A student recently said to me, “You make being a professor look fun.” I smiled. I do love being a professor. Often times, I think that we faculty members give students the idea that being a professor is a drag. I realize that my experience is not that of everyone but I do think it’s important for those of us who love our jobs to talk about why.
The idea of being paid to think and write about anything I’d like does it for me. Of course, I need to stay within the confines of my areas of expertise but overall, I have a lot of freedom to write about anything within the larger scope of education—and that’s fairly broad. As a tenured professor, I also have the freedom to write in a variety of different venues—peer reviewed journals, books, encyclopedias, blogs, op-eds, policy reports, etc. This variety keeps my thinking process fresh, which is important.
I also have the opportunity to teach subjects about which I feel passionate. Yes, early on, I had to teach some courses that were not my favorites, but now I can teach those courses that are important to me and that I think inspire others. For example, I teach the History of American Higher Education, a course that I have designed to be as inclusive as possible so that all of my students can see themselves and their experiences in the readings, lectures, and discussions. I’ve also had the opportunity to create courses on topics that are important to me in terms of my own research and practice. For example, I designed a seminar on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in which students explore both historical and contemporary issues related to these institutions. Likewise, I have created a class called College and University Teaching. I created this course out of frustration as most research institutions don’t have a course on teaching for Ph.D. students, yet we expect them to teach upon graduation. I care deeply about good teaching, and through this course, I can work with young doctoral students across various disciplines to improve their teaching ability. Being a faculty member gives me the opportunity to improve the future teaching of many of these students.
As a professor, I have the opportunity to shape many of the policies and practices about which I write. For example, I serve on advisory boards for several organizations related to HBCUs, philanthropy, and African-American education. This gives me an opportunity to have a direct influence, drawing upon my research, on the decisions made about the very issues I study. Too often, young people think that being a professor will limit their influence to the classroom only. However, one can use his or her expertise in many different areas.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of being a professor is my relationship with students and former students. I have close friendships with my own students as well as many across the country. I enjoy nurturing an intellectual spirit in students and watching them take hold of that spirit and grow with it. I especially like to help students with writing and generating scholarly ideas. These relationships keep my own ideas fresh and maintain a connection for me with the many changes taking place in higher education that are generational. I am also inspired by the work that young people are doing and their energy makes me hopeful for the future of the professoriate.
Yes, there are tough situations that faculty members face—long hours, intense productivity pressures, and some would say lower salaries—but overall, at least from my perspective, being a faculty member is one of the best jobs around. Working with young people who often see the world for all its possibilities is something I treasure. And the autonomy to pursue ideas rather than merely implement the ideas of others is something I would not trade. For those faculty members who love their jobs, I hope you will pass on this passion to young people so that they more fully understand the opportunities available to professors.