My efforts to manage the structural contradictions embedded in the daily practice of tenured associate professor-ing meet with varied success. One of my perennial sources of professional frustration is the incompatibility between the three dimensions (research, teaching, service) of my job. Pretty much everybody I know has a similar lament, so there’s no need to rehash the problem here. Most of the time, this incompatibility is temporal or logistical, that scarcity of working hours relative to the vicious abundance of things that need doing which brings its own anxieties. But I’m finding that this tension, for me at least, is also affective. The three elements of my job are inefficiently discrete: none of them form a pair of birds that can be killed with one stone, and their demands on my time are mutually exclusive. But the affective transit between them is dynamic, constant, and largely unpredictable.
The most obvious example of this is tiredness. Usually, if I am worn out from teaching or grading or advising, that weariness translates also saps me of ambition to do my own work, or makes me resentful of my service responsibilities. Sometimes, though, an enervating meeting or a frustrating class leaves me desperately motivated to seek out something interesting, and on the occasions when that isn’t Netflix or Elena Ferrante, it’s research.
All of those exchanges happen, straightforwardly enough, in a closed system (i.e., me), but get more complicated when other people enter the picture. This complexity becomes most acute, I think, at the juncture of my research and my teaching. And again – this isn’t simply a matter of spending too much time on the latter and not having enough for the former. Instead, I’m curious about how the affects that attend these forms of labor travel, or don’t, between them.
I recently watched a short film called “Professor,” by Eli Daughdrill. The eponymous professor is a middle-aged white man, described in the synopsis as “tenured,” “burned-out,” and a “failing writer.” In the opening sequence, he checks both his email and his voicemail, and we watch as he is passed over by publishers, henpecked by a female administrator in voicemail, and pestered by students. After a depressing pillage of the communal refrigerator, he returns to his office to find a student with a grade dispute waiting for him outside his office. He makes his case for why she deserves to fail the course; she counters that she tried to do the work, and that she’s a single mother, and so (presumably) worthy of a special dispensation. Ultimately (spoiler alert!), the professor decides to pass her, though we never learn his reasons.
The film nicely captures the pressures to capitulate to these kinds of petitions. When resources of time and energy are scarce (and student course evaluations are looming), this path of least resistance is especially appealing.
It also suggests a structural affinity between student and professor that often goes, I think, overlooked: here, they are both unlucky and unsuccessful, believing themselves to be victimized by capricious systems of merit and reward. The film does not adjudicate whether these portrayals are accurate, but rather emphasizes the consequences of feeling, or believing, that they are. There’s something interesting about this. Like many other professors that I know, I complain often that students misrecognize grades as things that I give rather than marks that they earn, and feel myself get prickly with indignation when they complain that I’ve graded them unfairly. On the other hand, I’ve also been critical about the vicissitudes of the peer-review system in general, and found myself yowling about the nerve/arrogance/obstinacy/general dastardliness of many an anonymous reader of my own submitted work. The possibility that my students and I are articulating a similar plaint leaves me very uneasy.
I believe that there are important differences between their gripes and mine (there, I feel better); of course, academic entitlement is a serious problem. And for my part, I like to think that I deal pretty effectively with my own gripes. But I also think that there are probably similar perceptions operative in each case. So I wonder – in a way made more comfortable by the vantage of early summer – whether the similarity of our feelings on the issue might provide the foundation for some kind of empathy, operative in both directions. Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s possible in every instance, or what it would look like in practice. But maybe it would make the work of grading, and being graded, a little less agonizing for everyone involved.