Different from you and me

by Dame Eleanor Hull

I keep spending time, this summer, with people who work at more prestigious institutions than LRU, and I am always interested in the differences between our attitudes toward the academy.  These matters touch on Flavia’s consideration of privilege, but as usual, I’m going to go off on my own tangent, so I’m writing here rather than chez elle.  I am also partially inspired by the Worst Professor Ever, now enjoying a new life; however, I am clearly one of the people she does not want to be.

Some of what I’m observing is institutional, structural; some has to do with personality.  I have the temperament of a Cistercian.  I’m also a scholar, rather than an intellectual.  I like to focus deeply and narrowly on my research topics, but I’m not greatly interested in the Important Questions of the Day.  I am particularly indifferent to politics, much more interested in science, and not nearly as interested in literature as you would expect an English professor to be.  And the nature of my position at LRU, and the constraints of my life, allow me to indulge these characteristics: I teach the same courses repeatedly.  My commute can be contemplative time, and it also affords an excuse for avoiding social life.  Sir John and his friends are more likely to talk about science than about literature.

A friend who teaches at a SLAC said, when we were talking about structuring requirements for an English major, “Students don’t sign up for classes, anyway; they sign up for professors.”

That was a point of view that had never occurred to me, but I quickly saw why it would seem so to him but not to me.  “Well, at a small school with students who are resident for four years, sure,” I said, “but we have a lot of transfer students, and a lot of returning students, so none of those people are plugged into campus networks that would tell them what to expect of particular professors.  And I rarely teach introductory classes, so I don’t reach an audience that way.  A lot of our students work, sometimes full-time, so they select their classes based on what will fit their work schedule.  And we have a large enough department that a person could easily complete the major without ever having the same professor twice.”

My friend boggled.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I enjoy teaching this population, and I’m glad to be doing it.  But it certainly is different from what a lot of people expect “college” to be like, whether they’re thinking about teaching or taking classes.  My friend’s experience is more in line with those traditional expectations.

Then there were the people I had dinner with, people who work at Ivies or prestigious SLACs, people with distinguished research to their names, who all insisted to each other that teaching is the most important work they do.  Do they truly believe this, or is it a sort of defense mechanism with which they protect themselves from doubts about the significance of their research, precisely because their institutions place so much emphasis on it?  They have fewer students, better-prepared students, students more interested in medieval history and literature than I get; they have graduate students who want to write dissertations and theses under their direction, rather than grad students who want to check off an MA requirement.  So they might well think about teaching differently than I do, for those reasons.

But I think there are at least a hundred people who could do what I do in the classroom, quite likely more, given the rate at which PhDs have been produced in the last decade.  Probably other people could do my research, too, but the thing is, they aren’t.  My particular projects are mine, and they are important to me.  I love them.  I love working on them.  I love figuring out the connections and finding out more about the background of these topics.  My work isn’t important in the sense that it will change the world (sequencing the human genome) or even, probably, the scholarly conversation, but it is important to me and my sense of who I am, and I think it is useful to other scholars in my field.  I did not go into academia from a love of teaching, as my dinner companions claim they did; I came into it because (Cistercian temperament) I thought being locked in the library overnight or for a weekend sounded like a rare treat.  As it turned out, I quite enjoy teaching, and I am at least decent at it, but I also find it a drain on my introvert’s emotional resources.

Again, though, is my present attitude toward both teaching and research a defense mechanism?  LRU is an R1, but it is also teaching-intensive, and recent developments are focusing ever more on teaching (in a way that makes me a little nervous).  So perhaps I deny that teaching is the most important thing I do for precisely the same reason that my dinner companions affirm it, because of insecurities.  They, having fewer students and more writing, hope that human connections matter more than producing books.  I, facing large classes in which it is hard to nurture individual connections, take refuge in writing, through which I can address those individuals who share my interests.  If I had spent my career at a SLAC, Ivy or near-Ivy, no matter my temperament, would I sound more like my dinner companions?

What is structural, and what is personality?  My present job was my first, so I don’t have any personal experience of other types of institutions.   People who do have that may have more insight than I do into the ways an institution molds a person.