The Small but Cool Moments of Faculty Life

At a time when things seem so strained in academe, it’s important to remember the good we can do

Carlos Pacheco / Creative Commons

March 15, 2016

I’ve been kissed by a dog — a recent graduate’s affectionate, wriggling pug, to be precise. We met following a library program where the 20-pound animal helped preschoolers fathom the difference between big and little (his co-star was an Irish wolfhound). My graduate students and I attended, not so much for the lesson in scale as for insights into how to bring kids and animals together in a library program. That sort of outing is one of so many things that make my life as a faculty member, for want of a better word, cool.

A lot of what I do in teaching library sources and services can seem like something other than work. Rereading A Wrinkle in Time, checking out all the new books for kids at the local library, and meeting children’s authors and illustrators are ready examples of things that enhance my ability to prepare the next generation of youth-services librarians.

Despite the intrinsic delights of such tasks, faculty life, even for those focused on children’s literature, is more than picture books. Sometimes academic life is more of a pile-on — like the staggering turns of misfortune in Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events.

No matter how skilled you are at anticipating and managing the ebb and flow of the semester — and I have considerable practice on that front — more and more, it seems like every major due date, report, conference deadline, and assignment-to-be-graded collides. These now routine clusters of core tasks transform a professional and professorial life supposedly characterized by learning and autonomy into an exercise in strategic time management. Any given week, my unfinished to-do list is longer than my grocery list.

Rather than feeling burdened or embittered about it — particularly amid public pronouncements that faculty should be teaching more courses and working more efficiently — I want to find some joy in what I do. One recent sunlit Sunday morning, I was surprised to find myself smiling as I graded papers. While The New York Times would have been my preferred Sunday morning reading material, this was the only time I had to grade papers as a hectic week got underway. Yet I had to smile because the reality is this: I studied for years, got lucky enough to land a tenure-stream job after an unconventional career path, and then I chose to: give this assignment, accept those committee appointments, and write those articles.

Moments of joy make up for a work schedule that can otherwise seem frantic, unrealistic, or simply too much.
I get to see my students’ minds at work when I grade their reading journals. Learning what they were too shy to say out loud is encouraging, especially after one of those trying sessions where the discussion is stilted, at best. I get to witness my graduate assistant’s excitement over a new-to-him rare book needed for a conference talk. After writing letters of recommendation, I hear from a student who has won her dream job. Those moments of joy make up for a work schedule that can otherwise seem frantic, unrealistic, or simply too much.

When I told a friend that I’d been asked to serve on a dissertation committee, his response was, "That sounds like more work." It is, but it’s also incredible to be in a room with a half-dozen other people who are curious and care deeply about literature. Even as I wondered how to fit a preliminary meeting with a doctoral student into my schedule, I found myself thinking about the session where she advanced toward candidacy, where people praised her strengths and quoted everything from Tennyson to The Importance of Being Earnest from memory. Months later, the delight of being around people with those habits of reading and reflection still buoys me.

Despite increasing concerns about work-life imbalance and other problems of university employment, I can’t help thinking that there is still something glorious and worth protecting in what we do — in the ways that community and connection emerge in teaching and research — that makes it worth the work.

Why are these things worth noting?

Because reading the news and talking to colleagues, or even opening one’s email, provides so much awareness of the extent to which times are troubled — even in, or especially in, higher education. There are faculty who are underpaid, overworked, and contending with the legalized presence of firearms in their classrooms. There are public officials who use their voices and their offices to belittle faculty and dismantle tenure. There are rules that make little sense, bureaucratic memos that seem to have escaped from the pages of a dystopian novel. Exhaustion is legion.

In times like these, it is perhaps only natural for someone enmeshed in children’s literature to turn to one of the most quoted educators of our times. The question becomes: What Would Dumbledore Do?

The Internet is full of memes that recite his advice, and one statement, uttered in the movie version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, has come to me again and again lately: "Happiness can be found, even in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light." Even outside Hogwarts, in the straitened times playing out at many public institutions, his philosophy is worth remembering.

One recent afternoon, as I emerged from one meeting that threatened to cascade into another, in order to read proposals and prepare for yet another round of meetings once my two seminars had met, a young student followed me. I had passed her in the hallway of the library, where my office is, as she stared at her phone. Now she was looking at me, so I asked, "Can I help you?"

She waved a little slip of peach-colored paper and said, "I can’t find this book." So I stepped away from a lengthy to-do list to guide an undergraduate I’d never met before through the stacks, to find a book she needed for her class tomorrow. (If you are in a library and you seem to know where you are going, there is no point in telling anyone you aren’t a librarian.) We chatted as we walked through the building and I pointed out the signs that guided us to the shelf where the book was. She thanked me and headed down the stairs, her reading in hand.

She may be one of more than 30,000 students on my campus, but for at least a few minutes that day, she was one student with one faculty member’s undivided attention. That, to me, is one of the most important aspects of faculty life: That we can choose, day after day, week after increasingly hectic week, to share whatever we know with anyone who asks. That little bit we can do — one-to-one — may be large in someone else’s life. And that’s just … cool.

Jennifer Burek Pierce is an associate professor of library and information science at the University of Iowa.