Academic Types: The Common White Male Student- a Field Study

The common white male student (discipulus pallidus masculinus vulgaris) comes in all forms and shapes, is however characterized by certain outward appearances: He will wear cargo shorts (unless outside temperatures are minus 18 Fahrenheit, which is when sweatpants become appropriate attire), and a T-shirt. The T-shirt either displays the letters of his Greek House, or, alternatively, advertises a Burger joint he likes to frequent after he and his “brothers” (fratrii) drank through their kegs of beer. Moreover, he is surrounded by a whiff of privilege, imperceptible to himself. The white male student’s behavior and true essence can be best studied, however, in interaction with another species, the female professor (professora feminina). On any given day, the interaction is characterized by the steadfast belief in the white male student’s infallibility. Hence, he will have no problems giving his female professor two thumbs up, declaring “you’re right” (accompanied by vigorous head nodding) after she explained to him why his approach to a problem was not correct. It is also beyond the DPMV to ever apologize for being 10-12 minutes late. Should the belief in this infallibility be shaken- the DPMV will excel in the heuristics of restoring the belief: Clearly, the professor harassed him about being a tad late. Clearly, the female professor has to be a bit more understanding of his situation of partying instead of doing his homework. And anyways, why is this bitch on his case constantly, does she not get laid enough?

In conversation with the professora feminina, the DPMV will exhibit benevolent friendliness, assuring her how he “truly appreciates” her concerns for his grade, and he will always finish his 11.47 pm email asking for homework with “respectfully yours.” On occasion, the DPMV shows an attempt of critical thinking, yet, it often gets lost with the beer that comes out of that funnel on Thursday night. His response paper on how refugees in Syria “got it really bad” thus will never be developed further.

Two times during the semester, the DPMV will engage in serious studying: During Midterms and Finals. In the week coming up to the midterm, he will gingerly approach a student in better academic standing (usually a female), flash her a smile, and suggest that they can study together. Generally, the female student will agree. They will meet at a public place, so that the DPMV can be seen studying, and on occasion, “say hi” to his friends. Should the DPMV actually earn a grade better than before, the glory will be his- and he will forget about the student that sat with him for hours, patiently explaining the very basics of the coursework, while the DPMV tweeted and took selfies on instagram. Should his grade not be as expected, he will write yet another polite email to the professora feminina, respectfully requesting to “discuss” his grade. During said discussion he will share his bewilderment: he studied so hard- does that not automatically qualify him for an A? This conversation could have two outcomes: The professora feminina actually starts doubting herself, as her species is wont to do, and gives him a better grade. In the second scenario, the professora will patiently explain what was done wrong, and will not change her grade. In the first scenario, the professora loses self- respect. In the second scenario- she loses the support of her fellow faculty- often former DPMVs and their mothers- and possibly her job. Interactions with several professoras not bending to the will of the DPMV and not understanding his infallibility, can turn into the well-known and researched “angry white male syndrome” (morbus pallidus masculinus aggravatus). Without a hint of irony, he will declare that there are good stereotypes (Asians are smart and Jews are rich), that white men really are the victims of society. Currently, a cure only involves a silver bullet, something the fewest of the professoras can afford.

The behavior towards the professora feminina can easily be explained: The DPMV is of the cocksure belief, that women are either mothers, or someone to sexually engage with (aka. “hit”, “hook up with,” “hang out with”). Since the professora feminina generally does not fall into his prey scheme- the DPMV concludes that she has to mother him. A little example will illustrate this: The DPMV takes, say an econ class, with a male professor, and fails. He will tell his friends how hard they will have to work, how hard the assignments are and that the professor is strict. This will be said with a tone of respect and awe. The student repeats the class, this time taught by a female professor. Even though she will grade the same way, even though she will assign the same problems, she most likely will have the reputation of a cold-hearted, hard-assed bitch (who needs to get laid, since this is the solution to all of mankind’s problems).

To be complete in this observation, it has to be noted that subspecies of the DPMV exist- such as the white, enlightened male student. Often, he has been raised by a single mother, is fluid in his sexuality, or his intelligence is above average. This subspecies is extremely rare, and, like white tigers, either becomes ostracized from the general DPMV community, or a target to them.

The DPMV is most commonly found in Liberal Arts Schools, in recent years however, a migration to state schools and community colleges has been detected. Similar to the common rat (rattus norvegicus), the DPMV easily adapts to most surroundings.

