Over the course of the past nine months, we’ve all endured the pandemic of COVID-19 as well as the changes to our daily lives as educators and students. What I have come to notice more and more is that because we all seem to be facing mortality in a more direct way than ever before, people seem ready to rage against every microscopic thing at the drop of a hat.
In addition, it seems that most of the faux outrage and pearl-clutching behavior comes from people who should have a better sense of reality, namely folks involved in higher education. I would like to attribute it to the stress and anxiety associated with the coronavirus outbreak, but I think a lot of it has been there all along. There has long been a demarcation between people who teach and work at universities and college and “academics,” who seem to think they exist on a higher plane of reality than the rest of human kind and need to “set other people straight.”
Truth be told, no matter how many books I wrote, degrees I earned, studies I conducted or symposiums I attended, I never embraced the “academic” lifestyle. Sure, I liked having an office, a decent health plan and the ability to hear people call me “professor” from time to time, but I never forgot who I was or where I came from. I’m basically just another person who found something they liked and got lucky enough that it led to a career. Had it not been for crossing paths with a few crucial people, I might have been an auto mechanic, a cops reporter or a factory worker. Knowing that has always kept me from getting too full of myself or thinking that my excrement lacks odoriferous qualities. (Yeah, that was a bit much…)
With that in mind, here are a list of things I have actively done, said, considered or otherwise found myself thinking as a professor that only make sense if you understand the self-important, pseudo-intellectual, easily offended, drama-twerp reality that is “academia” and the people who embrace it:
- When I first meet people around where I live, they often ask what I do. I tell them “I work at the U,” with the hope they’ll think I’m a janitor or facilities manager. Their view of what professors are does not jibe with what I want them to think of me.
- I noticed an inverse correlation between the human decency of professors and the percentage of the final grade they assign to final exams or final projects. Students have told me some professors value a final up to almost 70 percent of their total grade. That’s insane, but that’s “academia” for some folks. I put as little emphasis on final exams and final projects as possible, making them count for about 15 percent of the total grade at most when I can get away with it. I find that keeping the percentage lower tends to relax the students a bit more, especially because they’re also working on final projects and final exams for other classes. It also takes pressure off me when I’m burnt to a crisp and grading a ton of papers. I worry less about each point I take off or give back because I don’t feel like I’m disarming a bomb.
- When I read postings on Facebook groups for academics, I am constantly reminded why I hate academics. I forgot who said it, but the line about how the fights in academia are so extreme because the stakes are so low always rings true there. I have to constantly remind myself not to post something about them needing to grab a ratchet and loosen their sphincters a few turns because a) that would be undignified and b) most of those people wouldn’t know what a ratchet is.
- I often refer to students as “my kids,” and it bugs me when people tell me not to because they see it as a somehow insulting to the students. First, bite me. Second, I do this because, no matter how old they get or where they go, there won’t be anything I won’t do for them. Once you become one of “my kids,” you’re there for life. Just ask the students I’ve taught who are now in their 40s or 50s and have spent half their lives still connected to me in some truly meaningful ways.
- If I have a choice between helping one of my kids and doing something that fits within the formal rigors of expected pedagogy, well, that’s an easy choice: I’m helping the kid. Nobody ever died and said, “No matter what happened, I’m so glad I abided by the strictest interpretation of academic rules.” Except for maybe people who need to have their sphincters loosened a turn or two.
- When forced to attend multi-disciplinary meetings, I look around the room carefully when someone tells a fairly innocuous joke. I look at all the people around the table to see who stiffens and who doesn’t and I take note of the stiffies. If anyone notes sternly the way in which this is highly inappropriate because it insults (fill in the blank), I make note of that as well. I then guess which departments they work in and spend half the meeting looking them up through the U’s database. I’m usually dead on, or at least one of my top three guesses are right.
- I would guess that about 90 percent of academics fall into one of two categories: Those who are insulted by nothing because they have no sense of anything outside of their discipline and those who are actively waiting to hear something potentially insulting and then loudly castigate everyone else for such things existing in this “plane of higher learning.” The other 10 percent usually came to higher ed after working a job in which we spent time around actual humans, so we tend to function a bit differently.
- I find “woke” academics who employ guilt in Facebook discussions over petty squabbles they’ve turned into land wars totally adorable. I grew up Catholic, spent 12 years in Catholic school (much of it where nuns were involved) and remain an active Catholic. Guilt is the milieu in which I live and breathe. It’s like trying to discombobulate a fish by getting it wet.
- Dealing with academics who begin every discussion by outlining their educational credentials has always made me feel like I needed to carry around a pocket full of quarters:
- I fully support my female colleagues who engaged in the “Dr.” movement a few years back, where women added that term to their social media handles, academic emails and more to indicate their academic level of achievement. They take more shit than I think anyone should simply because men feel inferior around smarter women. I’ve worked for more women than men and most of my best bosses were women.
- Conversely, I find it ridiculous when Ph.D. or Ed.D. academics (usually men) demand that EVERYONE call them “doctor,” as opposed to “professor,” or even “dean.” As I once explained to the superintendent of schools in Fond du Lac who required such formality of all creatures, I’m proud of my Ph.D. and I know he’s proud of his Ed.D., but ain’t neither one of us getting called into surgery tonight.
- I have been blessed to work with a lot of students who are farm kids, first-gen college students and those who are attending school on a GI Bill and for some reason, we tend to get along pretty well because we’re honest with each other in a way academics tend not to be. I think it’s because there’s a shared sense that the world is full of hard stuff, so trying to make things harder for no real reason doesn’t really serve a purpose. Or that after you spend your day ankle-deep in cow manure, you can much more easily detect professors who are full of it.
- I don’t get a ton of complaints about final grades and I attribute that to some really good upbringing by the parents of my students. My friends at other universities get a lot of threats about how “you will be hearing from my parents” when students don’t get the grades they want. I once asked one of my small-town farm-kid students, “If you went home and told your mom that she needed to call me and demand that your grade was changed so you could pass my class, what would she say?” The kid paused for a minute and then she looked right at me and said, “My mom would kick my ass twice. Once for f—ing up and once for telling her to call you.”
- One of the best ways to get me to do the exact opposite of what you want me to do is to ascribe to my behavior something that most sane humans would not consider logical or fair. In short, I’m calling it a “manhole” when I’m yelling out to you because I think that’s the best way to tell you what you’re about to fall into and die, not because I’m supporting the hetero-normative, patriarchal system that is using nomenclature to create a permanent underclass.
- I can already think of at least a half dozen people who are furiously typing a six-page email to me, denouncing that last statement.
- Humor is an honest coping mechanism for a lot of people. There’s a reason that people like Richard Pryor were so funny, and it was because humor helped keep them deal with a lot of dark stuff. Sometimes, when I’m telling a joke, I need to laugh more than anyone else does. If someone is making a joke or sharing a humorous anecdote, you should feel free to laugh even if it’s not that funny. If it might be insulting, but it’s still tolerable, let it go.
- And finally, whenever I find myself in the middle of one of those “academic” shit fights that tend to show up in administrative town-hall meetings or on Facebook threads, I can hear my father’s voice in my head, reminding me that “Educated doesn’t always mean smart.”