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Works and Days

We Are Ruled by Professors

September 6th, 2010 - 6:21 am

Our nobility and intelligence, cheek-by-jowl, explained our genteel poverty. Crassness and a sort of sneaky cleverness — as well as greed — accounted for the rich others who had used their education not to impart knowledge, but to manipulate it. (And they did not even know how to spend all that money: we went to Marbella; they bought idiotic things like guns, snowmobiles, and video games.)

Upside-down economics

Wal-Mart greeters were better treated than part-time faculty, who made a fourth the going rate without many benefits. I remember being chewed out as a part-timer for daring to use the department Xerox machine — this from a “progressive” who was always bleating about the corporate destruction of the wild. Tuition always went up faster than inflation. There were centers for this and projects for that everywhere, mostly aimed at combating illiteracy and getting 50-something profs release time. When I joined CSU, the remediation rate was about 35%; when I left, 21 years later, over 50% of the incoming freshmen needed remedial math and English. I can only remember two tenured professors who were fired, one a child molester who was “retired,” and the other a decapitator who was imprisoned (see below). I remember in a tenure appeal, the aggrieved professor of theater arts wrote a furious (and successful) letter to our committee that began, “Witch charges about me…” Academia is the strangest mix of a Soviet nomenklatura for the tenured, and Eastern European socialism for the part-time — sort of like we see now in Washington (we are the part-timers, the new credentialed technocracy the tenured).

Fear everywhere

To be blunt, there are an inordinate number of cowards in academia. Why did so many vote “present” at meetings, run out of personnel hearings to leak what you said to someone, boast about their heroics to captive student audiences in class, and in general walk about in abject terror of being thought illiberal? Are not they tenured with lifetime jobs, automatic pay raises, 20 weeks off a year? So why the cowardice?

My father, I remember, was a bad/good judgement sort of guy (and was often proven right) — “Look, the SOB is no damn good” or “You wait, you’ll see that he is nothing but a coward”; in academia on tenure boards, I heard far too often instead: “On the one hand, her career trajectory so far is problematic, and I worry at times about her ambivalence toward scholarship; but on the other, one must not overreact to her seeming difficulty making deadlines.” In extremis, there were lots of passive-aggressive beer summits after meetings to soothe ruffled feathers, lots of “outreach.”

Tasteful all

We were tasteful. We walked on oak, others on shag carpet. The good neighborhoods did not have sidewalks, “their” tract houses did. Books lined our walls; plastic spears and shields were hung as faux-heraldry in the entryways of the hoi polloi.We supported the UN, they NASCAR.

Here I confess that I got a pass, since once in a while an academic would drive down to Selma and praise my then ramshackle 120 year-old farmhouse (at the time I secretly yearned for a Clovis McMansion in which things probably worked without Saturdays under the house with a jack or up in the attic with pliers and duct tape or down in the collapsed cesspool in the yard).

We wore elbow patches, “they” leisure suits. Most of the professors’ clothes — huge treaded hiking boots, sub-arctic parkas, multi-pocketed Safari dungarees — were designed for the earth’s uninhabitable regions. You see, it was the idea of struggle (cf. Michelle’s garden) that mattered — the philosophy professor at any minute forced to wade across the Amazon on his way to the lounge, sort of like the huge Land Rovers in the faculty lot that could in theory go anywhere, and in fact went nowhere but 2 miles home. (Gas-guzzling Yukons were bad; gas-guzzling Land Cruisers weirdly OK.)

Be careful about eating or having coffee with academics. Most stiffed you for the bill or, better yet, stiffed the coffee shop by getting free refills for you. If you had a broken fingernail or a blister, it was proof to colleagues that you were “blue collar.” And that meant that naturally you could come over on Saturday to (a) prune an academic’s peach tree, (b) show him how to unclog his drain by doing it yourself, (c) lend him your pickup (warning: do not lend anything at any time to an academic), or (d) flip a circuit breaker. Division of $50 in travel money at department meetings was like throwing an old stinking bone in an arena of pit bulls. The less the value, the more the gnashing.

The following is a true example of academic parsimony. A colleague of ours proved to be a gruesome murderer — tried, convicted, imprisoned (he died in prison). He took his sabbaticals and summers down in West Hollywood where he picked up young boys, and on at least one occasion decapitated a poor fellow, then disposed of the body in Silence of the Lambs fashion (the head and torso were found 200 miles apart as I recall). How did we learn of that, or, rather, how was he caught?

He naturally turned back in the bloody rental chain saw — hair, gristle, sinews and all stuck in the chain. The rental store owner was told that our professor (of criminology, no less) had “cut apart a dog” that he hit with his car — and so in disbelief turned him in. Beheading someone is one thing; but, my god, getting charged for an overdue chain saw or losing your deposit is quite another.

(Wait reader: you ask, well, smarty-pants Mr. Hanson, how exactly did a supposedly inept professor learn how to chain saw someone’s head off? I confess, I wonder about that still.)

I could go on, but you get the picture about the strange habits that arise when you ensure someone lifelong employment, institutionalize unaccountability and groupspeak, and create artificial hierarchies of respect that are not necessarily earned by either teaching excellence, scholarship, or value to the community. After the pension meltdown, a great reckoning is coming to academia and it won’t be pretty.

The truth is that I loved teaching, and still do. And when I was penniless, the university gave me a job that I loved and did not consider work at all. Indeed, I felt ashamed that I was overpaid. I started at $22,000 as a full-time lecturer in 1985, and could not believe I got such generous compensation, whether or not it rained, hailed, or the market collapsed. I called my delighted and relieved parents that very day (being a parent to a PhD who was broke and fixing sulfur machines must have been somewhat odd): “Hey, mom, they’re going to pay me thousands of dollars for teaching Greek and Latin.” And they did.

So why again the above rant about academics?

We are presently governed by academics. In an era in which university people proliferate in this administration and seem to make things far worse for the rest of us, we need to be reminded why we should not look to the university for answers. What I hear coming out of Washington reminds me a lot of what I once heard coming out of the philosophy or English department. And that is a scary thing indeed.

You see, that tribe is more likely to embody the illness rather than the cure, and this time 300 million are paying the price.

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