Complain, Complain

March 09, 2004

Cady Wells found the pressures of being a tenured professor at a small liberal-arts college too much and so resigned (The Chronicle, October 31, 2003). In these pages, I have occasionally seen other articles by faculty members who find the academic life too stressful -- a point of view I find absurd.

As a college student, I worked five days a week in a factory in the summers and delivered parcels for the Postal Service at Christmas. That work was stressful. I also spent a full day down a coal mine, being choked by dust and trying to avoid having my legs gashed by the speeding conveyer belts. That was truly hell. Compared to lives in those jobs, academe is a good place to work.

I taught at Wellesley College for two years and worked at a suicide-prevention center for another two years. For the past 32 years, I have taught psychology at a state college. Since it opened in 1971, I have founded the psychology program, set up the social-work program, and rescued the criminal-justice program at a time when there were thoughts of disbanding it.

At our college, we teach three four-credit courses a semester and advise about 40 students. In my 32 years here, I have never taken a sabbatical or a leave of absence. For most of the 32 years, I have taught more than the required load each semester, and for each of the first 30 summers, I taught two summer-school courses. Even when teaching summer school, I still had four weeks' vacation at Christmas and seven weeks off in the summer. Now that I do not teach summer school, I have four months off in the summer. Why would I need a sabbatical or a leave of absence? Coal miners, now they could use a sabbatical.

I have published dozens of books and hundreds of scholarly articles and notes. Of these, about 230 have been co-written with undergraduate students and about 70 with colleagues at the college. I have published also with colleagues from more than 30 countries. I have never had a federal grant for this research; nor have I had graduate students or research assistants to help me with the research. And I have checked every data entry and statistical analysis done by my undergraduate students before publishing the pieces.

Some friends have wondered whether I ever sleep. I need eight good hours a night, and I have a couch in my office for my afternoon naps. I have had three wives during the past 32 years and helped raise three children. My current wife and I love movies and eating out, and we have a subscription to a theater series. We also love to travel, and I have been to more than 70 countries in these 32 years, mostly on pure vacations but occasionally on vacations combined with conferences abroad.

I have made some decisions over the course of my career that have allowed me to be productive, yet not feel overwhelmed.

I went to the first graduation ceremony at the college in 1973, but I have never attended one since. I have not attended a faculty meeting since 1972. I found that I liked my colleagues much better if I did not listen to their silly comments in such meetings. I rarely go to division meetings (I belong to the college's division of social and behavioral sciences), but I do try to make most meetings of the psychology program.

I used to lunch with colleagues, but I found that their continual complaints about the administration and the students soured my attitude toward the college. I switched to lunching with students for a while (faculty members and students share the same cafeteria at my college), and some became good friends of my wife's and mine. (Our annual Super Bowl party rotates between our house and that of one of my students and her husband.)

These days, I eat in my office and check the sports news online. For many years, I had my name removed from the faculty e-mail list so that I had no awareness of what activities were taking place at the college -- I missed the president's Christmas party on several occasions because of that -- nor what issues were making the faculty and staff members angry. Now I have had myself placed back on the e-mail list, but I direct all collegewide messages to a folder that I rarely peruse.

I do not pick up the telephone in my office, and my voice-mail message informs callers that I do not check for telephone messages. Callers are told to e-mail me.

I have avoided as much college service as I can in recent years so that I can concentrate on my scholarly work. Our pay raises are negotiated by a union and do not depend upon evaluations by a dean or other administrator. However, I have received merit awards in the past on the two occasions on which they were possible.

Cady Wells did not find her institution to be supportive of faculty members. I have never thought that mine was either. But neither has it been a hindrance, except for a relatively heavy teaching and advising load (as compared to universities).

If I had known in graduate school that I would spend 32 years (and more) at this state college, I would not have been pleased. But life at this college has enabled me to lead a good life -- no, it has been a wonderful life. I have had plenty of time to engage in scholarly activities, and, outside of the college, I have the opportunity to enjoy the world.

I am puzzled, therefore, by those who find the academic life to be so hard and so stressful. Perhaps they would have benefited from spending eight hours down a coal mine in their adolescence?

David Lester is a professor of psychology at the Richard Stockton College of New Jersey.