Sunday, February 15, 2015

The Job of Faculty: Teaching, Service, Research, and ... Vacuuming?

            There seems to be a movement afoot to put uppity university faculty in their place.
            This happens in ways both large and small. In Wisconsin, for instance, Governor Scott Walker, a college dropout himself, is actively trying to dismantle the state’s university system. He has gutted funding and attempted to skewer the system’s mission statement so that it no longer includes “the search for truth” as one of its core values.

            In my own workplace, a small liberal arts college, I have to empty my own trash. Let’s admit at the outset that this is far less nefarious than what’s happening in Wisconsin. It’s sort of a silly thing—I noticed that my lunch wrappings were amassing aver a number of weeks, and upon inquiring, I found that I was supposed to take care of the office trash myself.
            So do we have university faculty empty their own trash to save time for the important work of the custodial staff? I’m not so sure about this (although, to be sure, the custodial staff is stretched quite thinly). There is currently an all-hands-on-deck mindset at my institution, with faculty, administration, and staff alike aligning to stretch resources, and truly working together on many important aspects of university life. Taking care of our own waste is an egalitarian notion, and I can appreciate that (provided the administrators are all emptying their own trash, too—I haven’t asked if this is the case). Mine is, for the most part, an egalitarian institution, and I love it for that.
            But I have some suspicions about the motives for turning faculty into their own custodians, especially when there is a national drive to depict faculty as layabouts who teach their three or four sections and then put their feet up and pluck at their elbow patches.
            Faculty don’t just teach in the classroom, obviously. They work one-on-one with students and mentor them beyond the end of the semester; they prepare for classes and grade papers and projects; they perform the research that they later “profess” to their students; they write and try to publish, and they stay current on the research of their peers. And they also participate in the life of the institution, which includes committee work, governance, recruiting, and much more.
            These days they also empty their trash, because who do they think they are, expecting someone else to do it.
            As it happens, it is also our responsibility to vacuum our office carpets. This dictate came several months back, and it may well be that everyone has forgotten this odd moment in the life of the institution. Maybe we all expected normal operations to resume at some future point, but no one ever got around to restoring custodial functions to those people who take pride in maintaining our classroom and common areas so beautifully, despite limited personnel.
            But there has been a national drive to force faculty to be held accountable for their time. Governors and legislators are pushing for increased workload. The effort to paint the professoriate as laggards looks from the outside like a coordinated Republican rallying cry, with one GOP governor after another pointing to faculty as a problem that hurts state finances. And this viewpoint even extends to private institutions like my own, where courseload increases are being contemplated.
            Depicting faculty as bums puts them on the defensive. So does depicting higher education as a realm of constant crisis. Well-meaning professionals try to do more for the good of the order, and they start to believe that their jobs are in constant jeopardy. (Remember, the American Association of University Professors maintains that tenure is not a reward for super-special people; rather, job security is a necessary condition of academic freedom, and therefore tenure should happen as a natural course of action after a successful probationary period.) The crisis model, and the constant invocation of the all-hands-on-deck mindset, seems designed to make faculty feel unsafe in their jobs.
            I even had a brief qualm about writing this blogpost. Will I be reprimanded—will I lose my job? I was careful not to name my institution; I’d hate for a prospective student to do a web search on, oh, let’s call it Zoory University, and find a rant about emptying trash instead of a glowing report about how life at ZU is all cupcakes and butterflies. (Remember—all hands on deck.)
            But this is not a rant about trash. It’s a very reasonable speculation that the nationally orchestrated higher education crisis mode could be behind some of the small, daily decisions that impact the quality of faculty worklife.
            And come to think of it, I already know that my three-year contract is not being renewed. (The increasing use of non-tenure track faculty provides flexibility to an institution, while also keeping faculty on their best behavior.) Nothing expressed here is so problematic that administrators are going to pound on my door and smack my cheek with a leather glove. Those folks aren’t going to read Better View of the Moon anyhow.

            But I have a feeling that it may be important for faculty to embrace at least a little bit of uppitiness. Administrators should put us in our place—which is in the classroom, and the lab, and the research library, and the studio—and leave us there to do what we do best: search for truth, inspire students, and breathe life into our unvacuumed institutions.

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