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In keeping with the theme this week, and because I’m an apparent sucker for anything Claire asks, I thought I’d add
1.) Grading is for your benefit, not mine. A six-page essay takes about five minutes to read, at the end of which I could simply slap a grade on the paper and move on; that’s all I’m being paid to do. The other 15 minutes I spend on the paper — correcting your grammar and spelling, pointing out poor word choices, making style suggestions, and fixing your logical argument — is all for your benefit. And also because I have Academic OCD and can’t stand the sight of a poorly reasoned argument. Which leads to:
2.) Length and Quality are not synonyms. I would rather read a single-page essay that was wrong, but competently written and argued, than a three-page essay that was right, but poorly written and argued. While it’s true that academics sometimes make too much of “elegance” as a criteria of evaluation, we do it because we’ve read so many ham-handedly written, excessively padded, and gaping-holed argued papers that we just kinda twitch in the presence of bad writing. And that’s just when we’re reading the peer-reviewed literature.
3.) Teaching is only one-third to one-half of my job. It depends on the university, of course, and some schools are actually headed towards tracking faculty. However, the traditional university professor has a ⅓ teaching load, ⅓ research load, and ⅓ service load. I teach at a regional comprehensive school, so mine is half teaching and a quarter each of research and service. Regardless, I’m only doing teaching 20 hours a week. The rest of the week I’m in committee meetings, maintaining the department’s website, overseeing student groups, and — of course — reading and writing on my area of expertise.
4.) Teaching is the least paid part of my job. The highest-paid people who are still in a classroom are researchers. The highest paid people in academia — after football coaches — are administrators. This is partly because those skills are rarer, but also because professors get into the business because they like working with students, and anything that takes you away from the classroom makes your job more like a job. There are professors who love research and so love to have fewer classes, but they aren’t common, and they tend to find their way to research centers and think tanks.
5.) I have a life outside the university. Professors are semi-on-call all the time. Even when I’m not at the office, I may be thinking about a project I’m working on, trading e-mails about certain things going on at the office, lesson planning, and grading papers. We also have “service to the community” so I’m expected to be a member of local boards if I’m qualified, or to serve local charities, and to otherwise be active in the community as a representative of the institution. As a result, if you e-mail me at 11:00 PM, there is a non-trivial chance you’ll hear from me at 11:15. However, I am not actually at your beck and call outside my office hours. Especially on weekends, I often have other things to do.
6.) Come to my office hours. The best part of my job is when a student comes to my office to talk. Doesn’t even matter about what. Want to talk about class? Great! Want to talk about a party? Great! I’m even happy to give relationship advice but — given my history — caveat emptor. During a lecture, or even a class discussion, I have to keep things on track, but the best stuff happens during a free-wheeling conversation. That’s w my office hours are there for.
7.) University administration is a necessary, if troublesome, thing. Universities are actually complicated organizations. There are cross-subsidies across the university, and — contrary to what you may believe — it isn’t STEM supporting Humanities: it’s Business and Education supporting Arts and Sciences. Business and Education are high demand, but cheap to teach; Arts and Science are expensive, requiring computers, datasets, stats software (which is much more expensive than office software), lots of other specialized software, studios, and much more. On top of that, we have the community of learning to support. The guest speakers, programs and events, even basic stuff like food and housing for students, all of this requires dozens of people to coordinate. We are running a small city. This could be a post of its own.
The great issue of university admin is that if you hire professional administrators, the cost of administration goes down, but the administrators tend to focus on the administrative things, i.e., building procedures and offices. Net effect: expensive and excessive administration, but very competently run. If you use professors to administer, the cost goes up because you have to lure professors out of their classes, but they tend to keep the administrative empires small because they have other priorities. Net effect: expensive and minimal administration that is barely functional but can be ignored. No one has figured out a solution to this.
8.) The university isn’t actually a thing; it’s a bunch of things working together. The faculty senate and the university president are appropriately named. The university really does maintain a fragmented and decentralized (arguably feudal) system. The departments and colleges make decisions on their own, and the president exists only to preside over — and sometimes settle disputes between — the disparate factions. All that administration and procedure exists to help students move between departments and colleges without noticing all the moving parts going on in the background. And this is a good thing: we’re all experts in our fields, and we don’t want dilettantes from outside trying to tell us how to do our jobs. We also don’t want to have complicated pricing mechanisms for students to navigate regarding the costs of the classes they take.
9.) Go to the events and programs. As higher education has become more and more popular, we attract more and more students who commute to campus and don’t stay around. This is unfortunate. Every week someone on the university will do a talk on some issue, or a panel discussion, or a art show. You like to watch the AEI events or the Heritage events? That’s going on every day at the university, free and open to the public. Some of them are deeply serious, and some of them are frivolous, but they are all being done by smart people who enjoy thinking about strange things in different ways. And we really like it when you come and ask questions, or argue with us. That’s really interesting. And you’ll learn more when you do that. Come to think of it, that applies to class, too. Answering questions is much more interesting than repeating the same lecture for the nth time.
Outside the events, there are student organizations for everything. If you ever wanted to learn to dance, to fence, to argue about politics, to meet elected officials, there is a group for you on campus. You’re paying for it anyway. And no, unbundling college is no more practical than unbundling cable. You want to see universities become football programs with attached academics? Unbundle the fees.
10.) The important skill in a class is not the subject matter, but the learning. A lot of American Government is, fundamentally, cocktail trivia. This is true of every class, from Archeology to Zoology. Even if you use the material in your career, you will forget stuff and have to look it up. That’s the skill we’re teaching you in the classes. We give you a book with information in it, we expect you to read it. Then, we talk about how the information in that book connects to other things in the book and outside the class. We then ask you questions that require you to pull information from the book and connect it to some other thing. Do this dozens of times, learning how different subjects hook material together, and you have learned a valuable skill: how to go from nothing to passable expert in the space of a couple of weeks.
Turns out, that skill is pretty useful in upper management, where new and unforeseen problems crop up all the time. And in decentralized offices where you can’t consult the managers and the handbook can’t cover everything, it’s also a useful skill. This is, incidentally, why — though moderately supportive — I don’t find the signalling literature to be very convincing, because it’s still focused on the cocktail trivia part of the education, not the modes of thinking, which is what we actually think we’re doing.
And, if you are taking a class, this means that behind every question we ask is the real question: demonstrate that you can use the material you’ve learned in this new situation. I’m not asking for a recitation, I’m asking for a solution or an argument.