Faculty Want More Than Tenure (And a Good Parking Space)
I’m Paul Musgrave, a political scientist and writer. This is Systematic Hatreds, my newsletter about my thoughts regarding politics and the study of politics. The newsletter takes its title from a line in The Education of Henry Adams:
Politics, as a practice, whatever its professions, had always been the systematic organization of hatreds.
This week, we’re talking about what faculty (well, one faculty member) want out of college.
Just about every faculty member I know is burned out. A good chunk of the students I know are, similarly, somewhere on the distribution between “feelings lightly singed” and “an emotional crisp”. What is going on on America’s campuses?
I have an idea. I tweeted about it yesterday:
Since I’m a fully-fledged faculty member (not a grad student, not yet a tenured!), let me, in the manner of my people, unpack that.
In an ideal college, professors and students would be drawn together spontaneously by a love of learning and of high standards. This being a fallen world, a more attainable if less ambitious goal is that the classroom should nurture a warm partnership—and relatively straightforward routes to passing.
Yet none of this comes easily. Warmth and nurturing requires constant effort by the instructor and a willingness to receive by the students. Like any relationship, that between student and teacher entails forgiveness, understanding, and care. All of that takes effort. Even a cerebral exchange requires some emotional labor.
So what happens when faculty feel their emotional labor is devalued?
Sociologist Arlie Hochschild minted the concept “emotional labor” in the early 1980s. It’s since escaped (or lab-leaked) into the discourse, mutating along the way. These days, you’re likely to see Hochschild’s term used prolifically to refer to any form of emotional heavy lifting that people do, including in the context of personal relationships.
The popularity and the evolution of “emotional labor” have been notable enough that both The Atlantic and Scientific American have run articles correcting the record about what the term really means. (Just wait until Altmetric finds a way to quantify that impact.) As Hochschild explains, “emotional labor is the work we do to evoke or suppress feeling or emotion in the service of doing paid work—that is, by managing emotion.” It comes in many forms:
In The Managed Heart, I describe the work of flight attendants—whose job (in some airlines) is to try to be “nicer than natural”—and bill collectors—whose job (in some agencies) is to be nastier than natural. Most of us—teachers, nurses, social workers, sales clerks, tattoo parlor artists, prison guards, nannies, eldercare workers, wedding planners, funeral parlor attendants—do emotional labor that falls somewhere between these two extremes.
Anyone who’s taught a class knows that emotional labor is a part of it. It is, for many of us academics, an unusual situation. Teaching is scholarship at its most vulnerably intimate.
In that regard, teaching stands apart from other parts of the job’s three parts. Research may be vulnerable but it’s not intimate in the same way. Writing a paper, coding, developing charts, even wrangling a literature review—these are either solitary activities or divided among a team that is likely to be (at least in my discipline) truly collegial, or at least civil. Even submitting for publication, which is pretty vulnerable, is not intimate: you don’t see your reviewers (which is good for crime statistics), and ultimately it’s not you that’s judged but your work. Service may be annoying but it’s rarely intimate—just a chore.
But teaching? Teaching involves one’s personality more directly. Not a few times, I’ve felt like a boy, standing in front of a class, asking them to love rational-choice theory. Or OLS estimation. Or critical approaches to the study of foreign policy. Or whatever. It doesn’t matter. As John Locke might say, once I’ve mixed my labor with the syllabus and lecture notes, the subject has become mine—and once I’m delivering that lecture, I’m putting my work out there in front of an audience whose acceptance, rejection, or crushing indifference gets delivered in real time.
Teaching a course—25 or so lectures delivered to the same audience—can be exhausting if it’s going poorly. Partly, that’s because of the David S. Pumpkins Rule: some percentage of everything is going to become repetitive and tiresome:
Kate: How much David Pumpkins is in this?
Mark: Um, 73 out of 100 floors.
Beck: Why did you go all in on David Pumpkins?
Mark: Ay, look! It’s 100 floors of frights. They’re not all going to be winners.
(Look, if you’ve had to suffer through my international law lecture, I’m sorry. I’m trying to learn more about it, but it’s just not my thing.)
But mostly teaching becomes exhausting because I want to deliver material that entices the audience to be at least as interested in it as I am. That’s impossible: I’ve tricked myself into spending a lifetime with this subject, and my class, to a first approximation, will not. Ah, well: at least I convince some of them to take something away from the class. And for all my discipline’s goal of bridging gaps and bringing knowledge to power, well, I think often of the line from A Man for All Seasons in which Saint Sir Thomas More chides an ambitious climber:
Sir Thomas More:
Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.
If I was, who would know it?
Sir Thomas More:
You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.
Succeeding, or at least being minimally competent, in this takes a good chunk of emotional labor. I try to manage my emotions to make my students interested, happy, and at least tolerant of the times I’m going to fall short.
Yet neither the instruction nor the emotional labor that accompanies it is altruistic, whatever I may say publicly or in my tenure statement. This is my job, for which I’m modestly well paid. By the same token, though, no matter what I may say cynically or in exasperation, the rewards of the job aren’t just about the pay, the autonomy, and the occasional review copies of textbooks: it’s also specifically in the rewards of figuring something out—and getting students to care about these topics (and about the life of the mind more generally).
Those are emotional rewards. It’s one of the reasons why teachers love nodders—the people who nod along, even when they have no idea what’s going on. Without human interaction, the whole relationship is lost. And without some form of emotional reciprocation—students doing the work and at least sometimes expressing interest in the material—the whole endeavor feels less like a job and more like a penal sentence.
