On Becoming a Professor


Long ago someone I knew made a diagram of the graduate programs in which his wife and her friends, of whom I was one, were studying. The diagram drew and explained the parallels between these programs and the branch of the military they most resembled. The military parallel for my program was the Marines, because we were required to have the most skills and had the roughest form of basic training.

People become professors for various reasons but for me it was strictly about becoming the subject of my own discourse, and a subject in my life. Reeducation stopped this, largely because it believed itself to be the only legitimate subject, but I have perhaps remained a professor for as long as I have because I still want to get from, in or through it the most fundamental of the things I came for – ownership of my life.

Academia is about as unlikely a place to seek such a thing as is the military. On the other hand, I know quite a few military people and they are often far more independent thinkers than are people with regular jobs in business or government. It may be that as with the military, if academia does not turn you into a Stepford Professor, a useless pile of mush, or a petty and egocentric tyrant, it then requires that you claim a self in a way that relatively few are required to do (although many do it anyway).


My mother expressed surprise when she realized I was not going to get married. She had, however, emphasized throughout my childhood that marriage was not a good idea, and recommended that I postpone it as long as possible. She did not foresee that I would be able to postpone it forever.

I was relieved to discover, late in the fourth grade, that not everyone got married – even though people as alternative as Grace Slick had been married – and that it was again going out of fashion. I knew by now that marriage was a patriarchal institution designed to enslave women, control men, and produce new workers. I had not learned this from feminists or Marxist-Leninists. It was obvious just from observing operations around the housing tract where we lived.

It was also clear to me that I, in particular, should not marry because I was by now structured in such a way as not to be able to distinguish between a clinically abusive relationship and the more mildly hierarchical – or sadomasochistic, if you will – marriage relationships which were and to some extent are still the accepted norm. I was especially terrified not to make my own money, because I had been told very clearly that those who are being supported financially have no rights. Most specifically we had no right to be subjects of our own lives, as opposed to objects in the lives of others.


I also learned somehow from my mother, who kept saying vaguely I could “do anything I wanted with my life” but did not discuss the meaning of this phrase or any details at all, that in fact I would not be able to get or keep a job. This created a very worrisome double bind, since I also did not dare to be supported. And one of my father’s favorite songs during that period was Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” If you read the lyrics, and consider that since I thought I could neither work nor be supported I was in fact counting on hitting the streets when school ended, you can begin to see the outline of my dilemma.

My father, however, had a job. I could see what it entailed, and I knew I could handle that. I became a professor for this reason and for some other practical reasons, but I think mostly because I would have, anyway. My Reeducator believed this career choice indicated faulty individuation, and perhaps it did. It could also be seen more calmly, as a particularly steep path to self.

I am in my specific field for similarly contingent reasons, but once again, even with true freedom of choice, I might very well be here anyway. Had it not been for the distraction of Reeducation, of course, I might have switched fields by now – or found ways of soaring higher above the humdrum aspects of the academic life than I do at present – or perhaps not. And as I have said before, it is very interesting to see how much Reeducation paralleled my first education. But I have graduated from both of these homes, and I go to school now. And there are many problems with school, but I still prefer school to staying home.

At school we make observations, develop theories, draw pictures of these, and finally write them down. We do this no matter what anyone else has to say about the evils of “overachievement.” Because we are not “overachieving,” we are living, and doing creative work. We do this in memory of Paulo Freire, and for the sake of the collectivity – and to entertain the spirits. And everyone has a right to be a subject in their own life, to stand at the head of their own acts, and to speak.


23 thoughts on “On Becoming a Professor

  1. OK c’est interesting. As I reread this I realize that even more key to the destruction which was Reeducation was its anti-intellectualism. You. cannot. be. an. intellectual. it. hurts. us., said Reeducation. And of course they did not say “it hurts”, that’s what I perceive them saying … but it was somehow harmful, wicked, unfair, etc., a mark of guilt.

    [Although of course we know from Ana Bundgard (see that post) that that can be reconfigured as a good thing.]

