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Cushy for Whom?

An interesting piece in last week’s Chronicle, “Goodbye to those Overpaid Professors in their Cushy Jobs,” attempts a possibly premature farewell to a stereotype, the enduring myth that “college professors lead easy lives.” According to reporter Ben Gose, once-rampant complaints about the imaginary prof on a three-day work week are now hard to find.

Nonetheless he notes an interesting source for some doozy “last gasps” of lazy-prof stereotypes: faculty members themselves. Gose speculates that the prof-on-prof stereotypers are trying to do the profession a favor, in the front line of faculty members “policing their own” and targeting “perceived slackers,” etc.

The photograph and first third of the article are devoted to the emotional and contradictory views of Prof. John Hare, chair of English at Montgomery College in Maryland. According to Gose, Hare “became furious” at a distinguished scholar he doesn’t know, Florence Babb, the Vada Allen Yeomans Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Florida and former president of the Association for Feminist Anthropology, then serving as graduate coordinator for the Center for Women’s Studies and Gender Research. Recruited with the named professorship to Florida from the University of Iowa in 2005, her scholarship and service to the profession has been massive: multiple stints as department or program chair, numerous editorial boards, etc.

The trigger for Hare’s rage? Professor Babb contested the university’s attempt to violate the contractual terms of its appointment letter in recruiting her and unilaterally downgrade the 2-course release associated with her service obligation in the Center to zero. Arbitrators eventually settled on reducing it to a one-course release, citing the fig leaf of fiscal exigency.

One way of parsing Hare’s emotion is to see him as the chair of a teaching-intensive department himself trading in stereotypes about faculty members with research-intensive appointments. Babb, by any reasonable estimation, works pretty hard, so Gose allows Hare to qualify his position pretty carefully.

It seems that Hare’s problem with Babb doesn’t depend on the factual question of whether she’s actually a slacker or not. It’s that she’s willing to look like one, fueling “public perceptions” that he claims harm all of us.

But the article itself says that these public perceptions are way down, so Hare’s own account of his rage just doesn’t make much sense.

What does? Is it the resentment of someone on a teaching-intensive appointment?

I wonder, but I don’t think so. By his own frequently contradictory account, Hare—like most folks with his kind of appointment—loves his job. Most of the folks I know on teaching-intensive appointment feel fortunate, like Hare, not to be subjected to the constant pressure of publishing, and to be paid for spending a lot of time with students on topics that interest them.

And as many irate commenters on the piece substantiated, it’s a fact that many jobs “in industry” are far easier than faculty appointments, especially research jobs, which tend to be radically underpaid for the difficulty of the work. It’s not the “ease” of the position, but the challenges and the self-directedness that accounts for the willingness of many to work twice as hard for half the pay.

Given what the most successful people in other fields earn these days and the kind of accomplishment it takes to earn the rank, it’s fairly hard to argue that distinguished research faculty in Babb’s bracket—earning $90,000 to $100,000 a year—are either overpaid or underworked.

In fact, as I’ve written before, plenty of undistinguished civil servants, firefighters and military officers have retirement compensation higher than the salaries earned for 60-hour weeks by extremely accomplished teachers and/or researchers in the humanities!

So what explains Hare’s irrational, data-free anger at Babb? Especially when the supposedly benighted “public” is increasingly able to do the relevant math?

The Gendering of Professional Service

One dimension of Babb’s situation that didn’t factor into Hare’s position or come out in Gose’s otherwise well-reported piece is the role of gender in who the University of Florida demanded “pitch in” and make “sacrifices” during the fiscal crisis.

It appears that Babb is the only female distinguished professor in the College of Arts and Sciences, and the only one actually forced to teach more. According to one source and multiple commenters on press reports of the case, of the many male faculty members with her load and rank, many earning more, only one man was even asked to teach additional courses and, being eligible to do so—apparently as expected—chose to retire instead.

I was happy to see the comments on the Chronicle article overflowing with faculty members, including the intrepid Bill Pannapacker, hastening to question Hare’s suitability as “our” spokesperson. Pannapacker targets Hare’s implication in the ideology of teaching for love, a topic I’ve written about several times before.