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Self-Critique and Kangaroo Courts

For the second time, I recently had to submit a formal response to the comments on my student survey evaluations, which I consider a theoretically useful but, in practice, simply a humiliating instrument of shame. The entire concept of student evaluations, as many people have noted, is pretty much a lousy idea, since the average college student a) does not thoroughly understand how and why their own work is being evaluated, b) resents grades lower than A, and c) is convinced that any sub-A grade is an unreasonable punishment inflicted by an incompetent or vengeful professor. Even at my last place of employment, which likes to brag about what a good school it is, students generally perceive having to work hard as a negative quality for a course, as if they were so naturally brilliant that anything more than half an hour of homework represents the prof’s shortcoming, rather than their own.

In a nutshell, really, that’s why students evaluations should not be used to evaluate a professor’s performance. Students tend to feel that their own subpar work is not their fault, but someone else’s. They are unable or unwilling to admit even to themselves that they could do better. Passing the blame is a natural if petty and unfortunate human tendency, but why on earth would a bunch of grown-ups take it seriously when a bunch of teenagers indulge in it?

But of course, tenure and promotion committees, as well as hiring committees, do.

I was working at a small liberal arts college that, because of its emphasis on teaching as the main charge of a college professor (good, reasonable) and its craven desire to be loved rather than respected by its own students and alumni (bad, stupid), takes student evaluations way too seriously. From what I’ve seen, the administration itself has come to think about the professors the same way the students do: it is the professor’s job to be lovable, and to give the students As, and if students don’t write evaluations praising the professor’s personal qualities while racking up high grades, the prof must answer for it. I’ll spare you the strange rumors I have occasionally heard about how such committees have used less than stellar evaluations to fire profs who deserved better. Just assume that those rumors circulate, and people are sensitive to the possibility of such judgment.

Imagine, then, how it feels to receive an email reminder from the administration that I need to write a formal response to my student evaluations, describing how I intend to make use of them to grow and improve as a professor. I will tell you that it feels very much as if I have just been accused, tried, and found guilty in a single sentence, and am being given merely the opportunity to repent publicly before being dragged away.

It was hard for me to get through the task without constantly thinking of the Soviet intelligentsia who were purged during the 1930s, convicted on no evidence of absurd criminal accusations always centering on their presumed disloyalty to the state and its leader. Stalin wanted to get rid of everyone in the government who was not directly loyal to him, and also to deflect some of the blame for unpopular or unsuccessful state initiatives. An entire generation of intellectuals working for the Soviet state was purged: arrested on false charges, interrogated and tortured to make them confess, and, after their conviction was formalized, either sent to the gulags or shot right there in prison. Such unfortunates – some of them deserved a nasty end on their own merits, but that’s beside the point here – were permitted to say very little in their show trials, which were lavish kangaroo courts, as a rule. The only things they usually got to say aloud were the scripted “self-critiques” given to them by the secret police who interrogated them: politically flavored declarations of criminal and moral guilt in which they confessed to both political crimes and underlying character flaws that prevented them from being good Soviet citizens. The character flaws were the more important part, since the self-critiques always led up to the way in which one’s moral failings paved the way for treasonous behavior.

Since my contract was ending, and I have little reason to expect further association with my newly former employer, I was deeply tempted to mouth off on paper to them about how contemptible I considered their campus culture, and what a relief it was to me that I need no longer comply with it. But – there’s always a but, right? – my self-critique had to be sent to both administration and my department chair. My chair is a natural reference for hiring committees to consult when considering my application, and, furthermore, the chair is in some sense answerable to the higher-ups for the behavior of the professors in the department. To express my full range of feelings about the whole endeavor would be to embarrass the chair deeply, which would of course make it unlikely to get a good letter of reference down the line.

Back on those Soviet purges: plenty of intellectuals hauled into jail had strong moral and political convictions, and were willing to die in the name of their cause. They knew they would be executed no matter what they said, so why not go down swinging, and at least force the occupants of the kangaroo court to hear a piece of their minds first? This is when the secret police, who were devilishly good at sensing what their prisoners were liable to do, would make it clear to the would-be protestors that, should they depart from the script or refuse to comply in any other way, their loved ones would also be taken and killed. There was no way to resist.

I admit that I’m glad that the stakes aren’t that high for me. I have been told that I have a fat mouth, after all.