  2. One of the aspect of being a teacher, which I do not relish (and I’m not sure to what degree this applies to professorial teachers, and probably especially those who happen to be females) is the emotional expectations of the job. In the west, the glorious west, it is almost impossible to find any tutoring or teaching position where the role is not primarily emotional rather than intellectual at all. I find that the more recent batches of western students feel short changed if a female teacher does not tender her arms for various types of emotional leeches to suck out her blood. What I’m saying is that the job of female teachers here seems to require a steady sacrifice of emotionality, which I cannot do. (Hence my concern that I will reach a level of PhD and still find the same demands on me — and that I cannot do this.)

    This quality of sacrifice that is demanded does not seem to apply to Japanese senseis. It is something that specifically western students require of their (I think– specifically) female teachers.

  3. J – so the first and second comment seemed to be the same so I deleted the first since the third said there was a mistake in it.

    Sacrifice of emotionality – oh yes. My female professors did not do it and I did not expect to have to at the university level, but you do. You have to learn how to do it or perform it while also keeping boundaries very much intact. I could go on and on about this and how pernicious it is.

    The best solution I have found is to set up a co-worker style relationship with students … you’re their coordinator or supervisor, something like that. Then there can be the requisite informality *but* you do not have to be their mother. I was truly amazed at my first full time teaching job (where I’d been a graduate student, that emotionality was not required) – the students really seemed to expect a maternal figure and if you were not one they would freak.

  4. Sorry about the comment duplication. It takes me a while to wake up in the mornings.

    I do feel that it is a great loss that the formalism of relationships seems to have been entirely lost in the west. In some ways this is a good thing — but in other ways it leads to a very vulgar naturalism, which predictably turns all women into the most natural objects of all: a child’s mother. This is why I did not follow through on my diploma of education, despite completing all the academic requirements for it. I could not stand the sacrificial role, which really I was not temperamentally suited to, and which would have been like doing everything with my left hand (I’m right-handed).

    I’m thinking that if I teach, I’d like to do so in a more authoritarian culture (it is unfortunate that ‘authoritarianism’ is seen only as a negative word, because, as I explained, without some degree of formality implied by this term, us women end up all cast in a role which is dominated by the absolute tyranny of the students’ undisciplined and unconscious minds).
    So, ideally, I would be more than happy to teach at a small African university, wherein formality still applies.

    ***Actually, I remember feeling, as I tried to do my practical teaching module at a high school that something about the mode required of me, indeed, something about the mood there was like cannibalism. Psychologically, the experience impacted on me as something repulsive, like eating fresh blood. I later realised it was because the psychological boundaries between student and female teacher were deliberately broken down. Anyways, that is the meaning of the leeches metaphor that I gave earlier.

  5. Eaten alive, that is the feeling. It does get better after the first year of university though, and if you have a professorial position as opposed to what is called in the U.S. an instructorship/lectureship (with just an M.A.) then you don’t teach that many first year classes. Also it depends on who you’re dealing with. With rich kids who are just acting out a gender drama it is really terrible.

    The situation I have now is better, people who say, “I know I should be asking these questions – on how to deal with my landlord, the insurance system, etc. – to my parents, not to you, but my parents do not know the answers and the only independent adults with middle class style information and resources I know are my professors.” That’s a lot better – they’re still putting you in a parental role and all but in a pretty mature way, actually, and it is business questions they are asking.

    Faculty in richer states than this one get horrified at being asked for help outside their areas of expertise (I’ve answered questions about doing income tax during office hours!) but I don’t mind that – I mind demands to be excused from class because their boyfriend was sick and needed a nurse, things like that.

  6. I see.

    Actually it is sort of contradictory of me in a way — and very much betrays my original African cultural conditioning — but I would not be at all dismayed (except for the aspect of wasting my time) if it was African students asking me how to do a tax return or something. That is because in my gut or my soul I am essentially African, so giving up a little of my time and energy for those who are more like me in their essences is much less of a burden that doing the same for those whom I feel are not like me at all.

