Saturday, February 9, 2008

From Dr. Virago's e-mail in box

Subject: From the view of a scientist

What a wonderful way to get paid to work. Ah that I hadn't given up my Greek and Latin so early...


That's all he wrote. I think he's referring to my whole work, as a professor, and not any particular part of it described in a particular blog post (though I'm sure the recent pictures of Norwich give the impression that I'm always jet-setting around). I'm not even sure how he made it to my blog. So the precise "way" that it's wonderful is a little ambiguous.

That said....yes. It *is* a wonderful way to get paid to work. And thank you, Mr. Scientist (I'll keep you anonymous) for recognizing not only that it's wonderful but that it's work (and nice alliteration, btw). I don't think you meant it in the way that some would when they think that professors only "work" when they're in class and that we have cushy jobs. We work hard, but would that everyone could work like professors do, managing our time outside of class and meeting schedules, and for the most part setting our own agendas. Some of that autonomy might even be possible in many professions. Why is it, after all, that a lawyer working all day on writing a brief or preparing arguments has to be in the office? I remember many days in the law firm where I worked in which a given lawyer was in his or her office, but writing all day, with the door closed, and asking not to be disturbed. Why couldn't they have stayed home and worked in their pajamas?

My computer science friends in the early 90s figured out ways to work out tele-commuting deals (in the days of dial-up!) with their places of employ and were predicting that's where everyone was headed. Why hasn't that come to pass? Why do we put such a premium on being in a place called an office to be productive? I call my room where I work at home an office, too, and I'm more productive there than in the office at school, in part because the one at school is 7x7 feet and doesn't have enough room for all of my books. And yet, why do I feel guilt every time I answer the UPS guy's knock in the middle of the day in my sweats?

Or maybe you weren't just talking about the autonomy, about my ability to go to the doctor mid-day, for instance, and make up the work later, without having to ask for time off. That is, however, one of the greatest perks of this profession. It's also one of the greatest burdens, because managing your own time can make you a crueler task-master than any boss. I knew this going in. One of the reasons why I took time off from school between my BA and PhD was because I'd felt like with school there was always work to be done, and I wanted to find out what it was like to have a job that I could leave at work. In the end I decided I preferred the one that's always with me, that's part of my identity, in part because I realized all professionals take work with them (the lawyers either stayed in the office late or took it home with them), so if I was going to be a professional and work 60+ hours a week, I wanted my time and space to be more elastic. I wanted to at least choose which 60 hours and where.

But Mr. Scientist's comment about Greek and Latin suggests what he really envies is the intellectual life. (Oh, btw, if you'd wanted to be a medievalist, you don't need the Greek. Another modern language would be better.) It's not always as stimulating as one might think from the outside, especially when you're the only person in your field in a department and your students are, of course, all completely new to it. But there's excitement to that, too, because you get to see the texts and ideas and images and worlds you love intimately through new eyes. It's like when you introduce your partner to your family for the first time and they all find him delightful and charming and you remember all over again why you fell in love with him. Even the moments of confusion and misunderstanding teach you things about the reading process, about how minds work, about teaching, about changing culture and attitudes. (For example, once upon a time students thought Pandarus was funny and many thought I was "reading too much into it" to see him as disturbing. Now I can't get them to see the humor! Maybe one of these days I'll get students to see that he's *both* funny and disturbing.)

And this semester in particular I have a fabulously smart group of students in both classes. Oh. My. God. how they are blowing my mind! I ask questions that I think they'll have to mull over and hash out and one of them will blow it out of the water in a single sentence. And then I have to think fast to come up with more, to push them farther so that the conversation doesn't grind to a halt. And last night one of my students e-mailed me just to say -- I kid you not -- that he realized that the American rural regionalism "of a night," as in "when I lie awake of a night," is a hold-over of the genitive of time from Old English and early Middle English. Granted, he's a linguistics major, but still. He e-mailed me just to say this because he'd had that moment of discovery and needed to share it. How awesome is that?!

And even when I spend all day trying to figure out a solution to a problem in something I'm writing -- for instance, how to connect loosely related ideas A and B so that my reader doesn't wonder, "Hey where did B come from and what happened to A?" -- and feel like I've gotten nothing accomplished, it's a pretty amazing thing to have spent the whole day thinking. (Remind me, by the way, to tell my students that sometimes I spend a whole day thinking about a single organizational problem in a single paper!)

