Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Professors are Like Icebergs? A bit of edumication for the non-Academic

Things tend to go in waves, or, at least we perceive such patterns even if they do not exist. So, the media seems to really like it when professors go bad. For instance, the Georgia prof who killed his family and then himself. Perhaps I am reading too much into it, but there seems to be some delight taken when it is a professor, as opposed to a bricklayer (yes, a vague reference to a classic Trek-ism).

Whoa is us, the poorly understood profession. The classic pet peeve is, of course, "so, you have the summer off, right?" Nothing gets me going faster than that one. Explaining the academic job market to outsiders is always a challenge--how come you ended up in Montreal? Some un-named members of my family still don't get it, thinking that my occasional appearances on Montreal or Canadian TV or in the newspapers somehow makes me a more marketable political science professor. Umm, no.

And, of course, the other classic, usually said with shock and disdain, "How many hours do you spend in the classroom?" Well, our time in the classroom is the tip of the iceberg--it is part of what we do, but only a small part of the job. The rest is less obvious to the passing ships students, parents and media types.

  • Not only does teaching involve preparation, grading, and office hours to meet with students (of which students may or may not take advantage), but it also involves supervision of graduate students. This can take quite a lot of time if the students actually write. The advantage of my previous job is that I had few graduate students, so I didn't spend much time reading stuff. At McGill, I often put it that the grad students do my work (as research and teaching assistants) so that I can do their work--reading their proposals, theses, dissertations, article drafts, etc.
  • Then there is the research. Obviously, this varies--some schools value it more or less than others, but one of the effects of the bad academic job market of the early 90's was to increase the ability of schools to demand more productivity. So, now liberal arts colleges and lesser universities have greater expectations. What is this research? Well, the least humble way to think about it is that we profs create knowledge! So, that is a bit high falutin'. But we write articles and books, which, as my wife noted when I was in grad school, is mostly for others of our kind to read. So, I write mostly so that other political scientists (well, mostly those who are in my subfield) can be convinced of my arguments. In other posts past and future, I address the question of whether this actually matters or not for the greater good. But, research takes a great deal of time--reading the existing arguments, coding datasets, consulting archives, traveling to conduct interviews, writing, etc. This is what gets us merit increases, job offers, glory, donuts, and such. Again, I will defend the research enterprise on another day where I run out of ideas.
  • And, the most hidden and unpleasant part of the iceberg--service. Profs serve on a variety of department committees, including searching for hires, admissions for grad studetns and the like. The most intensive service within departments tends to be those that involve directing the graduate program or chairing the department. Neither are for the faint of heart. Profs help universities run by serving on all kinds of committees, which raises the question of why we need so many high level administrators, but that is a rant for another day. And then there is service to the profession--reviewing manuscripts, tenure files and grants; serving on committees of professional organizations, etc. This stuff is the least recognized by outsiders and least rewarded by departments, at least in my experience. Indeed, there are significant incentives to develop a reputation for being unreliable in the service category--you end up free riding on the efforts of others.
So, that is my rant du jour. Overall, it is a great job, and probably the only one for which I am suited. If I had to do it all over again, I would still choose this profession and this discipline despite the complete loss of control over where I can live. I just might have learned to say "no" more when asked to do stuff, but, then again, I am a collective action sucker.

1 comment:

KathyS said...

You always misquote me on that. :) But as you also pointed out in that conversation, your research also is of use to students, both political science majors and non-majors and much academic research also impacts things in the "outside" world, from the very direct research of the hard sciences to the policy and legal examinations of political science and law, to the societal findings for many of the social sciences, to the biographical and historical discoveries of history and literature. So there.