It’s too often assumed that “teaching for love” is a win-win situation: Some people are happy with psychic rewards instead of pay, which saves a few bucks that institutions or legislators can then spend on other important projects. What’s the harm?

But a labor market arranged around working for love—rather than fair compensation—is actually one of the most sexist, racist, and economically discriminatory arrangements possible. From a class point of view, as I emphasize in Gose’s piece and elsewhere, by making the professoriate an economically irrational choice, you stop sorting for the most talented people and begin to sort for the people who can afford to discount their wages. That cuts out most people, period, making the best jobs in the academy largely a preserve for persons with fortunate economic backgrounds or circumstances. And via the wealth gap, that primary economic discrimination has direct consequences for the racial composition of the faculty. By making it too hard to get a job, too arduous an apprenticeship, too poor of a return on education investment, only the wealthier among us are able to “irrationally choose” to accept psychic wages—and the wealthier among us are disproportionately white, just for starters. All of this has tremendous, documented consequences for the achievement and persistence of students from less advantaged economic circumstances and ethnicities poorly represented among the faculty.

As for gender, the rendering of faculty positions to the extreme of economic irrationality (six courses a year for $15,000, e.g.) assigns them disproportionately to women, especially persons—whether male or female—married to professionals and managers. The other, primary wage earner supports the economically irrational partner, a person teaching for what used to be called pin money. This structural feminizing of the job was traditionally associated with converting the positions formerly held by men (such as secretarial positions, once a high-status job) to those held increasingly by women, as Michelle Masse explains in a 2008 interview. That is just one of the ways, she says, that higher ed forms a “pyramid scheme,” especially for women faculty members.

Broadly speaking, across many disciplines and institution types, women still tend to disproportionately hold low-paying, low-status, insecure, teaching-only or teaching-intensive jobs, while men continue to disproportionately hold high-paying, high-status, secure, research-intensive, and top administrative positions.

In an important new book, Over Ten Million Served: Gendered Service in Language and Literature Workplaces, Masse and Katie Hogan take the conversation about gender and the distribution of academic rewards & responsiblities beyond the relatively well-understood territory of research and teaching to service labor. (Disclosure: The book includes a chapter adapted from HTUW.)

The book surveys the complexity of academic service, from the manifold senses of a calling (ranging from communitarian, sociable, and professional impulses to an opportunity to rebel or transform the academy) to close connections with the rise of a service economy, to specifically feminized forms of exploitation—i.e., doing the university’s “housework,” or an undercompensated labor of care that in many circumstances falls harder on women. Women faculty members face larger career penalties for not seeming to care sufficiently for the institution, and their research contributions are correspondingly discounted. I think analysis of the comments on Babb’s case at The Chronicle and other media outlets strongly supports this view.

Among the countless insights that Masse and Hogan develop in the collection is the emergence of a complex and contradictory “service unconscious” among feminized faculty members, male and female (such as the angry and confused John Hare):

We know that our [willingness to serve] sometimes damages us and supports organizational structures we don’t want to reinforce. And yet we nonetheless persevere in these behaviors and articulate their value for the best of all possible reasons: the ways in which ‘helping’ and ‘serving’ please us and fulfill our deepest-held beliefs about the importance of existence in a community and the need to achieve change and support for our colleagues and students. We know that service and sacrifice are often necessary to bring about more just workplaces, but much of the service we are pressed into is not about creating just and fair workplaces.

Hogan’s analysis alone is worth the price of the book. She contends that academic women, and men in feminized sectors, are expected to be “superserviceable,” i.e. to williingly do labor not recognized as such. Across vast swathes of the academy, faculty members have service-intensive appointments (especially involving the labor of caring for students or the institution) in which the nature of their service is not even recognized.

Using data from significant assessments of the labor performed by women in both nontenurable and tenured positions, Hogan documents the unspoken demands of the academic service economy. In a final twist, she argues that the same is true for the intellectual output of persons in feminized positions, especially feminism itself—i.e., that feminist research and teaching is meant to be especially “serviceable” as well.

xposted: howtheuniversityworks.com

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