Monday, May 12, 2014

What I Miss About Being A Professor

I have spent a lot of time on this blog talking about how I left academia and why I'm better off.  Of that there can be no doubt.  However, I have had some very powerful flashbacks recently that have deeply reminded me of what I liked about being a professor.  Some of this was caused by recent conversations with academic friends, but also by my inexplicable decision to look up my published articles on JSTOR, which seem like they were written by a completely different person.

If anything, I miss being an expert and a researcher.  I miss getting 19th century steamship guides from interlibrary loan and taking them back to my office and spending hours reading them.  I miss having the time to do research, as limited as that time was with a 4/4 load and 160+ students a semester without a TA.  I have tried to maintain my research agenda, but in the three years since leaving academia I have only managed to squeeze out two and a half chapters of a book project that will likely never see the light of day.  Of course, more people will probably read this blog post than have read all of my articles combined, so it's not like I was ever some kind of meaningful scholar.  This summer I do plan on being a little more productive on that front, though.  I must say that it at least feels good to do research because I want to, not because I need tenure or a longer CV to take with me on the job market.

I also miss the resources and trappings of academia, like access to a research library and my own office.  As a lowly teacher, I've got a desk and a bookshelf to myself, and that's it.  I research at the New York Public Library, but that's different than having a library a few hundred feet from my office.  I still remember the day I finally moved my books into my first, small office as a visiting assistant professor.  I felt like I had finally "made it" and become someone.

At times I long for the flexibility of time that professors have.  As a teacher, I probably work a few fewer hours per week then I did as a prof.  However, I had a great deal of flexibility over how to use those hours, even at an institution that demanded ten office hours per week amidst a heavy teaching load.  I never had classes on Friday afternoons, which I usually spent poring over research and writing articles at the local coffee house.  It's different being a teacher.  From 8:30 to 3:15 every single day, I have to be ON.  It's a physically and mentally exhausting job, I normally pass out on the train on my ride home.  We don't have summer "off," we have summer so that we are able to survive the next school year without dying or going insane.

Last and certainly not least, I miss the prestige.  While administrators and politicians sometimes treat humanities professors at the enemy, there is probably no more besieged and denigrated profession today in America than teaching.  I dread telling strangers what I do, lest they expound on their ignorant opinion of schools, displace their hostility for their own former on me, or act like I am some kind of layabout loser.  ("I'd just love to be a teacher and get three months off" is something you should never say to me.)  When I was a professor, revealing that information often meant that people treated me like someone special, even when I was a VAP.  Now what I do is looked down on, not least by folks in academia.

I keep hearing people promoting post-academic careers saying things like "you can do more than 'just teach' with your PhD."  That's right "just teach," as if shaping the minds of America's youth was some kind of piddly, useless job, as if all the work, care, and mental, physical, and spiritual labor it takes to reach teenagers is not all that meaningful or difficult to do.  I'll let you in on a secret: teaching high school is harder than being a professor, at least on a day-to-day basis.  Sure, I don't have to read antiquated sources in a second language and lead discussions of academic monographs with grad students, but those were all things that years and years of grad school had prepared me for.  It is difficult to prepare for a room of engaged yet hyper teenagers going in a million directions at once.  In fact, nothing can really prepare you for that.  Anyone who says I "just teach" can just kiss my ass.

Make no mistake, I am a lot happier than I was before.  I am living in a place where I actually want to live, I am with my beloved wife, I am getting paid more, I am treated as if I have value by my employer, and I am a father, something that might not have happened had I stayed in academia.  It's not like I want to go back to being a prof, I think I've managed just to see it as an interesting job that didn't work for me, not a religious calling demanding infinite sacrifice, as so many seem to treat it.

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