A Second Heretical Post, a Story, and a Question


In my experience the decorous things to say are that teaching is fun, writing is work, publishing is difficult, service is boring, and administration is oppressive.

I was always warned to say I was not interested in teaching, because women who taught would never be taken seriously as researchers. In my actual experience it is far more politic to say one “loves” teaching — or even that one is honored to receive pay for services one would gladly volunteer if the university were to request it.

My own, alternative, heretical mottos are that teaching is work, writing is fun, publishing is likely, service is interesting and administration is creative. These last two heresies — that service is interesting and administration, creative — I have not pronounced before, and I fully expect complaints.


Some of what I learned about service and administration, I learned at job I took when I was a smaller stela than I am now. This was when I still wanted to believe in the advice to new faculty of Gayprof, but thought I at least should be able to follow the advice of Dr. Crazy. What I discovered in my subunit, though, was a chaos greater than I could have imagined or believed possible — although I was now a fairly experienced person — and a great deal of desperation.  I had planned to teach my classes, smile, wave, and head out to the library down the road, but this was not so easy.

If I had been a new stela I would have gone on the market instantly, but I had reason not to do it. I could and perhaps should have pushed off into industry, but I had not yet figured out how to do so in that geographical area, and I had also decided to move there based on the decision to continue as an academic. For these two reasons, then, I did not jump.

The professor who had been there the longest at that point called a summit meeting to discuss our collective depressive crisis. We were getting nothing done during any day beyond emergency triage. Although we knew we should ignore local problems and concentrate on our own work, decades of inattention to local problems meant they now refused to be ignored. They bit us sharply every day, and our megaunit clearly expected us to deal with them. At night I dreamed of going to work and finding that classes had been cancelled so all available hands could go hold their fingers in dikes. Could we create a system that would permit us to manage things more efficiently? That was the question addressed in the meeting.

We decided that since issues with infrastructure were effectively preventing us from teaching, reading, writing, and publishing, we would have to confront these issues directly — even though most of us were still assistant stelae. I was the only one with a counterproposal. I suggested we let the major and the graduate program die the deaths that had clearly been clearly foretold for them, strengthen and broaden course offerings at intermediate levels, and expand the minors. That way we could organize the chaos and sail off to write our own books rather than, say, institutional grants or proposals for the revision of programs at high levels. Yes, it would mean we could not say we had a thriving major or a graduate program — but realistically, did we have those things now except in name?

My proposal was defeated resoundingly. I joined the majority and we did a great deal of work — work it was an unorthodox choice to do, but which we had voted necessary since our situation was so unorthodox. Since this was the majority will in a small subunit, I felt I had no option.

I had thought I could do what I call “walk like a Brazilian” (expect no good infrastructure, do the best you can, do not expect wonders, be genuine, but keep your eye on your research program and realize you will just have to watch a lot else fall through the cracks). But the job was exceptionally draining, and it was so in part due to the depression of the faculty and students who had been dealing with the situation for some time. So it seemed we could either continue to languish, or put in some work at the front end so as not to have so much blood let in the first place. And I think we could only have walked like Brazilians had we been better funded personally, and in better situations professionally — and the reason we were where we were in the first place was that we did not have these advantages.

So we made a decision and acted upon it.


Professor Zero asks with a wicked laugh: how do you think that worked for us? Hint: program building is seductive. We learned a great deal and it was interesting. Our creativity was engaged. We grew professionally because of it, and I do not know that there was any other work we could have undertaken at the time. Still: program building is seductive, whereas publications last longer than bronze.


17 thoughts on “A Second Heretical Post, a Story, and a Question

  1. I can’t comment generally, but there is a correlate to walking like a Brazilian, which is African. It’s really a different attitude — not getting down each other’s throats because something isn’t as efficient as can be, looking for ways to maximise what you do have, innovation. If I was in a crisis situation, I would be totally in my element — so long as others didn’t get in my way, due to their feelings of stress. In Africa one represses or simply bypasses one’s feelings of stress.

  2. Admirable, Hattie? In sensible terms this was utterly foolhardy, and I was too easily swayed. But at the time and given the resources and personalities at hand, I still think a version of it was the only option.

    Jennifer – I invented the phrase because of the song “Walk Like An Egyptian,” one of the first music videos I ever saw, in graduate school. A friend and I saw it and laughed, all these people marching around with their arms stuck out like people in Egyptian friezes, it was fun to be silly after a long, serious day. Days later I said something about stress over having to contend with contradictory suggestions from different professors, and my friend said, “Well, you can surprise them by getting through these rapids – walk like an Egyptian!” And a lot of Brazilians really do do it.

    On stress. Yes, I can easily handle it if others also hold steady. It is why I like working with ex military types. I am all for naming structural sources of problems and acknowledging actual feelings, but I really dislike having to deal with people who spend a lot of time exclaiming, “But I cannot believe things really are this way!” if really, irrational though it may be, they are, and the only thing to do is figure out what to do given that things really are that way.

    That is where I *am* actually against the “culture of complaint” … I think a lot of hand wringing actually functions to support the status quo. Complaining that is just the uff uff uff of effort is fine. Mourning is fine, too, when appropriate. Complaining that is about analyzing and naming problems accurately so that they can be either addressed or effectively sidestepped is great and I do it constantly — although people hate it because it implies positive change, and they prefer to continue to suffer. Complaining undertaken merely to impede either progress or fun is part of the culture of suffering.

