a similar complaint?

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.

rmp

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.

 

 

i heart snow days (even on sabbatical).

… just waiting for it to start snowing.  Already, UMBC has cancelled its first day of classes; no matter for me, really, as I am on sabbatical, and already every day feels a little bit like a snow day: lucky, open, forgiving, tinged in the evenings with that little bit of dread at the thought of a return to normal.  But it’s not technically a sabbatical until everyone else has to show up for things that I don’t, so I guess that means Monday for me will be a combination sabbatical snow day, which still feels like something even if the fact of the sabbatical diminishes the reward of the snow day.

Not long ago I was chatting with a colleague who said he found snow days incredibly frustrating, that he resented their interruption of his classes and the rhythm of the semester.  If his students have assignments due on a day when classes are cancelled, he still expects them to submit the work electronically and on time.  For future snow days, he says, he is thinking about experimenting with ways to convene class online.  I admired his dedication, but something about the conversation made me sad.

Sad in the same way that I feel sad when I hear academics say they never take days off or humblebrag about their 80-hour workweeks, the same way I feel when I get emails timestamped from the very wee hours or on weekend evenings.  In those instances, it’s a sadness overlaid with writing guilt, which spills into annoyance, which gets tangled with compassion (which I suppose allows me to offset the writing guilt by feeling superior) for them, for their families, their pets, their bodies, their friends.  It’s a rich text.

Anyway.

The snow day is an assertion that there is something bigger than my priorities, my ego, my expectations.  To be an adult is to be reminded, daily, that the world is almost entirely unconcerned with these things, and most of those reminders are unpleasant at a minimum.  But the snow day delivers a reminder in a different, gentler form: it takes the shape of a reprieve (of course, I have the supreme luxuries of a job that will pay me anyway, and a house that will keep me warm so I can simply take it.)

None of this is to say I don’t work on snow days.  I do, but less than usual and with a sense of relief, gratitude even.  And sometimes that little perceptual shift is enough to make the day feel really different.  If possible, I try to reapportion snow days for my own work, reading and thinking and writing.

But beyond the pleasure of a break from grading and class prep, I think there is a pedagogical value for students in snow days as well.  Doubtless, administrators would prefer that we find some creative way to teach despite the circumstances, but beyond communicating with my students about how we’ll adapt to the change in plans, I don’t.  I let them have their snow day.

More than anything, I want to cultivate curiosity in my students, and curiosity requires an openness to the world, a divestment of their expectations, a relinquishment of their position at the center of the universe, an awareness and a willingness to be surprised, and sometimes even derailed.  Snow days, I think, reinforce these lessons.

Surely, the routinization of crisis under neoliberalism can have a similar effect, and some of my students probably don’t need much education about precarity, because they live it.  All the more reason, then, to give them the day off.