Understand that this post isn’t a lamentation for myself; I’m fine. (Really!) I do feel bad, however, that the system at my former employer seems to replicate itself irrevocably, since it only permits the professors who kowtow to it to remain and take up the reins themselves. And the profs who are insistent on being good teachers – not beloved friends or fashion plates or bros who hand out As – are increasingly purged from the college as disloyal to the college or responsible for its continuing mediocrity.

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Adorno Want to Hear it Anymore

Here I am reading yet another article in which someone is trying to make Adorno’s thoughts on jazz not racist. Seriously, academia, can we get real for a second? Listen, you like to think of yourself as open-minded, and I guess you are. More than most of the senate in any case. But what’s with trying to make cultural chauvinism and elitist reactionary pablum acceptable when you happen to agree with it? He’s a sacred cow, but even the most prized heifer has to be put down when she breaks a leg. Dude was a European elitist who couldn’t for the life of him imagine ideas of art that were outside of his own culturally (and class) defined image of it. He was a bigot, is what I’m trying to say. He wasn’t extraordinary here by any means–his opinions are typical of the literary class’s hatred of jazz and all that came with it, read: “it’s black, overly sexual, and frivolous”–but it’s still racist. Very much so, actually. “But he was talking about a different kind of jazz,” you say. Nice try. He may have hated “German jazz”—that hot syncopated dance music that busted into German clubs and hearts after the First World War—with special vigor, but his metaphors and imaginary about jazz are right out of the most vitriolic racist pamphlets of his time. The phallic saxophone that tempts and pollutes chaste dancers (and evokes the libidinal and well-endowed black man and fears of miscegenation), the lurid potential of a jazz dance floor hot with enthusiasm and sexual energy, and a stubborn inability to entertain ‘foreign’ musical forms and patterns: these are all common themes in a racially charged ‘debate’ about jazz and American culture in postwar Germany. And if they sound familiar, that means you’ve either endured DW Griffith’s masterpiece of revisionist and racist propaganda, Birth of a Nation, or that you’ve paid cursory attention to any discussion about race sometime in the last three hundred years.

Because all of these fears are fears of black culture: its ‘lasciviousness,’ ‘frivolity,’ and basic ‘amorality’. That rightwing newspapers and demagogues say the exact same things that Adorno does should raise some eyebrows, but it doesn’t. Because you like him. But one man’s bourgeois fears of cultural decline and the racial outsider are another’s considered critique of the culture industry, I suppose. What I’m trying to say here, dear Academy, is that you’re a bit of a coward. Not running-away-from-shadows-and-giving-your-lunch-money-to-the-first-person-with-anything-resembling-muscle-definition cowardly, but in a dishonest intellectual sort of way. You know, in the brain, the muscle you lionize. If you can’t look at and examine your own thoughts, and that perhaps you use canonized racism to justify or legitimize your own elitism or feelings of cultural superiority, how is anyone supposed to take the rest of what you say seriously? It isn’t bad that Adorno felt the way he did—after all, what are we going to do about that now—but do you really have to try so hard to defend, or worse, rationalize it?

Let’s lay it all out, academia: I’m up to my man-berries in your love for the things you say, and I’m tired of hearing racist shit spooned out under a gravy of Marxist-Freudian lingo. Newsflash: it still stinks. Stop trying to make me eat it. Better yet, stop eating it yourself. Put down the spoon and learn to cook real food.

You won’t because it’s cold in your windowless room, and I understand that; it’s dark in there too, and paper can cut deeply if you’re careless. But mostly you won’t because you can’t raise a hand against something you revere. I say ‘thing’ because he is not a man. You’ve made sure of that; you’ve stripped him of his muscle and left the head, because under all your finery, dear Academy, you’re record store philosopher kings. You live like Adorno did, as the last great gourmand among a rabble feasting on burgers and milkshakes; you see what others cannot and pride yourself on the secret freemasonry of the high chair you’ve built for yourself. It’s an illusion, of course, but I don’t begrudge you that, because if you’re not wise, then what are you? You make way for Adorno’s racism and run to the defense of your man because you see in it what you’ve always seen in the mirror: a great mind drowned by stupid consumption and conformity. You stand apart and he proves it for you. He proves it so nicely, in fact, that you don’t even have to think anymore, just patch the chinks in the logs when the rain comes down especially hard and make sure nothing rots too much. Take care of it, and it should last a lifetime. I felt this way too, when I was thirteen.