    Diligence and the desire to do one’s best, to improve oneself and to achieve “civilisation” are aspects of the African personality (in which I include myself) that I can understand and sympathise with. The problem is that I cannot sympathise with western kids if they were to ask me to do their tax return or to help them with it. They have already had more advantages than I have had — not least the one of belonging. So I would be inclined to feel no sympathy but only irritation. This is not a social order I was brought up with, yet it is one in which ignorance is less excusable as compared to rural Africa. The values of consumerism, pop culture, casualness and so on do not go all the way to the roots of my soul (although I can understand these things superficially). So a student who was an embodiment of these values would not receive a very sympathetic response from me, if asking me to do something extra. Really, you could say it was because to push me into a mothering role at all, you would really have to evoke something that made me identify with you as a younger version of myself. Failing this, it would just come across as emotional blackmail and coercion — which is how I experienced the situation on my ‘prac’.

  7. I do remember the attempts to force a very mothering role … but after the first two years they quit. The thing I mostly cannot stand is dealing with overprivileged undergraduates who seem to have servants in their houses and think professors are their butlers / their maids … or who have gone to private high schools and think that because they have paid, my job is to hand out degrees!

  8. I think that in the high school situation it was more a case of an enforced passivity in terms of operating the female teaching role. You could not discipline the children directly, but only by appealing to them as children. They would not respond to a female authority figure, but they would respond to a female mummy figure.

  9. “They would not respond to a female authority figure, but they would respond to a female mummy figure.”

    And that is precisely what is so irritating about many first year university students.

  10. It’s a shame. I had a different upbringing and consequently it is not strange for me to see a female as authority. I had a genuine fear of most of my teachers — and most of them were female.

  11. And/but: it is not actually by chance or default that I became a professor, although I can tell the story that way.

    And/but: I have never had a real professor job that resembled in any way the visiting professor jobs I have had, or the professor jobs I have observed. This is key.

    Also key is that as a professor, one cannot choose where one lives and often, one cannot live in a city.

  12. And also – this now being one of my most read posts – I wonder, how much passion does one have to have for a field to be willing to work in it no matter what?

  13. And also – this now being one of my most read posts – I wonder, how much passion does one have to have for a field to be willing to work in it no matter what?

    The question barely makes sense to me, though. Passion is the core of my identity — but if the situation is rotten through and through, then my passion is attacked. It makes better sense to go elsewhere in that case.

  14. Yes – you’re right – it is my conundrum, though. Living in the city makes me a humanities person … the country a social scientist … and I look at the ceramics professor and he doesn’t care where he is, as long as he has a studio, and the creative writing professor is the same, but I am not like this. Hmmmm…

  15. Related is the comments thread on the more recent post, “On Graduate School.” But Jennifer’s comment has gotten me back to my supposedly arrogant stance: it’s not that I’m slightly off in terms of field, it’s that I’m off in terms of level.

    People keep telling me that if I were in the social sciences or the fine arts where I really belong I would be happy no matter what … my problem is having compromised among the two areas by being in the humanities. If I jumped to one side or the other I would be suddenly pleased.

    But I say no … I’d be as bored in a boring lawyer job as I am in the boring parts of academia, it is all what one gets to do, or manages to do, with what one is doing.

    Also, I deny that it is just a question of attitude. And I note that, to the extent that it may be this, I am criticized as much or more for having an inappropriately positive attitude than for having a negative one.

    It appears that the only thing it isn’t appropriate to say is that one wishes to work at a higher level, and I strongly suspect that the reason this isn’t appropriate is sexism… !!!

  16. It appears that the only thing it isn’t appropriate to say is that one wishes to work at a higher level, and I strongly suspect that the reason this isn’t appropriate is sexism… !!!

    That sounds right to me. A lot of frustration — that we put down to human nature — comes from having to work beneath one’s level because it is socially transgressive to aspire to do otherwise. Best keep your true appraisal of the situation under wraps.

  17. Both.

    I think that the way I did myself the most damage was by caring too much. I had the immature attitude that went: “We’re all in this together and I want you to know the real me.” Actually, if you care about the real you, best keep it under wraps sometimes.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s