Phi Beta Cons

The Small, Small World of the Assistant Professor

In his response to Todd Gitlin’s piece against the academic Left in the recent Chronicle of Higher Ed, Lee Siegel acknowledges that “the academic left inhabits a Cloud-Cuckoo Land totally divorced from real-world politics,” and that the professors can be “intellectually appalling and pedagogically offensive.” But he ends by trivializing the campus-bias problem, saying that all Gitlin has “succeeded in doing is throwing to the right another pretext for ringing the alarm bells over a left-wing menace on campus.”

 

Once again, one must go into the actual circumstances and atmospheres of the academic setting to understand the problem. Think about what life is like as an assistant professor in the humanities. For those graduate students who earn a decent job and retain a grain of idealism, joining a department is the beginning of a great career. The servility of graduate school is over, and the chance to pursue research, build a student following, and challenge colleagues may commence. Soon enough, though, the young professor learns that he has joined something like an extended family. They’ve been together for years, watching each other grow and decline. They gather in cliques after meetings, office neighbors remember betrayals from the previous decade, older figures recount their professional history (often entertainingly), and other assistant professors mark you as confrère or foe.

 

The disputes sometimes disgust and sometimes fascinate, but you keep mum. Senior colleagues control your fate. They sit in on classes and file reports on your teaching, assign you to different committees, and review your publications. Most important, in five years’ time they will vote on your promotion. Junior professors walk a tightrope. They impress the tenured with their discernment, but don’t apply their scrutiny to them. They plunge into departmental duties, but not so much as to constitute a power grab. They attend conferences and follow professional trends, but not to the point of open careerism. They must appear dedicated but innocuous.

 

Teaching should be a place for high standards and serious inquiry. In the department meeting, you go with the flow, but in the classroom you choose the books, run the discussion, set requirements, and assign grades. Your enthusiasms for the subject matter are reflected in a weighty syllabus, substantive lectures, and strict grading.  But the other pressures of scholarship and service are acute. When the tenure year arrives, you know that good teaching means little in the decision. Why, then, spend hours crafting good lectures and assignments?

 

Grading is another problem. New hires leave graduate school believing in hierarchy. After all, you bested others in landing a job, and you consider the ranking of minds a responsibility.  With the first batch of papers and exams, the grades in the “C” range, the students get more annoyed than you expected. Some come to your office to complain, others sit in class and sulk. Discussion lags, and you ruminate all weekend over how to improve the climate. If you don’t let up by the end of the semester, a few students send letters to the department chair, a parent makes a phone call to the undergraduate dean, and student evaluations come in with searing comments.

 

And, also, there is the occasional ideologically based peer pressure. A friend tells me of a not-so-subtle example at University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Each Fall, a program entitled “S.A.F.E. Training” invites faculty to attend an orientation session designed to identify people “who are willing to be a source of support for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and transsexual people on campus.” Those who participate are identified as allies with a S.A.F.E. triangle on their office doors.

 

The swirling politics and pressures affect the mind of the untenured professor. You are what students, colleagues, and administrators think you are. The tenure review comes in a few years, and success depends on what they say about you. And so you worry about the student evaluations, overinterpret a remark at a faculty meeting, and try to focus on converting the dissertation into a book manuscript. The habitat weighs heavy on your concentration, and many end up making a melodrama of their uncertainty. The ideas that fire your scholarship are reduced to an hour a day at the computer. The rest of the time you commiserate with other junior professors, fend off students, and scan the journals for conferences that will look good on the résumé. The bureaucracy becomes your mindset, and dealing with it your focal point.  The mental horizon shrinks to the politics of the department. A few new profs become outspoken, but conformity and parochialism infect the rest.

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