed to fill out. More things to fill our "free time." More "mission statements." More guidelines on when we can have office hours, and things like requirements that doors be kept open. Someone once referred to the corporate world as the "death of a thousand papercuts" and it seems like that somedays in academia too.

And it doesn't help to have that societal undercurrent among the populists that college educations are a waste at best or dangerous at worst. That we as professors are basically overgrown adolescents ourselves, sucking at the governmental teat while providing little of value or service.

I guess I know a little bit of how trial-lawyers feel now.

But it does wear on a person over time. And it is a worry, hearing that little populist drumbeat growing, and wondering: should I be doing...I don't know what, should I be learning mechanics? Or hairdressing? Or God knows what, some other alternate career?

I love teaching. I think I'm a halfway decent teacher. But some days it just feels too damn much like swimming upstream for my complete happiness.

I guess fundamentally I feel a bit cheated - that I grew up following the rules, showing respect, and expecting that when I completed my education I'd also be a respected professor. But then I get into the job and I find that my students don't always respect me, the administration sometimes acts as if it doesn't respect me, and there are a lot of people out in the "real" world who are all too happy to tell me I'm part of what's wrong with the country.

And it's kind of like sandpaper, you know? Or like someone walking on a polished floor with grit on their shoes. It takes the shine and luster off of things, it wears things down, it makes them dull and sad and old before their time.

I hope that I'm not telegraphing that frustration in the classroom. I don't think I am, yet. But I may get there someday.

1 comment:

Dave R. said...

I think "mild malaise" is probably how most people feel about their jobs, regardless of education level.

And for whatever consolation it brings, Ricki, almost all people in any particular line of work have the feeling that no one who doesn't pursue that line of work understands its problems and complexities.

And all of them are right!

This is not to minimize or scoff at what's bothering you, but just to let you know that you have lots of company.