    And AHA. Since I have been seen as criticizing a “culture of complaint,” I’ll point out that it is actually a culture of suffering I disagree with, not a culture of “complaint.”

  3. P.S. – Back to Hattie’s comment: I still don’t know whether what we engaged in was actually a complex avoidance strategy, and we were deluding ourselves, or whether THAT is just my inner whiteman speaking.

  4. P.S. In that job people were at each others’ throats because they were at different stages of acceptance of the surreal reality.

  5. Jennifer – I invented the phrase because of the song “Walk Like An Egyptian,” one of the first music videos I ever saw, in graduate school.

    We are of almost the same generation, Z. I recall that music.

    On stress — it is my DREAM to work with military types who know how to handle it. Anything can happen then.

  6. But there is one thing. You get used to abuse. It becomes “normal.” Now in retirement I ask myself why I ever allowed myself to be abused and why I ever treated people abusively myself. Complaining about being abused is not “whining.” What perpetuates abuse is abuse. Putting a stop to it is the hard part. I am constantly amazed at the horrible levels of aggression that too many take for granted and refer to as “life.”

  7. Courage — well, gracias. I guess you are right. I am constantly dealing with fear (it’s what I have the blog to soothe). And abuse, yes.

    For me issues of academia are entirely bound up with issues about my alcoholic parents, since I’m a faculty child. A lot of my fear and anger about it is *also* about him. Although if it weren’t him it would be another of the evil professors we know, and he builds up as well as tears down. Anyway part of my rebellion against standard advice and so on, is rebellion against him and his dinner lectures.

    [Side note: once when I was complaining to my mother about abusive behavior she said her theory of parenting was that a parent should be like a drink, and “build you up while they tear you down.” With a straight face, or deadpanning, she said this.]

    In any case I started standing up to my father as a child and that may be where I get some of my courage. Practice makes perfect.

    Reeducation wanted me to re inhabit early years, “admit I was a powerless child,” “feel it,” and so on. That screwed me up about academia. In Reeducation being an adult was being “in denial” or “rationalizing” … Reeducation was against rational behavior, autonomy, and so on.

    And yet I would NOT say — although there are people who would love me to say — that academia is fine, I just project my dysfunctional family into it. That’s highly inaccurate, as anyone who has ever been at a university knows.

  8. Do you mean Ozymandias? When I was too depressed to work enough and people would exhort me about how much I should achieve, I would quote Ozymandias at them and say I was undergoing metamorphosis, and I would rather be non famous and evolved than famous and stuck like the rest of the family.

    I still agree with that but I am feeling more Horatian these days, more classic than Romantic.

    Your post caused me to read the Shelley wiki and his biography is really amazing — I wasn’t aware of all the details related there. All those people, Rousseau, Voltaire, et al., had insane adventures. Life seems so tame now. How I could justify my claim that I have had adventures, I do not know.

  9. By the time you get to my age, you don’t have a subconscious. I have argued this point with Jennifer, who thinks I’m wrong. But it’s really true. I can remember back to when I was a big mystery to myself and all hung up about my ranting dad and alcoholic mother. Recent revelations from my sister that my parents looked upon me as a pain in the ass and the cause of their misery didn’t even faze me. I even was supposed to die in childhood and evaded that very scripty fate.

    So what, I said to myself. I got what I wanted anyway. My success caused them to believe I was heartless, but it was really about survival.

  10. I knew you’d know it was Ozymandias. I was actually just expressing my own ambivalence about the ultimate worth of my writing. It’s certainly not bronze.

    BUT, having said that, from the vantage point of institutional memory, which is much shorter than eternity unless you’re somewhere like Oxbridge or Vienna or San Marcos, publication isn’t just bronze but gold and silver, too.

  11. I truly think the brain changes after age 60 and deep content rises right to surface. If you notice a certain candidness in the elderly, that’s a sign of this self knowledge. I can remember how my husband’s grandfather would say shocking things and everyone would try to shut him up, because he was revealing the family secrets.

    Another sign is the perfect willingness to put oneself first. Which is a little hard for my daughters to take, since I lived for them for so many years.

  12. Christopher — your blog is sort of bronze, though. On institutional memory being less important outside Oxbridge/Vienna/etc., *very* key point.

    Hattie, that makes me look forward to 60. I am trying to get used to 50. I had not yet gotten used to 40.

  13. I have just realized something really, really important, worthy of upgrading to an official addendum to this or even of its own post.

    The reason you do not want to do too much service before tenure is not to conserve time and energy (although there is that — don’t be a club advisor, be on a university wide committee). But the real reason is, you do not want to look *too* competent or look like you will become too powerful. It scares people. Service looks better if it is for a professional organization. Major service will always be attackable as energy misplaced, of course, people will say you have two books but could have had three, but the main thing is that you do not want to look too powerful in local, daily life.

    This is another of those pieces of advice that can’t always be followed, but the point is, I now see the ACTUAL reason why to beware of service: showing initiative, a good thing in business, has more murky implications in academia.


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