Teaching as Vocation, Profession, and Job

Mark Twain once memorably remarked, “Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.” The same could be said of teaching. It’s what we do, it’s part of our identity, it’s what we get paid for. But do we really understand it? Do we really want to think about it? Above all, do we really want to look closely at our own practice and try to improve it?

My own experience suggest we do not. As a young assistant professor at an avowedly teaching institution, I was put on the “teaching methods committee”, which sounded like a great assignment until our first meeting. After about half an hour it became clear that everyone around the table thought of themselves as good teachers, were comfortable with their own methods, and were reluctant to engage in any surveys, interviews, observations, or discussions that might lead to questioning or challenging the methods of their colleagues. I could feel the resistance build, thicken, and congeal; by the end, it was stiff and opaque as wax. No change or knowledge would be coming from this committee.

What was going on? I liked my colleagues; they were all devoted teachers, well-read and empathic toward students; they were good citizens in the campus community. Why would they resist learning and self-improvement? Why would they not want to engage their colleagues in dialogue about our essential work?

In my own case, the resistance seemed easy to understand. I was young, untenured, and under the gun. It was an anxious state, but I was used to it. Everyone expected people like me to be earnest, motivated, and nervous. But what about the others? Something else must account for their resistance.

In reflecting on this meeting, and many situations like it over the years, I’ve found it helpful to think about teaching across the three dimensions of persona, profession, and institution. As a vocation, teaching is something that many of us love to do for its own sake. It comes naturally, draws on our native ability to empathize and communicate, feeds our spirits with the satisfaction of nurturing our students’ growth. To pursue your calling is to follow your bliss, to feel the joy that comes when your work and your identity move into phase.

Teaching at its most satisfying and effective always rests on a personal transaction between the teacher and the student, where the teacher’s passion and excitement sparks a kindred interest. That is why most learning actually occurs outside of class, and why teaching is so hard to evaluate. What works for one student may not work for another, and the results may not be apparent for years. True teaching arises out of relation, as Martin Buber observed, and how can you measure a relationship?

Evaluation is of most concern to the profession and the institution. The profession consists of one’s (mostly senior) colleagues, who function like a club or a guild: to get in you must qualify and must also be chosen. In practice the boundary between these criteria tends to blur. Much time and effort go into rationalizing decisions about the merits of someone’s work that have been made quite subjectively. And “peer review” is simply another name for professional privilege, besides being a contradiction in terms: how can the parties be considered equal when one has the power to judge the other? All professions work to secure their own existence; they assiduously protect their identity, status, and privileges, and academia is no exception. When you are on the inside, tenured and all, one of your privileges is not having to be evaluated; that’s one reason, I think, that my senior colleagues on the teaching methods committee did not want to investigate. They did not want to rock the boat by challenging, even implicitly, the privilege of their colleagues. That’s how they all got along.

The institution also comes into play. In this context, teaching is merely a job. More on that next time.

The Value of Professional Mentoring

The Modern Language Associations’ Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession has just published “Standing Still: The Associate Professor Survey Report of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession” (Web publication, 27 April 2009). The MLA report, as the authors put it, “suggests that the story of women’s professional lives is a complex one and that no one cause can explain women’s status in the profession.” While it would be interesting to discuss what the authors of the report call an “accumulation of microdifferences” that may add up to the substantial difference in time between women and men in attaining the rank of professor (and I hope someone will post a comment on this subject here to incite further discussion on this thread), a preliminary reading of the report has me highlighting the places in the discussion that call for creating a culture of professional mentoring and that document the disincentives that keep us from doing it.

The MLA report can help us to see the institutional and professional and personal conventions that devalue working together to create sustainable professional lives. For the report describes the professional structures that we perpetuate every day and that devalue the day-to-day collaborations that can improve the quality and effectiveness of our professional lives as teachers and scholars:

Moreover, a faculty member’s conscious retreat from undervalued or devalued forms of professional activity—including the creation of new courses and other kinds of teaching and mentoring that are often at the heart of institutional mission statements (activities from which, the survey shows, respondents drew substantial professional satisfaction)—is certainly not likely to enhance the quality of instruction and the general educational experience we provide our students. Rather than consider these activities as impediments to professional progress, institutions should encourage an appreciation of these contributions for the significant value they add to the intellectual worth of the institution. In short, standards for promotion should be brought directly into line with the numerous, essential, and vitalizing activities that sustain day to-day life in colleges and universities. Similarly, standards for promotion should explicitly recognize many of the activities, grouped under the catchall term “service,” that are necessary to further our professions or enhance partnerships between academic institutions and community organizations. The term “service,” now used to cover a huge spectrum of activities, often does not begin to capture the myriad possible contributions of faculty members, and thoughtful attention should be given to making distinctions among different kinds of service contributions, such as leadership to the profession and community engagement.