For the most part, though, you run to him because to do otherwise would be to rest easy with complexity. The bigotry ruins your theory, is the thing. It makes everything all human and icky, not celestial at all. But don’t worry, just ignore it or talk around and sterilize the issue in a bath of high-minded mustache twisting and misplaced confidence. You’ll have all the lumps beaten out in no time. Restore order at all costs; intellectual integrity is a small price to pay, so take out your wallet. And don’t pretend like you don’t do it with the rest of the Frankfurt crowd. It’s the same reason you can scream to the hills Marcuse’s ‘wisdom’ that ‘bad’ ideas—evil ideas—should not be tolerated, that they should be snuffed out for the greater good while at the same time decrying his firing from UCLA without the slightest bit of irony. UCLA probably didn’t realize that they had put his ideas into action by expelling a threatening ideology that was disruptive and openly hostile to the institution that allowed it to exist in the first place, but what’s your excuse? You’ve read all the books. Does it say somewhere that self-reflection is fascist, or that Hitler had a mirror so you can’t? But then again, absolutist statements are only fun when the other guy has to swallow them, am I right? If you turn them on yourself the water gets all muddy and you can’t see the bottom at all. It’s just so damn complicated this way. Best not to think about that.

I know what you’re thinking: you’re thinking that you love complexity, but you don’t. You have a fetish for complexity. You love how arguments twist and ball themselves up because you’re an OCD vampire, in love with knots and twine. You can’t help but pick it apart, but there’s nothing at stake in diddling Marx or redeeming Heidegger when you’re not calling him a Nazi to make a quick point. This, though, is real complexity, the kind that messes up a nice picture; it can’t be easily reduced or brushed aside, because it has political meat to it, the way that hate is always robust and meaningful. There are political chips on the table here, not in the heady, ideological way that you’re so fond of, but in the strictest sense of the polis. Images and metaphor have meaning that pure theory does not, and there is a fear in you, Academy, a fear that behind Adorno’s fevered conviction and rage against a new media machine that—perhaps—his critique is not as sober as you had hoped: you fear that his argument may not be influenced by racism, but rather that it is motivated by it. And if that is true—if the talk of market forces and reification is embroidery for an ugly pattern of intolerance—what does that make you? An apologist? An elitist with its finger in the dyke? A self-righteous asshole? Because to read his work on jazz as serious criticism, you have to do nothing short of apologetics, you have to overlook and accept as true a train of thought that makes sense only within the confines of its universe, a universe—incidentally—powered by racial fear and cultural protectionism. You know, the good fight.

‘Jazz and pogrom belong together,’ Adorno famously says, but does this really make sense? Even in the context of Adorno’s ‘real target’ of German jazz and the essay’s internal logic and hysteric tone, does anything about it ring true? We have seventy-eight years between us, and there has yet to be a fascist state marching to hot piano and screaming trumpets. And young men and women have still to crumble under the promised yet unrealized sexual act found on the jazz dance floor. A horn break is not mob rule, and a backbeat is not barbed wire. But the bogey men of black culture that Adorno paints—the unnamed yet palpable fear of the Other and the loss of emotional and social control that he represents—are the real foundation stones for pogrom; no one has died for Glen Miller’s sheet music, but legions have been strangled in the battle against faceless racial foes. How do you Frankfurtsplain this away? It must be very embarrassing for you. But who am I kidding, you don’t care. Sure making excuses for bigoted rants is distasteful, but at least the trains run on time. Besides, words don’t mean anything, right? You use thousands of them all the time and nothing seems to happen. But then again, that’s everyone else’s fault.

Before you put down your dog-eared Beckett and hit me over the head with your velvet Kafka portrait, you should know that I get the appeal of the whole thing. There’s sexiness to a lack of compromise and absolute conviction, but it’s also messy. Making your intellectual life into a high school clique means the weird kid either has to eat alone at the lunch table, or you do your damnedest to change the rules so he can stay. You appear to have chosen option number two. But it’s all in the service of knowledge and inquiry, right? Want to dismiss mass cultural phenomena with a wave of the hand? No worries, because you obviously know better, you’re a doctor. Not that kind of doctor, but still. Do you find social media problematic and popular music the soundtrack to fascism? No problem, the School has you covered there. Your shit doesn’t stink. Bigotry is someone else’s problem, not yours, so look out the window and find something wrong with the scenery. I here Hotel Abgrund has some rooms open in you’re interested. So don’t worry about relevance, consistency, or intellectual honesty. It’s so bourgeois.

