Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Lazy Professor

Here is an article from a smug, cynical ex-professor berating the social welfare system that he benefits from.  His thesis seems to be that public universities (and by extension, other employers both public and private) shouldn't offer generous retirement benefits, high pay, time off, or flexible work conditions, because lazy louts like him can abuse these rights and privileges.  He seems to take an ironic pride in shirking his duties, spending paid work time to go to the gym, slacking off on his research and teaching responsibilities, etc.  I agree that universities could demand more accountability from professors in the form of more teaching, research, and extension.  The author doesn't at all mention this last point of cooperative extension, of trying to serve the larger community.  This omission is a shame since extension and outreach are often the means by which new discoveries in limited-circulation journals find their way into uses that serve the larger public.

I especially agree with the author that no university should base its model on underpaying large ranks of adjunct professors while overly coddling a small proportion of tenured faculty.  But the author's vision leaves no place for professionalism and personal accountability and ethical work.  According to his own account, he doesn't maintain a rigorous research schedule, entrusts teaching duties to unqualified teaching assistants, and hasn't made major revisions to his teaching notes in 34 years.  If this is so, he is a poor excuse for a professor, or for any type of worker, for that matter.  He just takes what he can, and instead of being grateful to work in something he enjoys and make a comfortable living at it, he bites the hand that feeds him.  He scorns the tenure system, which is in theory set up to grant academic freedom to honest intellectuals such that they may work and think without fears of being fired as a reprisal for their thoughts.  The central idea of his article is essentially that, because slackers like him will conspire to game an honest, decent system, we should dismantle that honest, decent system.

The article also has some reasoning errors that are troubling to see in a sociologist, who should know a thing or two about causality and coincidence.  He claims that university professors as a group are homogeneously left-leaning, and to support that claim he quotes stats from a number of coastal, largely urban universities (and no land grant universities except the U of California system, of which the agricultural land grant component is but a small part).  I imagine the numbers for UIUC, my ag- and engineering-focused alma mater, would show a healthier proportion of conservative professors. Likewise, by using campaign donations to track political affiliations, the author may be missing other factors that influence political contributions; maybe Republicans in general donate less to political campaigns, or maybe the cross-section of professors who donate at all is but a small, non-representative percentage of total professors.  We can't know from what he tells us in his article, and this partisan obfuscation seems to be precisely the author's intent.  Furthermore, it would seem natural that academics would tend to donate less to a Republican party that has been dominated over the past 30 years or so by strong currents of anti-intellectualism.  This may not have much to do with their other political or personal convictions, but simply their instinct for preservation of something they fundamentally value, in this case study and research and free thought.

In the end, I wonder if the author of this article is simply critiquing how the Illinois public university system rewards its employees, or indeed calling into question the entire idea of an academic establishment (and/or public employee unions).  He seems to think it foolish that taxpayers would reward him for the study and self-cultivation he would have wanted to do anyway, but herein lies the economic truth; if we didn't pay professors to do what they do, many wouldn't be able to cultivate their thoughts in a way that benefits society, and we'd all be the poorer for it.  Indeed, many people who like their jobs wouldn't be able to do them if they weren't paid for it, no matter how much they might enjoy doing that particular work.  Again, this shouldn't be cause for arrogance or scorn, but rather for thankfulness that our society offers the possibility for people to do what they love and to make an honest living at it.  I have been to many places where brilliant thinkers in varied fields must scrape by driving taxis or selling consumer goods instead of contributing their minds to society.  If the author somehow believes that his work isn't worthwhile to others, then he shouldn't do it, or at least he shouldn't accept pay for it from the collective.

For my part, I value academic work, even (perhaps especially) in the field of the humanities, which so many pragmatists deride as being of little immediate value to society.  I am an agronomist, essentially just a glorified technician in terms of my formal professional qualifications.  But in my life, and certainly in my work, I am also informed by values and ideas and principles that have arisen from the humanities.  If there weren't professors and other people thinking seriously about sociology, philosophy, literature, and the like, my life and the lives of all of us would be diminished, worth less, and our work would be less inspired and less relevant.  No one can say my work is unimportant.  In my last project we were entrusted with preserving a part of Colombia's pre-Spanish cultural heritage, and in my current project we're working to improve food security and income in one of the poorest corners of a war-torn Third World nation.  And yet I'd never accuse the humanities of being frivolous or socially irrelevant (as the author seems to).  No one can say I have a cushy job--in fact, within a few hours of first reading this article, I was wading knee-deep in a pool of stagnant water and cow manure, trying to take an up-close photo of an ancient painting on the underside of a rock in the middle of the water.  I keep a close count of my hours worked, and for every week when childrearing or errands take some time away from my paid job, there is another week where I'm spending 15-hour days harvesting plants and driving them long distances for lab analyses.  I believe in what I do, despite the meager pay I get for it.  I'd like to think that if I were paid more, given more freedom to think and work, and graced with some job security and retirement benefits, I'd work even harder in gratitude for my fortunate condition, as opposed to slacking off just because I could.

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