The authors have it exactly right, too, that the results of the survey of associate professors should be read in relationship to the Report of the MLA Task Force on Evaluating Scholarship for Tenure and Promotion as well as the recent report from the American Association of University Professors on contingent academic labor. The call to calibrate standards for promotion in relation to the values of the people who help to define the mission and values of institutions can lead to positive, incremental changes. For instance, we should be working in our local contexts to allow our work that aligns with our mission and values to be recognized as such. And we should be talking more in fora like this one to better understand the relationship between the work that we do and the work that we wish we were doing.

Preparation and Strain

“When you get right down to it, considering the long years of preparation and strain, it’s hard to find any position so poorly compensated as tenure-track college faculty—except, of course, most of the rest of college faculty, the majority who don’t ever become eligible for tenure and earn even less.”

“In the administration of higher education, this means a delicate balancing act, in which management continuously tries to seize control of institutional mission without killing the academic goose laying its golden eggs. The history of workplace change in higher education over the past forty years is a slow, grinding war of position or culture-struggle, with administration continuously pushing to see just how partial or inauthentic it can make the autonomy, integrity, and dignity of academic endeavor without inducing the faculty to fall out of love with their work. Likewise, the history of corporate management’s effort to imitate the success of higher education workplaces can be expressed as, “How can we adjust our corporate culture to resemble campus culture, so that our workforce will fall in love with their work too?” That is, the managers desperately want to know, how can we emulate higher education in moving from simple exploitation to the vast harvest of bounty represented by super-exploitation?”

These words are from Mark Bousquet’s 5 May posting, “My Credo: We Work” on his blog devoted to subject of how the university works (The title, by the way, of his book How the University Works).  Andrew’s response to one of my postings, “Beginnings and Endings,” reminded me why reading Bousquet is so useful. While I have not read his book, I have found in his ongoing critique of higher education much fertile ground for my own thinking. However as I try to explain in my response to Andrew, my interests on this blog move in a different direction. The words I cite above, to exemplify this difference, are for me an incentive to explore the challenges of doing the work one loves with all one’s energy and heart (read the blog posting for a very helpful comparison of the wages faculty accept to other public service jobs) while playing into a system that simply does not give a hoot about the costs of work done with honesty, integrity and heart. If Bousquet is even close to the mark (and I think he is), it is no wonder people harbor bitterness or cultivate resignation.

For me, right now, it’s back to work on the student writing I’ve been reading since 5AM this morning, and then more work on a piece of writing I need to complete, before climbing back up on the ladder to continue painting the house in the afternoon sun.

Endings and Beginnings

Striking a Balance

climbersajanta1Recently, the Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) published a report, The American College Teacher: National Norms for the 2007-2008 HERI Faculty Survey, that draws data from more than 22,000 full-time college and university faculty members at 372 four-year institutions from across the United States. It seems that only 34.2 percent of faculty believe they have established a healthy balance in their lives personally and professionally; and, not surprisingly, female respondents have greater difficulty than male faculty in striking a balance (27.3 percent vs. 38.7 percent). At the same time, faculty value as “very important” or “essential” developing a meaningful philosophy of life (72.5 percent), raising a family (69.2 percent), helping others who are in difficulty (65.2 percent) and integrating spirituality into their lives (47.5 percent).  The conclusion, as one summary of the report puts it, is that “personal and professional balance is difficult.”

Growing up surfing, skateboarding, skiing and climbing has endowed me with an experiential archive of equilibrioception. For the most part, my body knows what to do. Maturing into a profession in which one’s work will never be done, however, I’ve become increasingly aware of the difficulty people have with “striking a balance” between personal and professional life. Faced with internal as well as external pressure, the mind seems less able to know what to do. And so at every turn a discourse of balance calls us back to what seems to be important in this life: from yin and yang to a balanced diet; from Buddhism and the art of life to the balance of success and happiness.


But what if we took to task the idea of balance? While utopian yearnings for balance are worthy in the light of spiritual transformation, such yearnings at the same time prove less able in the messy cycles of our day-to-day lives. Might there be a more felicitous way of describing (and living) a life less driven by  apparently irreversible tensions between what we call the “personal” and the “professional”? Could we find in our lives a way of integration, or simply a life path that allows us to pursue our lives without feeling as if we are always “out of balance”? Much like the ecological enthusiast who discovers that the intuitive notion of balance and stability are no more than reductive human values imposed on the natural world, might we discover limits in the very idea of balance?