PhD, heal thyself, because “holier than thou” is not a job description. It’s a waste of my time.

This esoteric rant is brought to you by the CWBH (Can We Be Honest) Society.

-Erudite the Terrible

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How to write a Rejection Letter: Do’s and Don’ts

Recently, my students told me that it’s a ritual among college students to post the first letter of rejection they ever receive on their dorm door. It’s a badge of honor, and it creates a certain community among the job searchers, Generation unpaid Internship laughing through their tears.

Now, my door is full. I have so many rejection letters that I could easily provide wallpaper for three two story Hollywood mansions. As I leafed through my collection when I got home, I couldn’t help but notice how awful most of them were. Interestingly, writing a letter of rejection seems to be a lost art, especially in the Humanities, when you could expect better (you got a degree based on your writing, peeps!).

Hiring committees, listen up! You gots it hard, we know. As a matter of fact, you gots it extremely hard (no snark here). If you work at a teaching heavy place, then chances are that you are reading dossiers at 11.30 at night, after the nth committee meeting while eating that cold burrito that you picked up from Chipotle seven hours earlier, in the hope you might get dinner some time. And with two to three hundred applicants to one position, you have to write rejection letters.

Here are a few suggestions:

Timing:

  • Why not send out rejection letters to those who did not get an interview right away? To receive a rejection letter in May is pointless, and quite frankly- tacky. By now -job wiki or not- I know that I am not The Chosen One, your letter just rubs it in.

Content:

  • Keep it short and simple, and as with everything that you write, keep your audience in mind. An example would be: “We had a lot of qualified applicants, blah blah, thanks for playing, best of luck.” Done.

Under no circumstance, I repeat UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES, tell me how hard your life is. A few gems to illustrate what I mean:

  •  “Writing a letter of rejection is almost as daunting as receiving one.” No, it is not. You have a tenure track position, have full professorship, in short: a job. You do not wonder whether you should fill out that Walmart Greeter application form, and you don’t calculate how long that 12 pack box of Ramen will last you. So do not tell me about your hard decision, when mine is which credit limit to even further hopelessly overdraw to pay electricity.

 

  •  “The number of qualified applicants made the Search Committee’s decision extremely hard, and we did not make light of our task.”- I am sure that the number of qualified applicants, together with the 70 page dossier you asked for, was overwhelming. Maybe admitting ten new grad students per year did not pay off that well in the long run, hey? Overwhelmed, you just resorted to look for white, male, Harvard/Princeton- maybe Stanford or Cornell- educated, and invited them. So, puh-leaze, spare me tales of how you did not make light of your task.

 

  • “We are impressed with your qualifications, but ultimately issues of fit with our needs require us to eliminate your application from our short list many highly qualified persons.” Just STFU and do not EVER use the word “fit” again. A pair of shoes can be the right fit, a pair of jeans fit. What you are talking about is not whether the jeans fit, but whether your ass looks good in them. Essentially you want to hire Brett Betherton Weatherby IV.” So, keep it professional, which brings us to the next point.

Manners:

  • After a conference interview, do not have your secretary/your recruitment system send a rejection letter that starts with “Dear Candidate.” If you have sat less than two meters away from me, and asked questions that range in appropriateness from “What country does your first name come from?” to “Are you pregnant right now?” and you decide to not invite me, the least I fucking deserve is a badly written email that starts with my first name. Badly written, because, see above.
  •     Actually do send a letter/email of rejection. I am still waiting for a few rejections from two years ago. Yes, I have figured out that they did not hire me, but still. Don’t complain about students starting emails with “hey”- when you don’t even send out emails to let the hoi polloi know they are suckers.
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Numbers Game

