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Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien: On Changing Jobs

April 7, 2015, 9:34 am

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I’m guessing Hannah Arendt was not chosen as our school mascot because of the smoking.

The other day I read a comment on Facebook to the effect that, after changing jobs, many academics experience a moment of intense regret. The author of the comment timed this moment of regret at about six months into the new job, when the losses and the difficulty of the transition becomes truly apparent. I would just like to take this opportunity to say, after three years of working in a new job:

Not me. I am happy as a clam.

I haven’t gone in the other direction either: I don’t think that my previous job was incredibly flawed. Although everyone collects grievances and regrets, mine seem to have vanished entirely, and I remember only the things I liked about working there (longtime readers of this blog will be shocked at this, but it is true.) In fact, one of the interesting things about my reflections on The Old Shoppe is that I have come to appreciate how well they do a lot of things; how smoothly it ran most of the time; how much time people spent teaching me how to function as a faculty member; and the many things I learned to do. I appreciate how collegial a place it was, and how people who were often in conflict with each other on a range of issues also managed to work together pretty efficiently. I appreciate how much they taught me about how to function as a teacher, a scholar and (yes) a minor league administrator.

I have also come to realize how different these two jobs I have had are. Elite private institutions are fundamentally different places to work than sprawling, cash-driven universities. So without further ado, for those of you who are mulling  job offer, here we go:

If you work at a liberal arts college it is a lot like being in a club. Physically, the resemblance is undeniable. There are the lawns, the gracious buildings, the sumptuous athletic facilities  (tennis and squash courts, pool, skating rink, etc.), the large private offices where you can keep thousands of books, the security and postal people nipping around in golf carts, the free umbrellas, and the faculty dining rooms. And the offices — oh the  offices!!! As a former program chair, I can attest that people at The Old Shoppe used to complain bitterly about offices that faculty at The New Shoppe would slit your throat for. Of course, the point is: elite schools are a club, which is why we use the word “elite,” or more commonly, “selective,” to describe them. It is why people who work at them, for all that they decry the “corporate university,” also often take on a kind of corporate mentality that is defined by the institution, its prestige, and its ways, all of which are cushioned by wads of money. Even when they oppose administrative initiatives, faculty tend not to do so from any deeply held views about education, but from an adherence to educational traditions and pedagogical values that are fully defined and produced by the elite values of the institution. I don’t say this as a criticism, but I do think it is true.

If you work at a sprawling, urban university it is a lot like working for municipal government. People are spread out in dozens of buildings and rented office spaces, and the people who run the place (otherwise known as “The Administration”) can often be seen bustling from place to place on their feet. Provosts and deans are often trapped on deathly slow elevators with the rest of us plebes. There is no gym, although they do subsidize memberships to commercial gyms. There may be a great place to eat at the student center (the desserts are divine), but you share the space with students as a matter of course, and everyone mostly goes to restaurants. There is no grass. Students do not ask to “go outside” on warm sunny days, because that would mean having class on the sidewalk, and no one wants to do that. Nobody knows how many faculty there are, and three years later I am still meeting new people: they often greet me by saying they have “heard about” me, and often I can honestly respond that I have “heard about” them. While in a sense you might say we share an identity because we work for The Shoppe, the different parts of The Shoppe are — well, so different — that often what we have in common is a predilection for one barista over another.

If you work at a liberal arts college you get to both complain liberally about your students and also humblebrag about them. Why? Because these students have been curated for you, and when they turn out to be flawed, you want to know how students of lower and lower quality (which they are not, actually) made it through a supposedly rigorous admissions process. When they are fabulous, however, students seem to be a subtle reflection of your own fabulousness which is, in a way, true. Liberal arts college faculty boast about the specialness of their students and the likelihood that they will go on to top graduate programs. They naturalize students’ talents, intelligence and abilities, as if these excellent students had not been cultivated and tracked into good colleges in the first place. Because of this, liberal arts college faculty often say they are “lucky” to have such wonderful students. That’s true, with one caveat: luck played no role in it. It was money, social class, alumni parents, intensive recruiting by the admissions office, student creaming programs, unpaid volunteering, and intensive academic coaching that got you those students.

At a sprawling, urban university, you teach who shows up, and it is considered unwise and mean spirited to complain about their abilities. It’s a liberating experience. And not to go overboard with this, but it gives education a much more democratic feel on a daily basis and you can do really creative things without anyone thinking you are encouraging students to ignore the entire Western liberal tradition. The pleasures of the other (see above) are incalculable: sometimes I think it was a strange dream that I did that for years, but mostly I think I did not appreciate it the way I should have at the time. On the other hand, it prepared me for the pleasure of what I do now. Each student that I have actually is different from every other student, in a way that highly curated students are not; classes are incredibly heterogeneous in a way classes of highly screened and selected students are not; and I have to think on my feet every time I set foot in a classroom in a way I never did at The Olde Shoppe.

If you work at a liberal arts college they never change the name, and changes to typeface, signage and stationary are so minimal as to be undetectable.  This is called “tradition.” Long ago this thing happened at The Olde Shoppe  (which was named Wesleyan) where they would put the word “Wes” in front of everything to make a new word that described some service, activity or facility. This is a kind of branding, but subtle — like the little alligator on the Lacoste shirt. 

At a sprawling, urban university, change is the order of the day. This is called marketing. Practically everything we do passes through marketing at some point. The stationery has changed twice since I arrived three years ago. They rename divisions, schools, and the whole university, with great regularity. We just adopted a new typeface and logo, which was rolled out to great aplomb, with free tote bags and everything. And here is the coolest thing: a student showed me a Metro Card with our new logo on it. Pomona doesn’t have that, do they? No they do not. Tradition is ok, but it’s kind of refreshing and fun to see what marketing will come up with next. The truth is everyone knows who we are regardless of the typeface. When I say I work at The New School, people brighten up and say: “Hannah Arendt!” Happens every time: talk about a chick who made a difference. It makes a person realize that all of the things that are recognizable about any institution of higher ed are window dressing, and what really matters is what goes on inside the buildings.

It also makes me realize that there are other universities that could really use a logo facelift. Just saying.

At a liberal arts college, you have a mascot that represents your long tradition and heritage. This also means you are spending mucho buckos on athletics, about which the faculty also complains liberally.

At a sprawling, urban university, there are few sports and the mascot is hard to remember. In fact, the sports program is limited to a basketball team and a tennis team who receive no money from the university as far as I can tell, free yoga classes, sponsored rock climbing and bike trips, a group of undergrads who build wherries and occasionally row them to New Jersey, elbowing your way onto a 7 express train and running away from people who want to put you on committees.  Our mascot is The Narwhal, a cheerful cartoon aquatic mammal, but no one can tell me why. Personally, I think our mascot should be Hannah Arendt. Can you imagine how cool it would be to be in a Bickram Yoga smackdown against Cooper Union and having Hannah Arendt revving up the crowd?

Readers, have you ever changed jobs? What were the differences you noticed — and did you regret the change?

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