So yes, it is a wonderful way to get paid to work. Thank you for reminding me of that. But I'm one of the lucky ones, and I fear a dying breed. I have job stability -- again, would that everyone did; I don't think I'm the only one who deserves it. I'm on the tenure track and, it seems (knock wood), will be tenured by the end of this year. For many people -- a majority in the modern languages and literature -- the work isn't so wonderful. They knit together part-time jobs at multiple campus, often working without an office at all, running from one place to another, to teach all day long. And they make a pittance for doing so. They're adjuncts and universities are relying more and more on them. It's bad for them and it's bad for students and it's bad for the morale of the academic community as a whole. Let me give one example: my student who e-mailed me about genitives of time only started sending these kinds of excited e-mails this semester after having had me for a class last semester as well. Lots of other students have followed me from class to class as well. And while I think students should also experience many different teachers and ways of thinking -- and not just major in Dr. Virago! -- that continuity also gives me the chance to follow the development of a student and, if they need letters of recommendation for graduate school or work, to be able to say I really know this person as a thinker and responsible, serious person. With adjuncts, if a student has a fabulous professor, they usually don't have that opportunity to follow them, either because they're limited to teaching multiple sections of the same intro courses, or because they're gone after a short time. And then what happens when the student needs a letter of recommendation? And that's just one of the many problems with the exploitation of adjuncts -- I haven't even got started on what it does to the adjuncts themselves, or how it creates an egregious class system within the university. (At my own university, we don't have adjuncts, but instead have full-time lecturers hired to teach, without being expected to produce research or do service. And while their working conditions are better than the "freeway flyers" who work at multiple universities -- our lecturers teach a 4/4 load and are given offices and renewable, union-negotiated contracts -- it creates the class system of which I speak.) That's a whole other post in and of itself.

I write this to remind myself that while there's much that is wonderful about the work for which I am paid, the system in which I work is flawed, and the access to those things that are wonderful about my position is limited. So I don't want to take it for granted, especially on those days when I'd rather play online Scrabble than write. But I also want to help do my own small part about this once I have the job security that tenure brings by getting involved in the committees and councils and senates that have the ear of our administration. Because frankly, the benefits to students, the community, and the individual that come with tenure-track employment, especially in the humanities, are cheap by most measures. My salary finally just rose over $50,000 for the first time this year -- that's after 8 years of education at a top school for my field (where I also provided cheap labor as a TA) and 6 years of employment. For the amount that my university is paying for a new financial officer, in a newly created position, they could have hired 7 new assistant professors. Some financial planning, eh?

So Mr. Scientist, yes it is wonderful work. But it's got its own problems. And I know your public-sector work does, too. Believe me, I do. (I Googled you to see where you work.) I'm not really writing this to school you really, but to remind myself not to get complacent, not to become one day one of those clueless full profs who has no clue what graduate student/assistant professor/adjunct life is like. And to remind myself to see the problems in my profession and figure out ways to help work towards the solutions.


Karl Steel said...

Such a generous response!

meli said...

what a wonderful post - thank you! as i approach the end of my phd i'm getting rather panicky about what lies beyond - what you're saying is that greener fields are not entirely out of the question (though not guaranteed, i know). but it's so lovely to read about your enthusiasm.

the email from the scientist was lovely too. i usually just get blank stares from scientists.

Dr. Virago said...

Karl -- Yeah, I'm feeling rather chipper in part because my students really are fan-freakin-tastic this semester and it does make my work pretty wonderful. And also, I'm really getting into my new research. And I do think my correspondent was writing in a wistfully positive way. Yes, there's an annoying side to that sometimes -- like when other professionals say, "I should've become a professor" as if it's just a matter of making a decision and doing it, and it's especially annoying when they follow it with a clause like "but I needed to make more money" -- but I don't think this guy falls into that camp. He is probably seeing more green on the other side of the fence than is really there, though.

Meli -- Yes, I've been pretty lucky for things to have worked out for me as they have. It is possible. And though I'm working harder than I did as a graduate student in many ways, there's more of a sense of ownership and purpose to that work.

Anonymous said...

A great post--thanks for this. I've been doing a lot of dithering lately about whether I want to be in academia, so it was especially nice to be reminded of the good aspects.

And your story about the student who emailed you is lovely. One of the up sides of grading exams recently was reading the exam of a student whose writing had clearly been inflected by all the Shakespeare she'd been reading; she'd written phrases like "Character X sticks not" at a particular action. Since the same thing happens to me when I read a concentrated amount of Austen, I appreciated that!

the rebel lettriste said...

Ah yes, salary. One of my mentors recently told me, as I mulled a possible and shockingly low offer, "well, salary isn't everything." Except it is. Salary's how you have enough to live on, and to pay back what you had to borrow in order to get the degree(s) in the first place.
Thanks for this well-considered post.