I. Hate. Math. If I could tar and feather it, put it in an iron maiden, draw and quarter it and then drench it in boiling oil, it would only abate a minor fraction of the primeval rage I feel for it. Everyone says it’s a practice of logic, but it makes no sense to me. Teachers wouldn’t, or couldn’t, tell me why certain things had to happen in a certain way. “Because we do,” parried all my questions about process and rationale. They couldn’t tell me why “x” was “x” instead of “a” or “b.” Unable to draw connections between the why and the how, I did horribly in math.
It was always like this, except for when I met R.Q. Thomas in the 8th grade.
R.Q. Thomas, as he referred to himself, speaking in the third person, told us like all math teachers that we would always need math in life. But, dressed in snakeskin shoes and shiny silk suits, perfectly manicured and coiffed, he gave us relevant examples, mostly from negotiations with his son’s and wife’s requests for extra money and his two “side businesses,” his clothing store and nightclub. Upon learning from my parents that R.Q. Thomas was notorious for his popular night club, “where the shootings always happen,” he naturally soared skyward in my estimation. I hung on to every word he said.
“Two trains leave the station at the same time, but traveling at different speeds, one at 45 mph and one at 60 mph,” he read from our textbook. “How long does it take each train to get to the next station 50 miles away?” He closed the textbook. “Who cares? R.Q. Thomas cares about how long it takes two of his employees to get to the bank with his money!”
He taught us inventory, overhead, economy of scale, how many customers the club had to have and how many drinks each customer had to buy in order to cover the club’s entire month’s rent in one night. He showed us how to make buckets more money just by asking our parents for an allowance increase of only a quarter a week–and providing the math to show that the increase was justified. I got A’s in his class. I knew when to use which equations and why. I figured Geometry next year would be a breeze.
You might have already guessed what I did not know at the time, that R.Q. Thomas was as much of an anomaly as an albino flamingo. There was no mathematical second coming after him. The teachers went back to being dickishly incomprehensible and unapproachable, often disdainful of my apparent obtuseness. Despite the fact that I had picked up four languages by then, I couldn’t understand a thing they said. An Isosceles triangle sounded like an area in the Pacific Ocean that sucked up airplane carriers. It turns out that calculating volume has nothing to do with stereo systems. I already knew that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but I had no idea how I was supposed to get there. Parabolas, area, diameters, radii and Pi made my life a living hell. Pythagoras was a bastard and Euclid could kiss my ass. Sines and cosines hovered on the horizon, looming like grim reapers of trigonometry.
Every time I asked the teacher to please, for the love of all that was holy and reasonably-priced, explain in some way I could even remotely identify with why we use this equation at this time, I always got the same answer: “because we do.” And then they told my parents that my laziness led to my failing grades.
The fact that every science class I still had to take required math more mind-boggling than I was currently sucking at made my decision for me: I would specialize in the humanities. Screw math and all it’s crappy, crappy teachers. I would stick to languages I could understand.
So I went off and got a PhD in the humanities. Easy, right? Goodbye math, fuck off Euclid.
But R.Q. Thomas was right. No matter what, I needed math. I needed math to understand how the PhD bottleneck in the Humanities developed, when, at what rate, in order to understand why I couldn’t get a tenure-track job.
I needed math to reckon that on average less than 20 tenure-track jobs in my discipline have been offered per year in the last decade, while the number of people on the market is close to 1,000. Calculate the probability of being one of the lucky three of hundreds of applicants to get an interview, much less get the job, just to thrill at the chance to move to Nowhere, Idaho to be an academic Clydesdale (all for the low, low cost of a 5-page CV, a 30-page writing sample, 3-4 letters of recommendation, a teaching philosophy, a diversity statement, $300-400 in plane tickets,  $300 in hotel costs, $50 per diem and $200 in cheap suits, just so you can go to the mad cattle call otherwise known as the MLA conference and be interviewed by a committee while seated childishly on the edge of a bed in one of their hotel rooms), and you realize you have a better chance of winning the lottery or, more likely, being mauled by a tiger.
I needed math to figure out how long it would take to pay off my student debt as a single woman working as an adjunct lecturer–20 years, if I did not continue to go into forbearance because of underemployment. I needed math to figure out how much extra part-time work outside of academia–working as a pastry chef, translating, home schooling–that I needed to cover the rent in the lean years.
