Sunday, March 9, 2014

Doing The Job

Over the years, I've found that people have a lot of misconceptions about college professors--or teachers in general--and what they do for a living.

In the case of college profs, the general public knows that we "teach college," but I think people kind of remember "college" as something that involves a lot of beer and hooking up and sleeping late and occasionally cramming for an exam that covers information that you've never needed to know since that particular 3-hour interval on that long-ago day.

If you want to annoy a teacher, make the comment about "summers off."

In the first place, quite a few college professors teach summer courses.  I don't--because I'm single, I can get by without the extra $$--but most faculty members who have families usually need to teach during the summer at some point in order to pay the mortgage and the other bills. 

Because I don't know how it goes elsewhere, but in my experience, college faculty don't get paid in July and August unless they pro-rate their salaries.  So technically, "summers off" are two months of the year without pay.  Something to think about, maybe.

And remember how excited and happy you felt when you came home from school as a kid and announced to your mom that you had "NO homework?"   Well, if you teach college, you  have homework every day.  Even in the summer and even during breaks.  There's always something that needs to be read or written or rewritten or researched or submitted or attended.  You embrace a life in which you will never ever again have the feeling of having "no homework."

Personally, that's why I enjoy doing the job.  But I have several friends who opted out of teaching precisely for that reason.  One of my friends told me, "You get home at 6:00, unwind, get dinner, and then, you just want to crash in front of the TV for a while and not think.  But you can't.  Because you've got homework.  Again.  And if you skip it one day, it just piles up and then your weekend is swamped.  No thanks."

Another friend said, "Quite frankly, I think people who have a clear work day--in the office by 8:00, home by 6:00--have an easier time of it.  Their time away from work is their own--no questions asked.  They're not at work, so no one expects them to... work.  Professors don't have that set up.  It was like always being on call: if you weren't available at any given point in time, people got kind of annoyed or stressed out or offended with you, because they felt like you were supposed to be."

I once dated a guy who used to regularly email me to complain when he "got home late" at 9:00 p.m., after a long day at work.  I wanted to write back (but I didn't), "If I'm reading and responding to this, it means I'm still at work." 

Another friend once commented, "I don't know how you get any sleep.  When I have to give a presentation in front of 10 people the next day at work, I'm up half the night because of nerves and stress. You do this daily, to at least twice as many people, for months on end."

And really, that's the one that hits home for me.  Because if you ask anyone if they like "public speaking," they'll tell you how much they hate it, how they can't do it, it stresses them out, don't ask them to give a speech or stand up in front of a crowd, etc. etc.

So when someone tells me teachers "have it easy," I say, "Okay.  Let me put it this way.  Tomorrow morning, 9:00.  I'm going to need you to stand in front of a group of about 20 teenagers, and do about an hour or so of public speaking.  Don't stammer or stutter or look foolish or sound silly.  Don't lose your train of thought or get nervous.  Be ready for any questions, because you're going to need to be able to answer all of them.  (Is that what you're going to wear?  You might want to rethink that.)  Oh, and the computer sometimes doesn't work... in case you have visual aids prepared or whatever... just so you know.  It kinda crashes sometimes.  But not all the time.  You'll know when class starts, because nothing will load.  But be sure to keep everyone motivated and interested and learning, because if students fall asleep or don't learn, people will argue that it's a clear indication that you're not doing your job.  When you finish with that, I'm going to need you to head across the hall and do it again.  And again.  All day long.  You can have an hour for lunch."

When I phrase it that way, people often pause and say, "You know, I never thought of it that way."

I think people often think that being a teacher must be "fun" (and it is, in my opinion), because you get to stand in front of the room and think inspired thoughts and say inspired things and you have admiring young minds hanging on your every word.

Oh, my.   If only.  That would be quite lovely, wouldn't it?

I say, props to those who think "the liberals" (typically defined as people who say radical things like "Slavery is wrong" or "The Holocaust happened") have "taken over" "the colleges" and that they're corrupting the minds of America's Youth.

In my opinion, that's a serious compliment to college professors.  Thank you for your overwhelming faith in our power and prestige and penache.

Personally, I'm happy if no one drools or snores--or snores and then drools-- in my class.  I for one have never considered--much less aspired to--the wholesale brainwashing of America's Youth.  (The song, "Dream the Impossible Dream" begins playing on the soundtrack of my mind when I think about it.)

And to the people who say that teachers should be equipped with firearms in order to repel intruders.  OH MY GOD.  You SO have NO CLUE about teachers.  It would be funny, if it weren't so damn frightening. 

I mean, once again, I'm flattered that you picture me as some kind of Angelina-Jolie-with-a-Ph.D, pausing in the middle of a discussion of Shelley's use of metaphor in "The Triumph of Life" in order to drop to the floor, whip out my Glock, and go for the kill shot on some body-armored intruder with a machine gun. 

You need to consider the possibility that returning fire isn't always the solution to every problem.  And you also need to think for a second about what it would mean to have TWO people exchanging bullets over the heads and in the midst of a room full of surprised young students.

It's bad enough when one person does something like that.  How is 2 going to make it any better?

Oh, wait, that's right.  I'll be "trained to respond." (Here's what's playing on the soundtrack of my mind right now.)

Personally, I have days when, sitting quietly in my office with a cup of warm tea nearby, I struggle to load the stapler.  Or when I arrive in class and nearly start to cry because there isn't any chalk (again) or because the chalk that's available is all in tiny little pieces the size of my fingernail.   

If you think I'm going to be able to lock and load and save the day... Again, I thank you for the compliment, but you are so seriously mistaken that I can't even pretend that you might ever be right, no matter how flattering that thought might be to you or to me or to whoever.

Because there's another side of teaching.  Teaching involves a day full of public speaking gigs and then, when that's done, you return to your office to embrace all the trappings of a desk job combined with a customer service hotline.  You have paperwork to be filled out and filed--some of it online, so you have to master new software as it emerges, usually with all of about 2 weeks' notice--phone calls and emails that have to be answered (all of them are always "urgent," of course), and no, you can't close the door to your office because you have to be available for a couple of hours at a stretch in case anyone drops by with a question or a problem.

God help you if your computer crashes or the server is down or the xerox machine runs out of toner.  And yes, there is still that ever-present homework to do when you get home (after dinner, in place of TV and before bedtime). 

Over the years, I've found that my time spent working in my dad's business has served me well in academia--and this is something that I think most people would never expect.  There is a lot about teaching that is kind of like running your own business, but at the same time, it's all oddly combined with aspects of having a job that involves working for someone else.

And so, stuff piles up.  This is something I've been very aware of for the past 3 days, because this is what I've been using the first several days of my break (my "time off") to do: catch up on forms that need to be filed and paperwork that needs to be completed and emails that need to be sent or answered.

And now, it's time to get started on my homework.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."