“Faculty think they’re better than everyone else, and the University gives them so much power!”
I was treated to this gem when I walked into a meeting scarcely a week into my “summer break.” Instead of just popping bonbons on the couch I, blessed as I am with phenomenal cosmic power, opted to drive two hours to and from campus during my “vacation” to hear about what overprivileged jerks faculty are.
I must say, I have respect for this person, who was willing to share an uncomfortable opinion in a stressful situation. And we did go on to get some difficult work done. But.
It was a bit like walking into a cultural revolution struggle session, that I was essentially the reactionary bourgeois academic authority to the administrator’s red guard.
Ok, it was nothing like that, but should I be ashamed of my carefully husbanded scraps of power? Kneel to feed the organism for the greater good, for the degree generating factory that state-funded academia in California is set to become?
Now, since I’m pretty sure this blog is read only by those that know me, you will also know that I’m disinclined to let such a tide of pseudo-pluralistic-let’s-level-the-playing-field opinions just wash over me. Since irony is the sea I swim in, I tried to point out the pungency of the situation: beginning a meeting about faculty rights and workload with a jibe about how faculty need to be stripped of our “power.” I’m really not sure which of my powers was being referred to… perhaps my Wonder Woman-esque BS detection abilities? My Spidey-like irony senses? It couldn’t have been my Authority. But maybe it was my Autonomy.
As mad as I got, what I really saw here was the chance to reflect for a moment on why I love being a Professor. Meetings often tend to craze the clear-glass pane that looks out onto my bucolic paradise life. But I’m focusing on the positive, here.
First and foremost, I have the best job in the world. Aside from crap like this, from which I normally insulate myself, I get to spend time dreaming up crazy ideas for turning on the minds of young people, and turning those ideas into reality. I have a lab full of cool stuff that federal and state tax dollars paid for, all of which I use to turn students into question-asking knife missiles. I’m surrounded by many really smart people who always seem ready to talk to me, and to help me, administrators included. And my campus is gorgeous. Right now it’s a purple gem, with a hundred dazzling jacarandas lighting up the crispy, brown chaparral. Most of the time, I wander around wondering how I got here, and wondering what I can possibly give back, to deserve it. Really, I think that way about my life generally, as well: home, family, and friends I can never begin to deserve or repay.
I like to tell people that what I love about being a professor is not having a boss, and this pronouncement fits nicely into my anti-authority persona. But it’s true: there’s no one person who can give me orders or fire me for saying the wrong thing, only a series of committees that can issue strong recommendations/condemnations. I can certainly see why administrative hierarchies would dislike this state of affairs. And of course, it can be a bad thing; there’re certainly professors that abuse this thing called academic freedom. On the other hand, academic freedom doesn’t mean that universities are only full of tenured deadwood*…. having a faculty who are not directly controlled by administrative authority means that you can have a curriculum as complex, eclectic, and strange as the faculty are themselves.
SO: anarchic, complex, eclectic, strange. Those describe my core values.
Now, to think this is a good idea you might also have to accept my notion that a vanilla education leads to mediocre robots… Such an educational model will probably be good enough to service a service economy. But if you expect our system to produce, or at least foster, creativity and weird thinking, then you have to give the kids more than a standardized curriculum delivered by standardized instructors. At my best, I’m hoping to give the kids wings, or certainly help them build their own wings. Hopefully not using beeswax for glue, so they don’t just come plummeting back to earth.
Finally, though, here’s the thing that meeting really brought boiling up inside me: What do you call a university without professors? Yes, yes, everyone’s crucially important, from groundskeepers to glee club advisors to associate vice presidents, but in the end Socrates drinking with his buddies still constituted a school.** Teachers teaching students is the one, the one, defining characteristic of schools that sets them apart from other administrative hierarchies. Now, it may be that faculty are given too much freedom, that they must be machined-down into cogs of the education factory in the name of institutional efficiency. And we are doing that, by switching to poorly paid part time lecturers, and by homogenizing the CSU curriculum. I suggest, however, that undermining faculty freedoms will result in an educational system that will drown in a rising sea of efficiently produced, highly uniform, and mediocre bachelor’s degrees.
To be clear, I’m referring to the freedom to do cool stuff that motivates student-consumers to transform themselves into learner-creators instead. And my freedom to do that isn’t being taken away by any one person’s ill-conceived opinion, but it is incrementally eroded by a society full of people that hold such opinions. A society that does not value teaching, that does not value creativity, that does not value the anarchy that creative teachers require.
I guess in the end I’m asserting that I (or if not me specifically, then at least my ilk) and the academic structures that support me do have something to offer society. But I do have to do it my way. I’m really grateful for being given the opportunity to try, and I hope I can live up to my responsibilities as I see them. But if we take away what power faculty do have in the name of efficiency and budgeting and efficient budgeting, then we descend from the ironic to the pathetic.
I guess the upside is that – though we won’t be able to chuckle bleakly – we will still be able to learn from our collective failure.
* I by no means think that tenure is the only way to guarantee academic freedom.
** and look how they thanked him… though sometimes a cup of hemlock seems more attractive than my administrative duties.