Then I sat down and did the math, the Real Math. Having given up reaching for the tenure-track brass ring until I felt like I’d been stretched on the rack, I “resigned” myself to being a lecturer, a negative integer. In order to have the greatest amount of job security in a profession with unlimited variables, from the budget to the enrollment to the personal whim of the department chair, what did I have to do, and how much of it?
The white board in my mind filled up quickly. A=see, B=be seen–and liked, C=conference presentations,  N=number of classes taught per semester, I=interdisciplinary, E=stellar evaluations and S=service. I taught across the curriculum in freshman and sophomore comp, writing in the sciences, film, literature, culture and foreign language. I advised students, gave seminars, trained teachers, acted as club adviser and cast votes in committees. I taught, produced, wrote, graded until my fingers bled, made myself a hot commodity.
Naturally, I did not bother factoring in quality of life or free time.
Depending on the semester and year, the coefficients change. In the fall it could be (7A + 4B) x 2C/20EI + 6N = guarantee of job offer. In the spring it could be 7B + (4C x 2 S/10EI) +3N.
But no matter what equation I created, it always equaled the same: burnout. I left the country for a year to recover–twice in the span of eight years. But even then, because I honest-to-god love teaching, I had my eye on the prize, creating a calculus that would convert my lateral moves into CV mojo, tilting the scales as much as I could.
Because, in the end, being a lecturer is a game of probability, in which she with the best poker face and card-counting skills is the winner. It’s game theory.
But, as before, the logic makes no sense to me.
Take for instance my latest problem. I solved the equation of desirability in the lecturer marketplace. Having parlayed myself into a lean, mean, interdisciplinary instructional machine, I am now in high demand. Four schools want to hire me next semester for a total of seven classes. The simple math is encouraging. 7N= Money, Money, Dollar Dollar Bill Y’all!
But then it gets tricky. Three of the classes are scheduled at the same time. Two of the classes have too high a personal cost per unit, each paying half as much as one class at another institution, and requiring three times the work. I would end up grading a total of 200 4-page essays in one semester, totaling almost 1,000 minutes, for about $1,000 a month. And that doesn’t include class time (T=4,800 minutes) or prep time (P=960 minutes).
Dump the two low-paying classes, and negotiate the scheduling of the others, right? But then there’s still five courses left, which, when compounded with interest over time, equal, once again, burnout. And I am now too old to start building seniority all over from the beginning if I want to retire with a pitiful pension by the time I’m 70.
And did I mention that only two of the four schools offer health insurance? Did I mention that one of them is–you guessed it–the one with back-breaking work for minimum wage, the one for which you need the health insurance the most?
Did I mention that, because of the previous burnout, I have no job security anywhere, that all my previous semesters of hard work (a total of 42 in 14 years–wrap your head around that for a minute) no longer counts because I left for one year and no one told me about taking a leave of absence? (You try keeping up with the lecturer handbooks for four institutions, grade 800 papers a semester and manage three different preps all at the same time. Go on, see how well you learn the bureaucracy.) The equation gets more and more confusing and out of reach with each day.
So now we get into conditional probability. If numbers are lower in the following semester, what are the chances that I will get offered as much work then? If there is little or no work in the following semester, how much do I have to pre-emptively work in order to cover that loss? What are the chances that I turn down work at one of the places that offers health care and never get offered a course there again? What are the chances that the other places will consistently employ me and pay enough money in the long run so that affording health care is no longer one of my greatest worries? What are the chances that some chair will take my “sorry, I can’t” as a personal affront and try to blacklist me all over town? What are the chances that these schools will ever regard me as more than disposable, when hundreds, if not thousands, of unemployed PhDs are standing in line behind me, desperate to take my place?
There is work and money to be made–for now. But I can’t take half of it. I now face a famine in the middle of a feast.
I stand at the station, looking at four different trains, with no idea of their end destinations, the routes they will take to get there, nor the speed at which they travel. And there is not enough whiteboard to work it all out. Despite all my efforts, I am involved in a numbers game that I can’t understand. And even if I did, I still wouldn’t win.
Maybe it’s time for me to look up R.Q. Thomas and get a job at his nightclub.