Even for people who enjoy teaching, the line between an emotionally rewarding and an emotionally draining place can be narrow indeed.
In the late 1980s, the sociologist Michael Stein started volunteering at a food pantry and soup kitchens. As he wrote in Social Psychology Quarterly, this gave him an opportunity to observe “the microsociology of face-to-face interaction” through which he could see “the reaffirmation of vertical, structurally based ranking systems.” In other words, Stein saw volunteers, like himself, who expected no pay from their impoverished clientele—but still expected compensation.
Stein called his article “Gratitude and Attitude.” The gratitude was the compensation—the emotional wages, if you will—that the volunteers felt they deserved for their efforts from their poorer clientele. The attitude to which he refers is the ‘80s meaning, like “copping an attitude”. It rankled him and the other volunteers, he wrote, when he encountered clients who displayed an attitude:
When I told a priest who headed the soup kitchen of my discomfort in feeling anger, he said that sometimes he felt anger himself when confronted with similar situations. One of the Brothers who also was involved in operating the kitchen agreed; he said that on occasion, if sufficiently weary, he expressed his feelings to those persons who sometimes came to the back door long after the meal had been served. … If the recipient complained upon receiving a bologna sandwich, the Brother said he would tell them that a nearby McDonald’s offered a greater selection.
I wager that almost any teacher who is not themselves a candidate for canonization, or at least beatification, has had similar thoughts when confronted by a student clamoring for a higher grade, even if they have not vocalized them to the student directly.
Most people may be unaware of how combative their classmates were (or, perhaps, how combative they were). I used to refrain from writing about the experiences of a fellow graduate student at Georgetown who had been told in no uncertain terms that the B they had marked on a student’s essay was all that was keeping that student from a Rhodes Scholarship. There was, I thought, no reason to embarrass that student, even vicariously. Then I learned that this had happened to many of my grad school cohort and with students of different genders in different years, rendering any such embarrassment less acute and more of a “You’re So Vain” situation.
More common, of course, was the declaration that a quiz grade had ruined their chances of law school, medical school, or graduate school. At Georgetown, every grading interaction was fraught with these undertones. It could make you feel like a faulty grade dispenser who just needed to be adjusted before it ruined any more lives.
Later on, as I moved to less pressure-cooker environments, grading interactions became less fraught (although I also moved to schools where failing a student was not only possible but routine—if rare). The instances of attitude came in other ways: the students arriving consistently 15 minutes late, the angry emails about grading standards too high, the complaints that there was too much reading, and so on. I’ve worked so hard to get to a place where I can work hard to teach you, the response would always bubble up. Why don’t you want to work with me?
I know from conversations with others that those sorts of interactions are more widespread than ever now. More emotional withdrawals are being made than deposits. Some days, it feels like a run on the bank.
Stein’s description of how the volunteers felt to have their emotional wages docked did not, it should be clear, take the volunteers’ side. Rather, he pointed out, the volunteers were fixated on how gestures and interactions felt to them, instead of considering how the situation looked to the clientele. “Volunteer activity,” Stein wrote, “is often a middle-class pursuit, the democratized version of nobesse oblige.” Expectations of gratitude, then, seem more like a demand than a request—something underscored by the environment in which they were solicited:
The clients of food pantries and soup kitchens find themselves in a setting that fairly shouts their status as poor and “needy”. The staff members’ great efforts to ensure that their clients won’t be degraded or stigmatized underscore the potential of these places to do precisely that.
The clientele, after all, could not choose the food they were served, or the amount they received. They were being served, but they were not being treated as equals. They were the objects of the institutions, but not agents.
The analogy with students is imperfect. Colleges aren’t soup kitchens. Students have substantial agency over where they end up (I, for example, only teach electives). A few occasionally presume to have even greater authority over professors than they really possess, and seek to exercise it in evaluating teaching and complaining to administrators.
But an imperfect analogy can still illuminate. Students don’t, generally, know what they’re getting in for in a college class—how could they? Mostly they only have a title, perhaps a brief description, an instructor name, and a course meeting time to go by—and sometimes the instructor’s name is TBD. By the time a routine has been established and they have some idea about what’s going on, they’re trapped—it’s too late to change. So what can they do?
The great economist A.O. Hirschman described the strategies that one can employ in a situation to bring about change as exit, voice, and loyalty. Exit is unavailable. Loyalty—well, a faculty member will probably unfairly read that as their deserts. Voice can be surprisingly hard, because college students are often intimidated by professors. (This may seem mystifying, but we are remote and weird creatures who seem, unaccountably, to hold tremendous power over their futures.)
Hirschman, it turns out, missed a strategy. He should have called the book Exit, Voice, and Loyalty—or Sulking.
The phrase “in these unprecedented times” should be quietly buried under a marker that says “died of exhaustion”. In these now precedented times, it’s commonplace to ascribe emotional burnout to the global pandemic. Yet that’s reductive: at this point, the cycle of emotional exhaustion in the classroom has its own logic.
The withdrawal of many faculty from the non-essential parts of their job—not a Great Resignation, but a Great Work-to-Rule—is remarked upon often enough that we should think about what’s at the core of it. It is, I think, an emotional wildcat strike—a withdrawal of anything that’s been paid for with emotional remuneration by students (or administrators, to be sure) and a steely focus on the black-letter parts of the job description.
A new equilibrium will re-establish itself. In the long run. In the interim, I hope that labeling the phenomenon will let individuals cope with it—and heal.