The "Easeful" Life of the Professor

December 01, 2000

It's graduate school that is supposed to be the killer. How many coffee shops can one sit in at 3 in the morning with laptop humming? How many sleepless nights can one spend thinking about the makeup of that dissertation committee? How many times can one go through those comprehensive reading lists wondering, "Did I read that book?"

There are the "grunt" teaching assistantships, preparing PowerPoint presentations at midnight for the insane and demanding biologist, or ferrying dry cleaning to and fro for the nattily dressed sociology professor. There are the years of macaroni and cheese and living on someone's couch and borrowing money from Mom, Dad, or any uncle you can find.

But then there is the fitting of the gown, and the sweet release.

While it's understood that an academic career carries its own sorts of stress (publish or perish is certainly an ominous ubiquity), it isn't supposed to be like the stress our "real world" compatriots face. That world is what we escape by taking the high road. We sacrifice our early to late 20's (prime earning years!) as a trade off to a better, brighter career in academe.

When we emerge from the graduate-school cocoon, we are poorer for sure, but richer in a life to come. While our pals are making house payments and running ragged on the fast track to their first $1-million (made or lost), we are taking our first stroll across a greensward quad at a homey college. Our colleagues will be enlightened like us. We'll sip tea in the faculty lounge and then reap the fruits of our doctoral labors in an extended, beautiful, and luxurious career, filled with hungry students, receptive colleagues -- well, you know the rest.

But the truth is that stressors of a wide variety await new brothers and sisters of the faculty. Beyond stress to perform in your discipline, there is stress within the classroom, the faculty lounge, and even at home. An academic career, often seen by outsiders as casual, relaxed, and to be envied, is actually fraught with all sorts of psychological peril.

It begins, of course, with "getting in." The job market is the main topic of discussion on these pages, and folks in the humanities especially, know all about the impossible applicant-to-job ratios. Even skilled people find it difficult to begin a tenure-track career.

Sherry Wilson-Maggert (not her real name) has an exemplary academic pedigree, a master's degree from a top-flight Eastern university and a Ph.D. from a major research university in the North. She is affable, bright, funny, and an excellent writer and researcher. Yet, when she began teaching in the mid-80's, all she could find were part-time and adjunct positions. When her husband took a teaching job out of state, she followed, and found herself working as an adjunct again.

When they started a family, her academic career languished further. She kept applying, of course, but after two kids had come along she was still teaching only one or two courses, at $1,500 a shot, at whatever school had an opening at the time. It was not the career she thought she'd have. The stress of failing to meet her own expectations or keep up with the careers of her husband and colleagues began to wear on her. Teaching freshmen in overcrowded courses, sharing offices, and being treated as temporary labor was too much. When Ph.D.'s from a younger generation began leapfrogging her, she started looking for another path. (More about her later.)

For those that do get in, the collegial Valhalla that many expect doesn't always exist. It's erroneous to assume that the hallowed halls of academe contain only the bright, the kind, and the enlightened. Instead, colleges are much like any corporation, filled with the worthy and the unworthy.

A professor and department chairman of English at a large Southern university, who asked to remain anonymous, finds that life as a colleague isn't at all a refreshing or sought-after state. "Be sure there will always be someone on the faculty who is 'out to get you' to greater or lesser degree," says the professor. "It's schoolyard-bully stuff. It's annoying. It can be brushed aside, but it fatigues the heart to find it in the university faculty." His explanation: Faculty members, he says, often have "no sense of proportion. Tiny issues are freighted with impossibly large ranges of meaning."

The height of the professor's academic pleasure comes not from the exchange of ideas with his peers, but instead from his students. "Without exception, for 20-odd years, the students have been the bright light of academic life. They are never-endingly interesting, complicated, touching, and a source of great satisfaction."

The professor, a leading figure in his own field who publishes with great regularity, offers this advice to young academics: "If you can give up trying to better the department as a whole, and stick strictly to your own area and your own work, then departmental stress diminishes to a minimal level."

But it's not all bleak. Many faculty members who get into a tenure-track spot find a level of job satisfaction that can be profound.

Daniel Ingram, (not his real name) a tenured professor from a medium-sized public university in the Southeast, recognizes that an academic life can be stressful. But he's careful to note that stress is a relative thing.

"People in other fields, especially in business, law, and medicine, face challenges that are completely foreign to most academics. We very rarely, if ever, make decisions that put our jobs or the jobs of others on the line." Mr. Ingram notes, however, that the perception of academics among outsiders is pretty much what it's always been. "It doesn't surprise me that people from these fields can't understand how we could possibly feel any professional stress. 'So the journal rejected your article. You're still tenured, right? You'll still get the same raise this year, right? You get to keep your rank, right?'"

And so, while sometimes the concerns of faculty can indeed be overblown, Mr. Ingram thinks he has a reason for it. "People in other professions learn to separate themselves from their work," he says. "We don't. We define our personal selves so much by our professional selves that we can never escape from work. I would counsel the person to remember that at least part of the time, we need to remember that our jobs are only jobs. We can't expect them to be rewarding and inspiring every day. We expect them to fulfill us in ways that they can't."

Some of my own experiences in academe have been chronicled in this publication this past year. Like Ms. Wilson-Maggert, I've taught in a wide variety of situations over 15 years at six different colleges. But unlike her, I just kept drifting, looking for that "dream job" that I believed was out there. What kept me in the profession was not collegiality, or even my own research, but the exchange of ideas within the classroom -- the notion of a receptive group of writers and readers, ready to ask big questions.

Students indeed prove to be "never-endingly interesting." But over the course of my career I've noticed sweeping changes in students' expectations. When I was in grad school it would never have occurred to me to challenge a grade, or dispute a professor. If the course was hard, that's what it was. If the teacher was a bit intractable, that was the luck of the draw. It was up to me as the student to work hard and discover the best way to extract the most out of the experience.

Now, as a professor, I can expect at least a dozen students a semester to come to my office sputtering about their high school G.P.A., their future as a lawyer or C.E.O., and who exactly their parents know on the board of trustees at my university. If there's any work assigned, I can be sure someone will think it's too much. If I suggest that something outside the course material be read for background or context, I know, just as surely as I know the sun will come up, that it will not be read. The student's role as a "consumer" has become very much a feature of contemporary academic life.

To review, it's nearly impossible to get into the career at all. When you do get in, you'll find some boorish and dull colleagues who will stand in your way. And the classroom won't always provide respite either. So why do it at all?

Some decide not to. Sherry Wilson-Maggert got out. After giving up the stressful adjunct merry-go-round, she took an entry-level job at a university press, and rose quickly to a role as a managing editor. She stopped applying for teaching jobs and put her grade books away. She's still around academe, working in the same city as her husband, and although she's left the dream of tenure-track employment behind, she's on a stable path with better pay, better hours, and a lot less stress. She says: "Usually I can go home and forget about my job until the next day. I could never do that when I was in academia."

For me, after 15 years in the profession, I'm hanging in there. I have normal fears and doubts, and I've accepted that my "dream job" most likely exists only in my dreams.

But I trust that there are good and honest colleagues who will ease my way through a long week, and good students in classrooms who will welcome my challenge. There aren't as many of either, actually, as I imagined there would be. But there are enough. And it's for them that I return.

W.T. Pfefferle is director of expository writing at the Johns Hopkins University.


A guide to Web resources on academic stress.