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Academic Types: The Dedicated Professor

The sub-species of the professor, the “dedicated” professor (Professora dedicata), is prevalent in all areas of the land of Academia, but thrives in Small Liberal Arts Colleges. This species is found in both genders, male and female, it is however more prevalent among the female population. Therefore, the female pronoun shall be used henceforth.

The dedicated professor is characterized by her steadfast belief that she is making a difference in those young students’ lives. Whether no one but her can see this difference, and what exactly the nature of this difference might be, still remains a topic for discussion. Yet, this discussion will never happen, because PD has managed to attain a sacrosanct status among both the student body and the faculty. Dare to criticize a PD, and more than one eyebrow will be raised, several heads will shake, and if you are truly in trouble, fingers might be wagged at you.

Believing that everybody has a good core, and that it is her job to bring this core to the surface -even if it is hidden under a layer of privilege, nastiness and narcissism, the dedicated professor sets out to do her job with joy every day. She loves to teach, often classes with ten more students than the fire department code allows in the room, but who cares about rules, when you can educate, no, cultivate young minds? (for those minds sure as shit are a wasteland).

As she is so absorbed in her mission (since that is what it really is, and not just a job), attention to worldly vanities, such as outward appearances, cannot be paid. The PD therefore makes the Amish look like models at the Paris Fashion Week. Her posture rivals that of the hunchback of Notre Dame, the price for reading and grading all that student work. But who cares when you live the life of the mind? The dedicated Professor is single, because her love for students and teaching could not be second to anybody. This gives her time to happily write individualized two page commentaries on essays and lab reports. That her handwriting is indecipherable, scraggly and makes Egyptian hieroglyphs look like Times New Roman in comparison, does not matter. She also seems completely oblivious to the fact that one, maybe two students will actually take the time to improve their work, whereas the rest will be content with the A- that she reluctantly gave them. Moreover, the students will measure every other professor’s grading against the pamphlet the dedicated professor wrote. And seriously, lazy French Professor, why did you not include a two page description why verbs ending in –ir follow a different conjugation pattern? PD will happily spend Saturday and Sunday in the lab to prepare demonstrations for students, and meet with students at 11 p.m. the night before midterms, since there was no other time for the student to meet with her and who would she be to turn down a learning opportunity? The dedicated professor on occasion sleeps in her office, since she really wanted to grade those essays right away.

Administrations love dedicated professors. Since they are so busy “making a difference” and “caring” they forgot having an opinion a long time ago. Hence, if student tuition is raised once again, or a few of her fellow professors don’t get tenure under shady circumstances, or she suddenly is teaching a Freshman Seminar with 45 students, there will be little protest from the dedicated professor. On occasion, upon hearing something outrageous, she dedicated professor will let out a barely audible “oh no!” followed by a deep sigh, before she goes back to grading those papers. And essentially, she does not understand those of her colleagues, who complain about cuts in higher education, labor practices that put 19th century English coal mines to shame, and entitled students. What is there to complain when you have the best job ever????! Administrators will fuel this stance, and happily give her 0.5 % raises, since she will leave all her money to the college anyways, potentially in a fund for dedicated professors. The dedicated professor is put up on a pedestal, a role model all other faculty members should aspire to be.

Students love the dedicated professor, too! Who else puts up with your narcissism, understands that you have to go to Zumba practice before you can meet with her, and will gladly slap an A on a paper, in which you finally spelled “alliteration” properly? (or the professor’s name for that matter). “She really cares,” they will write in their evaluations, fondly remembering the time she gave them an extension when they had to appear in court for drunk driving (all slander anyway, and got resolved since daddy knew a judge).

While the dedicated professor might look dainty and in need of protection, she has a weapon that is sharper than a Samurai’s katana: Lovey-dovey language. She loves teaching the students, she cares, she is dedicated, she makes a difference, she is enthusiastic, she doesn’t have a job, she has a vocation, she wants to inspire students to be the best they can be, she is mindful of the students’ life experiences, she wants to leave a positive impact, oh and above all nurture a love of learning. This gets regularly used against her colleagues. You decided to spend Saturday and Sunday with your kids, instead of grading those papers? Clearly, you do not care about education. You dared to use the same lecture on mitosis twice? Your enthusiasm to make a difference in the lives of students used to be higher, my friend. You shudder at the thought that students come to your house for extra study sessions? You obviously have not heard of a holistic approach to teaching. You do not answer emails after 8p.m. – you do not care. You dare to ask to be paid more for the work you do? That is just greedy; you should do it for the love of teaching.

The dedicated professor therefore, is one of the most dangerous species found in the land of Academia. Everybody at some time had a DP, and everybody remembers this highly compassionate teacher, thinking that everybody should be like that. The DP becomes fictionalized in movies (e.g. Dead Poets’ Society, Precious, Dangerous Minds, Freedom writers, Mona Lisa’s Smile), suggesting to the rest of the population that educators need a pat on the back, a tearful thank you at graduation and the occasional Hallmark card that says “those who care teach,” or a similar platitude.

The best thing to do if you encounter a Professora dedicata, is feeding her vanity, er, humility, and slowly retreat. Tell her how amazing and inspirational she is, and then let her go back to grading.

You, on the other hand, run!

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