THE WORLD OF THE PROFESSORIATE
A few years back, the political science department of Queens College, part of the City University of New York, put out a call for an assistant professor to teach basic classes in American government.
In a tight job market, this was an unusually good opportunity. The position was “tenure track,” which meant that in six years time, it could lead to a lifetime appointment. The pay was above average. Moreover, this was a rare opening in geographically desirable New York City. Most beginning professors are forced to start out in towns like Ames, Iowa or College Station, Texas.
As it happened, a young political scientist just finishing his dissertation at a top research university made it to the short-list. His research—An Algorithm for Statutory Reconciliation in Bicameral Legislatures—had a trendy feel to it. His mentors had sent glowing recommendations, casting him as a rising academic star.
Yet, on campus at Queens College, Golden Boy failed to impress. His presentation, meant to showcase his intellectual breadth and teaching style, was incoherent. At an interview with the departmental chair, he made no inquiries about the school or its students. Nor did he ask the one question that every career-coach claims is essential in a job interview: “What can I do for you?”
Instead, his first question was, “What’s the teaching load, here?” “Three and three,” the chair answered politely, meaning that her staff taught three courses each semester.”
“That won’t work,” he quickly returned. “I have my research to continue with and, as you heard, it’s important. Where I did my doctorate, it was two and two. By the way, how do your sabbaticals work?” He was told one came every seventh year, after six of teaching.”
The candidate winced. “I couldn’t consider that. At other schools, it’s a year off after three. If I were to come here, we’d have to make some special arrangement.”
This young man never got a call-back. And we suspect that must have puzzled him.
In his eyes, he was only emulating the ways of his mentors. Among academic stars, it was routine to negotiate as little teaching as possible, while simultaneously securing the maximum of what is euphemistically called, “rewards.”
In the entitled world where he’d been nurtured, a place so different from the rest of society, there was nothing odd about going to a job interview and, in effect, asking, “How little do I have to do?”
Ah, the professoriate! It’s an alternate universe. While the rest of working Americans endure foreman and supervisors, professors often get to select their colleagues, vote on raises and promotions, and even, in some instances, vote out their bosses. The schools almost function for them; for their aspirations and interests. Students come and go every four years, administrators will move on, but the tenured stay on in Bloomington, College Park and Chapel Hill, accumulating power, controlling resources, reshaping the university to their needs. Lost on the Professorial Campus is the primacy of students and, for reasons that sometimes seem mystifying, an appreciation of an activity as joyful and useful as teaching.